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Arthouse adventures

If you wandered around London’s West End in March checking out the marquees, you might think cinema was taking over legitimate theater.

A plethora of stage productions featured popular film titles: 39 Steps, Billy Elliot, 12 Angry Men, Another Country (a revival of Julian Mitchell’s 1981 pre-WW II public-school drama that he adapted to the screen), The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Commitments, The Body Guard,and From Here to Eternity.

The newest, Fatal Attraction, opened in late March, a stage adaptation of the 1987 revenge thriller by James Dearden, author of the original screenplay. Yes, the bunny-boiling payback scene remains in the plot. What’s gone is the final, gory statement made by the scorned Alex. Theater critics found Fatal Attractiona hollow experience when compared to its screen counterpart. Many of the other film-inspired stage productions have elicited similar reactions, and yet the familiar movie titles continue to lure West End audiences.

What I find far more exciting is London’s actual film circuit, notably its arthouses and their weekly release of new international motion pictures. The best-known arthouses include the Prince Charles off Leicester Square, the Electric in Notting Hill, and the Curzon Cinemas on Shaftsbury Avenue (Soho). There are other Curzon Cinemas in the outlying areas of London, all of which offer filmgoing experiences that feature lounges, bars, and cafes. And, significantly, they provide an opportunity to discover film art at its finest.

Curzon is associated with Europa Cinema, a huge networking consortium of movie houses devoted to screening the best independent films from around the globe. When in London I go to the Curzon Soho Cinemas two or three times a week. New releases unspool each Friday — as many as 30 a month. Here are some of my top recommendations.

Locked and loaded

Starred Upis a new, no-holds-barred prison picture by Scottish director David Mackenzie. The film’s title refers to a young prisoner whose behavior warrants his being “starred up” — moved into an adult area of the prison. The young offender, 19-year-old Eric (Jack O’Connell), is an angry, violence-prone anti-hero. His raw outbursts are two-edged. He is determined to prove his singular toughness with the other adult prisoners; and he will do anything to ensure he remains incarcerated because his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is being held in the same facility. His mother is deceased.

Filial nuances and hidden emotions rise to the surface as the “veteran” father and his newly arrived son interact within the harsh prison walls. Starred Up,filmed at Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol, is shockingly authentic. Screenwriter Jonathan Asser worked as a prison psychotherapist for more than a decade and was an on-set adviser during filming. O’Connell’s portrayal of Eric is a screen tour de force. This is an actor whose physical actions and emotional displays define his character more memorably than words ever could. Starred Upis a demanding visceral experience, a prison film that takes a familiar genre and infuses it with new perspectives. I won’t soon forget it.

Complications do arise

Also unforgettable is Asghar Farhardi’s The Past (Le Passe),an intricate domestic drama with a complicated cast of characters. Like Farhardi’s earlier domestic film A Separation (2011), intense family relationships come into play when Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is summoned back to France from Tehran by estranged wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo). The couple must finalize their divorce. Marie’s intentions are both selfish and vindictive. She is in a relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim) whose son is living with Marie and her two daughters from previous relationships. The arrangement is one of convenience because Samir’s wife is being kept on life support after an attempted suicide.

No spoiler alerts here: just basic exposition. Suffice to say turmoil soon engulfs the characters’ interrelated lives. The plot is rich with unexpected revelations that add density to its treatment of the past, which inextricably insinuates itself on the present and the future.

The acting is great in this film — from The Artiststar Berenice Bejo (Best Actress winner at 2013 Cannes) to Elyes Aquis as Samir’s six-year-old son, Fouad. Aquis’ performance ranks as one of the truly great child-actor performances I’ve seen on screen. The boy’s tormented portrayal serves as a microcosm for the emotional forces at work in Farhadi’s complex take on contemporary family relationships.

A taste of romance

On a much lighter note is Ritesh Batra’s charming romcom The Lunchbox,developed in the form of an epistolary narrative — a literary term for fiction, drama, and cinema with plots derived from letters, memos, diaries, journal entries, emails, etc. The term originated from the Greek and Latin words for “letter”– epistole/epistle. Classic epistolary movies include Ernst Lubitsch’s pen-pal romance The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and 84 Charing Cross Road (1986) about an evolving relationship between a New York bibliophile and a rare-book dealer.

The Lunchbox,written and directed by Batra, seizes on the epistolary form with heartwarming effect. A lovely but unhappy Mumbai woman, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), prepares a daily lunchbox for delivery to the office of her indifferent husband, Rajiv (Nakul Vaid). One day, Rajiv’s lunchbox is mistakenly delivered to a widower named Saajan (Irrfan Khan). The appreciative stranger finds such pleasure in the meal that he begins a secret lunchbox letter exchange. The food-generated correspondence enlivens and transforms the lives of these two lonely people.

The Lunchboxis a tender and poignant film, further enhanced by many cultural details about life in Mumbai. It will brighten your day.

Fun for everyone

And finally, a film for the entire family — from children and parents to grandparents and, yes, great-grandparents. A Story of Children and Filmby Mark Cousins is a lovely, insightful documentary that examines how childhood has been portrayed on screen, from the silent era to the present.

There are 53 excerpts from 23 countries, and Cousins selected only clips in which a movie’s plot focused on children. Examples include Yellow Earth, Night of the Hunter, 400 Blows, Zero for Conduct, E.T., Fanny and Alexander, An Angel at My Table,and The Spirit of the Beehive,among others. Content is organized into themed chapters: Children and Wariness, Children as Storytellers, Children as Victims of Class-Conscious Worlds, and a dozen or so more. One chapter features excerpts from films whose “directors tracked into children’s dreams,” Cousins says.

The voice-over narration is sharply personal and poetic. If you caught any of Cousins’ 15-part documentary series for television, The Story of Film: An Odyssey,you are aware of how gifted he is at leading us through the vast parameters of cinematic art. Cousins doesn’t just reveal cinema themes, but he points out in great detail the techniques used by filmmakers in conveying them. To him, the medium is the message. A Story of Children and Filmcarries on in that tradition.

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