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Thread: New Directors/New Films and Film Comment Selects 2012

  1. #31
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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    Angelina Nikonova: Twilight Portrait (2011)--ND/NF



    A woman on the wild side

    In Twilight Portrait/Portret v sumerkakh, a woman is left off in a bad neighborhood by her lover and breaks a heel, has her handbag stolen and is raped by policemen. This changes things. Her husband is weak, dependent on her rich father. She doesn't think much of her best friends, as she tells them at a surprise birthday party. She tells no one of the rape. By chance she runs into one of the rapists, the handsomer one, and lies in wait for him with a broken bottle outside his shabby apartment building. Instead, she kisses him in the elevator. Later they have sex in the same elevator. For a while she pretends to go to visit her mother. "You need a break," her husband Ilya (Roman Merinov) has been telling her. But instead, she moves in with the rapist, his humorous total stoner younger brother (Vsevolod Voronov), and their gaga and vaguely menacing grandpa (Alexei Belousov). The stoner brother's brief monologue is one of the only fun moments of the piece. One might also include scenes at a trashy roadside restaurant that has daytime karaoke. When the about to be brutalized woman tries to order a glass of water it recalls Nicholson at the diner in Five Easy Pieces.

    I'm talking about Marina, a chic, good looking woman, played by Olga Dihovichnaya, who co-produced and co-scripted this film, and lightens its effect. Supposing the great French actress Yolande Moreau took the role. Moreau, with her inwardness and dogged intensity and lack of youthful looks, would draw our sympathy and arouse our curiosity more. But Dihovichnaya is easy on the eye, and we can understand why Andrei (Sergei Borisov), the brutal but coldly handsome cop, would take her in for a while, despite his smacking her angrily every time she says "I love you."

    Marina's life is obviously at a crossroads and that's made ten times more intense by her brutal afternoon. Her motives are unclear. She is a social worker dealing with children's problems and scenes show she is losing her sympathy for her clients and her faith in her ability to help. With typical overkill, the script has her tell somebody this as well. Marina's motives with Andrei are unclear. In shacking up with him she might be planning a delayed, subtler revenge than the broken bottle would provide. Or she might be experimenting, experiencing a kind of sexual Stockholm syndrome, or have lost her self respect. Or she might be trying to atone for her loss of rapport with her clients at work, or seeking to reconnect with the less fortunate classes she used to want to help.

    Given Marina's job -- which she points out she can practice because her husband has a more lucrative one -- pedophilia, incest, and child abuse are secondary themes. And boredom. That may be what is at the roots of Marina's story, and the moral decay of modern Russia, and an alienation and angst Antonioni would understand, as he would understand the desolate landscapes on the outskirts of town (Marina and her husband are blessed with an enviable downtown apartment). But in Antonioni's day, the camera might roam the edge of town, but a film didn't begin with two rapes (the cops do a roadside prostitute before they later come to the "stuck up" Marina).

    Twilight Portrait refers to a setting on a used camera Marina buys in a gesture of compassion -- or stupidity: nothing is unambiguous here -- and also knowingly points to a prevailing grayness and darkness that give the film a visual style (rather successfully: two still cameras, Canon EOS II's, were used throughout, without artificial light, and Eben Bull's cinematography has won a festival prize). The film feels as if Krzysztof Kieślowski had set out to offend feminists and combined two or three of his Decalogue films into one, a longish one (135 minutes) -- and tossed out his usual profound sense of humanity. Leslie Felperin reports from a Russian festival that the audience had very mixed reactions: "some felt the film offered a daring, psychologically complex but still-credible portrait of a woman's unexpected reaction to sexual violence; others, especially Russian and older viewers, felt the pic violated core feminist tenets, or simply considered it too unpleasant or implausible."

    But almost anything can be considered "too unpleasant or implausible" nowadays: that's no excuse for rejecting this strong and original first film. My main criticism is that Nikonova and Dihovichnaya have, as I've already suggested, crammed too much into their screenplay. Even when Marina goes to the airport, she encounters a set of abusive parents. The writers could have relaxed and let their story breathe a bit. They try too hard. But they keep it watchable, and the scenes at the karaoke restaurant and the cop's dump of a flat are memorable.

    Twilight Portrait is set in Nikonova's native Rostov-on-Don, in the south of Russia, with some attention to the accents and flavor of that area. It debuted at the Kinotavr Sochi Open Russian Film Festival, and in Europe, at Venice. It was also shown at Toronto, Warsaw, London, and Stockholm. It was watched for this review as part of the MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center New York series, New Directors/New Films. Public showings of the film at the latter are scheduled for these days and times:

    Friday, March 30th | 6 PM | MoMA
    Saturday, March 31st | 1 PM | FSLC
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-21-2012 at 10:13 PM.

