Armin Mueller-Stahl achieved international renown in the films of Germany's R.W. Fassbinder and has since become frequent presence in many American films. In his heartfelt, autobiographical "Local Color," writer-director George Gallo has given the stocky, ever-commanding Mueller-Stahl a heroic, bravura role and has been rewarded by the actor with a towering, complex portrayal that is surely among his finest.
The time is 1974 and the place Port Chester, N.Y. A Russian emigre with a tragic past, Mueller-Stahl's Nicolai became an acclaimed landscape painter but his work has gone out of style. He has become a recluse in his turn-of-the-last century house, but John (Trevor Morgan), an aspiring teenage painter and an admirer of Nicolai's work, is determined to connect with the crusty, vodka-swilling old man. Against formidable odds, John wins Nicolai's trust to the extent that Nicolai invites him to spend the summer with him at his sprawling Pennsylvania country estate. Nicolai sees in John a handyman whereas John sees in Nicolai a teacher. It's a volatile struggle, for sure, but in the seesawing process what the two men learn from each other lies beyond words.
Gallo nevertheless has a terrific way with dialogue, and much of the humor and wit in the film derives from Nicolai and his friend and neighbor (a hilarious Ron Perlman) engaging in an intellectual battle over the merits of traditional and contemporary art.
-- Kevin Thomas
"Local Color." MPAA rating: R for language. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. At selected theaters.
A conscience grows in 'Silence'
Celebrated Belgian writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's "Lorna's Silence" confirms the brothers' status in the top rank of filmmakers in world cinema with their grasp of the workings of the human heart and ability to make visually eloquent films of the utmost economy. "Lorna's Silence" is a gritty, deceptively low-key, no-fuss, no-frills movie of consistent originality and surprise in which suspense arises straight up from the heroine's evolving character.
Arta Dobroshi's Lorna is a beautiful, dark-haired young Albanian working in a dry cleaning shop in the sizable, impersonal city of Liege prepared to do anything to secure Belgian citizenship and open a snack bar with her Albanian boyfriend, Sokol (Alban Ukaj). To this end, she has committed to an elaborate scheme concocted by erstwhile taxi driver Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) that involves her marriage to heroin addict Claudy (Jeremie Renier) as its first step. It is then to involve an act even more shocking than when Renier, cast as the feckless father in the Dardennes' "L'Enfant" (2005), sold his own baby.
Lorna appears to be determinedly ruthless, but a tiny flicker of conscience surfaces, gradually growing and taking the entire film in unexpected directions. So thoroughly do the Kosovo-born Dobroshi and the Dardennes illuminate everything Lorna feels or does, no matter how surprising, it is persuasive. As Lorna commences her self-discovery, the film brings to mind the films of Robert Bresson with their remorseless yet glowing spiritual odysseys. Like Bresson, however, there's nothing ordinary about the Dardennes or "Lorna's Silience."
-- Kevin Thomas
"Lorna's Silence." MPAA rating: R for brief sexuality/nudity, and language. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. In French with English subtitles. At selected theaters.
Australian films, in wilder days
The Australian genre flicks of the 1970s and '80s receive a jam-packed documentary tribute in Mark Hartley's "Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation." It's a kicky, slightly exhausting look at a bygone era of low-rent moviemaking, whose colorful trove of film clips should delight fans of cinematic esoterica, nostalgic schlock and high octane drive-in fare.
A bit of history: In 1971, relaxed Australian censorship standards ushered in a string of locally produced sex farces with such titles as "Stork," "The Adventures of Barry McKenzie" and "Alvin Purple." These and nudity-filled titillators hit box office gold, generated sequels and copycats, and eventually gave way to a wave of influential horror and action films (including "Patrick," "The Man From Hong Kong" and, most notably, "Mad Max") that also pushed the envelope, but with gonzo violence and outrageous stunts.
A raft of Australian filmmakers, actors and critics enjoyably weigh in here on the so-called "Ozploitation" phenomenon, as do several of the American actors who appeared in these pictures, such as Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis ("Roadgames"), Dennis Hopper ("Mad Dog Morgan") and Steve Railsback ("Turkey Shoot"). But it's famed exploitation movie-geek Quentin Tarantino who has the most fun as he vociferously extols the virtues of these lowbrow thrillfests.
-- Gary Goldstein