Chris Knipp

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An embarrassment of riches
Sibyl is a disappointment after Victoria, Triet's highly amusing previous film with the same star, Virginie Efira. I was surprised to find people consider Sibyl a comedy. It's more like an account of how a woman in recovery from alcoholism returns to drinking, and why: it that a funny subject?

Too much is going on here, and it's hard to know how to take it. There's a good basic topic (if this can be said to have one): a psychiatrist who steals from a patient's life to turn it into successful fiction. A simpler, more conventional treatment of this could have been interesting enough. But Triet and cowriter Arthur Harari pile on the complexity and obscure this theme. On top of that there's a surreal back-and-forth-flashback-montage editing technique of very short clips (a bad new fad) that's pretentious and adds confusion.

Sibyl (Efira) was a bestselling author but a painful breakup with her former boyfriend Gabriel (Niels Schneider), with whom she has a child, led her to quit writing and turn to psychotherapy (go figure). She is happy now (it would seem) with a new man, Etienne (Paul Hamy) by whom she has had another child, a little girl. She is going to meetings to conrol her alcoholism and isn't drinking. (Just wait.)

She has a younger sister, Laure Calamy (from the Netflix French TV hit Call My Agent), who appears several times, most notably to give the little girl a quick lesson in emotional manipulation: she tells her mother she "lacks the tools to deal with life." An amusing, but gratuitous, moment.

As the film begins - but it is full of flashbacks to the affair with Gabriel, including a gratuitous full-on sex scene (eschewed in Victoria) - Sibyl can no longer resist the temptation to go back to writing and to that end is dismissing her patients. There is a crudely comic scene of a patient royally pissed off at this. Tellingly, he says he has given her his whole life. Soon we will learn that she's quite likely to use it.

At least she does when she takes on a new patient who forces herself upon her for an emergency. She is Margot Vasilis (Adèle Exarchopoulos, in full hysteria mode), an actress on contract for a film to be made on and around the island of Stromboli (evidently a homage to the 1950 Bergman-Rossilini film). She is pregnant by her costar, Igor Moleski (Gaspard Ulliel), but he's involved with the film's German director, Mika Saunders (Sandra Hüller of Toni Edrmann). The emergency is that she can't decide whether to have the baby or not, and she can't bear to tell Igor she's pregnant.

Sibyl is never any discernible help in this matter, and Margot goes back and forth. Meanwhile Sibyl - who has none of the qualities of the wisdom of that name, or even any moral compass - is furiously writing a manuscript based on Margot's sessions, and presumably other stuff cribbed from people's lives. As time goes on, publishers turn out to be very pleased with the results. She's also having play-therapy sessions with a little boy grieving for his dead mother. (These seem gratuitous, and not that interesting, but that goes for much of the material that crowds this over-stuffed film.) Flashbacks frantically depict intense encounters between Sibyl and the handsome Niels Schneider.

Soon - and here is when we enter into farcical territory, though it seemed heavy-handed to me - Sibyl winds up with the film crew on Stromboli, because Margot is even more confused and desperate, but the filmmaking must go on, so she, Sibyl, is called in to hep Margot function. But due to the emotional complications with Igor, Margot, and Mika, Mika also is nearing a meltdown, her directing becoming ever more neurotic and extreme. (I couldn't help wondering if the way Mika's directing is handled might make future actors hesitate to take on Triet as a director.)

In a series of heavy-handed filmmaking sequences, Sibyl emerges for a while as the only competent person around, except perhaps for Igor, who mostly holds his temper. (This is a long-suffering and selfless role for Gaspard Ulliel and one of his most unflattering.)

In a way Victoria was a wild, disorderly mess too, with Efira in a ditsy but sexy role. A hilariously absurd courtroom sequence toward the end, and the charm and suavity of the great Melvil Poupaud, and the sweetness of Vincent Lacoste as a babysitter enamored of Efira, make that movie charming and fun. That doesn't happen here.

Eventually the responsibility - or the succession of inappropriate roles, not to mention the inappropriate behavior in assuming them, all the while breaking all the rules of medical ethics - causes Sibyl to meltdown, and her return to alcoholism is spectacular. It's also embarrassing and clumsily staged. And profoundly unfunny. While I sided with French critics on Victoria against the anglo ones who trashed it, this time I have to agree with the Anglos, and hope that Triet will have more success with her material in her next feature.

Sibyl, 100 mins., debuted in Belgium and France May 24 and the same day at at Cannes, Justine Triet's first film in Competition there. It played in four other festivals including Toronto and New York, screened at the latter for this review, Oct. 5, 2019. AlloCiné press rating 3.7 (butI Victoria was 3.8, La bataille de Solférino 4.0), Metascore (same as for Victoria) 57%.

Jiang hu er nü

One of Jia's triumphs
Gangster love in modern China

A "gangster epic," some call this film. But more than that it's a love story, heavy on the disillusionment and survival and light on the romance. Epic in feel it nonetheless is, with its panoramic vision of survival and transformation in 21st-century China. It starts in 2001 and ends somewhere near today, where people are compulsively filming each other with their smart phones. Riveting, strangely reminiscent at times of Wong Kar-wai and clearly referencing some of Jia's earlier films, especially Unknown Pleasures and Still Life (and his first foray back into gangster territory since A Touch of Sin). There are also homages to John Woo. This is a reconsideration of the romantic heroine of those two films and its two parts are set in their respective settings, the towns of Datong and Fengjie. Organic and intense yet calm, Ash shows a master filmmaker at the top of his powers.

At the center and nearly always on screen is Jia's muse Zhao Tao as Zhao Qiao, owner of a little bar (with Mahjong) where she falls for a local gangster with an air of authority, Bin (Liao Fan, of Diao Linan's neo-noir BlackCoal, Thin Ice). We don't see him doing much gangstering, but there is violence, off-screen and on. Bin talks recurrently about being Jianghu, and for the non-sinologist that seems to mean, maybe, trouble with moral values (see Maggie Lee's more informed Variety review for specifics). It sometimes may mean panache, sprezzatura; other times, duty and resignation. Anyway Bin is a provincial Datong gangster, a big fish in a small pond whose many "brothers" clearly show him much respect at the little mahjong club.

In the first scene Bin takes out a pistol, and Qiao handles it. We hear of a businessman, probably shady, but without known enemies, being murdered after a sauna by young toughs. Violence on screen is sudden: quickly two similar aspiring young tough guys attack Bin with a metal pipe and badly damage a leg. He lets them off easy when they're identified and brought to him. Turns out the hit the wrong man. Later, Bin, looking posh, is riding with Qiao in a chauffeured car and the violence ramps up. He jumps out of his car to counter-attack a crowd of thugs in a brutal and physically specific street battle where at first he is winning, then very much not, she saves his life with that pistol. They both go to jail, but he gets out years sooner. When Qiao is released he isn't at the prison gate to meet her. She begins an odyssey in search of him.

This man and woman are more completely at the center than the figures in Jia's 2007 Still Life but this new film refers to the same great upheavals, particularly the decline of a mine industry and the displacement of 1.4 million people for the Three Gorges dam. There are several train trips that provide a sense of the dizzying shifts in population, industry, business that are the China of this period. In Jia as maybe with any great filmmaker genres don't mean anything. If this is a muted gangster tale as well as a disillusioned romance it's also a haunting vision of socioeconomic upheaval. Disco seems to have come late to China: there's an intense, rousing sequence of a massive crowd dancing to the Village People's "YMCA." There is a strong thread of humor and one is the snappy dance duo who appear here later turning up with sublime absurdity to perform at a gangster elder's funeral.

