Monday, September 30, 2013

NYFF ’13: Burning Bush

Tourists visiting Prague’s Rudolfinum concert hall will find themselves in Jan Palach Square.  The newest public square in the Old Town quarter, it was known as Square of Red Army Soldiers during the grim era of Communism.  An earnest university student, Palach sacrificed his life to re-awaken opposition to the Soviet occupation of 1968 (those very same Red Army Soldiers), eventually becoming a galvanizing symbol of the Velvet Revolution.

Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland was also studying in the then Czechoslovakia when Palach self-immolated on Wenceslas Square.  She shared the feelings of inspiration, frustration, and rage that swept across the country in the days that followed.  The tenor of those oppressive times is masterfully captured in Holland’s Burning Bush (trailer here), a highly cinematic three-night miniseries produced for HBO Europe, which screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.

Watching a man ignite himself into flames is a disturbing sight, as Holland shows viewers in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately, Palach does not die immediately, but lingers on life support for three days. Having left multiple letters of protest, there was no question why Palach did what he did. As he hoped, the student movement is emboldened to call for a general strike. The government swings into full panic mode, fearing more will follow his example. The Party’s heavy-handed techniques do not sit well with Police Major Jireš, but his ostensive subordinate is more than willing to do the dirty work he assumes will advance his career.

As months pass, Palach’s fragile mother, Libuše Palachová, becomes the target of a ruthless harassment campaign. When a hardline member of parliament publicly slanders Palach at a regional CP conference, the Palach family decides to file suit, but finding a lawyer willing to accept their case is a difficult proposition. Eventually, Dagmar Burešová agrees to take the case, but it will cost her family dearly.

Although Palach appears relatively briefly in Burning Bush, his absence is felt keenly throughout.  He is the missing man—the ghost at the banquet. However, his mother and her advocate are very much of the world as it was, and must carry on as best they can. Frankly, Burning Bush will be nothing less than revelatory for many viewers.  Typically films dealing with the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion end in 1968, with a happier 1989 postscript frequently appended to the end.  However, Holland and screenwriter Štĕpán Hulík train their focus on the nation’s absolutely darkest days.

A onetime protégé and close collaborator of Andrzej Wajda, Holland has vividly addressed the Communist experience with films like The Interrogation and To Kill a Priest, while also finding tremendous American success directing leading-edge HBO programs like The Wire and Treme. On paper, Holland sounds like the perfect director for this project, yet she manages to exceed expectations with a clear-cut career masterwork.

There is considerable scale to Burning Bush, but it is intimately engrossing. Viewers acutely share the fear and pain of the Palach family and marvel the Bureš family’s matter-of-fact defiance. Somehow Holland simultaneous builds the suspense, as Burešová methodically exposes the Party’s lies and deceits, as well as a mounting sense of high tragedy, as secret police rig the system against her.

Jaroslava Pokorná’s turn as Palach’s mother is not merely a performance, it is an indictment viewers will feel in their bones. It is a convincingly harrowing portrayal of a woman nearly broken by the Communist state.  Likewise, Petr Stach conveys all the inner conflicts roiling inside Jiří Palach, the brother forced to hold himself together for the sake of his family (and arguably his country). Ivan Trojan’s increasingly disillusioned Major Jireš adds further depth and dimension to the film. Although it is the “glamour” role, Tatiana Pauhofová still scores some impressive moments as Burešová, particularly with Jan Budař as her husband Radim Bureš.

Chosen by the Czech Republic as its official foreign language submission to the Academy Awards, Burning Bush is either excellent cinema or outstanding television, depending on how chose to categorize it. Although its 234 minute running time might sound intimating, it is a blisteringly tight and tense viewing experience.  An important but deeply moving work, it is the one true can’t miss selection of this year’s NYFF, especially since its length makes it such a challenge to program.  At this point only stand-by tickets are available, but it is worth trying your luck when the exceptional Burning Bush screens this Friday (10/4) and the following Wednesday (10/9).

NYFF ’13: Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge could be described as the Ted Baxter of North Norfolk, except he is more self-centered and less self-aware.  The alter-ego of comedian Steve Coogan is wildly popular in the UK, but more of a cult thing here in America. Regardless, cinema obviously represented the next logical step for the name brand franchise established through radio, TV, books, and webisodes. North Norfolk’s smarmiest broadcaster finally gets the attention he craves with Declan Lowney’s Alan Partridge (a.k.a. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, trailer here), which screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.

As fans know all too well, Partridge currently hosts Mid-Morning Matters on North Norfolk Digital with Sidekick Simon. Initially, the shallow blowhard thinks little of it when a Clear Channel-like conglomerate acquires the station, rebranding it the “SHAPE.” However, when Partridge agrees to speak to the new management on behalf of his nervous colleague, Pat Farrell, he learns either he or his supposed friend will face the corporate axe.  Of course, Partridge unsubtly stabs Farrell in the back.

The pink-slipped Farrell takes the news rather badly, returning to the station with a shotgun for a spot of hostage taking. Assuming the best of his two-faced pal, Farrell demands Partridge act as the go-the-between as a police stand-off ensues. Finding himself in the media spotlight, Partridge is determined to capitalize on this career opportunity, but as always, he fumbles and bumbles at every step.

If you like Partridge, the Partridge film delivers plenty, but the laugh lines are pretty much exclusively reserved for Coogan’s signature Character. It is often very funny, but it very definitely stays within the Partridge Zone.  After all, satisfying the existing fan-base is the most pressing objective for any TV franchise crossing over to the big screen, which should certainly be the case here. Fear not, Partridge never develops a conscience or any sense of decorum.

Co-written by Coogan and his frequent collaborator Armando Iannucci, with Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, and Peter Baynham, the film raises the stakes from previous Partridge outings, what with the hostage crisis and all, while staying true to its roots.  Naturally identified as conservative in past incarnations (because that is so conducive to success with the BBC), the big-screen Partridge wisely eschews politicized humor in favor of broad physical comedy and the comeuppance of public humiliation.

