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Thread: New Directors/New Films 2016; Film Comments Selects

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    New Directors/New Films 2016; Film Comments Selects

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-21-2016 at 09:45 PM.

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    UNDER THE SHADOW (Babak Anvar 2016)

    BABAK ANVAR: UNDER THE SHADOW (2016)



    Netflix's Iranian horror movie

    Genre mashups are the rage now and so we get - what? A domestic drama-cum-political thriller-cum-horror movie, from Iran, set in Teheran in the middle of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980's. Repression is full-on, so doctor's wife Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is told in the opening scene (reminiscent of other Iranian film openings like A Separation) where a university bureaucrat tells her no, she can't belatedly come back to medical school, and her political activity during the revolution is the reason. So she's back to caring for her insecure daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), still wetting her bed and morbidly attached to her doll, Kiria. Slowly, very slowly, djinns (which Shideh doesn't believe in) take over, when daddy Iraj (Bobby Naderi) has been called to the front.

    It's an unusual mix, and Under the Shadow qualifies as a novelty item. It may function better and be less morbidly pleased with itself than the Iranian vampire movie Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (ND/NF 2014). But as can happen with contempo, "realistic" horror, it gives rise to the suspicion that the real life around these characters would be more horrible by itself. In fact, the bangs and clangs of the djinns -- and a spectral woman, clothes with nothing inside, who begins stealing away Dorsa's affections -- have a hard time competing with the missiles and bombs going off all around. What seems really horrible, and also stupid, is that Shideh refuses to leave Teheran and stay with Iraj's parents in the country, safe from bombardments, and goes on living in an apartment building ever other resident has left, which is full of bomb holes, which people inexplicably mend with what looks like extra-wide Scotch tape. And when Iraj is really nasty to Shideh on the phone -- that's horrible.

    This film has been compared to the routine, maybe, but much much better horror movie The Babadook (ND/NF 2014) because this too has mother and child relationship that goes south due to a possession of sorts. The way Iraj and Shideh quarrel in the early scenes has a nice realism that sets off the creepier events that follow, though they also have the feel of scenes from a telenovela. Nice details include a new neighbor boy who has gone must since his parents got killed, but suddenly talks to Dorsa; and a pious woman neighbor who, as Justin Chang says in his Variety review, helpfully points out the "mythology" of the film, that Dorsa's (or her doll's!) troubles are most likely due to a djinn's possessing them, which makes the disappearance of Kiria, the doll, and the medical book Shideh received from her late mother, the more ominious.

    Is the ending, when Shideh and Dorsa finally leave in their little car with the lost doll finally found and repaired, hauntingly ambiguous, or deeply ironic? I'm afraid that it felt merely lame and anticlimactic. Under the Shadow obviously has many unique features qualifying it as one in a series of offbeat festival horror films, but if you want to be scared out of your wits, go elsewhere.

    Under the Shadow, 84 mins., in Farsi, debuted at Sundance 22 Jan. 2016 and was acquired by Netflix. Screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center/Museum of Modern Art series New Directors/New Films and scheduled as the opening night film.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-29-2016 at 09:50 PM.

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    THE APOSTATE/EL APÓSTATA ( (Federico Veiroj 2015)

    FEDERICO VEIROJ: THE APOSTATE/EL APÓSTATA (2015)



    Federico Veiroj's follow-up to 'A Useful LIfe'

    In my review of Veiroj's quiet, charming previous film, A Useful Life, I note that it's "a short-short story rather than a novel." This is equally true of this third film, even if it runs a bit longer; it actually feels less substantial. Again a tall man (and Veiroj himself is tall) is at the center of it, with nice hair. Not pear-shaped and middle-aged this time, or the director of a Cinemateca, or in Uruguay either. We're in Madrid, where Gonzalo Tamayo (Álvaro Ogalla), a young, rather handsome man, in a dreamy way, is a philosophy student. But is he actually studying? The main thing, the Veiroj thing, is that again to make minorness interesting, and somehow significant.

