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Films I Neglected To Review: ''No One Is As Dumb As I Appear To Be"
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Bookshop," "King Cohen," "Let The Corpses Tan," "Minding the Gap," "Return of the Hero" and "Searching."

Based on the acclaimed 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, ''The Bookshop'' wants to come across as a celebration of the written word and the power that it can instill in people and in a weird way, it succeeds in doing just that--it is so lifeless and uninvolving that it will inspire most viewers to reach for a book to pass the time while it running, even if they are watching it in a darkened theater. Set in the late 1950s, the film stars Emily Mortimer as Florence Greene, a recent widow who has decided to move to the remote English seaside town of Hardborough, purchase a dilapidated and long-unused building known only as The Old House and open up a bookshop. Unfortunately for her, the building is of some historical significance to the town and the meanest and most powerful woman in town, Violet (Patricia Clarkson), is determined to send the newcomer packing and reclaim the building. What she doesnít realize is that Florence, driven by her love of books, is just as determined to see her venture succeed. A battle of wills develops between the two women and while Florence is aided by a local eccentric (Bill Nighy) whose passion for books equals her own, it may not prove to be enough to combat Violet and her forces.

''The Bookshop'' is pretty much the kind of blandly inoffensive Europudding that Miramax used to successfully hype every Oscar season back in the day--one that ostensibly celebrates freedom and individuality but does so in the most ritualistic and conformist manner imaginable. As written and directed by Isabel Coixet, this one doesnít even rise to the not-exactly august levels of the likes of ''Chocolat'' thanks to a curious lack of drama throughout. The central conflict between Florence and Violet is handled in such a strangely perfunctory manner that there is none of the dramatic urgency necessary to drive the narrative along--Florence's love of books seems hardly worth the slings and arrows she faces throughout while Violet's determination to drive the interloper out is never satisfactorily explained. The three main performances are good--with actors like Mortimer, Clarkson and Nighy in the roles, how could they not be--but even there, you get the sense that they are coasting through on autopilot rather than fully committing to the story. ''The Bookshop'' means well and has a couple of nice moments here and there but there is nothing in it that you havenít already seen or read before.

Although his name may not be that familiar to the majority of the moviegoing audience, writer-director Larry Cohen has built himself a considerable cult reputation over the years thanks to a series of audacious and often politically charged B movies with narratives that navigate the thin line between ingenious and outrageous--mutant babies that emerge from the womb to go on killing sprees (the ''It's Alive'' trilogy), a prehistoric bird-god reigning terror on New York after making its nest at the top of the Chrysler Building (''Q the Winged Serpent''), a hugely popular new dessert food turns out to be an alien creature that takes over the minds and bodies of all who consume it (''The Stuff''). Perhaps befitting the person who could dream up such crazy concepts, Cohen has had a long and oftentimes wild career and it is all chronicled in the new documentary ''King Cohen.'' Mixing together clips from his filmography (which also includes such favorites as ''Black Caesar,'' ''Hell Up in Harlem,'' ''The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover'' and ''Original Gangstas''), testimonials from co-workers and colleagues ranging from Martin Scorsese to Fred ''The Hammer'' Williamson to Tara Reid to interviews with Cohen himself, the film is a wild ride through some of the weirder avenues of American filmmaking in the 70s and 80s, a time when one could go to a movie hoping to see a giant bird creature bite the heads off of half-naked women and get something that gave you plenty of that but also threw weirdo humor, social commentary and inspired performances from an eclectic group of actors into the mix as well. If there is a flaw to the film, it is in the fact that, with the exception of ''Phone Booth,'' little time is given to the films that Cohen wrote but which sold to others to make with wildly varying results (including the nastily effective cult item ''Daddy's Gone A-Hunting,'' ''Best Seller,'' ''Cellular'' and the admittedly loathsome ''Captivity,'' a work that evidently changed greatly in its journey from the page to the screen). That problem aside, ''King Cohen'' is a hugely entertaining tribute to a true cinematic maverick and anyone going to see it had better have a lot of free time afterwards because after watching it, you will want to immediately revisit his entire oeuvre.

