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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Pride, Unprejudiced: Hooligan Sparrow, Café Society


Hooligan Sparrow (POV premiere October 17)

“They can’t stop me, not by arresting me, not by killing me.” Nanfu Wang’s urgent first feature takes on the secretive side of China’s vast, controlling government, with only the recourse of gutsy guerilla filmmaking to capture the journey of activist Ye Haiyan (known as “Hooligan Sparrow”) and a group of activists who travel to Hainan Province in southern China to illegally protest the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. (Her earlier work focused on sex workers and the attacks on women by authority are at the center here.) Much of the documentary was shot clandestinely with concealed recording devices, then smuggled out of the country. “I never expected to be interrogated by national security agents, and that my family and friends would be harassed and threatened by secret police,” Nanfu Wang has written, “but this is the China I saw.” The shards of surveillance of secret police, of intimidation by plainclothes operatives and the sheer oppressive weight meant to crush resistance are equally horrifying, and captured with kaleidoscopic perseverance. The executive producers are Andy Cohen, who had the same role on 2012’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and Alison Klayman, director-producer of that pungent documentary. Broadcast debut Monday October 17 on PBS: details.

Café Society (Lionsgate Blu, $40)

Café Society, Woody Allen’s forty-ninth or so feature, completed at the age of eighty, is a light romance, but lit with the most serious of ethereal light by the great Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now), providing Allen with his first shot-on-digital picture. Whether in overcast New York City or honeyed L.A., Café Society is Allen’s best-looking movie since the heyday of his seminal collaborations with Gordon Willis. It’s the 1930s and lightly sketched Bronx boy Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) escapes his family for Hollywood, and turns from naïf to macher in the reflected light of the even more lightly sketched secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Steve Carell (taking over for another, older actor who couldn’t stand the heavy lifting of largely sitting in chairs and in barrooms) does clean work as Phil, the quietly rat-a-tat agent who brings the pair together (and pulls them apart). The jokes are familiar, beginning with Bobby’s battling family (Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott) and his cut-to-the-punchline gangster brother (Corey Stoll). Still, the ineffable Berlin is a voice of steady umbrage. And Storaro’s light can do no wrong upon faces, bringing out a piercing pale blue I’ve never seen in Eisenberg’s eyes, and making Stewart both modern and classical, her face radiating different in generous light that ranges from burnished to creamy to dreamy to candlelight to nightclub-bound. One of the many name-dropping lines that pass for dialogue, “What do you think of Joel McCrea?”—is followed by a shot of Eisenberg, practically McCrea in a nimbus of afternoon light.

The design extends in multiple lovely settings to the color experimentation Storaro practices, such as a light swoon of a moment where we first notice a simple, red-detailed dress worn by Stewart, who then walks toward a bar with a red neon “Cocktails” sign, passing beneath a spray of red maple leaves. (This is not to neglect Santo Loquasto’s design genius.) A repetition of gun murders ordered by Bobby’s brothers brings Allen’s direct shooting style close to that of Alan Clarke’s dispassionate “Elephant.” It’s a bracing element amid the agreeable japery and pleasantly familiar goings-on. The melodies of the casual storytelling are like a familiar song heard from the street below, or TCM playing in a nearby apartment. “Dare I kiss you?” “How dare you not?” (Stewart sounds the second line to perfection.) Allen’s largely superfluous voiceover sounds as if he’s sight-reading unfamiliar and unpleasant text, his belabored delivery also capturing the clack of teeth and the sigh of difficult breath. (If only Todd Solondz had narrated, even if his is a Jersey accent.) With Blake Lively as the translucent slip of a blonde who cannot supplant the memory of Vonnie despite bearing the same name; Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Paul Schneider.

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“Roger Ebert claimed that the re-editing of The Brown Bunny after Cannes allowed him a difference of opinion so vast that he first called it the worst film in history and eventually gave it a thumbs up. This is both far fetched and an outright lie. The truth is, unlike the many claims that the unfinished film that showed at Cannes was 24 minutes shorter than the finished film, it was only 8 minutes shorter. The running time I filled out on the Cannes submission form was arbitrary. The running time I chose was just a number I liked. I had no idea where in the process I would actually be when I needed to stop cutting to meet the screening deadline. So whatever running time was printed in the program, I promise you, was not the actual running time. And the cuts I made to finish the film after Cannes were not many. I shortened the opening race scene once I was able to do so digitally. After rewatching the last 4 minutes of the film over and over again, somewhere within those 4 minutes, I froze the picture and just ended the film there, cutting out everything after that point, which was about 3 minutes. Originally in the salt flats scene, the motorcycle returned from the white. I removed the return portion of that shot, which seemed too literal. And I cut a scene of me putting on a sweater. That’s pretty much it. Plus the usual frame here, frame there, final tweaks. If you didn’t like the unfinished film at Cannes, you didn’t like the finished film, and vice versa. Roger Ebert made up his story and his premise because after calling my film literally the worst film ever made, he eventually realized it was not in his best interest to be stuck with that mantra. Stuck with a brutal, dismissive review of a film that other, more serious critics eventually felt differently about. He also took attention away from what he actually did at the press screening. It is outrageous that a single critic disrupted a press screening for a film chosen in main competition at such a high profile festival and even more outrageous that Ebert was ever allowed into another screening at Cannes. His ranting, moaning and eventual loud singing happened within the first 20 minutes, completely disrupting and manipulating the press screening of my film. Afterwards, at the first public screening, booing, laughing and hissing started during the open credits, even before the first scene of the film. The public, who had heard and read rumors about the Ebert incident and about me personally, heckled from frame one and never stopped. To make things weirder, I got a record-setting standing ovation from the supporters of the film who were trying to show up the distractors who had been disrupting the film. It was not the cut nor the film itself that drew blood. It was something suspicious about me. Something offensive to certain ideologues.”
~ Vincent Gallo

“I think [technology has[ its made my life faster, it’s made the ability to succeed easier. But has that made my life better? Is it better now than it was in the eighties or seventies? I don’t think we are happier. Maybe because I’m 55, I really am asking these questions… I really want to do meaningful things! This is also the time that I really want to focus on directing. I think that I will act less and less. I’ve been doing it for 52 years. It’s a long time to do one thing and I feel like there are a lot of stories that I got out of my system that I don’t need to tell anymore. I don’t need to ever do The Accused again! That is never going to happen again! You hit these milestones as an actor, and then you say, ‘Now what? Now what do I have to say?'”
~ Jodie Foster