View Full Version : New York Film Festival 2008

Chris Knipp
08-12-2008, 03:57 PM
New York Film Festival 2008


24 City (Jia) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20764#post20764)
Afterschool (Campos) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20748#post20748)
Ashes of Time Redux (Wong) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20813#post20813)
Bullet in the Head (Rosales) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20769#post20769)
Changling (Eastwood) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20808#post20808)
Che (Soderbergh) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20796#post20796)
Chouga (Omirbaev) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20750#post20750)
Christmas Tale, A (Desplechin) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20847#post20847)
Class, The (Cantet) (http://www.cinescene.com/knipp/class.htm)
Four Nights with Anna (Skowlomowski) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20752#post20752)
Gomorrah (Garrone) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20746#post20746)
Happy-Go-Lucky (Leigh) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20780#post20780)
Headless Woma, The (Martel) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20716#post20716)
Hunger (McQueen) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20763#post20763)
I'm Gonna Explode (Naranjo) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20784#post20784)
It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks (Leconte) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20838#post20838)
Let It Rain (Jaoui) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20755#post20755)
Lola Montes (Orphuls) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20723#post20723)
Night and Day (Hong) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20821#post20821)
Northern Land, The (Botelho) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20800#post20800)
Serbis (Mondoza) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20760#post20760)
Summer Hours (Assayas) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20803#post20803)
Tokoyo Sonta (Kurosawa) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?2339-New-York-Film-Festival-2008&p=20841#post20841)
Tony Manero (Larrain) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20717#post20717)
Tulpan (Dvortsevoy) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20757#post20757)
Waltz with Bashir (Folman) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20811#post20811)
Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20711#post20711)
Windmill Movie, The (Olch) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20714#post20714)
Wrestler, The (Aronofsky) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20805#post20805)

NYFF Opening Night

Palme d'Or (http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en/article/56218.html) , Cannes, 2008

This will be my fourth NYFF and Filmleaf's fifth year of covering the event. By the way the 2005 coverage is in the Filmleaf archives here. (http://www.filmleaf.net/articles/features/nyff05/nyff05.htm)

The Class/Entre les murs will be the festival's opening night film.

Personalities of the Festival



Chris Knipp
09-08-2008, 11:07 PM
The NYFF 2008 press screenings will include what looks like a richer selection than usual of directors and actors on hand for press conferences afterwards. So in case I forget to mention them in my reviews--because sometimes I prefer to focus on the films themselves--be it known that the following are included in the lineup of press conferences, listed alphabetically:

Darren Aronofsky (with Mickey Rourke),
Olivier Assayas,
Joao Botelho,
Antonio Campos,
Laurent Cantet,
Arnaud Desplechin (with Catherine Deneuve),
Sergey Dvortsevoy,
Clint Eastwood,
Ari Folman,
Matteo Garrone (with Roberto Saviano),
Hong Sang-soo,
Agnes Jaoui,
Jia Zhang-ke,
Kyoshi Kurosawa,
Mike Leigh (with Sally Hawkins)
Lucrecia Martel,
Steve McQueen,
Gerardo Naranjo,
Alexander Olch (with Susan Meiselas)
Kelly Reichardt
Jaime Rosales,
Steven Soderbergh,
Jerzy Skolminowski,
Wong Kar-wai (with Brigitte Lin, Chris Doyle)

Chris Knipp
09-15-2008, 09:05 PM


The dynamics of a multi-ethnic Paris middle school

Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out, Heading South) shot multiple improvised takes of real students and a real teacher using three cameras to make The Class (Entre les murs), a remarkable new film about what happens over the course of a year between a single collège (junior high or middle school) class in the multi-ethnic 20th arrondissment of Paris and their French teacher. The accomplishment has been recognized: the film won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Festival this year. It is the opening night film of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center--its US premiere.

François Bégaudeau, who plays the teacher, François Martin, wrote the book about his own classroom experiences that Cantet based this film on, and also collaborated on the script. Bégaudeau/Martin's pedagogical method is to stand his ground in the frequent verbal battles that happen in class. He's fast, supple, sometimes ironic. He is not perfect; his tendency to challenge and engage, while it keeps things lively, can also lead to confrontation and negativity. At one point he uses a slanderous word (pétasse, translated in the subtitles as "skank") for two of the girls who have been unruly as class representatives at a meeting with teachers, and a confrontation that follows with the undisciplined Soulaymane (Franck Keita) leads to the latter's expulsion and embarrassment for Martin when his language becomes known to his colleagues. On the other hand, despite constant challenges, dialogue happens, even about such arcane matters as French subjunctives.

The unique value of this film is that much, though not all, of it takes place directly in the classroom and involves real instruction and learning. So many films about schools don't have that, and the efforts to convey believable classroom moments in narrative features, even good ones, are often feeble. Here there are all kinds of classroom discussions--about whether the kids want to reveal themselves in "self-portraits," whether Martin is gay, rival football teams, national loyalty, The Diary of Anne Frank, even Plato's Republic, which a rude outspoken girl, Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), reveals she has read her sister's school copy of.

In a contemporary French context, one thinks of Abdel Kechiche's (also prize-winning) Games of Law and Chance (L'Esquive), which has kids from a similar French banlieu neighborhood: it also focuses on how the emigrant kids encounter classic French linguistic culture as the school project is to put on the 18th-century French playwright Marivaux's drama Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard (the English film title is a translation of that). The difference here is a tradeoff. In Kechiche's film there is more variety: we get intimate looks at the home lives of various characters, their interactions out of class, and the principals' love conflicts. Cantet focuses only on the class and more briefly on gatherings with other faculty and in the school yard, never showing the kids at home or by themselves or indeed ever straying outside the school. On the other hand, Cantet captures the real classroom dynamic. Of course, this story is specialized too: it only shows French class, but the students are also taught by half a dozen other teachers whose work we do not see. Ultimately this is perhaps more about the teacher than the students, important though they are.

Interesting contrasts come through the multiple identities represented: African, Caribbean, Moroccan, Turkish, Chinese--and unspecified whites, who may be a slight majority among the class' two dozen students, but aren't often heard from (it's the troublemakers who emerge most prominently). The Chinese boy, Wei, is the best student, even though he is deferential about his abilities and shy about his speaking abilities. There are inklings of the fragility of French residency for new arrivals. News comes later in the year that immigration officers have seized Wei's mother because she was illegally in the country. At a faculty gathering a woman teacher who's just announced she is pregnant touchingly proposes a toast and makes two wishes: that Wei will be okay and that her child will be as smart as he is. Rumor has it that if Soulaymane (Franck Keita) fails in school his father will send him back to the "bled," the old country, which is Mali.

The disciplinary actions that lead to Soulayman's expulsion bring bad vibes to François's classroom. But as the film jumps forward to the end of the year, good feelings seem to have returned and the teacher gives out copies to the students of a booklet he's had made of all their "self-portraits" with photographic illustrations, which is well received. A shocker comes though when at the very end, after students have talked about what they've learned in school that year, one girl comes up to François privately and tells him that in all her classes she has learned nothing, and understood nothing. François' adeptness almost fails him when faced with this confession. Needless to say, this is no feel-good To Sir With Love movie. But what's positive about it is the vibrancy of the social dynamic and the fact that communication really does happen, with challenge and response ceaselessly on both sides. It's fascinating how the kids catch up the teacher and how he (for the most part) successfully parries their thrusts and perhaps even convinces them, to some degree, of the value of standard French in a mulitcultural France.

Cantet has used improvisation with non-actors before, most notably in Human Resources, which shows a factory labor struggle that divides a family. The notable thing here is how authentic and seamless the classroom action appears. Students constructed personalities close to but different from their own. Events are telescoped, as in François Bégaudeau's book. Up to 7 or 8 takes were used to hone a segment, but according to Cantet, the young actors got back into the spirit of things so successfully that they could be intercut seamlessly. The result is maybe the liveliest and most naturalistic reinvention on film of a contemporary public school classroom, in all its volatility and variety. And since blends of documentary and narrative often represent the cutting edge today, Cantet's achievement seems a very up-to-date one.

Chris Knipp
09-15-2008, 09:24 PM


Painful downsizing

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young woman down on her luck. Unspecified troubles have led her to make her way from Indiana to Oregon in a late-Eighties Honda Accord she's been told has a serpentine belt that isn't going to last much longer. Her sole companion is her golden brown mixed breed dog, Lucy (played by the director's dog, Lucy, who also was in her acclaimed first feature, Old Joy). She's headed for Alaska to make fast money in a Ketchikan fish cannery. In a park the first evening she hangs with some young people. One guy tells her she's got the right idea. There's good money up there in the canneries. He also admits he got drunk one night and had to flee his Alaskan job after wrecking a piece of conveyer equipment worth $100,000.

She sleeps in the car, but is awakened by a guard (Wally Dalton) who tells her she can't sleep there and has to move the vehicle. It won't go. As the Cannes synopsis goes, from then on "the thin fabric of her financial situation comes apart, and she faces a series of increasingly dire challenges." Indeed, this is the case. Wendy already may not have enough cash to make it up to Alaska if all goes well (she repeatedly looks at a page where she calculates her dwindling supply of dollars). When the major car issue arises, she may not even have enough to feed Lucy with. The news she gets from the garage man (veteran actor Will Patton) is decisive, anyway. Then she has a bad encounter with a young store employee (John Robinson of Van Sant's Elephant and Lords of Dogtown), and from then on things slowly but surely go downhill. The end of the film is not the end, however. There's no knowing how life will go for Wendy. The power of the film, which is painful and devastating to watch, lies in its nearly real-time effect as it delineates the transition from one level of marginality to several notches down.

Williams is quietly convincing, but not spectacular, in her performance as Wendy. By joint agreement, she plays Wendy, as Reichardt put it in a press conference, "very buttoned-down." The only person who seems to keep her from despair is the kindly security guard. Only once does she show violent emotion, after a terrifying encounter in the woods, which the director said may represent a vision of her future. Will she become like that crazy hobo (Larry Fessenden) herself, or just be thrown in with his kind?

The film, which was shown in the Un Certain Regard series at Cannes this year, is the result of long planning by Reichardt, who lives in New York, including many miles logged in her car with Lucy by her side looking for locations. During the 21-day shoot, she knew the Portland settings so well she directed the DP on shots. The result is many classic images of generic regional Americana, vacant lots, drugstores, a supermarket, which in their colors and angles recall the poetically banal Seventies and Eighties color photographs of Stephen Shore, which is to say that there's a keen eye here. Reichardt seems to have a rare sense of how even white Americans very often come to live on the margins. In a time of economic crisis, this is a relevant story. The director, who confirms here that she has a distinctive vision, excels at careful observation and specific regional settings. The presence of the by now high profile Michelle Williams should help this second feature to gain Reichardt a larger audience.

As with Old Joy, Reichardt's writing collaborator was Jonathan Raymond, who was an assistant to Todd Haynes on Far From Heaven. The film, based on a short story by Raymond, has been bought by Oscilloscope Pictures and will open at Film Forum in New York December 10th.

Chris Knipp
09-17-2008, 07:46 AM

ALEXANDER OLCH, RICHARD P. ROGERS (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

The search for a self among found remnants

Alex Olch, who is only 28 and a clothing (necktie) designer and columnist as well as director, has made his first feature-length film, a documentary, using unfinished film footage shot by his late mentor and friend Richard P. Rogers, former director of the Film Study Center at Harvard, and incorporating that into a dramatization of the latter’s life, with Wallace Shawn and Bob Balaban as occasional actors. Olch and Rogers, who became friends and remained so till the latter’s death in 2001, had much in common. As a NYTimes article (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/08/nyregion/08windmill.html) by Lily Koppel explains, "Mr. Olch and Mr. Rogers attended exclusive Manhattan private schools, graduated from Harvard, shared a love of film and neckties and grew up in adjacent buildings on East 74th Street. As adults, they lived on the same block on Mott Street. At a similar age, their faces even look startlingly alike, both with eyes like cameras, each with rusty hair." Besides, Wallace Shawn knew Rogers "from the sandbox" and shared a similar privileged preppy (Dalton School) existence. The incestuous nature of the production continues with Olch’s working side by side with Rogers’ widow Susan Meiselas in her studio, with her producing the film and he directing. In the film, Meiselas is (briefly) played by Cynthia Nixon, who plays Miranda in "Sex and the City." Olch described himself as working in "a strange zone between fiction and nonfiction" in making his film.

This project crept up on Olch, whose main interest is in fiction films. After Rogers died of cancer, the young man left a note under the door of the Mott Street loft for Meiselas (a well known Magnum photographer), who was off on assignment, saying he hoped everything was okay. She said she could use some help organizing her late husband's films. This involved reviving his old editing machine, and sorting through some forty or more years of footage, material for an autobiography on film that Rogers, who made 18 films, could never bring to fruition. One thing led to another. In his own way, Olch completed Rogers' autobiographical film. That's what The Windmill Movie is. It's a Shandian ramble that looks at old Super 8 film made by Rogers' father, shows Shawn impersonating Rogers, Rogers' mother sitting out on the lawn in summer in a mink coat, and films of various girlfriends, lawn parties and tennis matches in the Hamptons, and plane flights to exotic Latin American places. Rogers only married Meiselas when he was about to die, after thirty years together, and had no children--one of his regrets. Just as Tristram Shandy is about the stops and starts in telling its hero's life, The Windmill Movie is about the impossibility of Roger's doing his autobiography on film--of ever finishing this lifelong project. The seamless editing is instinctive or "subconscious" in its decisions rather than logical, as was, Olch says, his choice of music, which includes a recurrent passage by Schubert played on the piano by Robert Humphreville. Olch skirts the edge between fiction and non-fiction in his credits, which denote the film as "Inspired by the unfinished work of Richard P. Rogers."

The windmill adjoined the tennis courts in Wainstcott, in the Hamptons, where Rogers grew up in the summers and inherited a house. In going back to the windmill in his title, Olch follows Rogers, whose original aim was to make a fim about the place, rather than just about himself. Often addressing the camera--or in voiceovers read by Olch from Rogers' writings--he talks about the world of wealth and privilege, or being "too rich and too white," that Rogers worries will make his complaints--of being dissatisfied, unhappy, unfulfilled, always less than others--sound spoiled and annoying.

Rogers' family was dysfunctional, or as his mother says, "nutty"; immediate relatives all went astray in some way. Wainscott society was alcoholic. The film tells much about confusion and discontent and little about Rogers' palpable successes, the teaching at Harvard, where he was admired and influential, the documentaries and films for PBS that were tidy and well made and won awards. He is not only discontented, but discontented with being discontented. At one point he says all he can do is make conversation and play tennis. Rogers' mother was antisemitic and when he brought Meiselas to visit, she would up by driving them both out of the house. He vowed never to go back to Wainscott. But in the press conference Meisela indicated that she now owns the house which he later inherited, and keeps it in memory of him.

In the end there is little of Wally Shawn; this is an exploration that includes its false starts, because Olch thought a fictive or acted element would be important but it turned out not to be. The fascination of the whole film is how it moves in crabwise, by fits and starts, by a gradual accumulation eventually providing a clear picture of, well, almost, something like, what it was like to be this warm, humorous, self-deprecating, somewhat unhappy man.

Shown as part of the NYFF, along with Dick Rogers' Sixties first film Quarry, a black and white short made near Quincy, Massachusetts with beautifully composed rocky landscapes and shots of young people worth of Robert Frank's The Americans. Documentary has not always seemed to be the NYFF's strong point, but this one has the undeniable strengths of being sui generis and unusually thought-provoking, a happy marriage of artist and subject.