All that is prelude, though essential. The part that counts is Qiao's trip to Fengjie where she's heard Bin is, and she has his number in his cell but he's not answering. Like a picaresque hero she loses everything on a boat ride but uses clever scams and deceptions - why didn't we know she had them in her? - to restore funds and force Bin, who is dodging her, to explain himself. In this most compelling and personal section Qiao, as Maggie Lee puts it, "takes charge of her life with the desperation and resourcefulness that make her an icon of the Chinese can-do spirit." .Later both she and Bin are transformed and there are more train rides, one with a mesmerizing charlatan touting his travel or tour agency, he hasn't decided what but he's seen aliens. Qiao hooks up with him for a little while. Then she and Bin are together, for longer. But nothing lasts. The sense of personal emotional saga and richness of texture could not be better.

Important in the success of this masterful film is the sometimes fatalistic score, and the European team of dp Eric Gautier, who make the transitions from DV (in Academy ratio) to Digibeta, HD video, film and Redweapon cameras seamless and suggestive.

Ash Is Purest White / jianghú érnu ("Sons and daughters of Jianghu"), 137 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes including Munich, Jerusalem, Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Busan, Mill Valley, London, recut for Toronto. It was screened for this review at the New York Film Festival, 10 Oct. 2018. MK2 is the producer.

Jiang hu er nü

One of Jia's triumphs
Gangster love in modern China

A "gangster epic," some call this film. But more than that it's a love story, heavy on the disillusionment and survival and light on the romance. Epic in feel it nonetheless is, with its panoramic vision of survival and transformation in 21st-century China. It starts in 2001 and ends somewhere near today, where people are compulsively filming each other with their smart phones. Riveting, strangely reminiscent at times of Wong Kar-wai and clearly referencing some of Jia's earlier films, especially Unknown Pleasures and Still Life (and his first foray back into gangster territory since A Touch of Sin). There are also homages to John Woo. This is a reconsideration of the romantic heroine of those two films and its two parts are set in their respective settings, the towns of Datong and Fengjie. Organic and intense yet calm, Ash shows a master filmmaker at the top of his powers.

At the center and nearly always on screen is Jia's muse Zhao Tao as Zhao Qiao, owner of a little bar (with Mahjong) where she falls for a local gangster with an air of authority, Bin (Liao Fan, of Diao Linan's neo-noir BlackCoal, Thin Ice). We don't see him doing much gangstering, but there is violence, off-screen and on. Bin talks recurrently about being Jianghu, and for the non-sinologist that seems to mean, maybe, trouble with moral values (see Maggie Lee's more informed Variety review for specifics). It sometimes may mean panache, sprezzatura; other times, duty and resignation. Anyway Bin is a provincial Datong gangster, a big fish in a small pond whose many "brothers" clearly show him much respect at the little mahjong club.

In the first scene Bin takes out a pistol, and Qiao handles it. We hear of a businessman, probably shady, but without known enemies, being murdered after a sauna by young toughs. Violence on screen is sudden: quickly two similar aspiring young tough guys attack Bin with a metal pipe and badly damage a leg. He lets them off easy when they're identified and brought to him. Turns out the hit the wrong man. Later, Bin, looking posh, is riding with Qiao in a chauffeured car and the violence ramps up. He jumps out of his car to counter-attack a crowd of thugs in a brutal and physically specific street battle where at first he is winning, then very much not, she saves his life with that pistol. They both go to jail, but he gets out years sooner. When Qiao is released he isn't at the prison gate to meet her. She begins an odyssey in search of him.

This man and woman are more completely at the center than the figures in Jia's 2007 Still Life but this new film refers to the same great upheavals, particularly the decline of a mine industry and the displacement of 1.4 million people for the Three Gorges dam. There are several train trips that provide a sense of the dizzying shifts in population, industry, business that are the China of this period. In Jia as maybe with any great filmmaker genres don't mean anything. If this is a muted gangster tale as well as a disillusioned romance it's also a haunting vision of socioeconomic upheaval. Disco seems to have come late to China: there's an intense, rousing sequence of a massive crowd dancing to the Village People's "YMCA." There is a strong thread of humor and one is the snappy dance duo who appear here later turning up with sublime absurdity to perform at a gangster elder's funeral.

All that is prelude, though essential. The part that counts is Qiao's trip to Fengjie where she's heard Bin is, and she has his number in his cell but he's not answering. Like a picaresque hero she loses everything on a boat ride but uses clever scams and deceptions - why didn't we know she had them in her? - to restore funds and force Bin, who is dodging her, to explain himself. In this most compelling and personal section Qiao, as Maggie Lee puts it, "takes charge of her life with the desperation and resourcefulness that make her an icon of the Chinese can-do spirit." .Later both she and Bin are transformed and there are more train rides, one with a mesmerizing charlatan touting his travel or tour agency, he hasn't decided what but he's seen aliens. Qiao hooks up with him for a little while. Then she and Bin are together, for longer. But nothing lasts. The sense of personal emotional saga and richness of texture could not be better.

Important in the success of this masterful film is the sometimes fatalistic score, and the European team of dp Eric Gautier, who make the transitions from DV (in Academy ratio) to Digibeta, HD video, film and Redweapon cameras seamless and suggestive.

Ash Is Purest White / jianghú érnu ("Sons and daughters of Jianghu"), 137 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes including Munich, Jerusalem, Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Busan, Mill Valley, London, recut for Toronto. It was screened for this review at the New York Film Festival, 10 Oct. 2018. MK2 is the producer.


Norwegian series redefines teen drama
I discovered this amazing and unique Norwegian series, set around an Oslo high school, this summer (2017) with S3 (Isak & Even), which got more global attention and was published on more platforms and more commented on by fans because of its appealing and destined-to-be-classic gay teen coming-out love story, and then watched S1 (Jonas & Eva) & S2 (Noora & William), moving on just in time for the current, ongoing S4 (Sana) up the the end, seeing the final episode of S4 on its actual final real-time day The Eid (Eid al-Fitr ) June 25. The real-time, of- the-moment quality was essential to the authenticity of the series and its proximity to the present teenage generation. (We are told that the series was made up as it went along, with input from teens, and nobody knew during S3 who was going to be featured in S4.)

Amazingly all this that I watched was not officially published but local fans' artisanal publications on various platforms with homemade but spot-on idiomatic English subtitles (including all the text messages and explanations of wordplay, maybe the best subtitles ever). It was easy to get hooked and hunt for more and more wherever you could find them. There was nothing like it ever. It was so good and these kids and their talk were so fascinating it made you study the texts and want to learn Norwegian (which I loved the sound of, but found pretty baffling). All this came at kind of a serendipitous time right after I'd devoured all but the last not yet translated of Karl Ove Knausgård's addictive 6-vol. series of autobiographical novels, "My Struggle," so I was used to living vicariously in Norway.

Besides being innovatively naturalistic with its real-time scenes and online broadcast, heavy use of SMS etc., it also boldly covers a social range using appropriate actors, notably Tarjei Sandvik Moe as "Isak," who became a global gay heartthrob, yet was a an actual 15, 16, 17-year-old student at the Hartvig Nissens high school featured in the series. And what a compelling, watchable young actor he is! We live through his lies and dodges, double-takes and self-discoveries moment by moment.

