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Thread: Film Comments Selects And New Directors, New Films 2009

  1. #1
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    Film Comment Selects And New Directors, New Films 2009



    Kung Fu, car parts, and babysitting in the Yucatan

    Lake Tahoe is a work of inspired minimalism formally laid out in luminous long shots--long and thin, because of a wide aspect ratio--and cut into segments with blackouts as in early Jim Jarmusch. As in Eimbcke's 2004 first film, Duck Season, the protagonist is a teenage boy, whose meandering day seems a combination of Kafkaesque delays and the manana spirit but gradually reveals a sense of dislocation due to personal loss. Someone important has died in his family. His mother (Mariana Elizondo) is smoking and weeping in the bathtub, and later lies asleep. His little brother Joaquin (Yemil Sefani) sits in a little tent in the backyard clipping football photos and later crouches in a bedroom closet.

    But the morning begins for Juan (Duck Seasn's Diego Cataño) not at home but wandering on the road. He crashes the family's little old red Nissan into a tree (we just hear the crash in a blackout between static shots and then see the car and the tree). Juan is unharmed but the car won't start. A droll series of frustrations follows as he goes around on foot trying to get help at one garage after another. Juan needs a mechanic and instead people want his help and his friendship. These include an old man, a scrawny Bruce Lee fanatic who takes Juan back and forth to his Nissan on a rickety old bike, and a young woman with a small baby that stops crying and begins to coo whenever Juan holds it.

    Eimbcke makes good use of the stillness of his young actor and of the camera. The old garage owner, Don Heber (Hector Herrera) takes Juan for a thief and has his dog, Sika, keep guard while he searches first for the phone then for the phone book to call the police. But the phone is dead, and before long Don Heber is sitting down to a cereal breakfast with Juan. When Juan declines ("I've had breakfast") Don Heber says "Sika!" and the dog jumps up on the table and eagerly consumes Juan's bowl of cereal. Don Heber decides without seeing the car what part is broken (the distributor harness) and tells Juan to look for it in his garage, then falls asleep in a hammock.

    David (Juan Carlos Lara II), who's about the same age as Juan, boasts of his prowess as a mechanic, but disappears for long periods. While waiting for him in the doorway of a parts shop Juan gets to know Lucia (Daniela Valentine). He's also sidetracked to a meal at David's. While David is a fanatic of martial arts and invites Juan to a Kung Fu movie that evening, David's mother tries to convert Juan to her born-again Christianity.

    It's Juan's deadpan manner and the deliberately ineloquent camera that help make the various incidents droll and somehow touching. Lucia wants something of Juan too: for him to babysit her baby, Fidel (Joshua Habid) so she can go to a concert.

    Every shot seems to fall into the spaces defined by a quiet maze of low white buildings, graffiti and sunlight, as if all the locations in the little town were scattered in a small circle. Each image is beautifully composed and shot by cinematographer Alexis Zabe: even the shots of Juan driving the car, shot from outside the windshield, happen in lovely sun-kissed shadow. As he wanders around Juan passes by his modest family house, which is cozy and interesting inside, but full of emptiness. It's these touch-downs at "home" that show Juan's life has broken free of its moorings. It's emotional confusion as much as the day's circumstances that explains how Juan's come to be adrift in time. And yet he both retains a sense of purpose (and gets David to fix the car) and still has time to connect further with Don Heber, David, and Lucia, returning after a magical night away to fix hotcakes for Joaquin and add one significant touch from the front bumper of the now-revived car to complete Joaquin's scrapbook of their lost family member.

    Lake Tahoe is only 81 minutes long and is a marvel in its use of limited means to charm, to create a unique (yet familiar and believable) world and to develop character and touch us with few words and few gestures. Though the blackouts may remind one of Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise,, Eimbcke carries them further, making them last longer and stand for the passage of time and also enriching them by continuing the sound track over the blackness, notably and drolly the screams and screeches of Kung Fu masters as Juan watches the Shaolin classic in a darkened cinema with David. The blackouts symbolize stoppage but also show Juan's life leaping forward even as he sits stymied.

