French director Rebecca Zlotowski throws just about everything she can think of into her would-be historical epic, Planetarium, a disappointing, confusing movie about making movies (and lots of other stuff). In the 1930s, two sisters are carving out a little niche for themselves, holding séances and making public appearances displaying their remarkable abilities. The younger Kate Barlow (Lily-Rose Depp) is the medium, claiming to be able to contact the dead, while the older Laura (Natalie Portman) manages the séances and the business end. After seeing one of their performances, wealthy movie producer Andre Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) becomes enamored of the girls and takes them in, determined to make a film that, for the first time ever, captures actual spirits or ghosts onscreen, providing incontrovertible proof of the afterlife. Korben hires Andre Servier (Pierre Salvadori) to direct and Fernand Prouve (Louis Garrel) to serve as Laura’s love interest in the film. Kate and Laura have lived a relatively sheltered life when it comes to the real world, so this is all new to them; while Kate seems more interested in all the hoopla surrounding them, Laura is concerned that she is losing control over Kate. She is also worried that Korben might have more than just business in mind with them.
In putting together Planetarium, Zlotowski (Belle Épine, Grand Central) was inspired by the real-life Fox sisters, three siblings who helped create Spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century, and French-Romanian director Bernard Natan, Zlotowski and cowriter Robin Campillo stretch themselves too thin by incorporating too many subplots, resulting in a jumpy, unfulfilling narrative that bounces all over the place, never achieving any kind of flow. It’s difficult to warm up to any of the characters, who remain cold and distant. The most interesting part of the film is how Zlotowski relates the Spiritism aspect of the story to filmmaking, each able to go beyond reality, creating illusion; early on, Kate spins a stereoscope, linking the two. But the relationship is never fully realized, just as the relationships among the characters are underdeveloped. Zlotowski can’t decide whether she’s making a film about the growth of French cinema, Spiritism, sisterly love, romance, politics, anti-Semitism, con games, family, illness, or history. Portman, in her first French film, stands out too much, while Depp, the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis, avails herself fairly well until treacly melodrama takes over. Even at only 106 minutes, Planetarium creaks along at much too slow a pace; you might find yourself trying to spot a ghost in the movie theater just for something to pay attention to.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED (Wes Anderson, 2007)
136 Metropolitan Ave. between Berry St. & Wythe Ave.
Saturday, August 12, and Sunday, August 13, 11:45 am
Series runs through August 26
Wes Anderson takes viewers on a wild ride through India aboard the Darjeeling Limited in this black comedy that opened the 2007 New York Film Festival. Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (cowriter Jason Schwartzman) are brothers who have not seen one another since their father’s funeral a year before, after which their mother disappeared. Having recently survived a terrible accident, Francis — looking ridiculous with his face and head wrapped in bandages — convinces them to go on a spiritual quest together to reestablish their relationship and help them better understand life. Peter and Jack very hesitantly decide to go along on what turns out to be a series of madcap adventures involving bathroom sex, bloody noses, jealousy, praying, cigarettes galore, running after trains, and savory snacks. Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore) injects his unique brand of humor on the action, ranging from the offbeat to the sensitive to the absurd as the brothers bond and battle in a search for themselves and what’s left of their family, set to a score adapted from the films of Satyajit Ray and Merchant-Ivory. The film, which features cameos by Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Barbet Schroeder, and Anjelica Huston, is screening August 12 and 13 at 11:45 in the morning in Nitehawk’s “Back10” series, revisiting the films of 2007; several audience members at each show will receive a free copy of Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection. (You can see a video of the chapter on The Darjeeling Limited here.) The festival continues through August 26 with such other decade-old fare as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, Andrew Currie’s Fido, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
CHOOSE ME (Alan Rudolph, 1984)
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Thursday, August 10, 9:00, and Sunday, August 13, 1:00
Series runs August 10-16
The Quad is celebrating French-Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold’s seventy-fifth birthday with the wide-ranging fourteen-film retrospective “The Beguiling Bujold,” running August 10-16. The Montreal native was on the cusp of becoming a major star after a 1968 Emmy nomination for playing Joan of Arc in Saint Joan and an Oscar nod the next year for her portrayal of Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days, but she opted for a more quirky career of small, independent films, dotted with a handful of bigger pics. One of her best roles is Dr. Nancy Love in 1984’s Choose Me, the first of three consecutive films she made with Alan Rudolph. Nancy hosts a popular radio talk show about love and sex, two things she doesn’t enjoy much of herself until she meets Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), a lounge owner who goes home with a different person every night and is a regular caller into her program under a fake name. Among the men enamored of Eve are her bartender, Billy Ace (John Larroquette); the mean-spirited, married, well-connected Zack (Patrick Bachau); and the new guy in town, Mickey (Keith Carradine), who has lived a rather complicated life. Meanwhile, barfly Pearl (Rae Dawn Chong) has the hots for Mickey too. As part of her “research,” Nancy moves in with Eve, but neither knows that they actually talk to each other almost daily on the radio. Bujold is an intoxicating adult ingénue in Rudolph’s darkly comic tongue-in-cheek noir that features a riotous soundtrack by Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross and lurid photography by Jan Kiesser. Choose Me is screening August 10 and 13 as part of both “The Beguiling Bujold” and “Quadrophilia,” the latter consisting of films relating to the LGBTQ community.
