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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).
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
As I watched Joss Wheedon's energetic yet flavorless black and white contemporary movie version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing I found myself paying more attention to the set than to the actors. The film was shot at Wheedon's own house in Santa Monica. Wheedon directed Marvel Comics' The Avengers, which last year made $623,357,910 domestically, nearly tripling the production budget. Given that kind of bankroll, you can't help wondering where he chooses to bunk down. And this is a very nice house indeed, but quite free of conspicuous display. It's big, airy, light, pretty, tasteful. It looks like a great house for entertaining -- and indeed the play, as shot, unreels like a party, with characters continually pouring each other drinks from omnipresent wine bottles and bars. But the house also feels stripped of anything personal, as if "staged" for showing by a real estate agent to potential buyers. The pictures are bland, the chandeliers quiet. Contents of bookshelves look uniform. It's hard to tell if they contain books or DVD's. If they're books, does he read them, I wondered, or are they just filler? Outside there's a little hill and what could be a park beyond. It's luxuriously quiet. All very posh, understated -- and bland.
This movie is bland and neutral too. The processed black and white images, "fifty shades of gray," typically for digital lack the voluptuous richness of classic black and white films. Wheedon has added bits of pop music and some energetic stage business, but not much excitement. The result has the feel like a dressy college or small town production -- the clothes don't look cheap -- with a few pro actors sifted in to help things going. Nevertheless at times the rhythm is gone (if there is any) and the action goes momentarily quite disconcertingly dead. The delivery of lines is generally fluent; an effort has been made. These are good looking people. Nothing extraordinary. Most of the cast are said to be Wheedon regulars, the whole production sort of a "stunt" or a "lark" executed in a couple of weeks.
Of course one can only admire Joss Wheedon for spending his spare time in such a literate manner. But as I watched I was haunted by a damning memory of Cate Blanchett in a trailer of the new Woody Allen shown just before this film came on. The intense comic spin she put on her one or two lines blew away all the dialogue of Wheedon's Much Ado. Perhaps in the effort to shape it to contemporary American rhythms foreign to their original tone, the Much Ado dialogue is made curiously colorless. Clever ripostes lose their punch; elaborate parallelisms are muffled. To liven things up, slapstick gestures are added. Somebody falls down. A man flops around outside a window in a pathetically overwrought effort to make his eavesdropping comical. Someone has a cocktail in a swimming pool wearing diving goggles. Alas, a swimming pool adds nothing to Much Ado.
Shakespearean texts aren't easy to follow at the best of times. They're full of words whose meanings have since changed. The comedies have tricky plots with a galaxy of curious Italianate names to learn like Benedict, Claudio, Borachio, Leonato. This time, it's even harder. The actors aren't very easy to distinguish. Color, and colorful costumes, would have helped, but are absent. All the visuals and action are bravely contemporary. But the dialogue, though trimmed, is still Shakespeare. Hence there is a disconnect. The look, the behavior, the intonations are so far from the Elizabethan world, the sensation is like watching a film while listening to an unrelated sound track. One can scarcely credit that these words are coming out of these mouths.
I don't mean to imply that Wheedon's Much Ado is a total failure. Its neutrality may be seen as a virtue compared to such overbearingly baroque extravaganzas as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Its light touch explains how Anthony Lane of The New Yorker could choose to call it "a filigree of a film." Wheedon may take too much away, but he also doesn't add too much. In principle I would certainly totally agree with Lane in saying we should "laud the fact that this movie was made at all." Imagine the director of The Avengers, the violent high-concept horror film The Cabin in the Woods and TV series like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" bothering to make a movie, just for a lark, of a Shakespeare comedy. Lane is right, but quixotic, and doubtless tongue-in-cheek, in voicing the hope that "other large-scale directors will be inspired to launch similar ventures. Michael Bay does Congreve? J.J. Abrams blows us away with 'Lady Windermere's Fan'? Bring 'em on." Maybe. But it's not gonna happen.
Still it's hard to see how this movie has received so many good reviews. The mystery is partly solved by knowing that Joss Wheedon is a "cult" director, and that the Toronto debut of Much Ado had plenty of has fanboys and fangirls on hand, laughing uproariously at every effort to draw a chuckle, delivering a final ovation on cue. Once the ball gets rolling, critical acclaim tends to follow. And the critics' hearts are in the right place: they want to encourage "culture" on US screens. But American film goers in search of the best in stage-to-screen entertainment might do better to watch one of those UK import "National Theatre Live" productions.
Much Ado About Nothing, 107 mins., distributed by Roadside Attractions, opened in the US 7 June, with the UK release date 14 June 2013.