Each of the 4 seasons is the love story of one couple, all connected with the others through the school. S1 is an ordinary (cute) couple, and the boy, Jonas (Marlon Langeland of the imposing eyebrows) spoils their love through excessive jealousy of the beautiful Eva (Lisa Teige). S2 is a screwed-up couple, a snobbish, particular girl and a rich, spoiled, damaged top dog. Noora's and William's story is painful and as true as Isak & Even's. When N & W finally connect, it's super-intense, but also fragile. S3 is Isak, the gay-questioning boy who has to come out to himself, while pursued by the older, more sure Even, who yet has psychological issues. Their first dates are romantic, a scene based on Baz Luhrman's Romeo & Juliet. Then, after the requisite heartbreak and Isak's difficult coming out to his (totally accepting) pals, who sort of knew it all along, as did Emma (Ruby Dagnall), the girl he was stringing along and using as a facade, "Evak" wind up moving in together and being the most loving and stable couple of all, a pearl of a romance cultivated in adversity. Also interesting, a microcosm of the school social groupings, is Isak's loyal little posse of Jonas, Magnus and Mahdi and himself, who talk of nothing but sex though only one, Jonas, of S1, may know anything about it so far. Magnus is the one who has to get laid, his naive eagerness a running joke, till he finds a gf, somebody we've been seeing all along.

S4, though it continues with all the former characters, focuses primarily on the most baddass and arguably the most complex and interesting character, the Muslim, hijab-wearing Sana (the excellent Iman Meskini), who as time goes on very much finds a boy she loves, Yousef, who's from a Muslim family, but sadly, her religious beliefs don't allow her to be with him when she discovers his attitude to God.

The joyous party at the end both celebrates the young actor's esprit-de- corps and underlines that "SKAM" is throughout very much an ensemble piece, with no minor characters, because they all count, Chris, Vilde, Isak's gay roommate and scold Eskild, the bus groups, the top dog boys, everybody. Mostly to these kids, adults don't count that much, and are seen only from the neck down,except for Sana's parents, who do count for her, and the hilarious, wise school "nurse", more an offbeat counselor, Dr. Skrulle (Astrid Elise Arefjord), whose little scenes of quirky advice-giving are priceless.

I confess to by now having watched some "SKAM" episodes three, four, or more times. Each time gets better and I marvel more at the wit, adorableness, and how, say, Isak and his posse play off each other when they're together. These kids are incredible. You may think of the UK series "Skins," which is remarkable in its own way, but it is totally different, bent on grimness, and dark humor and absurdity, and not as real and true, or as helpful. Because watching "SKAM" can be healing and enlightening, as well as touching and fun. And it's basically about togetherness and love.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Baumbach's shot at maturity and warmheartedness
One reviewer, Jessica Kiang, says it evokes "so many other media," theater, short story, TV, she doesn't know why it's a film. She puts her finger on something. This is scattershot, fragmented, and it does that in a sincere and not unsuccessful effort to adopt a warm and comprehensive point of view. This is also perhaps the former Wes Anderson writer's most Wes Anderson film.

It is mainly a decent attempt to be not dry, witty, and cruel like The Squid and the Whale (still an entertaining and watchable film), but, only 12 years later, to be about being an adult, having children, learning to forgive one's father and face his mortality, and so on, and so forth. The "stories" faceting helps to do that, but leave one with a messy, shattered vision. Maybe this is a transition, and that would be from cleverness to something like wisdom, a harder mark to strike.

There are two brothers, the financially successful Matthew (Ben Stiller), and Danny (an unusually straightforward Adam Sandler), once interested in being a musician, but never having done anything, really. Their father Harold (Dustin Hoffman, also straightforward and fine), who was married five times, is a sculptor, but whether he was any good is a question the sons must face. At any rate he taught for 33 years at Bard, where Danny's daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten) studies and is a "promising filmmaker." Or does she just partake of the pretension of the younger generation and its ease with provocation, since her little films are comic-pornographic? There is also Jean, a sister (the surprising Elizabeth Marvel), who was always ignored but does her duty of being present nonetheless and has one speech of protest.

A storyline that strikes home for some of us is the one that finds Harold's career highpoint in a box in storage at the Whitney Museum because yes, they once did buy one of his sculptures. And yet Harold, struggling with age and failing powers, deceives himself into thinking inclusion in a Bard faculty show is a "retrospective" or that a photo album of his sculptures will lead to one, and that will give his career a boost. This is about male ego and self-deception but also about sons coming to terms with the real size of their once enormous and threatening and detestable fathers.

The film isn't heavily plot-driven, and that's a good thing, though it has solid plot elements, especially revolving around hospitals for Harold, who has a life-threatening crisis, and for Danny, who faces up to the need for a hip replacement. Matthew takes care of it, even to a private room, and this is one of numerous sequences about the brothers' rapprochement. Any rapprochement with Harold is fraught because however diminished, he remains as annoying as he ever was. In an exaggeratedly frank speech by Danny at the faculty show, which Harold can't attend because he's in the hospital, Danny says he hopes his father was a good artist because if he wasn't, "he was just a prick."

This strikes a false note, due to Sandler's unusually straightforward delivery here. This is a new Sandler, to go with the new, more humane and serious Baumbach. This is far from his wittiest film and as Kiang's comment hints, there are ordinary, sit-com- ish elements, but there are home truths about growing up that make the less sprightly texture seem worthwhile. This is all about the three main males as finely played by Hoffman, Sandler, and Stiller, but there are other good actors including Candice Bergen, Emma Thompson, Judd Hirsch, even a cameo by Sigourney Weaver that becomes one of several recurrent jokes that help keep the tone light.

This was at Cannes, then the NYFF Main Slate, but released on Netflix 13 Oct. Watched online, but in Paris. Also showing in US theaters, including IFC and Landmark. Metacritic rating 79%. There's a lot to cover here in a thumbnail review. It takes a while to get going, but when it does, it feels warm and kind, and you appreciate its sincerity and goodwill. And yes, Dustin Hoffman and Adam Sandler are good even if Ben Stiller is the closest to a grownup, among the males anyway. Watched 4 Nov.


A hip, talented debut
A hip coming of age road movie is the first feature from gifted Mexican writer- director Alonso Ruizpalacios. Shot in academy ratio and black and white and marked by a fresh use of camera, editing, sound, and humor and a breaking the fourth wall that owes something to the Nouvelle Vague, it focuses on Tomás, a slim, pale teenage bad boy ("güero" is Mexican slang for light-skinned) whose mother can't cope with him, so sends him from Veracruz to live in Mexico City for a while with his older brother "Sombra" ("dark-skinned"). Sombra is a student at the national university, but it's disrupted by a huge strike (loosely based on the 11-month strike of 1999), and he's "on strike from the strike," sitting idly in his trashy concrete apartment, a depressed slacker trying to teach himself card tricks. They get out, with his roommate and best friend Santos and girlfriend Ana (a strike leader), on a mission to find a cult Mexican rock idol of the Sixties called Epigmenio Cruz admired by their late father and both brothers, reportedly dying of cirrhosis of the liver, to pay him homage. It's said that Cruz once "made Bob Dylan cry." Ruizpalacios has acknowledged a debt to Truffaut, Godard, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, and Fellini, but his light touch, wit, and grasp of earthy Spanish vernacular (though he studied in London and speaks perfect English too) also link Güeros with Latin American youth films like Alex dos Santos' 2006 Glue, Che Sandoval's You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiestt (2009), and the work of Fernando Eimbcke and Gerardo Naranjo. This won prizes at Berlin and Tribeca and had a limited US release May 2015 (see A.O. Scott's enthusiastic and detailed description in the NYTimes). Now out on DVD from Kino Larber. Watched on a DVD provided by Rodrigo Brandão (Indie Strategy) 2 Jan. 2015.

Monterey Pop

Editing as good as the music
Rewatching Monterey Pop.

