Remember the Beijing National Stadium at the 2008 Summer Olympics? You know, that big, bean-shaped steel structure where the 2008 Summer Olympics took place. The Chinese government is very proud of its “Bird’s Nest.” You might wonder about the man credited as the artistic consultant of this massive undertaking. The commies in charge are not so fond of that guy. He’s a fat troublemaker who wields the media like a weapon to get his anti-establishment message across.
No, Michael Moore hasn’t made a new movie. The subject of the boldly empowering documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, one of two new releases I’m reviewing this week, is driven by a need to speak truth to power, by the most irreverent means necessary. The fact that he’s been getting away with it in the People’s Republic, building a global Twitter following in the process, makes his confrontational body of work that much more revolutionary. Transparency is this 54-year-old’s stock in trade. This social media whore with the kitty fixation and itchy middle finger – I mean, damn, that digit is on display everywhere – is, as far as nonfiction topics go, a slam dunk. Director Alison Klayman weaves a ripping yarn out of the artist’s life and advocacy, even as she occasionally indulges in hero worship.
Reverence is a forgivable sin here, because Weiwei is not a self-important human-rights activist with his thumb up his sizable heinie. The man is a prankster, a roly-poly buffoon with a gift for pushing the buttons of the powers that be, especially when they’re threatening to take his fellow artists’ rights away. What sets Klayman’s approach apart from the standard social-issue doc is her willingness to simply hang out with the guy.
Sure, Weiwei, who lived in the States for a decade during the eighties and early nineties, relishes every opportunity to talk about his work, such as the pages and pages filled with the names of thousands of children killed during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province, an indictment of the resulting government coverup about the flimsy “tofu construction” elementary schools that collapsed like a house of cards. It’s a simple list of victims conceptually similar to the Vietnam War Memorial and the AIDS quilt. There’s also the aforementioned series of photographs where he literally inserts his disdain for some revered structures. Tiananmen Square gets the finger. The Eiffel Tower is also the recipient of the rude gesture. The White House, I’m afraid, is not immune to Weiwei’s right hand, either.
But Klayman also gets the jolly extrovert to open up about non-political matters big and small, like his many cats, including a gifted feline who’s able to open doors in his Beijing studio like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. He also talks about his parents, how his late father, a poet, was labeled a “class enemy” and forced to do hard labor after his writings rubbed Chairman Mao the wrong way. His mother, at first glance a shy woman with a perpetual smile, turns out to be, in her more reserved way, just as outspoken and spirited as her offspring. Her presence adds much needed intimacy to Klayman’s fight-the-power portrait.
The structural backbone of Never Sorry revolves extensively around an incident in August of 2008 in which a policeman banged on Weiwei’s hotel room door late at night and then proceeded to kick his ass. The ensuing events – an emergency surgery in Munich one month later; the international outrage engendered after a photo of a bandaged Weiwei went viral; his attempts to have the Chinese authorities launch an official inquiry – are tightly paced and consistently engrossing, and they all build up to one hell of a payoff that places Klayman and her crew in the right place at the perfect time.
After that point, however, Never Sorry, which thrived on Klayman’s sense of urgency, runs out of steam. The film meanders to a safe and tidy conclusion that is simply not worthy of its larger-than-life subject. It’s certainly not for lack of drama. In April of 2011, Weiwei vanished without a trace for several months, the Chinese authorities’ attempt to silence this pesky fly on their ointment, but Klayman glosses over the incident and its connotations. She’s also pretty timid when she pries into Weiwei’s personal life, such as the delicate matter of the son that Weiwei, who is married, had with another woman. The film also lacks the formal beauty of the riveting 2010 documentary Last Train Home, which depicted a rural Chinese family’s growing pains.
These misgivings aside, the overpowering effect Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry elicits is unbridled elation, and deep admiration for this tireless justice crusader whose commitment comes through loud and clear, especially when Big Brother is the butt of his jokes.
This weekend also marks the big-screen debut of another outcast who marches to the beat of his own drum. ParaNorman, the latest 3D animated feature from Portland, Ore.-based animation studio Laika, gives us Norman Babcock, a socially awkward ghost whisperer and the last hope the residents of a New England town has of surviving a 500-year-old witch’s curse. But first, this spiky-haired refugee from an early Tim Burton short, voiced by Let Me In’s Kodi Smit-McPhee, has to deal with school bullies, parents who just don’t understand, and an eccentric uncle who shares the kid’s rare gift. It’s an ability conveyed with a whimsical sense of showmanship in a breathtaking shot early in the movie in which we see Norman’s neighborhood through his eyes. Ghosts are portrayed, not as wayward souls one should fear, but as other-dimensional beings that happen to walk alongside us.
Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell don’t quite manage to capture that sequence’s giddy blend of mystery and wonder in the rest of the film. ParaNorman’s cluttered narrative – Corpse Bride by way of The Monster Squad – springs forward in fits and starts, and it tries to cover too many bases. (Zombies and ghosts and witches, oh my!) It doesn’t sustain the mixture of menace and tenderness that propelled the Oscar-nominated Coraline, Laika’s previous release. What does emerge, as Norman’s quest takes him deeper into the history of his town’s dealings with supernatural elements, is an intriguing theme: the bullied becoming the bullies. It’s ambitious, refreshingly mature territory for a family film that, in some scenes, is every bit as scary as horror movies aimed at grownups. Top it all off with a nifty Jon Brion score that evokes John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, and you’ve got yourself an uneven but undeniably creepy fright flick that’s spooky on the outside but squishy in the middle.
Last, but far from least, I would like to make a correction to last week’s column, in which I mistakenly called director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) a South Florida native. Even though he’s called Miami home for many years, Frankel was actually born and raised in New York City. His best work still remains the Sex and the City episodes that he directed, even though as far as his big-screen work is concerned, he displays a more subtle hand in the just-released Hope Springs, a moving “remarriage comedy” starring a perfectly paired Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a married couple in crisis. My apologies for the inaccuracy.