‘Captain Phillips,’ ‘Wadjda,’ ‘A Touch of Sin:’ Windows to a Globalized World

Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass has carved out a niche for himself as a director of smart, political, white-knuckle action movies—combining the immediacy of documentary film-making with the scale and expert manipulation of the best studio thrillers. Most famous for the second and third Bourne movies, whose shaky-cam style has now become the (poorly-imitated) template for a decade of Hollywood action films, it’s the projects he made in between, specifically Bloody Sunday and United 93, that are the real thematic precursors to his latest offering: meticulously researched re-creations of explosive international incidents, that function as both edge-of-your-seat thrill rides and complex commentaries on the seemingly unsolvable ideological conflicts of our modern age.

What’s remarkable about Captain Phillips is how powerfully it reverberates beyond the confines of its tight, streamlined plot: the real-life hijacking of a US cargo ship by Somali pirates, and the subsequent kidnapping of its Captain. By showing the circumstances of the pirates’ lives—where working for the local warlord seems the only alternative to fishing the empty seas—and treating them as flesh and blood characters instead of traditional African villains (see Black Hawk Down, which treated the Somalis as faceless black zombies to be gunned down without consequence)—Captain Phillips somehow manages to make its incredibly tense story feel like the small ripple of a much larger economic problem. By the time the US Navy shows up with all its might, we get a shocking sense of what the unlimited power of the American Empire must look like to the poorer nations of the world, and the incredible, unforgiving disparity between them. By no means justifying the pirates’ actions, we get a clear sense of the desperation that drives them, and in Barkad Abdi’s electrifying performance as their leader Musa, a worthy counterpart to Tom Hank’s most un-showy, embodied role in years.

Ultimately, by choosing to end with the trauma of the aftermath rather than the uplift of victory, Hanks and Greengrass undo the myth of the indomitable American hero, leaving us with something far more human, moving, and troubling—our utter inability to stop the violent tide of an unequal, globalized world, no matter how large our military might be.

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A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s seventh feature is the first to blend action-genre dynamics into his slow moving, critically adored meditations on life in modern China, with powerfully thrilling results. Taking four stories from the headlines, each detailing a character’s eventual spiral into violence, A Touch of Sin creates a multi-layered look at the cracking seams of China’s rush to capitalism, as greed, corruption and exploitation become the new normal. A disgruntled mine worker in a northern village, a wandering sociopath with a gun, a female receptionist in a sauna-cum-brothel, and a dead-end-job roaming youth—the four protagonists are only barely linked, their stories allowed to play out in their entirety, but what becomes fascinating is how the structure of each informs the other, so that by the second and third we know with absolute certainty that things will end in someone’s blood.
As with Paul Greengrass, Zhangke real interest lies in real-world, authentic, socio-political consequence, cleverly using genre tropes to hook the audience while he slips his larger message in. Beautifully filmed, compelling (though the first and third stories are definitely the most successful), and inevitably bleak, it’s amazing that this is the first film of this director’s to be actually financed by the Chinese government, given it’s devastatingly pessimistic look at the spiritual and moral corrosion of a rapidly expanding super-power, and all those left behind in its wake.

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Wadjda
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature is impossible to separate from the fascinating circumstances of its making: a film about the repression of women’s voices in Saudi culture, made by a woman from within that very culture. And yet, thankfully, the film itself is a small gem of clever screenwriting and compassionate, well observed detail.

No doubt influenced by the neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief, which similarly used a deceptively simple story of a child, a parent, and a bicycle to document the social mores and tensions of its setting —Wadjda essentially tells the story of a spunky 13-year-old girl’s quest to procure a bicycle, in a country where bike-riding —like almost every other activity—is seen as exclusively for men. While to a western viewer, witnessing the repressive force of the entrenched patriarchal system is both shocking and infuriating, Al-Mansour never preaches or rails against her country, but simply shows, through a child’s eyes, the small realities of her world, and the ways that all those within it—especially the women, interestingly—perpetuate its values.