At the moment (these things don't last) you can watch the Criterion Collection version of this film on YouTube and I just finished watching it. The Woodstock film may be more extensive, and the event more historical, and some of the songs and acts seem dated now. But. . . this is the quintessential Sixties moment, the Summer of Love in pure simple unspoiled form. The Hells Angels sit quiet. The cops smile and welcome. Several of the sequences of music paired with audience are beyond brilliant. Notably Big Brother and the Holding Company and Ravi Shankar, both evoking blissed-out peace and meditativeness.

Whatever he was on, and he was on plenty, Jimi Hendrix's performance of "Wild Thing" seems like mindless exhibitionism and provocation. On the other hand, you can't forget this act. Shankar's music is eternal and timeless, its blend of rhythm, improvisation, sparring and unity reducing music to its universal essence - and its unifying spirit of pleasure and fun.

From a Wikipedia article about the film: "Among Pennebaker's several camera operators were fellow documentarians Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles. The painter Brice Marden has an "assistant camera" credit, and Bob Neuwirth, who figured prominently in Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back, acted as stage manager. Titles for the film were by the illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Featured performers include Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Hugh Masekela, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Mamas & the Papas, The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, whose namesake set his guitar on fire, broke it on the stage, then threw the neck of his guitar in the crowd at the end of "Wild Thing"."

Watch just the 18-minute Ravi Shankar sequence, also currently available on YouTube by itself. . This is a classic musical performance movie sequence.

London Spy

A mixed bag but a very unique miniseries
A late comment, but I actually did watch this series when it was new, and obsessively, repeating episodes multiple times - at first. Now I'm coming back to it and rewatching it on Netflix streaming. I thought it was going to have lost its magic but no, for all its flaws it's still compulsively watchable.

Many of the things said here that are contradictory are also true. The writing is pretentious and overwrought, but it's also a haunting and entrancing story. Yes, it's utterly absurd the things that happen, but some of the most basic emotions out of which the story is built - the loneliness and need, the romantic affair - are very real and memorable. Perhaps the relationship between Danny and Scottie is a gay old man-young man cliché, but it's still touching and real. The gay spy theme runs up into dangerous clichés too, but still is highly original. And after all, despite the negative stereotypes some have pointed to, this is a spy story where the gayness is not just a weapon or a liability but simply central, a given, and in that regard, Whishaw as an out gay actor can be proud to have played such a marvelous role in it. Above and beyond any specifics of the story there is simply the fact of Danny as a complex, attractive character, basically a mess, and yet utterly sexy and sweet, the kind of gay young man an old dear like Scottie would be happy to love and protect.

Edward Holcorft I'm uncomfortable about. The actor seems so stiff and affected. But that also fits the character of Alex perfectly well: the flaw is in the conception of Alex by the minds behind the series. Jim Broadbent is a consummate pro. But obviously it's Ben Whishaw who makes it all worthwhile and he's touching, real, and as the boyish gay young man, utterly adorable. My excessive fascination with the character of Danny that Ben plays is what kept me coming back over and over, but it was outmatched by my pleasure in Whishaw's authentic and appealing performance, which is one of the best I've seen him in, and he's always good. He's one of the best actors of his generation, some even think the best. There are more mercurial and astonishing ones like Tom Hardy. None so cuddly as Ben though. Sorry I didn't see him as Hamlet.

Then Charlotte Rampling comes along and though it's one of her "standard" roles there's nothing standard about her, she's terrifyingly off-putting, in top form. The second, post-Alex phase investigating Alex is very good. In it, everything in the first phase is undercut and mystified, and this is good, through it seems more programmatic and more far-fetched than the first. It's the last phase where things go down the rabbit hole into sheer nonsense. And you cease to be invested in the story as you were early on. Perhaps you knew this was going to happen. But you liked the overwrought-ness, the camp, so much you accepted anything, and the acting and settings and cinematography were so classy, it was okay. Then it's just bonkers, and it's all more or less thrown away.

Everything is totally stylized. Some of the editing I find annoying, like the jump cuts and paralleled lines of dialogue in the gay love sequence. It all becomes cloying, too-too. And yet, and yet, guilty pleasure though it may be, it's compulsively watchable. I do not know about the other work of the much talked about Tom Rob Smith. I know director Jakob Verbruggen has done other good things. But in "London Spy," the story eventually deteriorates into the preposterous so you don't care about it. Yet it's made its impression, for the excessive but compelling craftsmanship and the magical acting of Ben Whishaw. For all its flaws this weaves a magic spell and leaves a special memory.

Tatara Samurai

A brave blacksmith finds his inner samurai in a wedding of craft and virtue
Tatara Samurai is an unusually contemplative martial arts movie, also a beautiful one with exquisite landscapes and satisfyingly clear sword battles in which every stroke is distinctive. It's also another deconstruction of the samurai ideal. The hero Gosuke (Shô Aoyagi) discovers it is better to be a traditional artisan than a samurai, and he returns to practice his ancestral calling of murage, blacksmith, forging superb, stainless steel in Tatara Village after an attempt to go out to fight to defend the town from marauders. "My very existence is being sustained," he declares in a meditative voice-over at the end, "I surrender myself to the flow of nature. Yielding to divine will. Letting be all that is around me." He is becoming one with bushido, the Japanese spirit - the real subject of this film.

It's the Sengoku Period, the late sixteenth century, the brief time when the Japanese were to develop matchlock rifles, which we see people learn how to use. There is a sense that the sword may become obsolete - or it may not; for quite some time it didn't. The film is notable for its physicality, the authenticity of the crafts it shows in action. And it is an advertisement for traditional Japanese village life. It is not ironic, and as it is beautiful, it is, one supposes, a little humorless.

The fine Tatara-buki steel-making technique of the Shimane Prefecture seen in this film is perhaps ideal for these rifles, but more truly has its value for traditional samurai swords also, of course. It is in demand, and that's why the village is threatened. You sense that Gosuke, with his sensitive face and big eyes and his inner calm, is not suited to sword fighting, but when the town's leading swordsman is slain, Gosuke wants to fight, and works out alone enthusiastically with a wooden sword. Through a wily old merchant, Sobei (Takashi Sasano), Gosuke meets Yohei (Masahiko Tsugawa), who sets him up to meet someone from the honored Oda Army. Gosuke makes the journey gladly.

The film's most intense conflict is between Yohei and Shinpei (Naoki Kobayashi), Gosuke's childhood playmate, who comes from a noble martial tradition. While Yohei says rifles are the coming thing and will be the only way to defend the village, Shinpei warns against this idea and suspects it conceals a plan to betray the villagers.

When he arrives at the military camp and presents himself for service Gosuke is judged as having "good bearing" and accepted into the army. Bu he is unable to function in battle, and is plunged into fighting right away. It's a wonder he survives. He soon leaves Senkichi, his new friend, and returns home. There, he feels humiliated. But he is greeted by some thankfully, for many of his friends and family are delighted that he is still alive. It was never thought he would be. (The women in the film are mostly silent, but they are present and caring, wishing there could be an end to war and killing.)

Later Shinpei goes away, seemingly joining the enemy. Actually he is perhaps carrying out a kind of counter intelligence. But when he reappears, Yohei takes advantage of his somewhat mysterious absence to call him a traitor. And then something horrible and rather inexplicable happens. While the villagers are preparing to ward off invaders, building ramparts and lookouts to repel an armed attack, the town is peacefully infiltrated by men who say they are coming to protect them. Thus they are betrayed, and in the midst of this the local leader, Shinnosuki (Akira) is shot in cold blood by Yohei. After these betrayals and confusions Gosuke realizes the essence of the samurai - honor and compassion - dwelled within him all along, and that he can best serve his ancestors and his region by making fine steel.

