Brokaw's New York Film Festival, Part 2.
"Hunger" The terrible conflicts between the Irish Republican Army and British authorities have been memorably explored in both fiction and non-fiction films. Two recent pictures that left indelible impressions of a marker event were Paul Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday" (2002), a fierce recreation of the 1972 slaughter of 13 peace marchers by British paratroopers in Belfast, and the 2003 documentary "An Unreliable Witness," which delved deeply into the memories of journalist David Tereschuk, an eyewitness reporter to that event. Now comes Steve McQueen's uncompromising drama of the 1981 IRA hunger strike in which Bobby Sands and 10 fellow inmates men starved themselves to death inside the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. This is a major NYFF event, a searing and accomplished first film by a fine arts painter whose sensibilities will surely be compared to those of Julian Schnabel. "Hunger" is a breakthrough movie, that rare independent film (in color and Cinemascope ratio) that has immediate Oscar impact.
McQueen's film initially tells the story of a British officer (Raymond Lohan), an intelligent and outwardly sensitive prison guard who savagely brutalizes his men and eventually pays with his life. Gradually McQueen's focus shifts to the inmates and Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, a Killarney native) who becomes the strike leader and the first to decide to die. The heart of the film is a conversation between Sands and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham), an unbroken take running 22 minutes from one fixed camera position. The two men define the political, social, philosophical and theological implications of the strike. As co-scripted by playwright Edna Walsh, this scene lifts "Hunger" into a dramatic dimension apart from any other picture exploring the IRA cause. It seals Sands' doom as it reveals his full humanity in ways you may never have experienced. Both actors are impeccable.
None of what follows is easy to watch, but McQueen has an awareness, integrity and editing instinct you come to trust, and probably you won't turn from the screen as the character as well as the actor begin to waste away. The director has said "people will not stay in the room if you're doing a bad job but they'll stay in the room if you're doing a good job." McQueen has done his job with a distinction almost unknown in a first feature.
"Tulpan" During this past spring's Tribeca Film Festival, the massive influx of directors debuting 122 features and over 70 short subjects from throughout the world used a Parsons' facility to relax and try to figure out Manhattan. It was an ideal place to wander up and ask a question or two, and the prime item on this writer's agenda was learning what percentage of filmmakers in any given homeland are now crafting feature films either for the third screen (laptops) or the fourth screen (mobile phones). The answers, of course, depended to some degree on the concentration of technology in a geographic region, but across the globe the answer was "a lot with a lot more coming." This is certainly going to make possible more ethnographic films from extremely remote lands. Exhibit A in this year's NYFF is a breathtaking drama shot in Kazakhstan (southern Asia near Russia) that's going to look gorgeous beyond words on one of the largest screens left in the world, Manhattan's Ziegfeld.
"Tulpan" brings us intimately into the life of a family of shepherds on a flat, barren dessert, just as, say, "The Fast Runner" a few years back took us into the lives of a family of Inuits on the flat, barren Arctic plain of Canada. "Tulpan" is the name of a shy, unseen girl being hopelessly courted by the boy above. The setting is the Hunger Steppe where ferocious dust storms bearing tornado-like funnels of swirling winds can appear in minutes. So, suddenly, can staggering images like a battered motorcycle with a Red Cross sticker on its windshield and a sidecar holding an injured camel. There are two birth scenes of lambs--the family's income and sustenance--and a number of natural evenings of exhaustion and peace. Dentists are in short supply and most of the family sports gold teeth. While parts of "Tulpan" are scripted and exuberantly acted by non-professionals, you can't script a clear blue sky that turns black in a New York minute. But you can shoot it, and watch what happens. "Tulpan's" director, Sergey Dvortsevoy, does just that, and the results are awesome.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" Mike Leigh's affable and even beguiling slice-of-English-life revolves around Poppy, a 30-year-old single primary school teacher who won't stop taking charge. She's not exactly a control freak, but like the bright and inventive teacher she is, Poppy can't help steering everyone she encounters--her pregnant sister, her flatmate and other female pals, her driving instructor, her flamengo teacher, her osteopath, a home-less derelict, a troubled boy in her class, even a grumpy bookstore clerk--into her exuberant, almost clownish universe.
The one-sheet poster for this film cues your responses--it's a children's book illustration of the teacher on a trampoline which is embossed with a smile face. All the poster elements are surprinted on a pink background and the review blurbs praise the movie as "vastly entertaining," "very funny, "made me blissfully happy," and the like. Miramax wants you to finally kick back in a Mike Leigh film. Whether you feel as "Happy-Go-Lucky" as Poppy depends wholly on your response to Sally Hawkins' performance as the teacher. Say this, she's always on. With her mismatched ragtag outfits and spot-on responses to everything she hears, Poppy may remind you of Janis Joplin channeled through early Diane Keaton. She's a motormouth and she can shape-shift facial expressions like a master mime. She's a brand new version of the superb actress who was Leigh's leading lady and artistic partner through the early years of his career, Alison Steadman, who did much to define the director's intuitive feminine sensibilities. A lot of the territory Miss Hawkins inhabits was discovered and staked out decades ago by Miss Steadman.
Sally Hawkins is a whirling dervish, and she never lets go. Well, actually she does, twice in the picture, most importantly with a character not identified above, who enters her life late in the film in a totally different kind of relationship. Her scenes with the driving instructor, who seems to represent an earlier dying England railing against a disorderly, multicultural world he wants no part of, are filled with the stabbing, staccato dialogue for which the writer/director has gained considerable acclaim. Mike Leigh can do David Mamet without the four -letter words that power Mamet's ferocity. You'll discover all that for yourself, along with a winning conclusion in which Sally and her flatmate are canoeing along, congratulating themselves on making it into adulthood. Leigh doesn't end their charming outing with a smile face on a pink sunset, but he could have.