View Full Version : Ny Film Festival 2006
09-19-2006, 03:59 PM
Helen Mirren in NYFF opener, Frears' The Queen
Press screenings of the 44th New York Film Festival presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center begin September 18, 2006 and continue through October 12th. I'll be watching the press screenings and reviewing the films in the order they appear there. The festival public screenings will run from September 29 through October 15.
For the nature of the unique festival and my coverage of the films, see last year’s introdction and individual links (http://www.filmwurld.com/articles/features/nyff05/nyff05.htm) on the site. Nothing has changed in the essential game plan except that this year there are twenty-eight official selections instead of twenty-five. Again the aim is to represent the very best and only the very best of the year in cinema internationally.No jury or prizes, no theme or categories. If I am not mistaken the selection committee, headed by Film Society program director Richard Peña, is the same as last year's. There are slightly more films in English than in other languages, but there’s a panoply of international directors represented including, among others:
Manoel de Oliveira
Guillermo del Toro
There is also Japanese animé and a very few documentaries. Frears’ The Queen, a fictional depiction of the aftermath of the death of Lady Di in the British royal family, with Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II, is the opening night film. There are also three retrospective showings of older films, Lino Brocka’s Insiang (Filipino, 1976), Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso (Italian, 1962), and the twenty-fifth anniversary screening of Warren Beatty’s Reds. Peña says he thinks as usual there will be “something for just about everybody.” A number of films deal with the topic of “popular cinema” using traditional genres such as melodrama or the gangster flick, and a unifying theme that has emerged in some of the selections is stories that “depict characters who are finally forced to confront realities they’ve long ignored or avoided.”
The standard set by last year's NYFF is a hard one to live up to, but since the same people are running the show, there's hope for another round of exceptional films.
09-19-2006, 11:16 PM
SOFIA COPPOLA: MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006)
Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette
Such sad bonbons
Audacious, delicious, exaggerated and preposterous, Sofie Coppola’s third film, Marie Antoinette, plunges into the life of the Austrian princess who became queen of France and was beheaded in the Revolution, following Antonia Fraser’s recent biography in describing her as a frustrated, lonely, brave teenager who never ceased to be a child and achieved maturity just in time to die. The film is a grandiose, sometimes touching, sometimes indigestible mixture. Starting with Kirsten Dunst, a splendid actress, very touching in her openness (but does she know what it’s like to become a queen?) and the sleek, stolid Jason Schwartzman, a slacker-seeker now turned teenage king. Shot largely at Versailles, it’s lavish and authentic visually (or authentic-feeling; furniture and clothing had to be invented), but the film’s French characters speak in English and American accents and the musical background is full of Eighties pop. Fruit of a girlish fantasy, it’s a symphony of eye candy and real candy, bonbons and pinks and bright colors, a glorious superficial panorama that seeks to be a deep personal portrait of a tormented life.
Ms. Coppola would have none of the sepia tones of historical “Masterpiece Theater” productions; but this isn’t such a boldly original step as the film’s promoters imply and the director herself acknowledges a debt to Kubrick's Barry Lynden (and used the latter’s costume designer). Frears’s brilliant 1988 Dangerous Liaisons comes to mind, similarly light and bright. It’s also true that Marie’s somewhat crude dialogue suffers by comparison with Christopher Hampton’s sharp adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos. The talk in Marie is factual, or telegraphs information. The new film doesn’t evoke the wit and sophistication of the eighteenth century. The story, so detailed at first, seems rushed more and more as it goes on. But still it leaves you with something. And that something may be Louis and Marie going to bed – and nothing happening, night after night. They didn’t produce a child and maybe didn’t even have real completed sex for the first seven years. One comes to feel sorry for Louis too: there’s something helpless and sweet about Schwartzman that makes the seemingly odd casting eventually pay off.
Coppola negotiates a narrow line between spectacle and intimate story. Some of the moments are bombastic, as when the father Louis XV (Rip Torn) or some chief of protocol stamps a staff on the floor, reams of Manohlo Blahnik shoes or pretty pastries flow by our eyes, we get a vast panorama of Versailles or a huge elephant in our face, or a blast of organ music knocks us out of our seats. There are many royal eating scenes, the couple facing forward with vast symmetrical arrangements of food in front of them with the courses loudly announced, as in Rossellini’s La Prise du Pouvoir par Louis XIV. Unlike Rossellini, Coppola doesn’t strive for an alienation effect but wants us to identify with the fourteen-year-old Austrian girl from the moment she has everything taken away from her, even her dog, and is dressed in French clothes to meet the Dauphin.
We’re not very aware of the passage of time – Coppola’s movie tries too hard to avoid historical-film convention for that – but our heroine goes through some heavy changes. She drinks and takes drugs (what’s in that pipe the women pass we don’t know), she stays up all night, sneaks to Paris in disguise for a masked ball, squanders millions on landscaping (which merely embellished Le Nôtre's designs) and on clothes and gambles and wolfs down so many sweets you wonder how he could get into those tight bodices. She gets heavily into the Pastoral shepherdess scene and then has an affair with a sexy Swedish count, Axel von Ferson, played by Jamie Dornan, a former Calvin Klein model with long limbs and dreamy eyes, right out of a soap opera, or the cover of a pulp romance. The way the movie shows it, this indiscretion was soon over; weren’t there plenty more? Somehow there isn’t time to show, with all the costumes and bonbons. This is where the movie most falls short: on a sense of events unfolding outside, or even inside; it’s high on the emotions and the visuals, which never cease to be fun. Even when king and queen are driving away to be beheaded, Marie is looking out the window to admire the gardens. We get some court intrigue, notably conflict with Louis XV (Rip Torn)’s mistress Madame du Barry, played by Asia Argento as a vampire of a vamp. Ever present as a mean schoolmistress is the chief of etiquette, Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis), forever frowning and stretching her long thin neck. And Marie’s female play pals are lovely and cool.
Ultimately if all this elaborate stuff stands or falls with Kirsten Dunst, then it’s at least okay, because Ms. Dunst has innocence and freshness and aloneness about her, and she’s got the Teutonic looks Marie’s Austrian background requires, and young as she is, she’s got the energy and presence of an experienced actress. This isn’t a great movie but it’s a fabulous one. I dare costume-historical queens to stay away.
09-20-2006, 04:58 PM
50 YEARS OF JANUS FILMS -- A SPECIAL SIDEBAR OF THE 44TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
Kent Jones’s ringing introduction (http://www.filmlinc.com/wrt/onsale/janus.html) to Janus Films can be found online. The series runs Sept. 30-Oct. 26, 2006 at Lincoln Center.
Janus Films, "the preeminent distributor of classic foreign films in the United States for fifty years," was formed by Harvard friends Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey following up on the huge success of their foreign film series at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge in 1953. Janus dates from 1956 with Fellini’s White Sheik and I Vitelloni. The thirty-film series at Lincoln Center includes Jules and Jim, The Rules of the Game, The Seventh Seal, Children of Paradise, Beauty and the Beast, The 400 Blows, La Strada, Wild Strawberries, The Seven Samurai, and L’Avventura. As these titles show, Janus has made a staggering list of foreign cinematic classics available in the US.
William Becker and Saul Turrell took over Janus in 1965 and in the decades that have followed has focused primarily not on presenting new films but on acquiring classics, preserving them, and disseminating them through theatrical and TV release and home-use formats. The Criterion Collection is also connected with Janus. Jones concludes: "American film culture without Janus Films is unthinkable. We’re celebrating their 50th birthday with a selection of titles from their extraordinary collection, all in brand-new or pristine 35mm prints. Janus Films is truly one of our national treasures. Here’s your chance to celebrate their achievements, and to be dazzled all over again by highlights from their incomparable collection.”
The Janus series runs from the end of September to the end of October at Lincoln Center. All thirty classics are in new prints. Judging by the two shown at press screenings, Polanski’s Knife in the Water and Ingmar Bergman’s Monika/Summer with Moinika (1953), the images are perhaps more pristine and beautiful than they even were when the films were first shown in theaters.
FROM THE JANUS SERIES; KNIFE IN THE WATER AND MONIKA
Knife in the Water (Nóz w wodzie, 1962), Polanski’s feature debut, made when he was twenty-nine, is a tense overnight sailing trip taken by a man with his pretty younger wife and a handsome young drifter they find hitchhiking on their drive to the boat. The action is claustrophobic and fraught with menace – the two men are in conflict from the moment they first meet – and a cool jazz score gives the film an edgy contemporary air. The young man carries a long knife of the switch-blade type. Does the old rule apply, that a weapon, once introduced in a story, has to be used?
Ingmar Bergman’s Monika (Sommaren med Monika, 1953), not his first -- he had made over a dozen films before this -- but perhaps his outstanding early work, is the story of two Stockholm teenagers, stock boy Harry (Lars Ekborg) and voluptuous, impulsive Mokika (Harriet Andersson), who meet and fall in love and run away for a summer on a motorboat on the Stockholm archipelago escaping from work and all responsibility. Monika becomes pregnant and they return to the city and marry – but things turn bad. This first powerful feature by the Swedish master is simple and sweet but nonetheless rich in emotional wrenching events. The film, which depicts teenage unwed sex, was shockingly sensual for its time. The intensity of Harriet Andersson’s uninhibited performance is still impressive.
The pristine look of both these new prints is astonishing and beautiful, particularly Gunnar Fisher’s cinematography in Monika depicting the fresh faces of the young lovers and the intense Swedish summer landscape.
09-21-2006, 08:20 PM
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL: SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (SANG SATTAWAT 2006)
Mysteries of reminiscence
More for the strictly arthouse audience than his previous Tropical Malady, the young Thai auteur’s latest is an impressionistic and disorienting series of scenes centering around several different hospitals, and focused on couples, romance, job interviews, and patients. There’s a singing dentist who serenades a young Buddhist monk in saffron robe whose teeth he’s working on. Later the dentist-songwriter is seen performing for an audience on a fairground stage. A sequence where a potential employee or medical school candidate and an older Buddhist monk are both interviewed by a young woman doctor is repeated in the film’s second half, with different camera angles and variations in the dialogue and the tone of the scenes. The film is split down the middle, though not as distinctly as in Weerasethakul’s two earlier films. The gentle dental work scene where doctor and patient share their dreams and passions is repeated, only this time the leafy trees and sunshine outside are replaced by a chilling white environment, a woman assistant is present, and no one speaks. Outdoor shots focus on wide country and city spaces, and on leafy trees seen from below with sky beyond. A young man who may have brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning swats a tennis ball down a hospital corridor. The young man who wants to become a doctor now is one, in white coat, and stares sadly into space in a long static shot. An older woman doctor hides a bottle of whisky in a prosthetic leg and drinks to relax before her weekly appearance on public television. People talk inconclusively of reincarnation. There's a visit to an orchid grower, who buys an orchid from a hospital grounds, and is visited by a woman doctor in his study after he’s hung the orchid outside. All this would be annoying and disquieting were the scenes not so gentle, subtle, and evocative. Weerasethakul is an original, no doubt about that. His weddings of image and sound are sometimes numbing, sometimes subtle and enchanting, and always cryptic.
Very good -- as my Beowulf teacher, who happened to be Jean Renoir’s son, used to say after a passage of Old English was read -- and what does it mean? There's no simple answer to that. These are reminiscences, we're told (though not in the film itself), of the director's parents, both of them doctors; of their courtship; and of what it was like for him to grow up in the environs of a hospital. Weerasetahakul says that the first half, with its warmer, gentler mood, is for his mother, and the second, where scenes are repeated in brisker and cooler variations and the hospital is an antiseptic urban one, is for his father. Weerasethakul is a bold stylist and a confident setter of moods. But there’s not a lot to put together into a narrative, just a scattered set of observations. It’s a little bit as if you were watching Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi with tiny dialogue scenes.
The film lingers on long shots of exteriors, and glides back and forth in front of a large white Buddha. It returns to a room where prostheses are made and fitted to patients and finds the room filled with smoke (could it be the carbon dioxide the young man suffers from?) which is slowly sucked out by a large funneled pipe, while ominous mechanical music throbs in the background. Don’t worry about spoilers here. The ending, a large outdoor aerobics class, concludes and reveals nothing. Syndromes and a Century never unlocks its mysteries, it just casts its haunting spell and departs with a blacked-out screen.
09-23-2006, 11:29 AM
TODD FIELD: LITTLE CHILDREN (2006)
Fine sexual drama with a small uncertainty of tone
Todd Field’s Little Children’s screenplay was written in collaboration with Tom Perrotta, on whose eponymous novel it’s based. Perrotta wrote Election’s, Bad Haircut’s, and Joe College’s funny, ironic screenplays before this. But though mildly satirical at times in its vision of middle-class white infidelity, this second film (at last) from the director of the powerful 2000 In the Bedroom, with its themes out of Cheever or Updike, also moves toward the solemn and the shocking.
One big reason for that is a second plot about a just-released sex offender and a troubled ex-cop who turns into a self-appointed protector of public morality campaigning to drive the ex-prisoner out of town.
Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a househusband caring for his little boy while feebly preparing for his previously failed bar exams. He has a gorgeous but emasculating wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) who’s a successful PBS-style documentary filmmaker. Sarah (Kate Winslet), with an MA in English, in charge of a recalcitrant little girl with whom she has little patience at times, has a well-off distant husband (Gregg Edelman) who's a pretentious adman who gets off on Web porn. Sarah and Brad meet in a park where moms take their kids, in East Wyndham, Massachusetts. They wind up kissing when they first meet, mainly to shock the other moms.
