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Adieu au langage (2014)
Godard touches on old themes and does some neat tricks with 3D
To call a post-Nineties Jean-Luc Godard's film "accessible" would be a stretch. But his new one, Goodbye to Language, is discernibly more appealing and less of a slog (70 minuets instead of 104) than his Film Socialisme (NYFF 2010). The latter occasioned Todd McCarthy's angry-sounding assertion that Godard is mean-spirited and exhibits "the most spurious sort of anti-Americanism or genuinely profound anti-humanism, something that puts Godard in the same misguided camp as those errant geniuses of an earlier era, Pound and Céline." This is less visible in Goodbye to Language, which spends a lot of time with a naked middle-class white couple in an apartment, and with Godard's own dog, Roxy, and is playful enough to be shot in 3D, of which it makes some good use. I do not see that use as "revolutionary," as Mike D'Angelo did in a Cannes bulletin for The Dissolve. I think in the face of a rote-acknowledged "master" (and Godard really did seem exciting and revolutionary back in the days of Breathless and La Chinoise) whom one can't make head nor tail of, it's natural to pick out elements one enjoys and blow them up into something important. Thus one notes that the distorted color in Goodbye to Language is sometimes gorgeous. And one wishes that more mainstream films dared to do such things more often, with one excuse or another.
Goodbye to Language, like Film Socialisme, is divided up into parts with portentous titles, which one would remember if they seemed to illustrate their titles in any relatable way. The NYFF festival blurb calls this "a work of the greatest freedom and joy," but it's not. It's didactic, full of general nouns (like "freedom" and "joy") thrown out with the verve of a French university student. It cites fifteen or twenty famous authors whose names were dropped or lines quoted; and ten or twelve classical composers, snippets of whose compositions are folded in to add flavor and importance. But when Mike D'Angelo says "it doesn't constantly seem as if he's primarily interested in demonstrating his own erudition," he's saying this because other Godard films have constantly seemed to be primarily interested in that, and this one just barely avoids it.
Here's what D'Angelo observes in the film's 3D that he thinks revolutionary (and this one moment is indeed remarkable): "Turns out he'd had the camera pan to follow an actor walking away from another actor, then superimposed the pan onto the stationary shot, creating (via 3-D) a surreal loop that, when completed, inspired the audience to burst into spontaneous applause. " It's hard to describe, and strange, and indeed original. I'd very much like to have watched this sequence -- which you do have to take off your 3D glasses to appreciate the transformative nature of -- with an audience keen enough to have noted its cleverness and applauded it. The audience I was with applauded at the end, but that just felt like an obligatory gesture, not the "olé" of connoisseurs noting a visual coup.
As D'Angelo says, since the Nineties Godard has been "a full-bore avant-garde filmmaker." This means his films are the kind of thing you might see showing in a loop in a darkened room of a museum. When any film makes no rational sense I remember my museum experiences of that kind of art film and am calmed. Such films have their place. They are like complex decorative objects. Yes, and Godard's references to Nietzsche (pronounced "NEETCH" by French- speakers) or Solzenitzen are like gilding on a frame. And offhand gibes like the man in the hat who says Solzenitzen didn't need Google (which also sounds funny in French) to make up the subtitle for a book, as D'Angelo puts it, "ranks high among the dumbest things a smart person has ever said." Godard is a smart person who in a long career has said plenty of dumb things. He would have been a lot better as a filmmaker if he'd done more showing and less telling, from a long way back.
But parts of Farewell to Language are bold and visually stimulating, and ought to be studied by conventional filmmakers, editors, or cinematographers to get some more original visual ideas. I also like another D'Angelo's Dissolve note (and he himself says this is his favorite Godard film since Weekend): "According to my Twitter feed, Goodbye To Language has reinvented cinema againone dude went full Pauline Kael and compared it to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Unfortunately, some after the screening I saw, with bunch of ostensible film writers, out in the lobby some were pronouncing that this was "the future of cinema." Not Marvel Comics?
Watched at NYFF 2014.
Creepy-cool performance by Gyllenhaal nails America's TV gore-hunger and job desperation
Writer-producer Dan Gilroy's directorial debut Nightcrawler is a smooth, brightly colored, compulsively watchable movie that plays with journalism, employment desperation, and the motivational online-educated loner world of a marginal news bottom-feeder in the mean streets and freeways of Los Angeles. He's Lou Bloom, a lonely Angeleno who's hungry, driven, and amoral. Jake Gyllenhaal becomes an intense character actor here, moving way beyond the obsessive crime investigator he played in Fincher's Zodiac. Taking the coyote as his metaphor, the actor dropped 25 pounds for the role and played his scenes grinning, bug-eyed, and always literally hungry. Though with need and ambition instead of poetry in his heart Lou might fit into the fringes of the Hollywood outcasts of Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust. Now, Gilroy hasn't penned a high literary work. This is a kind of sleazy thriller, but with a witty satirical edge and an implied strident message. It knows not the network of corruption we find in James Elroy, only carjackings, baby killings, and home invasions. At its center is a creep we love to watch, and in spite of ourselves almost sympathize with.