Chris Knipp
09-18-2008, 04:25 PM


Personal guilt and class malaise

The Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, whose multiple-voice films The Swamp and The Holy Child won her an international following, turns to the interior psychology of a single woman with this new feature. Whether she succeeds as well with this new one, The Headless Woman/La mujer sin cabeza, is an immediate question given predominantly negative reviews at this year’s Cannes Festival, where it was booed at a press screening. The critics nonetheless acknowledged the film’s stylistic elegance; and Salon’s O’Hehir, an American defender, wrote, (http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/btm/feature/2008/05/25/martel/index.html?CP=IMD) "no one could argue that it's incompetent or implausible, or that it lacks thematic and artistic coherence." He insisted "people just didn't get what Martel was driving at, and that clearly bothered them." Of course it would, because despite the director’s thinking this her clearest film, it has communication problems—which do not detract from its interest, however—and material for debate: what Martel sees as a study of class, the Variety review (http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117937236.html?categoryid=31&cs=1&query=headless+woman) describes as "a psychological thriller." It’s hard for viewers to see eye to eye, which is fine, but what’s less fortunate is the failure to engage of the low-keyed film.

The Headless Woman begins by showing a group of urchins playing riskily by a road adjoining a canal. Later a huge rainstorm comes that causes cars to be disabled and its effect becomes important later. Along comes Veronica (the excellent, well cast Maria Onetto), a well-off dentist in a nice car driving at high speed, and she hits something big, but instead of investigating she stops, obviously shaken, and drives on to town to a hospital where she’s scheduled for an X-ray. She later has a sex date with Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) at a hotel, but she acts dazed and disconnected, evidently deeply shaken ever since whatever happened on the road. This like Martel’s previous works (especially The Swamp) has a whole network of people and relationships, this time a little more vague because seen through Vero’s confused eyes. She leaves things and people hanging, often not even speaking and appearing to have lost her reason. Her husband Marcos (Cesar Bordon), also a dentist, offers to take on her most serious cases. She runs errands involving plants and jars for a patio. A gardener digs in the patio and finds remnants of a pool. Women friends gossip about a new swimming pool someone they know has built near a veterinary hospital and in one scene they're all there, gossiping even more.

Various friends and family members live nearby and come and go, or meet at the new pool. Juan Manuel is married to Josefina (Claudia Cantero), who is sister or cousin, perhaps, and Josefina is the mother of a plain teenager with hepatitis, Candita (Ines Efron) who has lesbian longings for Veronica. The latter has two daughters with Marcos who flit by briefly. The point may be that to Veronica none of these people really quite matter, but in the small-town Argentinian environment of these well-off people, there's no escaping them.

Finally Veronica declares to her husband and a relative that she killed someone on the road, a boy. They hasten to clear this up and say she’s just imagined it. They drive to the road and find only a dead dog—seen from Veronica’s car earlier--the camera never shows a person on the road. From now on Veronica is coherent and sure of herself again. Her hair was bleach blond, and she now dyes it black.

A statement by the director reveals she has herself occasionally had nightmares in which she fears she has killed someone; one involved a corpse whose severed head she tried to hide. She has also commented on the growing gap between rich and poor in Argentina in recent decades.

A suggested subtext here is of upper class guilt, a crime against the poor that cannot be forgiven but is also never fully acknowledged. Veronica and her family are constantly shown being cared for and ministered to by servants and employees or simply poor people who pass by looking for work, to cart things back and forth or wash an SUV—people who, however, don’t emerge as distinctive characters.

Martel’s films are good at conveying everyday confusion, families always partly in motion and partly still, lost souls. Her scenes have the specificity of random elements; they don't seem deterministic or over-calculated. She has a distinctive way of complexly framing interiors with unconventional camera placements, and a fine sense of color. The acting here is uniformly good. There is a sense of terrible moral confusion and an anomie almost worthy of Antonioni, a mood only heightened by all the bustling about of people around the distrought and distracted central character,who seems uniquely present for being so detached. But Antonioni has been done better by Antonioni, and though it’s no crime that the thriller element fizzles, the film, despite its elegant texture, finds no clear note to end on. Finally it turns out there was a body found in the canal, but it's never clear exactly what Veronica actually hit.

Chris Knipp
09-18-2008, 05:41 PM


Low life brutality and sleazy aspirations in a reign of terror

The protagonist of this film from Chile set in 1978 Santiago at the height of Augusto Pinochet's reign of terror is a murderer and petty thief whose only goal in life is to dance like John Travolta's character Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. It's already a year later, but Fever's still playing and Raul (Alfredo Castro) goes to watch in an empty theater, repeating Travolta's lines with a heave accent and mimicing his arm gestures when he dances. Raul is the lead dancer, if it makes any sense to say that, in a shabby cantina where an older woman, a younger woman, his middle-aged girlfriend, and a youth all seem to adore him even though he is tired and fifty-two and can't get an erection any more. Outside it's a quietly terrifying world where soldiers patrol the streets in open trucks with rifles raised and plainclothes agents stop people at random and you can get shot for being out of place or having political fliers.

Early on Raul beats an old woman he's just taken home after she's been mugged. He seems to have killed her, just to get her little color TV. He kills again, each time without any qualms, to get something. He smashes the cantina stage floor and is bargaining with a dealer in loose building materials for glass bricks to make the stage floor like the movie disco, lit from below. He also wants to compete for "Tony Manero of Chile" on a little TV contest show.

At times Larrain's film seems crude and clumsy, but it's nonetheless hard to get out of your head. Obviously Raul's behavior is a metaphor for the morally bankrupt-from-the-start Pinochet regime and the film does an excellent job of conveying the absolute sleaziness of absolutely everything--a terrible world pushed into existence by the CIA and perhaps now similarly dominated by slick new US commercial products like the Travolta picture. Just as Raul will kill to get his pseudo-disco floor effect (which is totally shoddy), the others on his little neighborhood dance team will betray each other to stay in good with the despicable regime. Raul walks away from his heinous crimes with no fear of capture; the regime is too busy perpetrating its own crimes and its own terror to be bothered with him.

The concentration on the goings and comings of Raul gives the picture unity, and the little cantina crew has a classic quality. This is down-market, black-humor Fellini. Wilma (Elsa Poblete) runs the place. She claims to adore Raul and want to run away to him (to where?). He's stuck with Cony (Amparo Noguera), but now prefers her young, possibly pregnant daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus). A willing helper but potential threat is the young man in the group, Goyo (Hector Morales), who is involved in anti-Pinochet activities, but also wants to compete in the tacky TV talent contest for the Tony Manero prize against Raul. Raul sees to that, in the crudest and sleaziest manner possible.

One day Raul goes to the movie to see Saturday Night Fever and it's been replaced by Grease. You can bet there's hell to pay for the projectionist. It feels like the movie will stoop to anything, but then, so would a dictator. The raw, hand-held camera work helps maintain the down-and-dirty intensity, as does faded, dingy-looking color. As Leslie Felprin notes in the Variety review, the camera follows Raul around as doggedly as the Dardenne brothers have tracked their protagonists, but without any of the humanism or positive endings the Dardennes would provide. The action has a picaresque quality that makes it seem plausible: you just watch in mild horror to see what happens next. To top it all off, Alfredo Castro, in the brave and haunting lead performance, looks a lot like Al Pacino--a Pacino who hasn't been prettied up and will never see a fat paycheck.

This is Pablo Larrain's second feature, and a selection of the New York Film Festival of 2008. It was part of the Directors Fortnight series at Cannes this year. Theatrical opening in France December 17.

Chris Knipp
09-19-2008, 03:20 PM


The chaste celebration of a scarlet woman

When Lola Montès was shown at the first New York Film Festival in 1963 Andrew Sarris wrote that it was the greatest film of all time and that he would stake his critical reputation on this one proposition above all others. In the 2008 NYFF Sarris will present a new immaculate restoration by the Cinematheque Francaise.

"You’re the most scandalous woman in the world," declares circus impresario Peter Ustinov to Lola. He is the last in a long line of suitors and lovers and he knows if she joins his show she’ll draw crowds not because of her skills as a dancer or acrobat but for her transcendent notoriety.

Lola Montès is one of those lush Fifties productions when color still seemed something extra--and a medium so rich it could give you a headache to watch it. It's lavishly appointed in the apotheosis of Orphuls' overblown yet elegant romantic style of cinema, rather Forties in feeling; it must have felt quite retro at the 1963 NY festival. It's expensive, labor intensive, and ornate, and so declares itself with its framework of the circus big top show. The space is vast, shading off above into a blue haze. Dozens of differently costumed attendants including tumblers and dwarfs appear at every moment while Ustinov booms out his spiel. Best of all and still Thirties surreal, young men all in red with red nets hiding their heads dart around serving Lola and serving her up to the viewer. Countess Lola: she is the main attraction—played by Martine Carol, immaculate and chic if not as beautiful or supple as one might wish.

It takes a while before the magic works and it works best for brief moments shifting back and forth between the glitzy rituals of the big top and the over-produced, sometimes stilted episodes of Lola’s love life—which after all are not the least turbulent and in fact rather languid and polite, involving the likes of Franz Liszt (always the gentleman, and himself rather stiff). Lola and Liszt ride in a horse drawn salon like a Lucius Beebe custom train car. This is when the cigar smoking begins (perhaps inspired by George Sand?). Best for her is the interest of the King of Bavaria, another cigar smoker, who gets her to stay to have her portrait painted and chooses to do so the painter who works most slowly. When her lengthy presence brings the Kingdom to revolt she’s whisked away by the young Oscar Werner, a Bavarian 'varsity clubman turned revolutionary who will become a Latin teacher and wants Lola to forsake fame for domestic bliss with him. Nix. Then comes Ustinov, and Lola’s rapid decline, due to enjoying life too much, taking too many risks, and smoking too many Cuban cigars. A doctor determines she has a bad heart, and ought not to dive from the trapeze without a net.

What is all this about? Someone told me it’s all a metaphor for cinema. A more cynical explanation is it’s just an opportunity for Orphuls to show off all that he does best, without telling a real story with characters presented in depth. Its saving grace are its brief moments of humor, showing that it doesn't take itself seriously, and the preposterous elaborateness of sequences like the demure climax of Lola’s "audition" with the King. He questions that she’s well built, and she takes a knife and cuts open her bodice. There’s romance for you: a real bodice-ripper. The film demurely cuts away from the revelation; later it shows the portrait, which is of Lola posed like Manet’s Olympia. But the King calls for "needle and thread" ("Nadel und Faden") in German, and the order is passed on to dozens of people down to the Baviarian baroque bowels of the castle. It’s a marvelous, funny tour de force. Then finally back to the King’s salon where a seamstress is putting the finishing touches on sewing Lola’s dress back up at the neck. This is the almost surreal delight in the elaborate construction of a cinematic sequence. And always with polish and flair. Old World craftsmanship. Lola Montès isn't the greatest film of all time, but they don’t make them like this any more.

Lola is the "spotlight retrospective of the 2008 New York Flm Festival." Shown there is a "definitive new 35mm restoration," which "will be released nationally this fall by Rialto Pictures, opening Friday October 10 at Film Forum in New York and Laemmle Royal Theatre in Los Angeles. Engagements in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. follow in November, with additional cities to be rolled out in ensuing months." "The original CinemaScope ratio of 2.55:1 has also been restored (later prints were made in the narrower ratio of 2.35:1, cropping off image on the left and right of the screen), along with five minutes of long-unseen footage" (Emanuel Levy). The restoration was shown at Cannes and Telluride.

Chris Knipp
09-22-2008, 09:27 PM


Contemporary Naples' banality of evil

The intentional wordplay here links "Gomorrah," the biblical doomed city of moral depravity, and "Camorra," the enormously powerful and pervasive Naples-based center of southern Italy's organized crime.

There's a limit to how many stories you can be interested in at one time, which Garrone's Gomorrah surpasses. However his film, based on a selective adaptation by a half dozen writers working from Roberto Saviano's eponymous chronicle of the Neapolitan gangster network, the Camorra, is shot with an undeniably impressive speed and economy and certainly creates a continually punchy, realistic effect, working without emphatic plot elements, identifiable heroes, or any focus on the role, active or passive, of law enforcement. One scene follows another, each full of action and vivid characters. Garrone, whose previous features were the atmospheric, if little known 2002 The Embalmer (L'imbalsamabore (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?t=155) ) and the edgy, off-putting 2004 Primo amore , enlisted professional actors working together with ordinary citizens, gang operatives, and ex-cons for roles in the film, which arguably achieves a new level of authenticity in the gangster genre.

Notably the protagonists here are the innocent and the young. There are no Godfathers here, no heirs to great fortunes, only the little people, the recruits, the petty functionaries, the enforcers--the little soldiers, much like the protagonist played by Luigi Lo Cascio in Andrea Porporati's more conventional 2007 film, The Bitter and the Sweet (Il docle e l'amaro (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?p=1080)). There's a keen sense of how Italian organized crime continues to suck in the new generations. It's capitalism: money comes first, morality much, much later--a very up-t-date concept.

There are five main plotlines.

Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), called Il Sottomarino (The Submarine), is a portasoldi; he has the job of personally doling out cash payments to families of clam members who're in jail. He works quietly and discreetly, never rocking the boat or playing favorites. But when a feud causes a split in the clan, he doesn't know who he's working for any more, and suddenly making his formerly routine rounds becomes extremely dangerous.

Toto' (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a young teenager, delicate-looking but ballsy. He's just a grocery delivery boy, but he knows what's going on, the killings, the weapons, the drugs in his gang-dominated neighborhood, and he can't wait to be a part of it all. His iron nerve leads him to be chosen as a fledgling gang member, his appearance of innocence becomes an asset, and he winds up having to betray someone who was a friend, or at least a trusting customer.

Marco and Ciro (actual Camorra recruits Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) are two slightly older youths full of bravado; they want to be independent marauders preying on the system and pretend they're living a sequence from De Palma's Scarface. They get away with robbing a gang of Colombian coke dealers and intercept a hidden arms cache, but when their games get the local Camorra's attention, their number is up. One of the film's memorable, risk-taking sequences shows Marco and Ciro in jockey shorts in a mud plain firing off live automatic weapons and flame throwers.

Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is a young university graduate in need of work. Franco (veteran actor Toni Servillo) offers him steady employment and good earning prospects in the field of waste management. Gradually he realizes that the Camorra controls this. It's paying farmers and landowners to supply their property for the dumping of toxic waste that is sickening the population and destroying crops. He is disgusted and is apparently able to walk away.

Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is an experienced but underpaid tailor who works sub rosa for a small enterprise sub contracted to the high fashion industry. Chinese competitors give him the opportunity to come in secretly to teach the refinements of his trade to their workers. They contract him to surreptitiously give a series of ten well-paid "lessons" to the Asian workers and he is pleased with the generous payments and flattered when they call him "maestro." But his enterprise is affiliated with the Camorra. He is aiding the enemy. He is in big trouble. He barely escapes with his life.

These are the five stories that are constantly inter-cut with each other through the course of the 137-minute running time--somewhat in Altmanesque fashion, but never overlapping. The effect is absorbing, but a little numbing; as film blogger Glenn Kenny has noted, the film is "both banal and shattering." A documentary could convey more specific information and history--and Saviano, whose book publication necessitated his being put under police protections, was himself involved in one, Enrico Caria's 2007 See Napbles and Die (Vedi Napoli e poi muori) (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?t=843) A conventional Mafia/Camorra narrative film, or a differently cherry-picked adaptation of Saviano's book, could show more about the impact on families and the community and the involvement of the police in Italian organized crime. The wider fallout of the five stories is only touched on.

