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The Witness (IFC Center)
The Kitty Geneovese case (as it was known at the time) was one of those puzzles of a murder that was never quite solved, and never went away. Since 1964, it has remained emblematic of urban reluctance to “get involved” in unpleasant situations. No one wants to be drawn into violence, to be at risk for complications. Better to stay aloof.
When Genevese was raped and attacked twice on her way home in the middle of the night and died of her wounds, the urban legend is that 38 neighbors heard her cries for help and did nothing; that she might have been saved if only they had run to her aid, or called the police. Eventually, a serial criminal (William Moseley, who confessed to having killed three women and raped eight)) was arrested for the crime and sentenced to 20 years-to-life. He escaped (briefly) and managed to take hostages and rape a woman before being captured and returned to jail. Despite earning a college degree while incarcerated, his 18 requests for parole were denied; he died, still in prison, earlier this year. Those are the basic facts of the case.
Kitty’s brother William Genovese became obsessed with his sister’s murder and began to collect every document and account he could find over the decades. When he retired from a career as CEO for several educational and mental health organizations, he pursued his obsession full-time for a decade and dug deeply into his archives, finally tracking down and interviewing many of the original witnesses and officials involved. He emerged with information that contradicted much of the case’s received wisdom, and as a highly intelligent, appealing and surprisingly objective investigator. It is William Genovese who is the center of gravity of this complex and ultimately fascinating film. The film itself reveals its secrets precisely when they are needed and (as an example of excellent storytelling and editing) its collaborative nature is mirrored in the credits, which cite Genovese, two writer/editors, and writer/director James Solomon behind the addictive ebb and flow. Solomon’s resume attests to his affinity for unraveling mysteries (The Conspirator and 100 Centre Street, The Practice, The Bronx is Burning); in The Witness he has found just the right stuff in both his subject and his on-screen protagonist.
Summertime (FSLC: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center)
With its theme of intense love between two women—especially since one of them is named Carole—it’s hard to avoid comparing Catherine Corsini’s Summertime to last season’s Carol, a mainstream feature on the same topic. Yet Carol, despite its outstanding performances and really stunning production remained, for me, a tale worthy of respect for its achievements, but always a bit chilly under its high-gloss surface. Summertime, on the other hand, while certainly beautiful to behold, was on fire with emotion and the caprices of real-life women with deep conflicts (for different reasons) over the connection that brings them together. It’s definitely not because of the external differences in their lives when they meet, or that they regret their surrender to one another as often as they are torn by it, but the gritty reality (with its constant shifts and contradictions) that frames their every move into, and away from, the flame. Its evocation of city and countryside in the France of the 1970s is imersive. And both Izia Higelin and Cėcile de France capture your attention and your sympathy full-time.
Our Little Sister (Lincoln Plaza)
In a summer rife with heat, humidity and Big Films that Go Blam, Blam, Blam, give thanks to SONY for releasing the latest treasure from Hirokazu Kore-eda. Although it’s adapted from Unimachi Diary
(a graphic novel by Yoshida Akimi), any resemblance to most graphic novel adaptations ceases there. It doesn’t burn, but glows steadily with a gem-like flame that draws you in with understatement and, with its revelations of plot and character, keeps your attention until you’re hooked.
What’s most notable is its delicacy in handling contemporary issues: multiple marriages and their effect on children; adultery between two most engaging adults who must make decisions about their future; how families bond (or don’t) and deal with adversity and emotional pain. It’s a long list; what makes it so irresistible is how you come to realize that its power is generated by subtlety and the accuracy of Kore-eda’s vision. He’s a master psychologist who never raises his voice. But oh, how he gets to you, and how you miss him and his cast when the film is over…..
Ants on a Shrimp (July 29, IFC Center)
As a devotee of food porn who has not had the luck to be in Copenhagen eating at Noma, I recommend watching Ants on a Shrimp to see how a sea change for a famous restaurant affects its staff and its menu. Early on, when Noma’s alpha male and founder, René Redzepi, rationalizes this risky idea with “Let’s have fun!…Every day it’s a grind. Why don’t we do it in a new place and just have fun with it.?” You know what’s coming next…
Without the Gallic over-the-top emotions and desserts of Kings of Pastry, Ants goes for a gradual reveal of the rules of its game, which chef René Redzepi keeps upping, leaving you with an urge to check your air miles to see if there’s any way you can get to Noma’s five-week pop-up shop in Tokyo before it goes home. It wouldn’t matter if you did, though, since they have only 2,000 places for the entire run, and a waitlist of 58,000 in advance of opening night. Not all of it is fun (surprise!), but watching him stretch himself and his staff as they pull it together becomes hypnotic.