  2. #32
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    Mads Brügger: The Ambassador (2011)--ND/NF



    "The Ambassador" is a stretch. "The fake minor diplomat" wouldn't sound so good though.

    This latest exploit of Mads Brügger, whom a festival blurb described as "between Michael Moore and Borat" in connection with his (more interesting) 2010 North Korean adventure, Red Chapel, is designed to show how easy it is to assume a fake identity and get diplomatic papers in order to deal blood diamonds in Africa. And he does this, sort of. He shaves his head, dons sharp suits (sort of) with handkerchiefs, ties, starched shirts, cuff links, big ring, aviator sunglasses and riding boots, puffs on cigars and purveys caviar and champagne, and, thus accoutered, poses as a "businessman diplomat." He pays bribes and deals with government agents and the owner of a diamond mine, pretending as cover to be setting up a match factory, and all these dealings he has filmed secretly. In pretending to start the match factory he claims to encourage local industry against the exploitation of the French and the newly encroaching Chinese and employing (token) pygmies as truly local help. The match factory being a scam, probably leaves a dozen or two non-pygmies also feeling badly scammed. But his excuse is, diplomats scam people all the time. He makes some racist remarks, supposedly to lure locals into his confidence, and that may offend film viewers. But it's all part of the game. And there is always the possibility that we're being scammed too, somewhat, at least.

    The process begins in Europe, where Brügger talks to two people who actually specialize in brokering diplomatic papers for African countries, Brit Colin Evans and Dutchman Willem Tijssen. That this is not legal only makes it more expensive; but it can be done because so many African governments are so dicey. The deal he settles on is to get a diplomatic passport in Liberia, and set up to do business in the Central African Republic, a place that has diamonds and gold (as well as some oil), and not much stable government or rule of law. It's open season there, apparently. Brüggers pays out a lot of cash (presumably funded by Lars von Trier as was his last film) and is promised a Liberian passport, drivers license and honorary degree, as well as a post as the Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic. He gets the drivers license, and what serves for a while as a passport; it may not be valid, he learns later. Nor do his ambassadorial duties ever really develop. But how would they? The CAR is a lawless state anyway. Tijssen, who seems to have been the major agent in providing Brüggers with Liberian credentials, has protested his unauthorized inclusion in the film and tried to block it from being shown, but he has not proven his innocence and Brüggers has said, "If Tijssen were my PR agent, then I’d say ‘Good work!'"

    Nonetheless, in the process of almost setting himself up to be a dealer in blood diamonds, Brügger, who is called "Mr. Cortzen" because his real full name is Mads Brügger Cortzen and that's on his new diplomatic passport, meets with a government functionary who also owns a diamond mine, the head of CAR secret service, who is French and later disappears, to the Indian consul, and eventually several high government officials. He visits the diamond mine, a somewhat dangerous trip on a small plane, and he arranges to have two pygmy assistants whom he declares are the only people he can trust -- because he thinks his translator is in league with the diamond mine owner. Meanwhile it turns out his Liberian passport may not be valid, and the Liberians never grant him the necessary accompanying documents, nor can the European who brokered the passport for him help. He is warned by the Indian consul that if he buys a lot of diamonds his diplomatic status won't count once word goes out and he'll be lucky to get a big fine and have the diamonds seized at the airport -- lucky to get out alive.

    So this is really the kind of operation that would require more experienced, tougher, more devious, richer men than Mads Brügger, and would take years to set up. But "Mr. Cortzen" goes through the motions, and all the dealings, all the uncertainties and worries, notably about getting the necessary diplomatic papers, are filmed secretly, and in The Ambassador we get to see them. One interpretation is that Brügger aims to appear to be a sucker, to show off the veniality of those he's dealing with. And that may be true. But most of the time it merely appears he is trying to succeed at the game, only the large sum he paid to the diplomatic passport broker wasn't enough, and he doesn't have the right connections all along the line. His contract with M. Gilbert, the functionary who is also the diamond mine owner, is not accepted by the government, and vice versa. Is he trying to fail or is he just doomed to fail? It's a tough call. But we must bear in mind that if he truly failed he might meet with the same fate as the French head of CAR security, whom he secretly interviewed, but who later was assassinated -- like his predecessor, it turns out. Why did he take the job? Brügger barely scratches the surface of the craziness here.

    This is an elaborate put-on, and it illustrates that such things do happen. And Brüggers has entered the world in which they do. However, this is a less interesting film than Red Chapel for various reasons. In Red Chapel, Brüggers, with several others, posing as a cultural mission, bringing an experimental theater troupe, travels around North Korea, and films a place that western journalists rarely get a chance to see. The Ambassador, on the other hand, mainly just shows Brügger himself parading around in his semi-colonial outfits, making semi-racist remarks, telling a Hitler joke, and talking to various functionaries -- and pygmies. Actually the pygmies don't say much. The world of blood diamonds is corrupt, but we kind of knew that.

