Offering unprecedented access to the highly guarded world of professional ballet, Jody Lee Lipes’ documentary Ballet 422 follows 25-year-old Justin Peck on his creative journey to produce the 422nd original piece for the world-renowned New York City Ballet. A member of the company’s lowest rank of dancers, the corps de ballet, Peck’s commission to choreograph an original ballet so early in his career is truly remarkable and warrants this intimate documentation. With little commentary or sentiment, reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse (2009), this vérité portrait takes the audience behind the curtain to show the intricacies of such a collective endeavor, from the embryonic stages of formulating choreography to the highly anticipated world premiere. Ballet enthusiasts and art lovers alike will develop a deepened respect for the arduous work of costume designers, technical crew, musicians and of course the dancers in bringing the beauty of ballet to life.
There has never been any doubt of ballet’s inherent cinematic potential; Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 classic The Red Shoes set an impossibly high standard for subsequent attempts to depict dance on the big screen, but over half a century later Darren Aronofsky reinvigorated the genre with the mesmerizingly psychotic Black Swan (2010). Independent Spirit Award-nominated for his cinematography in Lena Dunham’s fearless debut Tiny Furniture (2010), Lipes captures his subjects from an arresting variety of angles, delicately placing them within the larger canvas of the production. In one memorable shot, perfectly illustrating the often isolating role of a choreographer, Peck is filmed from behind as he stands alone on the theater’s balcony, his head slightly obscuring the distant dancers as they perform in an blurred, impressionistic haze.
The documentary unfolds with the same fluidity that characterizes Peck’s masterful choreography, eschewing interviews and speeches in favor of driving the narrative through action and visual language. With no voiceover to assist viewers who are unfamiliar with the ballet industry, it is the questions posed by members of the team not from a dance background, such as a new costume designer, which help educate the uninitiated and engage them further. It is through these discussions that Peck’s relative unconventionality becomes apparent; on one such occasion he pushes back against the idea of uniformity in color and fashion onstage, hinting at his willingness to challenge traditional conventions while still respecting the art form’s classical origins. Although never affording the viewer a clear sense of the finished product, Ballet 422 effortlessly showcases the dedication of all involved as well as the endurance, patience and artistry required to create such glamour and elegance on stage.
Viewers hoping to hear of Peck’s inspirations or personal motivations will leave disappointed as Lipes opts for a largely silent, detached observation of the young performer. However, it is a privilege to see the realization of an artist’s vision and Peck remains captivating throughout the two-month process, operating with the necessary intensity and clarity, never being reduced to the tyrannical archetype common in fictional depictions of ballet companies. Peck’s meetings with his colleagues, particularly the three lead dancers, are fascinating studies in professional interaction and his openness to input and advice reinforces the intricate, collaborative nature of Paz de la Jolla’s journey to the stage.
Ballet 422 closes with two long takes; the first locks on to Peck as if he were the subject of a nature documentary, the filmmakers requiring a 400mm camera to capture Peck as he watches the premiere performance among the audience in the lavish David H. Koch Theater. Following the rapturous applause he receives onstage, a lengthy take tracks Peck through the stairways and corridors backstage to his dressing room, where he prepares to dance in the program’s final number. The pairing of these shots perfectly conveys the astonishing mentality of the NYCB; artists and performers should take great pride in their accomplishments, but ultimately it is professionalism, commitment and collaboration that are valued above all else. It is a unique experience to witness one artist capturing another at work; Lipes’ respect for Peck’s talent is evident and the passion and pursuit of excellence they share offers great promise for their respective creative endeavors.
“Abortion comedy” may not be considered an established genre in Hollywood, but Obvious Child has set the bar exceedingly high for any filmmakers daring to broach the controversial subject. Adapting her 2009 short film of the same name, Gillian Robespierre has crafted a refreshingly honest pregnancy story that is frank and nonjudgmental in its treatment of abortion. In her first major film role, Jenny Slate stars as Donna, a Brooklyn comedian who is dumped, fired and impregnated just in time for Valentine’s Day. Unwavering in her decision to terminate the pregnancy, Donna finds comfort in the support of her family and friends, while dull but lovable one-night stand Max respects her choice and leaves the audience optimistic for their leading lady’s happy ending.