There is fresh information here however, especially for non-Italian viewers--such as the presence of a whole sweatshop of Asian workers competing with the Camorra-run rag trade, and Colombians on the fringes selling cocaine independently, while coke is controlled and doled out by Italian gangsters. There's also a taste of the vastness of the Camorra's immensely lucrative and completely criminal waste disposal business--a subject thoroughly explored in the 2007 Italian documentary by Esmeralda Calabria, Andrea D'Ambrosio and Peppe Ruggiero, Biutiful Cauntri (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?t=1075) An amazing scene shows Africans refusing to drive some big trucks that have gotten into some trouble and the gangsters bringing in a handful of Italian kids to drive them out, kids so small they have to be propped up on cushions behind the wheel.

Good stuff, if rather off-putting for the average movie-goer, this is so far without an American distributor but has received much attention at festivals, including the Grand Prize at Cannes. UK release by Optimum Releasing begins October 10. Shown at Cannes, Toronto, and the NYFF. Largely in thick Neopolitan dialect, this was shown in Italy with subtitles.


Chris Knipp
09-22-2008, 11:55 PM


Coming of age in the YouTube generation

The 24-year-old Campos has been winning prizes for his short films for the past eight years; started filmmaking at thirteen and completed his first short film at seventeen; has been a Presidential Scholar; and wrote the script for this film at the Cannes Residence in Paris in fall 2006. It premiered at the 2008 Cannes Un Certain Regard series. Campos, who was a scholarship student at an exclusive international school himself and then went to study film at NYU, has been rejected from many festivals, but Cannes has led him to the NYFF. He has a group of friends and associates from NYU, and has founded Borderline Films. (Interview.) (http://watch.plumtv.com/videos/filmstock_after_school)*

Afterschool, which speaks of a boy and girl in a fancy East Coast prep school video club, of the boy's roommate, and the death of twin Alpha Girl classmates, is a film of and about the YouTube generation. It begins with Rob (Ezra Miller) watching an online porn site called "Nasty Cum Holes" (or something like that) in which a man, unseen, is talking dirty to a young prostitute. Rob is in his dorm room, which he shares with Dave (Jeremy Allen White), who deals drugs. The video club links him with Amy (Addison Timlin), with whom he loses his virginity. While ostensibly making a sort of promotional video for the school he is shooting a hallway and stairway and all of a sudden two twin girls, the most admired in the school as it happens, appear overdosing. Robert rushes down the hall to them and the camera continues to watch as he sits on the floor with them as they die. Links between all this and Michael Haneke and Van Sant's Elephant are almost too obvious to mention.

In what follows there is a lot that shows the hypocrisy and confusion of the teachers, the headmaster, and the kids. Rob is so fully of emotion throughout the entire film that he is almost completely shut down. Mr. Wiseman the therapist or counselor (Lee Wilkof) succeeds in getting him to open up a tiny bit by trading obscene insults with him. (Campos' admiration for Frederick Wiseman's High School led him to pay homage with the character's name.)

A lot of Afterschool is seen either as a video camera (or even a cell phone camera) see it, or as Rob sees it. When his lit teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) is talking about Hamlet, he is watching her crotch, lets, and cleavage and that's what the camera sees. At other times the camera is fixed and one speaker is cut out of the picture, or you see only the edge of his head. Campos is not of the shaky, handheld school of realism. His evocation of the sensibility of his young characters goes deeper than that. When kids today see something like a girl fight (or a boy fight) at school, somebody films it, and when it's filmed it's going to wind up on the Internet. There's a girlfight Rob and his roommate watch on the Web and then they're in a boy fight in which Rob lets out his sudden pent up anger. Maybe his roommate is guilty in the twin girls' death;

Campos likes moments that make us and himself uncomfortable, starting with the opening porn video, but continuing with Rob's experience and the world seen through his eyes. (Campos made a short film in which a young girl sells her virginity on eBay and loses it for real on camera to an older man.) Rob's safety is continually compromised and his emotions are uncertain. He doesn't know who he is, and neither does the filmmaker. Rob is a cleancut, even beautiful, boy, but he is almost clinically shut down--not an unusual state for a male teenager, maybe even more likely in a privileged setting like a New England prep school.

Rob and Amy are assigned the task of making a 'memorial film' about the dead twins. However the film he makes is too abstract, existential, ironic and just plain crude to be acceptable. When his supervisor sees it he thinks it's meant to be a mean joke. Later a more sweetened up and conventional version of the film is shown to the whole school, which we also see. Altering and re-editing reality is a continual theme of Afterschool. As Deborah Young of Hollywood Reporter writes, Afterschool "is a sophisticated stylistic exercise too rarefied for wide audiences, but earmarked for critical kudos." It may seem in the watching more crude than it is. The cobbled-together vernacular images are clumsy, but the filmmaker is supple, deft, and sophisticated technically and bold intellectually--still-beyond his years. He has also captured a world he himself knows personally with rather stunning accuracy.

[Note: I am not sure of the identification of some of the secondary characters.]

Shown as part of the Un Certain Regard series at Cannes. Seen at the New York Film Festival. Campos and Miller were present for a Q&A. IFC obtained distribution rights in 2009. It had a run at Cinema Village in NYC Sept.-Oct. 2009. DVD release is scheduled for September 14, 2010.
*That link is defunct, but there is a new review in Film Comment (https://twitter.com/MickJagger).

afterschool DVD cover

Chris Knipp
09-23-2008, 07:31 PM


Eastern inertia

This film from Kazakhstan (in a French coproduction with a brief token scene in Paris) is a reworking of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in 88 long and inexplicable minutes.

When she takes the train from the capital, Astana, to the southern city of Almaty to help her brother with marital problems, Chouga (the serene, handsome-looking Ainour Touganbaeva), married to a much older man, catches the eye of Ablai (Aidos Sagatov), a successful younger man who drives a big BMW. The younger woman he was dating had another suitor, an austere, bespectacled photography student who appears as the film opens reading the Arabic love poetry of Majnoun Layla aloud to himself. He is a flop in person, but the girl later marries him, after recovering from a suicide attempt when Ablai dumps her. When Chouga goes home again, though she has very much missed her young son (and he her), she realizes she is fed up with that life, and she runs off with Ablai. But Ablai, whose unceremonious dropping of the less impressive girlfriend showed a callous side to begin with, also has some habits Chouga doesn't seem to tolerate very well. First there's his weakness for hanging out in big sex bars. In a later scene she's at home sitting staring in the bedroom while he's in the living room playing cards with crude companions. His former girlfriend's friends rough him up, but his friends get their revenge and give him a video to depict it--a sign of further unsavoriness in the man's lifestyle. Chouga goes off to the train station for the Tolstoyan finale. Everybody else is fine.

The chief interest of this leaden reworking of the great Russian novel, which is marked by very little interaction between any of the characters, may be simply its setting, the exotic part European, part Asian people and the newly-wealthy Kazakhstan where there are bright lights, big cars, flat-screen TV's, nicely appointed apartments, and women like Chouga seem to have a whole wardrobe full of fur coats. This is obviously a country that's newly rich. In some ways one might be reminded of the Korea of Hong Sang-Soo, but this world has none of the wit and ingenuity and interesting dialogue that mark Hong's treatment of relationships. The scenes are well-lighted for the most part. One or two are quite beautiful.

Otherwise, the pace is slow, the action is lifeless, and the director tends to rely on tableaux rather than movement. This is a device that might be effective once or twice. But when there turn out to be hardly any scenes resolved through dialogue, you begin to wonder what is going on. This is more a curiosity than a success even worthy of festival viewing. It adds nothing discernible to our understanding of the Anna Karenina theme. One can understand the FSLC festival committee's desire to branch out to a new filmmaking region, but this won't stand as a wise choice unless Omirbaev comes up with something much better next time.

Chris Knipp
09-23-2008, 08:25 PM


Dark, very dark, almost black

The Polish director, who has not made a film in 17 years, appeared in Croenberg's Eastern Promises as Naomi Watts's racist uncle. His return to the helm is a small, literally very dark, austere and highly assured film about Leon (the excellent Artur Steranko), a lonely, decent man whose shyness and lack of socialization lead him to voyeurism. Living near the hospital crematorium that it's his job to tend--we see him toss a severed hand into the furnace--he becomes obsessed with Anna (Kinga Preis), a blond nurse, very much in one piece, who lives across a muddy field from him.

It turns out that Leon has done jail time. He now cares for an aged grandmother who raised him. One day he witnesses Anna being raped. He approaches close but can do nothing. Later he stammeringly reports this to the police, a mistake, because he ultimately becomes the only suspect.

For the most part Leon appears to be a night person. He looks through a chink in his wall (later he installs a picture window) through one eye of a pair of binoculars as Anna prepares for bed. After his grandmother dies, he uses her sleeping drafts to drug Anna's tea, and on four separate occasions successfully sneaks into her bedroom, paints her toenails, pets her cat, and himself entering dressed up and drunk after she's had an evening of birthday revelry in her room with a noisy handful of friends, clumsily tries to put a diamond ring he's bought on her finger, tenderly nuzzles her pillow, puts a cover over her on the bed where she sleeps, dozes off under her bed and has nightmares.

These sequences are a skillful collaboration between Skolinowski and Steranko and cameraman Adam Sikora. At times the scene is almost total darkness, but several wide landscape shots are beautiful and unique. The style resembles Bela Tarr, or the black drollery of Swedish director Roy Andersson, but J. Hoberman calls the film "New Wave to the bone." Another essential element in the enrichment of such stripped down materials is the delicate orchestral music by Michal Lorenc; film music has never been more needed or more successful. Cezary Grzesiuk's editing is sly and seamless. The story has moments of supreme irony. "Just as you wanted, I'm seeing a woman now," Leon tells his grandmother's grave after his voyeurism has reached the breaking-and-entering stage.

The whole has the feel of a Samuel Beckett short story with an added strange, sweet sensuality. There is no harm done. Leon is picked up for the rape. Anna knows he didn't do it, but didn't see the rapist and refuses to testify at the trial. Leon is marked as a weirdo for his toe-nail painting, but Anna visits him once in jail. Later, released, he finds her house gone. It's one of the saddest moments in any film this year. From reports, this is a much milder, tamer film than Skolinowski's younger work (he is now 70), and it's never more than an elaborate development of a very short story, but it's very well done and very distinctive.

Cztery noce z Anna was introduced as the opener at the Director's Fortnight at Cannes and included in the NYFF, as well as Toronto; opening in France in November.

Chris Knipp
09-24-2008, 07:56 PM


Happy families are all alike....this isn't that kind

This new film by the Jaoui-Bacri team (Agnes and her ex-husband Jean-Pierre), together for at least the fourth time, hasn't got a US distributor but it ought to. The pair have perfected a personal school of dry irony (mellowed some here) that allows people to be who they are, including grumpy, rude, or incompetent. There is little self-consciousness and little that is forced here. Agathe Villanova (Jaoui) is a feminist writer who is turning to politics; Michel (Bacri) is an independent, not-so-successful filmmaker who wants to do a documentary about powerful women. Agathe is in the south of France for a week or two at the family summer home to help sort through her the effects of her mother, who died a year ago. , She's also planning to speak at some political rallies. At this point she agrees to let Michel interview her. To help with this project Michel enlists Karim (the very popular in France Jamel Debbouze), a young man of North African descent whose mother Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji) just happens to have been the Villanovas' housekeeper all their lives.

Karim isn't happy with how, in the Villanova house, Stephane (Guillaume De Tonquedec) treats his mother. Stephane's the husband of Florence (Guillaume De Tonquedec), Agathe's sister. It also turns out that Agathe is madely in love with Michel, and wants to leave Stephane.

While Agathe is staying at the rather posh Hotel Mas Blanc des Alpilles, Karim works at the much more humble Hotel Le Terminus, as does his girlfriend, Aurelie (Florence Loiret-Caille). There relationship is on-and-off. The same may be said of Agathe and her boyfriend or companion or...something Antoine (Frederic Pierrot)--he has difficulty being with a woman so independent-spirited he seems non-existent at times.

These details add flavoring to the soup, but the most memorable moments are the oddly misfired efforts of Michel and Karim to film Agathe. They both tend to provoke her and more than hint that her feminism is silly and overbearing. But she isn't wholly resistant to these suggestions--especially when she is disconcerted and rather humbled when Antoine announces that he's fed up and is leaving her and returning to Paris. Though this film is directed by a woman, it's more then willing to cast a cool eye on feminist principles. On the other hand, one of its pleasures and the secret to its poise is that it has no aze to grind. This is where the presence of Debbouze and Hadji both liven things up and add balance. They've suffered more discomfort all their lives than a privileged white woman, though Mimouna has the immigrant suffer-in-silence stance and insists everything's always fine; at the same time, she has enjoyed raising Florence and Agathe and is like a member of the family. But Agathe encourages her to leave to live with her sister and work elsewhere since now Florence and her husband can't pay her a salary any more.

The film title Parlez-moi de la pluie is a line from singer-songwriter Georges Brassens, "talk to me about rain, not about good weather." Jaoui and Bacri aren't interested in things that go right. This is as true of the relationships in the film as of the constantly interrupted filming of Ms. Villanova. As this film is mellower, its characters are more complex, and less focused on triumphs or humiliations than their predecessors. It shows the team in top form. Debbouze is particularly supple, rounded, honest, and complex here; this was a dream role for him, something close to who he really is himself.

The Taste of Others was nominated for an Oscar; Look at Me was shown in the US in 2005; the latter was part of the 2004 New York Film Festival. Let It Rain just opened in Paris, and is part of the London Film Festival. Jaoui and Bacri have collaborated on the screenplays of other films that she has not directed, such as Cedric Klapisch's Un air de famille and Cuisine et dépendances, which Bacri wrote, and he and Jaoui acted in but Philippe Muyl directed. This may not be a marriage that survived on earth, but in artistic terms, it was made in heaven.
Seen at the New York Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
09-24-2008, 09:29 PM


Trying to make the steppe your home

Another film from Kazakhstan, but unlike the NYFF's Chouga, far from being set in the newly rich urban part of the country, Dvortsevoy, a successful documentary filmmaker, chose to make this, his first feature, in the ethnographic mode, among shepherds in the Betpak Dala, the steppe, a region of scrubby grass, dirt, flatland, whirling wind storms and stormy skies. The technique is to work in near-wilderness, among non-actors, with nothing but camels or donkeys or rugged trucks to travel by, surrounded by a herd of sheep and a few goats, living in a yurt. The method and setting resemble those of Dava and Falorni's The Weeping Camel, but the focus this time is not as anecdotal and the story raises fewer troubling questions. It's still not certain that the effect of "authenticity" means that the events we're witnessing truthfully depict life in the steppe. But the sense of trying to adapt to a harsh environment and culture is powerful and the landscape is awesome, and the sheep births we witness are unquestionably real.

The protagonist is Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov). He is a young sailor who's just finished his military service who comes out to the "Hunger Steppe" to live with the family of his sister Samal (Samal Eslyamova), headed by her husband, an older man, Ondas (Ondasyn Besikasov). Sailors draw their dreams under the lapels of their uniforms and Asa's shows the plain with a yurt, children, camels, and the sun shining. Apparently he is from somewhere else (it's not clear how his sister got to be Ondas' wife) but he doesn't want city life, he wants to make his paradise out here. He dreams of prospering as a shepherd, doing so well he can buy solar panels to put on his yurt so he can have electricity. His pal is the nutty Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov), a transport driver whose truck is plastered with magazine photos of nude babes and who plays loud pop music as he drives madly across the plain. It's Boni who first brings Asa to the yurt of Ondas and who dreams and schemes with him.