Humane, funny, and never obvious, the film has a light, poetic touch, and a major trump card in its lead actress, who gives a thoroughly charming, complex performance as a young girl trying to reconcile the incoming media messages from Western culture with the constraints of her own society. And while it ends on a sweet, hopeful note, the film earns its optimism through the triumph of its very own existence: a Saudi woman asserting her creative voice despite the odds, and forging the way for others to do the same.

 

What You Should Be Seeing at This Year’s New York Film Festival

With the forceful hand that took you captive and refused to let go, Paul Greengrass’s thrillingly tense Captain Phillips premiered on Friday, kicking off the 51st annual New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. And for the next two weeks, 2013’s film slate will continue to roll out some of the most acclaimed features of the year—from the best of international cinema to the features that have been on the tip of everyone’s tongue for months. Alongside their incredible line-up of new films— Spike Jonze’s Her and the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis to Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin and  Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son—NYFF will also be hosting an expansive Jean-Luc Godard retrospective, a series of beloved revivals from the likes of Leos Carax and Apichatpong Weerasetakhul, HBO Directors Dialogues, an in-depth look at the best of avant-garde cinema, various gala tributes, and much more.

After celebrating the festival’s opening night with a wonderful party at the Harvard Club on Friday, the events are now in full, glorious swing—and you’re going to want to see as much as you can. From their vast array of features, we’ve whittled down what we’re most anticipating from this year’s showcase; so peruse our list, check out the full slate, get your tickets fast, and enjoy.

Her, Spike Jonze 

Spike Jonze’s magical, melancholy comedy of the near future, lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his new all-purpose operating system (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), leading to romantic and existential complications. 

Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat’s haunting film about her 2004 stroke and subsequent self-destructive relationship with star swindler Christophe Rocancourt, starring Isabelle Huppert.

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez 

The new film from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, shot inside a cable car that carries pilgrims and tourists to and from a mountaintop temple in Nepal, is both literally and figuratively transporting. *The Holy Motors of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab* 

Bastards, Claire Denis 

Claire Denis’s jagged, daringly fragmented and deeply unsettling film inspired by recent French sex ring scandals is the rarest of cinematic narratives—a contemporary film noir, perfect in substance as well as style.

Blue Is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche 

The sensation of this year’s Cannes Film Festival is an intimate – and sexually explicit – epic of emotional transformation, featuring two astonishing performances from Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. 

Gloria, Sebastián Lelio 

A wise, funny, liberating movie from Chile, about a middle-aged woman who finds romance but whose new partner finds it painfully difficult to abandon his old habits. 

The Immigrant, James Gray 

In James Gray’s richly detailed period tragedy, set in a dusty, sepia-toned 1920s Manhattan, a young Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) is caught in a dangerous battle of wills with a shady burlesque manager (Joaquin Phoenix).

Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel & Ethan Coen

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen, composer T-Bone Burnett, and stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky, John Goodman, and more in person on September 28! Joel and Ethan Coen’s picaresque, panoramic and wryly funny story of a talented and terminally miserable folk musician is set in the New York film scene of the early 60s and features a terrific array of larger-than-life characters and a glorious score of folk standards. 

Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu Kore-eda Hirokazu

Kore-eda’s sensitive drama takes a close look at two families’ radically different approaches to the horribly painful realization that the sons they have raised as their own were switched at birth.  

Boy Meets Girl, Leos Carax 

Leos Carax’s debut feature, a lush black-and-white fable of last-ditch romance drawn from a cinephilic grab bag of influences and allusions, instantly situated the young director as a modern-day heir to the great French Romantics. 

The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh 

Filmmaker Rithy Panh’s brave new film revisits his memories of four years spent under the Khmer Rouge and the destruction of his family and his culture; without a single memento left behind, he creates his "missing images" with narration and painstakingly executed dioramas. 

