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Thread: New York Film Festival 2008

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    New York Film Festival 2008

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:26 AM.

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    Q&A's: LINEUP OF SPEAKERS

    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)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-09-2008 at 08:13 AM.

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    Laurent cantet: The class (2008)

    LAURENT CANTET: THE CLASS (2008)



    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:28 AM.

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    Kelly reichardt: Wendy and lucy (2008)

    KELLY REICHARDT: WENDY AND LUCY (2008)


    MICHELLE WILLIAMS

    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:29 AM.

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    Alexander olch: The windmill movie (2008)

    ALEXANDER OLCH: THE WINDMILL MOVIE (2008)


    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 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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:31 AM.

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    Lucrecia martel: The headless woman (2008)

    LUCRECIA MARTEL: THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008)


    MARIA ONETTO

    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, "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 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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:33 AM.

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    Pablo larrain: Tony manero (2008)

    PABLO LARRAIN: TONY MANERO (2008)


    ALFREDO CASTRO

    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:39 AM.

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    Max orphuls: Lola montes (1955)

    MAX ORPHULS: LOLA MONTES (1955)



    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:40 AM.

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    Matteo garrone: Gomorrah (2008)

    MATTEO GARRONE: GOMORRAH (2008)


    MARCO MACOR, CIRO PETRONE

    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 ) 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). 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) 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 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.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:45 AM.

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    Antonio campos: Afterschool (2008)

    ANTONIO CAMPOS: AFTERSCHOOL (2008)


    EZRA MILLER

    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.)*

    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.


    afterschool DVD cover
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-07-2019 at 10:42 PM.

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    Darezhan omirbaev: Chouga (2007)

    DAREZHAN OMIRBAEV: CHOUGA (2007)


    AINOUR TOUGANBAEVA

    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:47 AM. Reason: reformat photo

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    Jerzy skolimowski: Four nights with anna (2008)

    JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI: FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA (2008)


    ARTUR STERANKO IN FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA

    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:48 AM.

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    Agnes jaoui: Let it rain (2008)

    AGNES JAOUI: LET IT RAIN (2008)


    JAMEL DEBBOUZE, AGNES JAOUI, JEAN-PIERRE BACRI

    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:49 AM.

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    Sergey dvortsevoy: Tulpan (2007)

    SERGEY DVORTSEVOY: TULPAN (2007)


    ASKAT KUCHINCHIREKOV, TULEPBERGEN BAISAKALOV, CAMERAMAN

    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:50 AM.

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    Brillante mendoza: Serbis (2008)

    BRILLANTE MENDOZA: SERBIS (2008)


    COCO MARTIN, MERCEDES CABRAL

    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2019 at 12:51 AM.

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