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Frida gets her freak on 

Julie Taymor, the Tony Award-winning director of the stage adaptation of The Lion King, made an auspicious feature-film debut a few years ago with Titus, a visually arresting take on Shakespeare's tragedy that was the greatest Peter Greenaway film never actually made by Greenaway. When I heard she was helming the big-screen adaptation of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's life story, my eyes practically salivated as I dreamed of even more hysterically exaggerated visuals.

            Perhaps my expectations were too high, because Frida (which opens at the Little November 8) plays like a by-the-numbers artist presentation. In fact, I was downright surprised both at how conventional Taymor's take was and at its distressing lack of visual bravura. Don't get me wrong --- there is some very powerful eye candy in the film. It just paled in comparison to both Titus and my near-rabid anticipation.

            Based on Hayden Herrera's book, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, and cooked up by at least four different screenwriters (one of the film's underlying problems, no doubt), Frida begins in true biopic fashion by showing Kahlo (Salma Hayek) on the verge of checking out. It then flashes back to 1922 Mexico City, where the young artist-to-be is portrayed as a free-spirited, sexually ambiguous student. An ill-fated bus trip and subsequent crash leaves Kahlo badly injured (it's a great scene, followed by an even better one in the hospital that looks like the Day of the Dead parade crossed with lost footage from Tool's "Sober" video). The injury becomes the catalyst for her art. Told she'll never walk again, Kahlo begins to dabble in self-portraits (a mirror is hung above her bed), before a typically quick cinematic recovery.

            Most of Frida is about Kahlo's tumultuous relationship with notoriously unfaithful muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), who first became her mentor, then her lover, and finally her husband. Thankfully, as the focus of the film becomes more about Kahlo's art, the visual stakes are raised, highlighted by a brilliant scene in which she and Rivera take New York City by storm.

            While most of the brief celebrity cameos are flat portrayals, both Hayek and Molina do great jobs in their roles. Still, the film lacks the strong lead performance of, say, an Ed Harris in Pollock.

            Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably already heard about Hayek growing a moustache and a unibrow to look more like Kahlo, showing a lot of skin, and partaking in hot, girl-on-girl action. This is all fine by me, but it made me wonder why, after going to these great lengths to make Frida more authentic, the film wasn't made in Spanish. I mean, it's not like Hayek is unfamiliar with the language. Also, much like last year's absurdly overrated A Beautiful Mind, there are a couple of bits that have been omitted to make Frida an easier pill to swallow. Kahlo's sex life was much more risqué than what we see here (she and Rivera used to tag-team women), and there's no ambiguity about her death, which many believe came by her own hand.

You know how you can tell it's film festival season in Rochester? From all the film festivals. It's also obvious from my zombie-like appearance and penchant for kicking dogs and stealing candy from children (on account of watching some 150 movies over the last 60 days --- trust me, it makes you ornery). The seventh annual Polish Film Festival, brought to you again by the Skalny Center for Polish and Central European Studies at the University of Rochester, gives you only five days to recover from the incredibly successful High Falls Film Festival. But for some of you crazy cinemaniacs, that's all the time you need to recharge your batteries.

            The Polish Fest starts this Friday (November 8) and runs through next Thursday (November 14). All screenings take place, once again, at the Little Theatre. Tickets, which can be purchased at the Little on the day of the show, will run you $4.50 for a matinee and $6.50 for an evening screening. We're going to mention a few of the films, but for more information, you can check out the festival's website at www.jarek.com/pff.

            I don't know what Tam I Z Powrotem means in English (it's either Back and Forth or There and Back), but the film is an old-school, Cold War potboiler about two guys from 1965 Lodz who are desperately trying to get the hell out of Dodge. Andrzej is one of the best surgeons in the city and Piotr is a painter, but each has career problems due to incidents that occurred in their past. Also because of said pasts, neither of the men can obtain a passport to get out from behind the Iron Curtain. Together, the old war buddies hatch a plan to knock over an armored car. Things go wrong, shots are fired, and now Andrzej has to save the life of the only person who can identify him as one of the robbers. You know when surgeons have their brows mopped by masked nurses? There's a lot of that going on here.

            Cisza is a much easier title to translate (it means Silence), and if you're a film buff, this is the one offering of the festival you won't want to miss. Why? Because it was scripted by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who collaborated with Krzysztof Kieslowski on projects like Dekalog, the Three Colors trilogy, and the upcoming Tom Tykwer-directed Heaven (which opens at the Little on November 29). The award-winning Silence, directed by Michal Rosa, is the first of what is supposed to be an eight-film series that deals with the familiar themes of fate, loss, and coping with the past. A railroad engineer who, as a boy, accidentally caused the death of a young girl's parents, has now become obsessed with her. Can anyone smell a creepy and unlikely romance brewing?

            Returning to Rochester is Pawel Pavlikovski's brilliant debut, Ostatnie Wyjscie (Last Resort). Upon arrival in the UK from Russia, young mother Tanya and her 10-year-old son Artyom are given the third degree by a customs officer. Tanya, who doesn't have a firm grasp of the English language, explains that she and her son are heading to London to meet her fiancé. Because she has little money and no work permit, Tanya tells the customs officer she's a refugee in the hopes they'll leave the pretty children's book illustrator alone long enough to contact her beau.

            They don't, though, and Tanya and Artyom are taken to coastal Stonehaven, which is essentially a holding area for immigrants that England doesn't want wandering around London. They get a free flat (in a building called "Dreamland," of all things) and vouchers for food, but as political asylum applicants, they must stay in Stonehaven for at least a year. Withdrawing the application can take up to six months. So Tanya is stuck with no work permit (and no jobs, even if she had one) and a fiancé who won't return her calls (shades of Felicia's Journey), while she tries to get by in a drab town full of security cameras and fish dinners that contain no fish at all. Luckily, there's an online porn guru waiting in the wings to offer Tanya a job that involves dropping her knickers. Last Resort is very reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law, which featured characters spending the entire film trying to escape from a dreary place, only to end up somewhere just as dreary.

Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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