    The friend I watched the screening with didn't understand the title. What is an apostate? Can it even mean anything today to detach oneself from the Church? Given the strength of the Chruch in Spain, and particularly in Madrid, despite the city's worldliness and sophistication, it might, in some existential sense, mean something. But the main point is that it's so difficult, and also futile. It's important enough an effort for the various religious authorities Gonzalo meets with to try to dissuade or obstruct him. It's also a preoccupation for Gonzalo that may mask his inability to engage with the world. This focus of Gonzalo's throughout the film reflect's what Scott Tobias in his Variety review calls Veiroj's "instinct" for locating "moments of absurdist comedy within the throes of existential crisis." What he's doing seems Quixotic or pointless, but it is the focus Gonzalo has chosen for his personal crisis.

    Veiroj's films meander, while being firmly rooted in their protagonists' preoccupations. In this case, there's a bug middle section occupied largely with dreams full of nudity. Gonzalo comes and goes. He tutors the bright young son (Kaiet Rodriguez) of his attractive neighbor Maite (Barbara Lennie), whom he will kiss. His cousin Pilar, he has flirted with all his life, and flirts with now: she gets angry; leaves; then is drawn to him again. He is attractive to women.

    The most touching moment is when Gonzalo visits his mother (Vicky Pena), and it's clear that he doesn't want to hurt her, yet his apostasy project, for her, is a great embarrassment. There is a feel of discreet luxury and casual good taste about his mother's apartment. And the Madrid of the film as photographed by dp Arauco Hernandez is quietly classical and beautiful. The musical background suggests the light elegance of the Groupe des Six, at once classical and humorous, one of the various classy touches that helps pull together that balance of existential crisis and absurdity Tobias refers to. In the end, Veiroj has provided even less substance this time; and yet the film is satisfying.

    The Apostate/El Apóstata, 80 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2015., limited theatrical release in Spain in Oct. Included in over a dozen international festivals including Hamburg, Warsaw, London, Vienna, Gothenburg, Miami, and New Directors/New Films. It was screened as part of the latter. FIPRESCI Award at San Sebastián.

    At the screening it was preceded by a ten-minute short, Kasra Farahani's Concerning the Bodyguard, a reading of a story by Donald Barthelme by Salman Rushdie, which must have had special significance, given the decade of Rushdie's life under fatwa when he had a continual bodyguard, whom he reportedly did not like. The film seeks, with considerable success, to realize every phrase in the story's series of questions describing the bodyguard's life, using staged scenes ingeniously (and elegantly) interlinked with stock images, mostly from Russia and Iran to invent a sort of homogenized absolutist state like the one in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-01-2016 at 06:34 AM.

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    THITHI (Raam Redy 2015)

    RAAM REDY: THITHI (2015)


    Abhishek H.N., Channegowda in Thithi

    A midsummer Indian rural comedy

    A very old man dies. His grandson tries to sell land he owned. His father gets in the way. A handsome young man falls in love with a pretty woman traveling through with shepherds. This provides the substance of Raam Redy's triumph of villager-wrangling, shot at an oddly named South Indian village in Karnataka, where they speak the Kannada language. I'd never heard of it. It's Dravidian, and between 38 and 50 million people speak it.

    The art of Redy's film, as with all festive comedy, is to keep various balls in the air. The abrupt death of "Century Gowda," the foul-mouthed, hateful centenarian family patriarch, touches off the action in the first scene. We see his ritual immolation. The body is carried not stretched out the way we expect corpses to be but sitting up in a square frame, held high, and then planted on the funeral pyre of wood sticks. Eleven days later the eponymous Thithi farewell ceremony is held.

