Bloody Sunday — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Although originally produced for British television in 2002, Paul Greengrass’s vivid depiction of a violent turning point in the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland was released in theaters in the States. The Sundance and Berlin film festivals showered awards on the docudrama for its persuasive vérité style, which depicts a January 30, 1972 attack by British army paratroopers against 10,000 Irish demonstrators in a civil rights protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland. Fourteen protestors were killed and 14 more were injured; British soldiers suffered no injuries or casualties. The 1998 Bloody Sunday Inquiry ordered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the most expensive investigation in British history.
Greengrass based his terse, episodic screenplay on Don Mullan’s acclaimed book “Eyewitness Bloody Sunday” (1997). Drawing on his early career spent directing episodes of the investigative British television program “World in Action,” Greengrass deploys an arsenal of shooting and editing techniques to place the audience in the flow of the film’s roughly 24-hour timeline.
Sound from radio transmissions between British military officers preparing for confrontation segues into a stream of hand-held camera sequences that expose the two sides in an infamous street battle. Loose camera pans and impulsive zooms capture the naturally lit action in a gloomy urban district where barbed-wire barricades and roadblocks were commonplace. A young Catholic couple kisses and parts ways by the light of military vehicle headlights. This is what military occupation feels like — brutal, dangerous, and mundane.
Each scene begins in mid-action and cuts away with a sustained blackout fade that keeps the audience off balance. The audience’s eyes are temporarily closed. Like the Irish, we don’t know where we will wake up next in the conflict. Our uneasy frame of reference is that of an itinerant bystander grasping at whatever semblance of reason we can read into the absurdist narrative of military oppression.
Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) is a charismatic Member of Parliament of Northern Ireland and civil rights leader charged with leading the march. Like the local priests, Ivan is on a first-name basis with many citizens, whom he treats as his own flock of “peaceful” protestors. However infectious his idealistic, and fearless, belief in the potential power of a demonstration to effect change, there are plenty of young men who think differently. An Irish Republican Army leader dispatches orders to his comrades from behind the wheel of his car while chatting with Cooper.
Major Steele (Chris Villiers), a British Army commander, instructs his war-painted Charlie Company troops to teach the locals a lesson. Picking up “200 hooligans” is their stated mission. Back at the Army’s headquarters Maj. Gen. Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) focuses on “winning the propaganda war” when he isn’t modeling the aggressive attitude he expects from his crew of trigger-happy goons.
When all hell breaks out, as we know from history, the audience is thrust into the middle of an orgy violence against innocent civilians that makes clear why Bloody Sunday served as “a moment of truth and a moment of shame” that “destroyed the civil rights movement” and gave the IRA its “biggest victory.”
Rated R. 107 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Caesar Must Die
Here’s the set up. Real-life Italian prisoners in Rome’s high-security Rebibbia prison rehearse and stage an abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” for an audience of friends, family, and prison guards. Conceived by co-directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani ("Padre Padrone" — Berlin Film Festival 1977 winner) as a reality/theatrical statement on Italian self-identity, and the lasting relevance of Shakespeare’s political play "Julius Caesar."
The docudrama reveals the personalities of convicts using a play to displace their inner struggles and reinvent the walls that contain them. The film is a high-wire act with a very small net. Filmed largely in black-and-white, the movie establishes its characters during auditions where naturally gifted inmates give breathtaking and hilarious performances of an assigned sketch scene. Each Itlaian face is familiar and yet every animated gesture is fresh. We sense thousands of years of Italian culture pouring out from convicts doing time for everything from murder to various Mafia activities. Blood temperatures rise in keeping with the play within the film. Context is everything. The talented prisoners exhibit a wide range of emotions in playing their theatrically-bound roles. You can't help but wonder how much this dedicated and loyal group of men could add to society if given the proper support.