A fundamental principle of a good action film is that it needs to take a breather from time to time, and Tatara Samurai excels in this. A typical moment shows Gosuke quite still, thinking. He is listening to his inner nature and to the universe. But though there are no grand and super-violent sequences of sword fighting, there are some individual sword fights, particularly one, in which there is a delicious surprise ending where the bad guy turns out to have been run through while just missing the throat of his village opponent. This is one of several fights in which every blow counts - something almost never achieved in American blockbusters today. Nishikôri's film is all about authenticity.

But there is a lot going on, and we don't necessarily grasp all of it the first time. This is a movie about vocation and inner duty that only appears to be a movie about sword fighting and betrayals. How can we understand the standoff between Lord Oda, and his subordinate, Hideyoshi, that deepens - so that Gosuke finds himself in the middle of the conflict? But Gosuke is always there, and when Yohei slaughters Shinnosuke, he has his finest, and most astonishing and symbolic moment, when he steps forward and - both brave and effective for once - attacks Yohei with his own finely bladed sword - and slices Yohei's rifle in half - leaving him astonished and humiliated. He need do little more. It is a triumphant moment for Gosuke, for the sword, and for the art of murage and the village's special superior steel. Knife cuts rifle!

The movie feels unusually authentic because it was all shot - on film , with vintage Panavision lenses- on location at a traditional village constructed for the shoot, including a traditional forge, which we see being built, where Tamahagane/Tatara steel was actually produced, director Nishikôri explained in an interview. The director of photography was always ready to capture striking natural landscapes and skyscapes and there are some spectacular, but never clichéd, ones.

Get Out

Your worst nightmare
The first-time director is an African American actor, comedian, film director, and screenwriter, formerly of the Comedy Central show Key & Peele. One reviewer says this will be "the boldest - and most important - studio genre release of the year." The horrible rich white family out in the country focuses its malevolent attention exclusively on black men. Their daughter brings her black boyfriend to meet them for the weekend. It's a Brit who plays the boyfriend, Chris Washington, Daniel Kaluuya. You identify with him throughout. As his TSA employee best friend Rod, comic LilRel Howery breaks the tension nicely by providing humor. Some say the play with racial ideas is more a focus than the horror, and it's not horrible enough. It's just a broad and simple horror movie - seeing the poster for Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness on the way out reminded me how much more complex and visually rich that is. Nonetheless I was shattered when it was over. This is a movie that skillfully ramps up feelings and concerns about race we already have or would have. Metacritic rating 83%. Watched at Regal Union Square on its opening day 24 Feb.

The Birth of a Nation

A somewhat dubious triumph begins a promising career
If I were African American, I would approach Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner's brief but powerful 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, with awe and reverence and with trepidation, willing it to be as important and powerful and richly constructed as Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. But apart from not being African American, I am approaching things backwards. I've already seen both movies, and Birth of a Nation doesn't measure up. It doesn't brutalize the viewer with McQueen's enthusiasm, but it also lacks his panache. (I sort of hate 12 Years a Slave, but that is partly because it is so impressive). And Birth of a Nation also, as stated by David Edelstein in his review for New York Magazine, on which I will rely heavily, is filled with clichés. I'm trusting Edelstein that it's a cliché that when a "house N-word" is turned into a "field N-word," the first thing he'll do is prick his fingers on the cotton. I trust Edelstein that Parker "has taken the outlines of his story from history, his symbolism from Griffith, and his rhetorical strategy from Mel Gibson, who's thanked in the credits and whose Brave­heart has been cited by Parker as a favorite movie." The latter fact shocks me. Braveheart doesn't seem to me a prism through which to view even a violent and brief episode of American history.

But Nate Parker, who wrote, directed, and stars in Birth of a Nation (which as Edelstein puts it "takes on" D.W. Griffith's 1915 enormously influential racist propaganda film of the same name, which jump-started and revived the Ku Klux Klan), is very talented, as well as very ambitious. To take on in one's first feature an epic, but potentially dangerous, moment of black history, is ambitious indeed. I believe that McQueen too was out of his depth, partly through being English not American, but McQueen took on 12 Years a Slave only after one great success (Hunger) and one impressive failure (Shame). And instead of taking on the lead in those two, he had a great new star, Michael Fassbender, to play both leads, a lucky collaboration indeed. But Parker is excellent in every scene in the role of Nat Turner, supple, subtle, and appealing. It's true (Edelstein again) that this makes him seem a better actor than director. But there's always the possibility that he might do better as a director with less daunting material from another hand.

The thing that troubles me most in The Birth of a Nation is the stock villains, and it's even a little sad that Jackie Earle Haley is called upon to play Raymond Cobb, the evil runaway slave hunter who pursues Nat and his family for decades. Some cast members seem cheapened by their roles in this film. It still remains true that it's a film of grand ambition, but melodramas have grand ambitions too, which come to noting.

Birth of a Nation is not a miserable failure; it's not that simple. It's a more than middling effort with resonant moments, though some of the raves seem to come from writers dazzled by a first impression and Sundance buzz. However much it may be a grand failure with embarrassing elements, it still continues to pave the way fur a continuing line of ambitious African American films about important moments in America's history of slavery, which needs to be continually in our faces and on our minds. Ava DuVernay's searing Netflix documentary update and synthesis of what we know that opened the New York Film Festival, The 13th, is another valuable chapter in this nation's necessary progression toward self-knowledge and change in the area of race.

Edelstein asserts that Parker's movie is "not a garish vigilante cartoon like Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained" but rather " a religious epic, a battle between the use of Scripture that justifies enslavement for economic ends and Scripture that justifies violence to overcome it. Nat is not just a preacher but also a mystic. As in life, he is possessed by visions, and he launches his rebellion after a solar eclipse, which he perceives as a sign from God." That reads ringingly; it's a nice way of summing up the film. But rather than saying Nat's a mystic as well as a preacher it would be better to say he's not fully a preacher at all. He's called upon to be one supposedly to earn money for his master and former playmate, Samuel Turner (Armand Hammer) by coaching other landowners' slaves to be more obedient using the Bible. And he's a bit of a mystic because he has to improvise with no other knowledge and only limited reading of the Bible. Matybe Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is "a vigilante cartoon" but it starts out openly as one. And in Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie Tarantino delivers a white racist villain far more fascinating and complex, perversely appealing, than anyone Parker conjures up. This of course happens through brilliantly entertaining dialogue, which Birth of a Nation doesn't have and which enables Tarantino to have fun with a supremely depressing subject. But only Tarantino could do this.

It's being said that Parker's movie is losing its credibility because he was involved in a rape case (in which he was acquitted) when he was in college. The young man charged with him was convicted, and the victim later committed suicide. This should be no more relevant than the fact that the movie was the big hit at Sundance this January. Nate Parker still should have a promising future.

Birth of a Nation, 120 mins., debuted Jan. at Sundance; also Toronto, Vancouver, Rome, and London. US theatrical release began 7 Oct. 2016. Screened for this review at Regal Union Square, NYC on opening day.

Death by Design

The terrible toll that tech takes
This is a film about the dark side of tech and are you surprised that Apple is the biggest villain? A mostly talking heads documentary can still be very valuable, and Sue Williams' film is living proof. So while the film has plenty of atmospheric and revealing film footage of customers, workers, and (damaged or damaging) environments, what counts most in Williams' film are the people who address the camera. Here are some of them.