Coogan still clearly enjoys the Partridge shtick and Lowney maintains a snappy energy level throughout. Although Colm Meaney gets second billing as Farrell, he does not have much opportunity to exercise his considerable comedy chops (ironically showcased quite nicely in Terry George’s hostage comedy renamed The Stand-Off, post-Tribeca). It is Partridge’s show and don’t you forget it. Enjoyably shameless overall, Alan Partridge is recommended for series fans when it screens again next Monday (10/7) at Alice Tully Hall as a main slate selection of the 2013 NYFF.

SFFS Hong Kong Cinema ’13: Blind Detective

He is sort of a consulting detective, whose bedside manner is about as warm and friendly as Holmes at his chilliest.  Chong “Johnston” Si-teun has a sizeable ego and an even larger chip on his shoulder, but he is not without empathy—for the dead.  Somehow, he still might find love with a far less deductive copper (his personal Lestrade) in Johnnie To’s genre blender, Blind Detective (trailer here), which screens on the opening night of the 2013 edition of the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

Johnston’s sudden onset of blindness forced him to retire as police detective, but he still solves crimes for a living.  He now relies on reward bounties, particularly those still valid for cold cases. Impressed by his results, Inspector Ho Ka-tung retains his services to find her long missing high school friend, Minnie. She has always been good with firearms and martial arts, but the cerebral side of detective work has always troubled her.  Promising to teach her his methods, Johnston moves into her spacious pad, but immediately back-burners Minnie’s case in favor of several expiring bounties.

The half-annoyed Ho indulges Johnston for a while, eventually embracing his extreme re-enactment techniques.  Blind arguably reaches its zenith when Johnston and Ho recreate a grisly murder conveniently set in a morgue, strapping on helmets and whacking each other over the head with hammers.  If you ever wanted to see the Three Stooges remakes Silence of the Lambs, To delivers the next closest thing.  Of course, their search for Minnie soon percolates back to the surface, when Johnston starts to suspect she fell victim to a serial killer preying broken-hearted young women.

Much like the old cliché about the weather, if you don’t like the tone of Blind Detective, just wait five minutes, because it will change.  You do not see many films incorporating elements of romantic comedy, slapstick farce, and dark serial killer thrillers, probably for good reason.  To gives roughly equal weight to all three, yet it all hangs together better than one might expect.

Sammi Cheng is a major reason Blind works to the extent that it does. It is great to see her Inspector Ho act as the film’s primary action figure and her radiant presence lights up the screen.  She develops decent chemistry with Andy Lau’s Johnston, but he looks profoundly uncomfortable in the intuitive curmudgeon’s skin. However, To fans will be relieved to hear Lam Suet duly turns up as a fugitive gambler hiding out in Macao.

To also delivers plenty of bang for the audience’s bucks in the third act. There are some distinctly creepy bits and a fair amount of suspense.  On the other hand, a drawn out subplot involving Johnston’s long held crush on a dance instructor chews up plenty of time but serves little purpose except to telegraph the feelings beginning to stir between the odd couple detectives.  

Thanks to two well executed showdowns, Cheng’s winning performance, and some evocative Hong Kong locales, Blind Detective chugs along steadily enough for a while and picks up mucho momentum down the stretch.  Recommended for To fans and those with a taste for comedic mysteries, Blind Detective screens this Friday night (10/4) at the Vogue Theatre as part of the SFFS’s 2013 Hong Kong Cinema series.  Action aficionados should also check out Chow Yun-fat’s massive return to form in Wong Jing’s The Last Tycoon screening Saturday (10/5) and Sunday (10/6) at the same venue.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

NYFF ’13: Le Week-End

Thanks to the Chunnel and relaxed EU customs, it is relatively easy for a late middle-aged British couple to pop over to Paris for a romantic getaway—unfortunately.  Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, but they make the trip nonetheless.  The pent-up resentment will flow freely in Roger Michell’s Le Week-End (trailer here), which screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.

Old lefty lit professor Nick Burrows’ only success in life was marrying his wife Meg, but she never lets him forget she was and still is well out of his league. The magic ran dry quite a while ago, but recent pressures have only made matters worse. For Nick, this sentimental trip will be a desperate attempt to renew their relationship, but his wife may have different ideas. Probably the last person he needs to run into would be Morgan, his vastly more successful former hipster protégé, yet that is exactly what happens.

Week-End is very definitely a writer’s film, completely driven by its often caustic dialogue. It seems like screenwriter Hanif Kureishi takes sadistic pleasure from old put-upon Nick’s discomfort, forcing him into one dignity-stripping conversation after another.  This necessarily means Meg gets most of the film’s sharpest wince-inducing lines.

Frankly, you have to sympathize with poor Nick on some level. A mere ninety minutes of Meg’s withering banter is exhausting, so the prospect of a lifetime of marriage with her makes the head reel.  Still, Kureishi maintains the consistency of their voices and scores a number of rueful laughs.

Perhaps the viewers’ best friend during Week-End is Jeremy Sams, whose elegant jazz-influenced score (featuring trumpeter Freddie Gavita) gives us something warm and agreeable to hold onto.  Even though they are radically dissimilar films, the combination of muted trumpet and Parisian streets by night immediately calls to mind Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and its Miles David soundtrack.

As Meg Burrows, Lindsay Duncan wields Kureishi’s cutting lines like a scimitar. Yet, Jim Broadbent’s hang-dog face draws Michell’s focus like a magnet. They spark like crazy together, but it is still hard to believe the extreme emotional disparity of their union.  To lighten the mood, Michell turns Jeff Goldblum loose as Morgan, lifting all restraints on his schticky mannerisms with rather amusing results.