As we meet Lou, he's a scavenger (like a coyote), selling found or stolen copper wire and manhole covers to a wholesaler and delivering a comically detached, motor-mouthed job application that's instantly rejected: "I won't hire a f-ing thief!" But Lou happens on a bad car accident with a bloody victim and encounters the nocturnal world of free lance videographers who feed off accidents, selling lurid footage to the TV stations for the best price they can get. It looks perfect to him. He steals a fancy mountain bike and sells it to buy the tools of this game, police radio, camera, and starts chasing cop cars and ambulances He hires a desperate "intern" called Rick (Riz Ahmed) he hilariously "interviews" in a luncheonette using business-model lingo and agrees to pay a retainer of $30 a night to be his navigator and assistant, decoding police case designations, picking best routes. Suddenly, Lou is in his element. TV news at its most lurid "viewer discretion advised" level feeds off human misery just the way Lou does.
Importantly, Lou develops a purchase source, the aging woman director of the region's lowest-rated TV station, called Nina (Gilroy's actress wife Rene Russo), a kind of desperate poor relation of Faye Dunnaway in Network. She buys and sells fear to suburban white people. "The perfect story is a screaming woman with her throat cut running down a street in a good neighborhood," she says. Lou bargains intensely to raise his prices and status with Nina, and he clearly wants her as well as her patronage. Lou isn't clueless about people. He just doesn't like them. In fact he knows very well how to manipulate them. To speak of "chemistry" between Gyllenhaal, Russo, Ahmed, or Bill Paxton, who plays Joe Loder, a more experienced photo "nightcrawler" he follows, then climbs over, would be absurd. Lou exudes a kind of sweet, misleadingly innocuous-seeming poison, which doubles as creepy charm.
Lou has gotten into all this by breaking the law, and it's not long before he starts overstepping bounds even more dangerously. His eagerness to get to news sites before his competitors, like Joe Loder, who humiliate him for his clumsiness and poor equipment at first, soon leads to his getting himself and Rick to crime or accident scenes before the police do. And soon enough he winds up essentially involved in and covering up a crime in order to get a scoop. But skimming the margins of the permissible and the legal is all in the cause of local TV and the business model works, even though some of the workers don't survive.
Now there are several weaknesses in this movie. But they are not Lou's hilariously glib and clueless patter and the disarming manner in which Jake Gyllenhaal delivers it, nor the stunningly filmed speed chases in Lou's newly acquired red Mustang and the other dangers and excitements, nor the glowing day 35mm. film and night digital cinematography of multiple-award-winner and Paul Thomas Anderson regular Robert Elswit (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood). But the screenplay might have spread wider its picture of corruption beyond merely the camera hacks and the ratings-mad TV hacks who exploit them; the police are knights in shining armor here, so a whole dimension is missing. The movie further should not have been quite so continually caught up in Lou Bloom's own obsessions. It needed to step back and look at him from some cooler angles. Despite the more strident than necessary editorializing, and too intensely cynical, this isn't exactly fresh new ground that's being broken here. But it's still a creepily engaging, wonderful-to-look-at movie. If it's astonishingly polished and mature for a directorial debut, that's partly because of experienced family help. Dan has a twin brother, John, who's an editor, and another brother, Tony, who's a writer and director, and they were both on hand to help. Gyllenhaal, who co-produced, evidently contributed substantially to the spirit of the enterprise. And he delivers an amazing performance, as do Rene Russo and the rising British star Riz Ahmed.
Nightcrawler, 117 mins., debuted at Toronto. Watched for this review at The Academy Theater at Lighthouse International, NYC at the courtesy of Academy member Marilyn Stewart, 29 October 2014. US theatrical release date is 31 October 2014
Classic modern interpretation of Molière's somewhat odd play
The film made for French TV and first shown 6 November 1965 is directed by Marcel Bluwal. He was born in 1925 but has directed TV movies and series for five decades and directed one in 2013.The austere but elegant black and white film using real environments, outdoors, an empty part of Versailles, a palatial restaurant, a remarkable temple-mausoleum, and a lot of snappy horseback riding, with stripped-down costumes that nod to the 17th century and the 20th, seem aware of Resnais' Marientbad and Cocteau. An appropriately solemn, fatalistic note is set by the thematic use of Mozart's Requiem Mass. What could be better than Michel Piccoli as Dom Juan and Pierre Brasseur as Sganarelle? Bluwal may not be an original but he's a pro. This is pure class.
