Oscar-nominated animated feature Chico & Rita opens tomorrow at E Street Cinema. Photograph courtesy of Isle of Man Film.
Will Ferrell learned to speak Spanish to star in the feature directing debut from former Saturday Night Live scribe Matt Piedmont, who's been working with Ferrell's Funny or Die website for some time now. If you're familiar with the material produced by that site, you'll have a good idea what to expect from this film, which spoofs both low-budget Westerns and the melodrama and poor production values of Mexican telenovelas. The story is largely a throwaway plot about two brothers who love the same woman, and the drug trade threatening their lives and their family's land, but that's all largely window dressing to serve up the in-jokes.
The result is outlandish and silly, but in addition to an always-willing clown in Ferrell, Piedmont also scores some heavy-duty Mexican acting firepower in Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, reuniting the stars of Y tu mamá también for an exercise in studied overacting. Everyone onscreen is obviously having a blast, but these two largely serious actors getting the chance to ham it up is the source of the film's infectious glee.
Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Academy Award this year, Chico & Rita was handicapped in that race by being a film not intended for children. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a beautiful film, and almost certainly the best of the nominees. Directors Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando set their drama during the heyday of cross-pollination between Cuban jazz and New York bebop in the late 1940s, as a talented pianist (Chico) runs across a dazzling singer (Rita), and they begin a tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship that takes them from Havana to New York, Paris, and Las Vegas.
The film would be well worth watching for the fantastic music alone, but the story is gripping and emotional, told in flashback from near the present, as the lonely and elderly Chico goes about his daily routine in Havana. The animation is striking, as well—bright colors and bold lines create an environment that feels almost like a fantasy, even with its realistic characters and settings. A must-see for fans of animation, jazz, and excellent filmmaking.
Hungarian director Béla Tarr is rarely spoken of outside hardcore cinephile circles. He’s the maker of challengingly meditative works of film art; his 1994 opus is considered a masterpiece, which means you feel you ought to watch it, but with a running time of seven hours and twelve minutes, it’s a daunting task. Tarr’s films rarely get any kind of theatrical release in the US—his Werckmeister Harmonies set the previous high bar for the most screens to carry one of his films here with a grand total of one.
The Turin Horse, though, is getting a slightly wider release (meaning, in this case, that there are times when it’ll actually be playing on two US screens at once), thanks in large part to both a successful festival run through Berlin, Toronto, and New York and Tarr’s declaration that this would be his final film. Shot in black and white in his traditional long-take approach (the 146-minute film comprises just 30 shots), it tells the story of an Italian horse, his owner, and the owner’s daughter, immediately after Friedrich Nietzsche stopped the man from whipping his horse. It’s a supposedly true story that’s said to have precipitated the philosopher’s descent into madness—though this isn’t his story. It’s the horse’s.
The Smithsonian’s American Art Museum kicks off an extensive exhibition on the art of video games this week, and that extends not just to the games themselves, but to a pair of films they inspired. The first is the cult classic Tron, a visual-effects marvel in its day, as it transported Jeff Bridges into a microprocessor world of glowing neon that mainly served as the setting for video-game-inspired set pieces. Granted, the plot is convoluted and takes itself way too seriously, but no matter—this remains as visually unique today as it was decades ago.
The second is a look at the peculiar impact video games have had on small cultural subsets. King of Kong documents the back-and-forth battle between two men to become the world champion of Donkey Kong. The documentary is incisive and entertaining, an engrossing character study of the often odd members of this competitive video gaming community that also provides the stakes of an old-fashioned sports movie in the good versus evil contrast set up between the two combatants.
View the trailers for Tron and The King of Kong. Tron screens tomorrow at 8:30 PM, and The King of Kong on Saturday at 7 PM, both at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Free.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Brothers Mark and Jay Duplass may have made the leap to more-mainstream filmmaking after getting their start in the indie mumblecore movement, but they’re bringing many of the loose and scrappy stylistic hallmarks of those films to wider audiences, albeit with heightened production values. Their latest stars Jason Segel as a 30-year-old slacker who lives at home largely because he’s waiting for the universe to give him some direction. His mother and older brother (Susan Sarandon and Ed Helms) are consistently frustrated by him, but fail to realize that they’re victims of inertia just as surely as he is. The Duplass brothers play the role of fate, leading all three of these characters to some unexpected places and then letting them figure out the rest on their own. The result is a surprisingly warm and optimistic day-in-the-life narrative about breaking out of ruts with a little help from your friends and family.
Opening with an ultra-slow-motion tableaux of scenes from later in the film set to the bombast of Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia announces itself right out of the gate as a film with grand ambitions. The always-provocative director splits the film into two sections: The first deals with the uncomfortable wedding of the depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst), and the second deals with a planet—the titular Melancholia—hurtling through space on a collision course with Earth, straight for Justine, who, her attempt at marriage having failed, is now holed up in a remote castle with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Sure, von Trier’s metaphor for the crushing inevitability of destruction that comes with depression is blindingly obvious—but that’s hardly a handicap when the filmmaking is as virtuoso as what he puts on display here; the film contains some of the most gorgeous images he’s put onscreen in his entire career. This is definitely a work that will benefit from the high-definition Blu-ray presentation.
Special Features: A commentary track with the ever-candid von Trier and University of Copenhagen professor Peter Schepelern, a series of four making-of featurettes, and a nearly hour-long look at the Filmbyen, the film studio complex cofounded by von Trier just outside of Copenhagen.