Driven by Boni, Ondas takes Asa more than once a day's ride to a family who have an eligible daughter, the beautiful Tulpan (Tulip), whom the suitor only glimpses. She watches behind a screen. Asa has an unfortunate tendency to dwell on a story about how he successfully fought an octopus. It doesn't seem to go over with Tulpan's aged dad (Amangeldi Nurzhanbayev ) or her mother (Tazhyban Kalykulova), who apparently has listened with a sympathetic ear to her desire to go off to college. Tulpan says she doesn't care for Asa, anyway, says his ears are too big. End of story. Ondas says that if Asa gets a wife, he can have a flock of his own, and only then. But there are no other women around. Tulpan becomes little more than Asa's dream, like the idyllic yurt and flock and prosperity and happy life. What can Asa do?

Well, he can find a lost pregnant sheep and assist in its giving birth to a healthy lamb. But he still is very ambivalent about whether he wants to stay and face Ondas' disapproval or strike out for Sakhalin island as Boni wants or go to the capital, Astana, where there are probably jobs--and eligible women. But what stands out in Tulpan is Asa's dream--the little picture under the collar of his sailor jacket that seems to draw him back every time he packs up his little valise and starts to go away.

Dvortsevoy populates his landscape and the yurt with noisy characters to break the sounds of silence and the roaring winds. Samal and her daughter Nika love to sing at the top of their lungs, with sometimes pleasing, sometimes grating effect. Beke is a little boy with a great memory who listens to the radio broadcasts in Russian and can recite the national and global and cultural news verbatim on Ondas' command. Ondas himself is often barking out harsh commands. There is the smallest boy, who runs around chirping and laughing all the time riding a wooden stick, an indomitable spirit and perhaps potentially as nutty as Boni.

The omnipresent sheep of Ondas' flock seem to be too often growing weak and dying. A vet (Esentai Tulendiev) has to come in with Ondas' boss to assess the cause: he decrees that the animals are not sick (or poisoned by chemical waste like the ones in the Naples region), buy just hungry. The yurt has to be moved to better grazing land.

This is an Arte co-production. It's not a great film by any means; it's technical aspects are minimal. But some will be impressed by its vividness. Asa is a winsome character and there are moments when the wind and the sky create a wild poetry. The sheep, in all their noise and disorder, fill the screen powerfully too. This may have been designed to be seen on television but it is powerful on a big screen.

The film won the Un Certain Regard Prize--Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, 2008, and is part of the NYFF.

Chris Knipp
09-24-2008, 10:57 PM


Life in a "Family" theater

A dilapidated Filipinho movie theater is the star of this film, but it's not a dark, haunted place like the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang's austere Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Located in the city of Angeles in the Philippines, this one, only partly ironically called "Family," is active, in fact overactive, and holes in walls leave it open to invasions from goats and its lower floor is exposed to the noises of a busy street crammed with pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, and trucks at all hours.

Serbis shows heterosexual porn movies all day long while numerous gay hustlers ply their trade for the pleasure of older gay men, performing fellatio or having it performed on them in the seats and in the back of the big auditorium. "Serbis" means "service" and is the rallying cry of the gay rent boys. The theater is run by the Pineda family, who come and go, they live upstairs, they run a fast food restaurant on the ground floor, and they deal with such personal problems as bigamy, unwanted pregnancy, possible incest, and a boil on an attractive young male bum. This film, which includes clips of the porno, live sex involving the family and the in-house prostitutes, is Mendoza's seventh feature film and was an official selection of the 2008 Festival de Cannes.

Events happen on a "Wednesday (the day for the novena to the Mother of Perpetual Help) in October (month-long feast of Our Lady of the Rosary)"--I'm quoting from the distributor's material. The rather regal Nanay Flor (veteran actress Gina Pareno) has filed a bigamy case against her estranged husband Tatay Edwin and goes to court to see the years-long case finally decided. Alan (Coco Martin) is a young man upstairs who paints busty nudes on the wall; he's the one who has a boil on his bum. He has sex with his girlfriend Merly (Mercedes Cabral) and has just learned to his dismay that she is pregnant. Nayda (Jacky Jose), who mans the theater while Nanay For is at court, is married but drawn to her cousin Ronald, who is also in the building. She sees to having the right movie posters up, and argues with her husband, Lando, on the phone, because Mr. El Lobo, the soft drink distributor, has to be paid. Lando (Julio Diaz) mans the little restaurant, not always successfully; a young man cheats him out of 30 pesos and he can't get it back. There is another brother, Ronald (Kristopher King). There's also a little bespectacled schoolboy, Jonas, who's good in math. The things he sees!And the things we see! Nanay Flor says that they had three theaters, but have had to close the other two because they weren't making money, and this one is failing.

Nanay Flor loses the case, and to her disappointment her youngest son, Jerome (Dan Alvaro) testifies against her. She is further distressed to learn that the film rentals are going up. Serbis is replete with actual details of this kind, and even shows Alan delivering reels to a bus and picking up the new ones for the week.

Excitement happens when a purse-snatcher tries to take refuge in the theater but customers, the family, and cops all chase him. The lights go on exposing the many "serbis" boys in flagrante. When the thief is caught the lights go down, the film resumes, and the serbis boys are back to work. At another point a small white goat has escaped into the theater and appears just below the screen. Another chase. To recover from her horrible day, Nanay Flor takes a bath in the shoddy bathroom (the Gent's is flooded), grooms herself and dresses in black, and goes down to the ticket window facing out, ready for anything.

After symbolically popping his boil, Alan has impulsively packed a bag and run away.

Carlo Tabije and Benjamin Padero deserve notice for their set designs (the field in which Mendoza got his start); Odyssey Flores' cinematography is rough at times, but effective. The processing gives the images too edgy a look at times. The lighting isn't bad, but there is way too much street noise, and those who argue the whole production is exploitive and crude aren't far off the mark, but the depiction of a family isn't without interest, though this has none of the poetry and mood of other films about the devolution of a place.

This is as if a Third World telenovela, with X-rated sex added, was all crammed into a single comprehensive 90-minute episode. It's an impressive achievement, but a little bit indigestible. Mendoza's earlier film Foster Child receivved an ovation at the previous Cannes festival. He has produced something sui generis this time and it woud appear that there is life in the Filipino film industry.

Chris Knipp
09-25-2008, 07:32 PM


A powerful and relevant look at recent British history

Steve McQueen, a noted young British artist, has made a powerful first film about the Irish prisoners in H-Block of Maze Prison, Northern Ireland, and the hunger strike and death of Bobby Sands in 1981. The images are searing, both horrible and beautiful (McQueen is aware from Goya that images of war can be both), and much of the film is non-verbal, but the action is broken up by a centerpiece tour-de-force debate between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) that is as intensely verbal as the rest is wordless, and shot in a couple of long single takes. In Irish playwright Enda Walsh's rapid-fire dialogue quips are exchanged, then passionate declarations, in a duel that's like a killer tennis match: watching, we listen, and the camera, hitherto ceaselessly in motion, becomes still. Hunger, with its rich language, intense images, and devastating story, is surely one of the best English-language of the year, and it understandably won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for the best first film. Like the American Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen is another visual artist who has turned out to be an astonishingly good filmmaker.

Faithful to the physical details of the H-blocks and the treatment of the prisoners, the film is still honed down to essentials and includes a series of sequences so intense it may take viewers a long time to digest them. As the film opens, an officer of the prison, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), follows his normal routine. His knuckles are bloody and painful; later we learn why. His wife brings him sausage, rasher, and eggs.

Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) a young Irish republican prisoner, tall, gaunt, and Christ-like, is brought into the prison. He refuses to wear the prison uniform, so, joining the Blanket protest, he's put in with fellow "non-conforming" prisoner Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) in a cell whose walls are smeared with feces. Those of us who were around when these events happened (Steve McQueen was 12, and remembers the coverage), remember them so well we could have seen these walls. Campbell shows Gillen hot to receive "comms" (communications) from visitors and pass them to their leader Bobby Sands at Sunday mass.

When prisoners agree to wear civilian garments, they're mocked by the "clown clothes" they're handed out and riot, screaming and yelling and tearing up everything in their cells. They also periodically collect their urine and pour it under their cell doors out into the prison hallway where the guards must walk. The result is a brutal punishment by the prison in which the prisoners are taken out to the hallway and beaten naked by a gauntlet of police in riot gear. An eventual repercussion is that Raymond Lohan is shot dead while visiting his catatonic mother in a home.

A poetic flourish of the meeting between Sands and Father Moran is Sands's story of going to the country as a Belfast boy on the cross country team and going down to a woods and a stream where he is the only one who dares to put a dying foal out of its misery by drowning it. The images this tale evoke become the objective correlative of Bobby's last thoughts when he is dying in the prison hospital.

The central issue was being treated as political prisoners. From 1972, paramilitary prisoners had held some of the rights of prisoners of war. This ended in March 1976 and the republican prisoners were sent to the new Maze Prison and its "H-blocks" near Belfast. Special Category Status for prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes was abolished by the English government. Hunger doesn't focus on ideology or public policy, other than to have the voice of Margaret Thatcher, in several orotund declarations, adamantly denying the validity of the republicans' cause or status. The Sands-Moran debate is more about feelings and tactics.

Another powerful contrast comes when Sand goes on the hunger strike and is taken to the clean, quiet setting of the hospital where he is lovingly cared for and visited by a good friend and his parents, who're even allowed to sleep there during his last days. Though tis segment isn't as strong as the others, Sands' condition is dramatic, heightened by horrible sores, and a report to his parents of the rapid damage to internal organs and heart that his fast will cause. (He was the first of ten IRA inmates to die in this struggle at the Maze Prison. After the hunger strike ended late in the year the British granted the prisoners' demands, but still without officially recognizing their political status.)

It was McQueen's decision to eschew a screenwriter in favor of a playwright for the script, and his choice of his near-contemporary Enda Walsh, an Irishman resident in London, was a wise one. McQueen determined the structure and inspired the paring down. Walsh makes the central verbal scene sing. Its intensity is such that it has no trouble at all competing with the harsh prison scenes. It is brilliant stroke. Great theater you could say, but the film's contribution is to make the whole train of events alive and human at a time when they are acutely relevant to the post 9/11 world of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Shown at Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto, and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival 2008. Limited US release came in early December 2009 with excellent reviews.

Chris Knipp
09-25-2008, 08:35 PM
JIA ZHANG-KE: 24 CITY (2008)


Jia Zhang-ke looks at factory life in China

Jia's latest feature doesn't reach out and grab you; rather it builds up a steady accumulation of detail in an artful and partly fictionalized documentary whose central concern is the transition from a planned economy to a market economy in China, with the Cultural Revolution along the way. Jia decided to use actors to play "real" "documentary" talking heads--people who worked at a certain factory now dismantled to become a five-star hotel--or their children, one of them, Su Na (Zhao Tao) working as a "shopper," making good money traveling to other countries and buying expensive goods for rich clients who want to spend but are too lazy to do so. This woman, who wept when she visited her mother in the factory for the first time and saw her numbing job, is the opposite extreme from the aging, now dim-witted "master" of the factory in its early days who worked seven days a week, and used the same tool till it wore down to nothing so as not to waste. The shift in China from the self-effacing collectivist mentality to the current entrepreneurial capitalism is so great that you can imagine why Jia takes refuge in still tableaux of people, composites, and a gallery of talking heads. But this is not as stimulating a film as earlier works like Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World, or Still Life and will appeal only to the patient.

Actors are used for some of the people because Jia interviewed 130 people and had to create composites. Jia sees no problem in making use of fiction this way in telling fact: life as he sees it is a mixture of historical fact and imagination. He uses poems by classical poets including the Dream of the Red Chamber and William Butler Yeats as well as songs, including "The Internationale" sung by a group of oldsters, pop music, a Japanese classical composer, and contemporary music by a Taiwanese composer. Sometimes the camera is still as a person speaks. Sometimes one person or a group look silently into the camera for a minute or so.

The film, understandably, tells a tale of repression. It also witnesses people who were laid off in the 90's and suffered the lowering of an already frugal lifestyle.

There are strange stories. One woman describes being on a company trip when she and her husband lost their little boy. It was wartime and they felt obligated to go back on the boat to return to work, and they never saw their child again. An attractive woman known as "Little Flower" was the prettiest girl at the factory and when the photo of an unidentified handsome and athletic young man appeared on a bulletin board everyone told her he should become her husband. Silly as this was she began to dream of it--but then they were called together and told he was a pilot whose plane had crashed so he had died due to the malfunction of parts they had made at the factory. They were meant to feel guilty. A woman for years helped her sister in the country by sending clothes and other things to be recycled for her children. More recently she was laid off and became so strapped she had to rely on her "poor" country sister to help her out.

The focus is on the 420 Factory, which was founded in Chengdu, the capital of set up in Chengdu, capital of Sechuan in the late 50s to produce airplane engines. In early days its function was secret and workers, shipped there from all over the country, lived in virtual isolation; kids got into fights if they tangled with the locals, one man recounts. Later 420 was retooled to produce peacetime products such as washing machines.

Known actors such as Joan Chen or Jia regulars such as Zhao Tao and Chen Jianbin work together with unknown crew members to simulate the "interviews." Though Jia's logic in using this method to present composites makes sence, the effect is to undercut the sense of realism. Probably the best thing about the film is the beautifully composed shots of the factory in operation and being dismantled, taken by cinematographers Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu. While Jia's Still Life was haunting and quietly powerful, Useless seemed inexplicable and lazy. This is somewhere in between the two. Emotionally it has some import, but the mixed genre doesn't entirely work, and the sense of a Brave New World conveyed in Jia's diffuse but interesting The World seems to have given way to adverts for capitalism. Is this so that Jia can work and travel freely and get his films shown at home? The leading Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker may be slowly morphing into somebody else.

Chris Knipp
09-25-2008, 09:34 PM


Rosales moves in the direction of greater austerity: no dialogue

Rosales' Bullet in the Head (Tiro en la cabeza) is in his words shot more or less "in the working style of wildlife documentaries" about an apparently "normal guy"--specifically a tall, somewhat heavy-set middle aged Spanish guy--who appears to be going about his existence, hanging out with friends, using the ATM, having sex with a girlfriend, buying a newspaper, chatting with a shopkeeper, listening to music in a CD store, attending a dinner party, making a call from a pay phone. Then he goes on a drive with another guy from Spain into France. There, abruptly, he and the other guy run out of a cafeteria where they are eating with a woman, chasing two young men. They trap them in their car and shoot them. Then they split up, the main guy with the lady friend stealing a car from a woman and taking it to a woods where they leave her tied to a tree.

Rosales was inspired by a news story last year about three members of the Basque separatist group ETA who killed two policemen in France in "an accidental encounter."

The festival blurb describes Bullet in the Head as "a claustrophobically intense, avant-garde thriller. We ...see and hear everything from a distance," the blurb goes on, "forced to assemble the movie's disparate narrative pieces for ourselves as we go along, like detectives on the trail of a dangerous conspiracy. Who is this man and who are his associates? And what are they plotting? A mystery movie in the purest sense, the remarkable Bullet in the Head will keep you pinned to the edge of your seat from its beguiling opening frames all the way to its startling conclusion."