    Meanwhile Thamanna, Gowda's grandson, sets out to sell the five acres of land nominally in Gowda's name. To do this his father, the wayward, eighty-something Gadappa, a tall, thin, bearded, distinguished looking bum who roams around swilling liquor from little bottles and smoking cigarettes, must give his permission. Or, the potential buyer suggests, he must be dead, or appear to be. We follow Thamanna pursuing his machinations, which among other things lead him to pay Gadappa to get lost, for six months at least. But instead Gadappa joins a group of migratory shepherds who are presently camped nearby, among whom is the pretty young woman a young, handsome member of the family has fallen for. The courtship weaves in and out of Gadappa's and Thamanna's stories.

    That's all there is too it, really, but the action is so bustling and constant that the viewer's sense of emersion is intense. Certainly Reddy's film is closer to Satyajit Ray than to Bollywood, but it quite lacks the profundity and intelligence of Ray, even as it uses some of the neorealist methods Ray employed in the first of his sublime Apu trilogy. But however rough an impression South India makes here, the action is vibrant and alive.

    Thithi, 132 mins., debuted at Locarno, where it won two awards, and was in three other festivals, Mumbai, Palm Springs, and New Directors/New Films. It was screened for this review as part of New Directors, at Lincoln Center, NYC. The series is a collaboration between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA and the films are shown at both locations.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-03-2016 at 06:08 AM.

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    BEHEMOTH/BEIXI MOSHUO (Zhao Liang 2015)

    ZHAO LIANG: BEHEMOTH/BEIXI MOSHUO (2015



    [Art film + documentary]

    Zhao Liang acts as a modern-day Dante exploring Inner Mongolia’s environmental destruction by toxic coal mining

    Jay Weissberg sums up this film in his review for Variety:
    Maverick indie helmer Zhao Liang continues his muckraking tour of China’s social and environmental woes with the stunningly lensed, cumulatively moving Behemoth. Acting as a modern-day Dante on a tour through Inner Mongolia’s coal mines and iron works, Zhao (Together, Petition) eschews narrative for an impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage, emphasizing the contrasts between rapidly dwindling green pastures and dead landscapes disemboweled by toxic mining. The human toll is also here in the final sections, making starkly clear the price impoverished workers pay for back-breaking labor. Zhao’s quiet yet powerful indignation will play to the arthouse crowd, and his striking visuals should ensure that Behemoth receives berths beyond environmental fests.
    Zhao Liang draws inspiration from Dante, regarding horrific deep-dug mines in rural China as analogous to the deeper bolgias of the great Italian poet's Inferno. The quality of this film varies. Outdoor widescreen landscapes, even those of ravaged, hideously exploited land, are strikingly beautiful. But when he moves into workers' hutches or mine shafts, with poor light, the image quality drops sharply. Nonetheless, this film earns a place among the growing literature of ethnographic documentary; and films documenting environmental destruction. The region he chose to explore in this film, the Wuhai area of Inner Mongolia, was black on the satellite map. The thing is, not only has coal mining -- and China is the biggest miner of cola and polluter with coal -- turned this place into the earth equivalent of a festering sore, but it used to be an area of particularly pretty, blissfully green wide grasslands, some of which are still to be seen and shown for comparison. Zhao makes ample use of this contrast in his highly visual and pointedly, if mostly silently, editorial film.

    We look at young workers in the mines wearing heavy masks and we know somehow no masks will be enough here. A New York Times article reports an interview with the filmmaker.

    Behemoth/Bei xi mo shou, 91 mins., debuted at Venice 11 Sept. 2015, winning the environmental Green Drop Award, and has been included in at least seven other international festivals including Stockholm, Dubai, Hong Kong, and New Directors/New Films, as part of which it was screened for this review.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-01-2016 at 12:21 AM.

