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Reviews for May 17th, 2013


Directed by Alice Winocour

      Singer-turned-actress Soko stars as Augustine, a 19-year-old maid who works as a kitchen maid in France during the 19th Century. At a dinner, she starts to feel ill, falls to the floor and experiences a seizure that leads to an orgasm. Off she goes to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital where Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon) treats her for a disease called hysteria. He uses her to study the disease in hopes of curing her and showing the results to colleagues. They start off as doctor and patient, but soon their relationship becomes much more than that and takes unexpected turns.

      Writer/director Alice Winocour has taken a very interesting premise, but doesn't squeeze enough suspense, intrigue or psychological horror out of it. Sporadically, it veers into Cronenberg territory where you feel somewhat creeped out, but for the most part, Augustine feels tediously stuck in the 1st act. What keeps you marginally captivated, though, are the emotionally believable performances by Lindon and Soko, the authentic-looking set and costume designs as well as the evolving dynamics of the relationship between Augustine and Dr.Charcot. Augustine eventually learns how to use power play to dominate and control him, and there's much more to her than meets the eye, so there's certainly at least some complexity to her as a character. It's too bad that Augustine often meanders without escalating its modicum of tension and building its suspense into a powerful, memorable experience.

      The only palpably suspenseful scene can be found toward the end which is just when its premise starts to take off, but by then it's too late---it's been taxing on the runway for too long and essentially going around in circles. To have had an earlier lift-off, so-to-speak, Winocour could have taken Augustine farther into the realm of psychological horror or deeper into the character study of Augustine and Dr.Charcot.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Music Box Films.
Opens at the Film Forum and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Documentary Round-Up

      Becoming Traviata opened at the Film Forum on Wednesday, May 15th via Distrib Films. It follows opera director Jean-François Sivadie as he and his star, French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, rehearse for the classic production of La Traviata. The show's baritone, Ludovic Tézier and tenor, Charles Castronovo, also rehearse. Phillipe Béziat, the doc's director, has made a film that's strictly for opera aficionados because all you get to see and hear is the rigorous rehearsal process in the weeks leading up to the show---you don't even see any footage of the show itself. The production of La Traviata is bare-boned when it comes to it set designs and costumes, and this doc itself is also bare-boned in its own way: there are no talking heads to be found here nor any captions that add much-needed insight nor a narrator to guide for that matter. If you're not an opera aficionado, you will be initially captivated by Natalie Dessay's beautiful voice, charisma and expressive face/body, but by the one-hour mark you'll start to feel tedium and boredom start to kick in.


Directed by Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

      Elemental sheds light on the struggles of three different individuals who not only care about the environment, but do something about it. Rajendra Singh, an water conservationist, works diligently to raise awareness of the pollution of the Ganges river in India in hopes of improving its water quality. He reminds Indian youths that the Ganges River is also known as Mother Ganges and polluting it is disrespectful. The images of the polluted Ganges alone speak louder than words about the need for imminent change: something has to be done to wake up the Indian people and its government to the filth of the Ganges which everyone bathes in and cleans their clothes with. Australian inventor Jay Harman has built an atmospheric mixer with the aid of his wife, Francesca Bertone. The mixer is composed of just one jet engine that would help slow down global warming by returning the air circulation back to its natural state thereby letting heat escape instead of being blocked by greenhouse gasses. His attempts to find financial backing come with some disappointing results, yet Harman remains persistent. Environmental activist Eriel Deranger bravely campaigns to raise awareness of health hazards that the Keystone Pipeline System would cause to the environment and human beings living near it if it were indeed constructed. The pipeline would be transporting oil from Canada's tar sands all the way to Texas. Challenging the Big Oil corporations and our government, who often have conflicts of interest, is a task that easier said than done. After all, we live in a world where corporate greed undermines public welfare. Deranger experiences a few setbacks, yet, like the others profiled in this doc, she doesn't back down so easily in her environmental activism, even when she loses her job.

      Co-directors Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee find just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually and emotionally. This isn't the kind of doc that dryly relies on talking heads, graphics and narration. There's an engrossing human element to this doc as you follow the three individuals, so you learn about them and their failures as well as about what they do, and value their importance without being preached or talked down to. The co-directors respect the audience's intelligence from start to finish which is quite refreshing and makes it quite an inspirational experience to boot.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by The Film Collaborative.
Opens at the Cinema Village.

Frances Ha

Directed by Noah Baumbach


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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