The rarity of a theatrically released “abortion-themed rom-com”, to use a phrase direct from the film’s poster, cannot be overstated. Although distributor A24 has showed no intention of obscuring the film’s sensitive topic, Hollywood has typically transformed unwanted pregnancies into uplifting births, finding great success with 2007 duo Knocked Up and Juno. However, to Robespierre these narratives just “didn’t feel true” and she strove to depict the complexity of the situation, allowing abortion to be inconvenient, unsettling and even occasionally funny. It is Obvious Child’s follow-through with the procedure that makes it so radically unique among most pop-culture pregnancies, redefining what constitutes a happy ending in a film about unplanned pregnancy, while never politicizing the issue or pushing an agenda.
Half a decade ago, when Robespierre uploaded her short film to Vimeo, Donna Stern’s haplessness and imperfections made her a truly unique creation in entertainment culture. Five years later, with Lena Dunham’s Girls and slacker comedy Broad City lighting up the small screen, Donna finds herself surrounded by a host of young, complicated female characters, as uncertain and unmotivated as they are creative and ambitious. In conveying Donna’s defiance and vulnerability, Jenny Slate effortlessly fuses raw emotional honesty with biting wit, in a manner reminiscent of Kristen Wiig and Greta Gerwig’s revelatory performances in Bridesmaids (2011) and Frances Ha (2012).
Obvious Child’s depiction of pregnancy and abortion is truly unprecedented, demonstrating the fearlessness of the filmmakers and their supporters considering today’s hostile climate for women’s reproductive rights. With a sharp script and a flawless cast, Robespierre’s film is hilarious and heartwarming throughout, seamlessly blending genuinely sweet romance with unapologetically crude humor. If Robespierre and Slate can achieve such a high standard on their big screen debuts, their next projects will obviously have our absolute attention.
November 4, 2008: as a nation celebrated the historic election of its first African-American president, civil rights campaigners suffered a major defeat in the battle to legalize same-sex marriage. Nearly six years since the passage of Proposition 8, repealing the rights of same-sex couples to marry in California, The Case Against 8 has emerged as a remarkable personal and historical account of the ensuing battle to restore equal marriage in the Golden State. Wisely choosing to omit discussion about the well-documented, highly controversial impact of out-of-state interests on the campaign, directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White are able to focus solely on offering unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to one of the most significant civil rights battles in American history.
Fourteen years ago it would have been near impossible to imagine Ted Olson and David Boies willingly sharing a screen together. As opposing attorneys in another of the 21st century’s bitterly-fought Supreme Court battles, Bush v. Gore, the pair represented conflicting ends of the political spectrum. The American Foundation for Equal Rights’ decision to appoint Olson and Boies as co-counsel in a case to overturn Proposition 8 was certainly not without its controversies, but the unlikely pairing of these political foes provides The Case Against 8 with its initial intrigue and narrative tension. The establishing shots of Olson’s office, essentially a miniature Republican Hall of Fame, are enough to justify the LGBT community’s fears of a sabotage mission as well as conservatives’ accusations of disloyalty. However, it is the cooperation and admiration that develops between the two lawyers that is truly absorbing and reflects the unwavering resolve of all those in pursuit of fairness and equality.
The outcome of Perry v. Schwarzenegger is unlikely to surprise many audiences, especially within the United States, but this documentary affords viewers a unique look behind the headlines and into the lives of the plaintiffs, lawyers, families and supporters throughout their historic journey. Shooting much of the footage themselves using hand-held cameras allowed the directors to capture the many tears and cheers during the case, before successfully weaving together countless hours of footage from law offices, car backseats, courthouses and family kitchens into an emotionally charged documentary narrative. This exclusive behind-the-scenes access is especially significant when considering how the proposition’s defenders successfully petitioned to ban broadcast of the court proceedings, forcing the public to rely on the biases of news media. Undertaking three years of filming without any guarantee of a worthy conclusion requires great determination, and Cotner and White should be commended for their perseverance in providing fly-on-the-wall insight into one of the nation’s most mysterious institutional processes.
