"Jean-Michael Basquiat," "Soul Kitchen," "Mesrine: Public Enemy #1," "Max Manus"
★★★ out of four stars
Basquiat flared across the New York arts scene like a comet in the late 1970s and early '80s, eclipsing even the Sun God himself, Andy Warhol. With miraculous velocity he evolved from a runaway homeless teen graffiti tagger to a protégé of his idol, Warhol, and a wealthy collectors' darling. Then at 27 he died from a heroin overdose.
Director Tamra Davis, a friend of the artist in his final years, has repurposed interviews she shot in 1985 into the backbone of this sweetly melancholy biography that interviews patrons and downtown pals. An old girlfriend is chagrined to recall her jealous catfight with Madonna, and footage of Warhol and Basquiat joshing around reveals a warm, affectionate side that the studiously blank older artist rarely displayed. Davis balances the personal details with a cavalcade of Basquiat's vibrant paintings and drawings. His decline and death in 1987 get short shrift. But then witnesses could hardly offer a clearer insight into Basquiat's psyche than the grinning skulls that were his emblem. In the end the art must speak for the artist; Davis wisely stands aside and lets the magical images tell their tales.
★★ 1/2 out of four stars
A loose, multicultural romp with a soundtrack that hops from classic funk and R&B to Euro-electro-punk. Greek-German Zinos (likable Adam Bousdoukos) runs a greasy schnitzel diner in rapidly gentrifying Hamburg, but fate (in the form of a steely tax collector) nudges him to a higher calling. Reinventing his friendly dive as a gourmet haven means relying on his reprobate brother (a light comic turn from the usually menacing Moritz Bleibtreu), dealing with a temperamental new chef (acerbic, snappish Birol Unel) and straining his relationship with his girlfriend (Pheline Roggan), who Skypes him from her new post in Shanghai.
The script has more humanistic smiles than belly laughs, creating a complex society of strivers, slackers and schemers. Most characters are broadly sketched types rather than individuals, and the story line wobbles as Zinos' professional and personal dilemmas tug him hither and yon. Turkish-German director Fatih Akin's earlier films were dramas, and he hasn't remade himself as a master of comedy, but even when the gags fall flat the vibe is agreeable.
★★★ out of four stars
As we learned in "Killer Instinct," released earlier this month, Jacques Mesrine was the John Dillinger of 1980s France. This chapter, the final one, follows his most audacious escapades. He robs two banks on the same street, impersonates a cop to rob a resort casino, spends his loot with panache, wisecracks his way through his courtroom appearances, and engineers daring jailbreaks before coming to a very nasty end. Vincent Cassel plays the gunman as a rogue who is vicious yet upright by his own lights, reveling in his tabloid nickname, "the honest bandit." You needn't have seen the first chapter to be swept up in this swirl of bloodletting and braggadocio.
Cassel's triumphant smirk when he hears that he's been named Public Enemy No. 1 is a hoot. The film recognizes that Mesrine's considerable cunning didn't make him a criminal mastermind or even notably smart. His getaways were chaotic firefights rather than smooth disappearing acts. His efforts to connect his stickups with revolutionary politics led him to an absurd plan to liberate all French convicts and make them into an anti-authoritarian army. Ultimately, Mesrine's ego was his downfall. When he shot a journalist who wrote about him critically, the tide of public opinion turned against him, giving the police free rein to bring him down by any means necessary. This bloody, boisterous biopic should satisfy fans of crime drama and action cinema. The gunplay and car chase sequences (and there are plenty of them) are rousing stuff.
★★★ 1/2 out of four stars
The breakout hit of last spring's Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival returns for a theatrical run. This Norwegian epic is based on the real-life exploits of Manus, a daredevil Oslo resistance fighter whose brigade launched terror attacks against the Nazi occupiers and sabotaged their heavily guarded supply ships. Aksel Hennie is riveting as the young guerrilla whose successes lead to severe retaliation from the Gestapo. As his friends are picked off, Max battles inner demons.
In contrast, his Nazi nemesis, Siegfried Fehmer (Ken Duken), is a polite, refined Munich police officer who loves the country he is helping occupy -- so much so that he will torture and execute the resistance fighters. Fehmer is the sort of monster who doesn't consider himself a bad fellow, convinced that every atrocity he authorizes is in Norway's best interest. The film celebrates Max's fierce patriotism, but doesn't blink at the toll his heroics took. In the end his greatest escape was to climb out of his funk of postwar alcoholic cynicism and rebuild his life.