Though admirers of the director--who won prizes in Spain for his fly-on-the-wall approach in Solitary Fragments/La Soledad last year--may find favor here again, this is a concept film that fails to live up to its festival blurb, and therefore leaves some viewers feeling chaeted. To begin with, there is one little detail this description leaves out. Though the film has lots of ambient noise, there is only one moment in the whole thing when there is any dialogue. That's when the two men run out to the parking lot after the two young guys they've spotted: one of the men says "f---ing cops!" That's it. "Forced to assemble the movie's disparate narrative pieces for ourselves"? We cannot. We never learn who any of the people are. This film, very quickly becomes numbingly boring to watch. It's like seeing through the eyes of a surveillance camera. But even that is not done convincingly, if these are meant be seen as the observations of, say, a detective. It is all shot in good looking 35 mm. Though the main character is seen from a distance, the positions from which he is observed are not particularly plausible for a detective doing a surveillance. It's just weird long-lens camerawork, without sound. You could make up a series of stories about the people and the protagonist's activities, but why bother? Anything would work. There is no "mystery" and there is no solution. It all leads up to a senseless act. Rosales says that in the news story the ETA men killed the police "in an accidental encounter." That doesn't quite fit with what happens here--or maybe it does; it depends on what you mean by "accidental encounter." Evidently the ETA men think the two young men--who could be cops--are following, or watching them. But then the cops--if that's who they are--leave the cafeteria. In fact they're sitting not too far from the ERA guys, eating and chatting normally. Odd behavior if they were following the ETA guys. So if the ETA guys go out and kill them, it's sheer paranoia. So the events are not so much mysterious as inexplicable, and this is not the way a thriller or a mystery works. This is more like a conceptual art piece that might be exhibited in a museum, though somehow it would seem pointless even in that context.

Not every film that is "different" is so for any purpose. Those who come to see this in a festival will feel cheated. That happens sometimes, perhaps because occasionally the blurbs for festival films are written by people who have not seen the films, or who have overactive imaginations. For Spanish viewers, who might detect Basque undertones, it might be more exciting. But that is speculation. For the general viewer, it seems a cheat, something that may be fun to debate for a while, but nothing you'd want to recommend to anyone--unless they made liberal use of the Fast Forward button. Remember how Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac, "That's not writing; it's typing"? "This isn't filmmaking', some will say; " it's filming. Bullet in the Head has some conceptual interest, but seems a dead end.

Chris Knipp
09-26-2008, 07:17 PM


A mellowed Mike Leigh, at 65, produces his definitive anti-miserabilist statement

Another one of Mike Leigh's remarkably fluent films made with his well-developed working method, which includes a long period of improvisation and development of back-stories during which, he pointed out at the NYFF Q&A, the actors are paid, and the characters are created and shaped, with surprises all along the way.

Poppy (the superb Sally Hawkins) is the "happy-go-lucky" protagonist, a thirty-year-old English girl who teaches elementary school and lives with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), her roommate and pal of a decade's standing. Poppy has a wonderful, positive spirit. Am I wrong in thinking that this is particularly striking in the phlegmatic world of the English? She's no Pollyanna. She just chooses to react to things with good humor. In the opening sequence while trying to cheer up a grumpy, leaden-spirited bookstore clerk (Elliot Cowan), she gets her bicycle stolen. It disappoints her ("I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye"), but she quickly moves on and takes the bus or walks, and decides to take driving lessons.

This is the audience's basic introduction to Poppy's attitude to life. Clearly Poppy doesn't encounter sunshine whereever she goes (though this is summer in London, and the weather is nice). Leigh sees this film as his answer to his branding as a "miserabilist." It can be seen as the diametric opposite of Leigh's 1993 Naked. He wants it clear that it's his working method that's unchanging. His tone and characters are something new each time. Sally Hawkins' resolute smile sets the tone clearly here, along with her style of dress, which a writer has dubbed "garish grunge," framed on Fuji color film stock that provides opulent tones in the primary range within the bright format of Cinemascope--a new medium for Leigh.

A fateful decision, this choice of driving lessons, since it introduces Poppy to Scott (the droll, excellent Eddie Marsan), who becomes her instructor. He's phlegmatic, alright, and messed up. For a start, he's a racist who hates multiculturalism and locks the doors when he sees black people outside the car. Poppy takes the lessons as a lark, which bugs Scott enormously. He thinks her not serious, her insistence on wearking high boots particularly annoying (and no doubt provocative). In time it emerges that he is fascinated by her and even begins to stalk her. Initially it might be thought that Scott is right to be annoyed at Poppy, that her attitude in the lessons is frivolous and almost childish. But why should one adopt a grim attitude? Later it seems more that her mistake is to continue, when Scott is so moody and abusive toward her. But it is her way to give people a chance. She doesn't give up on him till he's gone way too far. Working well in the stages of successive lessons (not to mention the deft editing) Marsan is seen to provide finely modulated performance. He is only serious and a bit stiff at first; his dysfunctional tendencies emerge only gradually with each successive lesson, moving toward a very gradual crescendo that is a model of Leigh's skill with actors and his filmmaking method.

Early on there's a night of clubbing at which Poppy and the less ebullient Zoe get rather drunk before the weekend. At the suggestion of Poppy's school superior Heather (Sylvestra le Touzel), she joins a Flamenco class. The teacher (Karina Fernandez) is another skillful portrait; these brief sequences are priceless and memorable.

While wandering around at night in an unidentifiable place Poppy encounters a tramp (the remarkable Stanley Townsend). This is where Poppy's capacity for outreach is stretched the farthest. The tramp appears to be talking in gibberish; Poppy is undaunted. And he can make sense when spoken to. When she asks, "Have you had your dinner?" He quickly answers "No." When she says "Where will you sleep tonight?" He says right off "In a bed." "Of course," she remarks. Somehow a meeting of minds and spirits occurs, even as the tramp goes off to relieve himself three quarters of the way through their meeting. As can happen in Leigh's films, the outcome of this scene isn't clearcut. He said in the Q&A that it has no plot point as "in a Hollywood film." But that it's significant is indicated by the fact that when Poppy gets home to the flat, she won't tell Zoe about it and keeps the encounter to herself. While we may have felt Poppy was in danger, she never does. the meeting is a sign of her inner strength and generosity of spirit, as well as her intuition with people of all kinds. Though it stands alone, this is a central scene in the film.

Poppy hurts her back and goes to a chiropractor called Ezra (Nonzo Anozie). His laying on of hands is successful, though flamenco class throws things off again a bit.

A violent boy leads to calling in a social worker, Tim (Samuel Roukin), who asks Poppy, hitherto for some time relationship-free, to go out on a date. This works very well. They talk silly nonsense to each other at a pub--improvised stuff about eyes--that shows they click, and when they go to bed at Tim's "humble abode," that goes very well too. When Tim shows up before Poppy's next driving lesson, however, Scott explodes and the lesson turns into a tirade where he endangers them both with his emotional driving and craziness. This is the film's most violent confrontation and forces Poppy to terminate the instruction.

Leigh's turn to positivity may seem to lead us into some feel-good platitudes. But as the late David Foster Wallace said in his now famous Kenyan College commencement address, "in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance." The only thing is this. Leigh's method leads to great richness and depth, and Happy-Go-Lucky is a joy to watch for all but the most dysfunctionally negative of cool dudes (though it could have been cut by a few minutes). But the improvisational method doesn't lead to tidy conclusions. Things end with Zoe and Poppy drifting off in a boat, chatting about life. It's the texture of individual scenes that delights, rather than overall structure. At the same time, things are rounded out with a worldview. And Leigh's finely honed collective working methods make his films world class.

Chris Knipp
09-27-2008, 12:35 PM


Bonnie and Clyde meet Pierrot le Fou: the Mexican nueva Nouvelle Vague is still alive

Naranja's movies, judging by this one and his previous one, Drama/Mex, which I saw a the London Film Festival, are full of sympathy for rebellions kids in his native Mexico and have an omnipresent sense of danger and the unexpected. This one, Voy a explotar, part of the New York Film Festival slate for 2008, is a romantic but playful drama of teen angst, escape, games that turn dangerous. It's a buddy picture of young lovers who rarely make love, who're indifferent yet adore each other. It's a road picture about runaways who, one of them, the smooth, dark-skinned Roman (Juan Pablo de Santiago), being of the privileged classes (his father's a successful politician, married to a second wife), never really hit the road. They escape from view while remaining at home. At Roman's home, that is, hiding out on the roof, where his father doesn't think to look for him--and where they can look down with contempt on the bizarre and silly reactions of the adults.

Maru (Maria Deschamps, more formidable than pretty) is in the same school but her mother is only a nurse. Maru is a misfit at school. "I'm gonna explode" is a line from her diary, from which she reads in voiceovers. It's how she feels sometimes. When Roman presents a "performance" piece at the school talent show entitled "I'll Meet You in Hell," in which he stages himself in a mock hanging, Maru gets it, and they bond in school detention. She's a misfit and an intellectual; he's a rebel desperate for his busy father's attention. His idea is to steal a car and run away from this small town to Mexico City. He pretends to abduct her at gunpoint, and they disappear, but instead of running away they pitch a tent on the roof of his house--where the view of the city is beautiful and they rend their private air with loud music heard through shared headphones. The inside of the tent is shot with a red filter and it's a warm place, at once womb-like and dangerous, since it is a place for scary sexual exploration: they're both virgins, or so it would appear, and are ambivalent about taking the plunge. Inside this warm space they sleep together and cuddle up under the covers, one or the other alternately out of sync by wanting to sleep late.

They sneak down for a blender, a barbecue, food, tequila, wine. Roman wants to make love but they keep putting it off, and in his willingness to do this a certain tenderness and comradeship grow up between them. Still, they get bored with their isolation and each other. Their escape is lazy yet every moment remains full of the danger of their being caught, especially when they go below, not knowing when his father will return. And there are often a lot of people down there, including relatives of both families and the police.

Eventually when they've conned his father and stepmother and entourage into going away, they sneak down into the master bedroom and make love at last, the long-awaited experience heightened by the danger or risking discovery again.

Later Roman's stepmother (Rebecca Jones, a good actress in this minor role who looks a bit like Mercedes Ruehl) climbs up and sees them making love on the roof. She keeps the secret, even though the kids' disappearance is all over the news and there's a police search on, spurred obviously by the importance of Roman's rich, right-wing father Eugenio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho)

Roman is far more fatalistic. If they could push a button and eliminate the world, she wouldn't, but he would. He has developed a penchant for firearms and wears a pistol in a holster rakishly slung over his shoulder at all times, even when they go about in casual outfits, pajamas and shorts. They strike poses and try on costumes--and hats--like a real Bonnie and Clyde. When they finally hit the road, she wears one of Roman's mother's long white dresses.

When everyone's away they hear somebody yelling from below and, lowering a plastic bucket, receive an invitation to his deputado dad to attend a gala Quince Años celebration in Santa Clara. They steal a car and go. Roman turns out to be a terrible drunkard. Later, when they'e in a field the car is seized and they flee separately in terror; they've pledged to reassemble at a certain meeting place. Things finally have an air of desperation once they're separated. It was the two of them against the world, so when one is gone, there's nothing. This is the classic absolutism of all romantic love stories from Majnoun Layla to Werther but the irony is that their relationship always remains as much accidental as it is romantic.

Back on the roof one last time after a sojourn with the one adult he trusts, a guy he calls The Professor, Roman has grown paranoid and rigged up a trap with trip wires and a loaded weapon. This backfires, and the game ends tragically.

Shown at the festivals of Venice, Toronto, and New York, I'm Gonna Explode is original in its combination of edgy rebellion and spoiled upperclass pouting. The movie was co-produced by Pablo Cruz along with Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, the pair of pals who gained international attention with Alfonso Cuaron's Y tu mama tambien; more polished now with beautiful visuals and fine acting, Naranjo's work still has the kind of raw energy and freshness we saw in the early efforts of Cuaron, Inarritu, and Del Toro--not to mention Carlos Reygadas, whom Naranjo declared in a NYFF press conference to be the greatest director working in Mexico today.

US release: 14 August 2009.

Chris Knipp
09-29-2008, 04:22 PM


Guerrilla struggles that work, and don't

Ironically the most talked-about American film in the New York Film Festival is 98% in Spanish. The extra-long film's controversy began at the Cannes Festival. There were love-hate notices, and considerable doubts about commercial prospects. As consolation the star, Benicio Del Toro, got the Best Actor award there. I'm talking about Steven Soderbergh's Che, of course. That's the name it's going by in this version, shown in New York as at Cannes in two 2-hour-plus segments without opening title or end credits. "Che" is certainly appropriate since Ernesto "Che" Guevara is in almost every scene. Del Toro is impressive, hanging in reliably through thick and thin, from days of glorious victory in part one to months of humiliating defeat in part two, appealing and simpatico in all his varied manifestations, even disguised as a bald graying man to sneak into Bolivia. It's a terrific performance; one wishes it had a better setting.

If you are patient enough to sit through the over four hours, with an intermission between the two sections, there are rewards. There's an authentic feel throughout--fortunately Soderbergh made the decision to film in Spanish (though some of the actors, oddly enough in the English segments especially, are wooden). You get a good outline of what guerrilla warfare, Che style, was like: the teaching, the recruitment of campesinos, the morality, the discipline, the hardship, and the fighting--as well as Che's gradual morphing from company doctor to full-fledged military leader. Use of a new 9-pound 35 mm-quality RED "digital high performance cine camera" that became available just in time for filming enabled DP Peter Andrews and his crew to produce images that are a bit cold, but at times still sing, and are always sharp and smooth.

The film is in two parts--Soderbergh is calling them two "films," and the plan is to release them commercially as such. First is The Argentine, depicting Che's leadership in jungle and town fighting that led up to the fall of Havana in the late 50's, and the second is Guerrilla, and concerns Che's failed effort nearly a decade later in Bolivia to spearhead a revolution, a fruitless mission that led to Guevara's capture and execution in 1967. The second part was to have been the original film and was written first and, I think, shot first. Producer Laura Bickford says that part two is more of a thriller, while part one is more of an action film with big battle scenes. Yes, but both parts have a lot in common--too much--since both spend a large part of their time following the guerrillas through rough country. Guerrilla is pretty much an unmitigated downer since the Bolivian revolt was doomed from the start. The group of Cubans who tried to lead it didn't get a friendly reception from the Bolivian campesinos, who suspected foreigners, and thought of the Cuban communists as godless rapists. There is a third part, a kind of celebratory black and white interval made up of Che's speech at the United Nations in 1964 and interviews with him at that time, but that is intercut in the first segment. The first part also has Fidel and is considerably more upbeat, leading as it does to the victory in Santa Clara in 1959 that led to the fall of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.

During Guerilla I kept thinking how this could indeed work in expanded form as a quality European-style miniseries, which might begin with a shortened version of Walter Salles's Motorcycle Diaries and go on to take us to Guevara's fateful meeting with Fidel in Mexico and enlistment in the 26th of July Movement. There could be much more about his extensive travels and diplomatic missions. This is far from a complete picture of the man, his childhood interest in chess, his lifelong interest in poetry, the books he wrote; even his international fame is only touched on. And what about his harsh, cruel side? Really what Soderbergh is most interested in isn't Che, but revolution, and guerrilla warfare. The lasting impression that the 4+ hours leave is of slogging through woods and jungle with wounded and sick men and women and idealistic dedication to a the cause of ending the tyranny of the rich. Someone mentioned being reminded of Terrence Malick's The Tin Red Line, and yes, the meandering, episodic battle approch is similar; but The Thin Red Line has stronger characters (hardly anybody emerges forcefully here besides Che), and it's a really good film. This is an impressive, but unfinished and ill-fated, effort.

This 8-years-gestating, heavily researched labor of love (how many more Ocean's must come to pay for it?) is a vanity project, too long for a regular theatrical release and too short for a miniseries. Radical editing--or major expansion--would have made it into something more successful, and as it is it's a long slog, especially in the second half.

