Category archives: Visual Arts

  • 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.)When the volatile Manaury (Ramó[...]
  • 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 [...]
  • Nise: The Heart of Madness, directed by Roberto Berliner, tells the story of Dr. Nise da Silveira (Gloria Pires), a Brazilian psychiatrist who pioneered the treatment of schizophrenic patients with kindness and art therapy, resulting in both medical and artistic breakthroughs. Though a conventional film, Nise is fascinating and poignant. Not only is da Silveira a heroine well worth rooting for, but these outsider artists and their creative processes are portrayed with great respect. (And, unlike some depictions of psychiatric patients, the actors playing Nise's charges seem believably afflicted.)The film opens in 1940s Rio de Janeiro. A small woman knocks repeatedly at a metal door unless it finally opens. This is a fitting introduction to da Silveira, who has come to work at the National Psychiatric Center, the only female doctor on the staff. In a meeting, lobotomy is discussed dispassionately as miracle cure, while a demonstration of a patient forced to undergo electroconvulsive treatment is looked upon equally casually by everyone but da Silveira, who can barely contain her horror. Refusing to take part in these conventional methods, she is relegated to supervising the Occupational Therapy Sector, previously run by a nurse and an orderly.Despite the fact that several of the hospital’s inmates have violent tendencies, Nise is compassionate and patient, unlike most of the staff, who treat them with cruelty and ridicule. Under her care, the previously filthy OC w[...]
  • The title of Barnaby (aka Barney) Clay’s new documentary, SHOT! The Psycho-spiritual Mantra of Rock, says it all, really. This rambling, entertaining portrait of legendary music photographer Mick Rock is full of its genial subject’s own musings on his life and art. It also encapsulates the excitement and excesses of the heady musical era that Rock (barely) lived through and documented. For anyone with a passing interest in the rock scenes of the late 1960s through '70s, this will be pretty fascinating stuff. For those, like myself, who remember wondering about the photographer whose impossibly appropriate name appeared on pictures of many groundbreaking artists, this will provide context, and then some. (For the record, the man’s given name is actually Michael David Rock.)The film opens with present-day Rock (now in his late 60s) loading his camera at a live TV on the Radio show. He talks about his process, which—at its best—makes him feel like an assassin, “I’ve got my sights on you, gonna take you out.” Later he clarifies, “I’m not after your soul, I’m after your f-ing aura,” which might prompt an eye-roll, except that he really did capture the essence of performers (and friends) such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury and Debbie Harry, among others. For many awestruck kids, Rock's images were their introduction to these genre-defying musicians.The film takes us through a more or less chronological account of Rock’s career, interspersed with[...]
  • Tomer Heymann’s documentary about choreographer Ohad Naharin, Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance, begins with a rehearsal scene in which a dancer falls backward repeatedly, as Naharin encourages her to “let go.” This painstaking (and literally painful) process is familiar to most dancers and anyone who’s witnessed the art of making tough choreography look easy. In the case of the iconoclastic Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company and founder of the Gaga (no relation to Lady) movement technique, the choreography is both incredibly demanding and extremely rewarding, as his dancers and audiences can attest. Mr. Gaga, which delves into Naharin’s creativity as well as his personal life, includes interviews, archival footage and many performance clips. The result is a visually thrilling and soul-satisfying portrait of a remarkable talent and individual.Born and raised on a kibbutz, Naharin was an instinctive dancer as a child, influenced by his music-loving mother Tzofia. Home movies show bucolic kibbutz life as an idyllic setting for a creative child. Later, Naharin served as an entertainer in the Israeli Army, during which time he first began to create dances. The choreographer, who narrates much of his own story, explains how the “absurd theater” of performing for soldiers influenced dances such Sadeh21. We also learn via an early interview that he began dancing because of a family tragedy, a dramatic story that will be revisited later in th[...]
