Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Railway Man, Joe, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, Ilo Ilo, Rob the Mob

The Railway Man

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

Ilo Ilo
Rob the Mob

Capsules on the rest of the week in film:

"The Railway Man" is a fairly vile exercise in torture porn, but that's not the big problem: it's static, stagnant, and dramatically inert. In a tetchy, mannered performance of patented low-key stammers and quivering lips, Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, a train-loving Brit who, as a young army officer in WWII (Jeremy Irvine in extended flashbacks), was taken prisoner and put to hard labor and brutal torture by Nagase, a Japanese interpreter (Hiroyuki Sanada). Nicole Kidman gets about ten lines as Eric's wife Patti, who bears the brunt of his PTSD; he's never violent, of course (this is Colin Firth), but withdrawn and taciturn, often lost in memory. Kidman's ugly as hell here under a bowl of stringy brown hair with big bangs; her skin hasn't been quite this pale since she was dying of consumption in "Moulin Rouge!" Notes to director Jonathan Teplitzky: if you're going to call your movie "The Railway Man," we ought to learn something about trains. And if you're going to put us through extended scenes of early-generation waterboarding and the public suicide by hanging of one of Eric's compatriots (Stellan Skarsgård), there should be more on the other side than a banal message of forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Director David Gordon Green delivers his best film since his debut, "George Washington," with the deep-South character study "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage as a hot-tempered ex-con who employs crews to poison trees so that the land developers who engage him can legally cut them down. Joe hires with a blind eye to age and race, and cares only that his men put in a hard day's work for a day's pay. He accedes, then, when Gary (Tye Sheridan, superb in last year's "Mud"), a new boy in town, dogs him, begging to work. A friendship of mutual respect forms between the keen, unaffected Gary and Joe, who struggles every day to contain his violent impulses. The struggle is amplified when Joe witnesses Gary's abuse at the hands of his perpetually drunk father, Wade (a local transient named Gary Poulter who died after production).

This is Cage's best work in way too long, a performance free of YouTube-ready histrionics; he plumbs depths of the human soul here he hasn't explored since "Leaving Last Vegas." Sheridan continues to show unlimited promise for the future; this kid was born without a trace of the self-awareness that puts the kibosh on most child actors' careers. I also really liked the understated work of Ronnie Gene Blevins as the cop (who once did time himself) trying his best to keep Joe out of trouble and on the straight and narrow. "Joe's" is a milieu of grime and muck, of brush so thick you need a machete to cut a swath through it, of bloodthirsty mongrels and venison torn from a freshly killed deer by hand. Green's film, though the opposite of an evening's light entertainment, knows the bayou in its bones, and gives us just enough sense of these men to linger awhile in our memory.

It's a shame that the filmmaking in Nancy Buirski's "Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq" isn't as strong as the powerful story it tells. Le Clercq was, in the 1950's, a revolutionary ballerina. While most dancers before her were short and quick, she introduced a new silhouette, what one friend called "an elongated pathway to heaven." Jerome Robbins worked with her and pined for her romantically, but George Balanchine snapped her up as soon as he saw her outside a studio at his School of American Ballet. "What are you doing out here?" he asked. "Kicked out," she replied, with a beat between the words, full of pith and vinegar. Balanchine married "Tanny" and made her his étoile, creating "Afternoon of a Faun" to exploit her striking physiognomy. But tragedy struck during the company's European tour.

The dancers were standing on line to be inoculated with Jonas Salk's new polio vaccine when Le Clercq begged off with a headache: "I'll get a double dose later." One morning in Sweden, after a performance in a chilly and cavernous space in Copenhagen, Tanny awoke with no sensation whatever in her legs. She had contracted polio, and in an instant her career - her life as she knew it - was over. Through three torturous days in an iron lung, followed by years of slow and painful recovery, she was forced to come to grips with the question faced by all dancers (and anyone in a profession with a short shelf life): "I'm not a dancer anymore. Who am I?" The circumstance that befell Le Clercq was one of staggering cruelty, but she responded to it with positivity and lived into her seventies, collaborating at the Dance Theatre of Harlem with the pioneering African-American dancer-choreographer Arthur Mitchell. What's missing from the documentary movie, though, is Tanny's voice itself; we hear it only briefly in a video clip from an appearance on Red Skelton's show shortly before the fateful trip, and in readings of letters she wrote to Robbins. Too often, Buirski makes her the passive subject of others' analyses, an approach seemingly antithetical to Le Clercq's own worldview.

The well-traveled arc of the Singaporean import "Ilo Ilo" involves two working parents (Yann Yann Weo and Tian Wen Chen) who hire a Filipina nanny, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), to care for their son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler). Jiale's a frequent guest at his principal's office, and spends most of his time at home playing with his Tamagotchi (pegging the timeframe at 1997). He resents the arrival of this interloper, but if you've been to the movies this century, their détente will feel pre-ordained and ineluctable. (There's no particular reason it should, by the way; from all appearances, he's an unreconstructed reprobate who treats her - beyond shabbily - as less than a person.) The movie is set during the Asian financial crisis, and writer-director Anthony Chen does a creditable job of demarcating the thin line between middle-class respectability and sheer survival. He's helped by naturalistic, well-observed work from the three adult leads (the child's performance is typically forced), but would have been better served to divert time from Jiale and Teresa's thawing to focus on the parents' actual work lives. His film is a highly unpleasant experience: ugly to look at (a pregnant woman vomits from morning sickness; earlier, a chicken dies in its own blood, upon which Chen cuts to a fried drumstick), ugly to listen to (the dialogue a staccato chop-suey amalgam of English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, each pitched at a higher shriek than the last). And by going over ground covered in countless better films, "Ilo Ilo" ends up going nowhere.

"City Island" director Raymond De Felitta has made another little Italian rice ball called "Rob the Mob," but he's put just enough love into it - and found a leading lady winning enough - to carry it across the line. Nina Arianda plays Rosie, a Queens girl who works at a collection agency, popping gum bubbles while hurling threats at deadbeats. Her amore, Tommy (Michael Pitt), gets out of a stint in stir for theft just as the John Gotti murder trial begins. Tommy (who gets a seat in the courtroom whenever he goes) can't wait to see the mobsters who blackmailed his late dad get their desserts. During Sammy "The Bull" Gravano's testimony, he picks up on an aside: guns aren't allowed in the mob's "social clubs" throughout the city, so he figures they're ripe for the picking. (What are they gonna do, call the cops?) He sets out on a string of robberies with Rosie as his getaway driver. The scenes between Arianda and Pitt form the heart of the movie, and her moment-to-moment unpredictability and go-for-it amenability give them a crazy comic gusto without sacrificing the truth of the characters.

The hits themselves have a you-can't-make-this-up authenticity. In one, Tommy makes the guys undress down to their skivvies; in another, he has one made man lie on top of another and simulate fucking his ass. Andy Garcia, whom De Felitta allowed to roam unrestrained - to his detriment - in "City Island," does finer work here as the devout "Big Al" Fiorello, a deli owner by day and capo by night who finger-paints instructions in his marinara sauce. As the law closes in on him, Garcia has some nice, quiet moments with his young son, who he hopes will look back on him from a new kind of future with respect or, at least, without contempt. But it's the fearless and game Arianda who makes "Rob the Mob" a marginal thumbs-up.

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