Friday, January 28, 2011

No one has quite captured the Palestinian/Israeli conflict from the Palestinian perspective better than director Elia Suleiman. His unique and often humorous examinations of the tensions that plague the region have drawn both praise and criticism - his 2002 film Divine Intervention causing quite a bit of controversy for being such a pointed satire of Israeli occupation of Palestine.

There is no question about how Suleiman feels about the conflict. His films reflect a deep desire for Palestinian sovereignty, highlighting the essential absurdity of the region's turmoil through droll, Tati-esque humor. But those who see him as anti-Semitic are barking up the wrong tree. Suleiman is a unique and vivid voice for Palestine who is making a peaceful noise through film.

His latest film, The Time That Remains, is much more personal than his previous work, and in a way, much more serious. It still has that same Tati-like spark and dry sense of humor, but at its core there is a much deeper sadness at work.

Elia Suleiman, writer and director of THE TIME THAT REMAINS
Photo by Marcel Hartmann

Subtitled "Chronicle of a Present Absentee," The Time That Remains is an autobiographical look at the plight of Palestine since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Casting himself as a passive observer (or "present absentee"), Suleiman takes us on a tour of his life, and on a grander scale, the life of a nation that no longer exists (yet another "present absentee"). As Suleiman is a man in search of an identity from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, so too is Palestine, a nation that finds itself swallowed by another nation, its people now strangers in their own land.

The film is a series of a vignettes, moments from Suleiman's own life that reflect the absurdities and tragedies of Palestinian life from 1948 to the present. But more so than in the more outright comedic Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains is a film of deep sadness. It is more of an elegy than a farce, despite some truly funny moments (a fight between doctors and police over a wounded man in a bed is a comedic highlight). True to form, however, Suleiman's comedy is not without purpose, and each scene serves to underscore a different absurdity, irony, or tragedy of Palestinian life in Nazareth.

Saleh Bakri as Fuad in Elia Suleiman’s THE TIME THAT REMAINS
Photo by Marcel Hartmann

The vignette structure of the film has a tendency to feel a bit disjointed, especially as it skips forward in time, but Suleiman has a brilliant eye for composition, and has a perfectly deadpan, melancholy countenance that is reminiscent of Buster Keaton. His presence is sorely missed in the film's first two thirds where his character is younger. His appearance in the final third adds a much needed jolt. His presence is essential as no one quite captures the mood and tone of the film quite like he does. But even when he is not there you can feel him, through the camera's satirical gaze, through the deliberately structured compositions - it is unmistakably Suleiman's work.

The Time That Remains is a deeply personal film for Suleiman, as he uses his own family as a microcosm of a greater Palestinian plight. He has channeled what he saw going on around him into a timeless and haunting evocation of oppression with wit and charm. His touch has always been light, and while he stays true to form, there is unmistakably something deeper at work beneath the surface. Suleiman is a master satirist, and his latest film is not so much an anguished cry of a nation as it is a frank and clear-eyed elegy for a nation in search of an identity, a "present absentee" in search of a home, and a people in search of a voice. In Suleiman, they may have found it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE TIME THAT REMAINS | Directed by Elia Suleiman | Stars Elia Suleiman, Ali Suliman, Saleh Bakri, Amer Hlehel, Lotuf Neusser | Not rated | In Hebrew and Arabic w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.
The martial arts genre is an area of cinema that I have largely ignored, and for the most part remain unfamiliar with. Much like India's Bollywood, China and Japan have produced so many martial arts films over the years that it has become its own industry, and most never make it to American shores.
There was an upswing in wuxia films after the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but those dwell more in the land of art and fantasy. This is something different, a much less highbrow style of filmmaking that is more akin to the grindhouse films so beloved by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, the kind of film that Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba made a career out of starring in.

Out of that tradition comes Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, the sequel to the international hit, Ip Man. But unlike the grittier martial arts films that serve as its inspiration, Ip Man 2 is a much grander and more refined experience, a natural evolution and maturation of a venerable and successful genre.
Based on the life of Ip Man (Donnie Yen), the legendary martial arts grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee, Ip Man 2 finds Ip and his family moving to British occupied Hong Kong, where he attempts to set up his own martial arts school to teach his unique style of Wing Chun. He is met with resistance, however, by a group of corrupt martial arts masters, led by Hung Chun-nam (Sammo Hung), who refuse to allow Ip to become a true master until he passes their test and pays his dues. But as Ip's students square off against the students of other disciplines, a greater threat arrives in Hong Kong - a western boxer named Taylor "Twister" Milos (Darren Shahlavi) bent on asserting his superiority over Chinese martial arts, by humiliating its practitioners in the ring. Suddenly, the more peaceful minded Ip and the hot-headed Hung have a common enemy around which to unite, as the dignity of a nation rides on one boxing match that will have a profound impact on Hong Kong and all of its citizens living under colonial rule.

