For your Mafia fix, you can safely go to The Sicilian Girl, a fictionalized factual story from the fatherland, focussed on (at the start) the ten-year-old daughter of a soon murdered mob boss, slowly simmering her revenge for seven years under instruction from her older brother, keeping meticulous diaries the whole while, never letting on her intentions to the rival boss responsible, and then upon the brother’s murder turning state’s evidence in a massive sweep of the Sicilian syndicate. Director Marco Amenta, who treated the same subject earlier in an hour-long documentary, gains our confidence during the opening credits with a sophisticated series of cryptic blackouts — it’s always startling to note how quickly confidence can be won or lost in a movie — and he secures it with the early scene of the frolicking father and daughter on a motorbike, happening upon the fiery aftermath of a brutal slaying in the countryside. The inventive point-of-view shot of the father’s protective hand sliding over the camera lens, same as covering the daughter’s eyes, demands and deserves an immediate encore: the binocular-like masking shot of the girl’s P.O.V. through the eyeholes in her hood at a village religious processional.
The fictionalization, however much it might deviate from the facts, never stretches beyond the life-sized, as best exemplified in the stout peasanty body, the thick coarse bristly hair, and the fierce frowny face of the seventeen-year-old heroine, an indelible portrait from the unknown and unactressy Veronica D’Agostino. And there awaits no grander a climax than her defiant entry into the courtroom and her impromptu tour of it for direct eye contact with each of the accused. In isolation, this would not look like that big a thing. But in proportion — and everything in a movie is a matter of proportion — it’s grand enough. The final resolution of the case, still steadfastly life-sized, is a bit less grand though no less affecting. If there is one major drawback, so major as to chip away at our initial confidence, it would be the unrelieved gloom of the image, not a calculated noir-ish mood, but an obscuring overcast, a haze. Darkness deadens, dampens, muffles what ought to be an exciting running gun battle through a cemetery and a nick-of-time rescue by helicopter. Darkness again dims the heroine’s first sight of her new digs in Rome under the Witness Protection Program. (Does the place lack electricity?) It again mutes the nocturnal roundup of suspects, and it shrouds the black-garbed heroine’s experimentation with cosmetics and the color red. We can get the point; we just can’t feel the sharpness of the point. The movie nevertheless pulls well ahead, on the same racecourse, of the recent, overhyped Gomorrah, and one can only wonder how Martin Scorsese failed to affix his name to it as “presenter.”
I’m Still Here, an ostensible documentary on the post-acting career of Joaquin Phoenix by his brother-in-law and fledgling director Casey Affleck, puts the infamous David Letterman interview in context: well after the actor’s announced retirement from movies (documentaries evidently excepted) to pursue a new calling as a rapper; after, too, his public hip-hop debut in Vegas; and immediately after his private tryout with music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs (one intelligible and reiterated lyric of “Compli-fuckin’-cation”) and his dismissal as not yet worthy of the record producer’s attentions; but before his hip-hop swan song in Miami and a retreat to the family sanctuary in Panama, wading down an ever-deeper river with a camera on his tail till his head disappears below the surface, an uncertain future. One has to qualify it as “ostensible” because honestly it’s beyond belief. The mere existence of the film adds fuel to suspicions that the change of career was but a stunt, a hoax. And for all the apparent candor and “realness” — the snorting of coke, the calling of call girls, the shitting in his sleeping face by a disgruntled hanger-on, the physical altercation with a heckler in concert and the subsequent hurling in the toilet — it can never escape those suspicions.
Phoenix himself, mushy of mouth, spongy of body, looking like a street person whose bagful of possessions does not include comb or razor, gives a passable impression of a man unglued. But then again, he is, or he has been, an actor, adept at creating impressions. And what kind of man, yowlingly tortured at the thought of not being taken seriously, opens himself in this way to being a joke-butt? And what kind of family member facilitates it? (With in-laws like this, who needs enemies?) Any portrait so unflattering — not warts and all, but all warts — can only be a lie. One key piece of evidence to chew on before swallowing: the defecation episode. Even if you can accept that the misused minion would want to record his revenge on night-vision video with a pre-set static camcorder from too far a distance, you must accept also that the filmmaker would have been roused from slumber by the ensuing hullabaloo in time to document the victim retching and bellowing in the bathroom, yet not quite in position to capture on screen any visible evidence of befoulment. It wouldn’t stand the test in a court of law. But either way, whether you take it as real or fake, the film calls for an inordinate interest in its central subject, an interest he himself seems to assume as his birthright, in order to watch it. They say of metaphorical train wrecks — and again, it’s a train wreck either way — that you can’t look away. But why? Looking away is a natural and instinctive reaction to a train wreck. And in this case strongly advised.
Easy A, directed by Will Gluck and written by Bert Royal, is a surprisingly bright teen comedy, littered with tidbits of literary and cinematic erudition, about a viral high-school rumor that transmutes a studious virgin into a “dirty skank,” a lesson in “the accelerated velocity of terminological inexactitude.” The path the story takes is not always judicious (the girl plays up her new reputation, wearing a scarlet “A” in tribute to Hester Prynne), and the husky-voiced heroine, Emma Stone, seems preternaturally poised at all stages of it, and the satire of the Jesus freaks is complacent and obvious, and yet the writing, while overly showy, remains throughout fast-paced and punchy, whether in the framing webcast that furnishes a loquacious first-person narration (“If there’s one thing worse than chlamydia, it’s Florida”) or in the snappy dialogue (“I got that V,” she laments to a gay male friend, “where you’d rather see a P”) that liberally spreads around the good lines, especially to the hip, cool parents (Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson) and the hip, cool English teacher (Thomas Haden Church). The unhip and uncool are clearly differentiated. Both the opening credits, planted around the terrain like hidden Easter eggs, and the closing credits, over a leisurely travelling shot on the road to nowhere, are a significant part of the fun.
It is reasonable to regard the alternative fare at the Reading Gaslamp as Landmark’s leavings, and it is rare that these leavings would include something by a filmmaker as venerable as Jacques Rivette, but that’s what occurred with the offering this past week, Around a Small Mountain, a little doodle to do with a capricious Italian tagalong (Sergio Castellitto) of a French travelling circus and in particular of a haunted older woman in the troupe (Jane Birkin, looking like turning into Mick Jagger). If only because it clocks in at under an hour and a half, this is an uncharacteristic film from a man who not uncommonly expands to three or four hours (La Belle Noiseuse, L’Amour Fou, Celine and Julie Go Boating, etc.) and who tops out at thirteen (Out One). It is helpful to have him in such a compact form, just as it’s helpful, if you have a hankering for some Dickens, to have the option of the Christmas books when you haven’t the time for Bleak House. And Rivette’s aloof, academic, Attic manner — brain-heavy, scientifically detached, classically framed, averse to closeups, drawn to backdrops, mulish in gait, unafraid of dullness and obscurity — is done no disservice by cutting it short. The likelihood of getting all the way to the end will be markedly improved.
The Gaslamp, while we’re at it, shares with the Reading Town Square a series of Hitchcock films in October, “Hitchcocktober” by name, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, The 39 Steps, Vertigo, and Psycho at the Gaslamp, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, Psycho (the only overlap), and The Birds at the Town Square, one screening apiece, Tuesdays at the Gaslamp, Thursdays at the Town Square, Saturday at both on Halloween weekend. When these two theaters booked The Birds last Halloween, I was slow to suspect it would be shown on DVD rather than film. I am quick with my suspicions this time, but the program still affords a communal experience in a genuine movie house. ■