The entire film is currently available on YouTube in an excellent print provided by Boulevard du VHS. There are no English subtitles but for students of French the text can easily be consulted online while watching on the website www.toutmoliere.net. To access the video look for 'Dom Juan (Théâtre - Molière - Piccoli - Brasseur).'
As for the play, despite moments of wit and a fluency of construction beautifully set off by this production that is faithful to every word of the text (allowing for variations), it is of a startling severity. This is the story of Don Juan recast as a medieval morality play in 17th-century dress -- though some contemporaries apparently felt it celebrated atheism (didn't they see Don Juan went straight to hell at the end?). It's hard to know what to make of it, when you think this came just a few years before the beginning of English Restoration comedy. Where is the irony, the wit, the bawdy of this period? Things must have been dicier in Paris. A further explanation of the atypical nature of the play is that it was written to give Molière's troupe work when Tartuffe had been taken off the stage for reasons of "religions policy" (French Wikipedia article on Dom Juan) and The Misanthrope was in the works. Molière turned it out quickly, on a popular subject (Don Juan), and showing off in bald terms his disapproval of the immorality of his age and especially hypocrisy -- the latter, a failing even the most liberal thinkers abhor. (Larry Flynt would agree.)
The 'Festin de Pierre' theme was an effort to mount a theatrically spectacular production imitative of the Italian style, though except for the moving statue that may not come through so well in Bluwal's austere production. In the event, this 'Dom Juan' didn't run very long in its prose form (it was set to verse later by Corneille) and Molière forgot about it and it was not published in his lifetime.
However unyielding and cold the play's basic trajectory, the impeccable and stylish film version gives you plenty to ponder and enhances a sense of Molière's art, the speed of the language and the fluency with which one scene flows into the next within each of the five acts. And it's impressive to see the legendary Michel Piccoli, still working today (2014) in his mid-eighties, a key actor in the Nouvelle Vague and a favorite of Alain Resnais, so vigorous in this role, along with Claude Brasseur, who had been in Godard's Band of Outsiders the previous year.
Citizen Koch (2013)
A lively but confusing documentary about money in US politics
The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, a true product of the activist, conservative-dominated Roberts Court, has freed up big corporate money as a direct influence in American politics as never before. We need a documentary about this disastrous change. But while fast-moving and colorful, this new film isn't quite that documentary. Things start off badly with the title, 'Citizen Koch,' more provocative than descriptive. You may think of New York's former mayor, Ed Koch (rhymes with "crotch"). But what's meant is the Koch (rhymes with "poke") brothers, the ga-zilllionaire right-wing siblings (plural, not singular) whose exercise of vast campaign-buying powers is a prime example of Citizens United's effect.
Is this movie about the Koch brothers? Not quite, and certainly not exclusively. It throws a lot of things at us right off, as if we're supposed to guess what it's about. First there's Sarah Palin touting the Tea Party in Wisconsin. Jump to Obama being sworn in a year and a half later in Washington after winning the election. Next, we glimpse virulent, hateful reactions from right wing media to the new administration and its leader. Then, we see David Koch of Koch Industries address an audience about his and his brother Charles's Americans for Prosperity.
Is 'Citizen Koch' about the Supreme Court decision, or the Tea Party and Obama opposition, or about the Koch brothers? Yes, it touches on all of those, and more than the Koch brothers, on many very rich donors to promote right-wing candidates. But mainly it winds up being about Tea Party Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin, elected Governor in part through contributions from the Koch brothers (and their like). Walker immediately sets out to destroy pensions and unions in the state. In doing this, he arouses a lot of grass roots Republican, labor, and progressive opposition. They grow so strong, they succeed in mounting an election to recall Walker. This signals a big popular revolt. But then, thanks to massive financial backing, again from the Koch brothers (and others like them), Walker manages to beat the recall vote and stay in office. This is the film's main trajectory.
Whatever all this means for you, what filmmakers Deal and Lessin excel at here is following day-to-day details of electoral politics and citizens' protests, both Tea Party support and grass roots Republican Walker opposition. They do this through tracking a few colorful individuals and scenes on the street, at home, or at work. They follow Wisconsin's opposition to the new Governor through four outraged grassroots Republicans who oppose him: a teacher, prison guard, nurse, plus the nurse's husband, a Harley Davidson repairman first-time voter who vividly comments on the sidelines. The film gives us brief but pungent looks at the lives, views, and political activities of these four people, and this is 'Citizen Koch's' human heart. The film never delves deeply into the activities of the Koch brothers, delineating, rather, a lot of contributions from rich out-of-state donors to the campaign to keep Walker in office.