It's clear that this slogging could have been trimmed down, though it's not so clear what form the resulting film would have taken--but with a little bit of luck it might have been quite a good one.

Chris Knipp
09-30-2008, 05:38 PM


Painterly mysteries of five generations of women

This film by the Portuguese director Joao Botelho (A corte do norte) is a handsome adaptation of a 1987 novel by Agustina Bessa Luis, a multi-generation exploration of a wealthy family with a mysterious past and a house on the island of Madeira. A young woman becomes obsessed with finding the true story of a distant ancestor, a noblewoman who scandalized society. She explores the stories of various women, all of whom played out their frustrated passions on the island in large estates set along magnificent, wind-swept coastal places. One hanged herself. Another threw herself off a cliff into the sea and disappeared. Each of them, spanning five generations, from 1860 to 1960, is played by the actress Ana Moreira, who has seven different roles in the film. The younger descendant becomes distraught when she thinks she has discovered her grandmother was a whore. Or was she a famous actress? This central figure, Emilia de Sousa, was inspired by actress Emily das Neves, the first Portuguese theatrical superstar. The film constantly shifts back and forth through time and across generations as it tells its tale.


This is a magnificent-looking film whose scenes are often presented as striking tableaux of multiple figures in ornate costumes. It's another example of very sharp, very handsome-looking digital imaging. The lighting is dramatic and often chiaroscuro, and the colors are rich and evocative of 19th-century painting. The music is chamber and classical. The Northern Land is elegantly crafted cinema in an old-world European tradition using new technology. The difficulties presented to a viewer unfamiliar with the language and the novel source are many, however. The subtitles are complete and literal, which means they are long and many, and they are small and ornate in font and thus doubly difficult to read. The story is difficult to follow, and hence difficult to relate to. The virtuoso performance of Ana Madeira is one of the beauties of the film, but does not make it any easier to decode. On first viewing, these painterly mysteries remain pretty much darkly mysterious.

Other important cast members include Aibeo Ricardo, Rogerio Samora, Marcella Urgeghe, Antonio Pedro Cerdeira, ustodia Galego, Diana Costa e Silva, Fernanda Borsatti, Filipe Vargas, and Graciano Dias.

This is a new film that will be released in Portugal in 10 theaters as part of a tribute to the author that will include a reissue of the novel and a book of photographs giving the screenplay and a discussion of Botelho's work of adaptation. Botelho was previously represented at Lincoln Center in the New Directors/New Films series with his film A Portuguese Farewell/Um Adeus Portugues in 1985, and at the New York Film Festival with Hard Times/Tempos Dificeis in 1988. This appears to be the premiere of The Northern Land (at the Ziegfield Theater, the NYFF's main venue for 2008m at 9:15 p.m. September 30).

Chris Knipp
09-30-2008, 08:25 PM


A splintering world, from the French point of view

Assayas says this film more or less sums up all his work so far, and that may surprise some, since it is so different from his previous work but like the work of other more conventional French filmmakers who deal with middle class life. The impulse behind the film was something occasional and seemingly trivial, a request from the Musée d'Orsay to do something, as they'd asked Hou Hsiau-hsien (the result was Hou's Flight of the Red Balloon). Hou's film uses the d'Orsay so incidentally, I can't even remember how it fits in; but Assayas takes the idea of a museum quite seriously and literally. His story is about a family, and a mother who dies in her mid-seventies leaving behind a house and a collection of museum pieces, works of art, furniture, and fine objects that the family has to decide how to deal with.

We begin with a scene quite conventional in French films: the seasonal family gathering. The Heure d'été (summer hour) is a moment when adult siblings Adrienne (Juliette Binoche--the star of Hou's Balloon, though including her was not a d'Orsay requirement), Frédéric (Charles Berling, his third time in an Assayas film, and a kind of alter ego for the director), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) with parts of their families, have come together at the family's beautiful country place to celebrate the 75th birthday of their mother Hélène (Edith Scob). Hélène, who lives in the house, is still one of those perfectly slim, elegant, erect French women, but spends a lot of time talking to Frédéric about her death and explaining, to his annoyance, about the valuables the children will inherit when she dies--a handsome 19th-century desk by a famous desigmer; a display case from the same hand; and other precious objects, including the sketchbooks of her famous uncle, the artist Jean Berthier; two Corot paintings; and two large and unusual sketches by Odilon Redon. They will want to dispose of them all, she says, and the house. Frédéric loves her, the house, and the objects, and doesn't want to hear this. But she has certain requirements. The D'Orsay wants the furniture; the sketchbooks must be kept together. Some things she is giving to him.

After this sequence, time has passed, it's perhaps a year later, and Hélène is dead. She has gone to San Francisco for the start of a major traveling exhibition of Berthier's work, and there has been a presentation in France on his personal life (including the fact that he was gay, and other controversial information) which shook her considerably. And her involvement in the production of a book, a catalog, and the traveling exhibition all wore her down and left her devastated and empty when they were completed.

It is against Frédéric 's wishes, but when the siblings meet again, it's obvious Hélène was right and the possessions and the house must be sold, and the old housekeeper, Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan) must be released. Jérémie, who works for a company that makes running shoes, is going to take his wife and kids to live in China permanently. Adrienne, who is a designer, lives in New York, and she's going to marry her American boyfriend and stay there. They can't go back to the country house regularly any more. It seems Frédéric gets a raw deal, because he, whom the dispersal of family heirlooms hurts the most, is going to have to handle all the nuts and bolts of the process, because he's the only one who lives in France. But that's the way it is, and what's more Jérémie needs money to set up in his new life in China.

Assayas goes into the details, even showing a meeting of the curators and administrators concerned with the donation at the Musée d'Orsay. They are particularly interested in the furniture and the Redons (the Corots are sold elsewhere). One official objects that these things will just go into storage.

This is a suavely composed picture, but it still comes across as the most elegant of instructional films, if such existed for showing at posh schools to teach children of the wealthy how to deal with inheritances in the world of globalization. Yes, globalization is what Assayas is talking about, though the word is used in his comments on the film, not in the screenplay itself. It is not necessarily true that this film is more didactic than Assayas' other works; its didacticism is admirably straightforward, and at the same time, the ideas are presented in what for Assayas is an unusually warm context. One of the touchstones is the old housekeeper, Eloise, who returns to the house when it's been shut up, and goes to Hélène's grave to deposit flowers. The important point is that this is not about the traditional family squabble over inheritance. Though Frédéric is saddened, there is no argument, and he and Jérémie pointedly (maybe too pointedly) part friends. There are other little details that are accurate and practical. It's pointed out that Adrienne's plan to sell the sketchbooks in New York through Christie's won't work. The French government is unlikely to let them out of the country, and anyway, Christie's would want to sell the sketches off page by page, going against Hélène's intention that they be kept together. Frédéric is away a lot too, and for whatever reason he has to pick up his teenage daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing), caught stealing, and holding pot. But the final scene, which again is warmly didactic, shows that daughter with her boyfriend and a bunch of her friends (the 'summer hour' come again) invading the old house one last time to have a big party, play loud music dance, and celebrate. But the daughter takes her boyfriend to see a special place on the land (it's a Proustian, Swann's Way kind of moment) and she cries, for her lost youth, and for the family heritage that a splintering modern world is taking away. People, Assayas pointed out in a NYFF Q&A, have a greater breadth of knowledge of the world now, but they pay for that by losing the deeper understanding of personal traditions one used to have.

As I'm not the first to comment, this is one of Assayas' simplest films, but it's also one of his most touching and meaningful. Instructional film though it may be, it deals with subject matter that can move the hardest heart. If you don't care about losing a parent, you will surely be touched with the thought of losing the places of your childhood--and family money. If love won't get you, money will. And there is a final meditation by Frédéric at the D'Orsay where he and his wife Lisa (Dominique Reymond) look at the objects they've donated (not in storage) and consider the other trade-off: a contribution to history and the public's culture has been made, but the objects are like prisoners now, shut up in a cold space, robbed of their human context in a family's life.

This isn't finally the way I expect a "conventional" French film of bourgeois family life to be, but in its combination of rigor and warmth, it may come to seem rather wonderful. At least its straightforwardness and its fine cast make it most appealing.

Chris Knipp
10-01-2008, 04:11 PM


Charisma, heart, and hard work make a comeback of a has-been

Billed as Mickey Rourke's big comeback, this film is the finale presentation of the New York Film Festival 2008. Awarded in Venice and shown at Toronto, it features a winning performance by Rourke. It's a simple story, a mixture of raw authenticity and old fashioned corn about a washed up professional wrestler who's 20 years past his prime and resists admitting it till he has a heart attack and is forced t turn to the only two people he has in his life, a lap dancer and an estranged daughter. It's pretty monochromatic and claustrophobic, but the tiny framework shows off Rourke's generous, authoritative performance. Rourke's weathered, soulful face and sweet-sad smile sell the movie.

Early scenes establish that Randy 'The Ram' Robinson (Rourke), who has long graying bleach-blond hair and wears a hearing aid, still has fans from his heyday in the 80's and warm contacts in the pro wrestler community of today, who give him work on weekends. He's well liked (kids in his neighborhood clamor around him), and takes life's hard knocks with patience--and that smile.

But all is not well. The first night we see him after a fight locked out of his trailer because he owes the manager money. He lives alone, has a shaky relationship with a lap dancer, work name Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). His lesbian daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who's in school, despises him for not being there when he was needed. We're in the world of numbed pain and charred, sealed-away emotions here.

The second evening of fights pits the Ram against an S/M wrestler who uses a staple gun on him, and broken glass, and barbed wire. Ram collapses after this fight and wakes up in intensive care after a bypass operation. The hospital is the real beginning of the film, though Rourke and the filmmakers are over-committed to the wrestling scene, and stage more painful and realistic bouts, in which all the fighters other than Rourke were professionals.

Ram realizes he's not the man he was. The doctor has told him he can't wrestle any more. He tries to jog and can't. Helpless and alone, he turns to Cassidy (whose real name is Pam), but she is reluctant to admit he's more than a customer. He visits his daughter, but she is extremely hostile. In just a couple scenes, Evan Rachel Wood is raw and powerful. Tomei is authentic too, having mastered the lap-dancing technique and assimilated its world's mix of sensuality and distance. Rourke/Ram's encounters with both women are painful and memorable.

There's a good sense of context, even though Ram's world as shown is narrow. "The 90's f----ing sucked!" he exclaims to Cassidy when he finally coaxes her into having a beer with him outside the club. He hates that bastard Kurt Cobain. Axel Rose was The Man. You realize she's as washed up as he is. She has a 9-year-old kid and wants to quit and somehow get into a condo.

The screenplay by Roy Siegel, an original editor of The Onion, has lightness and humor to undercut the melodrama and doom. Ram is a laugh when, after the heart attack, he starts working longer hours at the Jersey Dollar's deli counter, doling out potato salad and ham, joking with the man and flattering the women.

Finally after he is pushed away by Cassidy/Pam, on a bad day at the deli, Ram flashily quits and calls a promoter and countermands his resignations, saying the re-match with "The Ayatollah" is on again. The Aronofsky of Requiem for a Dream set a record for determinism, and it's hard not to see this Wrestler as doomed. But the filmmakers' and and cast's involvement in the milieu and Rourke's humility and charm undercut that enough so the final sequence is uncertain and interesting. And all the fights are good.

The title The Wrestler can be generic because unlike boxing films, wrestling ones are rare, indeed nonexistent. Rourke himself is a boxer; the switchover wasn't easy, but he had the athletic background, and not only that, the has-been life of his character, a washed-up star in an activity looked down on by all but rabid fans. Few think of it even as a sport, though it requires conditioning and skill and involves constant injuries. In the NYFF Q&A Rourke conveyed a sense of his respect for this activity as a sport, and Aronofsky reported that his work on the mat won the approval of the pros. If this is an iconic performance as some are saying, it's not just Rourke's personal identification with the character's comeback mode, but good hard technical work to make it all authentic.

Chris Knipp
10-02-2008, 03:40 PM


A warped killer, a lost child, and a corrupt LAPD: what's not to like?

Changeling has a lot going for it in the eyes of the public just being directed by Clint and starring Angelina. Moreover the little-known but true LA story it tells is heartrending. A hard-working single mother in 1928, Christine Collins (Jolie) is forced to work on Saturday in her job as an assistant supervisor at Pacific Telephone and she leaves her young son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) at home. When she comes back he's gone. Five months later the police produce her son, found in another state--only she denies it's her son. The LAPD's reputation is on the line, and they force Christine to take the boy home. Then they try to discredit her as a lazy and unfit mother when she keeps insisting the kid isn't hers. Eventually she tangles more and more with the LAPD, who're going through an especially lawless period under a corrupt chief. They've shot down a lot of criminals in cold blood and swept away the bodies--just so the Force can control all the crooked dealings in town. Their arch-enemy and leader of the public outcry against cop corruption is crusading minister Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who seizes upon the Collins case when it becomes public, smelling a rat. After Collins has repeatedly opposed the cops and refused to accept the boy delivered to her--who's three inches too short and circumcised, has different dental work and is unrecognized by his schoolteacher--a willful Irish Captain assigned to this case (Jeffrey Donovan) orders her locked away in a psych ward. A lurid story of child abductions emerges.

Changeling, in the screenplay written by J. Michael Straczynski, is based on contemporary press accounts of what are called the "Wineville Chicken Murders." The mystery of Walter Collins' disappearance vies with the story of police corruption and the secret of the murders for attention, but Strazzynski wisely tells the tale from the viewpoint of Collins' mother, a kind of feminist heroine, since at a time when women tended to keep their mouths shut, she will not be silenced and never gives up. Some of the more gruesome details of the Wineville story are omitted, but sequences that go there still have a horror movie cast to them. The rest is a thriller-cum-police procedural with distinct period sociological elements. But there is skillful handling in the way a far-reaching story begins and ends with the intimate experience of a bereaved mother.

Eastwood seems to have looked for a story on the order of Fincher's even lengthier Zodiac (this is 140 minutes), but the melodrama and focus on cop-crime in the material relate it to the James Ellroy-based films L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia. The psych-ward incarceration sequence takes you straight back to Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor--at which point things are beginning to seem pretty lurid, and the film almost as manipulative as Fuller's. Nonetheless the style has Eastwood's usual current elegance and clarity. Oxymoron it may seem, but this film is an example of lurid restraint. After all, this is after all a tale in which manipulation is being consciously looked at. In an interview at the NYFF, Eastwood pointed out that there was a link with movies like Gaslight that deal with people trying to bend the minds of others: this is what the crooked cops try to force on Catherine, and they win to the extent that she takes the other boy home. And this is the most interesting and unusual aspect of the story.

The acting is confident, if varied. There are a bunch of young boys who turn in strong, convincing performances, and as manipulative police captain and his chief, Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore are reasonable, and Michael Kelley appealing as the good cop who unearths the kidnappings. Newcomer Jason Butler Harner gives a distinctive performance as the wigged-out killer, Gordon Northcott. Amy Ryan is typically strong as another victim of the cops' psych ward incarceration scam. Less successful is John Malkovich in Marcelled wig as the crusading religionist Rev.Briegleb: he just seems too mannered and creepy. Jolie is good, though her appearance is a bit strange: that huge mouth goes oddly with 20's hair styles. At one moment after she was out of the psych ward, I thought she might be locked up a second time--for overacting. Harner gets his chance to chew up the rug himself in his final scene. A little holding back would not have hurt.

