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Thread: New Directors/New Films and Film Comment Selects 2013

  1. #16
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    O Muel: JISEUL (2012)

    O MUEL: JISEUL (2012)



    Artful incoherence in depicting Korean War atrocity

    As a Sundance account puts it, "Jiseul the film is a condensed, fragmented and lyrical account of a particular episode in Jeju Island's history: that of 1948, in which US-backed South Korean troops were ordered to treat everyone living 5 km beyond the mainland as communist rebels, and to execute them on sight." Unfortunately this shocking series of events, part of a brutal anti-communist purge, which certainly are "fragmented" in the film -- so much so you get no clear notion of what is going on -- is more suited to straightforward historical treatment than to the artful recasting this director gives it. There would have been plenty of drama in the flight and hiding of the villagers and the brutality of the local military, directed (according to the film) by US authorities to massacre the inhabitants of an island as "communists," without the need for the overbearing, portentous music, incoherent chronology, poetic and incomprehensible section headings, and exaggerated amateur acting. None of this can be smoothed over by the gorgeous black and white cinematography, though its beauty cannot be denied, especially in some opening landscape images worthy of, at the least, Ansel Adams. (The eye is arguably fresher and more unconventional than Ansel's.)

    Jiseul is indirect, dramatic and austere and would make a lot of sense as an abstract cinematic art piece. That must be why it was welcomed at Sundance and won the World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize there, and it will doubtless turn up on other festivals for some time to come. I have rarely seen more beautiful black and white on screen landscapes. But the trouble is, Jiseul makes no sense. It does not communicate. It does not tell its story. And so it does not do justice to events in living memory -- despite the fact that the filmmaker, O Muel, is a Jeju native, from the island of these events. What is peculiar is that though the 109 minutes of the film would have been long enough to outline what happened, it is really only from opening and closing titles that we get some explanation. O Muel does not know how to tell a story. He could have included all the elements here: the brutal military, torturing to death a new recruit in the freezing weather; the old lady who refuses to leave home; the farmer who insists on going back from the cave retreat to feed his hog; the cramped conditions in the cave hideout; the wild young men running around risking death; the captured young woman, and so on. But all this needed to be included in a framework that would make sense out of a sequence of events. This is not a visual poem. It's history.

    Reports indicate that up to 30,000 died in this cold spring pogrom. But that's lost. Here we get to see only a mere a handful of people, maybe a couple dozen in all. The whole thing feels like a stage production -- through with the undeniable additional visual natural grandeur stark location shooting permits. As Justin Lowe of Hollywood Reporter wrote in his Sundance review, the result is a film that is "lovely to look at but enervating to watch." Jiseul (the name refers to potatoes that are referred to in an early scene, though that like so much is not properly followed through on) is a profoundly frustrating and disappointing experience. The reviewer who raved that Jiseul "challenges the grammar of film" may have a point; there is talent here. But there is such a thing as a duty to the grammar of history and of narrative. Writing of Jiseul Michael Pattison on his site idFilm agrees with my assessment: "Given that mention of the massacre re-enacted here was illegal in South Korea for half a century after it occurred - and given the US government's own sustained silence on the matter, as the film itself tells us at its end - the material demands a more anchored framework, one by which a fuller historical understanding would accommodate a more cogent condemnation of both the national regime and the role played by the US in backing it."

    Jiseul debuted at Pusan and was shown at Sundance, as mentioned, also at Rotterdam. Screened for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (March 2013).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:08 AM.

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    Jazmin López: LEONES (2012)

    JAZMÍN LÓPEZ: LEONES (20120



    Antonioni-esque forest ramble is haunting, but has too many endings

    It's become impossible now to watch a film about you people wandering out in the wild without having Loneliest Planet premonition: what kind of portentous non-event is going to come along to change everything? So when we watch director Jazmin López's film about five young people, three boys and two girls, taking a meandering, poetic walk through an Argentinian forest, listening to them make up meaningfully nonsensical haiku-like six-word (or five, or seven) phrases, teasing each other, kissing, fussing over a tape recorder, fiddling with a map, we just know something's going to come along and turn things topsy-turvy. Sure enough it comes -- and comes -- and comes again. López has unfortunately chosen to tack her outtakes and alternative endings onto her short film, making it 80 minutes long. With a more pointed script and better editing, she had material for a pretty haunting 60 minutes here. There's a lot of stuff after what ought to have been the ending that would be better as bonus material on the DVD. Julia Loktov's laurels are safe. But that ending -- the one that ends nearly twenty minutes before the film does -- is mysterious, mind-bending, powerful stuff. So there is a lot of promise here, if it doesn't just turn out to be pretension and confusion. I hope not.

    López is giving us sophisticated material, and her five middle class urban young people, who came in a BMW, play sly, allusive games with each other, and with us. First we have to guess relationships. Two are a loving couple. Another two, maybe. The odd boy out may be gay (in a tacked-on sequence he says so). They are looking for a house. But they seem curiously indifferent to which way they're going and what guidelines they should follow. That cassette tape someone plays: it has a Bach keyboard concerto, and their voices, in the car apparently, talking about how they'll find their destination. Maybe there's a key to everything in this tape. The haiku game shows they're familiar companions, all five of them. In their casual idleness, their lack of direction the hint that one of them may be about to disappear, one is reminded of Antonioni's classic, L'Avventura. The mimed volleyball game might remind you of the great Italian's Blow-Up.

    The menace is constant, but dreamlike. There is a pistol. Is it loaded or not? It seems it is. But the rule of postmodern storytellers seems to be that a pistol once introduced need not be used, as before, only toyed with. They go swimming, and there are underwater shots, and we can't help being afraid someone will vanish in the water. They find the house, and you will be surprised at what happens then. By that stage the mood has shifted imperceptibly but irrevocably from dream to nightmare.