'Citizen Koch' touches on events that are, in the aggregate, highly significant. But the film's treatment of these events, though lively and fast-moving, suffers from its confusion of focus. It continually seeks to juggle its three balls: Walker's anti-union Tea Party rule; his growing grass roots Republican opposition, and, a dim third in the background, "Citizen"(sic)Koch, the Koch brothers and their use of limitless personal money to save Scott Walker from recall, symbolizing the defeat of the democratic process through paid advertising.
This film has been called "agitprop" but it's really more a collage, the term "agitprop" used because it's fast, loud, and crude, its message and structure not quite clear. For true agitprop, go to America's most famous muckraking filmmaker, Michael Moore. But Moore does this sort of thing so much better that there is no ground for comparison.
Other examples of successful engagé documentaries are Charles Ferguson's devastating 2010 attack on post-Great Recession Wall Street, 'Inside Job'; Ferguson's earlier 2007 'No End in Sight,' about the lack of planning behind the US 2003 invasion of Iraq; Errol Morris Vietnam War deconstruction based on an interview with Robert McNamara, 'The Fog of War,' Alex Gibney's study of post-9/11 cruelty, 'Taxi to the Dark Side;' Adam Curtis' sweeping study of post-9/11 political paranoia, 'The Power of Nightmares'; the team of Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's 'The Corporation' -- the latter, highly relevant to Deal and Lessin's subject matter because it refers to the ruling that corporations have rights like people. These are all documentaries that take a clear stand and support it with rigorous logic, strong structure, and rich documentation. Good as they all are, though, they can't match the effect Michael Moore had with 'Bowling for Columbine' and 'Sicko.' Making a good political documentary may involve agitprop, but it also requires a lot of work, plus passion, a willingness to be provocative, good and lucky timing, a marshaling of the facts, and great organizational skill. These do not seem entirely present in 'Citizen Koch'. It's a documentary that presents material well worth knowing about, but like too many films of this sort, it seems in some ways a bit of a mess. Some of its quick portraits of the grassroots folks are priceless, however.
'Citizen Koch' was to have been presented on PBS but was scuttled by the network, reportedly due to pressure from rich sponsors, including the Koch brothers. It lost ITVS funding, robbing it of its "Independent Lens" series slot. This brought protests in New York. The filmmakers launched a Kickstarter campaign instead which has been successful, and the film's theatrical release rolls out through dozens of cities till early September 2014.
'Citizen Koch' debuted at Sundance January 2013, also showed at DOC NYC that November. It was was released at IFC Center, NYC 6 June 2014 to mixed reviews (Metacritic average 53%).
La commare secca (1962)
Bertolucci's slightly odd debut
La commare secca is an interesting film that students of Sixties cinema, particularly Italian, must see. It's neither a forgettable oddity as some say nor a small masterpiece as others do. It is an artifact of Italian cinema, an early example of Bertolucci, and an offshoot of Pasolini. Pasolini provided the "soggetto", the story-theme, and Bertolucci and Pasolini's collaborator and Roman dialect coach Sergio Citti wrote the screenplay, which Bertolucci, terrified and inexperienced at only 21, got so shoot because Pasolini had gone on to make Mamma Roma, but the producers demanded a "Pasolnian" film. (This and much more you'll get from Bertolucci's 2003 interview for the Criterion edition of this film.) But Bertolucci sought to shoot in a very fluid, kinetic style, camera always in motion, to detach his style from Pasolnii's "frontal" imagery influenced by the Tuscan Primitives. Bertolucci had not seen Kurosawa's Rashomon, but may have known of it; anyway everybody calls this a "Rashomon film," including Bertolucci in the interview. The film does go repeatedly over the same period of time (introduced by the start of a heavy rainstorm) as lived by a series of people who were in the park where the crime took place, the murder of a prostitute. They are all suspects or witnesses who are being questioned by an unseen cop at the police station, and what we see are their experiences which often ironically contradict what they have just claimed earlier. They're nearly all liars and thieves and lowlifes of one authentic Roman kind or another.
But here the similarity to Rashomon ends, and the weakness of Bertolucci's film begins. However interesting and in some cases haunting, creepy, and Pasolinian the episodes are, they are not different tellings of the crime story at all. They emerge as a series of shaggy dog stories, because they mostly take us nowhere in solving the crime or describing it. Hence, La commare secca is poorly constructed. The framework does not unify the episodes, nor do they draw us with increasing excitement as Rashomon does to a desire to understand what actually happened. And we don't see events retold differently. The events are mostly unrelated, though paths cross, as in many films, such as Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing. Each episode is vivid and interesting in its own way. But they begin to seem so random it's easy to become impatient and bored. Things look up when we get to the soldier, a good-looking rustic with a goofy smile who begins to seem retarded, maybe dangerous. And they look up more with the two teenage boys with their "fiances," who become hysterical with guilt and fear, leading to tragedy. At this point the action seems haunting. But then the final sequences are obvious. We know who the killer is. We just don't know that this act too is connected to an attempted theft -- the connecting thread, perhaps, but not one that's made clear enough, being that everybody's getting in trouble in this park by trying to steal something.