The lack of courtroom footage is easily remedied with the compelling scenes of the four plaintiffs reading their own testimonies. The two couples, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier from Berkeley and Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami of Los Angeles, are firmly established as the film’s emotional core and the filmmakers never attempt to conceal the hardships they face by virtue of becoming nationally recognized figures in a controversial legal battle. On the surface, reciting their respective testimonies makes the subjects appear as conventional talking heads, but the focus on words alone allows artifice to be stripped away and the human stories behind the case to be laid bare. Over the course of their journey, the plaintiffs prove to be as engaging and articulate as the legal team representing them, easily capturing and maintaining the audience’s interest and investment. The plethora of remarkably candid moments ensures the audience is welcomed into this dedicated, close-knit team; the intimacy wills viewers to share in their success and to use the momentum from this battle to end the war on love and progression.
Although the film’s title does indicate where the filmmakers’ focus lies, the limited presence of Proposition 8’s supporters or the opposing legal team does deprive The Case Against 8 of a more colorful, dramatic conflict; that said, a more balanced argument would have detracted from the film’s intimate construction. Additionally, the refusal of defense witnesses to testify demonstrates the frailty of the opposition’s case, and the admission from a high-profile opponent that becoming more informed had made him an outspoken advocate confirms the importance of campaigners’ efforts to overcome prejudice and ignorance.
Despite the landmark Supreme Court rulings featured in the conclusion to The Case Against 8, thirty-one states still consider same-sex marriage illegal; only through education and awareness will this number be reduced and the importance of chronicling these civil rights battles cannot be overstated. Cotner and White have used their unparalleled access to remind viewers of the real lives and personal stories behind these rulings; this impressive documentary underscores how opponents of same-sex marriage will soon find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Adaptations of comic books, novels, plays, even board games, are commonplace in cinema, but a film “based on original tweets” must be a first. Loosely constructed around 410 consecutive, real life Twitter updates by teenager Mary Melony (@marylony), Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy skillfully reflects the social networking site’s characteristic synthesis of life’s absurdities and mundane realities. Patcha Poonpiriya is captivating as Mary, a high school senior navigating the hopes and anxieties of life at the intersection between adolescence and adulthood. The Twitter updates punctuate her adventures with best friend Suri as the pair assembles their school yearbook, while director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit meticulously crafts a series of weird and wonderful concurrent storylines to charm the audience.
The defiant uniqueness of the film’s cross-platform concept is worn as a badge of honor throughout this delightfully bizarre Thai export. It is the opening segments that may pose the greatest challenge to the audience’s engagement, as viewers are forced to embrace how the persistent interjections of tweets compel Mary to erratic, random behaviors, such as ordering a jellyfish online and eating mushrooms in the jungle. However, once Thamrongrattanarit establishes the film’s whimsical nature, viewers are compensated for their initial bewilderment; the surreal, tangentially connected fragments begin to coalesce into a meaningful, absorbing whole, allowing the audience to emotionally invest in Mary and Suri’s friendship. A potential romance, a tragic loss and a spell of depression all occur within the confines of Mary’s bleak, industrial world, captured by cinematographer Phairat Khumwan with the kind of unique insularity inherent in Wes Anderson’s creations.
Those familiar with Thamrongrattanarit’s debut feature 36, which consisted of just 36 shots in 68 minutes, will be accustomed to his experimental flair. Having doubled the running time for Happy, he has embraced more narrative complexity, allowing Mary’s fantastical adventures to exist alongside the harsh realities of her new headmaster’s fascist-like regime. Shot on a steady handheld camera, at times Happy could be mistaken for a documentary, interspersing an awkward teenager’s authentic coming of age story with 140-character meditations on her fears, her likes and her future. Mainstream audiences are unlikely to fall for the jaunty charm of this wryly-amusing slice of surrealism, but those willing to suspend disbelief will find a uniquely enchanting and affecting cinematic experience awaiting them.
When considered among Martin Scorsese’s complete body of work, Hugo appears to be something of an anomaly; the dark tales of modern crime that characterize his most successful features – Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990) among others – sit uneasily alongside this innocent, elegant fantasy adventure, firmly eschewing his defining themes of guilt and redemption to deliver a personal love-letter to the origins of filmmaking. Based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s captivating graphic-novel, Scorsese’s first foray into 3D filmmaking follows a young orphaned boy who lives a secret life in the walls of Paris’ Gare Montparnasse railway station.