    The more I think about it the more this seems like great stuff -- but in potential, more than the final product. If only so much of the early sequences didn't seem aimless and repetitive, and if only there weren't all those confused alternate endings. The 28-year-old Jazmín López is better known as a visual artist and has shown video installations. If she is serious about feature filmmaking, she might be a talent to watch. That remains to be seen. The learned Richard Scheib, who watched this film at Vancouver, has pointed out that the "deathdream" (into which this film arguably fits) is a device that has been considered "tired and hackneyed" of late, though he thinks the arthouse and festival crowd is "blissfully unaware" of this. But of course in the right hands "tired and hackneyed" tropes can always be brought back to life.

    Leones ("Lions"), 80 mins., debuted in the Orizzonti section at Venice 2012. In 2013 it has been shown at Rotterdam and Creteuil. Screened for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films, March 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:09 AM.

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    Marcelo Lordello: THEY'LL COME BACK (2012)

    MARCELO LORDELLO: THEY'LL COME BACK (2012)


    GEÓRGIOS KOKKOS AND MARIA LUIZA TAVARES IN THEY'LL COME BACK

    Privileged girl left on her own encounters Brazil's social clashes and life's possibilities

    As the new Brazilian film They'll Come Back begins, seen from a distant panoramic perspective, Cris (the very distinctive Maria Luiza Tavares, who carries the film from beginning to end) aged 12, and her slightly older brother Peu (Geórgio Kokkosi) are abruptly dropped off at the side of a country highway by their parents. Then we see them up close, with cars roaring by. There they are, in the middle of nowhere. They have apparently been banished for fighting with each other. Very quickly the punishment that the two kids assumed would be only temporary turns into something vast and open ended. Against Cris's protests, Peu walks off to find a gas station he thinks is not far, leaving Cris so one of them will be at the place where their parents know they left them. From then on the film follows Cris by herself as she endures a surprising adventure, conceived, according to Marcelo Lordello's sly and original script to be at once much more boring and more unexpected and original than one would have expected. She's led in the successive days passively through a series of different worlds, guided more by the people that inhabit them than by herself. Cris is passed from one person to another, confronting realities quite different from any she's ever known. Nothing is as it might seem, but the heart of the experience is the openness to alternate worlds Cris learns to have, which becomes subtly clear when she's finally returned home and finds things transformed not just to her mind but materially in astonishing ways. Writing, filming, and acting are original and seamless throughout.

    At the beginning Cris sleeps on a roadside bench that first night. She won't talk to a dark youth who comes by on a bike, but the nest day she lets him take her to his family living in a squatter farming community, where she waits for mom and pop to return. And then is taken to the police, and passed on to a woman who cleans rich people's seaside houses. The film’s class-conscious agenda is transparent but made convincing through a steady accumulation of detail, particularly in a revealing surprise encounter at a resort between Cris and a lazy, reclusive young relative intentionally on a flight from family and city life. They seem kindred spirits, and maybe Cris, having escaped servitude with the housecleaner, might like to linger in this resort house herslef for a while, but she knows she needs to be driven back to Recife.

    They'll Come Back represents another promising feature film debut from the group working out of the Brazilian coastal city of Recife, also soure of last year's strong New Directors/New Films feature, Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds. Other Recife filmmakers well received at Rotterdam of late are Cláudio Assis, Gabriel Mascaro, and Marcelo Gomes. This is Lordello's first fiction film after several documentaries. In both the sense of class confrontation and parental abandonment one may be also reminded of Argentinian Celina Murga's provocative 2007 film A Week Alone/Una semana solos (Film Comment Selects 2009).

    They'll Come Back/Eles Voltam, 105 mins., debuted at Brazilia Sept. 2012 where it won awards for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Film. It also showed at Rotterdam January 2013 and was nominated for a Tiger Award. It was screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films, the New York series jointly sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, a program presented to the public from March 20 to 31, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:10 AM.

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    Alex Pitstra: DIE WELT (2012)

    ALEX PITSTRA: DIE WELT (2012)


    ABDELHAMID NAOUARA IN DIE WELT

    Coming of age in the Arab Spring

    Die Welt ("The World") wittily and pointedly begins on what's been called a Tarantinoesque note when its good looking young protagonist Abdullah's directly addresses to the camera at length -- he is, like Tarantino, a clerk in a video story -- on how the "Transformers" series, some of whose sequences he damningly summarizes, is a pure expression of western imperialism. He strongly recommends the customer choose Syriana instead. But the customer still asks for "Transformers" -- an early hint of the film's cynical, ironic vision. This is a film that's rough and unwieldy at times, but it does what it sets out to do with boldness and invention in defining a young Arab of today in a world of no future, despite the Arab Spring.

    In this first feature Dutch-Tunisian filmmaker Alex Pitstra adopts a smart, partly humorous, sometimes simply documentary or anthropological approach in examining the dreams and disappointments of its young Tunisian male protagonist before, during, and just after the 2011"Jasmin" uprising that drove out the dictatorial Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. As a festival blurb puts it, Pitstra uses "an arsenal of cinematic techniques to explore a life he imagines he could have lived." Though the whole film is set in Tunisia, Pitstra was raised by his Dutch mother in Holland and took his mother's name. He did not meet his father till he was 25;. The film is a fantasy about how his life might have been if he'd grown up in Tunisia instead, like his father. Only in this version, he doesn't get to Holland.

    Everything is pushing the 23-year-old Abdallah (Abdelhamid Naouara, heading a cast of non-pros) to quite his video shop job and escape illegally to Europe; actually. Circumstances push him further in that direction. He takes a break from the store, and when he returns, his job is gone. What follows is even less satisfactory. The film's hip touches includes its ironic parts signaled by inter-titles, some actual home footage of the director's family as flashbacks to Abdullah's youth, shots of an authentic traditional family to introduce a family wedding, and the bold casting of the writer-director's real father Mohsen Ben Hassen as Abdullah's dad. Though a non-pro like the rest, Hassen is a trilingual charmer and a natural on screen. As a dad, however, he is relentlessly unsympathetic, never helping or encouraging Abdullah or even letting him watch what he wants to on TV.

