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    The first Dominican film to screen at Sundance (and recently announced as the Dominican Republic’s Academy Award submission for Best Foreign Language Film), Woodpeckers (Carpinteros) is not your typical prison drama. Sure, writer/director José Maria Cabral includes some familiar elements: the new guy initiated into the brutal, dehumanizing ways of the institution; an uneasy alliance formed with the cell block’s bully/fixer. But Woodpeckers, which was filmed on location in the notorious Najayo prison outside of Santo Domingo, is also a love story with a spectacular ending that is Shakespearean in its resolution. With its raw, authentic setting, which includes throngs of actual Najayo inmates, the film has a gritty, documentary feel that really gets under the skin. It’s easy to get caught up in its slowly intensifying narrative.

    When petty thief Julián (Haitian actor/director Jean Jean, quietly riveting) is incarcerated, he notices his fellow inmates crowded around the prison windows, executing elaborate hand signals. Turns out they’re communicating with inhabitants of the neighboring women’s penitentiary, who signal back from their yard. Through this detailed language, known as “woodpecking,” romantic relationships are formed, as are jealousies and resentments as rivals fight over love interests. (The practice is completely true to life; Cabral spent ninth months visiting Najayo and other prisons, where he got to know the inmates.)

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    When the volatile Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario), who operates a drug ring out of the prison kitchen, gets into a knife fight over his inmate girlfriend Yanelly (the wonderfully expressive Judith Rodriguez Perez), he’s relocated to solitary in a neighboring complex. Enlisting Julián to be his intermediary, he teaches the newcomer woodpecking so that the latter can deliver Manaury’s impassioned missives to Yanelly.  She, however, suspects Manaury of infidelity and wants nothing more to do with him, instead becoming intrigued by his soulful messenger, whose feelings are mutual. This, of course, is a recipe for disaster.

    Julián and Yanelly’s bond grows stronger when he visits the women’s prison on the pretense of repairing the warden’s air conditioner and the smitten couple share a kiss through the bars. Encouraged by Yanelly, he signs up for a music class, leading to a prison performance in which he plays percussion as she sings. When their onstage flirting spurs the enraged Manaury into action, the movie spirals into an inevitable final showdown. The film’s unforced pacing and escalating tension suck the viewer in, until we’re completely involved in the struggling couple’s plight.

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    Though its forbidden-love theme is classic, Woodpeckers is as much a unique romance as it is unusual prison drama, thanks to its engaging protagonists and true-life setting. Shot in sweaty, claustrophobic cells and in sun-baked yards teeming with inmates, the film looks and feels like the real deal. Suspenseful, romantic and erotic, Woodpeckers is a remarkable achievement.

    Woodpeckers opens on Friday at AMC Empire 25, UA Kaufman Astoria Stadium 14 and Bronx Concourse Plaza.

    Marina Zogbi

  • The future is certainly terrifying. From climate change to our political climate, there is a lot of uncertainty. But one thing is for certain —  robots will take over the world’s workforce —  especially in the world of footwear.

    Talk about a walk-up call! 

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    And possibly leading the robotic revolution is the company Grabit, Inc., a materials handling solutions company.

    The California-based (Nike-backed) robotics startup employs ‘electroadhesion’ in order to automate the handling of any material. To be exact, the company, applies  ‘electroadhesion’ via ‘flat pads of electrodes that, when charged correctly, create an electric field that adheres to nearly any surface,’ Bloomberg reports.

    Grabit’s shoemaking robot at the company’s headquarters in Sunnyvale

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    Photo Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

    Unlike using human hands or pliable materials, electroadhesion can offer manufacturers the ability to work around such pesky issues like gripping materials by channeling the same sort of static cling that also makes a balloon stick to your head.

    Sounds simply genius? That’s because it is! ‘Electroadhesion has the finesse to handle something as fragile as an egg, as flimsy as soft fabric and as unwieldy as a 50-lb box,’ the company says on their website. They also assert that their line of equipment provides a cheaper, faster solutions that uses less power.

     

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    And the static electricity that Grabit can yield has the ability to ‘make machines work at 20 times the pace of humans.’  How can we compete with that?!

