Monday, January 31, 2011

Second Chance Cinema 2011

“For once, it’s not predominantly American independent films. It’s more international, and there are more films from France than anywhere else,” says McCarter Special Programming Director William W. Lockwood Jr. of the lineup he assembled for the 16th annual Second Chance Cinema series. Of the 11 films in the series this year, nine never played at all in the Princeton area, while the other two had theatrical runs so brief that most of their audience never had a chance to find them.

The three American movies include a USA/UK coproduction by English graffiti artist and trickster Banksy. “It’s really a hoot, but you never really know what the joke it, though I think ultimately it’s on us,” says Lockwood of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a nominee for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar. “We don’t really know for whom this film was made or who made it. Is it a real documentary or not? I think it’s a gloss on the whole modern art scene, where the artists become their own objects of desire. It’s like one of those boxes in boxes that keep unfolding on each other.”

There aren’t a lot of laughs in the other two American offerings. Winter’s Bone is a powerfully spare mystery set in a secretive Ozarks community with a fierce and merciless code of honor, and The Messenger follows two soldiers from home to home as they notify next of kin who have lost their husbands, sons, mothers and daughters in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The strength of Winter’s Bone lies mainly in its realistic settings and performances, which director Debra Granik achieved partly by casting many locals and using their homes and yards as the setting for most of the action. “They’re real people,” says Lockwood of the film’s characters. “Emotionally, the film has a lot in common with Wendy and Lucy.” In our late January talk, Lockwood anticipated several of the Oscar nominations Winter’s Bone would soon scoop up (it’s a candidate for best picture, actress, supporting actor, and screenplay). “It’s not going to win, of course, but a lot of people recognized it for the fine piece of work it is,” he says. “I’m surprised it never played here.

“It just goes to show you how inundated we are by films these days. Not from the major studios, who only released 110 films last year, but there are hundreds of others. Ten or 20 movies opened every week in New York last year.”

Another film that never made it to Central Jersey is The Messenger, which Lockwood admires for “the fine acting, by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in particular,” and for “reminding us that the war is still going on. Usually the war films we see are things like The Hurt Locker and Restropo, which are about the fighting and the interfacing between the soldiers and the people in the occupied country. What we haven’t seen as much is this side of the war, which is the effect on the families that have lost someone.”

The French entries in this year’s series include features by some of that country’s – and the world’s – best living filmmakers: Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Alain Resnais (Wild Grass), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Lorna’s Silence -- pictured above), and Jacques Audiard (A Prophet).

The story of a father and daughter, 35 Shots of Rum is “a lovely poem, really,” says Lockwood. “It’s just delightful in how it captures the mood of loving people and the difficulty and the cost of breaking bonds. It reminds us of how complicated families are and how painful it is when they break up. The essence of it, I think, is what isn’t said – it’s the spaces between the dialogue.”

Silence is also of pivotal importance in Lorna’s Silence, whose heroine must decide whether to endanger herself by speaking up to save someone else. “The Dardenne brothers are old favorites of our series,” says Lockwood. “There’s a very moral approach to everything they do. People in their films are always having to address their ability to compromise in this world.”

Lockwood describes A Prophet as “a story about prison life and what it can do for you, in the end. This illiterate kid enters jail and comes out a man, outgrowing his reliance on the Mafia man who controls the prison and becoming a self-reliant criminal. This is not a film for the squeamish,” he adds, “because it’s pretty grisly, especially when he has to kill somebody with a razor blade he hides in his mouth.”

Wild Grass, the story of an awkward, sometimes comic mid-life romance, feels much lighter. “If Renais is still making films at 87, everybody should see them,” says Lockwood. “How many masters are still going at that age?” (Actually, quite a few. Last year’s New York Film Festival included new works by Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, who’s still prolific at age 102, and by Jean-Luc Godard, Frederick Wiseman, and Clint Eastwood, who were all born in 1930 – apparently a good year for filmmakers.)

Last Train Home is a documentary about the greatest annual human migration on earth, in which 130 million laborers leave cities all over China to spend a few days at home over the new year. It is the only trip home for most, including the couple the film focuses on, whose son and daughter are being raised by the man’s mother. “It shows us a side of China we don’t know about,” says Lockwood. “To see your parents just once a year….”

Japan’s contribution to the troubled-family theme that runs through this year’s series is Tokyo Sonata, the story of a family’s slow disintegration as secrets drive people apart. “It is, very apropos, I think, in terms of the problem we have with continuing unemployment and its effect on people in the United States,” says Lockwood. “A guy loses his job and he can’t bear to tell his family. It tears them apart. I think the resolution is somewhat suspect, but nevertheless [director Kiyoshi] Kurosawa is going to be a major filmmaker. I love the kid who sneaks out for piano lessons and turns out to be really pretty good.”

Set in a working-class English housing project, Fish Tank is another story of a fractured family, this one focused on the teenage daughter. “Talk about breakthrough performances,” says Lockwood. “There are two this year, both by young women. One is Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, and the other is Katie Jarvis, who played this role. They discovered her on a subway platform in London.” Jarvis’ Mia, says Lockwood, is “almost a contemporary cousin to the Truffaut character, Antoine, in The 400 Blows, because she’s very angry and she destroys everything. She’s thrown off balance by her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, played by Michael Fassbender, who you may remember from Hunger. He take a little too close an interest in her and she responds. But you never know what she’s going to do, because Jarvis is an untrained actress. Mia’s foolish and she’s fearless – she’s almost feral. It’s another in the youth-in-trouble school, but I thought this one really stood out.”

Lockwood had to pull two of the films he had planned to show – Police, Adjective and Life During Wartime – when he learned they might not be released on DVD in time to be shown. In their place, he is showing Exit to the Gift Shop and I Am Love, a lushly melodramatic love story that was a critical favorite last year. “This one is really out of the [director Luchino] Visconti playbook, and Tilda Swinton steals the show,” says Lockwood. “It almost couldn’t have been made without her. There’s a lot of eating in it, and the sexy guy is a chef, of course. You have to have one movie in every series on cooking and love. Sex and food go together, especially in the movies.”

Written for TimeOFF

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