It is pleasant to soak up Weed-End’s Paris locations while listening to the moody but swinging score. In a way, it provides a tart rejoinder to films like Marigold Hotel and Quartet, reminding audiences seniors are not always cute. Well crafted but somewhat over-written, Le Week-End is recommended for fans of talky relationship films when it screens tonight (9/29) at Alice Tully Hall and Monday after next (10/7) at the Walter Reade Theater, as a Main Slate selection of this year’s NYFF.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

NYFF ’13: Captain Phillips

In 2009, when the MV Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates, it was carrying 5,000 tons of African relief supplies.  No matter how desperate the poverty of its outlaw assailants might have been, waylaying the ship would not make the world a better place. This detail is acknowledged (but hardly belabored) in Paul Greengrass’s serviceable Captain Phillips (trailer here), which opened the 51st New York Film Festival last night.

The facts of the Maersk Alabama case are well known and Greengrass sticks to them relatively faithfully.  Although an experienced merchant officer, Captain Richard Phillips is a little uneasy about his Oman to Mombassa cargo haul, for good reasons.  Their route will take them past the Somali coast, soon after the release of a heightened piracy advisory.

Of course, the ship is attacked by pirates—twice.  The first time, Phillips’ well drilled crew foils their assault through evasive maneuvers and improvised trickery.  Unfortunately, they cannot shake Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse and his three criminal accomplices the next day. However, the crew fights back admirably, preventing the pirates from assuming operational control of the vessel.  Yet, in a frustrating twist of fate, Captain Phillips is taken hostage aboard the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat.

As a tick-tock hijacking thriller, CP is not bad at all, but it suffers when compared to Tobias Lindholm’s recently released A Hijacking, which is superior film in every respect.  Frankly, Greengrass’s film can be divided into two halves, the first be considerably stronger than the second.  CP is indeed quite riveting when following Phillips and his hidden crew as they sneak about and devise ways to communicate with each other.

Oddly though, the film slackens somewhat once the action moves to the lifeboat.  The tension ought to increase in such a considerably more confined space, but Greengrass cranks up the deterministic angst to such an extent, it starts to undercut the suspense.  Captain Phillips almost serves as a Greek chorus, warning Muse it will all end in tears.

Still, Muse’s already much quoted and scoffed at rejoinder “maybe in America” (as in maybe you western capitalists have other options besides piracy) poorly serves the rest of the film.  It is not nearly as didactic as that soundbite suggests, making its inclusion in trailers an utterly baffling marketing decision.  Greengrass bends over backwards to portray Muse and his cohorts as the pawns of shadowy masterminds, who have abandoned them to their fate.  Somehow though, he never spells out their possible connection to al-Qaeda linked al Shabaab and he certainly isn’t about to get into the whole Islam thing.

Despite an inconsistent New England accent, Tom Hanks finds the appropriate balance of world weariness and Yankee gravitas for the title character.  He goes all out down the stretch in hopes of another little gold statue with interesting if imperfect results.  Barkhad Abdi also deftly walks his tightrope, expressing Muse’s erratically violent nature as well as his metaphorical (and literal) hunger pains. 

Yet, the real stars of CP is the imposing Maersk Alabama (or rather the nearly identical Maersk Alexander, which serves as its stand-in) and the U.S. Navy.  The ships (including the USS Truxtun doubling for the USS Bainbridge) look awe-inspiring and the Navy Seals are cool, calm, and deadly professional.  Even though the Navy employs forms of deception, not once will reasonable viewers question the actions they take.

Greengrass shows a tremendous facility for shooting in and around the hulking ships and making the complicated chain of events perfectly clear and easy to follow.  As a technical feat, the movie is hugely impressive.  Yet, it lacks the insight and soul-draining intensity of its Danish counterpart.  Reasonably taut and tight, Captain Phillips is still a good sight better than Green Zone would lead you to suspect.  Recommended on balance, Captain Phillips opens wide October 11th, after kicking off this year’s NYFF.

The Runaway: Polish and Ukrainian Courage at Auschwitz

They are the forgotten concentration camp prisoners.  Originally, the National Socialists commissioned Auschwitz to hold Polish POWs and prisoners of conscience.  An estimated 130,000-140,000 perished there due to starvation and inhumane treatment.  Another 15,000 Soviet POWs were also imprisoned there, a substantial percentage of whom were in fact Ukrainians, according to the historical context provided by Rutgers Prof. Alexander Motyl before last night’s screening of Marek Pawłowski’s The Runaway (trailer here) at the Ukrainian Institute of America.

Given the film’s subjects and the co-sponsorship of the host Institute, the Polish Cultural Institute and the Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia, the theme of Ukrainian-Polish cooperation was often expressed. It is not hard to understand why the three cultural organizations shared an interest in the Polish Pawłowski’s documentary.  It tells the story of the filmmaker’s countryman, Kazimierz Piechowski, the sole survivor of the first successful escape from Auschwitz.

It was a risky plan largely formulated by Ukrainian Yevhen “Gienek” Bendera, perfectly executed by the former mechanic, Piechowski, and their two Polish comrades.  However, their clean getaway was just the beginning of the story.  Initially, Piechowski seemed likely to share the tragic fate that befell his fellow escapees.  As was the case for most veterans of the Polish Home Army after the war, Piechowski found himself consigned to a Communist prison on trumped up charges.  While his ten year sentence was considered relatively light, he endured regular torture sessions throughout his incarceration.  When he was finally released, Piechowski went back to the only civilian job he had known in the Gdansk shipyards.  Right, from there everyone should have a rough idea how the story unfolds.

Surprisingly, a good portion of Runaway celebrates Piechowski’s resiliency and modest triumph over two of the Twentieth Century’s most oppressive ideologies. Evidently, Piechowski and his beloved wife longed to travel the world during the dark days of Communism, so now they do as wonderfully spry senior citizens.  (In a way, they bring to mind the lovely parents of our Czech friends, who sort of became home-bodies when their illegally appropriated family home was restored to them after the Velvet Revolution. God bless them both.)