    Along the way Die Welt lightly sketeches in political details of Tunisia i with background sounds of Arabic news broadcasts about attempts at an election, hinting that the Jasmine revolution will bring about nothing new with the departure of the dictatorship -- no decrease of unemployment, reduction of poverty, or greater sense of freedom. The transition from the family oligarchy is stagnated in a state of painful purgatory that leaves the country's future completely uncertain. An exchange among men in a barbershop shows it's up in the air whether the new society will be under religious or secular rule, but the biggest vote has been received by the religious party, El Nahda.

    In a pivotal (if slightly vague) sequence, Abdullah has a night with a visiting Dutch lady when his father invites her and her friend to their a family wedding at a hotel. This one night stand plants a recurrent dream of the western life as he imagines it -- brand new house by the sea, fridge stocked with soft drinks, blond girlfriend. It's presumably these fantasies, along with his uneasy job situation, lack of support from his father, and post-revolutionary disillusion that lead Abdullah to turn up where people he knows arrange to smuggle men out of Tunisia and across the Mediterranean to Italy. One of the film's best segments, headed "Die Welt," is a musical journey by night accompanied by a requiem mass and an onboard singer who heralds their destination, "Lampedusa" -- though the actual finale is as bitter and downbeat as anything that came before.

    Throughout Die Welt maintains a mostly documentary-style hand-held camera look provided by Pitstra's fellow Dutch director and co-writer Thijs Gloger, sometimes alternating the bleaker urban visuals with softer, dreamier sequences of the European seaside to focus on the more beautiful world Abdullah aspires to. The film combines a great variety of kinds of scene and image, which makes it seem a grab-bag at times, but condenses a great deal of cultural data and experience into its short running time.

    Stephen Dalton of The Hollywood Reporter describes Die Welt as "an absorbing debut that ultimately feels a little too slight to fully explore its rich jumble of themes. Even so, it pulls off a crucial trick for a first-time feature by leaving you wanting more." Obviously the blend of American and European hipness with an awareness of the Arab emigré experience and intimate access to lower middle class Tunisian locals is a fresh one. One hopes to see ore of Pitstra's dry, vivid emigré vision.

    Die Welt, 80 mins., debuted at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. It was screened for this review as part of the joint Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films, which runs this year from March 20 to 31, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:11 AM.

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    Matíass Piñeiro: VIOLA (2012)

    MATÍAS PIÑEIRO: VIOLA (2012)


    VIOLA

    A magical theatrical world of art, outside politics and the quotidian

    Piñeiro, who is only 31, is described as one of a group of graduates of the national cinema academy, the Universidad del Cine, who operate outside the government funding system and are resolutely artistic and non-commercial, working in a distinctive style in his case, that involves a focus on a kind of hermetic society or "a secret aristocracy," mostly of women (the cast mostly a team of regulars), among whom "nothing very dramatic ever happens." He makes use of open air settings, loose style, but also elaborate fluid tracking shots and placements of figures and cameras, kept always in motion by the filmmaker's regular cinematographer, Fernando Lockett. Piñeiro has been heralded in some circles as one of Argentina's "most sensuous and sophisticated new voices." His latest film Viola, which incorporates animation with live action, uses the basis of Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night to fashion a roundelay among young actors and lovers in present-day Buenos Aires. Mixing melodrama with sentimental comedy, philosophical conundrum with matters of the heart, the film bears such signature traits, it is said, of a Piñeiro film besides those serpentine camera movements as slippages of language, elliptical narrative and a constant playful confusion of reality and artifice. Piñeiro's methods in this and his earlier films are explained at some length by Quentin in an article in the online journal Cinemascope.) According to Quentin, Piñeiro, "despite three features (El hombre robado, 2007; Todos mienten, 2009; Viola, 2012) and a 40-minute film commissioned for the Jeonju Digital Project (Rosalinda, 2011), remains overlooked." Well, not at festivals, clearly, since this film has had favorable mentions and admiring reviews at each of its fest appearances, though not all are entranced with the lack of an action you can put your finger on.

    According to Quentin, Piñeiro has, by indirection, a political element despite his largely experimental and abstract style. He rejects the authoritarian politicized Argentina of the Kirchners and admires Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the writer, politician, fourth president and bête noire of the populist Kirchners. His cinema is political precisely in aspiring to an apolitical world of art and artists, eschewing the everyday world. "There is no daily life in Piñeiro’s films, because daily life is connected to family, to politics, to social issues, to regular jobs," and these are tainted with the authoritarianism and populism of the post-Kirchner Argentina. Most of Piñeiro's characters are actors, who at the same time live their roles. "Shakespearean comedies fit perfectly into Piñeiro’s system." Just as Viola is based on Twelfth Night, Rosalinda was based on As You Like It. But Piñeiro's use of Shakespeare is completely playful, actors freely interchanging roles and even sexes, flowing in and out of each other, just as the camerawork flows seamlessly and fluidly.

    But when all is said and done, Piñeiro's Viola is surprisingly monotonous, flat, and repetitious. Two women say the same few lines of Shakespearean dialogue over three or four times without stopping. It seems as if they and the film are stuck, till finally a man knocks on the door and comes in, and the film jerkily moves forward again, still not progressing much, because, as Quentin writes, in this filmmaker's work "nothing much dramatic every happens." Nothing much undramatic happens either. Piñeiro is said to be at New York University now on a fellowship to work on his writing. Maybe this experience will jolt him out of his safe little hermetic world of festival art pieces into producing work of wider appeal.

    Viola, 63 mins., showed at Toronto and Berlin and won the special jury prize at Valdivia, Chile. It is a Cinema Guild release. Viola was screened for this review as part of the joint MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (March 20-31, 2013).