     

  • Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

    Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

    Co-directed by Valérie Müller and renowned dancer/choreographer Angelin Preljocaj (who are married), Polina is the story of a budding Russian ballerina who forsakes a coveted job with the Bolshoi Ballet to pursue the freedom of contemporary dance. Based on the graphic novel by Bastien Vivès, Polina stars soulful young Russian dancer and first-time actress Anastasia Shevtsova as a girl from a humble background who is chosen to train for a career in ballet. Inspired by contemporary dance, she moves first to France, then Belgium—enduring a series of physical, artistic and romantic setbacks, before finding her true passion in creating her own dances. We can almost feel her physical and psychological release when she finally experiences that fulfillment.

    Early in the film we see a serious, young Polina (Veronika Zhovnytska) struggling in ballet class under the glowering eye of the demanding Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), a classic cinematic ballet master. The stifling mood of these vignettes are juxtaposed with scenes of the girl joyfully losing herself in wild improvised dance while walking home from the academy. Later the teenage Polina endures grueling rehearsals under Bojinsky, who harangues her for her inability to express feeling behind the movement, a theme that runs throughout the film. Somehow, though, she perseveres and manages to ace an audition for the Bolshoi in a terrific scene that’s shot from overhead. (Another enthralling scene follows Polina’s expressive feet as her pointe shoes jab and pound the wooden floor.) Her financially strapped parents are depending on her Bolshoi salary, especially since her father is in debt to some bad guys, but Polina has other ideas. After she is moved to tears by a contemporary dance performance, she breaks her mother’s heart by moving to France with boyfriend and fellow dance student Adrien (Niels Schneider, looking very much like a dancer). Shevtsova’s face is impassive as she packs and her mother weeps; as in other scenes, we wonder what she’s feeling.

    Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

    Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

    In Provence, Polina and Adrien work with Liria, an earthy contemporary dancer/choreographer played by Juliette Binoche, who nicely demonstrates her own solid dance background. The filmmakers contrast the energy of this ferociously kinetic new choreography with the stilted (in comparison) precision of previous ballet scenes. Liria too talks about the necessity of emotion in dance, as she seems to be channeling the sensibility of Preljocaj himself. The pulsating electronic soundtrack by 79D provides a bracingly effective counterpart to several dance scenes.

    When tensions arise between Polina and Adrien and his eye begins to wander, she hightails it to Antwerp, which has its own thriving contemporary dance scene. Here she faces tough auditions and financial travails, sleeping in a laundromat at one point and eventually finding work as a bartender at a nightclub. She also discovers Karl, an improvisational dancer (played with great charisma by Paris Opera Ballet star Jérémie Bélingard). When Polina finally lets loose with her own improvisational dance, it’s tremendously cathartic. Here she finally becomes her own artist, someone who is clearly only fulfilled when she’s moving to her own rhythm.

    Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

    Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

    Anyone with an interest in dance will be moved and mesmerized by Preljocaj’s choreography and the beautifully filmed dance footage, which is not edited down for commercial consumption. The movie is light on dialogue, which is appropriate for a work primarily about movement, though we might wish for more exposition at some points. Scenes involving Polina’s family and their travails seem especially perfunctory, used mainly to flesh out her story. Whatever its flaws, though, Polina is a strong and affecting portrayal of an artist finding herself and her way in the world.

    Polina opens in theaters on Friday.

    Marina Zogbi

  • Looks like Maison du Soir’s gorgeous dark floral robe Isabella has already won Fall 2017. The robe has already sold out before its August 30 ship date, and according to Refinery 29, the company’s second run set for September 30 shipping has also SOLD OUT. There is now a third run that will be available in November — the time to pre-order the Isabella is NOW!

    What’s lovely and alluring about the Isabella is that it boasts a kimono floor-length style with side seam pockets and a dramatic high low hem.

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    Image Credit: Maison du Soir

    The luxurious silhouette of the Isabella (also available in ivory, below) harkens back to 1940s-era movies starring eternally elegant screen legends in stylish repose at home.

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    Image Credit: Maison du Soir

    But if you are ready to hang up that deteriorating pair of medical scrubs you love wearing while watching John Oliver, eating cereal, it might be the right time to invest in an au courant robe.

    And if you are unsuccessful in reserving an Isabella, fear not! Laura Urbanti offers a solid sender that might please your eye. Enjoy!

    Laura Urbinati Dressing Gown, $157, order at Yoox.

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