To a legion of cinephiles, the news that the industry’s most notable film preservationist was bidding farewell to photochemical film, was as devastating and controversial as Bob Dylan’s “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was to many music lovers. Upon the announcement that The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) would be shot on digital film, Thelma Schoonmaker, editor of all Scorsese’s films since Raging Bull (1980), revealed that the warm tones achieved in Hugo had delighted the director and persuaded him to embrace the format. A major figure in the New Hollywood movement, an emerging generation of film school-educated, counterculture-bred artists and performers in the 1960s and 1970s, Scorsese was considered one of the last major holdovers in moving to digital, making his employment of 3D and CGI a truly landmark moment.
The unprecedented growth of 3D theatrical releases during the 21st century, largely driven by the phenomenal global success of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), has recently been undermined by a considerable decline in audience interest. Cameron has been vocal about the apparent overuse of 3D; criticizing the trend of studio’s converting their blockbusters to the format in post-production in search of higher revenues, but ultimately compromising the quality of their pictures. However, like Avatar before it, 3D is an integral aspect of Hugo’s visual composition and its absence would diminish the sensory spectacle Scorsese has sought to create. The director appears to have been greatly satisfied with his first use of 3-D, commending how “the actors were more upfront emotionally”, the format allowing their “slightest move, slightest intention” to be picked up more precisely.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson has constructed Scorsese’s film around countless stunning visual inventions. In a striking pre-credits opening segment, depicting how Hugo came to live under such extreme circumstances, a succession of dazzling camera moves delights the audience and establishes the film’s exploitation of the possibilities of depth. Unthinkable without enhancement from 3D and CGI, Scorsese utilizes steam and floating particles to create a sense of dimension in frames throughout the film. One mesmerizing shot sees Richardson’s camera dynamically swoop down from the skies over Paris and proceed to weave between disembarking passengers in the train station, purposefully racing toward the clock face where Hugo’s large blue eyes pierce through the screen.
Sharing the accolades with Hugo at the 84th Academy Awards was The Artist, a black-and-white silent film that also sought to rediscover film heritage. Scorsese’s appreciation for the medium of film can be seen in every carefully crafted frame, commanding state-of-the-art resources to share his passion for cinema with audiences young and old. Hugo’s adventures lead him to make the acquaintance of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, a bitter misanthrope suffering from years of neglect and harboring of secrets, played with somber demeanor by Ben Kingsley.
Méliès’ story is one of film history’s greatest tragedies; he initially enjoyed great success as an innovator in early special effects, but was bankrupted by film piracy and misfortune, becoming so exasperated that he burned all his own negatives in 1923. Scorsese delights in littering Hugo with cinematic and literary references and allusions; notably reproducing the world’s first movie studio that Méliès built near Paris in 1896, and recreating the making of the world’s first sci-fi film, A Trip to the Moon (1902). Just as he created a late-career rediscovery for director Michael Powell, Scorsese is keen to help rescue Méliès from obscurity and honor the struggles of early filmmakers who never received the kind of attention artists experience today.
However, the strong thematic narrative and cinematic skill cannot overcome the lifelessness that rots the film’s core. For all the cogs, cranks, levers and wheels that shape the film’s architecture, the acting and comic timing is equally as mechanistic. Scorsese has enlisted his experienced team of skilled craftsmen to realize his vision, but sadly the same cannot be said of his cast. Asa Butterfield lacks presence and expression as Hugo and even the talented Chloë Grace Moretz as Méliès’ goddaughter fails to inject enough energy and excitement to fully engage the audience. As a supposedly comical inspector, Sacha Baron Cohen is unamusing and strained as Hugo’s nemesis; instead, the film must rely on Howard Shore’s whimsical score to set the playful tone.
Hugo is undoubtedly a film that rewards patience and intellectual curiosity. Scorsese’s first film for all ages was always going to struggle in establishing an engaging narrative, but he does successfully balance his unapologetically personal vision with popular appeal. Providing joys more architectural than spiritual, perhaps Hugo’s greatest success lies in its ability to prove the merits of creating cinematic art in three-dimensions, displaying visual marvels to sustain and justify the growth of the format.