    The film was preceded by the 9-minute black and white short, The Search for Inspiration, which looked like a quirky British mixture of a TV advert and an old silent film.

    Viola was released theatrically by the Film Society of Lincoln Center Frid., July 12, 2013. It has gotten rave reviews (Metacritic 85), though AV Club (Mike D'Angelo, oft an independent) gives it B-. It shows promise and a distinctive point of view, were the jolt to come.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:11 AM.

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    Sharon Plumb: TOWHEADS (2012)

    SHARON PLUMB: TOWHEADS (2012)



    Frustrated "housewife" turns to stunts

    According to the festival blurb, Penny (writer-director Sharon Plumb) is Brooklyn mother of two boys, Cody and Walker (AKA Code and Walk) and wife of a "harried" theater director, and "barely has time to stay sane, much less create art." So she finds "comic relief from domestic drudgery by inhabiting the world in guises—drag king, pole dancer, Santa Claus." Well, I missed "drag king," but saw her turn up in a football uniform to spaghetti dinner fixed for the family by dad. His disapproval was the most convincing part of this otherwise contrived movie.

    Plumb is a video and performance artist, and this move is an excuse for her to stage a long series of her routines blown up into a feature film, with her towhead boys and her faceless husband as props. The stunts have a Keatonesque or Tati-like edge at times, but they might not make a good stage routine, as shown. And the pretext is artificial. There is no indication that this little Brooklyn family is anything but well off or that she would have to do all the housework. We see a babysitter and a maid hired. The falsity of the claim that Penny (or Plumb anyway) "barely has time to stay sane, much less create art" is this film. She made, it, didn't she? A really harried mother and housewife would never have been able to do all these stunts, and would be carted off to the booby hatch if she did half of them.

    On the plus side Code and Walk are cute as the dickens and on-screen naturals, and seem very at ease with their mom's nutty routines. Their forte is food fights. Dad is played by Plumb's real life hustand, Derek Cianfrance, the director of the much-admired film Blue Valentine. Whatever you may think of that love-gone-wrong drama's arty reverse-chronological structure, the lead performances, by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, are of an exceptional conviction and intensity. Cianfrance's new film is The Place Beyond the Pines , a thriller about a motorcycle stunt rider who turns to crime. Starring Gosling again, it sounds like a Drive knockoff, but with Gosling, I'd still want to see it. Why not watch that, or Blue Valentine -- and forget about Towheads? Plumb's debut is watchable for a while and might have made a good half-hour film but at an hour and twenty-five it long overstays its welcome.

    Towheads, 86 mins., debuted at Rotterdam in January 2013. It was screened for this review as part of the FSLC-MoMA series New Directors/New Films, in which it shows to the public March 27, 2013. Interview with Sharon Plumb in Filmmaker Magazine at Rotterdam.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:12 AM.

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    Libbie D. Cohn, J.P. Sniadecki: PEOPLE'S PARK (2012)

    LIBBIE D. COHN, J.P. SNIADECKI: PEOPLE'S PARK (2012)



    A busy Chinese park, all on a summer's day, filmed by ethonographers as a single tracking shot

    People's Park is another product of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and Harvard Film Study Center, which produced Sweetgrass (NYFF 2009), made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who directs the lab, with Ilisa Barbash, and the recently much admired Leviatan (NYFF 2012; in limited US theatrical release from Mar. 1, 2013), which Castaing-Taylor produced with Vérena Paravell using tiny digital video cameras affixed to fishermen's helmets and planted under water on a Massachusetts fishing vessel. Another film out of Harvard's documentary ethonography factory was Véréna Paravel’s and J. P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts (ND/NF 2010), a people-centered depiction of the endangered junkyard neighborhood in Willets Point, Queens known as "The Iron Triangle." Now Sniadecki has teamed wiith Libbie D. Cohn for another kind of documentary portrait, composed like Sokurov's Russian Ark in the form of one long tracking shot, but focused not on fine art but everyday performance -- and, alas, hopelessly boring and flat. If a great crowd of uninteresting and unattractive Chinese people wandering around aimlessly, singing, dancing, sitting, or dozing for hour after hour interests you, this is the film for you. On the plus side, the park is larger and more beautiful than you might have expected, well maintained and beautifully landscaped, the steady-cam tracking is smooth -- and as seems usual with such camerawork curiously soothing and hypnotic. The massive collective sound of the crowd seems exaggeratedly loud, and become part of the exhaustion that eventually sets in when you've watched the same sights for half an hour, then an hour, then longer still. One thing you can say: this saves you from having to go there.

    The filmmakers worked on July 30, 2011, a humid Saturday afternoon in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. In a public space the many inhabitants gather for shared performances. Dances, amateur in nature, begin and end the sequence, and in between there are a few other not very impressive kinds of showing off. These include Karaoke songs, band performances, and water calligraphy on the dusty pavement (it immediately evaporates). The cameras thread also through sycamore trees past old folks dozing on benches; families chowing down in open restaurants with noisy metal chopsticks, people playing Mahjong or Go. Sometimes the people smile mildly right into the camera, making this version of the Harvard ethnographic documentary approach mildly confrontational as well as, in a limited sense, immersive. Images are accompanied with a typically busy on-scene sound track; Sweetgrass and Leviathan and Foreign Parts had their own sui generis noises, and the whole effect would be very different without the sound..

    A note in one review by Daniel Pratt for Exclaim!explains that to shoot this film Cohn sat in a wheelchair holding the camera while Sniadecki pushed her around the park. The reviewer claims that the result is annoyingly jerky and some of the shots are invasive, "ranging from an elderly woman picking her pants out of her butt crack to numerous pairs of people that are quite obviously having private conversations." He exaggerates. It is hard to claim that in a place as public as this looking at anyone with a camera is invasive, and the camera movement is smooth, not jerky. Pratt also writes, "Many of the subjects openly wave and give a peace sign, while a dance party of sorts featuring Roger Meno's "I Find The Way" finds participants openly interacting with the camera." The V signs like the adjusted garment are only the briefest of moments in hundreds. What is most striking is how little all these people react to the camera, even though there are not a whole lot of other cameras in evidence. The Chinese crowd seem vaguely friendly, mostly just passive.

