Seen at the Movies:

The Centerpiece presentation this weekend at the New York Film Festival is Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Bad Education. In this typically flamboyant story from the Spanish director, Gael Garcia Bernal stars as young man who turns up on the doorstep of film director Enrique (Fele Martinez), claiming to be his Catholic school friend and lover Ignacio. The visitor drops off a script that tells the story of their boyhood, when a priest molested Ignacio and had expelled Enrique from the school; the script goes on to depict Ignacio’s transformation into drug-addicted transvestite Zahara. Almodóvar takes the film onto a second level of reality by enacting this story, with Bernal taking on the role of Zahara. When Enrique decides to film the script, and also finds out the truth about Ignacio’s fate and identity, another narrative level is introduced.

Bad Education: Diego Lopez Calvin, Sony Pictures Entertainment

I just haven’t able to get with the program on Almodóvar’s last few films. I came to Bad Education intrigued by how he would treat the incendiary subject of priestly child abuse, and watched with interest to see how the complex structure would unfold. But by the second half, the movie had lost me. Almodóvar has abandoned comedy (here’s he going for something more akin to film noir), and remained obsessed with melodrama, but he depicts everything in such an affectless manner that, for me anyway, emotional involvement with the characters and situations is blocked. What’s the point of this movie, except to engage in an aesthetic exercise? As always, the film is elegantly shot, and this time DP José Luis Alcaine indulges some darker tones than usually seen in the director’s films. Art director Antxón Gómez and costume designer Paco Delgado also do stellar work, but Bad Education doesn’t rate much more than a shrug.

Like his earlier Hero, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers has exciting martial arts scenes and a brilliant palette to hold the eye. What it lacks is Hero’s beautiful formal structure and a coherent story. Zhang Ziyi stars as Mei, a blind Peony Pavilion dancer who just might the daughter of a rebel army leader during the ninth-century Tang Dynasty. Two captains, Leo and Jin (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) are enlisted to trick her and bring her in, but Jin falls in love with her. There are so many reversals in the plot, and the fighting comes so thick and heavy, that it’s hard not to feel benumbed by the movie after awhile. The most sensational scene comes early, as Mei performs a hyperkinetic dance called the “Echo Game.” Later highlights include a fight in bamboo forest, and one in the snow (the film was partly shot in Ukraine). But the entire movie, which is photographed by Zhao Xiaoding, looks overexposed. The Peony Pavilion sequence, which is stunningly designed by Huo Tingxiao, with costumes by Emi Wada, is marred by bright lighting that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Doris Day movie circa 1960.

House of the FLying Daggers: - Sony Pictures Classics

David Gordon Green’s Undertow, which played the festival last weekend, and will open in theatres later in October, is the second disappointment (after All the Real Girls) from the director who started so promisingly with George Washington. The major problem this time is a derivative, undercooked script. British Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell gives an impressive performance as Chris, a Georgia teenager whose widowed, bereft father (Dermot Mulroney) has basically retreated to the backwoods with Chris and his sickly younger brother (Devon Alan). No-good uncle Deel (a monotonously nasty Josh Lucas) shows up to cause trouble, and soon the boys are on the run, Night of the Hunter-style. Thanks to the director’s eye and Tim Orr’s cinematography, the film has tons of atmosphere, but I found it implausible from the moment Mulroney appeared in grubby long johns that seemed borrowed from Ian McShane’s character on Deadwood. In what century and on what planet is Undertow taking place? The long johns come courtesy of costume designer Jill Newell, while production designer Richard N. Wright supplies the movie with a white-trash shack out of Dogpatch.

Undertow: United Artists

A very different though equally sordid home environment is portrayed in the Israeli film Or (My Treasure), directed by Keren Yedaya. Dana Ivgi stars as the title character, a resourceful Tel Aviv teenager trying to help her bedraggled prostitute mother Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) off the street, though Ruthie fights her attempts at every turn. I found this film to be hatefully deterministic—by the end, Or has followed in her mother’s footsteps, and the film has presented a depressing portrait of women as helpless sexual self-annihilators. Yedaya demonstrates very little insight into her characters’ psychological motivations, so the film becomes just a repetitive roundelay of an overly cosmeticized Ruthie making a run for the door in high heels and Or attempting to restrain her. The film’s grubby cinematography is by Laurent Brunet.

