Three new movies — Best of Enemies, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and Learning to Drive — are now playing at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis. Check out the short reviews below to see which ones are worth your time.
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Best of Enemies
Is it wrong for a documentary about two famous public intellectuals to require absolutely no unpacking of its own? Such is the issue I find in Best of Enemies, Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) and Robert Gordon’s informative but unchallenging treatment of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s televised 1968 debates, which themselves produced, to quote ABC moderator Howard K. Smith, “more heat than light.”
For the Republican and Democratic conventions of that year, ABC, tired of its third-place ranking, bet on an unusual approach of coverage. They hired Buckley, conservative icon and founder of National Review, and Vidal, transgressive author, to battle nightly over “the issues.”
Blue bloods both yet opponents politically as well as morally, their debates offered good theater, evidenced by ABC’s ratings surge. On the penultimate night, after incessant needling from Vidal, Buckley culminated the debates with his infamous threat: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” And so, Neville and Gordon belabor, loudmouth punditry, a la CNN’s Crossfire and Papa Bear O’Reilly, was born.
The talking heads guiding us along consist mostly of Buckley and Vidal’s surviving friends, who provide intimate but skewed readings of their respective importance and inner demons. Neville and Gordon seem to have no opinion on these divisive figures outside of these fans (including Sam Tenenhaus, Buckley’s biographer) stumping for them, so the film drifts along as an uncritical Buckley-Vidal lovefest before diagnosing their long-dormant neuroses by the end. “The issues,” as they were at the time, register as a blip next to the seismic forces that were these two men, who remain at a distance by the film’s end.
Still, media obsessives and mad-as-hell critics will find value in Neville and Gordon’s dark portrait on the state of punditry, knowledge and Buckley and Vidal’s legacies today. In reflecting on how these two men seem to be forgotten by the monster they helped create, the filmmakers could have quoted Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” or updated it as follows: “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The noise and partisan hate make a killing among all key demos.”
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet
Here is a film for the precocious young child. If Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet does not reach a wide audience — and who knows, its unwieldy title and reverence for poetry does not necessarily preclude success — then it will move and perhaps influence the children who do see it.
Based on Gibran’s titular opus, this animated film, directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King), starts with a bit of clichéd, Aladdin-esque pandemonium, as a young, defiantly mute girl, Almitra (Quevenzhané Wallis), steals a biscuit from a village vendor and a half-hearted chase ensues.
Lame action sequences recur throughout — to appease parents more than their children, I assume — but thankfully the focus shifts quickly to Almitra’s student-teacher relationship with Mustafa (Liam Neeson), a humanist poet arrested for fomenting dissent seven years earlier. The vague Near Eastern setting of “Orphalese” would seem out-of-time if not for the house arrest of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, for similar reasons, right now.
Accompanying readings of Mustafa’s terse, inspirational poetry (e.g. “Work is love made visible”) are separate animated shorts that visualize his teachings. Some, like one where a female body contorts into a bow and arrow, resemble repetitive screensavers, but most approach an undeniable beauty, particularly one pointillist montage through the seasons. The disparate animation styles do not merge into a legible whole, but the Fantasia approach is meant to overwhelm the senses, and it does.
With its free speech advocacy and clean moral delineations, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is the rare children’s movie, next to Wall-E, to announce its political agenda loud and clear. It lacks the wit and cohesive vision of said Pixar film, but it harbors comparable moments of grace.
Learning to Drive
Learning to Drive is not my kind of cinema, but it may very well be yours.
This functional dramedy stars Patricia Clarkson as a self-absorbed book critic reeling from a messy divorce and Ben Kingsley as a Sikh driving instructor whose faith and patience inspires her to navigate loud, cluttered Manhattan (and surrounding boroughs) anew. Due to loneliness and routine racial harassment, his life turns out to be far from perfect, and hers is just a matter of perspective, and you see where this is going.
With lines like, “I unfriended God a long time ago,” Sarah Kernochan’s script might just be too cute, and director Isabel Coixet does little to loosen up the stodgy text. Thankfully, Clarkson and Kingsley’s tête-à-tête runs a fleet 89 minutes, with Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker bestowing the film an impression of economy. The actors do their best, though without the finesse of a proactive director the histrionics come across as fake and labored.
For better or worse, art house theaters survive off middle-of-the-road crowdpleasers like Learning to Drive these days. I may scoff at the ease with which this work goes down, but I cannot pretend to see no appeal.
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