Brad and Sarah spend a lot of the summer minding their kids together at the municipal pool. This turns into a torrid affair with frequent sex at Sarah’s husband’s large house. They're attractive, and attracted, and their general dissatisfaction with their spouses and with where they are now heightens their need to throw themselves at each other with the utmost abandon.
Meanwhile Ronnie (former child actor Jackie Earle Haley, vividly remembered from Bad News Bears and Breaking Away and strong in a new way here) has come into town: he’s the sex offender, a painfully self-aware one, and he lives with the one person who loves him, his aging mother Ruth (a convincing Phyllis Somerville), while the ex-cop, Larry (Noah Emmerich) wages his war as a one-man “committee.” Larry and Brad have met and Larry persuades Brad, who already wastes time watching boys skateboarding when he’s supposed to be boning up for the bar exam, to join a night touch football league team made up of cops – and thus the infidelity and the sex offender elements are linked. But they would be anyway, because this is a small community. And one particularly hot day Ronnie comes to the municipal swimming pool and causes an outcry when he’s spotted ogling young girls under water.
The other moms from the park, who were afraid of Brad and called him “the Prom King,” are gently satirized by a voice-over narration spoken by Will Lyman, of Frontline on PBS, which sounds like a high school educational film. Perrotta is, after all, a comic writer. But more of that later.
The movie has a bright, intense, clear visual style, sometimes making use of extreme close-ups. Since the acting and directing are fine, this gives things a feeling of authority. It's also effective in underlining both the satirical and the sensual aspects of the story, and heightens the emotional effect when the narrative lines move toward crisis.
Brad’s development (the novel-based voice-over tells us) may have been arrested by his mother’s dying when he was in his early teens, and this explains why he watches the skateboarding boys with such longing: they’re having the playtime that was stolen from him.
Another theme is that of Cheryl (Marsha Dietlein), Sarah’s friend and neighbor who baby-sits with her daughter when she’s having sex with Brad, speed-walks with her, and gets her into a book-discussion group leading to a pointed scene in which Madame Bovary is discussed and Sarah defends the adulterous heroine as someone who revolted in search of freedom. The older women nod approvingly, while one of the park moms doesn’t get it at all.
Partly because it’s hard to juggle all the elements in Perrotta's 350-page novel, the ironic narrative voice disappears throughout the film’s midsection.
At the end matters all come to a head, with Brad and Sarah, with Ronnie, and with his erstwhile nemesis, Larry, and a lot of tension is created through Hitchcockian cross-cutting between these climaxing threads.
Field has avoided the extreme finale of his first film -- this one shares such heavy concerns as families, infidelity, crime, and confronting death, but by contrast, this ending, though breathless and troubling, is ultimately sweet and marked by reconciliation and acceptance. One may wonder if underlying issues have really been resolved. The film feels somewhat overlong, but the nuanced characterizations and fine acting and the attractiveness of the central couple entertain and interest us mightily.
Perhaps the one weakness overall is a slight uncertainty of tone, which explains why some viewers are troubled by the voice-over (and also by its long disappearance midway). If situations are seen primarily as highly serious or even horrifying, it’s hard to see how the satirical feel fits in, and at the end we seem to have lost touch with where we started out. Ultimately as with so many American stories on film, the writers seem to have tried to tackle too much material. Nothing wrong with that, but they haven't quite got the world-view to encompass it all. Technically though Field has achieved more polish and shown more confidence, even compared to his already admirable and powerful first film of five years ago. The cast is wonderful, well chosen and well used. Field is an experienced actor: he knows the craft. This has got to be a film to think about at year's end when best lists are made up.
09-25-2006, 09:45 PM
LINO BROCKA: INSIANG (1976)
Classic Filipino mélo
Lino Brocka’s 1976 melodrama of slum family love double-crosses was the first Filipino film to be shown at Cannes and is being revived at festivals. It deserves to be seen for the female actors, mother Tonia (Mona Lisa, credible as an aging lady who’s still highly sexed and attractive) and gorgeous daughter Insiang (pronounced “Inshang”). Hilda Koronel, who plays Insiang, is enough like a Loren or a Lollobrigida to make you think of Fifties or Sixties Italian cinema and the visual style is conventionally of an early period, but this brutal story lacks the humanity and warmth of the Italians (and of other Filipino films, notably the current Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros). Tonia drives a family of in-laws out of her shack (which is in with other families; in this barrio there is no privacy and all is known) because she can’t feed them, but her ulterior motive is to bring in Dado, a handsome, macho man and a gambling no-good probably young enough to be her son, as her lover. Insiang has several young men (with big hair and bad clothes) interested in her, but the one she chooses is too cowardly and lazy to run away with her as she would like.
Soon Dado puts the make on Insiang. It turns out badly for just about everyone in this miserablist drama, which has been compared to Fassbinder and Sirk. Another reviewer has commented that the story undercuts the two major values in Filipino film – motherhood and the sanctity of the family. Brocka certainly keeps things lively, as do popular dramatic films from other Third World countries, and telenovelas. Yes, this holds the attention; but unfortunately the print used was an ugly-looking digital transfer that made all the boys look pimply and the shots look shoddy. Only Koronel’s lovely face shines through.
09-25-2006, 09:50 PM
MARC RECHA: AUGUST DAYS (2006)
Genre-bending Mediterannean meditation
In August Days/Dies d'agost Marc Recha has given us a sun-saturated Catalan documentary-style road movie that’s mostly a meandering improvised meditation on brotherhood and reclaiming the dead. The beautiful sometimes large-scale, richly atmospheric 35 mm. landscape images, nice soundtrack and Catalan-language narration are enchanting as a mood piece, if one is content with a trajectory that hasn’t much momentum and doesn’t lead anywhere in particular. Filmmaker Marc Recha and his non-identical twin David are the stars and the narrative is voiced by their younger sister. Marc had been researching the life of Ramon Barnils (1940-2001), a socialist editor who had been a family friend. He felt he was saturated with information and had to take a break. The break turned into making this film, which seeks to capture the mood of the interviews with Barnils’ associates, thoughts about the Spanish Civil War, the drought season they were experiencing, the rugged landscape, the Recha brothers’ affection for each other, swims and suntanned nudity and whatever characters or stories they ran into as they camped out of their van. This leads to pursuit of a giant catfish and the temporary disappearance of one of the brothers. In the end David has to go back to Barcelona to be with his daughter and Marc has to return to his project, and there it ends. I found it fascinating to listen to an extended narration in the Catalan language with its blend of Spanish and French-sounding words (perhaps linked with Provençal?). This isn’t a major film but it commands attention and makes sense as a film festival choice with its clean visual and auditory beauty and its way of playing around with genres and blending autobiography with fiction and documentary in a fresh and thought-provoking way.
09-25-2006, 09:57 PM
ALBERTO LATTUADA: MAFIOSO (1962)
Sordi goes south
Italian cultural icon and cinematic great Alberto Sordi (1920-2003) was in peak form when he starred as Antonio Badalamenti, a Sicilian who’s become a successful FIAT executive and efficiency expert in Milan and goes on a two-week vacation to his hometown of Catanao in Sicily with blonde northern wife and two little blonde daughters. Laughs and thrills happen when they’re welcomed back into Antonio’s family – and the good graces of Mafia boss Don Vincenzo. It turns out Antonio not only owes the Don a favor for getting him the job up north, but is regarded by the local Cosa Nostra as a piciotto d’onore, a kid who distinguished himself in the ranks (maybe you could loosely translate the phrase “good old boy”) and he also happens to be the best marksman the town has ever known. What starts out as a broad comedy and a warm social satire on the Italian south turns more serious and intense as the hero fits right in and his initially standoffish wife starts liking the family and bonding with one female member whose beauty she’s able to bring out.
Fine writing, direction, and use of locations add up to a seamless film. You're never bored for a minute and most of the time you’re hugely entertained, so it makes sense that Mafioso is going to have a revival release in the United States. It’s unseen here, not on DVD and would be worth seeing not only for the fun it provides but for the display of Alberto Sordi’s range and fluency as an actor. Sordi starred in Fellini’s early pair, The White Sheik and I Vitelloni. Andrew Sarris has said Lattuada is "a grossly underappreciated directorial talent." Il Mafioso shows the writing skills of Marco Ferreri and Rafael Azcona, working with the team known as Age & Scarpelli (Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli). Their screenplay may be tongue-in-cheek, but it nonetheless provides insight into the Mafia, and the film's picture of Sicilian town life (in wonderfully rich grainy black and white, high style for the time) is vivid and authentic-looking and -feeling. Music by Piero Piccioni, another mainstay of Italian cinema (Il bel Antonio, Salvatore Giuliano, Una vita violenta). Produced by Dino De Laurentis with Antonio Cervi; this can also be seen as a product that reflects the energy and spirit of Italy’s postwar "economic miracle" period when so much was exciting culturally in the country – cinema, literature, design, fasion -- la vita, insomma.
09-25-2006, 10:04 PM
MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: BELLE TOUJOURS (2006)
Buñuel recollected in maturity
Pushing age 100, Oliveira shows he’s more than just keeping a hand in with this elegant Parisian drama starring cinematic veterans Michel Piccoli and Bulle Ogier, a meditation on the theme of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour that considers what might happen if two of its principals were to meet again forty years later. The focus is on Piccoli, who in the opening scene spots Ogier in a small concert hall when they’re listening to Dvořák. The handsome hall, seen in long shots, sets the formal, stately tone.
Henri Husson (Piccoli) pursues Séverine (Ogier), but she’s driven off quickly in an expensive black car. He then spots her in a chic bar (all this takes place in the 1ière and the 2ième, the chic heart of Paris) and again she escapes in the car, but he orders a succession of double scotches and the handsome young barman (played by Oliveira’s grandson, Ricardo Trepa) is very willing to talk and reveal Séverine is living in a hotel. There’ again a young desk clerk doesn’t hesitate to say which room the lady’s in, but M. Husson just misses her.
More heavy consumption of whisky and conversation with the young barman follows while a young prostitute and an old one (Leonor Baldaque and Julia Buisel) are always in a booth eavesdropping and commenting. Husson tells the story: how he urged a masochistic woman into betraying her husband over and over in order to enjoy his faithfulness, without ever telling him about it. The barman comments that this is the kind of story he gets to listen to quite often; the bar is a kind of confessional.
Eventually Henri manages to stop Séverine in front of a shop. She rushes off, but he gets her a gift there, a box. It’s the box with the buzzing inside of Buñuel's film, and later the couple eat in a private dining room – she arrives very late. It’s a formal, surreal ritual, in which Mme. sips champagne and M. pours down the scotch; they quickly consume three elegantly served courses without exchanging a word. She rushes off, and in her place a rooster appears in the hallway – a reference again to Buñuel and the surrealists. What does emerge before that is that Séverine is another person entirely now; that she regrets everything and considers entering a convent; and that Henri’s becoming an alcoholic he considers a kind of asceticism. The conclusion is bizarre, but there’s a strong sense, certainly appropriate for a director whose age leads him to contemplate death, of wickedness that has lost its interest and its sting. Certainly a unique product of a unique filmmaker. Paris at night is used beautifully in a way that avoids cliché. Piccoli in the larger role is mellow, as he is nowadays, and enjoying himself. Ogier seems appropriately in pain, and the once-chilly Deneuve character now engenders sympathy.
09-27-2006, 07:17 AM
HONG SANG-SOO: WOMAN ON THE BEACH (2006)
Sexual competion and creative malaise
Where Hong Sang-soo’s dramas differ from Eric Rohmer’s, other than all the ways that come with being Korean not French, is notably in the egotism mitigated by irony of having one of the main characters in his movies often happen to be a handsome, hunky famous director. In this one it’s a “Director Kim,” as he’s respectfully addressed (Kim Joong-rae, played by Kim Seung-woo) who goes to the somewhat sterile environment of the semi-deserted Shinduri beach resort on Korea’s west coast with his production designer, Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) in hopes of ending a creative block and penning the treatment for his next film. Won brings along a girlfriend, composer Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung, a former TV star) and competition gets blatantly going when Director Kim takes Moon-sook aside and frankly says he’s interested in her and asks her whether she’d prefer him over the designer, given a free choice.
Joong-rae’s authority is underlined by his being older, better-looking, physically bigger and stronger-looking than Won, and possessed of a deeper voice. In comparison Won's a mild, slightly nerdy fellow. But despite that, Joong-rae’s not an out-and-out winner. He's comically chauvinistic in the way he damns the lady’s music with faint praise. And in the time that follows he proves to be neurotic and indecisive, stuffing his hands in his jeans and wiggling around on his legs with comic unease. Moon-sook’s dating men when living in Germany he admits is a turn-on for temporary dating, but the opposite for a long-term relationship. He has a serious hangup about mating with a woman who's experienced. Like a good Eric Rohmer character, he hesitates and they discuss. Moon-sook winds up saying that he's wonderful to her as a director, but in other ways just "a typical Korean man."
Hong’s stories often refer to sex and show couples in bed, but they aren’t erotic and characters rarely go all the way. Kim and Moon-sook do however begin with some long kisses on the beach that evening.