Bujold comfortably settles into the background in her second film with Rudolph, 1988’s The Moderns, a wickedly sly riff on the Lost Generation in post-WWI Paris. Bujold is gallery owner Libby Valentin, the guiding conscience among the self-important literati, including Ernest Hemingway (Kevin J. O’Connor), who speaks in hysterical quotations that would wind up in The Sun Also Rises and other books; Gertrude Stein (Elsa Raven), and Alice B. Toklas (Ali Giron), who host high-falutin’ salon gatherings; gossip columnist Oiseau (Wallace Shawn), who never a met a story he couldn’t make up; wealthy art collector Nathalie de Ville (Geraldine Chaplin), who has more up her sleeves than she initially lets on; powerful, jealous businessman Bertram Stone (John Lone) and his wife, the sexy, troublesome Rachel (Linda Fiorentino); and expatriate painter Nick Hart (Keith Carradine), who has little time for nonsense as he homes in on Rachel. The beginning of the film is annoying, pretentious, and self-indulgent, but once it kicks into high gear, it wonderfully pokes fun at itself, especially via Oiseau, played to a comic T by Shawn — who likes to hang out at Bar Sélavy, owned by Rose (Marthe Turgeon), in a sweet homage to Marcel Duchamp. Cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita slowly switches from black-and-white to color as scenes change and the backstabbing heats up. The plot centers around forgeries, referencing the phoniness that resides within every character. The only one who remains steady throughout is Libby, who is played with just the right touch of mystery by Bujold. The Moderns is screening at the Quad on August 10 at 6:45.
THE ACT OF THE HEART (Paul Almond, 1970)
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Saturday, August 12, 5:45
Series runs August 10-16
Bujold made three films with her husband, Paul Almond, during their six-year marriage. In between 1968’s Isabel and 1972’s Journey is the very strange, ultimately unsatisfying The Act of the Heart, which earned Bujold a Canadian Film Award for Best Actress. The low-budget 1970 film hints at being a horror movie, which would have been much better than the rather drab drama it turns out to be, save for a bizarre finale. Bujold is Martha, a shy, devout young woman who has arrived in a small town on the North Shore of Quebec to be a nanny to Russell (Bill Mitchell), a boy being raised by his widowed mother, Johane (Monique Leyrac). Martha auditions for the church choir, which is conducted by Augustinian monk Father Ferrier (Donald Sutherland). As she becomes deeply involved in Billy’s life, which includes his getting seriously injured in a hockey game, she and Father Ferrier take a liking to each other, severely testing their faith. Bujold excels as Martha, as she grows from a church mouse to a woman filled with desire, but Sutherland sleepwalks through the first half of the film, and the subplot with Russell and Johane turns soapy. Still, watching Bujold work her magic is always worth it. Winner of six Canadian Film Awards (Best Director, Best Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound, and Best Musical Score), The Act of the Heart is screening August 12 at 5:45 at the Quad. “The Beguiling Bujold” also boasts such other diverse Bujold films as the Michael Crichton medical thriller Coma with Michael Douglas, the Brian De Palma Hitchcock homage Obsession with Cliff Robertson, David Cronenberg’s creepy Dead Ringers with Jeremy Irons, Michael Cacoyannis’s Euripides adaptation The Trojan Women with Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave, and Alain Resnais’s The War Is Over with Yves Montand. And as a bonus, the Quad is showing Mark Robson’s Earthquake, starring Bujold with Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Richard Roundtree, Walter Matthau, Victoria Principal, et al., on August 20 and 21 in the upcoming “Disasterpieces” series.