Director Maurice Dekkers is no stranger to food; his long-running hit TV series Keueringdienst van Waarde (Food Unwrapped) has been delving into the origins and preparation of what we eat since 2003, making him the logical partner for Redzepi’s insatiable and unorthodox approach to food. We watch Redzepi and his multinational crew invade a forest to feel the burn and taste the foliage as they learn to avoid poisonous mushrooms. Back at their hotel in Tokyo, we watch them practice their philosophy and explore new combinations of flavors. How to merge Japanese ingredients and traditions with Danish (well, Redzepi is actually Macedonian) chutzpah? It’s tough going, but you suspect they will figure out a 14-course solution just in time. What’s fascinating is how Redzepi runs his ship: he encourages each associate chef to invent dishes without constraint. Then everyone tastes them and edits their fate; opinions are welcome, but Redzepi has the final say. Cool rules in his workplace: “Don’t let any frustrations out—just let them eat you up from the inside.”
Being a process lover by nature, I was totally absorbed by the intensity of the hand arbeit behind every dish. Not only must it pass collective tastebud muster, but also remain a miniature work of art throughout its very short life on plate and in bowl. But wait: is that shrimp with ants actually moving? Actually, yes. (We are assured by Redzepi that it will go invitingly limp once you bite into it.) And in a spirit of journalistic candor, I must also report that a few snapping turtles are harmed in the course of dinner preps. Nevertheless, when showtime comes, the lucky guests arrive to pass an evening in the company of the staff (creating their meal in an open kitchen), before they dig into flora, fauna and flesh. And you can just let yourself go for the last five minutes—Redzepi narrates over a parade of dishes being presented to the crowd; nature’s bounty with interventions. It’s definitely a happy ending. Unless you’re a shrimp or a turtle.
Hieronymous Bosch: Touched by the Devil (July 27, Film Forum)
If you’ve got it, as they say, flaunt it. And that’s exactly what this gorgeous, international thriller does from start to finish as science and technology reveal the secrets of art, the thrill of the chase and the high-stakes poker behind a Dutch blockbuster, “Jheronimus Bosch: Visions of Genius”.
The opening image is a full-screen shot of a two eyes scouring a work with a light and magnifier tube, caressing its every line and brushstroke to make sure they were produced by the master himself. It’s only one of the weapons used by a crack team of specialists scouring the world to vet and assemble as many of Bosch’s paintings as they can beg, borrow, and steal. Their goal: to create a 500th anniversary celebration in Bosch’s home town (Den Bosch). It will include a son-et-lumiere in the town square, several Bosch-themed boat tours, and a feast of art and performance throughout the city. They must succeed, since there are only 25 known Bosches in the world, and not one of them hangs in Den Bosch. They have five years to make a miracle.
Bosch’s canvases teem with tiny perfectly-executed mobs of humanity in extremis. The artist was consumed with visions of damnation and the darkness of the human spirit. His little people and fantastic hybrid animals have found countless ways to commit unspeakable acts on their fast track to hell, all of it rendered in brilliant color and obsessive detail; all of it the product of a raging imagination. It’s easy to see why the paintings have been jealously guarded and prized by art historians and the public alike for centuries.
While tracking down the art and analyzing it for authenticity would have been a good story in itself, its escalating subtext is all about just how to pry it from Madrid, Venice and private collectors and magic it back to Holland. And that’s where the real suspense comes in. The team has a few aces up its collective sleeves: the ability to restore the paintings (however brilliant, they are, after all 500 years old) in exchange for securing their loan; the parlous chess game of offering Dutch masters (other than Bosch) in exchange down the road; of using their influence to facilitate favors and—the master stroke—the promise of their unshakable technology and authority to determine if the paintings are truly by Bosch and not his studio or his followers. Led by über strategist Matthijs Ilsink (who deserves a film of his own), the team forges on. Determined to win, they ply their instruments and diplomacy like battlefield surgeons at Doctors Without Borders.
But there’s more: that subtext is a lesson in negotiation; always charming, witty and elegant, but with rapiers of finest steel wrapped in multilingual gloves. Pay attention to it! Watching them carve their way through thickets of politesse and property law is thrilling. In other words, truly the art of the deal. And all of it (almost all) caught on camera by a crew monitoring body language, expression, and gesture that portend the likely outcome of every round.
Although nominally Pieter van Huystee’s debut as director, Hieronymous Bosch benefits from the portfolio (he’s produced and or written some 80 films) he brings to the table. He knows just when to disclose the mysteries and surprises, how to show the art, and how to capture the personalities of the high-strung and complicated players in the drama. He can even make their advanced technology comprehensible. He has hired outstanding cameramen and editors to shape the material, and a composer (Paul M. van Brugge) and sound designer (Mark Glynne) to match the images and dialogue. Like I said at the beginning: a gorgeous international thriller. See it on the big screen if you can.