Summer in the City:
It Can be Civilized
No need to pine for autumn, with all those good films jockeying for Oscars. Along with some of the worst rollouts (they know who they are)—long, brutish, ugly and mind-numbingly loud— if you’re willing to brave the heat, but not the noise, the gods of distribution have some blessed, and surprising, summer relief.
For two quiet, intriguing, twisty examples, try The East and Shadow Dancer. Both are long on story, cast, and direction (really fluid and assured), with the bonuses of fine cinematography and editing. Zal Batmanglij’s The East offers a timely plot: a government operative (Brit Marling) infiltrates a sophisticated, upscale anarchist group, only to find herself increasingly attracted to its mission and to its leader (Alexander Sarsgård). It’s a big film: the cast features Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Julia Ormond, along with a lot of smaller turns remaining vivid because of the actors who fill them. The East is also notable for the chemistry between Sarsgård and Marling, and for Marling’s dual role as star (she’s very good) and (with director Batmanglij) co-screenwriter.
James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer (based on Tom Bradby’s novel) shines in the Irish Troubles genre, but, like The East. its script and performances (from the tough-but-tender Clive Owen and the simmer-below-the-surface Andrea Rieseborough, to every bit player) burnish the patina. Also. like The East, its twists spin when you least expect them. Having seen Rieseborough in TV films as Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher and Iron Socialite Wallis Simpson, I’d say she has range. As an Irish woman torn between two conflicting ideologies and her own emotional desires, her reticence is the perfect foil for Owen’s own conflicting loyalties. It’s all very low-key, yet their chemistry centers the film. Gillian Anderson pulls the political strings that keep things humming, and the camerawork sets the mood that frames the story.
At Film Society Lincoln Center, Latinbeat 2013 schedule is featuring a retrospective of Manuel Piñeiro’s work, with particular attention to his favorite muse: William Shakespeare. Using a cast of young, energetic and interconnected actors, Piñeiro has created updates on Twelfth Night (Viola)and As You Like It (Rosalinda) that are as clever as they are playful. The bodies in constant motion run with his (and Shakespeare’s) talent for puns, sexual complications, and politics; their antics make a dense and satisfying update on stories that never grow old. But my personal favorite at Latinbeat is actually Impenetrable—Daniele Incalcaterra and Fausta Quattrini’s lovable and lovingly made true story about Paraguay’s sordid past under dictator Alfredo Stroessner. You might call Impenetrable (in contrast to Pineiro’s updated madcap Shakespeare) slow film. But, fueled by the filmmakers’ stubborn determination to return their patrimony (a 5,000-hectare tract of scrubby wilderness in the Paraguayan chaco) to the Guarani Indians from whom it was all but stolen by Stroessner and his friends, it picks up momentum as it goes along. It’s a unique blend of “travel diary, Western, road trip, scientific exploration, and…the savagery of capitalistic exploitation.” It’s also an increasingly captivating tale of how the good guys win in the end against all the odds. And you know that’s one formula that really never grows old! Catch this at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Center right now.
And while you’re there, get tickets for what is arguably the very best updated Shakespeare ever: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Much Ado is what a producer/writer/director known for his big-budget, big-profit TV and feature films (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Alien Resurrection; Roseanne, etc.) does for the fun of it. And non-stop fun it is! Also a 12-day miracle of seasoned and constantly imaginative directing. It just never stops spinning, playing with its text and characters, their romantic dilemmas and breathtaking agility. Language? The first time I’ve seen Shakespeare done (to a turn) by an American cast, speaking American English yet, somehow, making love to the Elizabethan cadences of period vocabulary. Every line, every syllable, is crystalline. Every joke in the play is there, and many more generated by the cast and crew, dressed in everyday clothes, yet cloaked in delicious 17th-century tropes.
The screen, the camera and the actors are alive, busy navigating the plot and the set—Whedon’s own California home and grounds—from one idea, one room, one garden to the next. There is music (juicy and jazzy) and art (from first frame to last) that keep Shakespeare and the here-and-now dancing rapturously together. In fact, Much Ado is not only the most delicious take on Shakespeare for our time, but the most musical one as well. Play on, Joss, play on! You have brought us all into a mountain of affection..
And speaking of affection: a lovely remnant of this year’s New Directors/New Films is Tiza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s The Shine of the Day. Its plot is simple: a young stage actor (Philipp Hochmair) and an old circus performer (Walter Saabel) meet when Saabel shows up, unannounced, at Hochmair’s door as his long-lost uncle. Then, Saabel moves in. At first, it’s an Austrian take on the Odd Couple; Hochmair is heir to the traditions of deeply serious German/Austrian stage work (and sends much of it gratifyingly up); Saabel is a crusty retiree at loose ends. Gradually, after his decades as a rolling stone, Saabel finds himself connnecting to his neighbors and, finally, to Hochmair (another rolling stone) for a humane and often very witty story. The film was made by following the two actors around for a year as the story and their relationship took shape, then editing some of the inspired improvisation. Happy ending? Yes!