Shakespeare’s overriding text provides the surprisingly adept “actors” with an ongoing inner and outer dialogue regarding loyalty and betrayal. “Caesar Must Die” is an unconventional docudrama that engages its audience in a dialogue about the similarities between politicians and criminals, between actors and non-actors, and between observers and leaders. If you’re looking for an adventurous thought-provoking film, “Caesar Must Die” more than fits the bill.
Not Rated. 76 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Touching the Void — CLASSIC FILM PICK
The docudrama genre has rarely been so well served as it is by director Kevin Macdonald’s groundbreaking rendering of the remarkable true story of two young British mountainclimbers’ near-death experience scaling a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Based on mountainclimber Joe Simpson’s book "Touching the Void: The Harrowing First-Person Account of One Man's Miraculous Survival," the film features in-depth interview accounts with the actual climbers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) in conjunction with breathtaking reenactments using stunt climbers and actors (Nicholas Aaron, Ollie Ryall, and Brendan Mackey) on the Siula Grande and on locations in the Alps. One highlight is Joe Simpson's reenactment of a sequence from his terrifying experience on the mountain.
Besides being based on one of the most captivating tales of survival one can imagine, the film gains credibility from sequences filmed in the exact locations where the events took place. Tearing a page from the Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”) school of documentary filmmaking, Macdonald uses a similar interview system, allowing his subjects to open up directly to the camera as if looking the audience in the eye like a trusted confidant. Macdonald’s inclusion of Richard Hawking, the man entrusted to watch over base camp until the climbers’ return, proves an enormous benefit to the film, partly due to Hawking’s sincere yet lively demeanor.
Macdonald’s concentrated use of close-ups in the snowy reenactments conveys the bizarre mix of emotions on display despite the layers of protective clothing that cover the subjects. The filmmaker’s rigorous reenactments put the viewer inside the physical and mental weeklong nightmare that Joe Simpson and Simon Yates endured.
Fascinating, intense, and steeped in the riveting determination of one man’s will to live, “Touching The Void” is a startling film that rattles your nerves and sends a cold chill deep inside. Simon’s meticulous explanation of his conscious and subconscious thought processes during his ordeal illuminate his singularly straightforward personality. The fact that he never felt compelled to pray speaks to his uncompromising commitment to truth, and to surviving a situation that few people could or would walk away from if they found themselves in a similar predicament.
"Touching the Void" towers above the rest of that rarest of all film genres, the docudrama.
That least mined of all film genres — the docudrama — finds full-throated expression in the service of a true story that is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction. Director Bart Layton puts to use the skills he polished while helming such television programs as "Locked Up Abroad." This time the subject is Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old European con artist who convinces Spanish authorities that he is Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio boy who went missing over three years earlier — when Nicholas was 13. In service to the telling of one of the most convoluted stories you could imagine, is Bourdin’s candid straight-to-camera recalling of every twist in a list of unlikely decisions and events that delivered him into the arms of a "loving" family with nearly as many secrets as him.
Much of the joy of watching “The Imposter” derives from the way bits and pieces of information gradually gel into a tangible form. Interviews with Barclay’s family members, FBI officials, and a local private detective, piece together the kind of policier puzzle that most pro screenwriters would marvel at. Layton’s elegant sense of restraint and purposeful organization of a dense exposition provides a seamless storyline that gains suspense as it goes along. The less an audience knows going in, the more rewarded they will be by the time the closing credits roll. The film’s tagline, “There are two sides to every lie” couldn’t suit this material any better.
Rated R. 95 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
As you might imagine from the documentary’s title, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a character study/biography of a master sushi chef named Jiro. The 85-year-old Jiro Ono’s 10-seat restaurant—located in the Tokyo subway system—has received dining’s highest ranking of three Michelin stars. Reservations are booked a month in advance. A true master of his craft, Jiro has taught his two sons to follow in his footsteps. Jiro’s oldest son Yoshikazu, 50, works directly under his father, preparing the most amazing sushi in the world. Director David Gelb provides a crash-course in the stratified world of Tokyo fish markets from which Yoshikazu chooses the very best cuts of fish. Jiro lives by a simple set of rules that include things such as maintaining cleanliness and taking his job seriously. Here is a man attempting to live as modestly as possible in the service of the work he loves doing. There’s nothing flashy about David Gelb’s serviceable rendering of a man who has achieved an unrivaled mastery of a cuisine he helped invent. You too might come away from the movie craving Jiro Ono’s sushi.