The East (2013)
Ambivalence about corporate evil in a cult thriller
The East is a thriller about a private intelligence firm that protects large corporations from "ecoterrorist" groups by infiltrating them and sabotaging them -- more or less the same thing the "ecoterrorists" do to corporations, but with law enforcement backup. The story's focus is confused; it takes no stand -- or does it? It gives rise to more questions than it answers, and its screenplay, though clever, and partly based on experience, feels improvised. But while the action is going on and the music is surging, the movie, as a genre piece, firmly holds our attention. It even has a touch of class, helped by some stellar actors and by the handsome cinematography of Roman Vasyanov. But it doesn't seem as memorable as some related movies, which is some ways it also too much resembles.
The protagonist of The East is a risk-taking, driven, and -- this is surely important -- very pretty young woman with an FBI background, called undercover Sarah, real name Jane (Brit Marling, who co-scripted, her third time at that). Directed by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), her coolly professional (read: amoral) company boss and handler, and seemingly falling in with it by chance after hopping a freight train with one of its members, Jane/Sarah penetrates a group called The East. Why it has this name is one of those unanswered questions. Getting its members' sympathy by cutting herself, Sarah is at once drawn into The East, and later unwittingly attracted to its lifestyle and anti-corporate views. In some ways it seems like a cult, rather like the one in Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, where Elizabeth Olsen resembles Brit Marling. But The East is cult lite: its members utter some mumbo jumbo, and engage in odd rituals like dining wearing straight jackets and playing a ponderous form of spin-the- bottle, but because they're "anarchists," I guess, they aren't under anybody's spell. The East's members eat Dumpster food, and squat in a large burned-out house, which turns out to have belonged to the family of one of their leaders, Benji. He is played by Alexander Skarsgård, who as usual is laid-back, appealing, and -- this is important -- handsome, making him a natural match for Sarah. Maybe the leader is Izzy (Ellen Page). She doesn't seem like a leader or ideologue either, but she is convincingly irritating and bossy -- the Ellen Page of Juno without the humor or the charm. She seems burdened with something: it turns out her father is an odious CEO.
Are anarchists (another label used) or "ecoterrorists" (a word I thought more usually related to environmentalism like Edward Abbey's) in groups that are like cults? Are there many of them? Are they successful? We don't know but hints are given out of the fact that currently the government, and not just private intelligence firms, is after them, and metes out severe punishments to them, one "terrorist" being much like another, in corporate and government eyes. Anyway, Sarah is involved with The East as a backup member when others disappear or are eliminated. But while her penetration may or may not be successful, her intention of blocking the group's "jams" seemingly isn't. These "jams" aren't surprise public sing-alongs; they're acts of corporate sabotage.
The East's first big "jam" with Sarah on hand involves the executives of a major drug company at a party. Infiltrating East members poison the corporate partiers by injecting one of their own medications into their glasses of champagne. This drug has caused brain damage, even though it's being administered wholesale to the people of Kenya. They know this because one of their own members with medical experience in Africa, known as Doc (Toby Kebbell) is himself a victim. (This is the same theme that The Constant Gardener treats in considerably more depth). Spin doctoring by the corporation follows when the sabotage comes out, but later also testimony indicating the drug's dire consequences on the brain have been made public. Fox News each time is the source. This is, by the way, a Fox Searchlight film.
The next "jam" is to personally capture and torment the heads of an oil company responsible for a different kind of poisoning. The water supply of a town has long been contaminated by arsenic and lead, causing deaths of children. It turns out The East has personal involvement here too: one of them is a member of the CEO's family. Benji, by the way, has no personal tie-in with corporate wrongdoing; he just became aware of the corrupting power of wealth by inheriting a lot of money.
And so it goes, with many emotional scenes, in one of which Sarah performs abdominal surgery, directed by Doc, whose brain damage from the drug he took has made his hands too shaky. Sarah and Benji (spoiler alert) kiss. Sharon reveals her chilly indifference to anything but the good of her intelligence firm's clients. Sarah seems ready to "turn," but she and Benji (spoiler alert again) "turn" in different directions.
In his NY Times review A.O. Scott hints that giving each key member of The East some purely personal reason for commitment to the "jams" loses any sense that "anarchists" or "ecoterrorists" have a shared ideology and common body of knowledge. Scott decides it's futile to wish that this movie "would frame the contradictions of contemporary capitalism more rigorously." What he means by "contradictions" he doesn't say but maybe the big one this movie ignores is how much the interests of corporations and government have become indistinguishable. Actually, what The East flirted with but couldn't do was endorse illegal anti-corporate activism. Or could it? Well, not in a commercial genre thriller distributed by Fox Searchlight.
