Monday, October 26, 2015

Away from Home: Victoria and The Algerian

Unintentional theme days are kind of cool, and this one was unintentional, as I didn't realize that the title character of Victoria was a girl from Madrid living in Germany. Nothing nefarious about that, unless this was a decision made so that German filmmakers setting their film in Berlin with an 80+% German cast would have an excuse to shoot in English and thus have a bigger market.

I think it worked - does it get nearly as much attention at film festivals and followed up by a decent-sized American release if it's in German? I honestly have no idea, but I do think this one was helped a bit by the festival bubble. It's pretty good, but I think its specific technical achievements will pay better to a film festival crowd than the average moviegoer, and there did seem to be a bit of an echo chamber effect coming out of Fantastic Fest, at least compared to how much I actually found myself enjoying the movie.

With a stop at the grocery store in between, it was a fairly quick turnaround between one and the next, and there were folks taking photos with the poster when I got there and was the first one into the auditorium. I hoped like heck that they weren't cast/crew members who were going to see that only one person had paid to see their movie on a Saturday night.

Not sure whether these were the guys taking pictures, but they were here to support the movie: Left to right, radio host Jeff Santos, writer/director/editor/producer/other things Giovanni Zelko, and composer James Bartlett. They did a brief Q&A after the film, and though they thankfully never talked about money, the kind of shoestring they were working on was fairly clear: Zelko talked about this taking a long time to get done - a couple years of shooting and a couple years of post-production, which suggests they were doing what they could whenever they had time and/or money - and while Bartlett is studying at Berklee College of Music now, he was a teenager when he scored the picture. It's not unreasonable to cut a movie working that close to the edge a little slack, even if they don't ask for it.

The audience wasn't just me, and I'm kind of curious how many of the dozen or so other people in attendance knew about this beforehand and how - I don't recall any notation on the Apple Cinemas website mentioning a filmmaker appearance, and I didn't see any signage touting it at the actual location. This is the second time something like this has been a bit of a surprise there, and it makes me wonder if this was a case of the movie booking the theater rather than vice versa, with the theater-owners leaving any promotion in the hands of the distributor.

It's not hugely surprising that of the dozen or so cities showing the film this weekend, the director came to Boston; New York and Los Angeles were conspicuously absent on the distributor's website. Given that 23 October is one of three release dates I've seen for this movie (one in June and one in August), I wonder if it played those markets then. Weird delayed strategy, if that's the case.

Anyway, they're both in fairly limited release in Cambridge - Victoria advertised as one week only at the Kendall and The Algerian not only just having a split theater at Fresh Pond, but the evening show switched from 7pm to 9:40pm after the filmmakers split town.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2015 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

In certain hands, Victoria might just have been an impressive achievement in logistics for hitting an ambitious set of marks as a single-shot, real-time thriller. It winds up being a fair bit better than that, even if there are moments when one might wish that that there was a bit more than an editor could do for it.

It starts out in a Berlin nightclub, where the girl of the title (Laia Costa) seems to be enjoying herself despite not picking up a whole lot of German in the three months she's been living there. As she's leaving, a group of four locals are being denied entry. One, Sonne (Frederick Lau), seems to really like her, so she hangs out with him, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuss (Max Mauff) for a bit. Soon after they part ways so that she can get to her day job, the guys wind up needing help - Boxer owes a gangster (André Hennicke) a favor, and Fuss is in no position to do his part. Which is how Victoria winds up driving the getaway car as they rob a private bank at daybreak.

The gimmick for Victoria is that the whole 134 minutes of action is one single shot, making those of us not exceptionally well-versed in film production wonder just what credited editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm did beyond deciding how to fade in at the beginning and out at the end. It would be a heck of an accomplishment if the characters stayed in one place, but they get in and out of cars to travel between a half-dozen locations in the city. As much as I wonder if this would be consciously or subconsciously appreciated by those unaware of the technique going in, it's hard not to appreciate the marathon work of the cast and crew once you are aware.

Full review on EFC.

The Algerian

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2015 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge #4 (first-run, DCP)

It's easy to see the kind of thriller that The Algerian's makers want it to be, so plain on its face that the two or three actors that audiences recognize from more polished material can seem far out of place: Writer/director Giovanni Zelko doesn't camouflage what he wants the audience to get out of his film at all, and it often seems clumsy as a result. The flip-side of that lack of subtlety is clarity, and one can't really argue that he doesn't get what he means to say across.

The Algerian of the title is Ali (Ben Youcef), whose family was killed in an explosion when he was just a boy and is arriving in Los Angeles to study for a graduate degree in engineering twenty years later. Well, that's his cover - two years ago, he was recruited by a man known as "Father" (Said Faraj) to help with the deployment of a certain device. As a sleeper agent, his mission is mostly to live the sort of ordinary life that doesn't get noticed, and that winds up including a number of people he might not want to die in a terrorist attack: Bicycle shop owner and fellow middle-eastern coffee enthusiast Mohammed (Zuhair Haddad); Lana (Candice Coke), a New York transplant he prevents from being assaulted outside a club; local imam Suleyman (Harry Lennix); fellow student Sara (Tara Holt); and Patrick (Josh Pence), a workout buddy down at the beach.

The mind of a would-be terrorist is difficult for an outsider to understand, and it's when Zelko and company try to put hostile words in Ali's mouth that the film is at its weakest, though the later earnest explanations are often just as awkward: Everyone, at some point, blurts out the obvious thing that makes him or her act a certain way, and it seldom feels truly organic, or even like a cathartic contrast to what they have been keeping hidden. All too often, it feels like Zelko has a strong idea of his characters and what they need to do, but not the finesse to have them do it in a less blunt manner.

Full review on EFC.

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