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    NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH/NI LE CIEL NI LA TERRE (Clément Cogitore 2015)

    CLÉMENT COGITORE: NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH/NI LE CIEL NI LA TERRE (2015)


    JÉRÉMIE RENIER IN NI LE CIEL NI LA TERRE

    Metaphysical thriller set in the Afghan front starring Jérémie Renier

    A Cannes review by Guy Lodge in Variety of this new film starring the durable Belgian actor Jérémie Renier suggests that the French director Clément Cogitore's original debut revives the already seemingly exhausted Afghan soldier portrait genre. Cogitore describes it as "a blend of John Ford and M. Knight Shyamalan." But Lodge also thought of Antonioni's L'Avventura, because it's the mysterious disappearance of some of his men that causes the protagonist, Capitaine Antarès Bonassieu, to gradually lose his authority and his mental grip.

    We are in the same realm as Tobials Lindstrom's current Oscar nominated A War, though that film has more vivid and extended battle sequences. We're in similar territory to the twin Afghan war documentaries Restrepo and Korengal -- the western soldiers high up in the rocky hillsides, isolated, bored, working out, calling home, having periodic meetings with village men, armed with an interpreter (this one, played by Sâm Mirhosseini, is particularly strong and essential); the quarrels over sheep; the clashes with Afghans; the ever-present danger of the Taliban.

    And I always want to ask: Why? What are these western soldiers doing here, constantly at risk? What makes authorities think they're essential? But those questions rarely come up in these films. In any case, here the NATO-led troops are being withdrawn, so they're basically waiting around and trying, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to stay out of trouble. Here the question isn't Why? but What the hell is going on? And there's never a very good answer. One of the themes is how macho men may go haywire long confined together, a theme memorably treated in Claire Denis's classic Beau Travail. Another is the union of enemies, since it turns out that not only the French unit but the local Taliban have been mysteriously losing men -- and they wind up involved in a strange collaboration. As the Captain grows unhinged by his disappearing men, he begins to think the answer lies in dreams.

    I didn't find Neither Heaven Nor Earth fully satisfying, because it doesn't explore either war or metaphysics enough, but Cogitore uses the Moroccan locations and appropriate mise-en-scène well, and the fine cast includes Swann Arlaud of de Pallières' Michael Kohlhass, the lean, intense young Kévin Azaïs of Love at First Fight, and the recently ubiquitous Finnegan Oldfield, a "Meilleur Espoir" César nominee this year featured in Bang Gang and Les Cowboys -- the latter the directorial debut of Jacque Audiard script collaborator Thomas Bidegain, who performed similar duties here.

    Neither Heaven Nor Earth/Ni le ciel ni la terre, aka The Wakhan Front, 100 mins., debuted in Cannes Critics' Week May 2015 and has been included in eight other festivals, including New Directors/New Films in New York, where it was screened for this review 1 Mar. 2016. Released in Sept. 2015 in France it received enthusiastic reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.8 averaged from 28 reviews). Cahiers concluded that Cogitoren is a director worth watching, and several reviewers said the film was captivating "from beginning to end."
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-01-2016 at 09:11 PM.

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    Shorts program 1

    SHORTS PROGRAM 1


    UNDER THE SUN

    Shorts Program One
    Under the Sun / Ri Guang Zhi Xia
    Yang Qiu, China, 2015, 19m
    Chinese with English subtitles
    An incident of random nature entangles two families and brings their plights into sharp focus.


    We are in strong ironic Jia Zhang-ke territory here, with the cool, distant camera placement, the grim urban backgrounds, and the slow buildup through dialogue of a picture of backbiting, corruption, and cynicism in he face of China's economic explosion and eco-nightmare. The story focuses, crabwise, onn a young man who helped an old lady in an accident, and has been persecuted and threatened with a lawsuit ever since by police and greedy relatives. The best and most significant film in this set. Made under the aegis of Australia's Melbourne University film school, it was an official selection at Cannes 2015 and has received best short nominations at nine different international festivals.

    Dirt
    Darius Clark Monroe, USA, 2014, 7m
    With an unsettling lyricism all his own, Darius Clark Monroe traces an evocative and elliptical portrait of a dirty deed.