At another point Director Kim has a violent outburst of anger at a restaurant the trio enters because the owners are half asleep when they come in, and Chang-wook gets equally over-the-top in anger over the injustice of this and insists Kim must apologize. This seems random, except to show that both men have little control over their male egos, and tend to flail about, while the lady remains cool and composed.
In spite of all this Moon-sook becomes fascinated with Kim and they spent a night in an empty hotel room, but the next day Kim says it’s too quiet for him to work and they all leave Shinduri. Two days later Kim’s back on his own though, and leaves a phone message with Moon-sook, regretting his indecisiveness. He “interviews” a woman he runs into who “reminds” him of Moon-sook and takes her up to the same room he was in two nights earlier. Things get complicated when Moon-sook herself reappears and has a drunken emotional outburst outside the room. The new woman eventually feels hurt and abandoned too. In the midst of all this there’s a cute dog that gets abandoned by a mysterious couple, and Director Kim pulls an “unused muscle” and is temporarily disabled. Lots of snacking and drinking to a drunken state accompanies all these developments. By himself and with his leg semi-paralyzed Kim somehow turns out the film treatment. The relationships seem unresolved, but Moon-sook is by herself at the end leaving Shinduri again in her little car, which symbolically gets stuck in the sand and then gets out again so she can drive off on her own, free.
Woman on the Beach differs from previous Hong films in presenting its few main characters in the relative isolation of this new, somewhat drab resort during a cold spring season. The atmosphere is well used and the scenes are vivid. This film of Hong’s is perhaps even more inconclusive than most, and a bit long, but the rhythms of the conversations and the clarity of the blocking and editing arouse one’s admiration and this, like all Hong’s films, is original and watchable and will not disappoint his fans – which include the selection committee of the Film Society of Lincoln Center: they’ve been choosing his latest film as one of the NYFF's primary offerings every year for for four of the last five years. It's also true that Hong's improvisational way of working always results in fluid, convincing performances by his actors.
09-27-2006, 04:09 PM
JAFAR PANAHI: OFFSIDE (2006)
Soccer transcends gender restrictions
Jafar Panahi, whose previous films such as The Circle and Crimson Gold have seemed to range from dour to grim, has produced in his new Offside a funny, obstreperous, joyously chaotic ensemble piece that ends on a note of liberation and heartfelt fun – yet the movie deals with material quite as challenging and relevant as anything else he’s done. By focusing on a group of ardent girl soccer fans caught sneaking into the pre-World Cup Bahrain-Iran match in Tehran stadium where only males are allowed, Panahi brings up issues of national spirit and independent-mindedness, and the contradictions – and sheer absurdity – of the regime’s religious gender apartheid in a world of modern competition with a majority youth population and urban girls who increasingly think for themselves.
As the film opens we breathlessly join one of the girls in a bus, with a father pursing a lost daughter. This one has a disguise and has national colors as warpaint, but we cringe with her in the knowledge of what's going to happen: she’s still easily spotted. The thing is, most of the men around don’t really care. Still, rules are rules, and once they try to make it through the various checkpoints on the way into the big stadium the would-be soccer girls, or some of them anyway, get rounded up and held in a little compound upstairs in the stadium by some mostly young, green, and rustic soldier-cops who have no idea how to deal with these big city girls’ independent ideas and would rather be watching the game – whose roar we constantly hear in the background – themselves. Each girl is different – represents a different set of reasons for wanting to break the rules and different ways of doing it. One wore a soldier’s uniform and got into the officers’ section. One is tough and masculine and mocking and provocative (she could pass for a pretty boy, and teasingly hints at that: "Are you a girl or a boy?" "Which would you like me to be?"). One doesn’t care very much about soccer but went to honor a dead comrade. One (Aida Sadeghi) is an ardent soccer player herself – and so on. These Tehrani girls are stubborn and smart and they walk all over the uptight rural lieutenant in charge of them (Safar Samandar). One of the rural cops (Mohamad Kheirabadi) takes the girl soccer player to the men’s restroom (of course there’s no ladies’), forcing her to wear a poster of an Italian football star as a mask. A comedy of errors and chaos follows in which the girl escapes.
Later a spiffy looking van comes with an officer who directs the cops to take the girls to the Vice Department – violating sexual segregation rules qualifies as vice. A male gets mixed in with them – a kid who’s chronically guilty of smuggling fireworks into the games. The van turns out not to be so spiffy: the radio aerial is broken. But one cop holds it in place so they can listen to the increasingly heart-stopping reportage. Cops and prisoners are all joined in a common excitement now. There’s no score, the game goes to penalty kicks, and the winner will go to Germany.
In the background through all this is a real game, a real stadium, and real masses of young men crazy about the outcome of this event. The excitement is tremendous, and the streets are jammed with cars and flags and a milling mob of supporters praying for an Iranian win and united in their excitement.
What makes this film so good, as may be clear by now, is that it’s shot during the evening of an actual game with a real finale that turns everything around. This, in contrast to Panahi’s previous highly calculated narrative trajectories, is spontaneous vérité filmmaking that improvises in rhythm with a captured background of actual events and sweeps you into its excitement in ways that are quite thrilling.
The essence of Offside is the disconnect between modern world soccer madness and retro-Islamic social prohibitions repressing women – the latter existing at a time when young Iranian women are becoming part of a global world in which females participate in sport and share in the ardor of national team spirit. How exactly do you reconcile the country’s ambition to become a modern global power with social attitudes that are medieval?
A lot of Offisde is astonishingly real, including the way everybody tries to talk their way out of everything. The director’s decision to inject young actors into an actual sports mega-event leads to a stunningly effective blend of documentary, polemic, and fiction that is too energetic to seem to have a bone to pick, and that ends in a way that’s brilliant and moving.
I've had reservations about Panahi's films before, but this one kicks ass. Panahi does something remarkable here. He critiques his society, presents an unusual drama, and touches our hearts with a sense of a nation's aspirations.
09-27-2006, 08:35 PM
ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO: BAMAKO (2006)
Local color and argumentation in a passionate polemic set in Mali
As recently as Ousmane Sembene’s 2004 Moolaadé we saw a sort of African town meeting: such spirited democratic palavers are a feature of African local life. In Bamako, also known as The Court, Sissako has staged a mock trial of the IMF, the World Bank, and the other international financial institutions run by the rich countries that have perhaps contributed to the impoverishment and demographic ravaging of contemporary Africa more than they have helped the continent. This event takes place in the middle of a big busy square in a section of the capital of Mali, Bamako.
There is a whole panoply of characters – a beautiful queen bee (an example of the grace and poise of African women), Melé (Aissa Maiga) and her husband Chaka (Tiecoura Traore). Melé’s a popular singer whose marriage is disintegrating and two of her spirited songs are integrated into the film. People watch TV, and the director ironically injects into his film a “western” set in Timbukto, in which incongruous white men as well as Palestinian director Elia Suleiman and Bamako's producer Danny Glover shoot each other. The effect is grotesque, but that's the point: why should Africans be watching TV westerns? Elsewhere on the earthy “set” of the film there’s a young man, also beautiful, who lies dying inside a nearby building with no medical care. There are many children, some playing about, some being breast-fed. A couple marry, and the festivities interrupt the trial. There’s a flinty gatekeeper who decides who can come in and who can’t. There’s a traditional griot who’s one of the “witnesses” and who ends the proceedings with a hypnotic chant (not translated, but strangely stirring and stunning). There’s another “witness” – a former schoolteacher – so hopelessly demoralized he refuses to utter a word; a sound recordist; a video photographer who says he prefers to take pictures of the dead because they’re more real; and many authentic-looking extras, including a variety of dried-up tough young-old (or ageless) stick-men, all of them coming and going.
You get a vivid sense from all this, which is rhythmically inter-cut with the trial itself, of the harmonious seeming chaos of African village life; the color, the beauty and dignity of the people. You get above all a sense that life goes on. There are two white men on the “stage” of the trial, one an advocate for the international organizations (Roland Rappoport) and the other (William Bourdon) eloquently speaking for the African people and for socialism who concludes that the first world should be sentenced "to community service""forever." Eloquent though he is, a Malian woman lawyer who speaks after him (Aissata Tall Sall) is more touching.
Like An Inconvenient Truth, Bamako's trial presents facts and arguments of enormous present day importance – this time surrounding not global warming and the disintegration of the earth's eco-system, but another set of the planet’s major problems: the social imbalances, the domination of the many by the few; poverty and disease, “terrorism” used to excuse world domination, the richest nations' doing harm while seeming to do good; the ravages of globalization, the privatization of natural resources down to land and water, perhaps ultimately to air; the national debts of poor nations collected by the economic organizations of the rich ones, and thereby preventing the poor ones from gaining any ground against the ravages of poverty and underdevelopment.
This is powerful stuff. Sissako is, in theory, presenting both sides of the story, though it is obvious which side he is on and which side is in the majority onscreen. This is polemic. The international organizations obviously aren’t overtly setting out to destroy Africa – are they? It is preaching; but it is done in a rich and colorful and dramatically moving way. The film picked up a US distributor during the New York Film Festival. It’s not clear whether the way the print was presented was accurate. This seemed to be a projection of a digital copy that lost the surface beauty of the original. The colors of Jacques Besse's photography were beautiful, but dimmed. In French and Bambara (the Malian language).
09-27-2006, 08:38 PM
OTAR IOSSELIANI: GARDENS IN AUTUMN (2006)
Jacques Tati without the punch line
Otar Iosseliani’s Gardens in Autumn is about the transitoriness of political power and the necessity of enjoying a simple life; it takes a cynical view of socialism and mob rule, and seems to advocate living quietly and unpretentiously outside the bourgeois mainstream (though an apartment in the middle of Paris is a perk not to be sniffed at, if available), having plenty of girlfriends, drinking a lot, and cultivating a panoply of colorful eccentrics as your friends.
The main character, Vincent (Séverin Blanchet), is a French minister of something or other, with a spendthrift wife; mass demonstrations lead to his ouster, and he is happier without all his possessions and his powers and his ruinously acquisitive spouse.
Michael Piccoli is in drag very funnily and successfully as the main character’s aging maman.
There are running themes. Certain animals, paintings and people constantly recur. Eet's all very surreal. Iosseliani is a Georgian (Russian) but this movie reflects a mellow director besotted with French culture, a French sense of comedy, often sans paroles (without words, as in traditional French cartoons) and reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot pantomimes. Unfortunately, there are words, and that spoils things, as does the repetitiousness of the narrative.
There’s much sweetness and mellowness here – but ultimately it seems to have fumbled the ball in its satire, which Tati never did. For those not tuned in, almost interminably long at a full two hours. That it is remarkable for its consistency of vision justifies its inclusion in the selective New York Film Festival, but it will not prove the most memorable of the NYFF 2006 list.
09-27-2006, 08:41 PM
STEPHEN FREARS: THE QUEEN (2006)
A tart tribute to two big Brits
Stephen Frears’ The Queen, written by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland) and starring Helen Mirren, is a glittering, compelling, solemnly anxious news comedy about the week in late summer, 1997, when Tony Blair, fresh in office as new-Liberal Prime Minister, "saved" the British royal family, or saved it from itself, when Lady Di died in Paris. Partly the Queen, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles, all in their own ways, loathed Diana for what she had done to them, which the public, conditioned by the mass media to adore her, could not know about. Partly the Queen wanted to shelter the boys, Diana’s sons, from the noise of publicity, which would only aggravate their grief. Partly, and perhaps most of all, she was being the way she was raised, keeping things to herself, maintaining the immemorial English stiff upper lip. But also as Peter French has said about this film, the royal family "are shown to be morally and socially blinkered." Tony Blair reluctantly taught the Queen to see their absence of public response to the death, her insistence at first that it was a "private, family matter," was a disastrous policy that had to be reversed.
Diana had skillfully manipulated the media to form an image of herself combining Demi Moore and Mother Teresa. And she was still associated with the royal family, and appeared as wronged by them. You don’t turn your back on that. You eat humble pie and play catch-up. But a monarch isn’t tutored in such strategies.
No flag flew at half mast over Buckingham Palace, because that flagpole was used only for the royal flag, to show if anyone was home, and they were all at Balmoral, being private in their grief, avoiding publicity, and protecting the boys.
The Queen as seen here and imagined with enthusiasm by Morgan is not as witty as Alan Bennett’s Queen, in her last onscreen recreation, in A Question of Attribution (directed by John Schlesinger, 1992), nor does the estimable Ms. Mirren (who’s nonetheless very fine) have the buoyancy of Prunella Scales in Schlesinger’s film. But she is witheringly cold toward Tony Blair, all foolish smiles on his first official visit to the Palace. (Blair’s played by Michael Sheen, who’s experienced at this game.) As Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian, "Mirren's Queen meets him with the unreadable smile of a chess grandmaster, facing a nervous tyro. She begins by reminding him that she has worked with 10 prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill, 'sitting where you are now'. As put-downs go, that's like pulling a lever and watching a chandelier fall on your opponent's head." And, of course, fun for us.
