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Films I Neglected To Review: Something's Burning Baby
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Beckett," "Ema," "Raging Fire" and "Searching for Mr. Rugoff."

Having appeared in last summer's most bewildering thriller when he starred in "Tenet," John David Washington makes his return to the genre with "Beckett" and while the end results are infinitely more coherent than they were in Christopher Nolan's head-scratcher, that does not necessarily make them more interesting. Set amidst the economic turmoil that plunged Greece into chaos a few years ago, the film opens with Americans Beckett (Washington) and April (Alicia Vikander) on a vacation that takes them fro Athens on an unplanned side trip to the mountains before coming to an abrupt and tragic ending when he falls asleep at the wheel and sends their car flying off the road into a remote farmhouse. Wracked with guilt, Beckett returns to the scene of the accident, only to encounter a local cop (Panos Koronis) and a mysterious woman (Lena Kitsopoulou) who immediately begin shooting at him. Without any knowledge of the area or the language and still suffering psychological trauma as a result of the accident, Beckett goes on the run in a desperate attempt to get to safety and figure out why he is being pursued without getting caught or killed--a tricky move since it appears that everyone from local authorities to American government representatives are all determined to stop him at all costs.

The best scenes in "Beckett" are the early ones--Washington and Vikander do such a wonderful job of convincingly sketching out the relationship growing and developing between their characters that it is genuinely jarring to see it all come to such an abrupt ending. Once the film shifts into conventional thriller mode, it becomes much less interesting because while it is clear that while director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino (a colleague of Luca Guadagnino, who serves as one of the producers here) is clearly trying to emulate the vibe of such 70s-era paranoia classics as "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Parallax View," he doesn't quite manage to generate the nerve-shredding tension that Sydney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula did in those films. Instead, he puts more focus on the extended chase and fight scenes and while they are presented in a reasonably realistic manneróat least in comparison to most other recent films of this sortóBeckett's ability to stay one step ahead of his pursuers and to absorb seemingly superhuman levels of physical punishment along the way (not to mention the occasional bout of PTSD) becomes fairly ridiculous after a while. "Beckett" is slickly made and perhaps slightly more interesting than the films that have been popping up on Netflix as of late but it too often feels like an idea for a thriller that just never got quite fleshed out in the way that it deserved to be. That said, I hope that someone takes some inspiration from this film and puts Washington and Vikander together again because as on-screen couples go, their chemistry is the only thing in this film that ultimately makes sense.

Although I cannot imagine anyone coming out of Leos Carax's stunning "Annette" with the immediate urge to see another movie, those who do happen to be thirsty for more will be delighted to discover that Pablo Larrain's "Ema" offers up another helping of a strange, sexually charged narrative from a world-renowned filmmaker involving the tempestuous drama between a artistically inclined couple whose relationship does not exactly improve for the better with the arrival of a child. In the case, the couple is dancer/teacher Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her choreographer husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal) and about a year earlier, the two, desiring children, adopted a boy named Polo (Cristian Suarez). Alas, the kid proves to be such a serious troublemaker that they are eventually forced to return him, a move that is sort of understandable from our perspective (as we have seen what the child has done) but which ends up getting Ema labeled as some kind of cruel and unfeeling monster for abandoning her child, a view that Gaston himself helps to perpetuate in order to minimize his own involvement in the process. For her part, Ema, when not involved in emotionally brutal arguments with Gaston or getting involved in a seemingly never-ending series of sexual escapades, launches a complicated plot to get Polo back with the aid of her fiercely loyal gang of girl dancers, who are willing to go to great lengths to help her both out of a love for her and out of a disdain for Gaston, whom several of them had worked for previously.

I first saw "Ema" more than a year ago and while I have forgotten most of the other films that I have seen during that time, it remains just as vivid to me now as when I first watched it. Right from its undeniably arresting opening with a punk-looking Ema wielding a flamethrower as dawn breaks, the film is an undeniably compelling and chaotic work that merges together a thoughtful meditation on grief and suffering, a potent observation of two combustible spirits who once seemed ideal for one another but whose entire relationship has been reduced to trying to inflict as much hurt on each other as possible, and a celebration of the image of bodies in motion, whether on the dance floor or elsewhere. (In an otherwise largely sexless cinematic summer, this film almost single-handedly makes up for everyone else's chastity.) Clearly "Ema" is not for everyone--even "Annette" feels more genuinely audience-friendly by comparison--but those who find themselves falling under its spell are unlikely to shake it anytime soon.

Written and directed by Benny Chan, the successful Hong Kong filmmaker who passed away last year shortly after completing it, "Raging Fire" is a slick but overly familiar action thriller that is exciting enough on its surface but which doesn't really have much else going on with it otherwise. HK legend Donnie yen stars as Bong, a dedicated and overly righteous cop who once testified in court against the brutal actions of some of his colleagues, most notably his one-time protege Ngo (Nicholas Tse). Freshly released from prison and bearing a deep grudge against his former mentor, Ngo leads a gang of criminals into a series of actions designed to kill as many cops as possible and make Bong suffer as payback for his betrayal. The action scenes, not surprisingly, are wildly over-the-top in every imaginable way--at one point, a man with a bomb strapped to his neck is sent into a room full of children and all of the shootouts between the cops and Ngo's gang seem to be trying to give the legendary post-heist gun battle in "Heat" a run for its money. That stuff is well-staged and thrilling enough but when things occasionally slow down for the plot to take precedence, things begin to sag--although Yen does a good job of suggesting his own inner torment at having betrayed a fellow cop in the name of a higher ideal that no one else seems to be following, the rest of the storytelling is a little too murky for its own good at times. "Raging Fire" is perfectly watchable and some of the action bits are legitimately startling--the kind of stuff that puts the super-slick choreography of a typical Marvel film to shame--but I just wish that they had been put to use in the service of a stronger story.

Long before the word "Miramax" was ever uttered aloud in polite society, Donald S. Runoff was establishing himself as a leader in what would eventually be called the independent film movement, first as the owner of a chain of revolutionary movie theaters in the New York area that combined modern design with eclectic bookings that offered more than just the usual major studio presentations and then as the American distributor of such classics as "Putney Swope," "The Sorrow and the Pity," "Gimme Shelter," "Scenes from a Marriage," "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." And yet, despite his considerable contributions to the cultural conversation at the time, his name is all but unknown today to all but a dwindling group of hardcore cineastes. With his new documentary, "Searching for Mr. Rugoff," Ira Deutchman, himself a producer and distributor who got his start in the business working for Rugoff, hopes to rectify this by exploring his life and legacy through the eyes of family, co-workers and filmmakers whose careers he helped to boost in America (including the late Robert Downey, Costa-Gavras and Lina Wermuller) while try to track down what happened to him after losing control of his company, Cinema 5, in the late Seventies. The portrait that emerges is of a complex man who was often difficult-to-impossible to work with but who had a flair for presentation as well as a gift for using old-fashioned showmanship to lure audiences to see films that didnít have the Hollywood hype machine behind them. (In one of his most infamous stunts, he advertised that he would give away coconuts to the first 1000 people to attend "Holly Grail.") The film has its share of flaws--Rugoff, who passed away in 1989, remains just as much of an enigma after it has ended as he was before it began and the events leading to his eventual downfall are not explained particularly well. That said, film fanatics will nevertheless love it as a tribute to both the man and to an essential moment in the history of film culture, both of which deserve to be more widely known and celebrated.

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originally posted: 08/13/21 06:41:10
last updated: 08/13/21 21:56:17
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