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Ambitious, Fantastical ‘Chagall-Malevich’ Is a Messy Look at Chagall’s Life

Russian writer-director Alexander Mitta crams a lot into his fantastical biopic Chagall-Malevich, including the early career of painter Marc Chagall (Leonid Bichevin), the role of artists in the Russian Revolution, an aesthetic rivalry with minimalist Kazimir Malevich (Anatoly Bely), Jewish life under Soviet rule, an inspiring marriage to Chagall’s beloved Bella (Kristina Schneidermann), and the effective brutality of post-czarist leadership.

The result is an ambitious jumble of competing story lines that never gels into a cohesive portrait. Despite equal billing with the fiery, charismatic Malevich, Chagall receives the bulk of Mitta’s (Lost in Siberia) focus, the director depicting him as an optimistic naïf trying to create an artistic utopia in Vitebsk (now in Belarus). Mitta infuses the gloom of early Soviet-era famine and political purges with Chagall’s sunny outlook and re-creates his now famous paintings on screen, including Marc and Bella floating above their hometown.

He also takes a broad-brush approach to characterization, especially with lovesick poet turned brutish commissar Naum (Semyon Shkalikov), central to the film’s most maudlin scenes. There’s a great deal of rhetoric about revolution and radical art, but Chagall-Malevich is staid and conventional. Bella’s a servile muse, with a disheartening speech about one spouse staying grounded so that the other can fly.

Mitta’s Chagall is safely secular: Any conflict he faced with his Hasidic Jewish family is transposed onto a protégé, Lyova (Yakov Levda), whose rabbi father expresses love and disapproval. While everyone around him suffers for their beliefs, Marc Chagall’s pure love of art keeps him blissfully above it all.

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Prankster Yes Men Return and Endure in the Emotional ‘The Yes Men Are Revolting’

Media about climate change is such a bummer that nobody ever pays attention. How do we go on living when we know not only that we’re dying, but that our chance for a legacy — for eternity — is dying too? How about this: a 90-minute documentary about two men failing at climate change awareness activism.

The Yes Men Are Revolting, which is pretty funny and only kind of sad, produces the sensation of watching a feature-length series of YouTube clips of cats smashing into glass doors and babies eating lemons, crossed with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. This is a good thing. The Yes Men, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, are middle-aged Jewish men who make a sport of dressing up in drab suits and impersonating The Man, then making public appearances in his name, but using his power for good and undermining rapacious business interests.

The film builds to an absurd confrontation between Andy, who’s hosting a fake press conference for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a real Chamber of Commerce staffer. “Show me your business card!” each demands of the other. It’s one big American Psycho–style dick-measuring contest. The Yes Men visit rural Uganda, Canadian oil fields, Zuccotti Park, and a climate change conference in Copenhagen, but in its best moments this loopy yet informative doc becomes a buddy movie.

The men are aligned in purpose, politics, and silliness, but Mike is married to a woman and has three kids, while Andy is gay and lonely — devoted to work, and resenting his best friend’s family. Their globetrotting easy conversation, nitpicking, and laughter despite anger and environmental upset create an unusual space for the viewer to do the same.

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The Latest ‘Madame Bovary’ Pits Its Star Against Her Dialogue

The trick with any adaptation of Flaubert’s brilliantly humdrum tragedy: how to make ennui engaging. Director Sophie Barthes has little luck in this latest trek down Madame Bovary’s road to Rouen.

Lead Mia Wasikowska looks convincingly miserable in the role of a young wife who’s driven to seek her pleasures outside the marital bed, but whatever complexities roil in the character’s heart and head are nowhere to be found on her face. Perhaps that’s why Barthes tasks the skies with communicating her oppression for us: Clouds brood, mists shroud, and it might be tough for anyone who hasn’t read the novel to catch why she is more miserable than anyone else in this Normandy.

