Director Asif Kapadia edits together archival footage to tell the story of internationally known racer Ayrton Senna. It’s a compelling film, even if you don’t like car racing or know who Senna is.
Ayrton Senna was an international sports superstar, the most famous driver in Formula One racing, and a national hero in his native Brazil, when he was tragically killed on a track in Italy at the age of 34. Over a decade after his death, director Asif Kapadia decided to make a documentary about his meteoric rise to the top of his sport, but he went about it in an unusual way: Senna has no talking-head style interviews with experts and friends remembering the racer, instead constructing the entire film out of archival footage. Using a broad range of sources, from news reports, to racing footage, to home movies, Kapadia and his editors assemble a story that is extraordinarily compelling even for the viewer with no interest in car racing and no idea who Senna was. Senna’s pure love for the sport and massive talent behind the wheel comes into direct conflict with the often political world of Formula One, and, in fellow racer Alain Prost, a rival whose strategies on and off the track seem to directly contrast Senna’s approach. In a brief 90 minutes, using only the existing footage, Kapadia manages to create a narrative featuring characters with real depth and complexity onscreen, which is why the tragedy that closes the film becomes so deeply affecting.
You can read my complete review here.
Filmmakers Lynn True, Nelson Walker III, and Tsering Perlo produce something fairly rare in Summer Pasture: a film about Tibet that isn’t heavily about Chinese occupation. The filmmakers are less interested in politics and injustices than they are in an anthropological study of a disappearing way of life, that of the nomadic yak herders of the Tibetan high pastures. The filmmakers follow one family in particular as they go about their daily routines, letting their story unfold both naturally and in occasional interactions with the camera. It’s a largely observational work that has garnered some comparisons to last year’s brilliantly minimalist documentary Sweetgrass, and which won a Gotham Award last year for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.” Thanks to West End Cinema, it will be.
Remaking a film with a devoted cult following is a potentially hazardous proposition, but the producers of Fright Night knew enough to throw a bone to the devoted fan communities that might otherwise balk at the notion of tinkering with a beloved film. The cast and creative team here brings together folks from three properties with devoted cults of their own: writer Marti Noxon was a writer and producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Anton Yelchin was Chekov in JJ Abrams’s Star Trek reboot; and David Tennant spent four years as one of the most popular actors ever to play British sci-fi icon Doctor Who. The story follows the same basic framework as the 1985 original, about a young man (Yelchin) who discovers his neighbor is a vampire (Colin Farrell), and tries to reveal the vampire’s true nature to family and friends, with limited success. Given the cast and creative team, those who worry that bad remakes sully the memory of the original hopefully won’t have anything to fear here—except for the vampires, of course.
Jackie Chan’s slapsticky style of martial arts film is well known to US audiences by now, but to watch him perform in the Hong Kong movies that made him famous is an entirely different experience. Yes, the goofball persona is still intact, and the acrobatic physicality, but many of his Hollywood performances tend to play down the “art” in martial arts. In Drunken Master, his second film with director Yuen Woo-Ping, Chan became a bona fide star, and it’s easy to see why. Beyond his natural comic timing and ease in front of the camera, the things that he is able to make his body do in the fight scenes on display here is truly astounding. Chan plays Wong Fei-hung, an actual figure from Chinese history, an acupuncturist, folk hero, and kung fu master. In the film, Wong is sent to study martial arts with a teacher with a brutal reputation, and must complete his studies in order to face a particularly formidable foe. There is balletic grace in the fight choreography here—director Yuen Woo-Ping’s name may be familiar as the man who would go on to choreograph the martial arts action in the Matrix and Kill Bill films—and it’s carried out by Chan with the skill and humor that his career was built on.
The film is playing at the Freer Gallery, but is presented in conjunction with the current exhibit over at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, “Race: Are We So Different?” View the trailer. See the film for free on Friday at 7 PM at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium.
With attention turning back to Boston in recent years as a gritty setting for criminal cinema, with films from The Departed to The Town, it’s a worthwhile time to revisit one of the landmarks of Boston crime movies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Based on the novel of the same name by district attorney-turned-novelist George V. Higgins, the film stars Robert Michum as a gunrunner who gets caught, and is forced to rat out his “friends” in order to avoid jail time. Coyle is basically in the working class of crooks—he does his part in the jobs, and then likes to go enjoy a drink or a hockey game. Coyle’s lack of glamour, the film’s dreary autumn-to-winter setting, and the tight, hardboiled dialogue taken from Higgins book combine to make the film a tough, unadorned look at criminal life. Add in a couple of masterfully choreographed bank heists from director Peter Yates—who’s best known film to that point, the Steve McQueen cops and cars flick Bullitt, showcased the director’s talent at creating bracing action sequences—and you’ve got a lean, mean classic.
DVD Pick of the Week: The Gruffalo
Based on a beloved 1999 children’s book, this computer-animated film, made for BBC, was nominated for the Best Animated Short Academy Award last year. The Gruffalo is the sort of whimsical, lovingly constructed tale that warrants repeated readings and viewings—and will have them demanded by any kids you have around. It’s the story of a mouse out for a walk who comes up on a series of predators intent on having him for a meal, only to be scared off once he tells them of a fearsome creature called a “gruffalo” who is likely to happen by at any moment, and who’s favorite meal just happens to be whichever predator he’s talking to at that moment. The mouse is just making up a clever story to frighten the other animals—or is he? It turns out a real gruffalo is lurking in the woods, a beastie who looks like something out of Where the Wild Things Are. The film is overwhelmingly charming, with computer animation that never aspires to photorealistic Pixar heights, and never needs to. Voice talent comes from an all-star cast of UK actors including Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Wilkinson, and Rob Brydon.
Special Features: A making-of featurette and a photo gallery. View the trailer.