  • How much do we really know someone? That’s the main question posed by Claire in Motion, a quiet, uneasy new film co-written and directed by Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell. A sort of hybrid mystery/character study, the movie stars Betsy Brandt (best known for her role as Marie Schrader in Breaking Bad) as a math professor at a Midwestern university whose husband—a fellow academician—fails to return from a hiking trek. There’s no hysteria or big, crashing emotions in this missing-persons drama; conversely, it's a slowly-unfolding account of a woman traditionally ruled by logic and order, as she comes to terms with the unexpected and (initially) incomprehensible.When Claire Hunger’s husband Paul, an ornithology professor and nature-loving survivalist type, fails to return from his solo hiking trek on schedule, she doesn’t immediately panic. That emotion sets in slowly as the days turn into weeks, the police call off their fruitless search, and the couple’s young son Connor (an exceptionally poised Zev Haworth) begins to accept the inevitable—that his father probably died somewhere out in the wilderness. Even then, however, Claire refuses to believe Paul is gone and keeps going back into the woods to hunt for him. (Overcast skies and a slightly greenish palette give everything a heavy, muted tone that accentuates the sense of disquiet.) When the town's police chief mentions having interviewed a grad student with whom Paul was working on an art project, the usually unde[...]
  • Johnny Ma’s solid debut feature Old Stone is a naturalistic yet surreal tale of a Chinese taxi driver whose good deed results in a bureaucratic nightmare. When cabbie Lao Shi (Chen Gang) is distracted by a drunken passenger and hits a motorcyclist, he brings the victim to a hospital rather than wait for the police or ambulance to show up. Though he has probably saved the man’s life, his flouting of procedure causes him no end of suffering at the hands of callous officials and others, including his own wife. As outrageous as Lao Shi's predicament may seem at times, it is not really so outlandish in a country where insurance policies exist specifically for rescuers of elderly people who have fallen, in case the Good Samaritan gets sued for causing the mishap.The Shanghai-born, Toronto-raised Ma switched from a career in business to documentary filmmaking in 2008 (after receiving an MFA in film from Columbia University). His unique sensibility is reflected in Old Stone, which is has both both a raw, realistic quality and a moody, noir-ish ambience. Though the film (like its protagonist) eventually makes a sharp turn into a very dark place, it doesn’t feel disjointed or tonally uneven, as events build to an almost inevitable ending.Lao Shi’s decency is apparent in the accident's aftermath, when he ignores the advice of rubbernecking bystanders and takes matters into his own hands. A cool, taciturn type, the cabbie is a classic misunderstood antihero, seemingly at odds wit[...]
  • Documentary lovers, take note! The seventh edition of DOC NYC, America’s largest nonfiction film festival, begins this week, with screenings at Manhattan's IFC Center, SVA Theatre and Cinepolis Chelsea. The 2016 festival, which runs from Thursday, Nov. 10, to Thursday, Nov. 17, boasts over 250 films and events overall, including 110 feature-length documentaries. Included are 18 world premieres and 19 U.S. premieres, with more than 300 filmmakers and special guests on hand to present and discuss their films. Notable documentarians will be honored at the Visionaries Tribute Awards on Nov. 10, including Jonathan Demme and Stanley Nelson, who are receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards.Opening Night film will be Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, about writer and activist Jane Jacobs and her fight against NYC’s most ruthless power broker, Robert Moses. Closing Night film will be Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, directed by John Scheinfeld. In between the two is a dazzling variety of docs divided into several categories: Viewfinders Competition (directorial visions), Metropolis Competition (NYC), American Perspectives, International Perspectives, Fight the Power (activism), Jock Docs (sports), Sonic Cinema (music), Modern Family (unconventional clans), Wild Life (animals), Docs Redux (classics), Art & Design (artists), Behind the Scenes (filmmaking), DOC NYC U (student work), Shorts, plus two new sections, True Crime and Science Nonf[...]
  • On September 24, the National African American Museum opened its doors to public. And while the museum's timed passes are sold out for the rest of the year,  it's still a great time to learn about what's currently on exhibit.And if you are wondering if there's a showcase at the museum that relates to the world of fashion, you're in luck. The museum will be showcasing a selection of Ann Lowe's dresses, and they are a must-see!Ann Lowe — a highly sought after designer in her day —  is the first world-renowned black designer who created dresses for socialites and brides. She created looks for families including the Auchinclosses, DuPonts, Kennedys, Posts, Rockefellers, and Roosevelts. She is also the first black designer to own a boutique on Madison Avenue. And her stunning creations were also sold at Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus. Pink satin and organza ball gown, designed by Ann Lowe, 1959, once owned by Patricia Penrose Schieffer, wife of CBS News' Bob Schieffer. Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane. Photo courtesy of NMAAHCFamously, Lowe designed Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding gown in 1953. Lowe crafted a dress made up of fifty yards of ivory silk taffeta for the Bouvier-Kennedy nuptials, and cost approximately $700  — roughly $13,000 factoring today's inflation, according to Racked's Danielle Kwateng-Clark .And as Kwateng-Clark deftly sums up, Lowe "did the impossible in the Jim Crow-era by making a name fo[...]