Ma Jun, Institute of Public Environmental Affairs (China), explains that more than 60% of China's groundwater is not suitable for human use. Ted Smith, a Stanford lawyer and environmental activist who founded Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, reports on the toxic chemicals stored in Silicon Valley that have entered the ground and says the EPA Superfund program requiring environmental cleanup of factory damage is more active in Silicon Valley than anywhere else in the country. All the big tech company Silicon Valley locations are Superfund sites, he says, and cleanup will take not decades but centuries. This will come as news to most of us even who live in or near Silicon Valley.

More about this comes from Amanda Hawes, a lawyer on a team that brought a class action against IBM in the Nineties for workers with health problems from chemicals used in company production. We meet a woman who cares for her son born with severe developmental disability due to her exposure to chemicals 30 years ago. (Mark, the son, is not a "talking head." It's his body and his helplessness that speak.)

Since 1999, the consumer electronic gadgets have snowballed, with severe consequences. Scott Nove, Worker Rights Consortium, explains how outsourcing enables companies like Apple to bypass human safety rules and allow young poor workers from the country to be pushed to the point of suicide in China so 100 million iPods can be sold or a million iPhones can be delivered in a week.

In country, we meet Li Quiang of China Labor Watch: workers' pay is so low it accounts for only 1% of iPhones' cost. The film shows young Chinese assembly line electronics workers, and a few speak to the camera about the pressures to produce and work long hours. Foxconn is the big Chinese Apple supplier, we learn, biggest private employer in the country, over a million workers. Twelve hour days, 30 days without a day off: that's the kind of slave labor that produces the iPhones, iPads, etc., that Americans are so addicted to. Workers died in an explosion from iPad backing in a Foxconn factory.

Garrett Brown, an occupational health and safety expert, comments on this. So does Scott Nove. They both say Apple knows exactly what it is doing and Foxconn's abuses and foul-ups are unconscionable.

Next comes disposability of product. Apple products are designed not to last. New iPhones and laptops have batteries you can't swap out, so you have to replace the entire product in a year or two (if you want it to work on battery charges) and make the company richer. There are opponents, like iFixit - Luke Soules is a young co-founder - which helps people fix the products instead of replacing them. Obviously this is one of the big parts of the problem: too many products, and the number of products could be curtailed. But the tech industry is secretive, exploitative, wants to own the product even after you buy it. Not possible in other industries: a car manufacturer can't prevent car owners from replacing their tires. Luke goes to China and director Williams follows him there. Alex Li is his local translator, who helps him visit multiple circuit board manufacturers in Shenzhen before he finds one with environmentally responsible practices that he can buy from.

It's pleasing after what we've learned by now to see Ma Jun win a Skoll Award for socially responsible entrepreneurship. Back in China, he says it's cheaper for the tech factories to pay fines than to comply with environmental standards in the country because the fines are too light. Apple is the worst offender, arrogantly refusing to reveal its supply chain. Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist with the National Resources Defense Council, worked with Ma Jun to put the pressure on Apple.

Williams turns away from China in the last quarter of her documentary to tech-caused environmental cancer in the US, and developments elsewhere. In Endicott, New York, near an IBM factory, people are ill from chemicals leaked into the ground all along one street a generation later. We hear from the Sherlings. Their son died. Last year a class action, a decade of lawsuits, led to an IBM payoff of under $20,000 per plaintiff. She finds small European companies like MicroPro and iAMECO in Dublin, Ireland, building fair trade, repairable, updatable computers built without dangerous materials. Anne Galligan is the co-founder; their laptops are in wooden cases. Darrin McGee, and environmental geographer addresses the growing issue of after-sale waste, thrown- away electronic -- Dan Cass is a tech device recycler -- and much of the electronic waste winds up back in China near where the devices were made, Guiyu, where pediatrician Xia Huo found the children have high levels of lead. Kimberly Prather, Atmospheric Chemistry, UCSD, says "a metal's a metal's a metal" whether in soil, water, or air -- "you still have a metal," and China's pollution comes back to us. It travels the globe.

Death by Design is a simple no-nonsense film, but neatly edited with elegant graphics. It's essentially an instructional film about a subject that it's urgent to know about. The message is we must all be more aware and more responsible. And consider looking for green devices next time and not replace them so often.

La fille aux yeux d'or

Baroque B&W visual beauty, decadent glamor, Paris late Fifties: what's not to like?
Some films are to be seen almost exclusively for their style, which can outlive story as a source to keep drawing on, and this is a most notable example. Its use of gorgeous, heightened B&W chiaroscuro grows out of silent classics and relates to Greg Toland's dramatic lighting with Welles but fits in with "Girl's" baroque, decadent theme drawn from Balzac of a a spoiled men's club with gambling, debauchery & women kept as slaves transposed to the world of late Fifties Paris fashion. I saw this twice when it was new in memorable circumstances, at Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 in 1961 and in a film series in Cairo in 1965. I've seen thousands of films since, and the memory of "Girl" never ceased to haunt me. Those lush shadows! Of course, this epitomizes the potentials of B&W that color loses, the contrast, the exploitation of pure light.

Finally I just ordered a PAL format DVD of the film, it came, and I watched it. Now I just learnt by coincidence it is in a film series, New Queer Cinema at Lincoln Center, showing in two weeks, 28 & 29 April 2016. Their brochure quotes Vogel from 1961: "A mysterious, perverse Gothic tale, derived from Balzac and transposed to a deceptively contemporary Paris, probes the secret of a bizarre love in an atmosphere of sophisticated decadence. . . Opulent in its artificiality, the film is especially noteworthy for its visual pyrotechnics, luxuriant imagination and unexpected continuity."

A re-watch confirms this, especially of the opening scenes (and the classical guitar theme is beautiful too; one can get the sound track on vinyl). I don't think such deliberately over-ripe, decadent, baroque, rococo B&W visual style has ever been so intensely achieved, though Armando Nannuzzi's intense chiaroscuro for Visconti's 1965 "Sandra"/"Vaghe stelle dell'orsa" comes close. Another rarity, never shown in the US; but you can watch it on YouTube entire w/o subtitles.

"Girl" showed at the Paris Theater in NYC in Aug. '62, it seems, and Bosley Crowther of the Times, not for the first time, didn't particularly get it, noting the graphic qualities were "rare and interesting" but damning it as "obscurantism," its characters as merely "weird," its action (despite Vogel) without "continuity."

It would be nice if the Criterion Collection would issue "Girl" with "Albicocco's other big success, his 1967 "Le Grand Meaulnes" (there actually is a French "coffret" of the two). They should issue Visconti's "Sandra" ("Vaghe stelle dell Orsa") too -- another decadent feast of voluptuous shadows (1965), and with Claudia Cardinale and Jean Sorel. There is a place for excessive style, fake glamor, and baroque visuals. Add a touch of humor and an exciting thriller plot and you get Beinix's film version of Delacorta's "Diva.

This time the decadent heir Henri Marsay (Paul Guers) is a fashion photog and (somewhat implausibly ) is a close friend/collaborator of lesbian couturier Léo (Françoise Prévost) who's been hiding the Girl (Marie Laforet) in the nifty secret pad. When I first saw Léo this time, I thought of Coco Chanel (the real Coco, Coco before Tautou). There are also fab sports cars. When you've got cigarettes, alcohol, deep shadows, amour fou, and fab sports cars, you've got classic movie glamour.

Another lost film decadence I want to rediscover: Roger Vadim's 1957 "No Sun in Venice" ("Sait-on jamais"), with its MJQ soundtrack.