Frankly, it is rather refreshing to get some spiritual uplift in a film that covers both the National Socialist concentration camps and the years of Stalinist oppression. Indeed, Pawłowski pulls off quite a neat trick in that respect. Visually, Runaway has a bit of a TV production look, but the scenes of Piechowski revisiting the notorious concentration camp are powerful nonetheless.  As it happens, Pawłowski’s documentary has had significant television air time in both Poland and Germany (which is a particularly good thing).

Without question, Piechowski is an inspiring figure, well worth meeting on-screen. Clocking in at a disciplined fifty-six minutes, Runaway will broaden many viewers perspective on the harrowing realities of both regimes he outlived.  It also serves as a reminder of the tragic legacy shared by Poland and Ukraine that will hopefully lead to greater friendly solidarity for the two countries (such as that expressed Miroslav Dembiński’s Dwarves Go to Ukraine). Recommended for anyone who might have an opportunity to see it at a festival or academic venue, Pawłowski’s The Runaway really deserves a spot on PBS’s schedule.

Friday, September 27, 2013

NYFF ’13: Fifi Howls from Happiness

Given his darkly surreal imagery and his penchant for destroying his own work, there is definitely something Kafkaesque about the late Iranian expatriate artist Bahman Mohasses. For years he had removed himself from the world. Yet, he was ready, perhaps even eager to talk when Mitra Farahani tracked him down for her documentary profile, Fifi Howls from Happiness (trailer here), which screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.

Mohassess is clearly out of step with the current Islamist regime in Iran.  It seems his large scale nude statues were not compatible with the post-Revolutionary standards of “decency.”  He also happened to be gay, but in a defiantly politically incorrect way (marriage was not exactly a priority for him).  However, his first extended period of self-imposed exile began shortly after the Shah’s ascendency.

Eventually, Mohassess returned to his homeland, where the Shah’s wife became one of his leading patrons. A far cry from a fundamentalist, Mohassess still gave the Islamic Revolution a fair chance, but eventually tired of the gauche scene.  Before he left, Mohassess destroyed a significant portion of his oeuvre, taking only a few pieces with him (most notably including the painting that supplies the title of Farahani’s film).

On one hand, Mohassess’s actions echo the existential self-negation of a Dostoyevsky character, yet at other times one suspects it is all a calculated attempt to create mystique.  It almost seems like Mohassess has been waiting for someone like Farahani to take his bait.  Regardless, she develops a considerable rapport with the artist, but never sounds nauseatingly fawning.

While not quite deleted from Iranian history books, Mohassess’s place in the nation’s collective consciousness is decidedly ambiguous, which makes Fifi a valuable cinematic record.  Clearly, there are still Mohassess collectors, like Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, prominent Iranian artist-brothers working in Dubai.  Through Farahani, they visit Mohassess to commission what may or may not be his last great artistic statement.

Since Fifi is almost entirely shot in Mohassess’s residential hotel, the film is visually somewhat static. Still, it is fascinating to see the stills of his work, accompanied by his artist commentary, especially considering most of said pieces no longer survive. Farahani cleverly incorporates her subject’s unsolicited directorial advice, ironically following it to the letter. Her extended allusions to Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece and Visconti’s The Leopard are also add literary flair.

Indeed, Farahani earns great credit for working with and around Fifi’s inherent limitations. Mohassess is a difficult subject, who never sounds like he is really “for” anything or anyone, not even himself. Yet, Farahani does him justice, convincing the audience he is an odd character to visit, but one well worth saving from the memory hole.  Recommended for connoisseurs of art documentaries and Mohassess’s work, Fifi Howls from Happiness screens tomorrow (9/28) and Tuesday (10/1) at the Gilman Theater as part of the Motion Portraits section of the 2013 NYFF.

The Spy: Undercover Operation—Espionage and Marital Strife

Sure, they get to kill people, but spies are still civil servants.  The hours are long and there is frequent travel, but they are still paid according to their government grade. Agent Kim Chul-soo’s wife does not realize he is out saving the country.  She only knows he is not around very much, with little to show for it.  However, she will find herself in the middle of his latest assignment when an enemy operative targets her in Lee Seung-jun’s The Spy: Undercover Operation (trailer here), which opens today in Queens, New York.

The latest round of six-party talks is fast approaching.  Once again, re-unification seems to be just around the corner, until a high-ranking North Korean official’s plane is blasted out of the sky by a stinger missile.  His daughter, Baek Sul-hee, decides to defect to the South to expose the international conspiracy responsible.  She also happens to be a nuclear scientist, making her a very valuable commodity.  Kim and his sidekick-like department head Jin will manage the operation, but the normally reliable operative will be uncharacteristically distracted by his fraying marriage.

Frankly, the North Koreans are the least of their worries.  The Chinese, American, and Japanese intelligence services are all circling around Baek.  However, a mysterious freelancer named Ryan represents the gravest threat.  Sort of the male model version of Javier Bardem’s Raul Silva in Skyfall, Ryan has been putting the moves on Kim’s unsuspecting wife AhnYeong-hui for nefarious purposes. This rather annoys Kim, for multiple reasons.

Essentially, The Spy incorporates elements of Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Athena: Goddess of War, adding a liberal dose of broad, henpecked humor.  Helmed by last minute stand-in Lee Seung-jun (the assistant director on Quick), it boasts several nicely executed action scenes, but the jealous husband gags are strictly sitcom stuff.

If the Korean film industry is serious about expanding their share of the American market, The Spy is a rather perverse choice to export, given its anti-American inclinations.  It is hard to imagine a film whose hero deliberately shoots CIA agents dead is likely to breakout at the American box office, especially since fans of the action and rom-com genres tend to be more heartland, whereas the audience for provocative art-house films like Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta will not be interested, regardless.  Perhaps American actor Daniel Henney (best known for the previous Wolverine film) was considered crossover friendly, but he is hardly a household name.

