The first era of 3-D gave us flying lances and tomahawks, but the thrill (like the fad) faded. The process was revived creatively by Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. A brisk step forward is Pina, from Wim Wenders.
While he doesn’t hustle the effect — nobody jetés into our laps — Wenders has made a dance movie, one of the most enjoyably kinetic ever filmed. He uses our familiarity with live dance, our sense of how bodies sculpt space as a performance necessity. His subject was profoundly aware of it: Philippina “Pina” Bausch, the German choreographer who died two days before Wenders started shooting (they had consulted in depth).
Taught by Kurt Jooss, Antony Tudor, and Paul Taylor, Bausch (1940–2009) shaped the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch into a force. For years she worked with her key dancers, drawn from many countries, freeing them to tap not only sinew but memories and emotions. Even in ensemble sync they seem individuals, often amusing in their nervy intensity, like Brechtian clowns from a hyperactive circus. Some dancers speak on camera, but mainly they dance (so does Pina in a few clips), and their sweating, puffing realism make us realize the work inside the art.
What most struck me about the dances, seen in sizeable fragments (including the epic Rite of Spring, with its floor of soil), is how rich in muscular stress the dancers are, how un-ethereal. No Ariels or Tinkerbells! We always sense real bodies in true space, taking risks. When a woman collapses into a man’s arms, we fear she may crash through them. A dancer, whirling near a cliff edge, scares us. Although the great critic Arlene Croce called some Bausch trademarks “flashy schtick,” I was entirely engaged by the dancers putting so much on the line without reaching for virtuoso stardom.
Wenders emphasizes the sensuous Bausch motifs (walls, dirt, water, rocks) and uses great spaces such as a gliding monorail and a Miesian glass-box studio in a park. His perceptual tricks, like the dancers seen briefly miniaturized in a mock-up theater, have deft magic, a touch of Prospero. A pretty dancer hopping en pointe in classical ballet slippers seems to both rebuke and charm a huge factory behind her. Rather than flaunting the 3-D, Wenders folds it into choreographic spaces. The movie dances.
Bausch was not so fluently witty as Mark Morris, nor a genius like George Balanchine. But her art’s respect for gravity throbs with honest, give-and-take tension. Our greatest star dancers on film have seemed to glide a little above the earth and danger: Astaire, Kelly, Baryshnikov. Their hovering muse was Buster Keaton. Bausch was closer in spirit to Chaplin, who knew that every foolhardy, bravura gag could flop and sometimes would, painfully.
Inventively photographed by Hélène Louvart, Pina has a funny central image: dancers moving in a jokey, jerky parade line to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” Up for two Oscars, Pina leaps high and lands close to Wenders’s two finest films, Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas.
I missed Madonna’s Filth and Wisdom. So my full entry to her “vision” is, with all due respect to her half-time show at the recent Super Bowl, her second film as a director, W./E. A gilded wallow in sham-glam nostalgia for the love affair between Britain’s Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, a married American, it defines “love” as “He gave up everything for her” (in 1937 Edward abdicated the throne to marry the newly divorced Simpson). To feel the great love of Madonna, we must give up only our taste and intelligence.
The title W./E. stands, of course, for Wallis and Edward. She dreamily writes the initials in lipstick on a mirror. On that same level of inspiration is the intercut story of a modern, Wallis-fixated woman also named Wallis. As Wally 2, Abbie Cornish (so fine in Bright Star) seems reduced to imitating minor Hollywood royalty: Ali MacGraw.
An American, she is married to William (Richard Coyle), a New York doctor. He is a medical saint but drinks too much, denies her sex, and beats her. With perfect kitsch symmetry, that ordeal echoes the savage beating of Wallis Simpson by her first husband (no, not O.J.). The modern Wallis dreams of producing a child as the past Wallis never could (Edward, as the Duke of Windsor, became her pouting, aging child and is played by James D’Arcy as a simpering fool for love).
Andrea Riseborough does a credible job as the famous Wallis, somewhat prettied up, brainy, catty, chic, a snob by pure ambition (during a youthful year in China she learned Mandarin only for “Boy, bring me champagne”). Auteur Madonna prefers to believe that she really didn’t want the scandal and marriage but could hardly reject Edward’s epic sacrifice. Well, what’s a go-gal gonna do? For decades, the Windsors were high-society bores in exile, their “great romance” sealed in a wax of vapid fame.
The script seems pulled from back issues of Vogue and Vanity Fair, gaping at power-black outfits, royal lawns, silver services, jewelry, and palatial hotels. There is a fly-by wink at the Windsor visit to Hitler and much more time for the prince’s royal visit to Welsh miners who greet him like Jesus. In the lamest wow, modern W. gets an E. of her own, Evgeni, a “Russian intellectual turned security guard” for (you guessed it!) Sotheby’s auction of the Windsor goodies. Poor Oscar Isaac, trying to be more than a boy-toy, is required to flash some butt when he sits down at the piano.
The best flush for this fluff turd is Noel Coward’s comment on the 1963 epic of Egypto bling, Cleopatra: “A monument to vulgarity.” W./E. makes The King’s Speech seem more witty, nuanced, and humane than ever. They make a perfect contrast.
Denzel Washington is still a dominator. With a smile or the chill charm of the line “I am your house guest,” he owns the story, the movie, the audience. The trouble is, we are all still stuck with the movie Safe House.
The hero role goes to Ryan Reynolds, who is decent but lightweight. As Matt, he is bored running a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Boredom ends with the unexpected arrival of Tobin Frost (Washington). Frost is a genius of ruthlessness, a fabled CIA agent gone rogue, now selling for many millions a tiny cyber file that incriminates about half of the world’s spy agencies. To hide it, he needles the thing into his leg (infection is never an issue).
Frost “rewrote the book on interrogation,” but director Daniel Espinosa is not about to rewrite the book (or comic book) of standard action pictures. He shows some waterboarding, yet torture just blends into the amorphously morbid indictment of all secret government procedures. He works up some competitive bonding between Matt and Frost, but that gets pulverized by the zeal to feed viewers their adrenaline pellets every few minutes: chases, crashes, maulings, a woman trampled at a soccer stadium, a huge (fake) explosion. Villains are disposable, treachery is pervasive, and good actors (Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Rubén Blades) are plot dots with familiar faces.
Both the story and the action sprees defy close examination. They are so juiced and looped and crazed for quick payoff that we can shut down our minds and become Pavlovian eyeballs. A nice, humane moment over a bottle of wine is soon shattered by gunfire. The Great Debaters wasn’t bad, but it has been way too long since a first-rate Washington movie. The waste of a great talent fits this film’s cynicism.
Reviewed in the movie capsules: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, The Secret World of Arrietty, This Means War.