Or (My Treasure) A grubby look at Tel Aviv

Not in the New York Film Festival but certainly one with it in spirit is Shane Carruth’s Primer, a super-low-budget science-fiction puzzler shot in Dallas. Carruth and David Sullivan star as engineers who create a device that allows them to basically clone themselves. The doubles exist in a different time frame, and eventually run amok. If this sounds confusing, it is—trying to keep track of the originals and the doubles, and what each is up to at any given moment, makes watching Primer a somewhat dizzying experience, which may be what Carruth intends. Shot on Super 16 by Carruth (or perhaps his double), transferred to mini-DV, and edited on the filmmaker’s home computer, the film has an effective handmade feel, and uses its suburban-industrial park locations well.--John Calhoun

Primer: TH!NKFilm

Seen Off Broadway: Playwright Bryony Lavery has followed her Tony-nominated Frozen, a wrenching drama of serial murder, with, of all things, a comedy. Well, sort of. It’s a wash: As Last Easter progresses, the doctor, travel, and fart jokes that pepper the first act fall away as the bigger issues—the ethics of euthanasia, for one—take centerstage. [Not a lot of seltzer-in-the-face pratfalls there, as you might imagine.] The fine Veanne Cox plays June, an English lighting designer whose impending death from cancer tests not only her faith, but the convictions of her friends: Gash, a singer and female impersonator whose act mixes Saint Bernadette with Judy Garland (Jeffrey Carlson, in a softer reprise of his tart-tongued Marilyn in last season’s Taboo); the slightly scatter-brained would-be art director Leah, a Jewish American (Clea Lewis), and self-absorbed actress Joy (Florencia Lozano), who is trying to shake the suicide of her stagehand boyfriend, Howie (Jeffrey Scott Green in sometimes spooky, sometimes comic manifestations, all silent). As June tries to rally, the foursome embarks on a trip to France…with a side journey to Lourdes, to see if there’s anything to the legend of its healing waters. Suffice it to say that seeing June through her crisis will require her friends to find something stronger than water, or the alcohol that fuels their drunken revelry on their journey.

Last Easter Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

In the spirit of comrades-in-arms, Last Easter (which, like Frozen, is an MCC Theater production) reunites Lavery with some of the key players from last season’s triumph, including director Doug Hughes, set designer Hugh Landwehr, costume designer Catherine Zuber, and LD Clifton Taylor. [The two new additions to the design roster are sound designer Fabian Obispo, who supplies a suitably ethereal score, and properties designer Hillary Baldwin, presumably tasked with the talking animal heads Leah makes.] Lightning, however, did not strike twice. June, wan but persistent, is so thoroughly defined by her illness, religious preoccupations, and infatuation with illumination that it’s hard to fathom her magnet-like appeal to her friends, and a surprise attraction between Leah and Joy is simply unconvincing. This is a determinedly minor play about weighty themes, one that Lavery struggles to keep light and amiable before giving in, too late, to incidents that unavoidably recall an earlier MCC hit, Wit. [I say “recall,” not “copy,” given plagiarism accusations about Frozen.]

For Last Easter the designers have transformed the Lucille Lortel Theatre into the cluttered backstage of a typical London theater, with religious kitsch and strings of Christmas tree lights strewn about Landwehr’s crammed but not cramped set (the exit door to the side is used for Howie’s snowy, spectral entrances). Zuber’s costumes are contemporary and unfussy, cutting loose only for Gash’s drag get-up in Act II. Taylor’s role is vital; as June’s kindred spirit, he has to make you feel as she does about the miracle of light, and that he does, with subtle uses of color, the transformation of the Christmas tree lights into a cluster of stars with the addition of a scrim, and a final, piercing exit into the void. His work speaks more eloquently than Lavery’s, but I will add that her doctor jokes are funny. --Robert Cashill