Henney makes a decent villain as Ryan, but prestige screen-thesps Sul Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri look distinctly uncomfortable with the mugging and pratfalls required of Kim and Ahn, respectively. Somehow though, Han Ye-ri’s Baek is a figure of intelligence, seriousness, and resourcefulness. Conversely, Ko Chang-seok (another Quick alumnus) is right at home with Jin’s rubber-faced reaction shots.

There is some impressive stunt work in The Spy, but it is hamstrung by its dubious humor and geopolitical analysis. Not likely to have a long run, diehard Henney fans (if they’re out there) should see it this weekend, but go in with low expectations when The Spy: Operation Undercover opens today (9/27) at the AMC Bay Terrace in Flushing.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

NYFF ’13: Afternoon of a Faun—Tanaquil le Clercq

She changed the way George Balanchine thought about ballerinas.  Essentially, that means she changed ballet.  Tanaquil Le Clercq’s life took a unfortunate turn worthy of her tragic characters, but she would have a third act.  Nancy Buirski surveys her entire life and art in Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil le Clercq (trailer here), which screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.

A cosmopolitan prodigy, Le Clercq was discovered by Balanchine while she was a difficult student at School of American Ballet.  According to her friends, the legendary choreographer first encountering her sulking about the halls after her teacher ejected her from class.  Her sophisticated looks certainly caught his eye.  Although her height and long limbs were unusual for dancers at that time, Balanchine started tailoring his ballets to her strengths.  Soon she was his featured dancer and wife.  Then disaster struck.

Ironically, Le Clercq had danced in a special polio-themed March of Dimes fundraiser performance shortly before she was stricken with the disease herself.  She would never dance or even walk again.  However, she would eventually re-emerge as a teacher at Dance Theatre of Harlem.  As for her relationship with Balanchine—it was complicated.

Frankly, it would have been easy for Buirski to cast Balanchine in a villainous light, but Faun is rather remarkable for its evenhanded and forgiving treatment of the dance titan.  Taking its lead from Le Clercq’s closest friends, Faun gives him credit for supporting her when she most needed help and eventually re-starting some sort of intimate relationship with his former muse.  It was indeed complicated, but maybe not so much for Jerome Robbins, her fair weather ambiguously romantic friend.

Buirski’s sympathetic depiction of Balanchine reflects the humane spirit of film as a whole.  While it is eventually destined for American Masters, the elegant and often elegiac dance footage elevates its cinematic-ness.  Buirski calls on a relatively small cast of talking heads, but they each clearly knew Le Clercq very well.  Perhaps most moving are the remembrances of Jacques d’Amboise, Le Clercq’s partner for many of her defining performances.

Viewers will be surprised at the emotional punch Faun packs.  Granted, Buirski follows the tried-and-true documentary filmmaking approach, but she marshals all her elements with considerable style and understanding.  The participation of co-producer Ric Burns and project advisor Martin Scorsese should further reassure film snobs.  A satisfying viewing experience, Afternoon of a Faun is recommended for dance connoisseurs and anyone with a taste for cultural documentaries.  It screens this coming Monday (9/30) at the Walter Reade, as well as the 11th and 13th, as part of the Motion Portraits section of the 2013 NYFF.

NYFF ’13: The Missing Picture

According to estimates, the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime executed ninety percent Cambodia’s creative artists and performers.  During their reign of terror, the nation’s once thriving film industry was also literally decimated.  Decades later, a filmmaker and a sculptor combined their talents to chronicle Cambodia’s years of madness with unusual power and grace.  Rithy Panh is arguably the foremost documentarian chronicling the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, but to tell his family’s story he enlisted the skills of French Cambodian artist Sarith Mang.  Where once there were no surviving images, Mang’s carved figures bring the tragic past back to life in Panh’s The Missing Picture (clip here), which screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.

While the Khmer Rouge churned out plenty of propaganda, they were more circumspect in documenting their own crimes.  That left plenty of holes for Panh to fill in, as his title suggests.  With the help of Mang’s course yet eerily expressive clay figurines, Panh recreates the torturous conditions he somehow lived through, but claimed the lives of his parents, nephews, and little sister, one by one.

Panh’s decision to use Mang’s figures and richly detailed diorama backdrops might sound bizarrely hyper-stylized, but it is shockingly effective. Frankly, the scenes depicting the horrifying death of Panh’s sister are nothing less than devastating.  It is an unlikely approach, but it directly conveys the emotional essence of the circumstances.

To better understand the extent of what was lost, Panh periodically looks back at happier, pre-Khmer Rouge days as well.  Again, he compellingly evokes of tactile sense of those innocent times.  Viewers can practically smell the spices at the neighborhood parties as they listen to a hip local rendition of Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour.”

Rarely has a documentary ever been so exquisitely crafted. Each and every one of Mang’s figures is a work of art, perfectly lit and lensed by cinematographer Prum Mésa to bring out their full eloquence. Composer Marc Marder supports the visuals with what might be the most mournful film score since Schindler’s List.  It is a film that resounds with raw pain and defiant honesty (aside from a dubious bit of moral equivalence regarding western capitalism, probably tossed out to mollify festival programmers).  