The New York Botanical Garden
2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx
Chillin’ with Chihuly: Saturday, August 12, and Sunday, August 13, 1:00 - 4:00
Chihuly Nights: Thursday, August 10, 17, 24, $35, 6:30
Jazz & Chihuly: Friday, August 18, $40, 6:00
Exhibition continues Tuesday – Sunday through October 29, $10-$28
The New York Botanical Garden’s “CHIHULY” exhibition, his first new show in New York in a decade, features colorful and extravagant site-specific glass-blown works by Dale Chihuly spread throughout the grounds, including at the Native Plant Garden, the Lillian and Amy Goldman Fountain of Life, the Leon Levy Visitor Center, the Arthur and Janet Ross Conifer Arboretum, and the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory Courtyard’s Tropical Pool, as well as works on paper and early works on view in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Building. There are special bonuses during the month of August to enhance the oeuvre of the Washington State native, whose NYBG pieces were partially inspired by a 1975 Niagara Falls group show he participated in. On August 12 and 13 from 1:00 to 4:00, accordionist Tony Kovatch, Spanish guitarist David Galvez, and saxophonist Keith Marreth will play acoustic music at various locations in the garden, joined by steel drummer Earl Brooks Jr. and cellist Laura Bontrager on Saturday and steel drummer Mustafa Alexander and oboist Keve Wilson on Sunday. Meanwhile, Brooklyn-based UrbanGlass will host flame-work demonstrations at Conservatory Plaza and the visitor center. There will also be ice-cold treats available for purchase to keep everyone cool. On August 19, the NYBG Summer Concert Series presents “Jazz & Chihuly: Songs of Protest & Reconciliation,” with live music by pianist Damien Sneed and an all-star ensemble, along with special guest trumpeter Keyon Harrold, followed by a late-night viewing of the exhibition. You can also see short films about Chihuly’s creative process on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm or check out “Chihuly Nights,” with Fulaso, Richard & Ashlee, and Mustafa Alexander on April 10, Mandingo Ambassadors, Almanac Dance Circus Theater, and Alexander on August 17, and Samba New York! and Alice Farley on August 24. “I want people to be overwhelmed with light and color in a way they have never experienced,” Chihuly says about his work; these programs enhance that experience in unique ways.
WAVERLY MIDNIGHTS: STAFF PICKS — BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN
BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN (Larry Charles, 2006)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Friday, August 11, and Saturday, August 12, 12 midnight
Believe the hype. Sacha Baron Cohen holds a mirror up to America, and you might not like what you see — although you’ll laugh your head off while watching it. Cohen stars as bushy haired Kazakhstan journalist Borat Sagdiyev, a role he created for Da Ali G Show, the 2001 series in which he interviewed such luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Andy Rooney, and Norman Mailer while pretending to be a British hip-hop wigger (Ali G); he also disguised himself as a German fashionista (Bruno) and Borat, a reporter who likes to talk about sex, especially with his sister. In Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Borat leaves his little village in Kazakhstan and travels across the United States with his producer, the rotund Azamat (Ken Davitian), in search of his true love, Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson. Along the way, he is making a documentary about the American way of life, turning a revealing lens on racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, blind patriotism, fundamentalism, and southern hospitality, with a healthy dose of toilet humor (literally).
The people he speaks with — a feminist group, gun and car dealers, rodeo cowboys, conservative politicians Bob Barr and Alan Keyes, etiquette and humor experts, Christian evangelicals at a revivalist tent meeting, drunk frat boys in an RV — believe he is really a Kazakh journalist, and Cohen holds nothing back, unafraid to ask any question or kiss any man, often risking his personal safety in hysterical ways. He’s got the biggest cojones we’ve ever seen — and you nearly get to see them when he and Azamat chase each other naked through a hotel, ending up fighting onstage at a mortgage bankers convention. Borat is more Easy Rider than Jackass and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, a road trip movie that captures the state of the nation in frightening yet very funny ways. Curiously, the only Oscar nomination it received was for Best Screenplay, despite much of it being improvised. A film that probably couldn’t be made today, Borat is screening on August 11 and 12 at midnight in the IFC Center series “Waverly Midnights: Staff Picks,” selected by Andrew M. of the floor staff. The series continues with such other flicks as David Cronenberg’s Crash, James Cameron’s Aliens, and Jim Sharman’s Shock Treatment.
HOLY MOTORS (Léos Carax, 2012)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Tuesday, August 8, 7:00
Series runs through August 31
French writer-director Léos Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang) has made only five feature films in his thirty-plus-year career, a sadly low output for such an innovative, talented director, but in 2012 he gave birth to his masterpiece, the endlessly intriguing, confusing, and exhilarating Holy Motors. His first film since 1999’s POLA X, the work is a surreal tale of character and identity, spreading across multiple genres in a series of bizarre, entertaining, and often indecipherable set pieces. Holy Motors opens with Carax himself playing le Dormeur, a man who wakes up and walks through a hidden door in his room and into a movie theater where a packed house, watching King Vidor’s The Crowd, is fast asleep. The focus soon shifts to Carax alter ego Denis Lavant as Monsieur Oscar, a curious character who is being chauffeured around Paris in a white stretch limo driven by the elegant Céline (Édith Scob). Oscar has a list of assignments for the day that involve his putting on elaborate costumes — including revisiting his sewer character from Merde, Carax’s contribution to the 2009 omnibus Tokyo! that also included shorts by Michel Gondry and Bon Joon-ho — and becoming immersed in scenes that might or might not be staged, blurring the lines between fiction and reality within, of course, a completely fictional world to begin with. It is as if each scene is a separate little movie, and indeed, Carax, whose middle name is Oscar, has said that he made Holy Motors after several other projects fell through, so perhaps he has melded many of those ideas into this fabulously abstruse tale that constantly reinvents itself.