    Shown in February 2009 at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center, NYC, as part of the Film Comment Selects series.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-18-2017 at 10:02 PM.

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    Philippe garrel: The frontier of dawy (2008)--fcs



    Another victim of love-longing

    Philippe Garrel's films exist in a gloomy romantic limbo. They hover somewhere between now--in his last two, the star is his young son Louis--and the Sixties or Seventies. They draw heavily upon autobiographical elements. Parisian intellectual and artistic spirit sinks under the weight of irresistible but unhealthy sexual entanglements. Here again his new film, La Frontière de l'aube, is a lush sensual pleasure to watch, shot in gorgeous contrasty black and white by the director's twenty-year collaborator, William Lubtchansky. No cell phones in view, only wine glasses and candlelight. When the two lovers need to communicate over a distance they use not text messaging, but pen on paper.

    Louis Garrel, whom a French commentator on IMDb dubs "the raven-haired prince of the cinematheque," indeed is a gorgeous, quintessentially photogenic young man whose uniquely dreamy Mediterranean looks make him the perfect romantic hero. He is the Young Werther and all his avatars. Ironically, Christophe Honore's frequent uses of him have gradually revealed (in Dans Paris and Love Songs) that in person the dreamboat is full of puckish humor. But in his father's masterful 1968 evocation, the 2005 Regular Lovers and here, on the edge of a tragic dawn, he looks into the mirror and a dead lover appears to him and calls to him to join her in the grave and he jumps, again, out the window. Here, his name is Francois and he is a photographer.

    They whistled at this in Cannes. Is it an elegant and genuinely scary genre horror movie? A laughably corny evocation of the cinematic surrealism of Jean Cocteau? "A risible slice of pretentious hokum," as Variety's unmoved (Cannes) reviewer proclaimed? There are elements of self-parody, but this is too beautiful a film to dismiss just because of a little silliness. A romantic sine-curve trance like this demands that you give yourself to its mood utterly. If you do, this is a very nice long swoon. As the wise IMDb commentator suggests, "to make the phantasmagoria perfect" you should "have a bottle or two of cheap red wine before you dive into this one." Though not nearly as memorable as the contextually richer Regular Lovers, this, whose intimacy and less period-specific style sets it closer to Garrel's 1990's film J'entends plus la guitare, is also less exhausting to watch than, and just as hypnotic as, Regular Lovers.

    Surrender herself to the mood is what Louis Garrel's co-star Laura Smet herself clearly does, in a compelling performance that includes one of the most detailed and unnervingly real of filmed pill-suicide sequences. Smet burst upon the world of French cinema five years ago in the intense Les Corps impatients/Eager Bodies. More seasoned now and reportedly herself recently out of rehab, she plays an unstable star, Carole, living in a big empty apartment while her husband Ed (Eric Rulliat) is off in Hollywood neglecting her. Francois comes, timidly at first, to do a photo shoot. She shoos out the usual gang of Garrelian kibitzers, and she and the respectful camera-boy soon become lovers-- after moving into a hotel another day where they can focus better. Francois's shoot never quite ends. We never quite see the results of it either. (But the whole film is a photo shoot; and Lubtchansky's eye is indistinguishable from Francois'.) The young photographer falls in love. They talk about revolution and madness. She asks him if he'll still love her if she goes crazy.

    He laughs off that question, but it becomes a serious one. Carole drinks too much and uses too many pills. She loses control and is taken to a sanitarium where she is given shock treatments. Francois drifts away. Released, she commits suicide.

    A year later, Francois meets and prepares to marry a richer, more normal, more conventionally bourgeois girl. But as he becomes seriously involved with her, he begins having supernatural experiences -- or disturbingly real-seeming delusions. Increasingly when he looks in the mirror, he sees Carole glowering at him out of the darkness and, as time goes on, she begins calling to him to join her.

    In Garrel's film, everything is made hyper-real, and therefore unreal, by Lubtchansky's cinematography. Francois's meeting in the country with the family of his fiancee, the mythically named Eve (Clementine Poidatz), could be a voyage through an enchanted forest. Francois's chat with a bohemian friend suggests perhaps the film's position is that suicide is fine but marriage a trap to avoid. Passing references to socialism and the Holocaust add to the impression, though, that this film's ideological content is only skin-deep. What isn't superficial or silly or shallow is the consistency of Philippe Garrel's unique cinematic style. It's both true that they don't make them like this any more, and that he still passionately and beautifully does. While I wouldn't want to miss a Garrel/Garrel collaboration, this one hasn't the magic of Regular Lovers, and Honore's work with Louis has been more fun, and allowed him, and us, to breathe more as well as explore more of this young leading man's casting possibilities.

    Shown at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the series Film Comment Selects of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, in February 2009. Released October 8, 2008 in Paris to good reviews in some of the best journals--L'Humanite, Le Point, Cahiers du Cinema, Le Monde, Liberation, Les Inrockuptibles.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-08-2016 at 02:42 PM.

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    Gotz spielmann: Revanche (2008)--fcs


    "Austria loves a bruised, clinical thriller; just ask Michael Haneke. Gotz Spielmann's Oscar nominee certainly fits the national bill (the title means "revenge"). It's about a botched bank robbery, a mortally wounded girlfriend and the criminal aftermath of same. But Revanche also represents a clever modulation of the formula, leavened with appealing hints of guilt, redemption, even forgiveness. Don't worry: It's also deliciously severe and dark." [Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York, quoted in FCS blurb]
    Authenticity and surprise in a gritty thriller

    Revanche is a deliciously gritty neo-noir full of surprises, so many important ones that it is better not to go into too much detail about the plot. But as important as its clever narrative to the success of the film is its atmosphere, which has a contemporary and positively ethnographic precision, but builds on the traditional contrast between city and country. And there is another contrast: between two couples, an ex-con and a whore, and a cop and his wife who works in a shop. The first couple is on the edge of Vienna and the other lives in the country, but circumstances bring them together.

    The action begins with Alex (Johannes Krisch) and his Ukrainian prostitute girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko) in Vienna. Spielmann rubs our noses in the scummy world of a whorehouse on the outskirts of town, with its Eastern European sex workers and its slimy fat cat boss Konecny (Hanno Poeschl), for whom Alex works. Tamara speaks pidgin German, but she's not dumb, and when the boss offers her an upgrade to call girl in a flat, she knows it's trouble and resolves to run away with Alex. She owes a big debt, and he cooks up the robbery scheme so she can pay it off. He says it's going to work because he has a plan. He says that so many times we become certain it won't. But despite Rothkopf's tidy summary, the outcome isn't so simple. The bank robbery isn't botched, but it goes badly for Alex, and also for a cop named Robert

    "When people go to the city they become either arrogant or scoundrels. He's a scoundrel." So says Hauser (Johannes Thanheiser), Alex's grandfather, an old man failing in health who lives on a small farm. He exists outside the modern world almost completely, though he does drive a little old VW Bug. People don't think it's safe for him to still be on the road. When Alex goes to stay with Hauser, it seems almost that he's fallen off the map that includes the prostitutes and the scummy underside of Viennese life.

    Alongside Alex's story is that of the policeman, Robert, who seems unable to give his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss) a baby; too bad, because they both want one. They live in a nice modern house they've built, with help from friends, somewhere not too far from Alex's grandfather. In fact Susanne knows him.

    "I'll give you one thing: you really are a hell of a worker," Hauser tells Alex. Alex hides out after the robbery by staying with his grandfather and cutting up a mountain of firewood. The work instinct unites the two men in spite of everything, and Hauser's declining health gives Alex another reason for staying around. He also has revenge in his heart for what's happened to Tamara. But things get complicated, people talk,and that changes.

    Revanche builds on coincidence but in ways so rooted in gritty milieu and so gnarly and unexpected they really seem to emerge not from a writer's brainstorm but the downright mind boggling absurdity of real life. The word "revanche" can mean in German not only revenge, but also rematch--in short, a second chance. If Alex reaches a point where he can work out his salvation with diligence, it's much more quirky circumstance that gets him there than any pat change of heart. The satisfaction this film provides is delayed. It comes in the way it simmers and ripens after a viewing.

    Martin Gschlacht did the excellent cinematography. The acting is strong and convincing, including that of the 83-year-old Thanheiser. With close to a dozen films under his belt, Spielmann, who also wrote the screenplay, is clearly at the top of his game. It will be a real shame if US theatrical audiences don't get to see Revanche on the big screen.

    Revanche won the Europa Cinemas Label for best European film at the Berlinale, and has other awards, including two FIPRESCIs. It was a nominee for the Best Foreign Oscar. Shown as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York, February 2009. "Revanche . . .has just been picked up for North American theatrical and home video distribution by art film distributor Janus and the Criterion Collection.--Movie Jungle.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-08-2016 at 02:44 PM.

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    Jean-claude brisseau: A l'aventure (2009)--fcs


    A sexually unfulfilled young woman embarks on a series of graphic erotic encounters and becomes involved with a student of psychoanalysis who offers to put her under hypnosis. Yes, the notorious Jean-Claude Brisseau, director of The Exterminating Angels and Secret Things, is back with his latest provocation. Another idiosyncratic philosophical meditation on the enigmas of female sexuality, it features the director's latest discovery, Carole Brana. Pretentious smut for high-brows, a dirty old man's fantasies writ large, or a profound and daring exploration of society's sexual taboos? You decide. [FCS blurb]
    Beautiful, but elementary and retro, expositions of sex and cosmology

    It's easy enough to decide that this is not "pretentious smut for highbrows" (do highbrows like smut?) or a "dirty old man's fantasies writ large." It is far too beautiful and intelligent and thoughtful for that. It's an odd film, which combines S/M, religious ecstasy, and some basic information about cosmology in an attractive package. Perhaps only a French filmmaker could have made this. And only a man still conventional in his notions of sexual roles could put lovely nude women on display having sex with each other and masturbating with men in charge and think it a bold exploration of new possibilities.

    A l'aventure begins like a New Wave film, with conversation and random meetings. It might be early Eric Rohmer, for a little while, anyway; not for long. Sandrine (Carole Brana) sits on a bench talking to her friend Sophie (Lise Bellynck), and an older man (Etienne Chicot) joins them and makes wise reflections. What he says later influences her. She is about to come into an inheritance. She offends her boyfriend Fred (Jocelyn Quivrin) by masturbating in the next room after they have had sex. He says she's become a "slut" and very soon afterward he moves out.

    Sandrine strikes up a conversation at a cafe with Greg (Arnaud Binard), a good looking man with books on psychology and hypnosis. It turns out he is training to be a psychiatrist. And he experiments on his patients. Sandrine immediately finds him attractive and says so. They go straight to his bedroom.

    Later, Greg introduces Sandrine to several women and she also meets a long-haired architect and decorator, Jerome (Frederic Aspisi), who's into heightening women's orgasms by playing their S/M master. Eventually Greg takes some of the women on a risky trip to ecstatic experience. All the while Sandrine keeps meeting the older man on the bench, and eventually at his cabin out in the country. He is a taxi driver but also studied meditation in India and taught physics. He outlines the rough history of the cosmos to Sandrine and gives a simplified explanation of Relativity.

    The women are beautiful, especially the radiant Carole Brana. As the "Old Man," Etienne Chicot speaks with resonant authority and a healthy touch of humor. It is true that Brisseau's scenes of women having sex go further than usual; when men are shown, it's quite conventional. Greg and Jerome just watch. Poor Fred's performance is deemed unsatisfying. Even the shots of landscape around the Old Man's cabin are lovely. Watching the film is soothing and aesthetically pleasurable. At the end, the Old Man proclaims Greg's experiments foolish and risky; but other than a paranormal internal storm after a woman's reliving of a saint's spiritual enlightenment, there are no consequences.

    The problem with this pleasant and in some ways daring film is that it is far too often more expository than dramatic. No matter how good looking the people and the settings are, it's hard to shake off the impression that one is being lectured -- and not on a very sophisticated level. Nothing is imparted that one would not get in elementary courses or basic reading in psychology, cosmology, religious experience, and physics. The wisest advice comes from Sandrine's mother (Michele Larue). She counsels her to go back to Fred and tells her she's lucky that instead of having boredom with a young lover ahead, she will discover love for a man she doesn't like enough yet. Convention, she says, is necessary. But as the film ends, Sandrine hasn't discovered that yet. The film barely touches on the possible negative consequences of a life that's more exploratory than practical. Brisseau is 65. Is this where French baby boomers are at?

    A l'aventure has been optioned by IFC. It opens in France April 1, 2009. It was shown in February 2009 as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-08-2016 at 02:48 PM.

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    Christian petzold: Jerichow (2008)



    No need to ring twice

    This German director's remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice has a harsh, pared-down intensity that leaves a lasting impression. The husband is a rich Turkish-German businessman, a bottom-feeder made good whom nobody wants around. He's really quite nice--and nice to the lean, muscled vet he takes on as a helper--except that he beats his wife. Ali (Hilmi Sözer) runs a bunch of fast food road joints. Thomas (Benno Fuermann) was dishonorably discharged from service in Afghanistan, is back in his old country home and needs work.

    The opening scene shows Thomas at a funeral near the town of Jerichow, west of Berlin. A parent has just died and he wants to renovate the country house and live in it. He tries to hide some money from his brother to use for that. He gets caught, and knocked out. This is where Ali comes and asks Thomas to drive for him, because he's drunk.

    Alienation is a big theme here. Bonds do not exist or if they do, are born of emptiness. Remember Faye Dunnaway's line to Jack Nicolson in Chinatown? "Are you alone?" and his reply: "Isn't everyone?" These folks are shut up in their cold little 'windowless monads,' to cite a German philosopher. Such also is the cold, ugly world of Forties American noir. Petzold has neatly transposed it to 21st-century Germany. It's what we don't know about Thomas, Ali, and Ali's wife Laura (Nina Hoss) that makes them interesting to us.

    Petzold tells a simple, effective, highly focused story whose action is held together by the glue of bad behavior and suspicion.

    Thomas isn't exactly a drifter like the John Garfield character in the 1946 original, but he comes close. The only job he can get is tossing cucumbers into a machine at harvest time. But after the frequently drunk Ali has his driving license revoked, he calls on Thomas to help him full time as driver and co-worker for the deliveries and collections from his roadside snackbars. Laura helps with the accounting, Laura and Thomas immediately meet, and before long they're sneaking kisses and more, with dangerous boldness, almost as if Ali were blind like the cuckolded husband in Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark (which is set in Germany).

    Jerichow doesn't pause for a breath and has no frills or beauty--though the photography has an elegant clarity both in depicting the landscape and painting the light around the three characters. What we get is like a good short story. The spaces become vivid--the runs through heavy rain between houses, the cliff over the water where the victim will come to grief, the space between Laura and Thomas on a bed, the space between Laura's breasts and her thin print dress.

    Unlike the films of Fatih Akim, this isn't from the Turkish-German's point of view, but Ali is not a simple rotter but a man of warmth and vulnerability as well as brutishness. He has lived in Germany since he was two but he remains an outsider. There is also the quality in this theme of feeding his wife's infidelity. He beats her, he cannot satisfy her, she does not like him. But none of that shows. He sees Thomas can handle responsibility and trusts him with runs on his own. It is possible to walk back and forth between the two houses. The three have a picnic on the beach when Ali gets drunk (as usual) and dances. He's angry when Thomas alludes to Zorba--the Greek! The final scene will return to this place. Petzold also has a clever plot device by which for a long period we don't know where Ali is and he may be spying on the illicit couple. Laura, of course, has nasty secrets too.

    What Petold lacks of the cultural richness of Fatih Akin or sleazy atmosphere of Gotz Spielmann, he makes up with intensity and menace. Once in a while Forties noir finds a perfect contemporary match and this is such an occasion. Petzold is clearly a director of great understated sureness and accomplishment who deserves to be well known outside his native Germany. Hans Fromm's cinematography is an essential element here, and the performances are fine.

    Opened in Germany January 9, 2009, scheduled for French release in April. Shown as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York, February-March 2009. 'The U.S. distribution rights to Jerichow have been acquired by The Cinema Guild'--IndieWIRE.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-08-2016 at 02:04 PM.

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    Duane hopkins: Better things (2008)--fcs


    Kind of blue

    The photographer and filmmaker Duwne Hopkins' Better things is rather ironically titled: its people are hardly moving toward improvement in their bleak lives, though they might like to. They live in a marginal community in the English Cotswolds that seems to be dominated by adolescents and old people. All of them are either depressed, or addicted to drugs, or just old, run down, idle, or lost. Most are desperately hoping for love, but unable to find it. Hopkins, who has made some celebrated short films on related topics, is a native of the area and is careful to use local people, including former drug addicts. Faces seem harshly real, light is sculpted, landscape panoramas are dark and painterly.

    The shock here is that we're in the lovely English countryside, but it's full of urban problems: poverty, unemployment, drug addiction. There is no Hollywood glamor or Trainspotting wild style about these young addicts. The eye is poetic but the stories are sociological realism.

    A young woman named Tess (Emma Cooper) dies of an overdose, and those who remain don't seem better off, with a few exceptions: an estranged old couple gradually becomes reconciled, a girl overcomes her fear of leaving her room, and the boyfriend screws up the courage to visit the dead girl's mother.

    That boyfriend, Rob (Liam McIlfatrick), as well as David (Che Corr) and Jon (Freddie Cunliffe) all did heroin with Tess, although David, due to the influence of girlfriend Sarah (Tara Ballard), is half-heartedly trying to stop. Rob is struggling, not least with his inability to attend Tess's funeral because of his complicity in her death. Jon's grandfather (Frank Bench) is released from the hospital and when he returns home--in some of the bleakest scenes of marital shutdown ever filmed--avoids his poor old wife (Betty Bench). His anger is never explained, but he does eventually let it go. Tess's friend Gail (Rachel McIntyre) missed the funeral because she has become phobic about leaving her room. Her grandmother (Patricia Loveland) has a hard time getting her to get up in the morning. She is taking a new medication, a therapist or social worker makes a home visit, and she improves after a look at the stormy fields and trees outside with her failing "nan."

    The plot lines include 18 characters. As one reviewer has noted, the three young male leads are hard to tell apart; and so are some of the names. The meandering sequences tend to seem random, even when artificially linked by sound or image.

    Despite the integrity, something is missing--perhaps just stylistic restraint. Blue-tinted, carefully planned images of inertia are jarred awake by abrupt shock editing in which cross-cutting of similar moments and shifts from silence to noise are used a little too freely. I began to think the film would have worked better if the main stories had been followed through in separate sections instead of shuffled together--if, in short, Hopkins had worked in a simpler documentary style, let characters and scenes play out, and made space for more motivation and movement than simply waiting to score or racing at breakneck speed on a country road. The stylistically overwrought manner doesn't allow sequences and characters to breathe and detracts from the authenticity of the content, which, however mired in stasis, seems richly textured. There is a talent here that is at war with itself.

    Shown in March 2009 as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-08-2016 at 02:50 PM.

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    Celina murga: A week alone (2007)--fcs



    Class and child neglect

    This Argentinian director's second film is an ensemble piece about privilege and irresponsibility that focuses almost exclusively on children and adolescents. It can seem at times excruciatingly long because there is so little emphasis on plot, but at the same time Uns semana solos is remarkable in its gradual almost real-time accumulation of mood. The result is that when something finally happens toward the end of the 110 minutes, there is a sense of shock, even though consequences are muted. Murga's achieves a feel of seemingly complete naturalism in the use of the young people. It's a demonstration of the potential power of working slowly and methodically in a low key.

    These kids live in a gated community with its own church and school, somewhere not terribly far from Buenos Aires, which few of them have ever visited and which they refer to only as "el Capital." The focus is on one household but there are several families whose offspring play and hang out together all day. Their wealthy parents are away on vacation, leaving them to fend for and amuse themselves, with only a live-in housekeeper, Esther (Natalia Gomez Alarcon). Most of them bus to the same private school, which is still in session, the ostensible reason why they've been left behind. The place is patrolled by what they call "copy cops," who have little power--except to exclude the uninvited, or the non-rich.

    The very pretty Maria (Magdalena Copabianco) is the most mature, and seems the most in charge. Also having some seeming power is the athletic Facundo (Lucas Del Bo). But really no one is in charge, and it's a wonder nothing worse happens. But are these young people completely free, or in a kind of balmy prison? This is a question that has occurred to some.

    Murga's strategy is to take us into this world without explanation and to let the young actors be natural, eating snacks, watching TV, playing video games. What happens in school is omitted from the film except to show them leaving it and riding the bus and walking home in their uniforms. There is a certain imbalance here: doesn't anything of interest happen at school? In some ways the filmmakers (Murga and her co-author and producer husband, Juan Villegas) seem as oblivious as their young subjects. But in general their empathy pays off in the seamless sense of mood and milieu.

    The portrait of a privileged class might lack dimension without people who don't belong to set it off, and these come through the presence of Esther, and even more, in the surprise arrival of her younger brother, Juan (Ignacio Gimenez), whom the kids' parents have agreed to have come for a stay from his home in the unfashionable region of Entre Rios, a hinterland quite unknown to the kids. It's vacation time at Juan's public school. When he arrives, he must cool his heels for a long time at the gate while repeated phone calls are required to assure that he is allowed in. When he finally gets the go-ahead, he's photographed, like a criminal.

    The film is subtle in showing how Juan is excluded from the group. Wisely, the filmmakers have chosen a boy who isn't crude or pinched or poor-looking, but very presentable, tall, sportily dressed, even handsome. But of course that isn't enough to cut through the wall of privilege, and he just isn't welcomed very much. In a way he could just be the "new boy." One kid complains to his mother on the phone that she should have consulted with them before allowing Juan to come, and he wants him sent away. But eventually that is forgotten and little by little Juan blends in, some of the kids talk to him, and he loosens up. But when he's taken to the sports club pool, the boys torment him with warnings that he won't be allowed back if he violates any rules.

    Violating rules is something that they all do, however. Right at the beginning the kids wander into other people's houses in the neighborhood to explore them, poke around in drawers and closets, turn TVs and stereos on and off--and there is worse later. The concluding sequences, which follow a party where some of the boys get drunk, are a disturbing, the more so because they and everything leading up to them have been so muted. Perhaps Murga didn't know how to edit this film (it seems in need of some cutting), but the sense of flow and gradual progression are admirable.

    Released in Argentina February 19, 2009. Shown as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York, in March 2009.

    Oscar Jubis has also subsequently reviewed this film in his 2009 Miami Film Festival thread.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-08-2016 at 01:55 PM.

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    Daniel hernandez: Ordinary boys (2008)--nd/nf



    Authentic Moroccan settings, uninvolving narrative

    Spanish first-time feature director Daniel Hernandez (co-authoring his screenplay with Babi Martinez) keeps his camera close to a non-actor cast and authentic settings as he depicts the lives of a few Moroccan twenty-somethings, some of whom are indirectly connected to Islamists behind the 2004 Madrid bombings. They live in Jamaa Mezwak, a poor outlying part of Tetouan. Unfortunately former documentarian HernAndez's editing is rather random and the film is as meandering and confused as the lives of two of his three leads, causing the 85 minutes to seem like longer. The film opens with a funeral procession, then goes back in time to show how the death came about.

    Rabia (Rabia Bouchfira) is a cheerful, independent-minded law graduate who starts a small sewing and tailoring business with a friend. She doesn't wear the hijab, though reserving the right to don it later when she feels like it. She turns down a young sexist religious teacher who asks to marry her. Her boyfriend has gone to live in Austria, and she decides to give up on him and forget about marriage. Views expressed by locals are disapproving of the terrorists, but speaking to a woman acquaintance, Rabia points out that in the case of the Palestinians, violent action is justified in self-defense.

    Living in the same neighborhood, El-Khader (El-Khader Aoulasse) says his prayers and goes to mosque. He has no money but his aim is to work in theater. He sees that his life is hopeless and he contemplates emigrating to Spain, despite his lack of education or knowledge of Spanish. He's friends with Youseff (Youseff Belefki), who's illiterate, like El-Khader, and just out of prison. Brother of Mohammad, who's believed to have been involved in the Madrid bombings and is presumed dead, Youseff is crippled in one leg from a knife fight, lacks the money for proper treatment, seems stuck with being perpetually on crutches. He repeatedly comments that his brother studied hard all his life but came to a bad end: so why study? The terminally unmotivated Youseff's attempt at street vending is a flop and after doing a lot of alcohol and drugs at night on the street and feeling extensively sorry for himself, he takes up an offer and goes to work as an assistant for "Elegante," a local crook and drug trader, which enables him to buy an expensive Nike sweatsuit.

    The film is best in its naturalistic moments, women meeting in a home for tea, kids kneeling and chanting children's verses, or random street scenes, when the natural color and texture of contemporary Morocco come through. The filmmakers have a good visual eye. They're less good at editing or creating rhythms or interactions among their characters. The atmosphere may seem authentic, but how skin-deep it all is, is shown by the simplistic personalities: independent feminist, criminal type, doomed loser; and the other characters are all fatalistic about the benefits of emigration, though all young males desire it. The mothers are silent strivers who trust Fate and do not leave the kitchen (you wonder wehre Rabia sprang from). There is no element of complexity or surprise. It's all too obvious what directions Youseff's and El-Khader's lives will take. In any case, they remain ciphers.

    Hernandez deserves credit for gaining access to what for westerners is an exotic culture, but he doesn't do much with it. Since Rabia is an interesting character while Youseff and El-Khader are mindless clods, the opportunity missed was to make a fully-developed, three-dimensional film about Rabia's life, instead of looking at all three in a two-dimensional narrative that winds up being desultory and uninvolving. Festival blurbs may have misleadingly implied that the film sheds some light on terrorism, but it doesn't, except to show young males living in Arab semi-urban slums often have dead-end lives. But even that is not a main focus, given the more promising Rabia storyline.

    Variety's Jonathan Holland comments that the camera is "down where National Geographic never goes." Pedro Ballesteros' cinematography is fresh and attractive, but National Geographic might actually use a lot of the images. The musical score by Jorge Mota is sparing and warm, if not particularly relevant.

    Chicos normales is in Moroccan Arabic with English subtitles and has the alternate Arabic title Jamaa' Mazwaaq. It has been shown at a number of film festivals including San Sebastian, London, Cairo, Thessoliniki--and Cleveland. It's a festival film. It is part of the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center, and MoMa, New York, March 30-April 3, 2009.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-08-2016 at 01:59 PM.


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