Not a film to be shrugged off, The Missing Picture holds viewers completely rapt and haunts them for days after viewing.  Recommended for a considerably wider audience than traditional doc watchers, it screens this coming Monday (9/30) at the Beale Theater and Tuesday the eighth at the Gilman as an official selection of the 2013 NYFF.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Hotel Normandy: Everybody Looks More Attractive Here

Hotels are convenient locations for romantic farces.  There are plenty of doors to slam and beds to jump into.  The friends of an attractive, still relatively young widow do not think she is doing enough of the latter.  They think they have a plan to help, but it only leads to misunderstandings in Charles Nemes’ Hotel Normandy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Alice Necorre is a good friend and hard worker, but she has yet to start dating again.  Her private banking colleagues think they have the answer.  They have booked her a long weekend in the famous luxury hotel, so she can enjoy Deauville’s Contemporary Art Biennial.  As a surprise bonus, they have arranged (extorted) a client in arrears to whisk her off her feet for a madcap night of passion.  Unfortunately, when illness sidelines her would-be seducer, he sends his clumsy brother in his place.

Necorre is having none of Yvan Carlotti and his weird mugging, especially when she meets the sophisticated art dealer, Jacques Delboise.  She falls for him so hard, it scares her friends back home into coming clean.  Right, you can see how this will lead to confusion.  Throw in a misplaced valuable painting and you ought to have all the elements in place.

Yet, to a great extent, Normandy plays like a bedroom farce made by people embarrassed by bedroom farces.  It is far better at the rom than the com, which is an unusual mix.  The quiet moments work rather nicely but its attempts at broad comedy lack the necessary manic conviction.

Still, it is refreshing to watch a movie romance unfold between reasonably mature and responsible grown-ups, especially one executed with some charm.  Frankly, it is great to see the scruffy headed, slightly graying Eric Elmosnino (best known as the lead in Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life) as a leading man. His screen chemistry with Héléna Noguerra’s Lecorre is quite appealing.  On the flip side, it is sometimes painful watching Ary Abittan literally grin and bear it as Carlotti.

Much like Zhang Ziyi star vehicle My Lucky Star, Normandy features plenty of picturesque scenery, stylish costumes, and an impossibly attractive supporting cast.  The soundtrack even includes some Afro-Cuban music.  It ambles along easily enough, without ever really generating a lot of heat or tension.  Not quite as rich as Populaire, but considerably more rewarding than The Stroller Strategy, it should suit those with a taste for frothier French imports.  Recommended for fans of low impact rom coms, Hotel Normandy opens this Friday (9/27) in New York at the Village East.

NYFF ’13: The Last of the Unjust

He was a figurehead in a Potemkin village.  Set up as a “model ghetto” to deceive the International Red Cross and the unaligned world at large, Theresienstadt hid its brutality from public view, but it was there just the same.  Benjamin Murmelstein had the dubious distinction of being appointed the third and final President of Theresienstadt’s Jewish Council, or the “Elder of the Jews,” as the National Socialists dubbed them.  A resourceful or perhaps expedient leader (depending on one’s point of view), Murmelstein remained a figure of controversy throughout his life.  Shoah director Claude Lanzmann returns to the hours of interview footage he shot with Murmelstein in 1975 for his documentary profile, The Last of the Unjust (clip here), which screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.

When Murmelstein was appointed as the Elder of Theresienstadt, he did not have much say in the matter.  With no practical authority, Murmelstein did his best with his powers of persuasion, going toe-to-toe with an often manically demonic Eichmann—a far cry from what Arendt made him out to be. Murmelstein estimates he saved over one hundred twenty thousand lives during the war years by arranging mass emigration to what is now Israel.  On the other hand, the seventy-hour work weeks he instituted, in hopes of making the Theresienstadt prisoners too valuable to be “deported east,” was a double-edged sword.

In his lengthy discussions with Lanzmann, Murmelstein is both his best and worst character witness, but he steadily wins the documentarian over, at least to some extent.  Unquestionably, his testimony and Lanzmann’s supplemental evidence will help viewers understand the precariousness of his position.  Clearly, Lanzmann hopes viewers will speculate how they might respond if placed in similar circumstances.

Is Murmelstein worthy of an in-depth biographical treatment?  Without reservation, the answer is yes.  Nonetheless, at 218 minutes, the Spartan Unjust is a demanding viewing experience.  Even Lanzmann’s towering Shoah, with its considerably wider scope, is better digested in installments.

Unjust is rich with insight and offers more than a few eye-opening scoops.  However, Lanzmann makes the film longer and therefore more arduous than necessary by frequently including multiple accounts of incidents with little appreciable variation.  There is a personal quality to this film, which tested his editorial sensibilities.   Lanzmann admits right from the top Murmelstein’s story has haunted him for years.  Indeed, the contrast between Lanzmann in 1975, still quite the dashing figure at age fifty, and the gray-haired documentary statesman of today heightens the film’s keen sense of history.  Recommended for those who are prepared for its intellectual and aesthetic rigors, The Last of the Unjust screens Sunday (9/29) at Alice Tully Hall as an official selection of the 2013 New York Film Festival.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Wedding Palace: Love is a Curse

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  You’ve got a big ethnic family and perhaps a wedding.  Wait, there’s also a curse.  Frankly, Jason Kim might be better off with a gruesome death than the women his mother tries to fix him up with.  However, hope might be arriving from Korea in Christine Yoo’s The Wedding Palace (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Thanks to the scandalous behavior of bridegroom hundreds of years again, a painful fate befalls all the men in Kim’s family who are not married before they turn thirty.  At least, so he has always been told.  He is twenty-nine and his fiancée, Jinnie Park, just jilted him at the altar. It is embarrassing for Kim, especially since his parents are convinced he is now doomed.

Even when traveling to Seoul on business, Kim cannot escape his mother’s Hail Mary blind dates.  Yet, one particularly miserable attempt in a karaoke club brings Kim face-to-face with Song Na-young, a very attractive colleague who can sing like an angel.  Despite their halting start, the two commence a passionate long distance love affair.  Soon he Skypes the question and she accepts.  Yet as soon as she lands in L.A. he discovers something about her that will provide him and his family the opportunity to act like first-rate jackasses.  Will true love rebound?  Should the stunning Song even allow him a second chance?  Have you seen a romantic comedy before?