    I confess to a certain ambivalence about all these Harvard ethnography films, wondering if what they offer, finally, given these examples, represents anything so different from lots of previous documentry films. Some of their caché may come more from the Harvard imprimatur and the theoretical context more than the material itself, as film, despite the unique sites involved in each case. In this instance, Jorge Mourinha of The Flickering Wall, reviewing the film as part of Doc Lisbon, commented that the camera's invasiveness this time (this in a sense true also of Leviathan) makes it chiefly self-referential: the camera's "sheer unusual presence unable to render it invisible and suggesting a reverse voyeurism that simultaneously underlines and undermines the technical prowess." There you have some more analysis to ponder. But it's not like cameras have not wondered among crowds (I longed for the rich faces in Eisenstein's films) ever since there have been cameras that could wander. Note: all the Harvard films are described in a collective article I've cited before, "The Merger of Academia and Art House: Harvard Filmmakers' Messy World in the NY Times of August 31, 2012.

    People's Park, 78 mins., debuted with Foreign Parts at Locarno August 2012, where they co-won the "Opera Prima" awad. It was also shown at Mar del Plata. Screened for this review as part of the joint MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films, which ran March 20-31, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:13 AM.

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    Lyubov Arkus: ANTON'S RIGHT HERE (2012)

    LYUBOV ARKUS: ANTON'S RIGHT HERE (2012)



    A documentarian: too involved?

    Very often it's something unexpected that makes a documentary come to life. It's when the severely autistic teenage boy, Anton Kharitonov, whom Lybov Arkus had filmed risked being put away in a clinic for life afterhis mother and caretaker Rinata was diagnosed with cancer that Arkus (a critic and editor) decided to become for a while Anton's main caregiver. She had already documented his precarious development over a six-year period. Arkus's film is artful and passionate, qualities aided by the cinematography of Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev. That, her closeness to Anton, and her emotionally resonant voiceover all contribute to making this an unusual film, about which one can't help having mixed feelings. When it showed out of competition at Venice Francesca Fiorentino wrote that she walked out convinced she had experienced greatness. Viewers have found the filmmaker's voiceover powerful and moving. But it is also absurdly tendentious, and the film, at a full two hours, is long and meandering. Luckily it has an apparently happy ending. Anton's bus driver father, who had another family and had shied away from the whole issue, finally took over Anton from Arkus, and we see him happy again, on a farm, being told what to do, which seems to be when he functions best.

    The film exposes Russia's dismal public handling of mental problems; it is also simply a personal diary of a close maternal relationship (or does Arkus imagine this? Anton hugs a lot of people: hugging those he knows and likes is what he does). Neil Young argued in a Hollywood Reporter review that certain aspects that have made the film impressive for some for others represent a lack of perspective that led to somewhat excessive length. Young is unresponsive to the visual appeal of both Anton and Arkus, finding the emotion in the voiceover and the musical background unjustified by the information provided. One sees his point. However watching Anton, which Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev's camera provides us many opportunities to do, is fascinating. Only we wish more clues to the mystery of Anton's autism and autism in general were provided. After all this screen time, we are left with little more than what we can figure out for ourselves.

    Arkus became aware of Anton via an "essay" he was said to have written seven years before she actually met him, and of course before his mother's cancer diagnosis. When near the end we hear Anton read the essay, it's perhaps not so "precocious" as she says: it's disjointed and odd, though that makes it poetic, and open to deep interpretations. Anyway after knowing about and visiting Anton with her photographer, she also helped his separated parents deal with the horrendous and shabby Russian bureaucracy. We don't learn much of anything about autism, or Anton's place in its spectrum. But we do see that Anton needs a very specific kind of help the state is ill-qualified to provide. It's only during a brief period at a nicer facility when a man called David spends all his time with Anton and tells him what to do, that he seems to thrive. When David leaves, he becomes ungovernable. Arkus' by then completely lack of detachment becomes clear when she is involved in as she calls it "kidnapping" (illegally removing) Anton from one of his worst way-stations, a mental institution. But we are happy she does this. But we wish Arkus held forth less about herself and life and told us more about Anton and autism.

    The absent father who overcomes his fear of dealing with his son's disability recalls Gianni Amelio's 2004 The Keys to the House.

    Anton's Right Here/Anton tut ryadom, 114 mins., debuted at Venice, showed at Vienna, Gothenberg and other festivals in 2012. Screened for this review as part of the FSLC-MoMA joint series New Directors/New Films, March 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:13 AM.

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    Shane Carruth: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

    SHANE CARRUTH: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)


    SHANE CARRUTH AND AMY SEIMETZ IN UPSTREAM COLOR

    Lovely creepy conundrum

    For a long eight years since Shane Carruth's 2004 feature debut, the deliciously mystifying zero-budget time-travel film Primer, people have been waiting to see what would come from him next. Now it comes: Upstream Color, a love story embedded in a kidnap plot that also in the blurb's version of it explores "life’s surprising jumps and science’s strange effects," leaping "with great audacity through its sequences, a cinematic simulacrum of the way we reflect on our lives, astonished at, as in the title of Grace Paley’s fiction collection, our 'Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.'" Indeed its Carruth's rapid-fire visual storytelling that stands out. It's nothing like its predecessor except in its reliance on odd science and intentional puzzlement. It's great fun and a visual delight if you like being challenged and having a residue of mystery always kept. If not, it could seem a congeries of meaninglessness. But Primer became a cult film and this will too. In between, what has Carruth, who plays a sexy criminal lover here as well as shot, produced, directed, wrote, did the music, co-edited, and is distributing, been doing with himself? Well, for one thing he consulted with Rian Johnson on time-travel for Looper. Upstream Color is a unique visual and (slightly too loud? but rich) audio experience that's absolute catnip to younger film critics, and acknowledged as brilliant, however reluctantly, by older ones. Think Terrance Malick meets David Lynch. If you are into film as art I would consider this one of the year's musts so far, and it should become in some form available to everyone, even with limited theatrical release.