Fully recognizing the crucial importance of the British monarchy, this film is tartly reserved about both sides of the game. The royal family don’t like "call me Tony." And Blair’s wife Cherie is a bit ungainly in her blatantly anti-monarchy attitudes. But when Blair sees how Elizabeth’s coldness and invisibility is angering the fans of Dady Di – the media queen, the "People’s Princess" -- alienating her own subjects en masse, he steps in and persuades them to leave Balmoral and look at the thousands of flowers for Di piled in front of the Palance with their humiliating notes; then deliver a "tribute" to Di on TV. The formal grandeur of the film inherent in its subject matter – the Prime Minister and the royal family – is offset by its ironies and by the intimacy of the tennis match that develops in communications back and forth by telephone.
This movie is ultimately kind to Blair and to the Queen. It makes us feel sorry for Elizabeth, whom Blair comes to defend (against some of his cockier associates, not to mention his wife) with ardor. In Peter Morgan’s second imagined interview with Blair the Queen coolly observes that he confuses "humility" with "humiliation" (he hasn’t seen the nasty notes on the bunches of flowers for Diana); and she sees his kindness as merely due to seeing that what has happened to her could happen to him as quickly. As for Blair, the Brits may have little use for him now, but the filmmakers acted out of the belief that this week when he averted disaster on behalf of the monarchy was his "finest hour."
Frears has had a varied career, with high points second to few, concentrated in the decade of the Eighties after he came off doing a lot of television. These, his own finest hours, include the brilliant My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Grifters. For a while there it looked like he could do anything, then more as if he would; but he’s admirably willing to try new, as well as dirty, pretty, things, The Queen is dignified, but contemporary. It’s bustling and grand. Loud music and vivid performances help. Mirren’s Elizabeth is more of the Queen and less of the Queen than Prunella Scales’ briefer performance. Bennett’s Queen was very clever. Morgan’s is sad and noble. The Queen shows where the Brits are now, and the effect of Lady Di. QEII, like QEI and Victoria before her, has had an extraordinarily long and successful reign, half a century (obviously Mirren is younger than the actual Queen). But with these events, with this crucial week, the days of her generation essentially ended.
There’s a symbolic fourteen-point stag at Balmoral the men are interested in. James Cromwell’s brusque, lordly Prince Philip will do nothing but take the boys hunting, to get them outside. In the end a corporate banker kills the stag on a neighbor’s property, and only Elizabeth sees it, when she’s stranded in a jeep she’s driven into the mud, and crying.
For all its ceremony and noise, loneliness and wit, mostly The Queen simply tells a story, the new story of English royalty at the end of the twentieth century. It was a story worth telling, and it’s told well. A fitting opening night event for the New York Film Festival, in combines ceremonial elegance, good writing, and a superb lead performance by Helen Mirren.
09-27-2006, 08:43 PM
TIAN ZHUANGZHUANG: THE GO MASTER (2006)
A visual poem about an ancient game of competition and the pursuit of faith
Wu Qingyuan was born in China but has lived most of his life in Japan. Perhaps the greatest twentieth-century player of Go, the chess-like (but simpler and more ancient) territorial game of lenticular black and white stones on the grid square of a big wooden board. Wu was a Go prodigy, and his early victories led him to Japan at the age of fourteen. He dominated the game for over a quarter-century. This beautiful, sedately-paced film is based on his autobiography.
Tian’s film is very Zen. You will learn nothing about Go from it and little about Wu (known as Go Seigen in Japan; curiously as "Go-sa"—it makes him sound like "Mr. Go"). What you will get is a meditative but at times noisy visual poem starring the young Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, male lead of Hou Hsiau-hsien’s Three Times, focused on a stoical, restrained, silent man who with quiet devotion pursued the game of Go and Faith, those two goals of competition and the spiritual quest, and little else, all of his life, among all the physical and mental challenges he faced and all the events of a turbulent century. The stern, clean-faced Chang’s coolly intense performance, which rivets our attention at the film’s center at all times, is a milestone in his career and shows him to be one of the strongest new Chinese film actors today. Chang knew a little Japanese prior to filming but for Tian this project imposed the discipline of shooting in a language of which he knew nothing. But Tian had Japanese assistant directors and production assistants he trusted and as he said in an interview, "Go players don’t talk very much anyway." Nonetheless he acknowledges this was "very hard," similar to the problems faced by Hou in making Café Lumiere in Japan. Tian contemplated this project for a long time, and read Wu’s autobiography shortly after returning to filmmaking following the nine-year break that followed The Blue Kite. Tian knows his own hardships. The realistic portrayal of the long period of the Cultural Revolution, its prelude and aftermath in the richly detailed Kite led to his being barred from filmmaking for years by the Chinese authorities.
Wu lived in Japan during the unstable and violent Thirties and Forties. He was playing a tournament on Hiroshima when it was bombed. According to the film, the referee instructs the players to play on in the wrecked room. Wu suffered periodically from tuberculosis. Its residual effects exempted him from military service. He married a Japanese woman named Kazuko, who’s still with him (we glimpse the ninety-something, still vigorous Wu himself briefly at the film’s opening). Wu’s alive and well now, but in 1955 he was in a motor accident that caused him to stop playing. In his autobiography he wrote of this event that the God of competition abandoned him. Yet he still studies Go with passion.
The film is punctuated with titles denoting major events in Wu’s life, along with a statement from his autobiography. Wu’s pursuit of faith and search for relief from the intense mental stress of Go tournaments led him to join several religious cults, which are depicted in the film.
After Tian returned to filmmaking his first work was the relatively apolitical, Ibsenesque Springtime in Another Town. The Go Master might be a safe way of returning to politics and history, by approaching it through an apolitical man who lived in another country. But Tian never was never a stranger to controversy. His own vicissitudes and his growing maturity may simply have led him to respect a man devoted to the pursuit of inner goals.
10-02-2006, 06:06 AM
SATOSHI KON: PAPRIKA (2006)
Chaos is come again--but we saw it in 1989
Most film buffs old enough to have survived the Eighties developed at least a passing interest in Japan animé during those years and there were moments when I was temporarily seduced by it. That was when it seemed new and daring and inexhaustible, and there were combinations of folk legend, gross sexual excess, and cuteness that certainly made you forget about Walt Disney. Though it’s not strictly speaking animé at all, for my money it’s Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989: “A man is experiencing problems with metal showing up and protruding from his body…he must face the antagonist which lives inside him as he continues to sprout more and more metal”) that blows all the rest away for sheer nightmare strangeness and visual invention. Maybe the Film Society of Lincoln Cernter festival jurors were not the best people to choose animé for us; maybe they were seduced by the cinematically referential elements of Paprika. It may be above average for the genre but it is not destined to be one of the great ones.
The premise is that a gadget called DC-Mini that allows psychiatrists to enter their patients’ dreams has gone astray and mayhem ensues. In an energetic opening sequence, police detective Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka) escapes a whirlwind of chase scenarios out of film noir, Tarzan movies, etc. glimpsed through an elevator door. With him is a young red-haired woman named Paprika (Megumi Hayashibara). This self-referential intro refers to filmmaking and film fandom repeatedly, another aspect that may have appealed to the festival pundits.
The main one is the way the plot circles around a dream machine. Isn't that Hollywood? The opening sequence turns out to be a dream, and Dr. Atsuko Chiba, who is also Paprika, announces that somebody has stolen the DC-Mini and is using it to turn the team of shrinks she's associated with into zombies spouting nonsense. This brings in colorful character No. 1, a monstrous overeater and the genius inventor of the dream device named Tokita (Toru Furuya). Can he figure out how to get DC-Mini back?
We go in and out of dreams and reality – sounds like Michel Gondry; but it turns out to be a lot more synthetic. The English word “terrorist” pops up, perhaps inevitably, because this story concerns saving the world from chaos and also protecting the natural universe from the invasion of the mechanical that is so horrifyingly and far more unforgettably portrayed in Tetsuya: The Iron Man.
The rest is mostly a chase, with a special feature being that Atsuko and her Paprika clone become heroines and so the film departs from the misogyny too often found in the genre—except for one lapse when a male character “undoes” a female one in a quite shocking way.
Paprika is not extraordinary visually. After all the taboos and physical impossibilities the genre has already long explored, that would be hard. In scenes where masses of toys come to life, they do take on a “new” look – a sort of glazed-over surface reminiscent of old children’s book illustrations. It’s quite an attractive effect, but not an especially innovative one. Mass backgrounds full of chaotic movement are occasionally strikingly handled; production values are above average. Otherwise, the cute women, the Tracy-jawed detective, and cuddly nerds that populate the plot are depicted in quite conventional fashion. Akira and Mayasaki still wear their laurels intact. Ultimately it’s for its premise rather than its style or its narrative invention that Paprika has been chosen as part of the New York Film Festival’s selective 2006 list.
10-02-2006, 06:22 PM
NIKOLAUS GEYRHALTER: OUR DAILY BREAD (2005)
Artistic documentary: does it work?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread is more like a conceptual art piece than the usual documentary film. It consists of 92 minutes of filmed images of European food industry workers, most of them doing their jobs, and some of them having their lunches. There are no verbal guidelines provided; there is no identification of the industry or the location, no statistics or other information about the work being done. This includes chickens, cows, pigs, cattle, and fish, everything from breeding to slaughtering, as well as workers spraying crops, picking fruit and vegetables, and so on. The 35 mm. hi def images are handsome, bright, and clear, with excellent color. In a neutral sort of way, you could say they are "pretty." The result is a kind of numbing, disturbing visual wallpaper. Geyrhalter has produced an artifact as cold and as inhuman as the processes he has filmed. That's why this reads like a conceptual piece that might be shown in the room of a museum as part of an exhibition, rather than in a movie theater.
All these images are from large scale production. There are no small farmers represented. When an animal is killed, the chances are hundreds of them are being killed. Baby chicks are shunted around on conveyor belts, into boxes, sorted by hand, and sent into other conveyor belts, like inanimate objects. Cattle and pigs are shunted along in mechanical conveyors to slaughter and taken apart afterwards with machinery, while workers also repeat monotonous gestures. It isn't made clear whether it is the actions or their scale that are to be noted, and presumably objected to. (Is it bad to raise animals for food? Or at least much more wrong to do that on a huge industrial scale?) There is an obvious irony in the contrast between the worker's little sandwiches consumed staring into space and the vast quantities of future edibles they contribute to the preparation of. But actually the images here are at the raw end of food preparation. There is no cooking, canning, or bottling. And Our Daily Bread doesn't show the baking of bread, either on a small level or a large one.
An Amsterdam Film Festival award jury described these scenes in its citation as "a powerful cinematic experience! A series of shocking and indelible images...unremittingly merciless and nightmarish....A vision of Hell. Not the Hell of our theologians but one constructed by our politics, our markets and our food technologies. This is a great and important film and we are delighted to honor it with the Special Jury Award."
Yes, this is a remarkable film, exhaustive and exhausting in its methods and effect and appropriate for inclusion in a film festival where work that pushes the envelope is going to be sought out. The New York Film Festival's emphasis on high artistic merit and originality justifies the inclusion of Our Daily Bread as one of its 28 official selections. However, one may wonder if a "documentary" that reads more as an art piece than as instruction can really be effective as polemic or information. And yet it would appear that polemic and information are Geyrhalter's interests here.
It's true that some documentaries "work" brilliantly without voice-over commentaries. The French To Be and to Have, which describes a year in the life of a rural schoolteacher, is deeply affecting without a word of interjected commentary. But when we are in the world of public social issues, or matters for concern and debate, it is more usual for the filmmaker to inject words into the debate. Examples of that kind of documentary are Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 or the more recent global warming film featuring Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth. Our Daily Bread doesn't contain a word of commentary. And for the English-language viewer, none of the occasional lunchtime workers' conversations is translated.
Consequently it seems that this kind of film is unlikely to reach a wide audience. But isn't reaching and influencing a wide audience just what this kind of committed filmmaking is about? In situations like this, Geyrhalter is right in saying that it may not matter whether the food factory is in Austria, Spain, or Poland, "or how many pigs are processed every year in the big slaughterhouse that's shown."
Except that it does matter. Because it is the scale that makes the world of industrial food production and high-tech farming inhuman and inhumane and disturbing. Do you want to become a vegetarian? What we see done to plants isn't very pretty either. All these events and actions take on a different cast if seen within a small scale, done for local use.
There is no objection to the images Geyrhalter has assembled. They deserve to be seen and thought about. They are important. And this relentless presentation of them, without words and without commentary or verbal information, does leave an impression. But an example of a better treatment of this kind of subject matter for the general public is Deborah Koons Garcia's 2005 The Future of Food, which focuses on genetic manipulation and cloning and the patenting of plants and has a regular voice-over narration to tell us about the subject, as well as interviews with people whose lives have been effected by Monsanto's and other corporations' intervention in farming. Geyrhalter says that he and his crew did interviews, but they found that they detracted from the overall effect. We must ask what kind of effect he was trying to create, and whether documentary filmmaking shouldn't be focused more on informing us than on simply "affecting" us. It is important to be "affected," but we also need to know what is going on, why it is going on, and what we might do about it, other than feel depressed and numbed.