The film is also a loving tribute to Paris, the cinema, and the art of storytelling, with direct and indirect references to Franz Kafka, E. T. A. Hoffman, Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney, Eadweard Muybridge, Georges Franju, and others. (Scob, who starred in Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, at one point even pulls out a mask similar to the one she wore in that classic thriller.) The outstanding cast also features Kylie Minogue, who does indeed get to sing; Eva Mendes as a robotic model; and Michel Piccoli as the mysterious Man with the Birthmark. Holy Motors is screening August 8 in the MoMA series “Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction,” which includes seventy films from around the world that question what is human; the festival continues through August 31 with such other unusual works as Felipe Cazals’s El año de la peste, David Cronenberg’s Shivers and Videodrome, Alex Proyas’s Dark City, the aforementioned Eyes Without a Face, and Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth and Nozim To’laho’jayev’s Budet laskovyi dozhd (“There Will Come Soft Rains”), introduced by Neil deGrasse-Tyson.
PHASE IV (Saul Bass, 1974)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Metrograph’s celebration of the career of logo designer, title credits innovator, and Oscar-winning director Saul Bass has just added his sole feature film, the 1974 sci-fi thriller Phase IV. The long-unavailable work, which was comically crucified on Mystery Science Theater 3000, is an underrated gem, a thinking person’s horror film that is too intellectual for its own good. As the result of some kind of space anomaly, ants are doing things that they’re not supposed to do, communicating among different ant species and developing what appears to be a surprising sentience and intelligence. Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and scientist and mathematician James Lesko (Michael Murphy) head out to an awesomely shaped circular lab in the middle of the Arizona desert, where the ant rebellion has begun. Dr. Hubbs tells the Eldridge clan — Mr. Eldridge (Alan Gifford), his wife, Mildred (Helen Horton), their granddaughter, Kendra (Lynne Frederick), and ranch hand Clete (Robert Henderson) — that they’re being evacuated for their own safety, but they don’t listen until it’s too late. As Dr. Hubbs and Lesko continue their complex study of the ants, the creatures start playing a fascinating cat-and-mouse game with the humans, challenging them both mentally and physically. The ants even show more compassion and consideration for their dead; while Dr. Hubbs refuses to mourn the Eldridge grandparents, the ants hold a touching ceremony for their fallen. It all leads to a surreal, psychedelic finale that is part 2001: A Space Odyssey, part Colossus: The Forbin Project, and part The Holy Mountain. Don’t expect the conclusion to make much sense, especially because Paramount edited it down from its original glory (while leaving some bits of it in the official trailer); you can watch the full ending here; it’s a doozy.
While most genre movies make their killer creatures giant, like Empire of the Ants, The Deadly Mantis, and Them!, Bass keeps his bugs regular size, but they are often shot in spectacular close-ups by National Geographic time-lapse expert and insect photographer Ken Middleham (The Hellstrom Chronicle, Damnation Alley), making them appear to be enormous. Despite their size, the ants build some amazing structures, one a Stonehenge-like series of towers that would make Spinal Tap drool. (The production designer was John Barry, who later worked on the Star Wars and Superman series, while Dick Bush did the less-than-stellar cinematography.) The script, by playwright and screenwriter Mayo Simon (Futureworld, Marooned), is no mere stale Cold War parable or military manifesto but subtly references totalitarianism and communism while recognizing the coming climate change crisis. (In 1980, Bass would make The Solar Film with his wife, Elaine, about solar energy.) Meanwhile, the creepy, ominous score is by Brian Gascoigne, Stomu Yamashta, David Vorhaus, and Desmond Briscoe. Davenport (A Man for All Seasons, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is gruff as the determined Hubbs, while the sensitive Murphy (Manhattan, An Unmarried Woman) and Frederick (Voyage of the Damned, Nicholas and Alexandra) form a sweetly innocent bond. The film is quite a warning, one that humankind is clearly still not taking seriously all these years later. Phase IV — which was also poorly marketed, as evidenced by the poster at left — is screening August 4-10 at Metrograph in the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year-long residency there, which also includes the program “Why Man Creates — the Work of Saul Bass,” consisting of the Bronx-born Bass’s Why Man Creates, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary Subject, The Solar Film, Saul Bass: In His Own Words, a trailer reel, a commercial reel, and classic title sequences.