Writer/director Ross Lipman calls his documentary titled NOTFILM "a Kino-essay," from the Russian word for cinema, a cinema essay. It's an apt label. As he traces from preproduction through production of Samuel Beckett's only film venture, Lipman inserts a wealth of examples following associative connections sometimes as elusive as Beckett's concept for his 1964 project simply titled FILM.

Experimental and abstract, the film has a central character fleeing an all-seeing eye. Themes involve a pursuit of identity, doppelgängers, and the shock of self-recognition. The only spoken line is, "Shhh!" Running two hours and 10 minutes, NOTFILM offers an intriguing exploration of Beckett's wrestling with the cinematic medium. Most famous for Waiting for Godot, Beckett insisted on visualizing his ideas despite admitting to fighting his own impulse to flee the camera because of his lack of technical expertise. 

Famous individuals worked on the project, as much as Beckett allowed. In voiceover narration, Lipman provides background information and illustrates with helpful excerpts the talent involved. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who won the 1954 Academy Award for On the Waterfront, shot the film. Alan Schneider directed it (his first directorial effort), Barney Rosset produced it, and Sidney Meyers edited it. Buster Keaton starred, though Beckett insisted on shooting his back, that famous face obscured from view. Keaton took the job because he needed the work and the money, but said, upon the film's release, that he was confused during the shooting of the film and "am still confused."     

Interviews lend insight, including those with Oscar winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Beckett's greatest actress Billie Whitelaw, knowledgeable film historian/archivist Kevin Brownlow, veteran actor James Karen, Barney Rosset, and Leonard Maltin. Archival recordings of Beckett add further context to this unusual interrogation of both cinema and self. 

Beckett's 22 minute FILM that NOTFILM carefully details will screen at 8:00 p.m. Friday, July 29 through Tuesday, August 2 along with Keaton's feature The Cameraman. The documentary NOTFILM screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, July 22 through Tuesday, July 26 at 8:00 each evening. For more information, call 314-968-7487 or visit the Film Series' website.

 

The opening titles of The Infiltrator forcefully announce: 1985, the Medellin Cartel smuggles 15 tons of cocaine into the U.S. a week, valued at more than $500 million. But after spearheading the seizure of one such huge shipment, U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur realizes that he's targeting the wrong choice—the smugglers. It's time to go after the money.

After surveying a cemetery's potential candidates, with the invented identity of Bob Musella, Mazur goes deep undercover. With volatile partner Emir, they weasel their way through Pablo Escobar's hierarchy, gaining respect and even affection of the drug kingpins. Through a dizzying series of encounters, parties, and increasingly important—and frightening—meetings, the question becomes how well Mazur can keep his two worlds apart: that of the wife and family he loves and the criminals he's enticing into revelations and, eventually, he hopes, incarceration.

Ellen Sue Brown's superb screenplay is based on Mazur's book detailing his experiences. She doesn't belabor the obvious or the familiar. After all, we've all seen many television series and films devoted to drug trafficking, exploiting our fascination with greedy, egotistical, violent individuals. Those elements are here and clear, but wisely director Brad Furman keeps the focus on the emotional tightrope undercover men and women walk, knowing, as Mazur says, one slip and you're dead.

Given this emphasis, The Infiltrator succeeds because of Bryan Cranston as Mazur. As he proved season after season in the phenomenal Breaking Bad, Cranston reveals every nuance through the timing of his line delivery, every muscle of his face, his nonverbal energy or lack thereof, and his eyes—always the eyes. This is an Oscar worthy performance beautifully supported by numerous good actors; for example, he's joined by John Leguizamo as the explosive and unpredictable Emir. Diane Kruger is Musella's invented fiancé Kathy, who also must negotiate one land mine after another. Benjamin Bratt presents a slick veneer as a drug kingpin. Amy Ryan is a no-nonsense boss, and Olympia Dukakis has a great time as Bob's aunt though each merited much more screen time.

The Infiltrator manages a difficult task, making a familiar genre engrossing and entertaining because of its terrific script and acting. At several area cinemas.

 

Director Morgan Neville's documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble exuberantly celebrates global music. In so doing, it recognizes tragedies past and present of members from, for example, Syria, Iran, and China, while showcasing music's ability to bridge cultural divides. As Yo-Yo Ma says, "The intersection of cultures is where new things emerge."

The idea for this international artists' group came in 2000 from Yo-Yo Ma's fertile imagination as he wondered about his place in the world, torn, as he says, between believing in the power of the human spirit and dreading that power. Both ends of this spectrum come through in interviews, archival film, and performance footage of musicians from, Spain, the U.S., Africa, Jordan, and many more countries. Some of the individual stories and musical instruments are familiar, some unfamiliar. 