    Strong, vivid filmmaking doesn't mean this makes much sense or grabs much purchase on its narrative, but may be promise of something powerful to come. Monroe directed the autobiographical 2014 documentary feature Evolution of a Criminal, which I saw and reported on from IFC Center. Dirt was shown and nominated for best short at Sundance. It shows former jailed bank robber Monroe is still making films and it has more polish than his debut.

    Totem
    Marte Vold, Norway, 2015, 20m
    Norwegian with English subtitles
    In seemingly idyllic Oslo, a couple demonstrates the discontents of intimacy with wit and biting honesty. U.S. Premiere


    This meandering series of domestic incidents is a bore. A few touches of humor aren't enough to make it memorable.

    Reluctantly Queer
    Akosua Adoma Owusu, Ghana/USA, 2016, 8m
    In a letter home to his beloved mother, a young Ghanaian man attempts to unpack his queerness in light of her love. North American Premiere


    Simple and sincere, this doesn't get very ambitious with its discreetly homoerotic images focused on collaborator on the writing, Kwame Edwin Otu, sitting around, taking a shower, and in bed with a white lover. The evidently autobiographical narration is touching. Most tellingly, he explains to his mother in Ghana that while in America he faces the legacy of slavery every day and is surveilled, still there is the advantage over back home where he cannot show his "secret" nature, his gayness as he can here. Shown in six festivals in early 2016.

    Isabella Morra
    Isabel Pagliai, France, 2015, 22m
    French with English subtitles
    The courtyards of a housing project become a de facto stage on which unsupervised children perform, spreading rumors and shouting insults in an imitation of adulthood. North American Premiere


    It's astonishing to see the large number of people involved in making this uninteresting film of kids in the banlieu talking about nothing, playing with a doll, or sitting around. The aim is to show how much time is wasted here. But there have been so many exciting, imaginative, important films made about life in the cités. Matthieu Kasovitz's La Haine and Abdellatif Kechiche's early Games of Love and Chance come to mind. This simply seems lazy. A waste of time.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-02-2016 at 08:50 AM.

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    NAKOM (T.W. Pittman & Kelly Daniela Norris 2015)

    T.W. PITTMAN, KELLY DANIELA NORRIS: NAKOM (2015)



    A choice between traditional culture and individual service


    In Nakom,a talented Ghana medical student, Iddrisu (the splendid Jacob Ayanaba) is forced by his father's death to return to his tiny, primitive farming village and has choose between returning to finish his education and pursue an urban medical career and remaining to for his family's survival.

    There is something splendidly open and bright about this film from the start, with its wide aspect ratio, teeming images of the urban Kumasi, university campus, city streets, and then the wide flat landscapes of the farm. Once Iddrisu is back home, he's immediately plunged into family problems His mother (Justina Kulidu) isn't speaking to his father's second wife (Shetu Musah); his sister Damata (Grace Ayariga) resents that there's not enough family money to continue her own studies. His younger brother Kamal (Abdul Aziz) is lazy and has gotten a relative pregnant. The family property may fall into the hands Iddrisu's better off, more prestigious o Uncle Napoleon (Thomas Kulidu), whom his father borrowed money from after a bad crop year.

    Iddrisu handles everything justly, wielding authority with sureness and tact. He arranges to have his scholarship suspended so he can spend a year away from his studies, and we follow as he takes change -- but always with the recurring question: Is this role more important than the life he led studying medicine (which he goes on studying in his spare time)? Is he indispensable now? These questions give urgency to events that are fascinating in themselves. (This story is a little like the middle panel of Satyagit Ray's Apu Trilogy.)