As has been pointed out, some of the non-actors are good but some violently overact, and some of the post-dubbing works but some is shrill and/or out of synch. The fluid camera-work, which Bertolucci claims as his idea, is fun to watch. The film never runs out of kinetic steam. Obviously this is polished work with excellent cinematography by Giovanni Narzisi, editing by Nino Baragli, and music by Piero Piccioni and Carlo Rustichelli contributing to the outward sheen. But the screenplay is the weak point with its lack of a unifying conception. Though Bertolucci uses the word "thriller" in the interview, we never get the feeling till the end that we're on the verge of solving the crime, nor are the string of petty crimes and personal clashes suspenseful or exciting enough to be worthy of the term. La commare secca, despite its fluency and lively action, comes to seem an unsuccessful example of the Italian omnibus films of the Sixties -- one that, unlike the ones with Mastroianni and Loren, or Pasolini's early-Seventies trilogy from Bocaccio, Chaucer, and the 1001 Nights, doesn't quite hold together as a unit. I wonder what Pasolini himself would have done with it.
Anyway, two years later Bertolucci made the semi-autobiographical Before the Revolution, his real first film, emerging as an exciting young European intellectual filmmaker. Pauline Kael called his youth at this time "astonishing" and described this second film as "a sweepingly romantic movie about a young man's rebellion against bourgeois life and his disillusion with Communism." Then would come The Conformist, The Spider's Stratagem, Last Tango in Paris, and Bertolucci would be put on the map once and for all as an important filmmaker, who happily has now (2014) gotten back to work after a decade-long hiatus.
I Am a Dancer (1972)
Negligible effort, essential contents
Viewers here or on YouTube who compliment this film as some sort of wonderful picture of a dancer are seriously misleading. Roger Ebert is absolutely right in his contemporary review when he laments that Nureyev allowed himself to be "talked into" doing such a "lousy movie." There is nothing to it but a narrator who as Ebert says tells us "in the worst Milton Cross Great Moments of Ballet style" only the most obvious and silly things about Nureyev, nothing of interest, nothing we don't know -- plus lengthy clips (at least they're sustained sequences, if badly filmed) of three or four ballets presented more or less randomly without commentary.
Interesting to see Nureyev do modern dance choreography (Glen Tetley's radically modern "Field Figures"). But the music by Stockhausen in the short segment shown is so grating you wonder how he and his female partner could dance to it. Also "notable" is the ballet "Marguerite and Armand" choreographed by Frederick Ashtonbased on Camille (with Fonteyn) created for her and Nureyev by an English choreographer. But it's also laughable, as Ebert remarked, the foolishness highlighted by a "ludicrous Nureyev entrance with cape swirling Lugosi-style." Of historical interest, but hardly worth watching all this ballet. It's remarkable how bad the image quality is of several of these ballet passages in this Seventies film.
The brief "framing" sequences of Nureyev in a dressing room preparing and then taking off makeup and changing back into street clothes after a performance with the tiresome narration are stagy. They are unrevealing and suggest, again as Ebert pointed out at the time, that the filmmakers didn't really know Nureyev -- and did not get to know him.
If you're obsessed with Nureyev, as ballet lovers can hardly help being, you'll have to watch this film for its classic sequences of him dancing, but as a film it ranks low on the scale of the many films about him or containing his dancing. If you haven't much time, watch instead the informative 2007 made-for-TV "Great Performances" series documentary, "Nureyev: The Russian Years," an excellent picture of his brilliant and exciting beginnings and defection to the West, which has essential contemporary film footage of his early dancing, atmospheric recreations, plenty of specific information, and a wealth of on-camera testimony by those who knew him then. "Nureyev: The Russian Years" is an admirable documentary. This is a negligible one.
People think this better than the first film, but is it?
Everyone is so eager to say the second Hunger Games movie ("Cathing Fire ") is even better than the first. Why do they say that? Anyway it's just assumed now viewers know the whole story, or at least saw Part One, so we plunge in this time, with less introduction to this ultra-popular young adults sci-fi tale by Susanne Collins. One may miss Part One's introductory material, its glimpses of the impoverished District 12, which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the protagonists, come from, and the gloriously absurd foppishness of the Roman Empire-inspired ruling class who prance around when the games, designed apparently both to distract and terrify the oppressed majority, are held.
