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September 2013

Spit and Polish

Walesa: Man of Hope (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

The latest film from the remarkable 87-year-old Polish director Andrzej Wajda is ostensibly the conclusion to a trilogy of films about the ascendance of the Solidarity movement in late 20th-century Poland, a project which began back in 1977 with “Man of Marble.”

The first film in the series charted the emergence of a (fictional) socialist folk hero, Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a record-breaking bricklayer who would fall out of favor with the authorities before being gunned down in the (very real) workers’ uprising massacres of 1970. That traumatic incident would go on to inspire both Birkut’s son, metalworker Maciej Tomczyk — titular character in the 1981 film “Man of Iron” also played by Mr. Radziwilowicz) and the burgeoning Solidarity movement as it took hold across industrial Poland during the 1980s.

The final film in the series turns attentions to a real-life figure, Solidarity’s leader Lech Walesa (played by Robert Wieckiewicz in the film), who rose from a life of laborer’s anonymity to become not just the head of Solidarity’s hierarchy but also Poland’s first democratic president. The film charts his unlikely evolution from relatively unrefined hardhead to a charismatic and forthright figurehead, whose plain-speaking and brute obstinacy would see him inherit the role of shepherding Poland into a new post-Soviet era.

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A Hole Is Not a Home

Stray Dogs (2013)

William Laxton/
Homegreen Films and Jba Production

After following the lead of his contemporaries and working abroad, director Tsai Ming-liang (no relation) returns to a Taiwan as damp and dilapidated as ever with his latest, “Stray Dogs.” Although the film does feature stray dogs of both literal and figurative varieties, its English title doesn’t even begin to cover this story about a father with two children in tow. In fact, the original Mandarin title, “Jiao you” — which means “field trip” in English — is a much more apt description of the overall experience.

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Burn After Listening

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Alison Rosa/Studiocanal

Revisiting the struggling-artist archetype 22 years after “Barton Fink,” Joel and Ethan Coen this time place him squarely in the 1960s East Village folk scene instead of 1940s Hollywood. For all but two scenes (in fact, it’s an early scene that recurs toward the end), “Inside Llewyn Davis” has this time eschewed the noir for which the writing-directing brothers are best known and assumes the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”-type odyssey.

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Royal Pain

Diana (2013)

Laurie Sparham/Le Pacte

History has more or less made its judgment on Britain's former Princess of Wales, but what it will make of the current state of the biopic industry is anybody's guess. The double whammy of "Diana" and "Rush" in close proximity suggests that the English-speaking end of the genre can be easily rendered speechless, finding nothing left to say and apparently no new ways left to say it. Excepting some wild-card swerves like casting Cate Blanchett as an avatar of Bob Dylan, mainstream depiction of people in the public eye seems to have lost most of its audacity, unable to gain traction when fame means already being lost into the pulping machine of celebrity and voyeurism and prurience. No coincidence surely that documentarians are currently running rings around feature film makers when it comes to biography, or that those feature films are reduced to the most literal self-explanatory approaches to the material. You don't have to have met Diana Spencer to spot that the character in "Diana" is a sketchy outline, you just have to have met another human being. A scriptwriter can type "Diana feels nameless existential dread in a Paris hotel corridor" with a straight face, but see that exact thing and the floor opens up beneath you.

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Final Flight of Fancy

The Wind Rises (2013)

© 2013 二馬力・GNDHDDTK

Hayao Miyazaki’s final film before retirement (heard that one before with “Ponyo” — glad it wasn’t true then, hope it isn’t true now), “The Wind Rises” is perhaps the legendary animator’s most adult film ever. Since maturity and wisdom are a given in his anime even when aimed for children, we say adult because the new film is based on history and biographies for a change. “The Wind Rises” is a fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed many of Japan’s World War II fighters. The result is part Studio Ghibli fantasy and part Yasujiro Ozu melodrama about life in Imperial Japan leading up to the Second World War.

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Midlife in Paris

Le Week-end (2013)

Nicola Dove/Music Box Films

Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi’s fourth collaboration, “Le Week-end” continues their exploration of the desires of the olds following “The Mother” and “Venus.” Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan star respectively as Nick and Meg Burrows, who are visiting Paris for the first time since their honeymoon three decades earlier. They exude a certain upper-middle-class façade of intellect and affluence that is instantly recognizable: You’ve seen these archetypes out and about on the Upper West Side, strutting from cabs outside the Lincoln Center on their way to attend important cultural events. The film’s American premiere at the New York Film Festival comes as a shocker to no one.

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On Stranger Tides

Captain Phillips (2013)

Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures

Critics are probably giddy at the prospect of making seasickness the gag line of their “Captain Phillips” reviews, given that handheld camerawork is the stock in trade of director Paul Greengrass. All joking aside, consider it fair warning, as one could conceivably get queasy before Tom Hanks’s eponymous captain even sets sail. Once at sea, the photography actually seems placid, perhaps because you’ve grown accustomed to the shakiness or it simply pales in comparison to the relentlessly turbulent unfolding of this fact-based drama about the 2009 Somali pirates’ hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama.

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Tales of the City

The Great Beauty (2013)

Gianni Fiorito/Pathé Distribution

When Peter Greenaway gazed at Rome back in 1987 for "The Belly of an Architect," he pointed his near-stationary camera towards it from a distance, until the static accumulating from this God's-eye view nearly caused the screen to bow outward at the sides. Paolo Sorrentino does things differently, and "The Great Beauty" hews close to the affluent end of the Eternal City's citizenry and shares their perspectives instead. Mr. Sorrentino is interested in the effect that people have on their city rather than the reverse process, and his Rome is built on networks of vaguely mournful parties and nightclubs and middle-aged hedonists; a seemingly fragile base for so much history to find itself standing on. The resident Lord of Misrule Silvio Berlusconi never actually turns up, but lurks around every corner.

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