Friday, October 3, 2014

NYFF: Red Army, Mr. Turner & The Wonders

Film Actually's 2014 NYFF experience began today with a trio of screenings - "Red Army", "Mr. Turner" and "The Wonders". Read below for my thoughts on these films:

My first screening of the day was a documentary called "Red Army" by director Gabe Polsky. Recounting the history of the titular Red Army hockey team, this film is a fascinating exploration of how sports and politics were intertwined during the Cold War era. From the perspective of someone with only a casual knowledge of the rivalry between North America and the Soviet Union, the film proved to be very insightful.

Much of the events depicted are framed around the team's captain Slava Fetisov. Recruited from a young age for the Red Army hockey club, Slava became a key figure in the national team's incredible success during its heyday in the 1980s. Beginning from a place of nationalistic pride, he was instrumental in the team's domination of their Western opponents throughout numerous World Championships and Olympic Games. The key to their success mirrored the country's socialist ideals of teamwork and fierce dedication, triumphing over the aggressive individualism employed by their capitalist opponents. However, as the Cold War came to its end, Slava and his compatriots became critical of the system that made them into political tools for the socialist cause. In Slava's case, it turned him from national hero to pariah (eventually being welcomed back as Minister of Sport).

Slava's journey is an interesting one and it's captured vividly by Polsky. With incredible archival footage and exciting editing, the visual storytelling is as fulsome as a fictional recreation. Much of the film focuses on the creative skills of the Russian technique and there's ample evidence of that here. Likewise, the strong relationships between the players is made very clear. Despite the oppressive regime that hindered their regular lives, you can sense the deep camaraderie between the men. There's also much intrigue to be found in the sociocultural implications of the rivalry, both in the silliness of the politics and the shocking injustices suffered.

What I liked most of all though are the interviews with Slava himself. He's a perceptive and compelling interview subject, with natural wit and profound knowledge of all aspects of the game. Also crucial is that he maintains a fair balance in explaining both the benefits and flaws of Russian socialist culture. Indeed, many of Russia's star players "defected" to the NHL and found that it wasn't a bed of roses. You can therefore empathize with the nostalgia expressed by the now-retired athletes. It's easy to criticize the flawed idealism and dictatorial structure that they encountered, but there's no denying the immense pride associated with their success.

"Red Army" is a fine example of contemporary documentary filmmaking. It's both highly informative and very entertaining. I'm sure you'll be impressed, whether you already know the history or not. Rating: ★★★★

My second screening of the day was "Mr. Turner", the latest film from legendary British filmmaker Mike Leigh. Mostly known for his "kitchen sink" urban dramas, this period biopic may seem like a divergence from his usual oeuvre. However, within minutes of its opening it's clear that this is another humanist drama that fits firmly within Leigh's filmography.

"Mr. Turner" is the story of the latter years in the life of British painter J.M.W Turner (Timothy Spall). It chronicles his experiences traveling throughout Britain and his devotion to his craft. Brilliant but eccentric (really, which genius isn't?), Leigh portrays him as a flawed individual. He has a distant relationship with an ex-lover and their children and sometimes exploits other women, including his loyal housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson). His artistic passion and loving heart are revealed throughout the film though, as he challenges the status quo and eventually finds true romance with a woman named Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey).

The plot is presented like a series of vignettes, exploring different periods of his life. Turner interacts with various persons, all of whom seem to be vital pieces to understanding his persona and his work. This is where Leigh excels, finding value in every little conversation. As usual, he employs a troupe of character actors to play the roles and they bring such veracity to the proceedings. His films are about regular people going through the ups and downs of life and you can see that in his unassuming cast. Uniformly splendid, the standouts are Atkinson, Bailey and of course, Timothy Spall in the lead role. Spall's performance is a rugged one, almost doggish in its execution. His dialogue involves a lot of grunting but you'll be surprised at how nuanced those sounds can be. What really lingers though, are those small grace notes that Leigh gives him. Be it a teary-eyed conversation by his father's deathbed or an encounter with a young prostitute that's fraught with emotion, we get a strong sense of the beating heart of this man.