    The Ambassador had its North American debut at Sundance, where Red Chapel was a hit. It has also been in some other festivals. It was watched for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series, New Directors/New Films, and its days and times of public screening for this series are as follows:

    Friday, March 30th | 9 PM | MoMA
    Saturday, March 31st | 3:45 PM | FSLC
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-26-2012 at 05:39 PM.

  3. #33
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    Alejandro Landes: Porfirio (2011)--ND/NF



    Amazonian Bresson

    Porfirio is a work made in the often powerful new Latin American "slow film" vein, and this time the authentic people and settings are wielded by Brazilian-born director Alejandro Landes in reference to a dramatic Colombian crime story he found in the newspaper. The details of the crime are withheld till near the end. In fact they are too much and too long withheld to integrate drawn-out quotidian prelude and final crime into a coherent whole. If Landes had achieved that integration, the result might have been something brilliant and impressive. Instead, the film is best at depicting the world of a handicapped person with vivid physicality, as a fresh mixture of sensuality and grinding monotony. The dramatic finale, the crime story, merely seems tacked on. Porfirio is a first feature that is not quite a success. It nonetheless marks Landes in the view of festival organizers as a new director to watch. The film creates a monotony that has been called "Bressonian," and it may be that fans of Bresson will be its best audience outside festivals. But this is a more tropical and steamy world than Bresson's. It's filled with the noise and clatter of a Colombian Amazonian town and dominated by its mustachioed protagonist, who despite his frustrations, sometimes wears a little smile.

    If we began with the headline that attracted Landes to his story, "Paralyzed Man in Diapers Hijacks Plane to Bogotá," the experience of watching the film might be different. But nothing of that is hinted at. With a documentarian's dogged loyalty to his subject, Landes lived around his provincial cast for five months before shooting the first frame. Though he revealed his decision to do so only at the last minute, he chose the actual protagonist, Porfirio Ramirez Aldana, to play himself. In the film, Porfirio's dissatisfaction comes out gradually. He seems a strong and under the circumstances cheerful man. He is cared for by his unemployed son Lissin (Jarlinsson Ramirez, playing the role of his older brother, who was Porfiriio's actual accomplice) and a young woman, Jasbleidy (Yor Jasbleidy Santos), in a shabby, noisy quarter of the tropical provincial town. Unable to move about without a hand-driven wheelchair, Porfirio sells minutes on his cell phone to locals. We learn he was paralyzed by shots from a police weapon and he seeks redress from the state and consults a lawyer, who is never available when he calls or visits. Eventually he remedies an injustice with a crime -- which we do not actually see.

    The editing, excellent at showing the physicality of Porforio's robust but limited bodily existence, doesn't try to depict time through repeated daily rituals but skips around randomly. Porfirio and Lissin are shown swimming, but mostly Porfirio does not leave the house. Porfirio plays himself without any modesty, relieving himself on camera for Lissin and having real sex with Jasbleidy.

    The non-intervention of Landes is not to be taken too seriously. The entire film was story-boarded and the actors were given lines to deliver. The stylistically simple but often handsome camerawork by Thimiois Bakatakis is by no means unstudied. Head-on shots follow artfully symmetrical setups and sometimes shift position multiple times during a single scene. As noted, Landes withholds much information about his protagonist. If we knew not only hints of what's to come but more of the background, that Porfirio's injury was from police crossfire and that he was once a successful landowner and rancher in Playa Rica who was forced into these straightened circumstances in the city of Florencia in a different part of the country by civil strife, we might be more sympathetic, might understand Porfirio's growing rage better. But Landes prefers to imply that rage, bit by bit, in small daily occurrences, and only hint at Porfirio's hijacking scheme.

    Porfirio has the myth-making habit of making up rhymes about himself and his life. He invents some for Jasbleidy after the sex scene. At the end, after arming himself with weapons hidden in his diapers and setting out for an air trip to Bogotá with Lissin, and then a strange, ominous scene, Porfirio recites his own rhymes poetically explaining what happened. Those and the press notes confirm that he was subsequently confined by the government to his house. This restriction must have been lifted so Landes could shoot Porfirio going into town in his wheel chair to visit a law office and a bingo hall, not to mention the airport.

    Alejandro Landes has an cosmopolitan background. He was born in Brazil of a Colombian mother and Ecuadorian father, educated at Brown University and later employed as a writer for the Miami Herald. His Pofirio was included in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes 2011 and also was shown at Toronto, Pusan, Stockholm, and Miami. It was watched for this review as part of New Directors/New Fims 2012 (jointly sponsored by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center), where it will be shown to the public as follows:

    Saturday, March 31st | 7:30 PM | MoMA
    Sunday, April 1st | 3:00 PM | FSLC

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