    Reviewing the film at the time of its Berlinale premiere in Variety , Dennis Harvey noted that this second feature for U.S.-based co-directors Kelly Daniela Norris and TW Pittman (following their 2013 Sombras de Azul, shot in Cuba) fortunately lacks the outside-looking-in feel of similar international co-productions. "There's an air of authenticity" he wrote, "as well as a pleasingly laid-back yet substantive narrative engagement to this polished effort." That says it all. The action in another New Directors film, Raam Redy's Thithi, makes equally fluent use of a primitive rural setting and a large cast of non-actors, but there is more polish here, and a unifying focus on the tall, lean Jacob Ayanaba, whose face can go from old to young, infinitely sad to bright and happy.

    Nakom, 90 mins., debuted at the Berlinale 15 Feb. 2016; it's US debut is in the New Directors/New Films series in NYC put on by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, where it shows 18 Mar. Viewed for this review at a press screening at Lincoln Center 1 Mar.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-01-2016 at 09:29 PM.

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    REMAINDER (Omer Fast 2015)

    OMER FAST: REMAINDER (2015)



    An adaptation of Tom McCarthy's cult debut novel by a prolific Israeli video artist; his first feature

    As Rudge says in Alan Bennett's The History Boys, "History is just one fuckin' thing after another," and life as seen in Tom McCarthy's 2006 novel Remainder, handsomely condensed in Israeli video artist Omer Faast's feature, is but a concatenation of events, which the protagonist, Tom (Tom Sturridge), is at pains to reconstruct. He has been smashed down on a London street by falling debris, and, after a period in hospital, struggling back to life, finds himself robbed of much of his memory. This includes his early life, and what he was doing on that street.

    As Catherine Bray wrote in Variety at the film's October 2015 London debut, Remainder is above all "a beguilement of memory like its predecessors Memento and Mulholland Drive." But it's also a detective story, a "sporadically playful psychological thriller," and an obsessive thriller. Because it's so condensed, McCarhy's story is (as Bray says) "harder to follow for the uninitiated" than the book. With his alabaster skin and bee-sting lips, Sturridge has a face the camera loves. Tom's recovery time is illustrated with many shaky extreme closeups. Fast lets one enjoy simply contemplating the actor's languid impersonation of the lead and the video artist's slick recreation of Tom's explorations of memory and events, a few of which are constantly revisited. In the increasingly obsessive varied versions, scenes from Tom's present and past, a sense of urgency and dirty business arises.

    We can't reveal all but there's this. When Tom comes to, heavily bearded, he can't remember anything after the thing falling on him, and not much before. Of the traumatic event anyway he is not supposed to speak, a condition of the £8.5 million settlement a lawyer has arranged for him. He's been in a coma for months, and has to relearn how to move, and take constant pills for pain and to sleep. But a crack seen at a party reawakens memories of his youth, and he starts reconstructing events, using his new wealth and a hired fixer, a tidy, bearded, bespectacled man called Naz (Arsher Ali), sort of like a film director, to do it. He stages a house, several houses, keeps hired actors on call, a woman frying liver, cats on a roof, a whole string of people and things. And all along, people Tom finds who may have a sinister significance. Perhaps the ending, involving protracted reenactments of a robbery, is too much like a thriller. But it is thrilling. Perhaps in this form, we may have too much trouble connecting the dots. We're obviously not meant to always separate real from dreamed, even know if any of this is happening; it's still fun. I haven't read the novel -- yet. But this is material for re-watching and discussion.

    Remainder, 97 mins., debuted Oct. 2015 at London, where it was filmed; also at Berlin Feb. 2016. Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (FSLC/MoMA), Mar. 2016.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-01-2016 at 09:39 PM.