    "Upstream Color certainly is something to see," wrote McCarthy, "if you're into brilliant technique, expressive editing, oblique storytelling, obscuritanist speculative fiction or discovering a significant new actress" (he refers to the female lead Amy Seimetz). Justin Chang of Variety noted it's "a warmer, less foreboding picture than Primer, not moving in any conventional sense, but suffused with emotion all the same." Elaborare summaries in their review by Rodrigo Perez in Indiewire and Todd McCarthy in Hollywood Reporter will not only spoil the movie for you but may partly, perhaps unduly, horrify you at what's in store. Upstream Color may be a readymade cult film of surpassing beauty but is is also not only more rather than less mystifying than Primer, but initially rather creepy and disgusting, whereas Primer was more scary and haunting. But if you're a cinephile, and maybe none of that will matter anyway, you'll have to see it because its sensuous beauty washes over you "like a sonorous bath of beguiling visuals, ambient sounds and corporeal textures" (Perez). And Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxed who unlike some thinks the film "almost syllogistically clear," proclaims it"a towering achievement." "Syllogistically clear" may ignore many small visual details that are hard to integrate, but the film is straight chronological storytelling. And however mystifying, it gives you such basic movie elements as mystery, thriller, crime, love story. Carruth does join the ranks of the younger American movie masters here, but less mainstream than most.

    Carruth was a Texas software engineer when he made Primer for $7,000. His sound design this time won him a Special Jury Prize at 2013j Sundance (the film was nominated for the Grand Jury one): he is not a musician, but using instruments, synthesizer, and sampling (with some location sound effect recording shown as part of the film action), the audio he created as he went along is unusually dramatic and integral, almost on a Kubrick level though without Kubrick's brilliant use of received music. The rapid cutting in dialogue passages is almost hyperactive, but the scenes with Carruth and Seimetz do have a strange intimacy.

    Upstream Color, 96 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2013, showed also at SXSW ant the Berlinale and was screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincon Center-Museum of Modern Art joint series, New Directors/New Films (which runs March 20-31, 2013) it has already received many reviews and been given a Metacritic rating of 85 (though based so far on only five reviews). It opens theatrically in New York on April 5, 2013 at IFC Center with US DVD and Blu-ray versions coming May 7. The sound track is out too, even in a vinyl version (edition: 500). After the April 5 NYC opening the film expands to 25 top US markets Apri 19, with more cities to follow in late April and early May, according the the distributor's representative. .
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:14 AM.

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    Sarah Polley: STORIES WE TELL (2012)

    SARAH POLLEY: STORIES WE TELL (2012)


    SARAH POLLEY SHOOTING HER CAMERAMAN IN STORIES WE TELL

    Revelations of family and birth from the Canadian actress and filmmaker

    Sarah Polley, who is Canadian, previously starred in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, Doug Liman's Go, and Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. She later wrote and directed Away From Her, about a husband forced to deal with his wife's Alzheimer's, which received Oscar nominations for her screenplay and Julie Christie's performance. Her second film, a cute young people's romantic story, met with less universal acclaim. Now she has turned to documentary, focussing on material she knows well and people she has excellent access to. Stories We Tell may lay claim to more Pirandellian complexity than it deserves, but it tells a rollicking good tale of and by two sets of siblings and his Polley's discovery that her mother's widower was not her father but somebody she had a wild affair with while in a play in Montreal. A wealth of old videos and talk and writing by both "fathers" and all the extended immediate family are seamlessly edited into a very watchable film, though it isn't quite as unique as its makers seems to think.

    The fun of it is that Polley begins with the story of her colorful, hyperactive, never contented mom, actress Diane Polley, who met and fell in love with Michael Polley, a British actor. Her mother had had several other children by her first husband, and walking away from that marriage had lost her custody of the two eaerlier children, the first time that ever happened to a woman in Canada. An account follows of Sarah's late birth when her mother was 42 and Diane's early death of cancer only a few years later. Still later comes investigation into the rumors that Michael was not Sarah's father, but somebody she had an affair with when she was away from Toronto in Montreal in a play, returning to acting after a hiatus and reveling in the excitement of being away from humdrum Toronto and family life.

    Once the investigation of the identity of her true father (and DNA verification) comes along, all other topics are largely dropped, or greatly subordinated. A resulting disadvantage of Polley's method is that all the siblings and half siblings get plenty of chances to talk about Sarah, but not much development as human beings on their own. Egocentric? You could say that. An advantage is that both real and assumed father are highly articulate and talkative men. Moreover after the true paternity came out Michael Polley wrote a long, well-written letter to Sarah, which he reads to the camera, a text and reading that run through the film and help to give it humanity and unity. What seems less convincing is a final segment tacked on at the end full of highfalutin ponderings about how all this shows the uncertainty of the nature of reality and of people's descriptions of themselves. It's not like illegitimate children and coverups of same were anything all that rare and unusual. Nonetheless otherwise this is a very well-made and watchable documentary, further demonstrating that Sarah Polley is a talented lady.

    Actors are used for reenactments of Diane and Michael's and Sarah's earlier life, which are skillfully made to look like old amateur footage.

    Stories We Tell, 105 mins., a Roadside Attractions release edited by Michael Munn and sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada, debuted at Venice and was also shown at Toronto and Telluride. It was screened for this review as part of the FSLC-MoMA series, New Directors/New Films, March 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:14 AM.