10-02-2006, 08:54 PM
EMMANUEL BOURDIEU: POISON FRIENDS (2006)
Malik Zidi in Les amitiés maléfiques
Youthful indiscretion, adult failure
[W A R N I N G : S P O I L E R S]
If I'm right that Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (The Wanderer) is still pivotal in French culture, the slightly disreputable bad-boy mentor remains an essential part of the myth of youth over there. And you'll enjoy Emmanuel Bourdieu's fast-paced, light, but biting study of a role model who crashed, so long as you accept the film's very French, Parisian, focus on getting ahead early in a small, competitive, celebrity-conscious, idea-smitten intellectual world. That's the world the good-looking Alexandre Pariente (Alexandre Steiger) enters when he walks into the Sorbonne literature class of famous writer-scholar Professor Mortier (Jacques Bonnaffé), straight off the train and carrying his suitcase. Alexandre and new arrivals Eloi Duhaut (Malik Zidi) and Edouard Franchon (Thomas Blanchard) are instantly impressed by André Mourney (Thibault Vinçon), who has the audacity to address this first class, speaking with enormous confidence (and some elegance) about the subject of writing.
Alexandre, Eloi, and Edouard become André Mourney's disciples. His theme is always that people only write because they are too weak to resist, and that they must have a good excuse for giving way to that weakness. André is really a terrible boor and ultimately disreputable: but he has more panache than the others, as that opening class showed. He turns out to be destructive, and a liar. A terrible liar. He steals the girl they all want, the librarian Marguerite (Natacha Régnier of Ozon's Criminel Lovers/Les amants criminels and Fontaine's How I Killed My Father/Comment j'ai tué mon père), telling Eloi to burn his love-note to her (because, of course, one should never write love-notes) and then moving in on her himself. He has a good effect on Alexandre, telling him he should really be an actor. That turns out to be true, and Alexandre has immediate success in the French classics. But André's pompous negativism leads Eloi to go out in the middle of the night and dump a novel he's written in the trash. Eloi's mother is a well-known, slightly crazy writer, Florence Duhaut (Dominique Blanc), so Eloi's understandably diffident. But André's influence on him is destructive.
It turns out that André is a protégé of Professor Mortier. But André's so busy pontificating among his peers, he neglects to work on his thesis. He tells Eloi to work on James Ellroy, and suggests there's a scholarship at Berkeley waiting for them both. When things go bad between Mortier and André, the latter leaves, pretending that he is going to an American university. This is the crucial moment when the others, who've been held together one way or another by André (even those among them André has been most abusive to), finally have to grow up and become independent. We already know by now what a rotter André has been. We've seen him open the beautiful Marguerite's laptop and delete a short story she has written. (Eloi finally replaces André in Marguerite's good graces by retrieving it).
Eloi is faced with a problem when he learns his mother has also retrieved his discarded novel, submitted it to her publisher faking his signature, and had it accepted. Eventually he allows it to be published, and it's a great success. He doesn't like his original title though. The new one is: Les Amitiés maléfiques (Poison Friends).
The young actors are all appealing. Malik Zidi will be remembered from Les Temps qui changent, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, and Place Vendome-- and will soon be seen in none other than Le Grand Meaulnes (a new version). The least known till now is Thibault Vinçon (André), whom the director spotted and admired for his "technical brilliance and sensitivity" at an acting workshop. Vinçon reappears at the end, and the way he conveys André's rapid transformation from rising star to instantly old raté (failure) is brilliant.
Bourdieu knows whereof he speaks: he is himself the son of a well known French intellectual and film figure. This is a smart and thought-provoking film whose classic theme doesn't prevent if from being fresh. A sterling choice on the part of the Film Society jury.
10-03-2006, 05:09 PM
ZACHARIAS KUNUK, NORMAN COHN: THE JOURNALS OF KNUD RASMUSSEN (2006)
Off-putting but deeply significant storytelling
Kunukï¿½s 2001 Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which won the Camera d'
Or award at Cannes and was the first feature film ever made in the Inuit language, was a dramatization of a thousand-year-old tale of the nomadic seal-hunting clans of Alaska that tells of a vendetta and a purging of evil; it had the flavor of an ancient Scandinavian epic and was hauntingly harsh, remote, and violent but had fleeting elements of humor and an unmistakable sensuality. This new film is drawn from the same region and stars the same pool of actors from the local population but concerns events in the early 1920's described in Rasmussenï¿½s travel documents. He was a Dane with Inuit blood who spoke the language. He was a kind of anthropologist-adventurer. The journal of his fifth Thule Expedition across the Canadian Arctic recounts the information he gathered during a brief but uniquely significant encounter.
Rasmussen came with a trader, Peter Freuchen, and an anthropologist, Therkel Mathiassen. At this moment in 1922-23 he found a people in transition. The Inuit were being converted to Christianity, but were still at a stage when among some of their members the two ways still existed. His information is crucial, and of lively interest to modern-day Inuits, because once the Inuit were persuaded to cast out their spirits and give up shamanism their Christian leaders immediately forbade them even to speak of the old ways, declaring them to be the work of Satan. Rasmussen found men who still spoke of the old ways and sang the old songs. Kunuk and his close collaborator and cameraman Norman Cohn have brought this lore back to life. Like an ancient legend, this film (strictly speaking video, shot in HD 24P) like its predecessor preserves the record of a culture.
Cohn and Kunuk have worked together on a number of short videos for years. They and elder Pauloosie Quilitalik and the late Paul Apak developed a style of "relived" cultural drama, "combining the authenticity of modern video with the ancient art of Inuit storytelling." Both features are best understood as interfaces of events and their retelling.
As the film begins, the great shaman, Avva (Pakak Innuksuk)and his family are living on the land some distance from Iglulik, his home community, which has taken up the teachings of Christian missionaries. Rasumssen comes with Freuchen and Mathiassen. They hear and record the life stories of Avva and his wife Orulu. Their son Natar impulsively agrees to guide Freuchen and Mathiassen north to Iglulik. In the last part of the film Avva and his clan make a terribly difficult journey toward home, facing strong headwinds and conditions that almost starve them. Ultimately Avva will abandon his ancient spirits, and they will wander off, wailing, as the evil spirits wandered off at the end of Atanarjuat. But along the way, individuals will be important, notably Avva's strong-minded daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik), who still has sex with her dead husband and will have nothing to do with her new one.
The essence of Kunuk-Cohn's collaboration is that their projects come out of and go back to their indigenous sources. It makes little sense to talk about how 'authentic' the film is. The actors are playing their grandparents. The target audience is the small community of Iglulik from which these films and the cast have come. There is no competition. Kunuk was an artist with a little education who sold sculptures in Montreal in the early Eighties to buy a camera. He was going to take still pictures. Instead he went into video. There was no television or video where he came from. He brought it back. His aim was to film his father. He still seeks to preserve the culture of his people. Norman Cohn was a widely exhibited video artist who has worked with Kunuk since the Nineties and now is closely associated with Iglulik and divides his time between there and Montreal. This film is a Danish co-feature with Danish actors playing the explorer-visitorsï¿½ roles.
In the early scene where Avva introduces his family members to the Danes I felt like a visitor, lost in a strange language. That is how both Kunukï¿½s features feel. It takes at least half an hour to acclimate oneself and begin to fall into the rhythm of different ways. Itï¿½s also true that this film is less exciting than the previous one in narrative terms. It lacks quite the level of physical action. It is primarily a story about storytelling, about receiving information. But it also has moments of plangent grief and shock as Christians appear and men give up their spirits, give up the culture of 4,000 years, as Cohn described it in an interview, to follow "Ten Commandments," as if to imply those Ten could hardly replace a whole culture rich in survival strategies. Young people, he and Kunuk say, are again at a transitional stage. They have given up Christian practice and are welcoming back the old ideas and ways.
Anyway, whether you find the storytelling technique of these films compelling or simply off-putting, they are unique cinematic documents of the endangered culture of a people who have lived successfully for millennia in the harshest conditions on earth. It would be hard to justify not including this film as one of the New York Film Festivalï¿½s selective list for 2006.
[NOTE: Kunuk and Cohn have established a website for Inuit and indigenous filmmaking with free video downloads: http://www.isuma.tv]
10-03-2006, 08:42 PM
WARREN BEATTY: REDS (1981)
A maverick magnum opus with a political theme -- rare in American movies
Warren Beatty's magnum opus Reds was presented as a revival film official selection of the New York Film Festival 2006 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of its original appearance.
Reds's greatest virtue may be that it's grand, without being pompous, filmmaking. It's a film that takes some pride in being big and turbulent and unruly. It's important, but it's not tidy. It's in part certainly very much about ideology, but it avoids sharp, well-honed edges or large hard-etched "points."
John Reed (played by the film’s impresario, its sole producer, director, co-author, and star, Warren Beatty) was a man who happened to be able to write a first-hand account of the Bolshevik revolution, a long-time bestseller called Ten Days That Shook the World. At that time early in the twentieth century in America Reed arguably was a central figure, if only in the sense that during his time in Greenwich Village he managed to be (as he wanted to be) consistently at the center of things American political and cultural – when he wasn’t in Russia (which was pretty central then too). Roger Ebert thinks the movie "never succeeds in convincing us that the feuds between the American socialist parties were much more than personality conflict and ego-bruisings" (that may depend on how hard we need to be convinced to begin with), but we do care about Reds (Ebert thinks) as “a traditional Hollywood romantic epic, a love story written on the canvas of history, as they used to say in the ads…it is the thinking man’s Doctor Zhivago, told from the other side, of course.” What about the choice of Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton as the lovers? Initially that may seem an odd and chemistry-poor decision. (I'm not sure I overcome that impression.) But arguably the film takes sufficient time developing each of its main characters to make them into rounded people, complex enough to be attractive to others and to each other. Beatty uses the romance to hold the story together, and in doing so, he follows a conventional enough scheme. Reds stands out from other American mainstream products – and for all its maverick central force, it remains that – in its attempt to deal seriously with complex socio-political events during a turbulent period, and to approach them in an open-minded way. Beatty weaves other significant characters into the fabric of his drama, notably the leftist activist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, who got the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and the radical editor Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann), who are members of the same political-intellectual salon into which he brings Louise, as is the playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson).
Beatty’s filmic recreation of John Reed is good in not being too serious or too idealized: in having a silly side Beatty's Reed perhaps has something of himself. Reed's lover Louise Bryant (Keaton), though originally a bourgeois lady from Portland, is similarly rounded; she's led by her relationship to Reed to develop other facets and strengths, and further enlarged as a personality the way the film depicts her long affair with the alcoholic O’Neill, played by a toned-down but emotionally potent Nicholson. His discontent and negative energy are disturbing. Personalities anchor the film; but in some of the political debates and adventures one loses track and forgets why Reed is somewhere in Russia. He is at the center of things. But why he is where he is otherwise at certain moments is uncertain. In its ambition to keep juggling the many balls of major personalities and major political currents and historical events, Reds loses some of its narrative clarity and momentum over time. Complex political and historical currents are tracked, but the emotional trajectory loses its momentum. Nonetheless the film develops sweep in its length of three and a quarter hours. One walks out convinced that the material was complex enough to be worthy of such length, even if Beatty and his co-writer Trevor Griffiths could not whip it all into shape.
Whether it’s all worth it on the stage of international cinema or not, this is a film of historical interest as a great independent project, begun logically in the Seventies, but completed right in the middle of Hollywood by an American intelligent and engaged enough to be star, director, writer, and producer, to raise $35 million to do it, and to make more or less the movie he wanted to make – right in the middle, so to speak, of a wave of conservatism and yuppiedom, in the early Eighties, when people were thinking about making money and making it, when Ronald Reagon was President of the United States. What more appropriate time to reexamine this achievement than in the middle of the second term of George Bush II? No doubt Beatty took on this story because he was interested in a time in America when it was rife with left-wing politics. But he is realistic, and he made a Hollywood movie, with big stars and romance. And that’s what it is and remains. But one can’t imagine anybody else making it, and that’s what makes it worth revisiting. Warren Beatty is an admirable maverick in the clone-heavy world of Southern California media-moguldom. He’s a real person. And this is his great performance as a person and as an artist. I first saw it with a group of real communists. “We’re “reds,” they said as we walked out. The theater staff looked impressed. I was bowled over by their pride. Not everyone watches this film as a “traditional Hollywood romantic epic.” It would never been made if that were all it was. Its grandeur and ambition are still moving and it must not be forgotten. For a more pungent treatment of a political and social theme starring Beatty, consider Hal Ashby's 1975 Shampoo.
10-04-2006, 08:44 PM
PEDRO ALMODÓVAR: VOLVER (2006)
A return, forward
It doesn’t take an Almodóvarista to see that the Spanish director is in top form in this new one, a "return" (the basic meaning of the many-leveled title) to his home region of La Mancha (and the "social rites of my village with regard to death and the dead"); to the past, to "maternity" and the mother, to the artist’s youth; to working with women (and to two of the best women has worked with in the past, who shine enormously here: Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura (both splendid, as is everyone); and to comedy. Though the signature style isn’t as campy and exotic as at other times, the feel is lively, fluid, and consistently fun.
Almodóvar has spoken of how restless he has always been, and says that in the making of this film he has felt a new serenity; he has put something back together that was out of place – his past, perhaps, and his old discomfort with the conservatism and machismo of his place of origin. "I believe that with Volver I have recovered part of my 'patience,'" he writes. Now that he is past fifty, he is willing to look back; but he says that the new projects on his desk concern the future. He looked back once. Maybe that was enough!