Palace might be formulaic, but most red-blooded viewers will fall head over handlebars for Song during their karaoke sequence.  Old Boy star Kang Hye-jung sounds about as comfortable with English as most of us would performing Shakespeare translated into Esperanto, but she has presence—that “it” factor. 

As Kim, co-producer Brian Tee (the corrupt prosecutor in The Wolverine) makes a likable enough straight man and a convincing heel.  Mad-TV’s Bobby Lee contributes a few laughs and a good measure of energy as Kim’s best friend Kevin.  Unfortunately, Margaret Cho is not any funnier in her cameo as a shaman than she ever has been before.  Perhaps more frustrating, Joy Osmanski, who was so charming in Dave Boyle’s White on Rice, is largely wasted in the thankless role of Park.

For an indie rom-com, Palace is quite a nicely put together package, featuring some handsome cinematography (most notable during the Korean scenes) and an upbeat score composed by David Benoit.  Even though we have more or less seen it all before, Kang makes it hard not to like. Pleasant but predictable, The Wedding Palace is recommended as a date movie for committed couples when it opens this Friday (9/27) in New York at the AMC Empire.

NYFF ’13: The Wind Rises

Jiro Horikoshi is a Studio Ghibli character Tony Stark would approve of.  He was the engineer responsible for designing Imperial Japan’s Model Zero fighters, but he dreamer rather than an ideologue.  At least, that is how Hayao Miyazaki re-imagined Horikoshi’s private persona in his fictionalized manga, which he has now adapted as his final film as a director.  Spanning decades of Japan’s tumultuous pre-war history, Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (trailer here) is also a deeply personal film that screens as a main slate selection of the 51st New York Film Festival.

As a young student, Horikoshi yearns to fly, but he realizes his spectacles make it nearly impossible for him to become a pilot.  Borrowing an aviation magazine from an encouraging teacher opens up a new path for the earnest lad.  Through its pages he learns of Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni, who becomes his inspiration.  Setting his sights on an engineering career, Horikoshi regularly meets Caproni in his dreams and reveries, where they share their mutual passion for flight.

Circumstances of history will conspire to make Horikoshi’s life eventful.  His first day as a university student is marked by the catastrophic earthquake of 1923, which will resonate profoundly with contemporary viewers.  Yet, out of that tragedy, Hirokoshi meets and temporarily loses the great love of his life.

Despite his intelligence, Japan’s stagnant economy offers few opportunities for Horikoshi when he graduates.  He joins Mitsubishi at a time when the company appears to be on its last legs. Gambling its future on military contracts, the company sends Horikoshi to Germany, hoping he can help them reverse-engineer whatever the Junkers will let them see.  Of course, he will be able to raise their game substantially.

In no way, shape, or manner does Miyazaki justify Japan’s militarist era, but he has still taken flak from both sides of the divide over Wind.  Frankly, it presents a gentle but firm critique of the Imperial war machine.  At one point, Horikoshi is even forced into hiding, designing the military’s fighter planes while he evades the government’s thought police.  Indeed, such is a common experience for the best and the brightest living under oppressive regimes.  Yet, Miyazaki is just as interested in Horikoshi’s grandly tragic romance with Naoko, a beautiful artist sadly suffering from tuberculosis.  Horikoshi makes a number of choices throughout the film, every one of which the audience can well understand.

Given its elegiac vibe, Wind makes a fitting summation film for Miyazaki.  Covering the immediate pre-war decades, it compliments and engages in a wistful dialogue with Gorō Miyazaki’s post-war coming of age tale From Up on Poppy Hill (co-written by the elder Miyazaki).  One can also see and hear echoes of master filmmakers past, such as Ozu ad Fellini, throughout the film.  Any cinema scholar surveying Miyazaki’s work will have to deal with it at length, but it still happens to be a genuinely touching film.

After watching Wind, viewers will hope the real Horikoshi was a lot like Miyazaki’s (and the same goes for Caproni). Miyazaki seriously examines the dilemmas faced by his protagonist while telling a lyrical love story.  Visually, the quality of Studio Ghibli’s animation remains undiminished, but the clean lines of Horikoshi’s planes and the blue open skies lend themselves to simpler images than some of his richly detailed classics.  Regardless, The Wind Rises is an unusually accomplished film that transcends the animation genre.  Highly recommended for all ages and interests, it screens this Saturday (9/28) and next Friday (10/4) at Alice Tully Hall (stand-by only), as part of the 2013 NYFF.

Monday, September 23, 2013

On the Job: Joel Torre Get Rehabilitated

One of Metro Manila’s most politically-connected prisons has one heck of a work-release program.  Periodically, they send out two convicts to execute a gangland-style hit and after a spot of shopping both are safely back inside before anyone is the wiser.  However, a botched assignment and a troublesome cop will create headaches for the elites pulling the strings in Erik Matti’s On the Job (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Evidently, murder for hire beats making license plates.  Ever since Mario “Tatang” Maghari went to prison, he has provided for his family better than ever before.  He only sees them occasionally, showing up “on leave” from his vaguely defined work out-of-town.  His daughter is starting to get suspicious, but says nothing.  After all, her father has paid her law school tuition.

While each job is strictly business for Maghari, his new partner, Daniel Benitez, appreciates their intensity, like a form of extreme sports. Frankly, Maghari has misgivings about Benitez, but with his parole approaching he must groom a successor.  He genuinely likes the kid, but he constantly reminds Benitez nobody can afford sentimentality in their world.  When Benitez finally takes the lead on a job, it turns out disastrously.  It was not entirely his fault, but he and Maghari still have to make it right quickly.  To do so, they will tangle with Francis Coronel, Jr., an ambitious cop, whose career track has been greased by his congressman father-in-law.

When Maghari and Benitez go after their hospitalized target, OTJ deliberately echoes John Woo’s Hard Boiled, but where the Hong Kong crime epic was slick and operatic, Matti’s film is gritty and pure street.  It is a massive action spectacle, but rendered on a scrupulously human scale.  Every blow hurts like it ought to, because no one is superhuman.