Zhi fan ye mao

A returning soul visits a ravaged land
In the story, which is pursued with quiet obsessiveness, a youth, Leilei (Zhang Li), becomes possessed by his late mother, Xiuying, whose spirit has wandered the Shanxi Province's disintegrating cave homes for years. With the help of Leilei's father Ming Chun (Zhang Mingjun), whose reception of his late wife's return is deadpan (Buster Keaton has nothing on these two guys), they undertake the Sisyphean process, to please Xiuying, of moving a tree from her family's courtyard higher up in the desolate dust-covered mountains that surround them. Panoramic shots show a valley spanned by modern mining apparatus, while up close beyond the man and possessed boy plod around a depressing, desolate village where nobody is friendly, not even their relatives.

The film was reviewed at the Berlinale by Clarence Tsui in Hollywood Reporter. It was produced by Jia Zhang-ke, whose deadpan sarcasm Tsui detects in this film; she also sees links with Kafka, Camus, and the camera style of Pedro Costa. The festival blurb sees a link with "the gentle supernaturalism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul." Actually, this is a very Chinese film, and is suffused with the spirit and style of Jia.

The sad, fatalistic mood of Life After Life made me think of Arthur Waley's translation of the old Chinese poem The Chrysanthemums in the Eastern Garden: "With what thoughts of sadness and loneliness/I walk again in this cold, deserted place!/In the midst of the garden long I stand alone;/The sunshine, faint; the wind and dew chill/The autumn lettuce is tangled and turned to seed;/The fair trees are blighted and withered away." And so on. But in Zhang Hanyi's film, nothing blooms. It is probable that Zhang means the moving of the leafless tree as a gesture toward the destroyed earth of modern China.

There aren't any closeups other than the staring face of Leilei/Xiuying facing backward as they forge ahead on his father's curious vehicle, in which a small pickup truck appears to have mated with a motorcycle. The task of getting the tree into this contraption is truly Sisyphean: following a method they've seen applied to a very large rock, they work the tree onto the truck along a long plank. Leilei pulls a rope lassoed around the bulky bottom of the tree wherein its roots are wrapped, while his dad, holding its thin trunk, rocks it side to side. Up a plank they go, but just before entering the truck, it falls down, do they must work it all the way back to the beginning of the plank, to start anew.

People encountered in the village are sullen and unattractive. Xiuying's family are not welcoming, but don't expel the pair from a grim outdoor meal.

Looking for Xiuying's father's spirit, they believe they've found it in an unruly, highly sexed dog. The New Directors series of which this was a part has included more than its share of animals slaughtered on screen. This one can boast the most morbid and prolonged animal execution, which we're forced to watch all of. It involves strangling a sheep held to the ground. It takes an age for the sheep to die.

When the task is done, as promised Xiuying leaves, and Leili's body goes limp. We see Ming Chun carrying it on his back -- another Sisyphean task? -- and calling to Leilei's spirit to return. But it does not return.

While we are making sophisticated western references, we might mention Beckett. The meaning of the film's title in Chinese is "labyrinthine branches with plentiful of leaves," obviously deeply ironic as applied to the scrawny tree that's moved. It's a tree off the set of Waiting for Godot, and the words recall Clov's when he looks toward the audience and Hamm asks him to report and he says, "I see a multitude in transports of joy."

Life After Life/Zhi fan ye mao, 80 min., debuted at Berlin's Forum section Feb. 2016. It's listed on IMDb as being "in development." Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (FSLC/MoMA), New York, Mar. 2016.

Van Gogh

A problem film, but a notable one
This long film, with Jacques Dutronc in the main role, is considered by the French to be Pialat's best. It seeks to be counter-intuitive -- and also to base its a-historical version of the artist on the conclusion that nobody who made that many paintings in the last 27 months of his life (which the film focuses on) could have been seriously impaired in function, either mental or physical; and that if he was crazy, he was high-functioning crazy. This Van Gogh has moody moments, but also laughs, drinks, has lots of sex, makes a lot of paintings, and doesn't have a cut ear. (Incidentally he also shows little sign of being Dutch; but neither did Kirk Douglas in Minelli's Lust for Life.) But this Van Gogh is also an enigma.

The best feature of Van Gogh is its eccentric, surprising period film naturalism, analogous to that of Rossellini's 1966 The Rise of Louis XIV/La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIX, or Pasolini's Neorealism- influenced period effects in The Gospel According to Matthew and his Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights films. Probably Pialat couldn't have made this without the Nouvelle Vague and Jules et Jim behind him. Van Gogh's best moments are just throwaways that make scenes seem more "real" because they have little to do with advancing the "plot" or with "character development" -- like the choo-choo train cigarette puffing scene in Jules et Jim. Pialat's biggest influence as a filmmaker is said to be Jean Renoir. But in his Chicago Reader review Jonathan Rosenaum mentions Bresson and notes Bresson called his actors "models." Dutronc is very assured but is a non-actor, a singer primarily. As Theo the film uses the rather wooden Bernard Le Coq. In a sense they both, like the many extras who are or could be non-actors, are "models." And that, like most of the film, can be stimulating, but also frustrating, in a film about a figure people are so interested in.

The film excels at atmosphere, the way people wear their period clothes as if they were today's latest fashions, the everydayness of trains, meals, bars, and all the times Vincent refuses to eat or drink. And its key moments are its ensemble sequences, though one big one succeeds and the other fails. The highlight is a big collective picnic by the river Oise, with dancing, singing, Van Gogh doing an imitation of Lautrec and throwing himself in the river and getting fished out, and all in very long takes, with a wonderful, astonishing sense that we are right there the whole time. But the second long sequence, almost 20 minutes, is another story. It takes place in a Paris brothel with Vincent; Theo, away from Jo, his wife (Corinne Bourdon); Dr. Gachet's daughter Marguerite (a memorably vivacious Alexandra London) who's in love with Vincent and having an affair with him -- an invented plot twist; and a volatile prostitute Vincent has been involved with, Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein). This ambitious sequence meanders so much, is so unconvincing, and goes on so long, it winds up becoming merely boring and dreary and ruining the whole film at the point that should be its climax. In the end it is just confusion and debauchery, a distraction from whatever this is about; but that's where the film is best, otherwise. This is reminiscent of the long dance in Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers/Les amants réguliers: but that becomes a magic moment, and is more germane because it's a film about a lost generation, not the end of a great artist. But if Pialat's Van Gogh is a failure it is a great failure.

Van Gogh's death is disconcertingly real, without poetry or drama, merely flat and grim. And then it's over, with a couple of hints in posthumous scenes of how famous Van Gogh will be. But there have been enough living and thought-provoking moments to make this a distinctive film and maybe one that says something about its ostensible subjects. Such a failure is, though frustrating, better than many people's successes.

Van Gogh (incidentally the French pronounce it "Van Gog," to rhyme with "jog"), 158 mins., opened theatrically in France 30 Oct. 1991, in the USA the same day in 1992. Vincent Canby wrote an understanding and clear review for the NY Times. Watched on a disk from Netflix 6 Dec. 2015, which has the option of no subtitles, English subtitles, or French ones, an unusual feature on US DVD's and a handy one.

Subarashiki nichiyobi

Kurosawa's hope very close to desperation
There is a Frank Caapra populism about One Wonderful Sunday's occasional moments of corny sentimental hopefulness. But above all this is Japan just after the war, shabby, despairing, scrambling to get back on its feet. This couple is bipolar: the girl is cheery -- but she also has a long crying jag. The guy is angry and humiliated at he loss of manhood in his not being able to afford minimal entertainments on the couple's one day off together out of the week; but he also has his energetic surges of courage and hope. One doesn't quite believe in it. But it holds us prisoner for the run of the film. He's already that good, even despite the wrong notes and the corniness.

