Movies Till Dawn: What You Could Be Watching This Weekend (Desert Variations Edition)

Person to Person” (2017, Magnolia) An ensemble of indie talent anchors this frequently amusing confection about New Yorkers whose lives intersect while in pursuit of various hopes and schemes. Serving as a sort of hub is Bene Coopersmith, a real-life record storeowner who appeared in a 2014 short for director Dustin Guy Defa that serves as this film’s inspiration. Coopersmith’s gently comic storyline, in which he tracks down a rare Charlie Parker record, allows the rest of the picture to unfurl: hapless reporters Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson (“Broad City”) investigate an alleged murder case, hipper-than-thou teen Tavi Gevinson finds her belief system challenged, and Bene’s roommate George Sample III regrets a rash decision involving photos of his girlfriend. Some of the threads bear comic or emotional fruit and some die on the vine; others, like a two-hander between flinty watchmaker Philip Baker Hall and garrulous pal Isiah Whitlock, Jr., work only because of the actors involved. But as an affectionate nod to the character-driven indies of the ’90s by Richard Linklater and Wayne Wang (and before that, slice-of-New-York-life films like Francis Ford Coppola’s “You’re a Big Boy Now”), Defa’s film has sufficient, low-key charm and an warm visual palette from cinematographer Ashley Connor. Magnolia’s DVD includes an interview with Defa and the trailer.

Queen of the Desert” (2015, Shout! Factory) Lavishly mounted biopic of British cartographer Gertrude Bell, a crucial figure in Middle East affairs during the early 20th century, by director Werner Herzog, whose usual idiosyncratic approach is sorely missed here. Nicole Kidman plays Bell, trekking through the desert and aiding Winston Churchill in dividing up the Ottoman Empire (Robert Pattinson pops up briefly as T.E. Lawrence to advocate for Bell) while also mooning over embassy diplomat James Franco. Both scenarios play out with an abundance of awkward dialogue and performances (especially the miscast Franco, who replaced Jude Law), though there is remarkable footage of Morocco and Jordan by cinematographer and frequent Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger. Bell had a fascinating life (see the documentary “Letters from Baghdad”) and Herzog has made more interesting films about the desert (“Fata Morgana”), so for those not following Kidman and Franco’s every career move, the chief appeal is the photography and costuming, which are on par with PBS-style costume dramas.

Zoology” (2016, Arrow Video) The depressing life of fifty-something zoo worker Natalia Pavlenkova becomes exponentially more intriguing – and unusual – when she discovers that she has suddenly sprouted a long and very energetic tail. Unquestionably offbeat Russian drama from director Ivan Tverdovsky, whose previous film was the somewhat similar “Corrections Class” (2014); it benefits from flashes of dark comedy, especially when Pavlenkova embraces her new appendage as a sort of fleshy declaration of independence from her horrible coworkers and Old Testament-minded mother and neighbors, but the film’s final third struggles to bear up under a pile of metaphors for empowerment and intolerance (religious and otherwise). What stands out is Pavelenkova’s performance, which retains a quiet dignity in the early scenes and bursts with infectious joy during her coming-out. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes an interview with actor Dmitri Groshev, who plays an X-ray tech bewitched by Pavlenkova’s physical and emotional transformation, and the theatrical trailer.

The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” (2016, Random Media) Upon completion of his Biblical epic “The Ten Commandments” in 1923 (which he would remake in 1956), director Cecil B. DeMille was reported to have ordered that its sprawling, Art Deco-inspired “City of the Pharoah” set – including 20 sphinxes and four 35-ton statues – be buried where it was built, in the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, rather than be re-used by another film company. The story remained a long-standing Hollywood myth until 1982, when aspiring filmmaker Peter Brosnan decided to (quite literally) dig up the truth. But the road to discovery proves nearly as much a challenge for Brosnan as it was for DeMille to complete his film, and their twin paths, highlighted by amusing interviews with surviving participants in and observers of the DeMille film and a three-decade string of bureaucratic roadblocks placed in Brosnan’s path, form the crux of this entertaining independent documentary.

The Birthday Party” (1968, Kino Lorber) In a bleak boardinghouse by a sunless English seaside, a party is being planned. But the sad, irritable recipient (Robert Shaw) is less than enthusiastic – it’s not his birthday, he insists, though no one seems to listen or care – and the attendees (Patrick Magee and Sydney Tafler) are less interested in celebrating than tormenting Shaw before dragging him off to answer for unspecified transgressions. Nothing is answered in Harold Pinter’s adaptation of his celebrated stage play, which retains the source material’s queasy mix of odd humor, elliptical dialogue and vague menace; director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) does his best to maintain momentum, suspense and some cinematic finesse over a two-hours-plus running time in what is essentially a one-room setting. Best appreciated by Pinter devotees and those inclined towards eclectic titles, though the performances (especially Shaw and Tafler) are all excellent; Kino’s Blu-ray includes an interview with Friedkin, who discusses his appreciation for Pinter, crafting a “non-filmable” project into a feature and working with the notoriously mercurial Shaw, who was apparently a mean ping-pong player.

Also: the 2014 documentary “Sign Painters” (Film Movement) profiles the artists who, as the title suggests, still create hand-painted signs for businesses, despite the near-ubiquity of mass marketed, computer designed advertising. The doc profiles more than a dozen such artists, who remain dedicated to the tactile pleasures of their craft and the modest reward of applying their talent to a platform that demands anonymity.

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About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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