Under normal circumstances, I tend to shy away from criticizing a film by calling it ''self-indulgent''--in theory, all art, at least the good stuff, is self-indulgent in the sense that it is the culmination of the personal vision of the person creating it. However, I have no idea of how else to describe ''Let The Corpses Tan,'' a weird little film in which co-directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani spend so much time and effort paying homage to the more outre element of 1970s-era Italian exploitation filmmaking that it plays more like a fetish object than a conventional narrative. As the film opens, a gang of thugs have just ambushed an armored car transport, killing all of the guards and making off with 250 kilograms of gold bars, and are heading off to lay low in a remote mountain retreat that is currently populated by a zoned-out author , Bernier (Marc Barbe) and his muse, Luce (Elina Lowensohn), whom they know somehow. Alas, the perfect plan is upended by the unexpected arrival of two groups one people--the first consisting of Bernier's wife (Dorylia Calmel), son (Bamba Forzani Ndiaye) and nanny (Marine Sainsily) and the second being a couple of cops (Herve Sogne and Dominique Troyes) who have tracked the thieves down. At this point, the film essentially transforms into one extended gun battle in which all of the characters fight to stay alive and escape, preferably with the gold in tow.

As someone who is a big fan of the type of film being celebrated here (with Mario Bavaís ''Rabid Dogs'' being a classic of the genre that is explicitly referenced here), ''Let The Corpses Tan'' should be right up my alley but as I was watching it, I kept having the nagging sensation that I should be liking it more than I actually did. From a visual standpoint, Cattet and Forzani have done a stand-out job here and those with some familiarity with the genre will adore the specificity that they bring to every image that they present. The trouble, however, is that they have spent so much time on the look of the film that everything else has been cast to the side. Granted, the plots of the old Italian crime films were not exactly complex and in-depth themselves but the storytelling here is so arbitrary that the whole thing feels like an extended YouTube supercut than anything else. Pretty much the new working cinematic definition of the phrase ''too much of a good thing,'' ''Let The Corpses Tan'' (which does have a neat title) is fun enough for a little bit but eventually becomes too formless and repetitive for its own good.

As a young man growing up in the economically ravaged environment of Rockford, Illinois, Bing Liu used to film himself and his two friends, Zack and Keire, as they would tear through the streets and sidewalks on their skateboards. From the opening moments featuring that footage, shot over 12 years ago, one might get the impression that Liu's film ''Minding the Gap'' is simply a documentary celebrating skateboard culture but it quickly proves to be something quite different and infinitely more powerful than that. In the film, Liu meets up with his old friends and finds out what has been going on with them in the ensuing years. The genial Zack is about to have his first child with girlfriend Nina and it quickly becomes apparent that even if he could put the beer that seems permanently affixed to his hand and hold a steady job, he would still be ill-prepared for the requirements of fatherhood and his relationship with Nina grows rockier and more violent as time goes on. Keire seems better adjusted at first but it soon becomes apparent that he has issues with rage and the cruelties that he suffered at the hands of his late father. It turns out that besides their skateboarding prowess, all three of them share a history of abuse and Liu examines their pasts--including his own--while observing them as they try to break from them in order to get on with their own lives.

As you can probably surmise, ''Minding the Gap'' is not exactly a barrel of laughs and there are any number of painful and wounding scenes on display--the sequence in which Liu grills his own mother about the man that she married and stayed with even after he began beating her son is especially harrowing. And yet, there is no point where the film feels as if it is being merely exploitative. Liu shows an unusual sensitivity towards his handling of the subject--especially in the way that he gives Nina a voice to talk about her perspective towards her increasingly disjointed relationship with Zack--and a gift for putting all of the material together into a gripping and compulsively watchable whole. Because they were both produced by Chicago's Kartemquin Films, my guess is that many of the reviews of this film will end up comparing it to the landmark documentary ''Hoop Dreams'' in that both tell stories that evolve over the course of years and which start off as sports stories before transforming into something deeper and truer. It may not be quite as good as its predecessor but if ever there was a current documentary that deserved comparison to ''Hoop Dreams,'' ''Minding the Gap'' is the one.

Proving that Hollywood does not have a monopoly on taking talented actors and utterly wasting them on material that is far beneath them, the period romantic farce ''Return of the Hero'' takes two of France's most popular actors--Jean Dujardin (''The Artist'') and Melanie Laurent (''Inglourious Basterds'')--and strands them in a wheezy confection of contrived situations, misfired jokes and unlikable characters. As the film opens in 1809, the roguish Captain Neuville (Dujardin) arrives at the home of the coquettish Pauline (Noemie Merlant) to ask for her hand in marriage. Just as the proposal is accepted, he is ordered off to go fight in one of the wars Napoleon is currently waging but after he departs, he never make any contact with his fiancee, leaving her devastated. As a way of helping, Pauline's older sister, the more cynical Elisabeth (Laurent) sends her letters that she has written in Neuville's name that chronicle his gallant deeds and his undying love for her while foreshadowing his apparent death in battle in India. The deception serves its purpose--Pauline is able to put her grief behind her and marry another man--but the ruse is threatened three years later when Elisabeth runs into the drunk, destitute and very much alive Neuville in town. She explains what she has done and pays him to leave for good but he decides instead to take advantage of the situation by cleaning himself up and returning to Pauline to regale his tales of alleged derring-do in the hopes of profiting in some way. The only one who knows he is full of shit is Elisabeth but since she cannot say anything without exposing her own deceptions, the two fall into an extended game of tit-for-tat where she comes up with any number of schemes to drive him from the house and he figures out any number of ways to counter her moves. In a shocking turn of events, it turns out that underneath all the mutual loathing, there seem to be some romantic sparks developing between the two, possibly inspired by their mutual love of scamming others.

''Return of the Hero'' is certainly a handsome-looking production and it is likely that the contributions by the likes of cinematographer {Guillaume Schiffman} and production designer {Francoise Dupertuis} will wind up getting more notice than usual as viewers will more likely to focus on them since there is nothing else on hand to compete for their attention. The screenplay by Gregoire Vigneron and Laurent Tirard (the latter also directed) has the feel of a relic from another era that has not aged very well. The basic comedic premise is an extremely thin one and the film never quite figures out a way to build on it to increase either the stakes or the laughs. Instead, we get a number of repetitive scenes in which the two central characters try and fail to one up each other to little comedic effect and the only truly laughable thing about them is the turn when we are supposed to be convinced that they have fallen in love. Dujardin and Laurent do everything they can to try to sell the tired material but even their best efforts cannot quite put over the thin material that they are working with here. Old-fashioned in the worst possible sense, ''Return of the Hero'' offers viewers some nice costumes and scenery, lame jokes, lamer slapstick and talented stars being wasted on a substandard script. This may have been considered a deliberate throwback to the films of an earlier era--unfortunately, the film that this one most clearly evokes is the Peter Sellers version of ''The Prisoner of Zenda.''

The setup for the new thriller ''Searching'' may sound familiar--when a 16-year-old girl mysteriously disappears, her father (John Cho) begins his own search for her and along the way begins to discover any number of hidden aspects to her life that he never knew existed. The difference here is that the entire film--from the early scene charting the moments between father and daughter prior to her vanishing to his attempts to gather information under the tutelage of a helpful cop (Debra Messing) to the ultimate denouement--is conveyed to us entirely via computer and phone screens showing iChats, security camera footage, news reports and the like. This is not exactly a new storytelling approach but director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty makes better use of the gimmick than those ''Unfriended'' boondoggles. For the first half or so, it is actually interesting and it is surprisingly tense to see Dad (well-played by Cho) navigating the cyber-world and unexpectedly getting to know his daughter along the way as he uncovers the secrets that she had been keeping--even if the story follows familiar paths, the new approach to the material helps to make it come alive in ways that might not have happened if it had been told in a more conventional manner. The problem is that after about an hour or so, the strain of telling the story so that all of the key moments can appear on some kind of screen begins to show and the story becomes increasingly implausible, leading up to an ending that is liable to annoy more people than it entertains. That said, ''Searching'' is just good enough to warrant a look--just prepare yourself for a disappointing wrap-up--and to make you keep an eye open to see what Aneesh Chaganty comes up with next.

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originally posted: 09/01/18 01:05:04
last updated: 09/01/18 01:38:25
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