In Volver, we begin with the dead. In the first scene women are cleaning the graves of their family, and someone talks of a woman who took care of her own tombstone all her life. The dead are never gone. That is the way of the village. The villagers are in constant touch with the dead. But if they’re not at rest, they may have to return. The villagers believe in spirits. Almodóvar says he has never accepted death or understood it, but that he’s starting to get the idea that it exists.
No director is more distinctive than Almodóvar, and yet he has made a great variety of films, exploring all different sorts of situations and characters. This "return" is not a reworking of past themes. If you want to know what’s new in Volver in a nutshell, you might consider it Italian neorealism blended with a murder thriller à la Chabrol. It’s also been described by the filmmaker as a combination of Mildred Pierce and Arsenic and Old Lace. There is a corpse to dispose of, with consequences that are both comic and chilling. There is a working class setting in which Penélope Cruz’s Raimunda reigns, a gorgeous queen bee, tough yet sensitive, with “cleavage for days” as Julia Roberts described her look in Erin Brockovich. Penelope’s look and dress are conscious references to Sophia Loren, and the film includes a clip of Visconti’s Bellissima with Anna Magnani. These idealized "housewives" or film Super Moms are imbedded in the village world Almodóvar creates here. But needless to say, the intricate plot line into which these two elements of soulful lady and Chabrolesque murder story are blended into a brightly-hued Almodóvar "naturalism" is unique to this director.
Raimunda (Cruz) is married to an unemployed laborer. She has a teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo). There is Sole (Lola Dueñas), her sister, who makes a living as a hairdresser. Their mother Abuela Irene (Carmen Maura) died in a fire along with her husband. She appears first to her sister, the aging Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and then to Sole, but she most needs to resolve matters with Raimunda, and a village neighbor, Agustina (Blanca Portillo). Augustina is looking after Paula. Her mother mysteriously disappeared on the day of the fire. There are horrors and taboos to be dealt with, but the failure to connect seems to be the most important wrong that’s righted in this drama.
Though there’s a party and a song – Raimunda sings the song "Volver" – and someone returns from the dead, Volver is less high concept and frenetic than recent films by the Spaniard: no transsexuals, no love story or stories within stories, and for that matter only tiny roles for men. Regular musical collaborator Alberto Iglesias' score provides a buoyant accompaniment to the editing with several Bernard Hermann and Douglas Sirk moments. The visual look is more subdued than usual but the interiors and exteriors both do rich justice to the La Mancha setting and some shots are beautified with yellow filters. The movie's simplicity otherwise corresponds with its serenity and its return to rural roots. Penélope Cruz is magnificent here; and Carmen Maura is as warm and appealing as ever. It’s as a vision of living as filled with warmth and simplicity that this latest Almodóvar work most appeals, despite the bizarrely grisly and surreal moments, which viewers will discover for themselves.
10-04-2006, 08:49 PM
MICHAEL APTED: 49 UP
However it's skewed, it still can't fail
Though he’s made some other films that are remembered (The Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Bring on the Night, Gorillas in the Mist, Incident at Oglala, to name a few), Michaal Apted himself acknowledges that his “Up” series in which he examines the same group of British lives every seven years to see where, one by one, each of the men and women has got to since the first filmed interviews at age seven, is the most important thing he has done. Developed originally for television ("Granada's landmark documentary series") but widely seen on video and in theatrical release, Apted's Up series is a powerful and moving body of work, in its own small way a monumental study of contemporary society from the immediate post-war period till today, all in the most specific terms imaginable: individual lives and the way they've been lived. What is more interesting, really, than a life? And that means work, love, family, children, hardship, joys, all the things that matter. Is any subject more important than this?
There are certain limitations to the method. Apted has to show what his subjects want to show, and no more. With a project of this longevity it’s essential to maintain good relations. But in a way it’s a project that can’t fail. Each seven-year segment unmistakably reveals what the people have come to.
One thing that’s emerged is that the person’s life in each segment tends to have a certin distinct tone. Several of the people at 21 were clearly unhappy, or defiant, or talked wild. And Apted has seen that he can get it wrong. He is always the (unseen) interviewer, and he has been known to be intrusive or force the issue. Take one of his main people (because so open and voluble), Tony the East Ender who wanted to be a jockey and wound up driving a cab and now has moved to Spain and has grandchildren. Apted decided about Tony in 21 Up that he was going to turn to crime. Perhaps 21 is an age when certain people like to try on attitudes. In fact Tony has proven to be quite reliable and positive and safe, a model of family values, a successful entrepreneur, his marriage a partnership (both have driven London cabs) and, through think and thin (including faced infidelity) one of the group’s most stable. So Tony has moved up and up and now has transferred to Spain where he is likely to open a café.
The series has a range of types, which in part is calculated through choosing boys from public school and from council estates and foster homes. (The way the two men from foster homes have reunited is touching.) The three upperclass boys pontificating on a bench at seven is a sequence returned to frequently because their self confidence is as astonishing as it is absurd. One of these has refused to be filmed since 21 Up—and since he’s a documentary filmmaker, this Apted finds unforgivable. The others have turned out very much the way they predicted at seven, went to the schools they said they’d go to, became a barrister, and so on. There are interesting types. The public school boy who taught in Bangladesh, then in ghetto schools, who’s now switched to an elite and ancient school because he felt he was being worn down, and he wants to teach maths to boys with talent; he seemed unlikely to marry; but now is happily so with children. The man who was homeless in London at 28, who declared he was losing his sanity, who’s gone into politics -- but not because he's gone mad; he's changed a lot. The boy from the foster home who went to Australia to be with his father. The woman who lives in Scotland near her husband, but is divorced, and who accuses Apted of skewing his picture of her toward the negative.
When Apted assembles each new segment on one of the group, he edits in clips from earlier Up films on that person. How he chooses these clips is up to him, and certainly can skew the image of the person one way or another.
Yes, this isn’t rocket science. But it’s fascinating. And it just gets better and richer as we go along. Apted's Up series is essential viewing and was an obvious film to include as part of the "insanely selective" New York Film Festival for 2006.
10-05-2006, 05:07 PM
BONG JOON-HO: THE HOST (2006)
Populist, politically correct wild fun
Leave it to the lively Korean film industry to produce a monster movie with a populist heart and political overtones thatï¿½s great fun to watch. The fact that Bong Joon-hoï¿½s The Host (whose Korean title Gwoemul just means ï¿½Monsterï¿½) has been the biggest box office success in Korean history isn't just due to its high entertainment value but also to its direct appeal to the ordinary guy. Its heros are heroes in spite of themselves.
The premise is a true event: Americans dumped a bunch of toxic waste into the Han river that runs through Seoul and a scandal resulted. In the movie, a dictatorial and nutty American military chemist orders his Korean subordinate to pour gallons and gallons of formaldehyde down the dram because the bottles it was in had gotten dusty. The drain feeds directly into the Han river. The result is a huge mutant fish-lizard creature that goes on a rampage and crushes and eats people, or just catches them up in its tail and dumps them in a sewage vault.
In Fifties sci-fi/horror flicks the monster was often a stand-in for the red menace. Here itï¿½s a warning of eco-disaster and an offshoot of mindless globalization, unbridled American hegemony. Bong studied sociology at university before graduating from the Film Academy. He treats popular subjects in fresh, human-centered ways, and is a master of chaos, which makes him good at orchestrating an actioner like The Host and keeping it from turning into a special-effects fiesta. The effects are state-of-the-art, but restrained. The SFX boys wanted to do many monsters, but one was all Bong needed, and it's not enormous, but small enough to get hidden behind a sewage wall.
This never ceases to be an old-fashioned scary sci-fi genre movie with loud bangs and a creature with a terrifying mouth. But uppdated though the techniques are, it maintains an appealing silliness. The heart of Bongï¿½s movie is its human side. The story focuses on a poor working class family, two generations of men without women, a cute little girl and her aunt who's a champion with the bow and arrow. The family live in a little food shack on the edge of the big river. The Host has a number of moments that speak vividly of what itï¿½s like to be poor and to be hungry. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is a slightly narcoleptic dad. His father, one of several casualties in this story realistics as to loss, tells the kids he was once smart but was mentally disabled by poor nutrition as a child. When the mutant creature goes on the rampage it runs off with Gang-duï¿½s daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). In her sewage dump prison she gets hold of a cell phone and calls Gang-du, who has to escape to hunt for her, because the authorities have imprisoned him and are injecting him with drugs.
In the bedlam that insues the media and the authorities, always acting under the instructions of the Americans, announce that an American officer has died after the first big public encounter with the monster and the autopsy reveals the presence of an unknown virus.
This is a lie, but the powers that be do all they can to perpetuate it. The common people whoï¿½re the stars of this movie have to battle the authorities as well as the monster. According to director Bong, the family of Gang-du "must fight to the death against the indifferent, calculating and manipulative Monster known as the world." The way the Americans in The Host use misinformation to manipulate people is seen by the director himself as a reference to Bushï¿½s run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
The monster is the Americanï¿½s creation. The hysteria is a collaboration between the government and the people.
The Host combines media-savvy political satire, human drama, adventure, and comedy. Bong juggles and interweaves all these elements with frequent injections of renewed excitement as new crises arise, the monster reappears, or the little family escapes from authorities. The monster is grotesque and menacing, moving at breakneck speed and able to flip around and swing by its tail like some kind of ludicrous yet terrifying slimy monkey.
Bong has acknowledged some debt to Shyamalanï¿½s Signs. Heï¿½s been called "a Korean Spielberg," but he says thatï¿½s a huge compliment to him but not to Speilberg. The film is a creative partnership between Korean technicians and Weta Workshop (King Kong, The Lord of the Rings) and The Orphanage (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Sin City). Anyone whoï¿½s seen Park Chong-wookï¿½s revenge films knows that the Korean filmmakers are already in many ways technically at the top of their game; and fans of Hong Sang-soo also know this country can do subtle, ironic relationship movies as well. Whatï¿½s remarkable about The Host and makes it a good choice by the Film Society of Lincoln center for the NYFF is that itï¿½s slam-bang popular filmmaking, but it knows how to make the human action real and specific in ways the Americans have lost touch with. Bong cares about the little man. He is not, like Shyamalan, looking for a spiritual message or just striving to be world famous. Because heï¿½s a populist, he wants to use mainstream genre to talk about working class strivings and problems. The family in The Host is not unlike the people in Kurosawaï¿½s Do-des-ka-den, but this isnï¿½t a downbeat, alienated tale; it's mass entertainment liberally laced with thrills and chills.
Bong has used several of the stars of Park Chan-wookï¿½s revenge movies, Song Kang-ho (whom he has used before) and Bae Doon-na. And the acting is what ultimately makes this a winner. But everything works, and works well and entertainingly.
Distributed in America by Magnolia Pictures, The Host is destined for limited U.S. release in early 2007.
10-05-2006, 08:15 PM
Alain Resnais: Private Fears in Public Places (2006)
ALAIN RESNAIS: PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES (2006)
Alienated Parisians lost in a (notional) snowdrift
In this sleek but uninvolving French film we get brief looks at a series of people. Thierry, a real estate agent (André Dusollier), is going out of his way to find an apartment for Nicole (Laura Morante) and Dan (Lambert Wilson), a couple of hard-to-please clients. Later that day Thierry’s coworker at the agency, Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), lends him a videotape of a religion-oriented musical TV show, but when he goes home and watches it the tape surprises and arouses him. His younger sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré) gos out after he comes home, pretending to be having fun with the girls, but she's secretly looking for love and is dating through the personal columns. Dan, who's a career soldier recently expelled from the army for unspecified reasons, whiles away his time in a hotel bar confiding his misadventures to the barman, Lionel (Pierre Arditi). Lionel has sought a volunteer from a Christian benevolent organization to care for his aging, demented and foul-mouthed father at night when he’s working at the bar, and the pious Charlotte is the one who turns up for this chore. One character influences the other without their even knowing each other. When Nicole and Dan decide to take a break in their stale relationship Dan winds up having a date with Gaëlle.
This setup may be odd but it isn’t complicated – it keeps the characters simple. But that's the trouble: we don't know in basic terms exactly who any of them are. What is the repressed Lionel’s past? What was Dan's career-ending transgression? What work does Nicole do that would enable her to seek a three-room apartment in Paris when her boyfriend's unemployed? And why is Charlotte so peculiar? The characters to begin with are unclear and the rearrangement of their relationships remains equally fuzzy. All these alienated souls are adrift. But so what?
New Wave legend Alain Resnais’ film version of English playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s play Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs, "hearts," is the new French title) is a study of six lonely people wanly pursuing an end to their solitude. Why is it always snowing outside, and surprisingly often inside? Because it’s snowing in their hearts, of course.
Resnais has brought together six highly respected screen actors and added a Parisian gloss to the proceedings. The result unfortunately is dreary and inconclusive; use of fifty short scenes shifting back and forth among the characters is a serious bar to audience involvement. There’s something about Christianity and temptation here, focused in the apparently pivotal figure of Charlotte, who’s a saintly temptress with all kinds of unresolved issues. But then everyone’s issues are unresolved here, and the film doesn’t resolve them; it just sort of stirs them around and then ends. The inconclusive use of the polished Dusollier recalls his triumphant performance with Emmanuelle Béart and Daniel Auteuil in a really successful and moving film about cold-heartedness, Claude Sautet's 1992 Un coeur en hiver.