  • Demon, Polish director Marcin Wrona’s third feature, is an unlikely but entertaining hybrid between a raucous wedding comedy and a brooding horror film. That he managed to pull it off at all is a testament to his talent and unique artistic sensibility. (Sadly, Wrona died of an apparent suicide at age 42 just before the film was set to premiere in Poland last fall.) Those who like their movie genres rigidly defined may be confused by Demon, which isn’t all that scary (or hilarious, for that matter), but the rest of us can appreciate its gorgeously morose ambience; dark, absurdist humor and strong performances.Based on Piotr Rowicki’s play Adherence, Demon concerns the laid-back Piotr (Itay Tiran), who has traveled from England to the rural Polish hometown of his fiancée Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), for their wedding. The couple have only known each other for a few weeks, so the groom is meeting her parents for the first time. Piotr already has an easy rapport with Zaneta’s bro-like brother and initially gets along well enough with her jocular father (Andrzej Grabowski). When he begins renovations on the family’s rundown country house where the couple will live, Piotr unearths a pile of human bones and is immediately spooked, especially when he later glimpses what appears to be a female spirit wandering around outside. Soon his sunny personality gives way to sudden dark moods, and his body begins to react (via nosebleeds) to something or someone who is slowly taking him[...]
  • The new documentary Lucha Mexico is an entertaining, enlightening and, ultimately, poignant look at Lucha Libre, the colorful, acrobatic form of professional wrestling that has been popular in Mexico for decades. Filmmakers Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz give us a truly inside view of the sport and its wildly popular superhero personalities, its intense physical demands and its widespread influence throughout the country. Even nonfans of spectacle wrestling can appreciate this in-depth look at the longtime phenomenon and its myriad masked players.From the get-go, the filmmakers take us right into the ring for up-close scenes of amusing and highly energetic matches featuring dramatic, larger-than-life (in some cases, literally) stars cheered on by thousands of adoring fans. We also see glimpses of life outside of the arena, as the luchadores train, meet fans, and talk about their lives. One of the film’s main spotlights follows the popular and likeable Shocker, who is used as a sort of guide through Lucha Libre, as we see him working out, posing for fan photos, touring the country to compete in matches big and small, and receiving brutal-looking medical treatments for a devastating knee injury (he opens a restaurant during his recovery). Former strength competitor Jon “Strongman” Andersen provides another veteran point of view, as he talks matter-of-factly about the realities of the profession. We also see him in various settings, including home with family and at the[...]
  • Formed in 1978, Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations devoted to defending and protecting human rights. Having long recognized the power of film to educate and bring change, the organization’s New York-based Human Rights Watch Film Festival screens approximately 500 films in 20 cities around the world each year. The 2016 edition of its New York City event is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center from June 10 through 19, featuring 18 feature films and three interactive programs. Here are some highlights:Opening Night selection is Hooligan Sparrow, which documents the efforts of  filmmaker Nanfu Wang to track Chinese activist Ye Haiyan (aka “Hooligan Sparrow”) in her mission to prosecute a school principal who arranged the rape of schoolgirls by government officials. Sparrow, a women’s rights advocate who first made headlines by speaking up for sex workers, seeks to close a loophole in China’s child prostitution laws that has enabled officials to elude rape charges by claiming that the victims were prostitutes. Hooligan Sparrow shows its protagonist and a small group of fellow protestors being harassed regularly by government-hired thugs, as Wang uses hidden cameras to record interactions with uncooperative police officials. Sparrow avoids arrest by fleeing to several cities during the course of the film, including her home village, as she awaits the verdict in the schoolgirl case. For Hooligan Sparrow, Wang [...]