The film is outstanding in its period look; and good, if not perfect, in its period feel. If nothing else you'll remember Catherine Collins quaintly gong back and forth along the lone line of phone operators she supervises--on roller skates. Whole neighborhoods were restored by the filmmakers and streets filled with Model T's and, best of all, old trolley cars. The attempt at period lingo might have been more consistent; but that's a goal rarely achieved. Since the time scheme runs from 1928 to 1935, more mention of the Great Depression surely would also have been in order. Since the screenplay sticks to known facts, there is nothing about Jolie's character before or after the events. This is a good and watchable film, but not up to Eastwood's terrific 2003, 2004 and 2006 efforts. Presented as the mid-point film of the New York Film Festival, already well-publicized at Cannes, Changeling opens nationwide October 31st. Eastwood has already directed two more films, one of which, Gran Torino, he stars in. At 78, Clint still seems unstoppable.

Chris Knipp
10-02-2008, 05:18 PM


Recovered Israeli memories of the 1982 Lebanon war in animation arouse mixed feelings

What Ari Folman's calls his "animated documentary" follows a film director who's having trouble remembering a massacre that occurred while he was serving in the Israeli army during the Lebanon War in the early '80s. He tries to fill in the gaps by tracking down his old comrades. Eventually he recreates the Sabra and Shatila massacres as seen from his and his comrades' point of view.

The look and the content of this film are harsh and the emotional effect is ultimately powerful, though the subject most of the way though is the numbing down of Israeli veterans who have been involved directly or by proxy with the wholesale killing of Arab civilians. In combat revived memories show the soldiers like zombies, unaware of what they're doing, shooting in all directions without even choosing targets. In contrast to their numbness and indifference, the background music is as loud as an 80's disco; perhaps intentionally: the year of the war is 1982--the height of the disco era. Film music includes a chilling Israeli song that boastfully begins "I bombed Sidon/Beirut today...." For contrast, too often, a Bach keyboard concerto, the same one Glenn Gould used for the background of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1972, is blasted forth.

A lady psychiatrist the film director meets with tells him that soldiers' "disassociating" from combat horrors is a common psychological phenomenon. Ironically, the thing that makes one Israeli stop "disassociating" during the invasion of Beirut is entering the hippodrome and observing a massacre of Arabian horses. Mowing down humans didn't affect him.

The director also spends time on several visits with a pot-smoking comrade based in Holland who's become rich selling falafel (an Arab food, one might point out) and lives on a posh estate near Amsterdam. He and the director get stoned together and remember. Various other 40-something Israeli army vets appear--animated talking heads whose memories, when they come back, are also in turn animated and shown. One describes abandoning the invasion on his own, going AWOL in effect, and by doing so inadvertently surviving when most of his unit was wiped out by the Lebanese, while he lay hidden for a long time in a zone where all were presumed dead, then swimming in the calm ocean until, exhausted, almost unable to walk, he comes up on the beach and inadvertently rejoins his own regiment. He has previously repressed most of this experience because of thinking himself a coward who had betrayed his comrades.

The titular sequence concerns a particularly macho squad leader who in central Beirut under heavy firing, borrows back the automatic weapon he favors and goes into the street, dancing around, firing in all directions while snipers fire from above, yet surviving. At this time Bashir Gemayel, the new Lebanese President, had just been assassinated, which was taken as a signal for the Israelis to step up their attack. At this time they were allied with the Lebanese Christian Phalangist Militia. The Phalangists subsequently were allowed to go into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on the pretext that there were several thousand Palestianian "terrorists" still hiding there. They killed at least 800 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. The Israelis knew this, and did nothing. The film reports one soldier calling Ariel Sharon to tell him, and Sharon saying merely thanks for the information, happy new year.

This is the climax of the film, the massacre, seen from a safe distance, but with analogies to Nazi murders and the Warsaw ghetto and with a few seconds of live actual video footage of loudly wailing Palestinian women after the massacre going back to witness what has happened and saying over and over to the camera in Arabic (not translated) "Photograph this, bear witness!"

This animated film will appeal to some for its originality and specificity to the experiences of a few Israeli soldiers. It is probably also notable for the accuracy of its representation of the tanks and weaponry and uniforms of the Israeli army of the period. What gives it a bad taste for me is its totally Israeli focus. The concern is not so much the massacre as the guilt feelings of the Israeli soldiers for having allowed it to happen, and, most of all, on their repression of any sense of guilt or even memory of the 1982 Lebanon war. It is they who have suffered, in their eyes; the dead horses matter more than dead Palestinians. (They would perhaps not see this.)

One writer (Onion A.V. Club) with some reason links Waltz with Bashir, for its "dreamy, meditative rhythms," to Linklater's Rotoscoped Waking Life--and questions whether it would be of as much interest if it were live-action. In fact the value and point of the animation is that Folman can recreate the recovered memories of the soldiers--just as they remember them. He, that is the director, initially remembers absolutely nothing (But do actual film records exist? Surely they do). Perhaps the film is correct in not making any political point, perhaps not. It seems like raw material, the experiences it refers to still not fully digested and understood, the larger political context left undefined. This is of course a film that would be experienced very differently in various Israeli, Lebanese, or Palestinian settings, and might be wasted on some American audiences. Note the A.V. Club writer's question. But at least what we have here is a strong artifact, the only one in the New York Film Festival, of the torment that is Middle East politics.

The film is in Hebrew with English subtitles. Subsequent to its October showing in the NYFF it will be released by Sony Pictures Classics starting December 26, 2008.

Chris Knipp
10-03-2008, 06:36 PM


A successfully gilded lily

This classic ultra-stylized and (in the words of the NYFF blurb) "insanely gorgeous" 1994 martial arts or wuxia film based on the Louis Cha novel The Eagle-Shooting Horses needs no introduction to film fans now, though before Tarantino’s release of Chungking Exrpess Americans had to go to Chinatown theaters or rent pirated videotapes to see it; I saw it in Chinatown in a double bill with As Tears Go By (1988). A cinematic icon today, Wong Kar-wai didn't get international recognition till 1997 at Cannes (for Happy Together), and the majority of US art-house goers didn't notice him till the theatrical release of In the Mood for Love (2000). Now ironically since the huge blowout of Wong's epic 2046 (2004), a summing up of his 60's nostalgia themes and characters, he seems prematurely to have reached a point of exhaustion, and his English-language romance Blueberry Nights (2007) was a critical failure. In this context his project of enhancing and re-editing Ashes of Time may be seen as another example of treading water; but it's still great to have it. Many have still not seen it, and any films as visually magnificent as Wong's are best seen in theaters as this one will now be. (It's also fortunate that all his films can be seen on decent DVD's now with readable subtitles for English speakers, instead of the weird earlier Hong Kong prints with flickering titles in Chinese and peculiar English that disappeared before you could read them. Ashes of Time Redux has the best English subtitles yet both visually and linguistically.)

According to Wong, Ashes of Time's negatives weren't in very good shape, and a search of various versions led him to a huge warehouse somewhere near San Francisco's Chinatown that contained the entire history of Hong Kong movies. He and his team put together various versions, adding a bit to what we probably know but cutting some dialogue, digitally cleaning up the images and enhancing some of the color and making many changes in the sound, adding a whole new score or "re-arrangement" by Wu Tong with cello solos by Yo Yo Ma.

Experts will have to comb over all this to explain and elucidate and evaluate the differences. The cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who was present at the press screening of the film at the NYFF (as were Lin and Wong), said flat out that he doesn't like the color "enhancing" bits--and neither do I. A lot of yellows and oranges are heightened, greenish-turquoise touches are set in, and many of the desert sand landscapes seem to have lost their surface detail. This seems unnecessary and even obtrusive. But such changes are not pervasive enough to spoil the generally magical visual experience the film provides. Other images simply look more pristine and clear; in particular Maggie Cheung, with pale face and red dress in shots long dwelt upon, looks more haunting and luminous than ever. At the NYFF screening, Wong declined to say anything about what specific changes were made in the editing. He preferred to talk about how he adapted Louis Cha's novel and how this film relates to his oeuvre. Both for him and for Doyle it was an essential milestone. Featuring the late Leslie Cheung, both Tony Leungs (Chiu Wai and Ka Fai), Jacky Cheung--and with Carina Lau as Peach Blossom, the poor girl who hires the Blind Swordsman to revenge her brother's death; with Maggie Cheung as The Woman, and with martial arts film great Brigitte Lin as Murong Yin and Murong Yang, the sister and brother. Lin, now retired, was responsible for the revival of the wuxia genre and is central to this film, though Maggie Cheung is its diva, its dream lover.

Cha's novel is a complicated 4-volume genre epic, very popular but little known or appreciated in the West. Wong studied it carefully (and made a parody of it called Eagle-Shooting Heroes) but then though he says this film unlike all his others had a fixed plan (and thus that made for a story uniquely full of fatalism), he threw away Cha's plot and just took a couple of the main characters and made up another simpler narrative imagining what the characters' lives were like when they were young. Simpler perhaps, but seemingly incomprehensible. But after this re-watching I see it does really have a coherent narrative; it's just intricate and, above all, cycliccal, confusingly looped in on itself. It ends as it begins, with the narrator looking into the camera and speaking the opening lines.

As Zdac, a perceptive IMDb user, comments, "One thing to love about this movie is the way that director Wong Kar-Wai takes the reflective internal monologues and quirky, alienated losers from his other films and transposes them to the world of Chinese heroic fantasy. It's an interesting idea that both ennobles and deconstructs the genre. "

Ashes of Time was shot in the desert. Doyle had never done that. The film was long delayed and the shoot was difficult. Doyle knew nothing about martial arts or Jianghu, the parallel universe of martial arts fiction. He was under extreme constraints, having very little artificial light. Nonetheless he produced some of the most beautiful sequences in modern film, because he's a great cinematographer, perhaps the greatest of recent decades, as Wong Kar-Wai is one of the defining contemporary cinematic geniuses.

Wong is notable for his meditative and arresting voice-overs, and they're ubiquitous here: there is more talk than fighting. Here is a sample: "People say that if a sword cuts fast enough, the blood spurting out will emit a sound like a sigh. Who would have guessed that the first time I heard that sound it would be my own blood?"

"You gained an egg, but lost a finger. Was it worth it?"

There are aphorisms or bits of advice: "Fooling a woman is never as easy as you think."

It's lines like these that define the film's special combination of humor, chutzpah and noble fatalism. But as the Redux version makes clearer than before, the film is primarily anchored and structured by its grounding in the Chinese calendar. The Chinese almanac is divided into 24 solar terms and the narrative moves forward selectively through these terms, which (naturally, being chapters in an almanac) contain weather descriptions, and advice as to what is propitious or unlucky, and in what regions and directions. New inter-titles in this version add to the emphasis on this solar-calendar structure. There is also a great deal about oblivion and forgetfulness (which are linked with wine, including a magic wine that eliminates memory). The desert and drinking are visual touchstones throughout as are pairs, opposites, and contrasts; and there is cross-dressing and perhaps bisexual love. The images are full of flickering light--figures shot by Doyle through a huge intricate wicker basket are particularly mesmerizing. The shadows from that basket may seem gratuitous, but only as Cezanne's apples are gratuitous.

The sword fights, which do not begin until a long way into the film, are for the most part without the acrobatic feats actually performed or digitally faked as in current martial arts films, though they are elaborately staged by the action choreographer Sammo Hung. They are a symphony of fast cutting, closeups, blurs, and slow motion (which Wong intended particularly to express the fatigue of the Blind Swordsman in the film).

Derek Elley of Variety thinks the alterations, notably the new non-synth musical accompaniment with a "heavier" western classical sound; the inter-titles; the dialogue cuts and the addition of Lin's own voice in her Mandarin dialogue, "have the effect of taking the pic out of the period in which it was made and giving it a look and feel that was largely alien to Hong Kong cinema of the mid-'90s." This seems to me irrelevant, since Wong's take on the genre was already highly original, and the film still seems very much itself and even more so, and, except for the occasional excesses in color "enhancement," this is a very fine re-release. Devotees can always go back and watch their copies of the earlier version on tape and DVD. Part of the New York Film Festival, this is a Sony Pictures Classics release opening in US theaters starting October 10, 2008. Don't miss it! Don't worry about understanding it. Later you can read all about it in a book, like Stephen Teo's Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur of Time (2005). Meanwhile, just drink in the images and sound.

Chris Knipp
10-04-2008, 05:04 PM


A Korean lost in Paris A Korean lost in Paris

Hong Sang-soo, whose films have been frequently featured at the New York Film Festival, weaves tales of men and women wandering in and out of relationships and doing a lot of talking about them. He's a kind of South Korean Eric Rohmer, except that his men and women aren't quite as ostentatiously presentable as Rohmer's and his men have an (often gently satirized) gauche sense of macho entitlement that's more Korean than French. A debt to the New Wave is nonetheless there, but Hong hasn't ever actually sent his characters to Paris as Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiau-hsien have--till now.

The protagonist of Night and Day/Bam gua nat, Sung-nam (Kim Yung-ho), is a 40-something Seoul painter of cloudy landscapes who smokes pot with some American visitors to Korea. One of them gets caught, and mentions Sung-nam's name, and he has fled abruptly to Paris. The film unreels as a day-to-day account of his sojourn, which includes involvement with a bunch of fellow countrymen and in particular several attractive younger women. Sung-nam being a rather naive, un-suave, and clueless person of decidedly rumpled good looks, his success with the other sex is a little surprising, but he's a typical Hong Sang-Soo male. He knows not a word of French, and is uncomfortable trying to buy a condom in a pharmacy, an inconvenience that leads to others.

What propels Night and Day most of the way is its sense of specificity and anecdotal observation. Sung-nam stays at a kind of Korean hostel presided over by a diminutive older man, Mr. Jang (Go Ki-bong), who offers Sung-nam comfort at moments of stress. Sung-nam drifts from day to day at first, just hanging out and meeting some of the other Koreans in Paris, who tend to all know each other--and reading a Bible, which happens to be there and which he says he takes just as a story. Notably he runs across Min-sun (Kim Yu-jin), whom he runs after, knowing she looks familiar. Absurdly, he's forgotten that he was in a passionate affair with Min-sun years ago. She's now living in Paris and married to a Frenchman. She's not at all pleased with Sung-nam's memory lapse, but nonetheless willing to talk to him.

Eventually Sung-nam takes Min-sun to a hotel room where she takes a shower and is ready to have sex, when he begins quoting from the Bible and expresses misgivings. No sex.

Meanwhile Sung-nam calls his wife in Seoul frequently, and they both declare how much they miss each other. She says she'll ask his mother to give her money so she can come and stay with him. There is an air of mutual desperation about their conversations, but above all he seems in limbo, unable to make a decision.

Mr. Jang introduces Sung-nam to a Beaux-Arts student named Hyun-ju (Seo Minjeong), but he is more interested in her thinner and prettier roommate, Yu-jung (Park Yun-hye). Sung-nam is comically inept and forward with these women, hanging around and forcing himself upon them, and yet Yu-jung succombs, and Sung-nam takes her to Deauville (their second trip, but this time without Hyun-ju). Once again as in Hong's Woman on the Beach there are conversations on a cold empty stretch of sand resort beach, only it's actually early October, and Sung-nam never has to wear anything but shirtsleeves. And essentially again it's a shy-aggressive man torn between two women.

Sung-nam also is at a dinner where he naively is shocked that one person is from North Korea. He is confrontational, and as a result is forced to beat a hasty retreat. He also meets the best known Korean artist living and practicing in Paris, and feels ashamed at having suspended his own career with this sojourn. The movie's scenes often end with some mild debacle or a sudden departure, usually with mildly comic effect. At the same time that Sung-nam's various prospects for a Paris love-life, he seems (in his phone conversations with his wife) to be all the more filled with a sense of desperation and confusion; it's as if he's increasingly aware that he's living the kind of Paris adventure a young Asian artist might better have had at 20 or 30 instead of 45, and this isn't going to work. Eventually surprise news leads Sung-nam to return to Korea and his wife (Hwang Su-jung), and he faces the consequences of the pot incident and, not without some bumps along the way, begins to resume his life.