Yo-Yo Ma anchors the ensemble which features, among others, China's Wu Man playing the pipa; Syria's Kinan Azmeh, a composer, soloist, and improviser; Kayhan Kalhor who has popularized Persian music; and the effervescent Christina Pato, a Galician bagpiper. Visits to artists' home countries add rich insight into the unique musical traditions so vibrantly and entertainingly united. In fairness, Ma acknowledges that there have been naysayers and critics but he asserts that you must have conviction in the genuineness and power of your own ideas. Ma certainly does as becomes clear in his candid commentary about this project. As Mike Block says of Ma, "He wants to change the world and happens to have a cello with him." 

Director Neville demonstrated his love of music and his talent for presenting it in several films, the latest his 20 Feet from Stardom, which won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. Neville captures his and all the participants' joy in these extraordinary musicians' glorious collaboration. It's equally uplifting and enchanting. With a smattering of English subtitles when needed, at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

 

Writer/director Todd Solondz offers no conventional optimism in his films centering on human interaction. Emphatically unique and quirky, Solondz resists any temptation he might feel to brighten his pessimistic view of contemporary society, as he proves yet again in Wiener-Dog. Sometimes his unsettling stories prompt amusement or reluctant acknowledgement of his perspective, but not this time. 

I find little to recommend Wiener-Dog beyond the great cinematographer Ed Lachman's outstanding work in this joyless, even cruel, series of episodes linked together by Wiener, a lovely dachshund, moving from one owner to another. Her first owners get Wiener as a present for their young son Remi, a cancer survivor. After Remi feeds Wiener granola bars and Solondz spends minutes surveying the resulting feces, the dog gets the boot. 

Vet tech Dawn Weiner, called "Wiener Dog" herself in Solondz's 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse, rescues Wiener who goes on a boring road trip with her and a former friend and drug addict. After the only amusing interlude in the film -- an intermission with Wiener walking across multiple computer generated landscapes, Wiener ends up with Dave Schmerz, a condescending film scriptwriting professor and would-be author of his own screenplays. And in her fourth iteration, Wiener lands with a blind, caustic older woman. 

If any of that sounds like entertainment or insightful observation, I couldn't find it, though the cast does a fine job with what they're given. They include, in appearance order: Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn. In addition, this idea of following the fortunes of an animal as she moves through a challenging life has pedigree, most famously for film fans French director Robert Bresson's 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, focused on a donkey's fate. 

In episodic films, a nonjudgmental distance often works well, but indifference to pain and suffering of the central character leaves me cold. And the ending here is incredibly pitiless, leading me to warn this is absolutely not for children. Solondz has said he made Wiener-Dog because "I've never made a dog movie." I wish he'd left it at that. At Landmark's Tivoli Theatre

 

French writer Thomas Bidegain has shown an interest in individuals outside society's mainstream in A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan. In Les Cowboys, his directing debut, also written by him, Bidegain presents an equally atypical story: a father's frantic search for his 16-year-old daughter Kelly, who disappears along with her 18-year-old Muslim boyfriend Ahmed.  

Beginning in 1994, Kelly is last seen at a rural French fair with an American cowboy theme, a nod to John Ford's iconic film The Searchers which provided Bidegain inspiration for pursuing cultural conflicts embedded here. As in that film, the plot also draws on an archetypal motif of confronting oneself while pursing another. Over years, as father Alain and later brother Georges travel to diverse locations, their pursuit leads from France to Belgium, Yemen and Pakistan. The European Muslim intersections along with the title Les Cowboys and frequent, early use of Patti Page's song "Tennessee Waltz" invite serious reflection on cultural beliefs and the consequences of alienation.

In that regard, the Islamic content allows for a wealth of contemporary allusions, with brief reminders of tragic terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and North London. This multilayered, global mix presents a challenge for the film to navigate clearly and coherently, especially with the opening country fair followed later by shots of line dancers' feet and legs in cowboy boots and attire, plus a bow and arrow tutorial. No spoilers here, but unexpected and not always convincing twists and turns in this complicated quest soon involve human trafficking and financial exploitation, against a backdrop of enduring love. 

It's a lot to process, though never dull. Some of the credit goes to Arnaud Potier's cinematography that beautifully frames sweeping landscapes and snow-capped mountains as effectively as cramped quarters. Quality acting contributes as well, with John C. Reilly an American presence in a small role. Les Cowboys asks tough questions. In English and in French with English subtitles at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

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