Apart from the somewhat annoying poutiness of Laura Morante, the cast is fine but lacking in chemistry. Dusollier and Azéma (who were entertainingly coupled in the bourgeois arrested-development film comedy Tanguy) have the most to do, but they remain enigmatic because their characters are underwritten. Their roles have comic potential that's unfortunatley undeveloped. It's hard to see how any wit could have been injected into the drying up relationhship of Dan and Nicole, and Dan's date with Gaëlle evaporates in a cloud of alcohol.
The New York Film Festival, like those of Venice and Toronto, is paying homage to the great director of Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad (who has not been as consistenly accomplished for the pasty fifty years as Eric Rohmer) by including this film in their rosters this year, but it seems likely to have little future with any audience outside Paris.
To err is human; the “insanely selective” ones of the NYFF jury don’t always hit the mark.
The film is being promoted by Studio Canal and opens in Paris in late November. No US distributor.
10-06-2006, 09:33 PM
BARBARA ALBERT: FALLING (2006)
A long day's journey into the mid-thrities
The German title Fallen means not only "to fall" but also "traps," a hint about what some of the characters have fallen into. This well-acted, intense, but slightly shallow film from Austria describes twenty-four hours shared by five thirty-something women who were friends when they were young (fourteen years back) and are reunited by the funeral of a former teacher. They decide to stay together afterward and go to a park, a wedding, a disco, etc., stay up all night, drink a lot of booze and smoke a lot of cigarettes and share a lot of memories and feelings. Barbara Albert planned Falling as a portrait of her generation (her characters are a range of types) and she used actresses whom she knew and set the action around the little town in Austria they all come from. Falling is funny, sad, strung out, tired, hysterical, and loving. It talks about a lot of things and reveals a lot about the women. But they do not tell each other everything; they don’t have to; they don’t want to. Toward the end something is revealed about one of them, who has her young teenage daughter with her, that she had hidden from the others. The best thing about the film is its natural performances. There is a lot of music, beginning with the naïve, born-again Christian chorus at the funeral singing hymns in English. Since being together evokes many memories, there are quick black and white flashbacks, fleeting flash-forwards too of things about to happen during the action of the film.
The women are the sad-faced, negative Nicole (Gabriella Hegedus), Brigitte (Birgit Minichmayhr), a shy teacher; Nina (Nina Proll), unemployed and pregnant (the father has been deported); Carmen (Kathrin Resetarits), a successful actress now working in Germany who was the wild one when she was young; and the insecure, substance-abusing Alex (Ursula Strauss), who works at a job-center. Nicole is with Daphne (Irna Strnad), her daughter, which turns out to be a violation of her parole that leads to trouble for her before the action ends and the revelation to the others that she has been in jail. An interesting detail is that Hegedus, who plays Nicole, has worked at women’s prisons, and incorporated her knowledge of women inmates into her character.
The film is intense and real (and at times ear-splittingly loud) as an evocation of a kind of feminine pre-midlife crisis bacchanale. It’s long on generational style (the way the women think and talk, the music they like) and revealed personality traits (if forcefully so more for Nicole, Carmen and Alex, than for the other two) but short on plot elements. There is plenty of atmosphere, but a meager supply of events. One would call it a process film except, what is the process? Perhaps one problem is the women have not done enough. None of them are married. They've been to Greece and Ceylon, and slept with the teacher, and had a boyfriend who died of an overdose. But so what? Few of them have achieved much, and that and their personalities give the proceedings a downbeat flavor (is that right for a whole generation? One hopes not.). Despite some lewd behavior and sexual excess and drunkenness, there are no outpoured revelations, no new developments. When it’s over, it’s over, and there’s not much to remember. And this is a shame because Albert obviously has talent, is a keen observer, produces clean, intense-looking images, works extremely well with actors (even the young one is impressive), and Austrian films are a rarity and ones about young women an even greater one. One can see the value of this as a unique entry in the year’s world film output, but it looks like Albert has done better before.
Falling has no U.S. distributor.
10-07-2006, 03:37 PM
DAVID LYNCH: INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
A nightmare to remember: Lynch back on the edge
Inland Empire: it means Los Angeles, the place of Lynch’s inspiration, but also the inward realm of the mind and of dreams, the surreal world of Lynch’s imagination that uniquely inspires his visual poems. This new work, three hours long but unified by a savage and harrowing performance by Laura Dern channeling three or four or more overlapping personalities growing out of a lengthy free-standing monologue that was the film’s starting point, is proof that the man isn’t playing; hasn't lost his touch; still produces work unlike any other, work to be treasured.
DL explores a universe reachable only by going past the rational mind. It is a world where a character, in the present case particularly the characters played by Dern (the press cliché is career-defining performance), turns into other characters and turns again. It’s a world where there’s another world behind the sound stage and that other world is another life, another identity, another set of terrors. And we go there; we come back; and we go there again.
After becoming the desperate monologist, Dern also became "Nikki," a movie star chosen with "Devon" (Justin Theroux) to star in a film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, directed by "Kingsley" (Jeremy Irons). And "Kingsley" works with "Freddie" (Harry Dean Stanton) a co-director who cadges money from stagehands and actors and apologizes saying, "I used to carry my own weight." On High in Blue Tomorrows turns out to be a remake of a doomed film, 4/7, never finished because both stars were murdered, and based on a Polish gypsy folktale. In the film Nikki, as "Sue," is cheating on her husband, and during the shoot Nikki's "real life" husband warns her not to do it for real. But of course she does: the film relationship parallels "real life," and the stars find they’re confusing themselves with their film characters, just as it happens in Giuseppe Piccioni's recent film, La vita che vorrei.
That expletive-strewn 14-page ("single-spaced") ur-monologue that anchors the film was shot in the back of DL’s house with a Sony PD-150 digital video camera he’d started to use in connection with his website, www.davidlynch.com, "a common midrange model" that sells now for $2,724. The monologue became the ground of being and the Sony became the simple visual tool that gave Inland Empire its content and its visual style. Lynch has switched to DV for good, saying a sad farewell to the glorious beauties and cumbersome complexities of celluloid, and for this film embraced DV's limitations. He does not try to make it look like film. DL admits people say the quality is "not so good." "but it’s a different quality. It reminds me," he says, "of early 35- millimeter film. You see different things. It talks to you differently" (Lim).
This reversion, if you will, to a cruder visual medium (but one that's in many ways more fluid, both for the actors – who can work through without pauses – and the editor – who has handy software – and the crew – who can be fewer, and work lighter), has stirred up the director’s creative juices, brought him back in a way to the raw energies and immediacy of Eraserhead. Thus it's a return to youthful beginnings and yet something completely new. It's burning the bridges and rediscovering roots at the same time, which basically is what any artist to stay alive needs to do.
Dern anchors the film, but it has many elements that need anchoring. There is the disreputable husband of the disreputable monologist, who joins a Baltic circus.There’s a woman played by Julia Ormond, who's first seen in a sleazy backyard with a screwdriver in her stomach, and later reappears as Billy’s wife. And there’s a Polish thread – which grew out of Baltic connections DL has forged and in the structure of ideas may trace back to the origins of the film of Devon and Sue and hence be the ur-4/7. There’s a weeping Polish prostitute, watching a TV monitor on which appears a sitcom shot on a stage with people wearing rabbit heads; a laugh track creates a disquieting effect because the laughs come at "meaningless" points, giving the lines a sinister ring. Later the screen shows Sue. Slant magazine's Ed Gonzales (http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/film_review.asp?ID=2557) alludes to the monitor as one of various "portals" through which characters merge into other worlds (go through the looking-glass; fall through rabbit-holes). Clearly it’s all in the editing, and those who feel DL’s creations are chaotic and portentously meaningless overlook his canny sense of structure.
There’s a group of pretty prostitutes in a motel room, who talk to Laura Dern’s character and sing and dance, "Do the Locomotion," and then at the end lipsynch Nina Simone's "Sinner Man" behind the closing credits -- one of the great closing credits of recent decades, a rollicking, gorgeous episode, which cheers you up but still contains flashes (Laura’s face) that haunt you with memories of the strangeness and terror that’s passed.
These are some of the interlocking boxes of Inland Empire. DL mocks the idea of the “real” while using the concept to slide in between worlds.
All this is gloriously cinematic.
The film "technically" has no US distributor, though it has many European ones and the French Studio Canal signed on early at the stage when DL said he was using DV and didn’t know what he was doing.
The whole of Inland Empire perhaps “resembles the cosmic free fall of the mind-warping final act in Mulholland Drive” (Lim), but on the other hand it has someone to “identify” with (if you can stand the ride) in Laura Dern, who dominates the film and threads it together. Her full-ranged performance is sure to gain much mention at year’s end.
A few more notes. The strange neighbor of Nikki who visits the actress’s palatial mansion early in the film to drop dire hints about her upcoming role: Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer in "Twin Peaks" and a Lynch regular). People may not have seen Rabbits (2002), a 50-minute recent film by Lynch starring people in rabbit suits or the animated series Dumbland, but these are sources. On Lynch’s personal website, he proposed a blog discussion: "If two dog houses are on fire, and dogs are dying, should one automatically set fire to a third dog house and destroy it?" Amid the various quirky replies, the perception emerged that Lynch was referring to the response to 9/11. Lynch is concerned about 9/11. He may be open to some of the more bizarre theories about the Pentagon attack.
After fifteen years of disappointment with and doubt about DL, it is possible to love his work again. And hard not to love his own personal jolly, simple manner. The man is clear. From what he says, his 33 years of twice-daily practice of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s "Transcendental Meditation" has made him a serene man, but that only makes it easier to access the horror within. Hence the paradox of a smiling, good-natured fellow with terrifying stories to tell. Recommended as a basic update on things Lynch and used as a source above (along with Lynch's press conference at the NYFF): the NYTimes interview piece (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/movies/01lim.html?_r=1&oref=slogin) by Dennis Lim.
10-09-2006, 05:19 PM
JOHNNIE TO: TRIAD ELECTION (2006)
Bloody game: an elegant repetition of an old routine
[ P O S S I B L E . . . S P O I L E R S ]
It may seem odd for the selective New York Film Festival to include what in many ways is a fairly standard Hong Kong crime movie, working in the familiar genre of Triad gang stories. What is new here, perhaps, if it is really new, is that not only does the main character make his choices in order to create new relationships with the Chinese mainland, but he also dreams of becoming a pure businessman, and wants his son not to be a successful gang leader like him but an attorney. Even if we didn’t see the original film of which this is the follow-up, we soon learn that the Wo Shing Society undergoes leadership changes every two years by a vote of its key members, and current leader Lok (Simon Yam) is about to finish his term. As the time comes though, Lok wants to hold onto his power, which leads to a personality change. He turns very nasty. But Jimmy turns even nastier.
Lok has to select a potential candidate amongst his 5 godsons, and Jimmy (Louis Koo) already rich from pirated porn sales, seems the best qualified to bring in new business for the Society. However, his interest is only in making money, initially that is, until he's seduced by the fact that with power, the mainland Chinese will give him more respect, and with that, the potential for more business. In fact a key mainland player tells him he cannot come back to deal with them unless he is president of the society. It is only in the hopes of becoming more a businessman that Jimmy accepts the idea of a two-year term as Wo Shing leader. But he must fight for that, because of Lok’s change of heart.
The irony is that after Jimmy succeeds, he finds he has fallen into a trap.
To what extent this has anything to do with actual events, or is a reference to the new relationships since 1997’s changeover to mainland control of Hong Kong, is uncertain. But the kernel idea of the film according to To was a police commissioner's remark to him that the criminal class would be important to the stability of the new Hong Kong. To feels that the Triad system is dying, perhaps also as some Italians feel the Mafia’s glory days are over. But as an old Arab proverb says, “Evil is ancient.” And in keeping with this principle is director To’s notion of the role played by destiny in life, which relates to Jimmy. Jimmy’s destiny comes from his birth. His father was a criminal, and he is a criminal. His plan of eventually becoming merely a successful businessman is therefore doomed, because it is not his destiny, nor will it, most likely, be his son’s.
This film was entitled Triad Election as presented, but the international title Election II is more accurate, given that this is a sequel, with the same main characters, to Election. Apparently this newer film was issued in a “sanitized version” which dwelt more on the political machinations than on the usual violence. In the version shown at the NYFF the violence was restored, and it is some of the most horrific imaginable, including as it does men chained to mad dogs (was Abu Ghraib an inspiration?) and a man who is beaten to a pulp with mallets and then dismembered with knives, his severed limbs run through a meat grinder and fed to the dogs. There is a scene in the new Scorsese The Departed where Jack Nicholson smashes Leonardo DiCapro’s already broken hand, and another when he appears with his shirt disheveled and covered with splattered blood. But that’s nothing compared to these Hong Kong Triad tortures, which are shown in vivid detail. Unlike the showy acting in The Departed the characters in Triad Election tend to speak in quick monosyllables. Then of course, Chinese is a monosyllabic language. But there are no caressing poetic effusions, no love scenes, only politics, a few hugs, and the nihilistic isolation of ultra-cruelty. Even the ganglords' wealth is shown only by their riding in big dark expensive cars.