Ip Man 2 feels a bit like a Chinese Rocky IV, but the fact that it is a true story makes it all the more inspiring. While the film tends to paint in broad strokes, especially in its characterizations of the villainous British, the film's expert pacing and heartpounding action sequences more than make up for it. One always expects films of this nature to be a bit broad, it goes with the territory, but it is often so wildly over-the-top as to be distracting. Still, director Wilson Yip knows how to deliver the thrills, and Ip Man 2 is a nonstop machine of breathtaking action.

The fight choreography by the legendary Sammo Hung is nothing short of stunning. As the main reason people go to see films like this, there is a lot riding on the martial arts action, and the film delivers in spades. But no great martial arts film would be complete without a great hero, and Donnie Yen is magnetic as the gentle but powerful Ip Man. His kind and unassuming countenance and humble demeanor mask a master fighter, and when he unleashes his controlled fury on an opponent, the result is truly incredible to watch.

For fans of martial arts, Ip Man 2 is a must, but even for non-fans like me, the story is irresistable. It's a pretty standard David vs. Goliath tale, but Yip keeps the pacing so crisp and the characters so engaging that it's hard not to get swept up in the action. It is, above all, pure fun, an adrenaline pumping action film that is both well crafted and tightly controlled. This is action as it should be done - a grand piece of fluff entertainment that doesn't insult the audience while still making them want to stand up and cheer. And that is a rare feat indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

IP MAN 2: LEGEND OF THE GRANDMASTER | Directed by Wilson Yip | Stars Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Lynn Hung, Simon Yam, Xiaoming Huang, Siu-Wong Fan, Kent Chen, Darren Shahlavi | Rated R for violence | In Cantonese with English subtitles | Opens today, January 28, in select cities.
From The Dispatch:
As a film about coping with grief, and the very act of simply moving on, “Rabbit Hole” is a delicate and moving work that deals with its issues in refreshingly grown-up ways. It lacks the emotional histrionics one might expect, and instead explores its characters’ pain without providing easy answers. The loss of a child is one of the greatest tragedies one can experience, and Mitchell refuses to simply put a Band-Aid on the problem and move on. And while it may feel a bit aimless, there is no clear end to such a tragedy, and Mitchell allows his characters to develop in such a way that they never fully heal, but are never fully consumed by their sadness either. For such a heavy subject, “Rabbit Hole” is remarkably light on its feet, uplifting even. It’s an emotionally cathartic experience that finds humor and positivity even in the darkest situations.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, January 17, 2011

From The Dispatch:
“Black Swan” is a mess, but what a glorious mess it is. It's a trashy melodrama disguised as high art, but that's part of its brilliance. Aronofsky powerfully reimagines “Swan Lake” through the lens of a modern exploitation film while taking his cues from the grand cinematic opulence of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — most specifically the sweeping ballet sequences and self-destructive obsession with art of “The Red Shoes” (1948) and the psychosexual tension of “Black Narcissus” (1947).
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Several recent documentaries have taken a look at different aspects of the fashion industry, from The September Issue to Valentino: The Last Emperor. But those films looked at the industry through from the perspective of the powerful, not the rank and file who keep the industry running.

That's where Picture Me: A Model's Diary comes in. An extraordinarily intimate look at the life of a model, Picture Me is a documentary assembled from home footage shot by the models themselves, as well as by the main subject's boyfriend, Ole Schell, who also directed the film.

The result is something of a video diary, exposing revealing secrets as well as the darker side of being a model.

It's an undeniably fascinating experience, but the haphazard nature of the footage leads to an unfocused structure. It tends to leap back and forth, lacking direction and cohesion. But the intimate nature of the film and the often raw secrets it exposes make for a compelling documentary. It's not incredibly deep, but accomplishes what any good documentary does - gives the viewers a glimpse into a very specific and largely unknown world.

Modeling comes with a lot of preconcieved notions, and Picture Me puts a lot of those to rest, while reinforcing others. You'll find no great revelations here, but it achieves its breezy, diary-esque goals. For those interested in fashion or becoming a model, Picture Me will prove a fine place to start.


PICTURE ME: A MODEL'S DIARY Directed by Ole Schell, Sara Ziff Not rated Coming to DVD tomorrow, Jan. 11, from Strand Releasing.

Monday, January 03, 2011

To all my North Carolina readers - in celebration of its 1 year anniversary, the a/perture Cinema in downtown Winston-Salem will present Olivier Assayas' Carlos in its complete, 5 1/2 hour form on Saturday, January 8 at 12:30 PM, and Sunday, January 9 at 5 PM.

The film, which was #3 on my top ten of 2010, chronicles the life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who was known to the world in the 1970s as the infamous terrorist, Carlos. In my top ten write-up in The Dispatch I said:

"It is an epic in the truest sense of the word, from its decade and continent -spanning scope to its nearly 5 1/2 hour length. But despite its massive running time, Assayas keeps it light on its feet, maintaining its pacing and keeping it effortlessly engaging. A bold and meticulous portrait of a complex man, from his glory days as a proud lefitst revolutionary to a man on the run in his twilight years searching for relevancy in a changed, post-Cold War world, 'Carlos' is the kind of fearless filmmaking Hollywood has forgotten how to do."

Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10.50 for students and seniors. Call 336- 722-8148 for more information, or visit