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Movie Tickets: “Total Recall,” “Killer Joe,” “Searching for Sugar Man”

Our picks for the best in film over the next seven days.

Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in Total Recall. Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Killer Joe

The latest from William Friedkin may be the funniest film you see all year. It’s also likely the most disturbing and morally repugnant one—not for anything it espouses, but for the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel degradation of its motley cast of characters. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular Joe, a Dallas cop who runs a side business as a hit man and is hired by Chris (Emile Hirsch) and his trailer trash father (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmother (Gina Gershon) to kill Chris’s mother—whom no one seems to like much—to score an insurance payout. Chris needs the money to pay off a drug debt.

This is Friedkin’s second time in a row adapting a play by the playwright Tracy Letts, after his fantastic but barely seen 2006 take on Letts’s Bug. That films was a harrowing, claustrophobic psychological thriller that detailed one couple’s descent into madness. Killer Joe is probably no less harrowing, but its characters are less mad and more moronic, until they experience utter terror when they realize that their stupidity and desperation has led them to put themselves under the hard, unforgiving bootheel of a man—Joe—who is something approximating pure, sadistic evil.

It’s a shame the Academy would never touch a film with scenes as shocking as this—it earns its NC-17 rating and then some—with a ten-foot Oscar statue, because McConaughey is nothing short of brilliant here. Between this movie, his frightening and charismatic turn in Magic Mike, and Bernie and The Lincoln Lawyer recently, he is settling into his true calling, which isn’t so much being a romantic comedy star as it is a dark, dangerous character actor. He anchors both the dark humor and the frightening violence of this film. Friedkin, meanwhile, plays a trick that might be mean if it wasn’t so fascinating to see him pull off, which is that he blends laugh-out-loud humor with absolutely repulsive images, turning from one to the other on a dime in the same scene, forcing audiences to wind up laughing when they should be disturbed. It’s disorienting and unsettling, and while that might sound like a bad thing, it’s an absolute endorsement of what Friedkin accomplishes here.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at Landmark E Street.

Searching for Sugar Man

You’ve probably never heard of Sixto Rodriguez. That’s to be expected, as his extremely brief recording career encompassed all of two albums back in the early ’70s, and he essentially disappeared after being dropped by his label. Except that somehow his recordings found their way to South Africa years later, and he became as legendary a figure there as the Beatles or Elvis. One character in the movie says Rodriguez was unquestionably bigger than the Rolling Stones in the country, and that if you went to a party, the three albums you’d expect everybody would always have were the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Rodriguez’s Cold Fact. The difference was that while everyone knew everything about the first two artists, no one knew anything about Rodriguez aside from his music and rumors that he killed himself onstage in spectacularly gruesome fashion many years before. This documentary, one of the best music docs I can recall, details the efforts of some tenacious South Africans trying to track down the truth about Rodriguez’s history in the days before the Internet. You can read more about the film, and its surprise twist in my piece over at the Atlantic—but be warned that the piece does contain some spoilers, and if you want to remain in the dark while watching the film, you should avoid Google searches of any kind before seeing the film. Information was hard to come by for the film’s characters in the ’90s, but of course, this is a different time.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at Landmark Bethesda Row.

Total Recall

The 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/action flick Total Recall has become one of his signature works, one that doesn’t feel so much like an action-star vanity piece so much as a fully realized piece of dark science fiction that happens to star an action hero. Given its fairly classic status, there was much trepidation about the prospect of a new adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s story, which takes place in a society where people can implant memories in lieu of actual vacations, and in which our hero, Quaid (Colin Farrell, taking over Arnie’s role), discovers that at some point his memory has been wiped and he may have been involved in events he cannot recall. This discovery makes him a target and puts him on the run. Underworld director Len Wiseman is at the helm here, which bodes well for visual flair but not so much for coherent storytelling; but I’m heartened by the casting of Farrell, who, despite some questionable choices, is often a fine actor. As Atlantic writer Christopher Wallace points out in this essay yesterday, Farrell’s best work often comes playing desperate characters at the end of their rope; if Wiseman lets that aspect of Quaid’s story win out over mindless action, there could be something worth seeing here.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at theaters across the area.

Ways of Seeing: 40th Anniversary

John Berger’s landmark 1972 BBC special celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, a four-part series that introduced a new way of looking at Western art and culture. The film, along with a book of the same name, was produced in part as a response to another BBC cultural history from a few years earlier, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. But where Clark’s series was rigidly traditional, Berger opens up the art to much deeper interpretations of motivation and ideology couched within the art, which was extremely provocative at the time and ended up being hugely influential to the way we think about art. The National Gallery’s screening of all four episodes (totaling about an hour and a half) will be accompanied by a discussion with historian Jonathan Conlin of the University of Southampton.

View the beginning of the first episode. Saturday at 2:30 PM at the National Gallery of Art. Free.

Portrait of Wally

As the Nazis rolled through Europe in 1939, they took control of more than just land and nations; they also stole a whole lot of art. Among the work that were taken was the collection of Austrian Lea Bondi, including a painting by Egon Schiele known as “Portrait of Wally.” This documentary details a battle that took place over the course of 70 years as Bondi’s family attempted to get the painting back. They didn’t have the Nazis to fight for it, though, but rather the Austrian government, MoMa, and even NPR. Director Andrew Shea crafts the struggle to regain the painting into a complex detective story.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at West End Cinema.

Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: Le Havre

Filled with all the oddball, deadpan humor one would expect from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, his latest takes place in a port city in northern France filled with the requisite quirky cast of characters. It centers on Marcel, a writer and shoeshiner who’s finding that the shoeshine business isn’t what it used to be, and he and his wife are beginning to have problems getting by. He finds a young African boy whose family was heading to London via shipping container when the police found them. The boy escapes, and Marcel and his neighborhood band together to help the kid out. The film is sentimental without ever being too much so, and political without ever being strident. You can check out my complete review here.

Special Features: Interview with actor André Wilms, footage from the film’s debut at the 2011 Cannes Film festival, an interview with actress Kati Outinen, and footage from a “Little Bob” concert, a musician featured in the film.

View the trailer.

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