Movies Without Pity
Indie Snapshot: Three New Movies by Three Masters

See the latest films from two working masters and the last movie from one about to retire.

Indie film pioneer John Sayles hasn't made a great movie since 1999's Limbo, but he continues to write, direct and find money for the kinds of eminently watchable adult dramas that mainstream studios have next to no interest in funding. Go For Sisters isn't a rousing return to the days of The Brother From Another Planet, Matewan and Lone Star, but it's a smart, involving movie that effectively tackles real-world issues within the context of a well-plotted narrative. Opening as a simple reunion story of two older, wiser high school friends -- parole officer Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton, quite good) and ex-drug addict Fontaine (Yolonda Ross, excellent) -- the film unexpectedly, but believably morphs into a behind-enemy-lines rescue operation, with the unlikely duo partnering with a retired, nearly-blind Mexican cop (Edward James Olmos) and heading to the crime capital of Juárez to retrieve Bernice's adult son, kidnapped by the human traffickers he'd been working with to smuggle people over the border. One of the few American directors who consistently engages with the world beyond our borders (he's been particularly drawn to South America in recent years), Sayles offers a nuanced, non-exploitative look at the subject of illegal immigration and the corruption that stems from it. But he's also careful to keep the characters front and center; even when they pursue courses of action that slightly strain credulity (most notably when Bernice shoots an off-duty cop and manages to get away), their motivations and goals remain clear. And frankly, I could watch a whole movie of that always-indispensable Olmos wandering around Juárez, doing his best Philip Marlowe impression. I know Sayles doesn't generally do sequels -- that's more of a Hollywood thing than an Indiewood thing -- but in this case, I'd argue that he should make an exception.

As the title indicates, At Berkeley -- the 40th non-fiction feature from prolific documentarian Frederick Wiseman -- takes place at Berkeley, the University of California campus that was a hotbed of activism (and recreational drug use) in the '60s, when the filmmaker began his storied career. Shot largely in 2010, this expansive four-hour portrait finds modern-day UC Berkeley a more sedate place than those heady days, with most of the challenges confronting the institution primarily stemming from financial, rather than political concerns. At the time Wiseman's cameras were on campus, the university's leaders were on the cusp of losing a significant amount of state funding, necessitating lengthy boardroom meetings where they discussed other alternatives as well as general "state of the school" conversations regarding admissions policies and financial aid packages. In his typically immersive fashion, Wiseman recorded all of these meetings and lets them run for 15-to-20 minute chunks in the finished movie without any cutaways, narration or even on-screen slugs to identity who is speaking. That may sound nightmarish, but it's actually fascinating -- a too-rare glimpse behind the scenes of how a major university operates and the decisions and compromises they have to make to keep the doors open and the lights on. Interspersed with these sequences (which form the thematic spine of the movie) are scenes of ordinary campus life, recorded in various classrooms (Wiseman visits a Humanities course, as well as the university's robotics department), the different quads and even a party or two. Never one to make an overt piece of agitprop, Wiseman's film nevertheless has a lot to say about the unique benefits of being in a university setting, as well as the way that opportunity is, once again, in danger of only being open to a select few, even at supposedly public institutions. The running time may be intimidating -- and I'd actually recommend breaking it up into 60-minute "episodes" to better absorb it all -- but At Berkeley absolutely belongs on the short list of the year's finest documentaries.

Whether or not it was specifically planned this way, The Wind Rises (which is opening an extremely limited Oscar-qualifying theatrical run this week prior to a wide release in February) functions as a grand summation of Hayao Miyazaki's groundbreaking career in animation. Not only does it deal directly with aviation, one of his lifelong fascinations and an important component of such films as Porco Rosso and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but it's also very much in tune with the natural world -- a quality it shares with My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke -- and has a dreamlike nature that recalls Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky. The movie's overt connections to Miyazaki's past work, as well as the pervading sense (particularly in the lovely final scene) that the director is saying farewell to the viewers that have willingly boarded his flights of fancy for all these years, goes a long way towards enlivening what's otherwise a somewhat routine biopic.

The Wind Rises is the fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an engineer who revolutionized the Japanese aviation industry in the 1930s. In Miyazaki's version of events, young Jiro is driven by childhood dreams of flying atop fantastical aircrafts to construct graceful, elegant flying machines. Unfortunately, he happens to be working at a time when the primary purchasers of new aircraft designs are the military, a reality that intrudes upon his fantasies of creating inventions that will better mankind. Though only directly acknowledged to in passing, the specter of World War II -- not to mention Japan's invasion and occupation of China -- is felt throughout the movie, lending it a distinctly melancholic tinge that belies any attempt to characterize it as propaganda or an apology for history. (Nevertheless, there are legitimate complaints to be made about the movie's lack of frankness in regards to how some of Horikoshi's designs were put to use, as well as Miyazaki's characterization of him as an purely innocent dreamer.) More problematic is a romantic storyline that comes to dominate the second half of the film, as Jiro falls in love with a woman dying of tuberculosis and tries to make every last second with her count. It's Miyazaki's attempt at a tragic romance straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but I'm sorry to say that's it's simply too clumsy to be effective. Still, if The Wind Rises doesn't soar to the heights of the director's finest works, it is a deeply felt and visually ravishing goodbye from one of the undisputed masters of modern animation.

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