The one struggle that is clear and dramatic? Wasikowska, working a flaky Aussie/Valley Girl accent, vs. some unspeakable dialogue: “Is this the will of God?” her Emma mopes, early on. “Is my future just a dark corridor with a bolted door at the end?” Later, she snaps at Rhys Ifans’s ripely wicked merchant Lheureux, “Don’t you think your timing is a trifle inopportune?” — and she sounds as convincing as you would if, right at this moment, you declaimed the line to a stranger.

There are moments that work, mostly the times that our miserable heroine power-walks over the hills or through the muddy streets of northern France, the camera trailing along just behind her head. She storms with purpose, and the movie — often slow, never rich — finally seems to be getting somewhere. Many supporting players are strong, and the gowns and landscapes are worth regarding.

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Eighties Martial-Arts Comedy ‘Dreadnaught’ Is an Irrepressible High-Wire Act

Martial-arts comedy Dreadnaught — screening as part of Anthology Archives’ exemplary This Is Celluloid: 35mm series — is a bizarre, imaginative kung fu film whose talented cast helps transcend its clashing generic conventions. Dreadnaught‘s plot primarily concerns two tangentially related threads: Nebbish dry-cleaner Mousy (Yuen Biao) begs legendary historical figure/community leader/martial artist/physician Wong Fei-hung (Kwan Tak-hing) to train him, while hotheaded killer White Tiger (Yuen Shun-yee) hides from the cops in a Chinese opera company.

White Tiger’s tense murder-mystery narrative sometimes doesn’t seem to belong in the same movie with Mousy’s broad, lighthearted humor. But Dreadnaught‘s combinations of mystery and comic elements are winningly eccentric and consistently charming, like the alternately loopy and overheated back-alley chase that uses subjective p.o.v. and hyperactive handheld camerawork to show events from both White Tiger’s and Mousy’s frenzied perspectives. Every other scene is a rollicking set piece: There’s a hysterical acupuncture consultation/brawl, and a gymnastic/laundry-drying session.

Yuen Biao and Kwan are so comfortable in their manic roles that they make the film’s breakneck pacing feel like an organic extension of their harried characters, as in the climactic four-man lion-dance competition that ends after two men are set on fire, and two others balance on top of a rickety pyre of interconnected wooden benches.

They have such chutzpah that they make it impossible to resist Dreadnaught‘s crazed high-wire act.

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‘Set Fire to the Stars’ Plays Like ‘Get Him to the Greek’ for Lit Majors

No thinking person will fail to anticipate the story beats in Set Fire to the Stars, an energetic, well-acted, handsomely mounted b&w literary tell-all whose script would be laughed out of the room by its famous subjects.

Celyn Jones, who co-wrote the script, stars as Dylan Thomas, brought to America by Elijah Wood’s John Malcolm Brinnin, a poetry professor whose career — for reasons the film is shaky about — depends on whether this carousing drunken genius is polite before and after his first stateside public readings. From the get-go, Set Fire feels movieland-hokey, and more dumb than the people in it: Immediately after someone asks, “How much trouble can one poet be?” the filmmakers cut to our first glimpse of Thomas, being randy trouble with college girls at a reception.

One tweedy stiff complains, “He broke my crockpot” and then, just in case we missed that this is funny, he says it again. So it’s Get Him to the Greek: The Norton Anthology Edition. Thomas-wrangling Brinnin must help the great poet pull himself together and dazzle America — and Thomas, of course, must teach Brinnin lessons about what really matters (not impressing Yalies). When he’s not pissing himself, Thomas embraces life, in this case represented by Shirley Jackson (Shirley Henderson), who gets the best scene, the only one where people talk at length and sound like writers.

Several times, Thomas takes the stage to declaim some verse, but the movie reliably drowns him out with tinkly pianos and a mush of strings — it’s the idea of the mad poet that the movies love, not actual poetry. Ridiculousness abounds: Brinnin keeps giving Thomas a letter from Thomas’s wife, which Thomas refuses to open until it’s dramatically appropriate. And when the crew heads to a diner, it’s no surprise when a beautiful, worn-out waitress barks out orders like “two 55s and a red-eye — and give it wings.”

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Ingenious Sci-Fi Parable ‘World of Tomorrow’ Tops This Year’s Sundance Shorts

Pity the short films that follow stick-figure-collage artist Don Hertzfeldt’s animated masterpiece World of Tomorrow, both the centerpiece and the first movie presented in the feature-length omnibus 2015 Sundance Film Festival Award-Winning Shorts. World of Tomorrow, an ingenious science fiction parable about a happy-go-lucky little girl (Winona Mae) given a vision of the future by an emotionally distant descendant/clone (Julia Pott), is such a vividly detailed trip through Hertzfeldt’s imagination that you have to grade the other featured shorts on a steep curve.

Slight French cartoon Storm Hits Jacket, a nonsensical fantasy about time travel, ass-groping, and evil witches, looks comparatively amateurish. And charming anti-romantic comedy Smilf, an endearing sketch about a single mother (writer-director Frances Shaw) who arranges for an abortive booty call with an old flame (Silicon Valley‘s Thomas Middleditch), is too low-key to stand out.

Even affable Japanese tragicomedy Oh Lucy!, an uneven melodrama about a depressed office drone (Kaori Momoi) who comes out of her shell after learning English, doesn’t look good compared to Hertzfeldt’s contribution, just because Oh Lucy! is not uniformly dazzling. Momoi’s anguished performance is engaging, as are one or two one-liners: Momoi’s protagonist uncharacteristically tells off a co-worker by asking, “Why are your tits so wastefully huge?”

But Oh Lucy! not only takes too long to become emotionally involving, it’s also ultimately too trite to be better than a decent also-ran. If you watch Oh Lucy!, or any other Sundance-feted shorts, after seeing World of Tomorrow, there’s a fair chance that you’ll become unreasonably agitated at the thought that you could be watching Hertzfeldt’s film on repeat instead.

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Plodding Vampire Flick ‘The Stranger’ Is Only for Devotees

Vampirism is treated as a blood-borne illness in Guillermo Amoedo’s The Stranger, but with a mystical twist: A vampire’s sanctified blood contains healing properties.

Fans who enjoy cataloging liberties taken with the rulebook — sunlight aversion, check; inability to enter a building without being invited, nope — could find something to study here, but for viewers who don’t need to suck down every last drop of vampire lore, The Stranger never gets the blood pumping. Morose and plodding, the film follows Martin (Cristobal Tapia Montt) as he arrives in a small town in search of his wife, who died there years before.

We learn the couple were vampires; he intended to kill them both, but she fled so she could carry her pregnancy to term. In town, Martin is attacked at random and seemingly killed, the crime covered up by the murderer’s father, a cop. A witness, teenage graffiti tagger Peter (Nicolás Durán), retrieves Martin’s body to nurse back to health. Events unsurprisingly spin out of control as the cop and his son take violent measures to keep a lid on their crime, unaware of what they’re dealing with.

Flat performances and Amoedo’s leaden direction drain the excitement from what could have been an interesting genre mash-up.

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Chilean Martial Artist Marko Zaror Makes Action/Western Hybrid Redeemer Worth Watching

Though Chilean western/martial-arts hybrid Redeemer may stall whenever it’s not in ass-kicking gear, leading man Marko Zaror is charming enough to make you want to overlook his latest vehicle’s humorless posturing. Zaror (Mandrill, Mirageman) plays Nick “Redeemer” Pardo, a stoic, Bible-quoting vigilante who overcompensates for the sins of his Byronic past by pummeling rapists, gangsters, and other cartoonishly evil undesirables.

