April 13, 2010

Kurt Brokaw's New Directors/New Films, Part One


The Cove. You'll recall in last year's Oscar-winning documentary, "Man On Wire," Philippe Petit and an unlikely crazyquilt of volunteers mount a secret operation to penetrate the World Trade Center tower roofs and prepare Petit's tightrope walk between the towers. It's a thrilling excusion, even though director James Marsh has to restage much of the final 24 hours before Petit's walk across Manhattan skies. This year's stealth procedural has a far more serious and chilling objective--to document the capture and slaughter of tens of thousands of dolphins annually in a heavily guarded and highly inaccessible cove in Taiji, Japan.


The director, Louie Psyhoyos, is a worldclass National Geographic photographer, and his crackerjack team includes a number of master divers, re-breather divers and freedivers, plus a former mold maker at Industrial Light and Magic (to create fake rocks to hide cameras), and, most notably, Richard O'Barry, who spent a decade in the dolphin capturing industry before deciding to dedicate the rest of his life --38 years and counting--to freeing dolphins. (O'Barry trained all five mammals who played Flipper, and had his epiphany when the most familiar televised Flipper died in his arms of stress.) This is an exhaustively detailed survey by the Oceanic Preservation Society, with the singular goal of shutting down a barbaric practice carried on in a national park with the full knowledge and approval of the Japanese government.


It's a monstrous cover-up. With its whale museum, fisheries and omnipresent dolphin signage, Taiji supports what is outwardly a dolphin-friendly tourist haven. But the town sells the choicest and heathiest catches at up to $200,000 each to dolphinariums worldwide, and also packages and sells dolphin meat despite its high mercury content. It's a profitable industry, even though the school lunch program in the entire prefecture finally gave up serving dolphin meat because of birth defects. The government is shown stubbornly defending its killing cove, and a certain nationalistic pride is suggested. "The Cove" is sound scholarship interwoven with revealing testimony by the world's top oceanographers, and paced with a line-of-suspense much like James Marsh created for Petit's journey to the top. Like "Man On Wire," we come to anticipate as well as fear "The Cove's" heartrending conclusion in the blood-red lagoon closed on three sides by cliff walls. What may stay with you even longer is the final image of O'Barry standing in a crowded pedestrian mall, a television monitor strapped around his neck playing the kill footage. Most Japanese salarymen and women hurrying to work ignore him. "The Cove" will insure he's not ignored any longer.


La Nana (The Maid). The very definitely upper class Chilean family in Santiago is giving a birthday party for its housekeeper of 23 years. She's a virginal 41 and unmistakably has done the heavy lifting in raising four boisterous children, as well as keeping a large and contemporary home spotlessly clean. The maid, Raquel (the peerless Catalina Saavadre, a major Sundance award winner) does have her favorites in her daily regimen of dressing the children, preparing meals. cleaning the house and pool. Mom and dad are pleasant professionals who wear their entitlements easily, and they've decided the aging Raquel could use a second helper. Raquel views this as a threat to her sovereignty and maybe her job, and begins the process of making life hell for a succession of helpers. This is the unlikely but novel premise of "The Maid," and what's surprising is how well it works as a movie.


We watch the increasingly agitated Raquel raise the misery index for one new hire after another--locking them out of the house while the oven's on, tossing the family cat over the wall surrounding the property, stealing the children's snacks for herself, smashing a crafted ship's kit that's the father's pride and joy--anything she can possibly blame on the innocent and bewildered workers, so they'll get fired or quit. This goes on until she finally encounters a housekeeper who takes her measure and changes her life. "The Maid" is a keen object lesson for almost any young independent filmmaker, for its director, Sebastian Silva, based the script on his own childhood memories and wisely used the home he grew up in. One of the children is played by his own younger brother. Silva's great strength, like so many older and experienced filmmakers, is to keep a lazer focus on just one person, here the faltering servant who's trying to preserve what's left of her tiny and shrinking territorial imperative, which has formed her identity over a lifetime of work. That she finally elects to change with courage and grace is a mark of the maturity both of the character and the director. Silva dedicates this handsome little feature, his second, to the two maids of his own family, who are pictured together in a snapshot in the last seconds. It is a touching and satisfying form of closure.


Unmade Beds. There's no maid service in the abandoned Nottingham warehouse that's used as an international squat in Alexis Dos Santos' inventive and knowing look at London's youth scene. The under-25's who live rent-free in this artfully decorated raw space pick their mattresses from a storage room, drink the night away to local live bands, collapse in heaps wherever they fall, and eat bowls of Cheerios together the morning after. Director Dos Santos (a protege of Stephen Frears) wants you to find this world engaging and unthreatening, so there's no drugs or violence scarcely any rude language. only one discreet sex scene, and a carefully chosen soundtrack that showcases major talent like Kimya Dawson, the Tindersticks and Jeffrey Lewis. The director is doing everything he can to luxurously frame the interlocking stories of the two gorgeous kids above, played by 20-year-old Deborah Francois (Vera) and 21-year-old Fernando Tielve (Axl).


Miss Francois is a skilled professional who's been building her credits alongside better known names like Julie Depardieu and Sophie Marceau. The camera loves her--she has the kind of fresh, mildly surprised look that Audrey Hepburn developed and kept her entire career. The camera loves Mr. Tielve even more. He's an equally experienced young pro who's been developed by Guillermo del Toro, and he has an almost androgenous beauty that will remind you of a young Sal Mineo. Though they act out unconnected stories--Vera spends most of the film falling in love with a more conventional boy, and Axl eventually finds the lost father he's been searching for--when they're onscreen together you'll share their palpable joy at working together in leading, English-speaking roles. Alexis Dos Santos keeps his cameras in tight but the performers--indeed, the entire cast--has an easy fluidity that preserves that fragile, tentative confidence that has always defined young adulthood. "Unmade Beds" may be fluff, but it's happy-go-lucky, Mike Leigh-style fluff.


The photo above is from a 22-minute short showing with "Unmade Beds" on March 28 at the Walter Reade theatre and March 30 at MoMA. Who reviews shorts? More people should. "Copy of Coralie" refers to a photo stuck in the head of the older, grumpy owner (Serge Riaboukine) of a French copy shop. Like Axl in "Unmade Beds," he too is searching for a lost loved one who vanished from his life decades ago. In the middle of a hectic workday, he starts telling his sad tale in poetic verse to a pretty young clerk. Then he segues into a kind of talk/sing, like Rex Harrison and Richard Burton used to do onstage in musicals. Then, amazingly, he continues the story breaking into full song. What an unexpected progression to watch and hear. The writer/director is Nicholas Engel and the composer is Philiope Poirier. Like the cliffhanger serials of 60 years ago that always preceded Johnny Mack Brown westerns at the Saturday matinee, the curators of New Directors/New Films (as well as The New York Film Festival) have an uncanny way of selecting exactly the right short to complement and amplify the feature film. This is called added value. You've seen Pixar do it with all sorts of films, most recently "Presto" with "Wall-E." Now you can see how it works in a global framework.


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