Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Tenth Man (El Rey del Once)


The King of Buenos Aires!

The King of Buenos Aires!

(2016) Drama (Kino Lorber) Alan Sabbagh, Julieta Zyllerberg, Usher Barilka (voice), Elvira Onetto, Adrian Stoppelman, Daniel Droblas, Elisa Carricajo (voice), Dan Breitman, Uriel Rubin, Dalmiro Burman. Directed by Daniel Burman

 

There are those of us who embrace our roots. Then, there are others of us who want to disconnect ourselves from our roots entirely. Much of that has to do with our childhood and how we feel about it. The traditions of our upbringing can be a prison – or set us free entirely.

Ariel (Sabbagh) is an economist currently living in New York but who grew up in El Once, the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. He is dating a ballerina (Carricajo) and things are getting serious between them. He is returning home to Buenos Aires to introduce his girl to his father Usher (Barilka) who runs a charitable foundation in El Once, serving the poor of that area and providing them with prescription medicine, clothes, food and even arranging for shelter.

Things start going wrong before he even leaves for the airport. His girlfriend has to stay behind because she’s wangled an audition for a major ballet company, so she will be arriving a few days late. Usher asks Ariel to find a size 46 shoe with Velcro instead of laces for a bed-ridden client of the foundation, and although Ariel searches everywhere, he can’t find shoes with Velcro in the short amount of time that he was allotted by his father, who sprung that on him just hours before he had to board his plane.

Once he gets to town, Usher is nowhere to be found although his Aunt Susy (Onetto) shepherds him inside the foundation which is surrounded by angry clients, looking to get meat for the upcoming Purim celebration; the Foundation has none due to a payment dispute between Usher and Mamuñe, a local butcher. Finally Usher calls and has Ariel deliver the shoes, then go to the apartment of a deceased client to find unused prescriptions to take back to the Foundation to redistribute. He is accompanied by Eva (Zylberberg), an attractive but mute Orthodox Jew whose hand he cannot even shake due to the proscriptions of their brand of the faith. It’s this kind of thing that drove a wedge between Ariel and Usher to begin with.

As the week progresses, things begin to fall apart for Ariel who continues to be avoided by his father and who gets roped into performing errands for the Foundation. However, Ariel begins to be inspired by Eva’s spirit and sweetness, and slowly he begins to succumb to the charm of his old neighborhood. What will this mean for the fractured relationship between father and son, and more to the point, between the son and his faith?

Burman has a history of films that deal with the Jewish faith in Latin America that explore similar subjects as he does here, although not quite in the same way. The early part of the movie is a little bit off-center, even a bit surreal as the two most important people in Ariel’s life – his father and his girlfriend – are nothing more than voices on a cellular phone and he wanders about El Once, a bit lost and befuddled. Gradually, though through the rhythms of the neighborhood and its rituals and particularly through the sweet and gentle Eva (who actually does have a voice), he finds a sense of purpose and connection and that journey is at the heart of the movie.

Sabbagh spends most of the movie on the phone, and that can be fairly boring cinematically speaking but the actor, who resembles Jason Alexander a bit to my mind, pulls it off. He plays Ariel as a fairly low-key individual; there are no histrionics, only a sense of frustration that grows as the movie begins, but the more he becomes involved in the neighborhood and with Eva, the more he changes and finds himself. It’s a stellar performance and one you may not want to miss.

I have to admit I was squirming a bit through the first half of the film but the longer it went on, the more it appealed to me. Burman clearly feels a connection with El Once (he is also a resident of the area) and just as clearly a real affection for it. The movie was filmed in the neighborhood and many of the people who live there show up as extras or in small roles.

Most of the time when we see movies about the Jewish experience, we are seeing it either in New York, Eastern Europe or Israel. Burman’s films provide us a look at what Judaism means in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region but certainly with a fairly large Jewish population. The movie isn’t necessarily a love letter to El Once, but it certainly plays a role in the film and is a large part of why I liked it so much.

Given the charm of the neighborhood and Ariel’s evolution (or de-evolution from a certain standpoint) this is the kind of movie that generally appeals to me. It’s low-key, charming and provides a look at life somewhere that I probably will never see. Movies like this give us perspective into our own daily lives and even if you’re not Jewish, you will likely find this as heartfelt and warm as I did.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of movie that grows on you as it plays. Sabbagh plays it low-key and gives a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit overly out there, particularly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed in the Mad About Fabrics store was filmed in the actual store with the owner of the store playing himself. Usher Barilka, who runs the charitable foundation in the area that the one in the film is based on, provides his voice as Ariel’s father.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Putzel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Secret Life of Pets

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood