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Thread: New York Film Festival 2009

  1. #31
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    A restored Egyptian "masterpiece" ponders identity and morality

    The Mummy or The Night of Counting the Years, written and directed by Shadi (or Chadi) Abdel Salam (or Abdessalam, 1930–1986) is a generally handsome, if excessively self-important and ponderous, Egyptian historical film in classical Arabic that has recently been restored by the Cineteca of Bologna with support from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation. It was shown this year at the Cannes Festival as part of a new series called Cannes Classics, and carried over to the New York Film Festival. It features a brief appearance by well-known actress Nadia Lotfi. The cast also includes Ahmed Marei, Ahmad Hegazi, Zouzou Hamdy El-Hakim, Abdelazim Abdelhack, Abdelmonen Aboulfoutouh, Ahmad Anan, Gaby Karraz, Mohamed Khairi, Mohamed Morshed, Mohamed Nabih, and Shafik Noureddin.

    The theme is one dealt with in other Egyptian films: the ambiguous relationship of Upper Egyptians, particularly the (three) centuries-old families of the village of Gourna, with their country's Pharaonic past; and, by vague implication, the question of modern Egyptian identity. Are the Gourna families the antiquities' custodians and guides, or are they mainly tomb robbers who live off the proceeds? This film, which has already had international recognition, stands out for its handsome actors, and for its sometimes striking cinematography, especially during the final climax, enhanced by the films's almost entirely being shot at dawn or dusk. The images of the final parade of horses and men robed in white and black carrying ancient treasure along a horizon glowing in the corpuscular haze and passing by the Colossi of Memnon are hard to forget.

    The main character is Wannis (Ahmed Marei), who with his brother (Ahmad Hegazi) learns from their father, the family (or tribal) elder, the "secret" of the mountain: the location of a large cache of sarcophagi hidden in the mountains perhaps 3,000 years earlier to protect them from the tomb-robbers of that time. Wannis is troubled by this information, and eventually he reveals the Horabat's secret to a young member of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization who has come up the Nile in a steamboat in the summer specifically to prevent tomb-robbing from taking place during the Egyptologists' off-season.

    The slow-moving scenes don't always get their points across very clearly, but it is clear that the tribal elder gets killed by robbers while preparing to sell a valuable amulet. A bond develops between Wannis and a mysterious young Stranger (Mohamed Morshed) -- and perhaps with the young Antiquities official. The chief military guard on the steamboat, also young and handsome, resents and is perhaps jealous of Wannis' meeting privately with the official. There is almost a (subconscious?) homoerotic subtext here, with women only peripheral, and all these handsome, brooding, dark--skinned young men who share a mysterious bond.

    There's a clearly implied conflict of values between the mountain people and the effendiyya, the westernized, educated Cairenes. whom the young Antiquities official represents. The paradox is that some of the effendiyya can read Egyptian hieroglyphics, while the Horabat, to justify their tomb-robbing, argue that nothing is known about the Pharaohs any more, that they are not related to any people, and hence their artifacts have no inheritors more logical than themselves. Wannis manages to take the amulet from the men who stole if from his murdered father, but then he's knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he encounters the Stranger and decides to approach the steamboat and tell the Egyptologist his secret.

    The result is the luminous sequence for which the film deserves to be remembered, in which the Egyptologist's men and others hired from the village spirit away the contents of the mountain cache at dawn, slipping by the Horabat, who choose not to attack them. The Egyptologist has found that the cache encompasses remains from not just one but four dynasties.

    What is to happen to the Horabat, who like all the people of Gourna, have little livelihood other than from selling antiquities? An Al Ahram Weekly article from 1998 shows that the same dilemmas persist even today -- their lack of other livelihood apart from the antiquities; their unwillingness to move (as when architect Hassan Fathi designed a village for them in the late 1940's, but they ultimately refused to inhabit it). A Horabat elder interviewed for the article denies the validity of this film: the idea that his people knew "nothing except a road up to the mountain" is just a filmmaker's whim. He also resents the idea that the Horobat were totally ignorant of Egyptology; in fact the uneducated Egyptians who have long lived on the edges of the ancient remains are wellsprings of lore about them and take pride in their skill as guides. This film, however impressive at times, is the stuff of myth and fantasy.

    Sometimes it seems a shame that Europeans and Americans admire these overwrought, moody Egyptian "masterpieces" of he 1960's and tend to overlook the more polished popular films of the 1940's and 1950's "Golden Age" of Egyptian cinema that are more representative of the culture. This is especially true since it's the Egyptians whose lively 20th-century theater pioneered in a move toward the use of more realistic colloquial Arabic rather than the stilted, formal "fusha" literary language that both ennobles and weigns down dramas like The Mummy.

    Shown as part of the main slate of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2009.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-01-2009 at 07:41 PM.

  2. #32
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    Michael Haneke: The White Ribbon (2009)



    A portrait of collective evil

    In The White Ribbon, the masterful film that won Michael Haneke the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, the Bavarian-born, Austrian-raised writer-director turns to a period costume drama shot in black and white. He focuses on the year leading up to the outbreak of WWI in a fictitious village called Eichwald in the northern, Protestant part of Germany where the local baron (Ulrich Tukur) employs half the population. It's a time and place where people were unusually evil: Haneke has said something like that about his setting. The story is riveting and its presentation is brilliant -- performances that are memorable and vivid; settings that are authentic-feeling; images that linger in the mind. The effect is chilling and thought-provoking.

    There is a series of malicious and cruel acts. A trip-wire causes the town doctor's horse to be crippled and the doctor (Rainer Bock) is hospitalized. The baron's little boy Sigi is found tied upside down in a barn, beaten and terrorized; the Down's syndrome child of the midwife is attacked and blinded. There are efforts to chase down the culprit or culprits and at one point the schoolteacher, who narrates the film, speaking long afterward, thinks he has figured it out. But typically for Haneke, as in his widely seen Hidden/Caché (2005), it all remains a mystery. If this is a police procedural -- and county police are called in finally to investigate -- it's one that fizzles out. The focus isn't just on criminal acts so much as meanness, such as the protestant minister's harshness toward his own children (whom he torments both physically and psychologically for minor misdeeds); or the farmer's grown son who ruins the baron's cabbage patch during the autumn celebration because he blames the baron for his mother's death in a barn accident, or the doctor's verbal abuse toward his secretary, assistant, and sometime lover. Or even what the baron's wife (Ursina Lardi) says to her husband: "I can't live in an atmosphere of malice, envy, cruelty and brutality." For the misfortunes and misdeeds there is much blame, and little forgiveness.

    There is a slight sense that this is some kind of artful horror movie about evil children, like John Carpenter's 1960 Village of the Damned. Particularly in the verbal harshness between couples, the film sometimes seems to go a little too far. Haneke doesn't give you a good time. Whether he's speaking of a suicidal family (The Seventh Continent), marauding killer youths (Funny Games), modern disconnectedness (Code Unknown), a sado-masochistic music teacher (La Pianiste), a world of lawlessness and chaos (The Hour of the Wolf), a paranoid bourgeois couple (Cache), there's a kind of severity and grimness about Haneke's world that, if it works for you, becomes tonic, worth the discomfort. But can we bear the thought that there can be so much nastiness in one little village? Can the elders' (and particularly the minister's) relentless morality cause the children to be more than anything filled with malice? This is why the Variety reviewer justifiably says The White Ribbon "proves a difficult film to entirely embrace." But the way Haneke complexly weaves his spell and creates his village society out of dozens of little details is difficult not to admire. Reportedly, the German is full of flowery touches that evoke the period. Few films convey so vivid a sense of a late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century worldview and lifestyle.

    The redeeming vision is that of the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), a shy, plodding, decent fellow, and Eva (Leonie Benesch) the 17-year-old girl who comes from another town to mind the baron's young twins, who catches the teacher's eye and whom he wants to make his bride -- she too, disarmingly decent and sweet. Haneke is as good at making this couple endearing and touching as he is at making the other adults peevish or indifferent or cruel. And that helps quite a lot. As an older man the schoolteacher is the narrator (Ernst Jacobi), and his humane vision and decent voice provide a perspective on the collective evil that seems to dominate events in this unfortunate year.

    The White Ribbon has an cumulative, episodic structure. One thing happens after another. Things reach a high pitch when the midwife borrows the bicycle the schoolteacher has borrowed, saying she's found out who hurt her son and is going to report it to the police, and then is never seen again. In the end, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand changes everything, and at the church the town community recognizes that. The narrator explains that he went to war and when he came back moved to another town and never saw the villagers again.

    Haneke is extraordinarily good at making his little Eichwald come to life, showing its central square in snow and summer and autumn, planting the facades of the baron's mansion as firmly in our minds as the doctor's bourgeois brick pile, showing us rooms packed with children whom a harsh father can banish with a word. He brings the church to vivid life and every face in it seems right. The children stand naturally in their old-fashioned clothes and their homemade nightgowns and in their faces we feel their emotional pain. If the lines are drawn harshly, they're also drawn lovingly. And this is another redeeming feature.

    Is this the world from which Nazism comes? Not exactly, but White Ribbon shows the ugly element in the German character. But while Germans may read the film that way, it's meant to show fundamental human traits, and in particular -- the pastor is the dominant figure -- how an unrelentingly cruel and judgmental viewpoint can lead to radicalism and violence.

    Shown at the New York Film Festival 2009. Das Weisse Band also won the FIPRESCI Prize and the Cinema Prize of the French National Education System at Cannes. In an article and appreciation of Haneke in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane calls the film the cirector's "most accessible," and "best" film; it's definitely his longest (145 minutes) and richest in incident. Haneke in a NYFF Q&A pointed out that the full title in German is Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, "The White Ribbon - A German Children's Tale," but the national reference in the subtitles is deliberately not translated for the international audience.

    There's an interview with Haneke in the November/December 2009 issue of Film Comment that Filmleaf readers may find of interest.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-29-2010 at 12:34 AM.

  3. #33
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    Jul 2002
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    Bright colors, shifting identities, and Penelope

    Another campy plot from Almodovar, this time shifting back and forth in time and identities. It's all about a blind movie director with a tragic past and a strong sex drive (Lluis Homar). That's what we see at first anyway. And he has a good-looking twenty-something son, Diego. The director's name name? Harry Caine. But wait a minute. He's Spanish. And once upon a time his name was Mateo Blanco. Some flashbacks to fourteen years ago explain things. And there's a movie-within-a-movie, and a clash with a rich guy named Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) whose wife (or was it mistress?) Lena becomes Mateo's lover, and who just happens to be Penelope Cruz. Artificiality abounds in this brightly-colored Almodovarian confection, which fans will love and others may view with indifference. People die and are reborn or change identities, and it's all fun, more or less, and gorgeous and shallow and rooted in a mix of genre plots of bygone decades, with references to Douglas Sirk and Jules Dassin, among others. There's the theme of "duplication" and a "noir" triangle, and a woman thrown down a marble staircase as in Leave Her to Heaven and Kiss of Death. And there are references to Minelli and Billy Wilder, Some Come Running and Breakfast at Tiffany's and Giuietta Massina and La Strada. (We know all these are in there because Almodovar says so in the press notes -- though a page seems to be missing between "Up and Down" and "Parents and Children.")

    Martel's death starts the plot rolling, and Harry/s former production director Judit (Blanca Portillo), who will wear out her welcome later, seems very upset at this news. An aggressive gay guy turns up who calls himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who's really the late Ernesto Martel's son Ernesto Junior, asking Harry to help him make a movie of his life -- designed to get back at his dad (posthumously) for oppressing him. Later it turns out that earlier Ernesto was a Peeping Tom-like character with an Anton Chigurh haircut and pimply skin forced by his jealous dad to tail Harry, then Mateo, constantly at him with a video camera. And it seems Ernesto Senior was onto the fact that Lena wasn't just working for Mateo as star of his film, Girls and Suitcases (it sounds funnier in Spanish, Chicas y maletas) but was messing around with him, as a lip reader (Lola Duenas) revealed to the old man when he watched his son's surveillance videos.

    Almodovar has a sense of humor. And since there's little magic here -- unless it's enchantment that's making you doze off -- it's those incidental moments of wild, pointless silliness that liven things up. For instance, it turns out that Harry, who, we eventually learn, changed his name from Mateo after a car accident that blinded him in 1992, has by the movie's beginning developed a scam of getting pretty girls to help him across the street, then inviting them up to his flat to read him the paper, and bedding them. In a NYFF Q&A, the director rather gleefully said this was his starting point for the whole film, and an idea he thought up during a period of convalescing from migraines. Toward the end, there's an early scene from a new, improved cut of Chicas y maletas with Penelope and a friend (Carmen Machi) talking about utterly silly stuff, and it's giddy fun. If only the movie was as good as the movie-within-the-movie! If only the movie-within-the-movie could be good for more than five minutes!

    Almodovar can be wildly emotional or giddy or funny, and he gets them all mixed up. This time the magic isn't there, the way it was (for me) in the strange Talk to Her/Habla con ella, and Broken Embraces lacks the really crazy wildness, as in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown -- my favorite Almodovar title: Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios. Wonderful!

    This time as experts will tell you (and he will tell you too) there are a lot of Almodorar's favorite themes woven in (more fathers and sons than mothers and sons this time), and the mix of genres already mentioned, as well as many of his cast regulars, most of all his diminutive sexpot Ms. Cruz. Almodovar is a New York Film Festival regular and it's fun to see him sitting next to Penelope on stage speaking half in English and half in Spanish, and having the Spanish translated by Lincoln Center Film Society Director Richard Pena. But on a day when we watched Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, there wasn't much energy left for this relatively wan and routine (though bright-colored and elaborately plotted) Almodovar creation. This is not to deny the technical accomplishment of the whole package, the delightful bright color, and Penelope Cruz's valiant effort to emerge as a credible character through an array of wigs and personalities. But Broken Embraces is stuff for the dyed-in-the-wool Almodorar fan, not for the general audience even of art houses.

    Sony Pictures Classics will distribute Los abrazos rotos in the US and it was shown as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2009. It was introduced at Cannes and has gotten excellent reviews in France -- sort of. Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde: "This recycling reflects a crisis of inspiration. But the advantage of a great creator over ordinary people is that he may even be inspired by the lack of inspiration, and style has not escaped along with new ideas."
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-03-2009 at 12:12 PM.

  4. #34
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    Some summing-up of NYFF 2009


    My Antichrist review is also published on Cinescene. In his dismissive Cannes report Rex Reed sneered of
    another loathsome barf job by Danish wacko Lars von Trier called Antichrist, in which pickle-faced Charlotte Gainsbourg, who always looks embalmed, prunes away her genitalia with garden shears. Naturally, it will show up shortly in the New York Film Festival, the official depository for movies nobody wants to see, where torturing the audience has become an acknowledged priority.
    Yeah, go Rex! Have fun with it. I enjoy provocative writing even when it's a bit scattershot; but the reality of festival films and the issue of pleasure vs. pain in them is more complicated than this. It was the subject of some interesting speculation in a thoughtful article in the NYTimes by A.O. Scott: "The constricted and forbidding program [the NYFF] offers is not — or not only — due to pusillanimous judgment. It is, rather, a symptom of the divided, anxious state of American, and indeed of global film culture." Both Scott and Stephen Holden (also of the Times) wrote NYFF rounduop pieces discussing the grimness of the fare, and it's true, the NYFF was less fun this year than in 2005, '06,'07, and '08, and maybe not quite as good a slate, though there are blips and triumphs every time. I suggest A.O. Scott's piece for an understanding of how the 2009 NYFF main slate read to an expert.

    ANTICHRIST is in limited US release since October 23. Other titles that, like it, I highly recommend from the NYFF are the following. Unfortunately theatrical release is scheduled for only three out of six:
    How could I choose such stuff as my favorites? I guess maybe in a special sense Rex Reed is right that I enjoy being "tortured," because the hardest to watch of the NYFF, and/or the most provocative, films proved to me to be the strongest and the most memorable -- though of uneven merit; I would not equate Precious or Trash Humpers with the superb craft of Life During Wartime or the absolute mastery of The White Ribbon. I was especially surprised by Life During Wartime, which though it has disturbing content, actually was for me often a pleasure to watch, and occasionally hilarious.

    Not in the Rex Reed dismissable category, but NYFF films that fans of the directors and of European (and Asian) arthouse cinema will not want to miss:

    JACQUES RIVETTE: Around a Small Mountain
    PEDRO ALMODOVAR: Broken Embraces
    MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl
    CLOUZOT: Henri-Georges Clouzot's 'Inferno' (Bomberg, Medea 2009)
    BONG JOON-HO: Mother
    PASOLINI--The 'Rage' of Pasolini (Pasolini, Bertolucci, 1963, 2008)
    ANDRZEJ WAJDA: Sweet Rush
    CLAIRE DENIS: White Material
    RESNAIS--Wild Grass
    All of these are excellent in their way and doubtless well worth seeing, but do not represent (or in the case of the two documentaries/analyses, refer to) the filmmakers' best work. Some actually think the Rivette and the Resnais are among the directors' best work. I don't, but the films may provide useful insights into their cinema. I wish more room had been opened to younger directors, whose work might provide insights into the cinema to come. The films in my first list above, I can't get out of my head. I applaud their vigor, rigor, energy, and originality.

    For exceptional cinematography, you will also want to watch out for:
    The documentaries were interesting this year; Zhao Dayang's Ghost Town was too long a slog for me but he may prove a standout documentarian nonetheless. The audience doc favorite was apparently the one about the hijacking of the Barnes Foundation collection,


    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-03-2009 at 12:23 PM.

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