The East, like Brit Marling's two previous writing-acting collaborations, debuted at Sundance. It opened in NYC and LA 31 May 2013; opens in the UK 28 June.
Kahdeksan surmanluotia (1972)
"Booze was the root of all evil in our family"
This 1972 black and white mini-series directed by and starring Mikiko Niskanen, which consists of four hour-plus episodes, has been called the crowning achievement of Finnish cinema, even by Aki Kaurismäki. Why? It's showing in various film festivals lately (2013), including Rotterdam, Seattle, and San Francisco, so a wider international audience can find out. Eight Deadly Shots turns out to be a seamless and immersive narrative of alcoholism, rural poverty, and the romance of moonshine. Niskaken begins with a true event, not graphically illustrated, however: a habitual drunk, Pasi (Niskanen) kills four policemen after terrifying his family. What follow are scenes from a marriage and a life as the fimlmaker imagines them leading up to these killings. The use of non-actors, the humanistic directness, remind one of the Italian neorealists; visually sometimes, with the use of closeups, Eisenstein and the great silents come to mind. The "potential for intimacy" of Academy ratio helps that emphasis on faces and individuals -- though ensemble scenes of a prayer meeting and a wedding make several of the most memorable set pieces. In other aspects of technique there are doubtless much more contemporary influences too. It's an intimate epic, a universal tragedy with pointed Nordic relevance. This is an unmistakable classic and deserves to be on a US Criterion DVD.
Pasi is an alcoholic. It's a social disease and he draws others in with him, notably his cohort and drinking partner Reiska (Paavo Pentikäinen), with whom he secretly makes moonshine white lightening in one of the first prolonged sequences. Pasi has a small farm and they pretend to be working in a field, bury the still in the ground and cover it with hay. One sees the fascination of illegal enterprise feeding their favorite pastime of drinking, which must work similarly for pot growers in the American Northwest. When Pasi hands over his concealed bottle of moonshine to other men at social events, it's like he's proselytizing, and they're also sharing an activity that's more fun because it's forbidden, illegal. The secret sharers often smile and giggle and can't resist another shot and then another.
And then comes the erosion of the family. Pasi has a wife, Vaimo (Tarja-Tuuliki Tarsala) and four kids, three boys and a girl, strong presences in the film, and the family's passive suffering slowly grows from his disappearances, his hangovers, his incoherence or distractedness, all this worsened by the rural poverty of their situation, a farm that can't support them, odd jobs (extensively shown) that wouldn't suffice either, even if the drinking didn't erode the performance. And then come the scenes, particularly surrounding the prayer meeting and the wedding, when the family is shamed, disappointed and humiliated, all sense of security and safety shattered, and Pasi's wife bitterly rebukes him, to no effect. Some time past midway through the second episode Pasi becomes quite clearly frightening to his family. "You always scare me when you're drunk," his older son says. He works very hard through the winter (the early moonshine-making was in the summer): rolling big logs into the river, digging deep trenches for sewers, cutting down trees and splitting logs, then hauling them through the snow with his horse, Liisa. Poor Liisa! This log-hauling sequence in particular is gruelingly real, remarkable filmmaking. The work is all seasonal: in the spring comes fishing, planting, and moving the logs stacked in winter down to the river. Everything about all this shows direct knowledge of the life, passionate commitment by Niskanen and everybody involved, and remarkable use of non-actors. One can't help wondering if some of them weren't really drunk when they were filmed in the many boozing sequences. The camera-work is equally remarkable the way it follows the action and captures the beauty of the landscape and the seasons, and the editing maintains a steady hypnotic pace.
Niskanen knew whereof he spoke. He apparently came from poor, rural roots, and worked in forestry and as a car mechanic in his youth. "Everyone may have their own truth," he says in the opening statement repeated before each segment, "but this is the truth I have seen and experienced, having been born into these surroundings, having lived this particular life and having studied these matters." Niskanen is a magnetic personality, a force of nature, and also the most awarded filmmaker in Finnish history. Renowned Finnish writer-filmmaker Peter von Bagh made a three-part TV documentary about him, Director on the Way to Becoming a Human Being: Mikko Niskanen's story, which reviews his acclaimed oeuvre. The actual man who shot the police, Tauno Pasanen, went to jail in 1969, and was pardoned by the president in 1982, probably moved by the film's assertion of social causes. Fourteen years later, still a drunk, he strangled and killed his long-suffering wife, who had moved to be near him during his incarceration, but from whom he had been divorced. This time he served 13 years and was let out on parole.
Kahdeksan surmanluotia (Finnish title), 316 mins., released in 1972, won Best Actor and Best Director Jussi awards. Screened for the review in the four-part version as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 2013.