The recurrent theme from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony gives a surprise note of European high culture and perhaps further irony, but it seems pushed a little too hard.

Night and Day remains interesting and textured as Hong Sang-soo's other films, but at 144 minutes it's longer than it has any justification for being, and the touristic aspect and an obtrusive use of the zoom lens seem out of character. Every scene is interesting, but they go in a few too many directions, and pursue too many strands. Tightening up and paring down would have added significantly to quality. It's as if Hong was distracted by the European sojourn himself. Maybe the director would do better to stay at home next time. Nonetheless Hong is an auteur well worth keeping track of. NYFF--no US release pending. It opened in Paris in July--along with Woman on the Beach--and was reviewed at the Berlinale earlier in the year.

Chris Knipp
10-08-2008, 05:12 PM


The freedom to be provocative

Daniel Leconte's 119-minute French language documentary is an energetic thriller of ideas. It covers a high-profile court case in which three Paris Muslim groups sued the left-leaning satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for reprinting those notorious cartoon drawings from a Danish paper (Jyllans-Posten, September 2005) mocking Islam and Islamists. The French plaintiffs' particular focus was two images, most notably one with the Prophet wearing a bomb in his turban—and a new cartoon by Charlie Hebdo artist Cabu of Muhammad holding his head in chagrin and saying "It's hard being loved by jerks" ("C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons)" with the heading above "Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists" (Mahomet débordé par les intégristes ").

A success at Cannes and part of the New York Film Festival, this verbose two-hour French documentary may be a hard sell for Americans but it's both significant and fun—it’s a celebration of French logic and a triumph of humor over solemnity. Seen primarily from the point of view of philosophical libertarians and the Charlie Hebdo team, it's a courtroom drama with livelihoods and freedom of expression at stake. Moreover, this case has an added importance because in other western countries where the cartoons were printed, the authorities declined to defend, while in the Arab world a number of journalists were fired for daring to reprint them. In the view of Charlie Hebdo's fiery but ironic leader Philippe Val, this was a victory for French Muslims.

Ironically "fundamentalist" in French is "intégriste," but one thing French fundamentalist Muslims seem not to want is to integrate. If laughter heals, Charlie Hebdo may have struck a blow for the cause of Muslim integration in France. Richard Malka, the defendants' energetic young attorney, made a dazzling shocker of a presentation toward the end when he said, in effect, "So you want to be treated like everyone else? Then here's what you'll get..." and he preceded to display a raft of earlier Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the most obscene, blasphemous, and scurrilous nature lambasting Christians, Jews, and even Buddhists over the past 10 or 15 years of the weekly—far worse stuff than the offending cartoons about Muslims. At first the court was aghast and Malka thought he'd blown it. Then everybody, including the judges and even the attorneys for the plaintiffs, began to break into fits of uproarious giggles--the fou rire the French are given to sometimes. After that, it was obvious who (the magazine) and what (freedom of expression) won the case. Malka's case is irrefutable, however uneasy one may feel about the way the Muslim fundamentalists were mocked and how that might be taken as part of a mythical "clash of civilizations." If they don't want to be mocked, the Muslims of France would not only be asking to be treated differently from everyone else but would be demanding a repressive society.

While Leconte's bias is extremely mild compared to, say, the obtrusive editorializing of Michael Moore, it's the nature of the case that not every viewpoint gets an equal hearing. The plaintiffs hardly tried—despite having President Jacques Chirac’s lawyer, Francis Szpiner, as their chief attorney: they only presented one witness, while the defense had over a dozen. Chirac was negotiating with the Saudis. He wanted to appease them. Sarkozy, not yet elected, sent a well-publicized fax the first day endorsing Charlie Hebdo. "I prefer an excess of caricature to an absence of caricature," he wrote." His opponent Ségolène Royale sent a more niggling text message of support.

It's pretty fair to say the fact that Charlie Hebdo won was a victory for free expression--and the right to be indifferently outrageous toward every religion--and agnostics and atheists too for that matter. But it's not exactly the case that every viewpoint gets an equal hearing. The film's two major weaknesses: not even the voices or texts of the actual trial could be shown, and the whole case gives little voice to Islamic moderates.

To make up for the lack of direct coverage, Leconte interviews the many defense "witnesses" to summarize their statements both during and after the trial. All the attorneys on both sides and one court representative also get ample opportunity to address the camera. So do many of the people in the hall outside the courtroom who conducted heated debates and made impassioned statements. Leconte also reports lively goings-on at the offices the paper being sued and L'Express, which also became involved.

Note that while in the US Muslims are about 2% of the population, Europe has 15-20 million, France the highest proportion, 7-10% of their total. Muslims are more visible and less scared in Europe than in the US--where the post 9/11 mood is frankly hostile and exclusionary. In France there are big movie stars who are Arabs; and an Arab woman, Rachida Dati, is Minister of Justice (one of seven women cabinet members appointed by Sarkozy). But a key issue outside this film's scope is whether Muslims, relatively new to Europe as a force, are secure and thick-skinned enough to endure normal criticism in a democratic society with a free press.

The material is controversial. The film seeks a wide perspective. All the key players are heard from-- lawyers, witnesses, journalists--and there’s revealing coverage of free-wheeling editorial meetings and public demonstrations. Leconte considers the international political implications of the issues in their ideological and media terms. There’s still a feeling the picture is somewhat monochromatic. How integrated can modern society be? There are so many contexts involved: Muslims among the French; the French as seen by the Muslims; the controversy as seen by the rest of the world; the controversy as seen by the Muslim world. But Leconte, from his insider’s point of view, takes us to the heart of an intense and articulate culture.

The film opened in French theaters September 1, 2008.

Chris Knipp
10-09-2008, 09:37 PM


Kiyoshi Kurosawa's family game

Parental job loss leads to family meltdowns leading to collective desperation, crisis, and tentative resolution. That is the trajectory of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's new film which has its weird uneasy moments, but departs notably from the sui generis horror mode the director of Cure, Pulse, etc. is most noted for, at least abroad. And justifiably noted: this new younger Kurosawa's creepy strangeness at its best is very original. In this latest effort he shifts to the sad humanism of Fellini's La Strada (which the director suggested his principal actor watch to get a take on what he was doing) or the old master Akira Kurosawa's unbearably touching Do-des-ka-den.

Not as comically raucous, violent or eventful as Yoshimitsu Morita's 1983 The Family Game, Tokyo Sonata nonetheless deals similarly with kids in revolt in a disintegrating middle class Japanese family. When Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his managerial job the effect at home is gradual and subtle because he pretends it hasn't even happened, going out in suit and tie every work day as usual. Japanese men are commonly so shame-averse and obsessed with appearances, Ryuhei's concealment of job loss doesn't seem surreal as it does in Laurent Cantet's Time Out but almost natural. In fact the library Sasaki's out-of-work classmate Kurosu (Kaniji Tsuda) shows him to while away daytime hours seems full of similarly idle suited men. Kurosu and Ryuhei have met near a lunchtime free-food line both are patronizing. Even there, Kurosu has set his cell phone to ring five times an hour and holds mock business calls. His bravado impresses Sasaki, but Kurosu is closer to desperation than Sasaki realizes. Sasaki's own emotional collapse comes on more gradually, and shows up in increasingly ill-repressed anger.

While dinners in The Family Game were a hilarious battleground, and family meals in Japanese films, Ozu's included, traditionally are times for significant developments, Kurosawa deliberately stages meals in which Sasaki family members barely ever speak more than a few monosyllables. Ryuhei's wife Megumi (Kyoko Kozumi) suffers in silence, suspecting even from the first day, when she happens to catch her husband sneaking in the house early, but saying nothing. Meanwhile their two sons have their own stories. The older teenager, Takashi (Ju Koyanagi) has a nothing job giving out tissues; he and his friend can't get anyone to take them and dump a big box of them into the river.

Takashi eventually decides to join the US Army; in the story, which extrapolates from current trends, the Japanese government has granted permission for a hundred or so to do that, and Takashi's sent to Iraq. The younger son, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), though innocent and sweet-looking, is an outspoken misfit at school, publically mocking his teacher in front of the whole class for reading erotic manga on the train. Kenji finds a lovely piano teacher, Kaneko (Haruka Igawa), and when his father utterly rejects his taking lessons, uses his monthly school lunch money of 5,000 Yen to secretly pay for them. Kaneko discovers that Kenji has an extraordinary gift and wants him to go to a special school, but this only leads to a violent confrontation with his father--and Megumi's more pronounced alienation from her husband. Once it's clear Ryuhei's jobless, he has no family authority and his efforts to block both sons' choices become even more totally futile.

When interviewed at the New York Film Festival, Kurosawa said that some of the big laughs his film received at Cannes were "wildly inappropriate," but "occasional chuckles" would be fine. Ryuhei's antics with Kurosu and Kenki's scenes with his teacher certainly are comical. So is the moment when Megumi discovers Ryuhei in red overalls secretly working part-time on a clean-up squad at a shopping mall. This incident leads to a two-hour flashback to a surprising event at home of Tarantino-like proportions. The continuation of that bizarre adventure, involving strangers wandering off in a car, may owe something to Takeshi Kitano.

From then on the plot leads in directions that are alternately tragicomic and uplifting. Takashi has chosen to work out his salvation in his own far-off way. Nothing else is resolved in the family, but Kenji's talent may be rewarded. There is business with a new-model small Peugeot with a vanishing hardtop that may be unnecessary, and the last scene, though touching, is somewhat indulgent. On the other hand, there and elsewhere Kurosawa shows he has not lost his skill at achieving haunting moments with minimalist means. The complexly neutral cityscapes have a typical cold, unnerving beauty.

Kurosawa worked out his story with Sachiko Tanaka from a script by the Australian writer Max Mannix--giving more importance in their rewrite to the older son and especially to the wife, who has her own distinct and climactic episode, something outside the usual male-dominated Japanese family mindset. Though there's some uncertainty of tone and some cutting might have helped, Kurosawa tells an interesting, sometimes even moving story and has completely escaped from his alleged recent "J-horror" genre doldrums. This film won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes this year--the only Japanese title to get a Cannes award. It's been bought in the US by Regent Releasing.

Chris Knipp
10-10-2008, 05:17 PM


A conventional movie subject that isn't

The Christmas picture with a big family uncomfortably gathered at the parental manse is a cinematic cliché, and Desplechin, using a galaxy of by now increasingly familiar French film actors, can't totally escape that, but being a director who has always liked to work with complex family histories and the dark secrets they conceal, this is both an irresistible mode and one he is well able to treat in fresh ways. The film begins with an ominous twist: Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) the matriarch, has just been diagnosed with a form of the leukemia that killed her first-born, Joseph. And the doctor says only a marrow transplant can help her, though it could also kill her, and her infection isn't absolutely certain yet. The Christmas gathering has many functions, then--and Desplechin skillfully juggles them all, constantly changing focus and scenes and backing them with a cornucopia of musical pieces from rap to jazz to soul to Wagner. The family members will consider the mathematical probabilities to decide what Junon should do (and this is done with great serousness and accuracy). Tests will narrow down possible family donors. Christmas will be celebrated, with a festive dinner and exchange of presents on the 24th and midnight mass. Old attractions and renunciations will emerge, and old hostilities will be at least temporarily suspended.

When little Joseph was diagnosed, there was only one other child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny); she's now a tormented playwright, married to a mathematician, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot). Junon and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussilon) had a third child hoping to find a compatible bone marrow donor, but Henri (Matthieu Amalric) could not help, and Joseph died at the age of seven--while the profligate, madcap Henri enraged Elizabeth so much as an adult that six years ago she settled a major debt for him and then ordered him never to cross her path again: she has "banished" him, recalling the fact that Desplechin uses royal metaphors in describing families, having called his last film, also dominated by parental and sibling passions and curses, Kings and Queen. The other, youngest son of Abel and Junon is Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), a once shy and crazy youth who's now a cheerful peacemaker; he's married to the beautiful Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni). And they have two colorful little boys, Basile and Baptiste (Thomas and Clement Obled). Also close to the family is Simon (Laurent Capelluto), Junon's painter nephew, taken in by Abel and Junon when his own parents died, whose long-concealed secret Sylvia is going to learn. Elizabeth and Claude have a troubled 16-year-old son, Paul (Emile Berling), who's recently been hospitalized for a psychotic episode and is on a galaxy of medications. Ivan was similar at that age but avoided such "prison" and tries to connect with and cncourage Paul.

Again the director has made a movie with Matthieu Amalric (who starred in his first feature) in a central role as a crazy guy, the financially disastrous and heavy-drinking Henri, and wut Emmanuelle Devos as his girlfriend, Faunia, who comes for the Christmas festivities, but partly because she's Jewish, can't sit out the Christian holiday and returns from Roublaix to Paris. Deneuve has a bigger role than she did in Kings and Queen, while Devos, who has been Desplechin's "muse" in some sense since his first feature, has a less central one this time, though she still lights up the screen, and has time to go shopping with Junon, who says she likes her, bu then disappears leaving her at a department store.

In an interview at the New York Film Festival when Desplechin was asked why he liked Devos so much, he said there were too many reasons to list them. And it's the mark of a great and original director, a role that Desplechin aspires to quite often deservedly, that he can keep using the same actors and always give them new things to do. We've seen Amalric as a madcap disaster before, but he's still different this time. We've seen Deneuve as the grande dame before, but never quite like this, and her acting grows richer and more natural with every year (this eternally regal beauty is now 64).

Young Paul and Henri turn out to be the possible marrow donors. Paul is willing, but Elizabeth doesn't want him to be involved in the dangerous and painful experience--and Henri volunteers, forcing Elizabeth to accept him for the nonce. The understanding has been all along that in these emergency circumstances everyone is coming together at the house in Roublaix, but this makes it mandatory.

Events will still include some wildly provocative behavior by Henri. Abel (who calls himself "an old toad") provides a comforting presence, and Junon a serene, regal one. She admits to being afraid at one point (the film includes realistic, but never gruesome, scenes in the hospital) but brings no tragedy or melodrama to her role. In fact as both Deneuve and Desplechin agreed at the New York Film Festival interview, the dialogue is so specific that "acting" in the sense of emotional underlining isn't much needed and performers were advised to play against the hilarity or the sadness of their respective moments. The effect of this toning-down is to avoid the pretension some of the director's earlier films have fallen into, with no loss of complexity. Though this is a glorious feast for fans it's also true as the 'Variety' reviewer Derek Elley says that like all Desplechin's oeuvre this is still primarily for "hardcore addicts of the helmer and gabby French cinema." (Include me in.) The action takes us through the transplant, but not any results. The whole pleasure of the film is in its scene-to-scene texture, the fun of the cinematic style (old-fashioned inter-titles help clarify the family structure, and iris fade-ins and fade-outs help keep things jaunty), and the sense of a world too elaborate not to be real--and yet, for devotees, also clearly a vision burst full blown from the head of M. Desplechin. In the end, despite the "Christmas tale" format, there's ultimately not much you could really call cliché here.

US release of A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) by IFC Films is scheduled (NYC) for November 14, 2008.

Chris Knipp
10-17-2008, 11:47 AM


Chris Knipp
10-23-2008, 07:23 PM

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Ashes of Time Redux (Wong) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20813#post20813)
Bullet in the Head (Rosales) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20769#post20769)
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Chouga (Omirbaev) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20750#post20750)
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