More than three decades have passed since Colin Welland took to the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, collecting his Academy Award for writing Chariots of Fire (1981), and proclaimed that “the British are coming!” A proudly, uncompromisingly British drama, Chariots of Fire instigated a trend in heritage culture that characterized much of British filmmaking during the 1980s and even to the present day. Typically adapted from classic literature and depicting pre-World War II Britain, heritage films – such as David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984) and more recently Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) – have been met with great international success and shaped the global perception of Great Britain.
Merchant-Ivory’s A Room with a View is considered a classic of heritage cinema and is undoubtedly one of the production company’s most successful features. So prolific was their output in the 1980s and 1990s that the expression “Merchant-Ivory film” is used to refer to a particular genre of film rather than one necessarily made by the company. Adapted from E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View perfectly represents the typical Merchant-Ivory film; an early 20th century period piece, set in Edwardian England, displaying great opulence and starring respected British actors as refined, disillusioned and complexly entangled characters. Helena Bonham Carter plays Lucy Honeychurch, a young lady from a respectable family, who is taken on an obligatory grand tour of Europe with her spinster cousin, splendidly portrayed by Maggie Smith, as an older chaperone.
Having lived a sheltered, reserved existence, Lucy is fascinated to make the acquaintance of free-spirited George Emerson while visiting Florence, Italy. Emerson is a refreshing source of passion in a society founded on convention and timidity, but when Charlotte Bartlett witnesses him becoming overly friendly with her young cousin she demands their hasty return to England. Settling for a traditional courtship with snobbish Cecil Vyse, an early film role for a scene-stealing Daniel Day-Lewis, Lucy’s self-deception and ladylike resolve almost cause her to compromise her happiness; that is before the Emersons move into their neighborhood and Lucy finds herself facing with a dilemma between eccentricity and convention. One of Forster’s more optimistic novels, A Room with a View encourages its audience to embrace both thought and passion to avoid simply acting on feelings and making regrettable mistakes.
Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s position as one-third of the Merchant-Ivory “three-headed monster” lead to 23 collaborations and earned her two Academy Awards, including one for A Room with a View. Her screenplay is a remarkably faithful, delightfully bright adaptation of its literary source, Jhabvala perfecting her craft following previous adaptations of the Henry James novels The Europeans and The Bostonians for Merchant-Ivory. The story is certainly not fast-moving but it unfolds at a deliberate pace, the stately dialogue occasionally subsiding to allow for dramatic interruptions of great passion and honesty. Ivory’s sumptuous direction and Jhabvala’s charming script blend effortlessly to create a narrative tone similar to Forster’s novel; the story is told with an equal measure of concern and amusement towards the characters’ entanglements.
As you would expect from a cast that now boasts 21 Academy Award nominations between them, the performances are of the highest standard and perfectly balance the competing affections of the heart and the mind. The film’s leisurely pace allows the viewer to enjoy the interactions between such a stimulating cast of varied characters, played by an impressive array of newcomers and established actors. Bonham Carter delivers a stunningly complex performance of a young woman defined by contradictions; she is as reasonable and selfish as she is romantic and generous, respectful and timid until she unexpectedly embraces the unknown. Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott are just two of the stand-out performers among a host of perplexing and eccentric characters in A Room with a View, enchanting as Lucy’s meddlesome cousin and George’s expressive, free-thinking father.
Made on a relatively minute budget of $3 million, Merchant-Ivory produced a remarkably high quality feature at minimal cost, maintaining a classical style and allowing Tony Pierce-Roberts’ skillful cinematography to add an appropriate level of attractive glossiness. Although their critical and commercial success afforded them larger budgets for their later films, including Best Picture nominees Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), Merchant-Ivory maintained this aesthetic blueprint and perfected their signature style. Heritage films may have attracted criticism for their romanticized portrayal of the past and promotion of conservative ideology, but A Room with a View is an elegantly amusing attack on the British class system, humorously challenging society’s manners and morals while making the historic past relevant and entertaining to a contemporary audience.