In Part One, instead of following the Hunger Games rule of saving only one survivor of the dog-eat-dog competition, which is like an out-in- the-electronically-generated-force-field-infested-woods version of to-the-death Roman gladiatorial contests, two Tributes (contestants), Katniss and Peeta, get saved by cleverly posing as a romantic couple. Even maniacal dictators have a heart, or it just seems good public policy to celebrate love among the peons. (This new movie has much more hugging and kissing than killing, though it has a brutal whipping only 12 Years a Slave can outmatch, and of course killing does occur; it just doesn't seem to hurt quite as much as Part One's.) The "Victor," i.e., the Hunger Game annual winner -- the lowbrow mindset requires the word be explained -- normally gets to live an absolutely protected life from then on, his or her triumph saving him or her from future competitions.
Let's not fail to note that "him or her" is primarily "her," because this, like the "Twilight" series, is by and for primarily young adult females, and so the story has a strong girl-empowerment angle, for which everybody agrees the steely, glowing Jennifer Lawrence is the ideal central emblem.
But trouble is afoot. The year's ongoing public appearances of Katniss and Peeta in various Districts, when they stir things up by jettisoning their prepared spiels, show that a spirit of rebellion is afoot. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who seems to have nothing much to do but drink tea and watch these displays, is very displeased at these hints of trouble afoot among the lower orders. After all he's basically a fascist dictator -- though, by the way, if you just watch the Triumph of the Will you'll see that real-life Nazis did all this grandiose spectacle stuff way better than the Lionsgate folks.
Snow decides to break the rules and bring back last year's double Victors to the annual life-and-death competition again. When they're dead, Snow figures the revolutionary spirit will fade, thought this is a dubious notion, since the people are leading their own revolt, not Katniss and Peeta, however much they may serve as inspiring symbols.
Anyway, off we go: Part Two is Part One with a new urgency, because the whole annual Hunger Games scheme of keeping the masses too terrified to revolt now seems to be failing. We have a new director for the film itself (a method used to freshen up the Twilight series too), Francis Lawrence instead of Gary Ross, not that that's part of the story line. We've got some new name actors. A puffy, uneasy-looking Philip Seymour Hoffman, not by any means at his best, is the master of the games (was there one before?). There's a new pair of "mature" Tributes (to attract the adult audience? -- played by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer) supposedly chosen for brain, not brawn. Wright hence wears nerdy glasses and Plummer, who might seem an odd choice, is proclaimed a "genius" for a nutty chant that tips off the others to how the island they're competing on is set up. There's also an old lady called Mags, played by an 80-year-old actress (Lynn Cohen), who must be pretty athletic to hold onto Finnick (Sam Claflin) as he races through the woods with her clinging to his back.
Woody Harrelson, who continues to be a welcome note, partly because his character Haymitch's over-the-top style hardly seems any stretch at all for him, hasn't done anything interesting in between Parts One and Two - - unless you think Seven Psychopaths and Now You See Me are great movies. But Jennifer Lawrence (no relation to the director, I trust) on the other hand returns with greatly increased luster, having become a regular with a David O. Russell at the top of his game, winning the Oscar for her turn in his Silver Linings Playbook and coming up in his promising but as yet unseen American Hustle. Other actors give us more of the same. Stanley Tucci (as the broadly parodic game show master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman) deserves credit for being just as cannily manic and silly this time as last. But despite a lot of focus on Katniss' dazzling game intro wedding gown outfit -- she and Peeta were going to wed -- there doesn't seem to be as much spectacle this time, or as much dwelling on elaborate makeup and gear.
There is also the weakness that this time to make Katniss more admirable she fires only in self defense, and one doesn't feel the danger or the terrifying sense of attrition as participants are eliminated. Been there, done that. Spectacular effects -- lightening, explosions, holograms, shifting earth, falling sky -- can't hide the fact that it's all familiar this time, and you can make Katniss and Peeta almost die, but we'd have to be pretty dumb to worry. It's not that "Catching Fire" is better than Part One: it's just that more reviewers have drunk the Kool-Aid. That didn't happen to me; quite the reverse. Let's hope somehow the story will reengage me in the followup.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 146 mins., opened in US theaters 22 Nov. 2013.
Western that's a pointless series of killings
This dull yet extremely violent mythological western takes us to a middle-of-nowhere version of 1880s New Mexico: space and locale aren't very clearly established. Out in the desert, a pompous cleric-- who more than that is power-hungry and totally mad and evil -- whose local followers call him "Prophet Josiah" (busy and versatile English actor Jason Isaacs) comes upon two young men camping on what he says is his (and therefore God's) land. They are roasting a sheep, which he also says is his. Though they say they're connected to the governor of the state, he stabs one to death and shoots the other as he attempts to flee. This is how things go in this movie, interlaced with scenes of forced sex and verbal provocation. Like all the killings that are to follow, these are shocking, but leave us unmoved. This film is stylish, but pointless.