Rated PG. 81 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Declaration of War
A new twist on the docudrama genre, “Declaration of War” is an affecting autobiographical story about a young French couple faced with caring for their 18-month son Adam after he’s diagnosed with a brain tumor. Director/co-writer/actress Valerie Donzelli plays out her real-life personage as her pseudonymous character Juliette, a young Parisian hipster. Juliette meets her mate-to-be, with the likely name of Romeo, at a house party. Like Donzelli, co-writer Jeremie Elkaim plays his real-life role as Adam’s father and committed partner to Donzelli’s character. An opening scene divulges Adam’s survival from the potentially life threatening disease so as not to hold the audience hostage with unnecessary suspense. This benevolent narrative movement allows the story to breathe with the kind of naturalism the filmmakers intend. Although the movie periodically stumbles during a few off-putting moments of commentary from indistinct narrators, the heartfelt chronicle percolates with a heightened sense of authenticity. Donzelli liberates the film’s potentially cloistering hospital atmosphere in which non-actors fulfill their roles. She does so with stylized elegiac sequences that communicate the couple’s romantic connection and practical methods for working through the terrible pressures that transform their daily lives. The filmmaker’s fluid camera work and brilliant use of music, adds a level of excitement to the drama without overpowering the film as you might experience in a typical Hollywood disease movie. There are no cheap flashes of sentimentality on display. The couple’s “declaration of war” against their son’s cancer comes with heavy personal costs that are transcended during the film’s joyful closing scene.
Not Rated. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
"The Arbor" is a groundbreaking cinematic achievement. Docudrama director Clio Bernard approaches a dead British playwright's life of persecution and abuse via the lens of situations from her autobiographical plays. When Andrea Dunbarshe died in 1990, at age 29, she was enjoying some theatrical success. The filmmaker obtained candid audio interviews with Dunbar's surviving family members, who still reside in the same impoverished Bradford estate housing where Dunbar lived. Using a technique called "verbatim cinema," Bernard uses professional actors to lip-synch with interview audio so that the spectator receives the information in a strangely organic fashion. The narrative settles on Dunbar's eldest child. Like her mother, Andrea's daughter Lorraine resorted to self-destructive behavior to buffer herself against the cruel racist community around her. Born of a Pakistani father, Lorraine's suffering comes to resemble that of her mother in ways that scream with irony, coincidence, anger, and unspeakable pain. This is one very special film.
Not Rated. 90 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Celine Danhier's documentary about New York's punk and post punk era of underground DIY filmmaking is an ecstatic examination of the artists who put everything they had into creating something original. Obligatory interview footage with such no-wave scene-makers as Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Nick Zedd, Jim Jarmusch, Amos Poe, Ann Magnuson, and Becky Johnston reveal Manhattan's dire social conditions that allowed them to follow their dreams of making films on their own terms. A plethora of clips from the black-and-white Super-8 and 16mm formats of choice, explicate cool cinematic material from filmmakers like Bette Gordon, James Nares, Richard Kern, Charlie Ahearn, and Eric Mitchell. Now that YouTube has opened up the possibilities for anyone with a camera to make a film and post it for the world to see overnight, it's all the more inspirational to hear the stories about of a community of artists and musicians who seized the day to create films in Manhattan's burned-out Lower East Side. The storyline leads to the Nick Zedd-led Cinema of Transgression that occurred in the '80s as a battle cry against a right wing agenda that successfully dismantled New York's cultural identity in favor of a real estate marketplace for the very rich. "Blank City" an essential social study. It's an inspirational film because it celebrates the individuality of ideas, and how that climate prospers under social chaos. History repeats. We have something to look forward to.
Not Rated. 93 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)