The film begins boringly, as such films often do, with a meeting outdoors between syndicate members and officials. It is only as time goes on that the violence begins and we get the juice and momentum of a real crime movie. That also includes throwing an old man down many flights of stairs to kill him. All this is elegantly filmed; the often chiaroscuro wide-screen cinematography is impeccable, and Louis Ko as Jimmy is as handsome as the young Alain Delon. The acting is of uniformly high quality, as are the other aspects. But despite that the experience the film provides is rather routine. Godfather-esque moments notwithstanding, there is here none of the powerful characterization, the moral content, and the fierce forward momentum of John Woo. What we have here is an homage to the peak performance of a genre artist – except that by reports Election, the first film, is superior. It’s not likely that this film will make many new converts to the genre or the director.
10-10-2006, 01:48 PM
TAHANI RACHED: THESE GIRLS (2006)
The spirit and sadness and spice of street life
These seven young women living on the street in Cairo are warm and spirited. They are sad but somehow admirable. The documentary film, made by a mostly female crew whose members had spent weeks gaining the girls’ confidence before they began shooting, shows Shari’ Orabi (the street where they hang out) and the girls most often at dawn or twilight or night, tinged with yellow, with glimpses of derelict cars, sunlight cast on men in a cheap café puffing on sheeshas, little children playing or learning to walk. Not since Duane Michal’s perceptive little photography book Merveilles D'Egypte has anyone captured the quirky, shabby beauty of ordinary Cairene street life. No one has captured the street girls of Cairo before. Here, Tata, Maryam, Abeer, Dunya, and the others and some boys address the camera and talk about their lives. Why are they there? How do they spend their time? Do they get by? What hardships do they face? There are different answers. To “Why?” there may be no good answers.
This is a new phenomenon. Girls have only lived on the street in Cairo for the last fifteen years. Rached said this in an interview. The film is without narration. It wanders back and forth between the upbeat and the sad, with understated intervals of Felliniesque music by Tamer Karawan, which echo the girls’ moments of good cheer and whimsy. We do not really see much about what they do, except sniff glue and smoke joints and take pills, fight, get pregnant, take care of their babies, dream of their jailed boyfriends, get their hair done, ride a horse, sing and dance, boogie down – all these things happen. There is a social fabric, Rached also has said. People care for these girls, step in from time to time. Sometimes they have to be protected from their fathers, who become enraged if they are pregnant. The trouble is, they aren’t married, and they don’t’ know who the father is. They all had some reason to leave home. But they wouldn’t have done so and stayed if they weren’t strong enough to survive here. One girl, one of the prettiest, has her hair cut short, and has posed as a boy to protect herself. Others have scars on their faces from men who have abused and raped them. Some of them become scam artists from time to time, practice prostitution, or beg to get money for food and for their children’s needs. (Most of this we don’t see on film.) they are all pretty articulate – one little boy who briefly speaks, stunningly so.
The film draws no conclusions, and Rached in interview had no solutions to offer. She only said that the strength of the girls and the continuing social fabric indicate that there is hope of change for the better. When the film was shown in Cairo, she said, the girls laughed and joked about it as if it were a home movie. The public received it warmly. Speaking of warmth, a special word has to be said about Hind, a young middle-class woman of conservative dress, matronly girth, and devout beliefs with no background in sociology who simply decided on her own to be responsible for the girls. She comes to visit from time to time, even now that she has a boy of her own, listens to their problems, intercedes with their parents, advises them what to do. The round smiling face of Hind is the image of pure love. These Girls is touching, beautiful, heartwarming, and sad. There’s no message here, and no statistics, but the filmmaker, herself Egyptian, is not being coy about her sympathy.
These Girls is the first film produced by the recently resurrected Studio Misr, once the home of classic Egyptian cinema, since fallen into total decline, now reactivated and restored under the leadership of Karim Gamal El Din. Al-Banate Dol, the title in Egyptian Arabic dialect, could also mean “Those Girls,” which from one angle might be better. But the English subtitles, which are essential to this talkative and highly colloquial film, are excellent.
10-10-2006, 02:20 PM
NURI BILGE CEYLAN: CLIMATES (2006)
Zero by the hygrometer
Turkish director Ceylan is uncompromising in his alienated view of relationships here. Issa, the hero, if we may call him that, played by Ceylan himself, and his luminous-faced, smiling, but quick to weep girlfriend Bahar (Ceylan’s wife Ebru), see their life together fail while they are on a holiday trip by the sea, and move apart when they return to Istanbul. Later Issa tries again, going to a remote snowy location in the East where Bahar is at work on a long TV project, but they part again. And the snow comes down. The End. In between Issa goes back to a former lover, Serap (Nazan Kesal), and they have a violent sex session on the floor. Is it a bitch-fight, a rape, or passion? It’s hard to say. (There are moments of dry humor too.) There is other violence: Bahar causes an accident when she and Issa are riding a motorcycle by momentarily blinding him. But in between, there is much silence. Ceylan is a master of the long stare and of silences. He requires patience. But there’s a rhythm to his melancholy and a keen sense of the visual that can be satisfying.
What makes you care about the silences is that they seem real. The sedate pace of the film reminds one that relationships in fact take a long time to develop. They don't generally begin or end overnight. But the non-responses are so excruciating at times one wishes these people would just try to say something, anything.
There is a decrepit quality about Ceylan’s perpetually downcast, unshaven hero. He is drenched in ennui, and unwilling to seem vulnerable. Issa is older than Bahar, yet he has yet to finish his thesis. He teaches classes at the university. He's a pretentious loser who's not ready to put much energy into his pretense. (There may be a kind of glamour about this kind of character for ordinary people -- for ambitious university students, for instance. It's the glamour of existentialism; of Camus' Stranger.) Issa photographs old buildings and ruins. But he is going nowhere. Precisely for that reason he assures Bahar when he returns to her that he has changed, and can change some more. He lies and says he hasn’t seen Serap again (he had an affair with with Serap that Bashar knows about before this last encounter, so she can guess what has happened).
Ceylan is at home with dark and cold. Issa's small hotel room in the cold snowy East is wonderfully gloomy as he sits there in the dim light from outside. The crunch of the snow, like the tiny crackle of a burning cigarette, is a vivid reminder of an unfriendly world. The tinkle of a little music box smuggled in from the Gulf countries shows how weak is the chance of a reconciliation. When Issa meets Bahar with photos of their vacation and the gift of the music box, she goes off leaving them both on the table. No time for a second glass of tea. When he appeals to her the next day in a small van, the futility of his plea is cuningly underlined by being constantly interupted by people opening the door and stuffing in equipment for the next shoot.
As Anthony Lane said about Ceylan’s Distant (Uzak), winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2003, which I have not seen, his world is unfamiliar. It might resemble Tarkovsky (a clip from whose Stalker appears in the previous film) but there are Turkish mountains and minarets in the background. The HD photography is quite beautiful, especially in the exteriors and the snow scenes. Obviously a festival favorite; and this is good festival stuff. But Ceylan seems not yet to have caught on with American arthouse audiences. This from the sound of it is a more accessible film than Distant. But if the exposure isn’t there, audiences won’t have a chance to respond, and so far this Turkish writer/director is the specialty of a small clique of devotes. It has a distributor, though: Zeitgeist Films.
Climates (Ikimler) won the Fipresci Award at Cannes this year.
10-12-2006, 07:43 PM
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006)
Dreams in red; memories in blue: fascism and a child's escapes
Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is an unusual blend of fairy tale and nightmarish modern history – a well-produced, well-acted amalgam with seamless and powerful use of sound, image and special effect that seems likely to impress some American art-house audiences and fans or the Mexican director’s earlier Spanish-language films, Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Like the latter, this is colored by the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s men have won, but the Republicans are still fighting and the nasty Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) heads a small company of fascist forces headquartered in a hillside mill who are trying to wipe out a band of partisans operating nearby. As the film begins a pair of period Rolls Royces carries Carmen (Ariadna Gil), the new wife of Vidal, pregnant and ill. With her is her bookish, reserved daughter Ofelia (Ivan Baquero). Perhaps to escape the ugly world of the Captain, who immediately reveals himself to be not just a stiff meanie, but a chauvinist and a sadistic brute, Ofelia, already followed by a large clicking fairy-insect on the ride, retreats into the fantasy world of her books, which soon becomes the film's alternative universe. Playing outdoors near a damp labyrinth, Ofelia encounters an aged Faun (Pan; del Toro regular Doug Jones, in mechanized and digitalized gear) who tells her she is a lost princess who must perform three dangerous tasks to be restored to power and return to her underground home.
The movie could be seen as a sinister spin on the Alice books or perhaps as Disney-meets-Bunuel (though Bunuel isn’t really a source). This is magic realism with a bloody streak and a free play of imagination. Del Toro blends his strongest personal models here – the influences of exiled Spanish Republicans who were mentors to him in his youth; fairly tales and legends; comic books; even video games play into the mixture. If the result feels somewhat indigestible, it’s not because the writer-director hasn’t given his historical and fantasy worlds equal weight, but because their coexistence is both hard to credit and too vivid. Events on both sides of the looking-glass are equally horrific, and the flow back and forth is smooth. And a strong feature of the film is that despite its use of state-of-the-art special effects, they are handled with a certain tact and restraint.
While Ofelia is performing her tasks, including an encounter with a giant toad and a terrifying Pale Man (Jones again) with eyes in his palms, Captain Vidal is losing ground against the partisans, who are helped by his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu of Y Tu Mamá También) and his doctor (Alex Angulo); Vidal personally and zestfully carries out medieval-style tortures to extract information from captured fighters. Meanwhile the ailing, pregnant Carmen is a virtual prisoner, and it’s clear Vidal only wants a male son and doesn’t care if she dies in childbirth. To protect her future brother, Ofelia uses a large, squirmy root given her by the Faun that looks like a human fetus, and prays for the survival of her mother.
Those who are eager for the downfall of the evil Captain are not likely to be disappointed, but this is a bloody, disturbing story in which there are few survivors and is absolutely not a fairy tale for children. Even more creepy than the unpredictable psychopath of With a Friend Like Harry here, Sergi Lopez is one of the best screen villains now working: his Captain Vidal is a disturbing if unvarying blend of Freudian obsession and sheer cruelty. Is this what men – or fascists – are like? (Scenes of the fantasy world are in warm colors with rounded 'feminine' shapes predominant; the fascists’ realm is in blues and 'male' right angles.)
While the story moves along with jaw-dropping vividness and del Toro never loses touch with his own imagination, the family relationships have no more depth than a fairy tale. A less grandly visual film with less spectacular effects might have interrelated real and imaginary worlds in more thought-provoking ways. It’s not entirely clear what Ofelia’s attitudes toward the actual setting are. Nonetheless, despite its horrific details and its strange combination of the childlike and the political, this is, overall, a visual and auditory treat, indebted to many sources yet not quite like anything else. It had a a kind of festive grandeur that made it a suitable closing night presentation for the New York Film Festival, 2006.
10-12-2006, 11:11 PM
FROM THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: SOME RECOMMENDATIONS
Laura Dern in Inland Empire
Ones to go to or look for
Because the New York Film Festival is "insanely selective," it’s hard to narrow down the list to a handful of few "bests." You can list extremes, and it’s a tribute to the festival’s quality level that whether you go to the mainstream or the avant-garde, you will find significant choices.
In the more accessible range were choices like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette; perhaps expendable but lovely. More clearly not to be missed is Frears’ compelling chronicle The Queen, about Tony Blair saving QEII’s approval rating after the death of Lady Di, and Todd Field’s intense look at suburban infidelity, Little Children (don’t believe put-downs of the latter). Likewise Almodóvar’s Volver. The Spanish director is it good form and so is his star, Penélope Cruz. If you don’t mind its being in Korean, Bong’s populist monster movie The Host is very good mainstream entertainment. Another appealing English language film is 49 Up, the latest of Michael Apted’s documentaries about the same 14 people being reexamined every seven years; these are always fascinating.
At the other extreme are the least accessible, more challenging and off-putting but nonetheless brilliant films. The standout is David Lynch’s haunting Inland Empire: in that one, he returns to the edge. Follow him if you dare. Another artful puzzler that will be much talked about is Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century.
Other good relationship movies were the Korean Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach which, as usual for him, is interesting and has an edge of wry wit. The Turkish Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates is a much darker and more unyielding couples study. For the patient, Kunuk’s new examination of Inuit life, The Journals of Knut Rasmussen, is both authentic and beautiful.
Documentaries went in both directions. There were two, at opposite extremes: the chilly, questionably wordless depiction of the European food industry Our Daily Bread and the warmly touching portrait of Cairo street people, These Girls.
If you’re interested in a new crop of French cinema, there wasn’t a huge choice, but Belle Toujours by the nonagenarian Manoel de Oliveira is ripe, elegant filmmaking. Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, from Mali, but mostly in French, was one of the most bitingly political pieces (along with Panahi’s appealing comment on women in Iran, Offside). Back to Paris for Emmanuel Bourdieu’s Poison Friends (Les amitiés maléfiques), a witty tale of university students dominated by a smart-aleck colleague. You’d want to skip Iosseliani’s self-indulgent Gardens in Autumn and Alain Resnais’s boring Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs).
Perhaps the most haunting experience for me was Lynch’s Inland Empire. Since it doesn’t yet have a U.S. distributor, it’s an example in every sense of why we have film festivals.
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