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    Leonardo Di Constanzo: L'INTERVALLO (2012)

    LEONARDO DI COSTANZO: L'INTERVALLO (2012)


    FRANCESCA RISO AND ALESSIO GALLO IN L'INTERVALLO

    Camorra moment: little birds that cannot fly away

    Winner of the Critics’ Prize in the Orizzonti section of the 2012 Venice Film Festival, this portrait of two prematurely sophisticated adolescents momentarily thrown together under the eye of the Neapolitan Camorra is a sweet, low-keyed little first feature by documentary filmmaker Leonardo Di Costanzo, who also wrote the screenplay together with Mariangela Barbarnente (Orchestra of Piazza Virtorio) and Maurizio Braucci (Gomorraa and Reality). The "intermission" time comes for the shy and submissive (but tall, plump, monumental) 15-year-old ice cream and slushy (graniti) vendor Salvatore (Alessio Gallo) and the compulsively defiant and self-aware 17-year-old Veronica (Francesca Riso), two very particular personalities and previous non-actors found through a long elimination process. Salvatore and Veronica already know each other by sight because that's the nature of this remote, ugly, urban Naples neighborhood. She's being given a dramatic slap on the wrist for having wronged the local Camorra capo by having an affair with a brother from the enemy clan, given a day of quarantine with Salvatore as her jailer in a big empty building. It's a giant, long-abandoned mental institution, though that's not mentioned. Why Veronica is being punished comes out to "Toto" only late in the course of their time together and they are very, very slow to drop their guard and bond with each other on this hot summer day. L'Intervallo is of course a deliberately very crabwise way of looking at la Camorra -- one that offers the possibility of revealing differently, more subtly than any direct approach the gangster clan's impact on Naples society. Some viewers, and some Italian critics, inevitably find this little story banal and flat, unworthy somehow of its awesome and disturbing larger context of crime, exploitation, murder and ravages on the landscape and culture delineated in other films, notably Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah (NYFF 2008). But were the stories underlying De Sica's Sciuscià or Ladri di biciclette "important"? Indeed this is a slight film that takes almost 50 minutes to get going, but also a delicate, precise one, resonant in the mind afterward. There's no other picture of the Camorra quite like it.

    Veronica and "Toto" both chafe at this shared confinement but accept it, like the birds in a cage that rattle the sides of it but when the door's opened stay inside, because what's outside is even scarier -- the imagine of the film's succinctly defining epigraph. In his poetically turned Venice review on the Italian website Film.it. Ludovica Sanfelice acknowledges the justice of this image. He also notes the deep sense of documentary background in the film's handheld camera work, its careful choice of shots, the precise ear of its Neapolitan dialogue, the skillful direction of the two non-actors and the just use of the mournful setting, an abandoned psychiatric hospital. These very different but equally worldly-wise young people share confessions, stories, games and travel fantasies and in so doing briefly escape the stifling domination of the gangster clans. The metaphor of the birds is further borne out because Salvatore's father is a bird fancier and has taught him secrets of their habits.

    The two youth's playful bonding takes up much of the last part of the film, but of course the key moments are the two, early and late, when the gangster henchmen appear who created this moment. They are Bernardino (Carmine Paternoster) and his sidekick Mimmo (Salvatore Ruocco) and when Francesca is passive to Bernardino's caresses in the evening when he comes to set her free we know she essentially belongs to them, as Salvatore is their servant if needed when he takes money for his trouble and is safely released to return to his ice cream cart. Everything is the same, and everything is different.

    L'Intervallo, 86 mins., debuted at Venice as part of the Orizzonti series Sept. 4, 2012 and opened in Italy the following day. It also showed at the London and Buenos Aires festivals. A French theatrical release is set for April 24, 2013. Screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art joint series New Directors/New Films (March 20-31, 2013).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:15 AM.

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    Eryk Rocha: JARDS (2012)

    ERYK ROCHA: JARDS (2012)


    JARDS JACARÉ IN JARDS

    Arty visuals detract from the work of a superb Brazilian musician: good sound though

    The celebrated singer-songwriter Jards Macalé is in the recording studio where director Eryk Rocha captures him in a wide variety of poses and states of creating, imaginatively varying style and shooting formats. Fashioning an intimately attuned portrait of an artist, Rocha uses his camera as an instrument to riff with Jards in a poetic exchange between images and music. The repetitive, time-stopping process of rehearsal and the flow of energy between the two art forms create an elegiac vision of the creativity of some of Brazil’s most beloved singers and musicians. The movie won the prize for best direction at the International Rio Festival in 2012.

    Other than the above semi-promotional information, I have little to tell about Jards Jacaré. Even his Brazilian Wikipedia article is short on dates and details. What is clear is that he was recognized by and played with Gaetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, among other Brazilian musical greats early on, starting around 1970, when Jards (the nickname Jacaré given him early from a soccer team's worst player) also associated with writers and poets. An article calls him Brazil's musical "secret weapon," which may mean he's under-recognized even at home. It's also said that he has shied away from Brazilian musical "tropicalismo," feeling it had been too commercialized. If you like sophisticated Brazilian songs in the great modern tradition, with fine small musical accompaniment (including at times his own guitar or keyboard) and a soft, fuzzy jazzy vocal, this film will delight you. One only wishes there were more songs and that they'd begun sooner, rather than taking nearly fifteen minute of blurry image -- the camerawork is anything but high-tech -- of Jards walking on the street or on the beach, smoking cigarettes (to feed that pleasingly hoarse voice no doubt), and wandering into a recording studio. Several sessions with different musicians and a female vocalist are included, with no guidelines or information.

    Jacques Brel's "Ne me quitte pas" is one song but mostly Jards seems to be singing his own material, the lyrics wonderfully offbeat sophisticated poetry, the sense that the musicians of various ages are all at the top of their game (and from different genres, but melded seamlessly), and at ease working together: in short, an ideal recording situation.