This is such a deeply sad, depressing film: I immediately thought of Dodes'ka-den , the powerful multi-thread tale about depression and poverty Kurosawa made in the early Seventies, when he was himself going through a period of despair. And of course there is the premature reference to a masterpiece to come, Ikiru, in the swing-in-the- park scene. The style is strange, sometimes compelling, sometimes agonizing. We're dragged along helplessly on a sine curve of momentary happiness and longer periods of gloom. What makes it almost unbearable to watch is the way each shot or scene is held too long, none more than the final one where Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) goes up on the stage of the empty ampitheatre and mock-conducts almost a whole movement of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. It's agonizing. It's terrible.

But there's something also so humanistic (to an absurd extreme, as in Italian neorealism, which may have been an influence, as well as silent film, Chaplin) that you balk at it and at the same time can't resist it. The appeal of the girl, Masako (Chieko Nakakita) to the audience, said to have fallen on deaf ears in Japan but been loudly responded to in France, to us now just seems anachronism, a violation of the illusion. I am personally disturbed by the casting, because Masako looks a little homely, her face slightly bloated (was that considered pretty in 1947 Japan?) while Yuzo, with his handsome head of hair, is more presentable. At the same time this makes it easy to see them as married, twenty years or more later on, and what is so touching is the faith that in fact they will somehow stay together, and will somehow make a family, and survive, thrive even. But the whole thing shows us how Kurosawa's belief in the human spirit was very close to pessimism and despair. Mr. Watanabe in Ikiru almost gives up, and in Dodes-ka-den the little boy and his father die. There's a moment when it looks like Yuzo may slit his writs. Does playing orchestra conductor really mean he's going to make it? There's a convention here that's too antiquated to buy into. It makes them seem simply deranged -- or more desperate than we'll ever know.

Ticket scalpers are evil! Dante must have a bolgia in Hell for them.


In this one, Miike doesn't stand up against Kobayashi
Anyone with a more than passing interest in Japanese movies ought to watch Kobayashi's 1962 version of Takaiguchi's novel that this also is based on, and watch the intro by the Japanese film authority Donald Ritchie on the Criterion edition. Ritchie makes fully clear how Kobayashi here, as in other films, is talking through the historical tale about current issues he was passionate about, in this case lingering post-WWII authoritarianism in Japan and hollow bureaucracies, in his day as in the time of the early Tokugawa government; Miike doesn't seem to have anything particularly urgent to say. Look at what Ritchie points out that Kobayashi's version offers: the script by ace screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto who wrote Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai; the score by bold, influential experimentalist Toru Takemitsu; the strong and unifying symbolic use of empty samurai armor throughout; the career-defining lead performance by Tatsuya Nakadai; and the elegantly austere use of black and white cinematography.

Ironically Miike's film also carries over Kobayashi's one serious flaw - - an overindulgence in sentimentality and pathos in the flashback love story.

Miike, apparently seeking 'respectability' after all his entertaining ultra-violence with this staid remake/adaptation, also overdoes everything. He makes every scene too drawn-out and talky. He further overdoes the sentimentality, to the point that in his version becomes unbearably cloying, virtually unwatchable. Once again, 3D adds nothing; black and white was just what was needed. Less was and is more.

Whenever a filmmaker goes over familiar ground, adapting a book that has been adapted (and very well) before, he exposes himself to comparisons to the book and to the previous adaptation. Don't get me wrong. Miike has plenty of skill. It is not that his 'Hara- Kiri' is a washout. It's just that Kobayashi's version is a true work of art, a film classic, in fact; and in comparison Miike's is merely a competent effort and a pointless bid for respectability that was not needed. He is a master in his own realm. Surprisingly his last film before this, the juicy, action-historical blockbuster 13 Assassins, which I thoroughly enjoyed, also was an adaptation -- of Eiichi Kudo's little known samurai film of the same name. Thanks to 'Wildgrounds' (who compare the two Hara- Kiri films) for this info. Thanks also to Ben Parker on 'CapitalNewYork' for his detailed comparison of the two films; and to the Criterion Collection, for its print of Kobayashi's 'Hara-Kiri' and Donald Ritchie's informed introduction to it.

Bord de mer

"People come, people go, noting ever happens"
I just watched Lopes-Curval's new 2014 film High Society/Le beau monde as part of Film Comment Selects at Lincoln Center and this led me to go back and re-watch her 12-years-earlier Seaside/Bord de mer (2002), twice; it is available streaming on Netflix. The two films have this common interest in class, a provincial place someone chooses to leave, and couples splitting up, but they are completely different. I think I like this one, her first feature, winner of the Caméra d'Or at Cannes, better than the new one; it seems more original and shows a keener eye.

As viewers have noted this film seems to be about nothing, but in fact is finely observed, with many subtle little moments in the life of this minor resort town with its pebble factory. As Lopes-Curval's new film, High Society/Le beau monde (2014) also shows, she's interested in class, and how a woman may move up and couples may split up along the way. At the outset Paul (Jonathan Zaccaï) and the pretty Marie (Hélène Fillières) are together but Marie is bored with sorting pebbles and with Paul. Rose (Bulle Ogier), Marie's mother, retired from the factory, is a compulsive gambler at the local casino pouring all she has into slot machines. Rose avoids Odette (Liliane Rovère), whom she resents for marrying into the factory owner family (but the factory was failing and Odette's husband sold it). Odette's ineffectual son Albert (Patrick Lizana) works in management at the factory but without motivation or ability. He is married but is attracted to Marie. In the course of the year (the film divided up into seasons from "Été" to Été") these relationships between Marie and Paul, Albert and Marie, Rose and Odette, will shift. We also follow people who come only in the summer; one is a fashion photographer who grew up here but has never thought of using the pebble beach as a background for a shoot till now: people are expected to go far to achieve in his field. Lopes- Curval flats around the little seaside town like Jacques Tati in Jour de Fête, but focusing on feelings and lives not physical comedy. This is the portrait of a place and a little society. It doesn't seek to go into depths about any individuals. But there are crises -- Rose's gambling; Marie's desperation. The film ends comically with a unifying event: a shark alert, like in Jaws, Lopes-Curvas thus wryly pointing to how completely her film eschews overt drama in favor of delicate portraiture that is too low-keyed even for many French tastes. Yet perhaps just for that reason this is a film that continues to yield up its charms on repeated viewings, its lack of any big events making all the little moments of heightened value.

There is a warm an detailed appreciation by Michael Atkinson from the Village Voice when the film, following a Rendez-Vous with French Cinema showing, had a New York theatrical release in 2003. He concludes:

"Scores of other characters come and go—including a fashion photographer, his blissfully dim girlfriend, and his lovely, increasingly anxious mother (Ludmila Mikaël)— but we see them only in random cross sections. The changing of the seasons leaves some of the town's inhabitants gone, some pregnant, some resolved to shoulder their burdens; we are not necessarily privy to the changes or how they came about. We do get subtle gestures and evaporating moments: a mother looking with fondness and worry after her son, a tug on an uncomfortable dress, a cocktail drained too quickly, a decision to hold one's tongue visualized as an eyebrow flex.

"It's a gently sensible strategy that dares to suggest, as Renoir, Ozu, Rohmer, and Kiarostami films do, that you can only know so much about other people by watching them, and that our small 'knowing' says as much about us as it does about the subjects of our attention. Certainly, Hollywood films encourage us to enjoy an absurd God-like omniscience; all relevant thoughts, incidents, and connections are made plain as day. In her first feature, Lopes-Curval lets the human mysteries play out invisibly, and even the actors are forced to economize in short scenes of little dramatic import. A stare held a split second too long or an evaded gaze can mean the world."

Adieu au langage

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 again—one 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

Dom Juan ou Le festin de pierre

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 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

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

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

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.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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.

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