Later a similar fate befalls a Mexican-born farmer, Miguel Ramírez (Eduardo Noriega) whom Josiah, a thoroughgoing racist, also does not like, and therefore kills. Miguel's reformed prostitute wife Sarah (January Jones) comes looking for her husband, and eventually will realize Josiah's guilt but will kill not only eventually him, but a venial voyeur shopkeeper and various minions of Josiah. All this has been complicated early on by the arrival of the provocative, canny, also rather mad Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris with long white locks and a long pale blue coat with plaid clown paints). In the end, there is a series of killings by Sarah mostly, with a traditional shootout, but not much suspense. Might it be that New Zealander Andrew McKenzie, whose story is the starting point, was under the sway of Cormac McCarthy's novels? The adapted screenplay is by the Marin County, California twins, Logan and Noah Miller, who worked with Ed Harris before on their debut film Touching Home, but Logan is listed as the sole director this time around.
Ed Harris has fun with his role, enjoying Prophet Josiah's good food and then stabbing his nice mahogany dining room table with his own big murderous knife to illustrate his suspicion that Josiah has killed the two young men; and every so often doing a sprightly dance that is quite nutty and belies the age suggested by his grizzled beard and silvery locks. January Jones, Don Draper's prim, then adulterous, wife in the Sixties advertising TV series Mad Men, brings a certain cool dignity to her role, but she seems too pure to have been a whore, and her wrath hath not enough fury in it.
In France where this was presented under the title Shériff Jackson, the theatrical release was "Forbidden to under 12 years." Figaroscope, whose critic liked it a lot (it got an overall Allociné press rating of 3.0), said it "refers as much to Tarantino as to Peckinpah." Actually despite some mildly ornate dialogue this lacks any of the verbal excitement or wit of Tarantino, the terror and suspense of Peckinpah, or the apocalyptic grandeur of Cormac McCarthy. Furthermore the individual scenes don't seem to link together very well and hence not much narrative drive develops. The abrupt ending makes little sense, and leaves one unsatisfied. Some moments are exploitative or vulgar. Prophet Josiah uses women sexually right and left; some scenes suggest the filmmakers are thinking of There Will Be Blood. In fact there are many influences, none integrated fully.
Sweetwater, 95 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2013 and in the summer was released on DVD in the UK and Japan. Theatrical release in the US and France 9 Oct. and the US 11 Oct. It has done less well with US than French critics: Metacritic rating: 38. Todd McCarthy's assessment (no relation to Cormac) for Hollywood Reporter: "The Old West is portrayed as a venal loony bin in Sweetwater, a handsomely designed, occasionally funny but ultimately empty female vengeance yarn." Bill Graham's lead on twitch also rings true: "Sweetwater isn't easy to enjoy. For such a spare and tight film, there seems to be a lot of dead air. " He attributes that to a failure to integrate separate narrative lines. Screened for this review at UGC Odéon, Paris.
Moment of a young lost singer
"The Russian bankers loved me, see, because I'm a Russian Jew," says 22- year-old Amy Winehouse in her London vernacular voice to the Irish interviewer John Kelly. This terrific little movie about the brilliant young singer who flowered swiftly and then died tragically does what such a film should do. Maurice Linnane's Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle (2012) records the moment six years ago when the young artist came to the unique Other Voices festival held in a church in the remote Irish fishing village, interweaving a film of the entire concert with images of the beautiful place. it also includes not only Amy's modest, articulate, and information-filled interview with Other Voices' series editor Philip King, but judiciously placed clips to show us the influences and passions she mentions performing the music: Sarah Vaughan doing "I got it bad and that ain't good"; Carleen Johnson's "Don't look back in anger"; her favorite English jazz group Soweto Kinch and "Doxology"; Thelonious Monk; Ray Charles doing "Unchain my heart." Talking to Philip King, she vividly recalls her discoveries at the ages of six, nine, ten, fourteen.
She explains how her brother was a source: he "had everything" on recordings, jazz, blues, soul, Madonna, gospel, the latter, she says, only an influence in the past eighteen months. The film shows Mahalia Jackson singing, you're instantly swept away, and you know why the influence has become central for her. There was also rap, R&B, and girl bands in her eclectic mix.
In between is Amy herself on the church stage with her two guitar backup, including longtime accompanist Dale Davis, bass: "Back to Black," You know I'm no good," Love is a losing game," then again "Back to black," and you hear all the influences cunningly interwoven, jazz, soul, blues, gospel, in that flexible and moving young voice.
"I love you much/It's not enough/You love blow and I love puff/And life is like a pipe/And I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside
We only said goodbye with words/I died a hundred times/You go back to her/And I go back to
Black, black, black, black, black, black, black..."
It's the kind of quietly extraordinary concert where you can guess the audience members at the time probably pinched themselves, knowing they were lucky to be in that place at that time. It's quiet, offhand, yet remarkable musical portrait. Happily there is none of the public drunkenness and bad behavior that marred her later performances.
Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle, 60 mins., was shown as an episode of the "Arena" BBC arts documentary series (1975-present), voted by leading TV executives in Broadcast magazine as one of the top 50 most influential programs of all time. Maurice Linnane is an Irish TV and film director who has done films about U2 and The Cranberries. Screened for this review as part of the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Dancing in Jaffa (2013)
Bringing together "enemies" in dance
Hilla Medalia is an award-winning 36-year-old Israeli documentary filmmaker whose 2007 To Die in Jerusalem brought together in dialogue (by satellite) the mothers of two teenage girls paired on a 'Newsweek' cover, a Palestinian suicide bomber and an Israeli girl killed by her bomb. Her new film is about a less grim effort by famous ballroom teacher Pierre Dulaine to bring Jewissh and Palestinian kids together on the dance floor, and we see some little friendships and personalities bloom in his modest "peace process."
Jaffa, once a Palestinian town, is now a poor, mixed suburb of Tel Aviv. The intense 2009 joint Israeli- Arab feature film 'Ajami' focused on a rough part of Jaffa. In 'Dancing in Jaffa,' Hilla Medalia follows Pierre Dulaine as he goes back to Jaffa, where he was born in 1944, son of an Irish father and Palestinian mother. (In the film he never mentions that his mother was also half French, which explains "Pierre.") He has not been back since his family was driven out when he was a child. He comes to introduce to Palestinian-Israeli, Jewish-Israeli, and mixed schools in Jaffa his Dancing Classrooms, a social development program for fifth- graders that uses ballroom dancing "as a vehicle to change the lives of the children and their families" (Wikipedia). This time the primary "change" is the somewhat radical one of pairing Jewish and Arab girls and boys as dance partners.
In teaching gawky eleven-year-olds to dance, the pixieish Dulaine emphasizes etiquette, dignity, and respect from the get-go. He has to give up on one school because they boys won't dance. The more extreme Muslim males won't touch girls, or at first refuse. Things don't go that well at first, and for a while Pierre brings over from the States his (dancing, not life) partner of 35 years, Yvonne Marceau. Their dancing together for the kids inspires them: you can see the boys' eyes light up; they are charmed.
Medalia follows several of the kids more closely, notably Noor, a plump, dark Palestinian girl whose grief over the death of her father makes her sullen, depressed, and sometimes violent. Alaa is a small boy who lives in a shack with his poor fisherman father. Alaa, dark and all smiles, and Brenda, a curly-haired Jewish girl fathered out of a sperm bank, become partners for the upcoming dance contest, and their jaunt on Alaa's father's little rowboat heralds a budding friendship. But the real miracle is Noor, who shows rhythm and grace from the start, and whose selection for the competition is part of a reawakening and new happiness that you can't help being a little amazed by. Ah, fifth graders: this is the age when kids are most open and malleable.
The film shows other things, like Dulaine approaching his family's original residence and beating a hasty retreat when the current occupants are not just unfriendly but apparently downright hostile. Dulaine mostly speaks English, but he also speaks Arabic to the kids who understand Arabic. For Hebrew, he has an interpreter or the teachers translate for him. The schools he visits are Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Jewish, and mixed Palestinian-Jewish. There are seven different dances in the lessons and final contest, though merengue and rumba seem to predominate. At the final contest, all the parents are as excited as you'd expect. Each dance couple pairs a Palestinian and a Jew. And nobody seems to mind. At least for the moment, Dulaine has achieved reconciliation and crossed barriers that earlier, seemed uncrossable.
All this will be vaguely familiar, because you've probably seen a couple of other movies Pierre Dulaine inspired, the 2006 musical drama 'Take the Lead,' starring Antonio Banderas as Dulaine, and 'Mad Hot Ballroom,' a heartwarming and popular 2005 documentary about New York fifth graders who learn dance and take part in a dance contest. However, Dancing in Jaffa prefers not to mention these, and alludes only vaguely to Pierre Dulaine's fame as a ballroom dancer when he partnered with Yvonne Marceau at Jacob's Pillow, on Broadway, and in London, or his having been on the faculties of the School of American Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Juilliard School. This movie isn't about that. It's about little Jewish and Palestinian Israeli kids being polite and friendly and wiggling their hips gracefully together. 'Dancing in Jaffa,' a fairly simple and minimal film, isn't as priceless and cute or as proficiently made as Mad Hot Ballroom. But the gaps it bridges are, of course, more significant.
'Dancing in Jaffa,' 84 mins., in Arabic, English, and Hebrew with English subtitles debuted in NYC in January 2013, and was included in the Tribeca and Sydney festivals. It has been picked up by Sundance Selects. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 26-Aug. 10, 2013).