Yet, Matti is just getting started.  He and co-screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto paint a scathing portrait of a legal justice system rife with corruption. They are working on a large scale canvas, where complicated family history and political alliances will profoundly impact all the players. While the themes of loyalty and betrayal will be familiar to mob movie junkies, Matti gives them a fresh spin.  The distinctive sense of place also sets OTJ well apart from the field.  Viewers will practically smell the B.O. during the scenes set in the sweltering but bizarrely informal prison.

A radical departure from Matti’s clinically cold erotic drama Rigodon (which screened at this year’s NYAFF), OTJ seamlessly combines genre thrills with a naturalistic aesthetic, but Joel Torre is the lynchpin holding it all together.  Not just a hard-nosed action figure (although he is certainly that), Torre fully expresses the acute pain of Maghari’s tragic failings, born of his violent circumstances.  The entire ensemble is completely convincing, but OTJ is truly his show.

Fully engaging on both the macro and micro levels, OTJ is one of the year’s best hitman-cop dramas. Driven by the talents of Matti and Torre, it is a serious social critique that never skimps on the adrenaline.  Highly recommended, On the Job opens this Friday (9/27) in New York at the AMC Empire and in San Francisco at the Metreon.

NYFF ’13: A Touch of Sin

It is hard to imagine Jia Zhangke releasing a wuxia martial arts epic. Despite the hat-tips to King Hu (who directed A Touch of Zen), it would be more accurate to describe his latest film as a meditation on violence, offering a challenging glimpse into the heart of a lawless contemporary China.  American partisans on either side of the gun control debate could find themselves squirming at its morally ambiguous portrayal of a lone shooter as well.  Of course, Jia has never displayed a compulsive need to make things easy.  Nonetheless, A Touch of Sin (trailer here) may yet prove to be one of his most accessible films when it screens as a main slate selection of the 51st New York Film Festival.

Right from the opening sequence, viewers will know they are in a different sort of Jia Zhangke film—one with a body count.  The mystery motorcyclist will reappear later.  Instead we will follow Dahai, a disillusioned labor leader, who returns home to stir up trouble for the corrupt village party boss and the new fat cat factory owner greasing his wheels.  Instead, it is Dahai who is beaten and humiliated.  Eventually, the mockery he endures pushes Dahai to the edge.

Without question, Sin’s first arc is its most unnerving.  Much like Rafi Pitts’ criminally under-appreciated The Hunter, Sin openly invites viewers to condone or at least mitigate a shocking act of violence.  Yet, the consistently contrarian Jia further complicates our emotional response by implying some of Dahai’s rage might be tragically misplaced.  It is keenly disturbing filmmaking, perfectly served Wu Jiang’s tightly wound performance.

Jia then shifts his attention to Zhou San, the sociopathic wanderer who started the film with a bang.  He has returned Chongqing, but his family is not too sure how they feel about seeing him again.  Zhou’s story holds considerable potential, given the sense of danger that follows the drifter wherever he goes, but it is not nearly as well developed as those that immediately precede and follow it.

The presence of Zhao Tao, Jia’s longtime muse and now wife, promises and duly delivers a return to form.  Zhao’s Zheng Xiaoyu is the receptionist at a half-sleazy sauna in Hubei, carrying on a long distance affair with Zhang Youliang, a factory manager in Guangzhou.  Unfortunately, the family of the betrayed wife discovers their furtive relationship, sending goons to rough up Zheng.  It will not be the only incident of injustice she witnesses first hand.  When an abusive sauna client tries to force himself on her, she finally responds in much the same manner as Dahai.

For the concluding segment, Jia shifts to Guangdong, where a rootless migrant worker takes a series of jobs, including assembly line work in Zhang’s factory.  However, it is Xiaohui’s experiences in the local luxury hotel-brothel that will be his emotional undoing.  Luo Lanshan and Li Meng are quite engaging, developing some touching chemistry together as Xiaohui and the young working girl he courts.  However, their storyline feels rather rushed (something you would never expect in Jia’s films), hustled to its untimely conclusion before all the necessary psychological bases have been touched.

Granted, A Touch of Sin is uneven, but it is major cinematic statement, spanning class and geography.  Without question, it is Jiang Wu and Zhao Tao who administer the arsenic with their fearless, visceral performances.  In fact, with her work in Sin, one can make the case Zhao is the definitive and defining actress of our day and age.  Don’t even counter with Streep.  Unlike her Rich Little impersonations that consistently pull you out of the movie, Zhao always draws viewers into her films and characters.  She is beautiful, but chameleon like, playing parts that are emblematic of globalism (as in The World) and Chinese social alienation (a la 24 City).  Yet, she is also achingly moving in a straight forward chamber drama like Jia’s short Cry Me a River.

It is hard to miss the implications of Sin.  Jia unequivocally takes the Chinese state bureaucracy and their corporate cronies to task for their pervasive corruption.  He also casts a disapproving eye on the burgeoning sex industry.  For all its trenchant criticism, Sin is arguably somewhat encouraging—simply because Jia was able to complete it as he intended.  Given his perpetually half pregnant state as a former independent filmmaker partially and uneasily incorporated into the state system, one always wonders if he will still be allowed to make his films according to his aesthetic and ethical principles.  A Touch of Sin might be something of a stylistic departure, but it is very definitely a Jia Zhangke film, which is happy news indeed. 

Even with its odd imperfections here and there, A Touch of Sin packs a whopper of a punch.  Highly recommended for China watchers and fans of social issue cinema, Sin screens this Saturday (9/28) at Alice Tully Hall and the following Wednesday (10/2) at the Beale, as part of this year’s NYFF, with a regular theatrical opening to follow next Friday (10/4) at the IFC Center.