April 11, 2011

LIMITED RELEASES: “Queen to Play,” “Ceremony” and “Meet Monica Velour”


Today, 3 films from first-time directors:
Caroline Bottaro’s marvelous QUEEN TO PLAY is, in a sense, a sports movie.  We have the out-of-nowhere player whose newly-discovered talent shakes up her whole life, the wise and somewhat eccentric mentor, even the climactic competition.  The game here, though, is chess, and the film (in French, with subtitles–despite the fact that Kevin Kline and Jennifer Beals are in the cast) is considerably more subtle and surprising than the usual inspirational story.  Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire, who film fans may remember from Vagabond and Monsieur Hire) is a chambermaid at a Corsican hotel, with a construction worker husband and a teen daughter.  To earn extra money, she also cleans for a slightly mysterious professor (Kline) who owns a house in the town.  She’s dutiful and not unhappy, but there’s no excitement in her life.  One day, inspired by a couple at the hotel and their flirtatious game of chess, she impulsively asks the professor if he’ll teach her–and to the astonishment of all, she’s a natural.

What starts as a hobby becomes an obsession, and she finds herself on a completely different wavelength than her family (when her husband tries to talk to her, she’s moving breadcrumbs on the tablecloth she’s turned into an imaginary board).  I don’t know that chess has ever been presented as sensually as Bottaro does here; although Helene’s relationship with the professor remains chaste, when her husband suspects an affair between them he’s not completely wrong–the two have a scene just reciting chess moves to one another that’s flat-out steamy.  Bonnaire is captivating, taking us along with her on every emotional step of Helene’s journey, and Bottaro finds ways to consistently make a visually static game cinematically interesting.  By the time things becomes more conventional as Helene enters the local chess club’s contest, we’re so vested in her that it doesn’t feel forced.  An enjoyable and genuine story of empowerment:  you’d think a US producer would have snatched up the remake rights already   Worth a Ticket.  (QUEEN TO PLAY – Zeitgeist Films – 97 minutes – unrated – Director/Script:  Caroline Bottaro – Cast:  Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renoud, Alexandra Gentil, Jennifer Beals – 6 Theatres)

The word “insufferable” might have been invented for Max Winkler’s movie CEREMONY.  Winkler (for those who like celebrity connections, he’s Henry’s son) has spent far too much time reading J D Salinger and watching Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman movies–there’s even a character here named “Whit,” in case we miss the influence–and he’s given us his version of their arch, self-contained eccentric worlds.  Our supposed hero is Sam (Michael Angarano), who had a brief fling with the beautiful older woman Zoe, probably as in Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” (Uma Thurman).  Sam manipulates his best friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) into driving him to the Long Island beach house where Zoe is about to marry the aforementioned Whit (Lee Pace), so he can crash the proceedings and convince Zoe of his true love.  (Perhaps I forgot to mention another influence:  The Graduate.)  Now, give Winkler credit for a high-class group of inspirations, but it takes a very distinctive talent to pull off this kind of story–even Anderson and Stillman don’t manage it every time–and on the evidence of Ceremony, Winkler doesn’t have it.  Without that style, all the characters here are just odder and more crazily colorful than they need to be–Sam writes horrible children’s books (we’re subjected to hearing them aloud) and Whit is an explorer and documentarian–and not a single one is recognizably human.  Even worse, Sam’s nonstop monologues that are supposed to make him striking and redeemable instead underscore how obnoxious and selfish he is, and create an urgent need to find the Mute button.  None of this is the actors’ fault, and to be fair, Winkler keeps the picture moving and reasonably handsome looking.  But this is the equivalent of that first novel that an ambitious young writer should keep on his hard drive.  Not Even For Free.  (CEREMONY – Magnolia – 89 min. – R – Director/Script:  Max Winkler – Cast:  Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman, Reece Thompson, Lee Pace, Rebecca Mader – 3 Theatres/VOD)
Kim Cattrall gives a genuine performance in MEET MONICA VELOUR, and frankly it comes as a shock after years of her increasingly cartoonish turns in Sex and the City and its horrible sequel.  Cattrall plays the aging porn star of the title (her real name is Linda Romanoli), and it’s not only remarkable in Hollywood terms that she betrays no vanity about her age or body whatsoever; she creates a very real, detailed and moving character.  If only the rest of the movie deserved her!  Keith Bearden’s first feature isn’t really about Monica:  the protagonist is Tobe (Dustin Ingram), a dreary Napoleon Dynamite wannabe who has to Learn A Lesson about Becoming His Own Man instead of living in his fantasies about Monica.  Bearden relies far too much on cutesy touches, like the wienermobile that Tobe drives across the country so he can sell it, providing the plot hook for him to meet Monica (and set up the utterly obvious ending), or the fact that Tobe lives with the kind of eccentric grandpa (Brian Dennehy) who only exists in movies–or did I have a deprived youth, and do grandfathers in general walk around naked from the waist down?  The plotting is broad and contrived, but Bearden had the talent to create Monica and stay out of Cattrall’s way, so there’s hope for him.  For Cattrall, unfortunately this is extremely fine work that’s unlikely to be seen by much of an audience; one hopes she’ll press on and not jump into the next Samantha-like paycheck role that comes her way. Watch It At Home.  (MEET MONICA VELOUR – Anchor Bay – 97 min. – R – Director/Script:  Keith Bearden – Cast:  Kim Cattrall, Dustin Ingram, Brian Dennehy, Sam McMurray – 2 Theatres)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."