Nebraska, Alexander Payne

This masterful film from Alexander Payne, about a quiet old man (Bruce Dern) whose mild-mannered son (Will Forte) agrees to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to claim a non-existent prize, shades from the comic to multiple hues of melancholy and regret.

12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen

Tim’s Vermeer, Teller 

A bouncy, entertaining, real-life detective story about one man’s obsessive quest to re-paint Vermeer’s "The Music Lesson" according to David Hockney’s controversial theories. 

Un film comme les autres, Jean-Luc Godard

Two 54-minute segments, with identical successions of images but different soundtracks. Students from Nanterre (where May 68 more or less began) sit on the grass (shot from the neck down) and discuss where the movement will go next; two Renault workers discuss their own ideas of a revolutionary future—their images are intercut with black and white footage of May 68, their words mingle with Godard’s own rhetoric. When the film was shown at the 1968 New York Film Festival, Godard told the projectionist to flip a coin and decided on the spot which 16mm reel to begin with. According to D.A. Pennebaker, the American distributor, the audience “began to tear up their seats.”

Mysterious Object at Noon, Apichatpong Weerasetakhul

A camera crew travels the length of Thailand asking villagers to invent episodes in an ever-expanding story in the first feature from Apichatpong Weerasethakul: part road movie, part folk storytelling exercise, part surrealist party game.

Chris Marker – Description of a Struggle 

Screening with Redemption (Miguel Gomes, Portugal/France/Germany/Italy, 2013, 26m)

Nobody’s Daughter, Haewon Hong Sang-soo 

A young student at loose ends after her mother moves to America tries to define herself one encounter and experience at a time, in reality and in dreams, in another deceptively simple chamber-piece from South Korean master Hong Sang-soo.

Norte, The End of History, Lav Diaz 

Filipino director Lav Diaz’ twelfth feature – at four-plus hours, one of his shortest – is a careful rethinking of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, whose tortured anti-hero is a haunting embodiment of the dead ends of ideology. 

Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch 

Jim Jarmusch’s wry, tender and moving take on the vampire genre features Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as a centuries-old couple who watch time go by from multiple continents as they reflect on the ever-changing world around them.

Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-liang 

Tsai Ming-liang’s fable of a homeless family living the cruelest of existences on the ragged edges of the modern world is bracingly pure in its anger and its compassion, and as visually powerful as it is emotionally overwhelming. 

La Chinoise, Jean-luc Godard 

A brightly colored, politically sharp, and quite poignant film. "Godard is the only contemporary director with the ability to express through graceful cinema what young people are feeling at this time in world history," wrote Andrew Sarris. 

Program 32: Max Ophuls

Sans Lendemain Sans Lendemain (Max Ophuls, France, 1939-40, 82m)

Mauvais Sang, Leos Carax 

Leos Carax’s swoon-inducing portrait of love among thieves offers an ecstatic depiction of what it feels like to be young, restless and madly in love.

A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke’s bloody, bitter new film builds a portrait of modern-day China in the midst of rapid and convulsive change through four overlapping stories of marginalized and oppressed citizens pushed to murderous rage. 

They Live By Night, Nicholas Ray 

Nick Ray’s feature debut, adapted from Edward Anderson’s 1935 novel Thieves Like Us, is at once innovative, visually electrifying, behaviorally nuanced, and soulfully romantic. 

Comment ça va, Jean-Luc Godard

A lovely, muted film-video hybrid work, in which a need to inquire about the nature of audio-visual communication and to understand it on a personal level is split between multiple characters. Screening with shorts. 

Program 33: Stan Brakhage

Anticipation of the Night (Stan Brakhage, USA, 1958, 40m)

Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, USA, 1959, 12m)

The Dead (Stan Brakhage, USA, 1960, 11m)

The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki 

The great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s new film is based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Zero fighter. An elliptical historical narrative, The Wind Rises is also a visionary cinematic poem about the fragility of humanity.