Tag Archives: B

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY

Unconventional Chinese artist and dissident activist Ai Weiwei is the subject of Alison Klayman’s structurally ragged but engrossing documentary, which portrays his Internet-based struggle for enhanced democracy and personal freedom in his country—a campaign that, despite its potentially deadly earnestness, has often employed positively playful means.

Eschewing a strictly chronological approach, Klayman begins by introducing Ai as a cheeky artist of international renown and an already powerful public figure—the designer of the Beijing Olympics Bird’s Nest stadium who then denounced the games as a propaganda extravaganza, and the leader of a drive to disclose the identities of young Sichuan earthquake victims whose numbers and names were being kept secret by a dictatorial government intent on concealing the truth about the rickety construction of the schools in which thousands of them died. Only later does she backtrack to reveal the story of his father, a poet who suffered during the era of the Cultural Revolution, and of Ai’s decade-long stay in New York after Mao’s death, his return to China following the abortive pro-democracy Tiananmen Square uprising, and his importance in the development of an underground movement in China that used art, much of the “performance” variety, to challenge the official party line. His adoption of blogging, Tweeting and posting fly-on-the-wall Internet documentaries reflects, as he explains, his view of the artist’s duty to demand change in the face of oppression.

Klayman is fortunate in having access to picture-maniac Ai’s archival treasury of video and stills, and uses the materials extensively to document his attempted intervention in the case of a jailed activist, the resultant police assault that left him in need of surgery, and his insistence in demanding an investigation of the incident and bringing charges against those responsible for his head injury. She also offers ample excerpts from the documentaries he made about work on the earthquake investigation and footage of his exhibitions throughout the world, like the remarkable “Sunflower Seeds” installation at the Tate—an event that suggests that in many respects Ai stands in a direct line from Warhol, using ordinary objects to extraordinary (and in this case politically charged) effect.

But Klayman also offers a lot of newly-shot footage—extensive interview excerpts with the often-puckish artist, his collaborators and even his widowed mother, domestic shots of him playing with his illegitimate son (whose birth he describes with candor), and some amusing scenes of his return to the New York delis he still relishes. (He eats a lot in the documentary, both in terms of frequency and quantity.) She’s also tracked down many of his old American acquaintances for comment, as well as fellow Chinese artists (some of whom live in exile) and journalists like Evan Osnos, the New Yorker’s resident China expert, and inserts their observations into the film as well. Klayman closes with footage of the price of such outspokenness as Ai has exhibited—the irrational destruction of his newly-built studio by the authorities—and tacks on a brief account of his recent arrest, detention and trumped-up conviction on charges of tax evasion. But she closes with a glimmer of hope in terms of the public support for his travails that has emerged, both monetary contributions and expressions of regard.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” could have come down harder on the Chinese government, which is now treated benignly in many official circles but remains a despotic regime. And it could certainly be better organized from a purely cinematic standpoint. But it still provides an ingratiating portrait of a courageous provocateur with a gift for cleverly ridiculing a dangerous regime that can strike out viciously in response, who remains too little known to the outside world—and whose art possesses a whimsical topicality that challenges China’s mindless drive to replace the past with modern “progress,” crushing much that’s traditional and precious in the process. Despite structural flaws and a rambling style, Klayman’s film is both engaging and important.

LIKE CRAZY

Grade: B

There’s a New Wavey vibe to Drake Doremus’ second feature, a jumpy, elliptical account of a high-octane romance between two California college students that runs into difficulty when the girl, a British citizen, overstays her visa and is banned from returning to the country after a vacation back home. The stylistically free-wheeling spirit of the Godard who made a picture like “Breathless” isn’t far away from “Like Crazy.”

Nor is a similar intensity absent from the early relationship between Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), classmates whose awkward first date—initiated by her—soon morphs into a passionate commitment to one another. It becomes so fervid, in fact, that when Anna’s student visa runs out, she declines to go back home—a mistake that will come back to haunt the young lovers.

When Anna’s barred from the US at the LA airport, the couple are left with nothing but e-mails, texts and phone calls to continue the bond, and the distance tests their commitment, even when Jacob takes a leave from his fledgling furniture-design business to visit her. When attempts to get Anna’s hold lifted fail, they slip still further away from one another, with Anna apparently seeing handsome neighbor Simon (Charlie Bewley) and Jacob supportive blonde Samantha (Jennifer Lawrence).

Still they’re unwilling to give up, and eventually marry in England in hopes that will resolve the legal problem. When it doesn’t, however, they seem on the verge of total breakup, each going back to their more available local suitors, until the immigration issue is resolved and Anna can return to California. But even as they’re reunited, it’s clear that after the pain each has inflicted on the other, their relationship will never be the same; and one can only speculate what the future holds for them.

Doremus tells this simple story with assurance, juxtaposing brisk montages with longer dramatic sequences effortlessly. The technique is hardly new, but it’s employed very ably here, for which the director should share responsibility with cinematographer John Guleserian, whose largely hand-held work seems right in this case, and editor Jonathan Alberts, who stitches together the varied episodes smoothly. And the music score by Dustin O’Halloran adds to the mood without calling attention to itself.

But a film like this wouldn’t work without leads that make you believe in the characters. Jones and Yelchin do, credibly registering an enormous range of emotion, from shy puppy-dog affection to passionate lovemaking, confused resignation and mean-spirited anger as their relationship waxes and wanes Lawrence shines in her smaller role, etching in brief strokes a girl deeply wounded by the on-and-off attention of the guy she loves, and Bewley has a meaty scene near the close when he proposes to Anna. Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead enjoy their few but juicy moments as Anna’s parents, a voluble pair with a special love of fine whiskey. (One wonders why Jacob’s mother—his only surviving parent—never makes an appearance, but that’s a minor point.)

“Like Crazy” makes a fine companion piece to “Blue Valentine,” another keenly observed, deeply felt portrait of a roller-coaster romance. The characters in this case are, to be sure, from a different socio-economic class, and the outcome for them is more positive—perhaps. But the effect is equally compelling.