There's a richness to all the performances and a lot of credit goes to Leigh's screenwriting. It deftly captures the complexity of the man and the evolving world around him. The events of the film are set during the transition from the Georgian era to the more reserved years of Queen Victoria's reign and the changing values are astutely conveyed. The heavy regional dialects may be hard to decipher at times, but there's a true wordsmith behind those lines.

In addition to the superb work of the ensemble and the fine writing, the film has stunning visual appeal. In the post-screening press conference, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope explained that they used Turner's paintings as inspirations for the color palette and compositions. Their desires were certainly achieved then, as each frame is beautifully crafted. Like Turner's art, the shots capture the beauty of sunlight to dazzling effect. In conjunction with the costumes and set design, "Mr. Turner" thus feels thoroughly authentic.

Yet despite all of its strong attributes, the film can be quite tedious. Since the various chapters of his life all feel equally weighted, there are no dramatic peaks in the plot to give it that extra "oomph". There are numerous beautiful quiet moments and lots of dry humour but they fail to enliven the material. At 2 1/2 hours and very verbose, the film therefore feels unnecessarily long-winded. There's much to admire but it doesn't encourage a revisit.

"Mr. Turner" is unlikely to enthrall the average audience but it's handsomely made and vibrantly acted. Discerning cinephiles will surely respect Mike Leigh's effort, even if it's not as satisfying as we've come to expect from him. At least we can still say that he's never made a truly bad movie.

From an Oscar perspective, this film has lost some of the buzz it received at Cannes. Having now seen it, I'm a bit surprised at the confidence of various pundits who perceive it as a major contender. Leigh's films aren't typically awards magnets outside of Best Original Screenplay and that may be the case again here. Still, there are other possibilities outside of writing, namely Best Actor and Best Cinematography. It may also find it's way into Best Picture if there's room. That will largely depend on how the other fall releases are received however, so we'll just have to wait and see how it all pans out. Rating: ★★★1/2

The final screening of the day was a foreign language film from rising director Alice Rohrwacher - "The Wonders". Like "Mr. Turner", this film was one of the prizewinners at Cannes this year (the Grand Prix to be exact), giving it rare esteem for a 2nd feature. It's a high honour, so does the film live up to it?

Explaining "The Wonders" is a tough task. This "slice of life" film is more about mood and tone than actual story. It has a defined plot, but the "what" never overshadows the "why" and "how". Nevertheless, for the sake of context I'll give a brief synopsis. "The Wonders" follows a formative summer in the Italian countryside for a young girl named Gelsomina and her family. Together they run a beekeeping enterprise to sell honey. They are moderately successful but outside influences threaten to disturb their clearly defined way of life. During these summer months an alluring TV contest attracts our protagonist, while new production laws require retrofitting of their honey facility. As modernity encroaches on their rural lifestyle, Gelsomina gets a deeper understanding of her insular world.

The plot may sound like a coming of age tale, but Rohrwacher staunchly rejects the genre's usual contours. Firmly rooted in realism, there's a delicacy to her filmmaking that requires your full investment. It's almost mundane, preoccupied with the family's everyday activities like playing in the nearby lake and producing the honey. As such, I found it hard to reconcile the artful expression of mood and tone with the script's banality.

Yet there's an undercurrent in Rohrwacher's style that resonates. Without being overt about her intentions, she manages to convey a fascinating convergence of opposing themes. There's an especially intriguing dichotomy between Gelsomina's strict father Wolfgang and the women that surround him. Opposing their participation in the TV contest while struggling to accept the upgrade of his cherished honey lab, he causes palpable conflict. It poses thought-provoking questions of patriarchy vs. sisterhood, as well as that of tradition vs modernity. There's so much to dig into under the surface that I wish the film wasn't so unflinchingly muted (one significant character is actually mute for most of it). The film is agreeably sweet, but it could have used some spice with its honey.

Patience is key to appreciating "The Wonders" and if you have it, you'll be richly rewarded in the film's conclusion. Unfortunately, after a long day of screenings I found it slightly underwhelming. Still, Rohrwacher shows great promise with this film that stimulates the senses and stirs the mind. Rating: ★★★


  1. The movie lacked a plot, making its length a bit tiresome. The main character is talented but a jerk. The cinematography is gorgeous.

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