Pardo’s latest target is Bradock (Deadgirl‘s Noah Segan), a dimwitted American mobster whose ostentatious crimes also grab the attention of serial killer “Scorpion” (José Luis Mosca), the man responsible for Pardo’s preposterously macho quest for salvation. Pardo’s flashbacks to Scorpion-inflicted trauma are ludicrously overwrought — think overemphasis of bulging neck veins, sadistic torture, and extreme close-ups.

But these are also Redeemer‘s most involving nonviolent scenes, as Zaror gets to lower his hoodie and emote. Zaror may be a one-note actor, but he’s so good at quaking and bellowing like a caged animal that he makes Pardo’s otherwise lame bid for meathead martyrdom seem fitfully attractive.

Redeemer is consistently impressive whenever Zaror gets to act with his fists and feet, and the consummately loose action sequences highlight his expert timing. If you ignore some of Zaror’s signature moves, particularly his high-flying kicks and leg-sweeping spins, you’ll feel like you’re watching a skilled fighter reacting to his opponents, and not an over-glorified stuntman performing a choreographed routine. Redeemer may not be as good as its star, but it does give Zaror enough room to shine.

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Doc Dukale’s Dream Reveals Hugh Jackman’s Real-Life Coffee-Related Heroism

Actors are accustomed to studying a subject for a brief, intense period and then being treated like experts. Hugh Jackman’s advocacy for fair-trade coffee began with that burst of enthusiasm, but settled into a business that distills complex global economics into a simple message: We are what we consume. Josh Victor Rothstein (3 Points) documents Jackman’s journey in Dukale’s Dream, which falls somewhere between an infomercial for World Vision Australia and an earnest exploration of celebrity philanthropy.

The story begins in 2009 when the actor and his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, travel to Ethiopia on a visit coordinated by Tim Costello, described as Australia’s “moral signpost.” The World Vision CEO shows these longtime supporters of the charity how economic aid affects farmers in a country known more for famine than coffee beans.

The trip looks like a typical celebrity charity meet-and-greet, until Hugh Jackman is introduced to Dukale and they spend a day working together on his farm. The gregarious Jackman and gracious Tura develop a genuine rapport, which transforms their camera-ready meeting into a vital alliance. With X-Men Origins: Wolverine and hosting duties at the Oscars (which Rothstein chronicled for a never-released documentary), Jackman hit career milestones, but getting to know Dukale shifted his focus.

Rothstein had turned their encounter into a 2010 short (Seeds of Hope), and here adds follow-up footage that makes Dukale’s Dream more than a vanity project. This documentary exudes Jackman’s can-do optimism, but the real star is an Ethiopian coffee grower who’s just as enterprising.

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Underground Railroad Drama Freedom Is More Interested in Jesus Than Slavery

Using a slavery narrative to advance an unrelated agenda is pretty tasteless, bordering on offensive. The product of an “inspirational” production house, a white director, and an Asian-American screenwriter who once wrote a film that was actually called Fakin’ Da Funk, Freedom expunges the real histories of millions of people by elevating the consolation of religion above the actual experience of enslavement.

But more broadly, any kind of didacticism just kills art, like product placements on TV shows. A narrative of the Underground Railroad, the film is practically a musical — the characters frequently burst into hymns from a variety of early American religious traditions, in styles refined and rural. It seems unlikely that during secret smuggling journeys through Northeastern forests, under threat of execution for their actions, abolitionists would burst into clamorous banjo gospel songs.

Without all the music, Freedom would be about 30 minutes long. Further chop out all the conversations about Jesus (please), and it would be nothing but credits. In the tale of Samuel Woodward (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his flight from thralldom with his family, every scene and conversation eventually pivots on faith, the lack of faith, the reacquisition of faith, faith’s awesomeness, and very occasionally addresses the costs and cruelty of slavery.

A parallel story set a hundred years earlier relates the narrative of a heroic white slave-ship captain (Bernhard Forcher) who is redeemed by the faith of his slave translator. For a religious musical, that’s pretty damn tone-deaf.