    Evidently Eryk Rocha was responding to an invitation from Jards, and the occasion was the recording of a new album that took place in 2011. The camerawork mostly just seems clumsy and misguidedly "artistic." It's very heavy on the often out of focus extreme closeup. If you like doing a dental or throat exam of a singer while listening to his song, these visuals are for you. Occasionally some abstract images are handsome, but in context that seems almost accidental. The sound recording fortunately is excellent and Rocha made a wise decision in choosing to focus primarily on the music, avoiding interviews and keeping spoken words to a minimum. Maybe it's not a wholly bad idea to take the unusual step of not showing the musical instruments or hands and focusing only on faces, thus putting the music and the personalities first. One just wishes for better lenses and camerawork. Some are explained as being grainy Super8 negatives from Jards' own personal collection. Well.... With an artist of this caliber a straightforward approach would have been just fine. Let the man's work speak for itself, and let's have a more intimate view of how he works. What this does do is make one want to hear more of Jards Jacaré's recordings. If other ones have this kind of jazzy, smart vocal and lush instrumentation, with that unique Brazilian percussion (including cuica), time spent learning more about this singer-songwriter would be well spent.

    Jards, 93 mins., debuted at the Rio de Janeiro Festival, as noted above. There is nothing about it on IMDb, though if one searches online and is patient in using Google Translate one can find reviews of the film, at least one of which, by Juliano Gomez in Cinética, would appear to support my own view that the arty visual approach was unnecessary, even detrimental in presenting the work of such a first-rate musician.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-04-2015 at 02:15 AM.

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    Penny Lane: OUR NIXON (2012)

    PENNY LANE: OUR NIXON (2012)


    ARCHIVAL SUPER-8 IMAGE FROM OUR NIXON

    Downfall of Nixon's closest aides retold with their own Super 8 footage as window dressing

    As President Richard Nixon tape-recorded his conversations for posterity, so his devoted aides—H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin—shot hundreds of rolls of Super-8 film documenting the presidency. Filmmakers Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye have edited this footage—virtually unseen since the FBI seized it during the Watergate investigation—and interwoven it with period news footage and pop culture, excerpts from the Nixon tapes, and contemporary interviews. OUR¯ NIXON offers an unprecedented, insider’s view of an American presidency, chronicling watershed events including the Apollo moon landing and the path-breaking trip to China, as well as more intimate glimpses of Nixon in times of glory and disgrace.

    Such is the festival blurb for Penny Nixon's new documentary film about the Nixon Presidency. But like most festival blurbs, it is advertising, and its claims of an unprecedented, insider's view are titillating, but quite spurious. Land and Frye have made a snappy new run-through of this story, with a focus on Nixon's closest aides Haleman, Erlichman, and Chapin, whose Super 8 films add a bright cheery literally square note to the old story of naivete, duplicity, and downfall. There is indeed something terminally naive as well as dangerously loyal about this little band, and the old format with its bright colors is a good way of evoking this aspect of the Nixon era. Land and Frye have created a smooth, entertaining package. But do not come to this film thinking there is anything "unprecedented" or new about the information it presents. All the footage, though indeed in a vault for 40 years, had come to reside in the National Archives, but the filmmakers found what the Archives had on view was a copied and deteriorated version. They where able to obtained original (and therefor much sharper) copies of the Super 8 footage when Haldeman's estate donated it to the Nixon Library and they offered to make high quality digital copies of it at their own expense. The Nixon Library lacked the funds to do so!

    But the first thing you need to know, and the big letdown if you're looking for some kind of intimate record, is that all these aides' Super 8 films are without sound. Besides this they're very conventional, safe, formal footage, almost like a tourist's of the White House and its denizens at work and play, -- not a depiction of any kind of secret hitherto unrevealed Nixon insiders' world. The filmmakers had to find separate audio and verbal material to bind the Super 9 footage together from other sources, and they are public ones. Some of this material is is narration made for the film. Much of it consists of strategically inserted archival interviews from television as well as news reports by Walter Cronkite and other leading media figures of the period, such as Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Mike Wallace, Phil Donahue, and Daniel Schorr. The biggest frissons come from phone or office tapes of dialogue between Nixon and one of the three aides, Haldeman, Erlichman or Chapin. "Never mind the Times," Nixon is heard saying, for instance, "let's get the prick who gave them the information," meaning Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. And so on. Subtitles for these slightly fuzzy exchanges are provided in the middle of Whilte House views from the Super 8 tapes. But the Super 8 is just bland, colorful background for these little shockers. The Super 8 material winds up not being that important. It just provides color -- window dressing -- and an initial sense of the three aides' naivete when the started out in the White house. The revealing White House sound tapes, if not always heard in these particular excepts or this context, have long been in the public domain.

    In the end this is the story of the disintegration of the worlds of Haldeman, Erlichman, and Chapin, along with a very quick Nixon Presidency for Dummies -- Vietnam, China, Watergate, not much more. Only Chapin is now living. Interviews post-jail time with Haldeman and Erlichman and more recently with Chapin fill us in on how they recreated themselves in writing, real estate, and business. "Our Nixon" is a bit of a misnomer. "Their Nixon," maybe. But this film, for all its very well assembled visuals, doesn't provide material of the complexity you can get from books or articles.

    Penny Lane's Our Nixon, 85 mins., was in part funded from a grant from the Jerome Foundation. IMDb information is incomplete, but it apparently debuted at the Austin SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival. It was screened for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series, New Directors/New Films, running from March 20-31 in 2013. It was scheduled as the closing night film. No doubt the promise of hitherto unseen private footage and a secret intimate Nixon was well calculated to sell extra festival tickets and draw a lively crowd for ND/NF's final night. There were chortles and laughter at certain howlers from the insider crew even at the Press and Industry screening and no doubt there will be more of these in a packed festival hall.

    US theatrical release of Our Nixon opens in NYC at IFC Center Aug, 30, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-15-2016 at 10:13 PM.

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