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    KILL ME PLEASE/MATA-ME POR FAVOR (Anita Rocha da Silveira 2015)

    ANITA ROCHA DA SILVEIRA: KILL ME PLEASE/MATA-ME POR FAVOR (2015)


    VALENTINA HERSZAGE IN KILL ME PLEASE

    Vile, beautiful girls make out and dream of death in a posh soulless suburb of Rio

    Anita Rocha da Silveira’s bright-colored debut feature wallows adoringly among pretty young Brazilian girls, and a few pretty young Brazilian boys. it is not a "slasher flick," and there is no "teenage angst." There is a lot of kissing, and some dancing, and a background of murders of young women in the wasteland surrounding large new suburban housing estates in Rio de Janeiro’s Barra da Tijuca. The girls, who belong to a competitive clan, are morbidly fascinated with the idea of being murdered, presumably after being raped, by a man. Particularly the pale, pretty, faintly ghoulish Bia (Valentina Herszage).

    Bia wants to have sex with her boyfriend, the cute, sweet Pedro, but he follows a Christian agenda. One of the films' more successful outrages are scenes of a heavily made up young female "priest" who delivers trendy sermons and hip Christian songs to a small young audience including Bia and Pedro.

    Filmmaker Anita Rocha da Silveira delivers on the exhibitionistic formal eye candy in every scene, with quite a succession of pretty young people. What she cannot seem to deliver on is story. Possible nods to to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, and the atmospheres of David Lynch cannot make up for the fact that there is no narrative structure to speak of. Kill Me Please is more like a music video than a feature film. In his Hollywood Reporter review, Jonathan Holland says the film "packages its horrors too neatly into beautiful images."

    Kill Me Please/Mata me por favor 101 mins., in Portuguese, debuted in the Orizzonti section at Venice Sept. 2015, and went on to win prizes at Rio, with three other festivals including Gothenburg and New Directors/New Films in New York. Watched at the latter for this review Mar. 2016.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-03-2016 at 08:53 AM.

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    LIFE AFTER LIFE/ZHI FAN YE MAO (Zhang Hanyi 2016)

    ZHANG HANYI: LIFE AFTER LIFE/ZHI FAN YE MAO (2016)


    ZHANG MINGJUN AND ZHANG LI IN LIFE AFTER LIFE

    A returning soul visits a ravaged land

    In the story, which is pursued with quiet obsessiveness, a youth, Leilei (Zhang Li), becomes possessed by his late mother, Xiuying, whose spirit has wandered the Shanxi Province’s disintegrating cave homes for years. With the help of Leilei’s father Ming Chun (Zhang Mingjun), whose reception of his late wife’s return is deadpan (Buster Keaton has nothing on these two guys), they undertake the Sisyphean process, to please Xiuying, of moving a tree from her family's courtyard higher up in the desolate dust-covered mountains that surround them. Panoramic shots show a valley spanned by modern mining apparatus, while up close beyond the man and possessed boy plod around a depressing, desolate village where nobody is friendly, not even their relatives.

    The film was reviewed at the Berlinale by Clarence Tsui in Hollywood Reporter. It was produced by Jia Zhang-ke, whose deadpan sarcasm Tsui detects in this film; she also sees links with Kafka, Camus, and the camera style of Pedro Costa. The festival blurb sees a link with "the gentle supernaturalism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul." Actually, this is a very Chinese film, and is suffused with the spirit and style of Jia.

    The sad, fatalistic mood of Life After Life made me think of Arthur Waley's translation of the old Chinese poem The Chrysanthemums in the Eastern Garden: "With what thoughts of sadness and loneliness/I walk again in this cold, deserted place!/In the midst of the garden long I stand alone;/The sunshine, faint; the wind and dew chill/The autumn lettuce is tangled and turned to seed;/The fair trees are blighted and withered away." And so on. But in Zhang Hanyi's film, nothing blooms. It is probable that Zhang means the moving of the leafless tree as a gesture toward the destroyed earth of modern China.

    There aren't any closeups other than the staring face of Leilei/Xiuying facing backward as they forge ahead on his father's curious vehicle, in which a small pickup truck appears to have mated with a motorcycle. The task of getting the tree into this contraption is truly Sisyphean: following a method they've seen applied to a very large rock, they work the tree onto the truck along a long plank. Leilei pulls a rope lassoed around the bulky bottom of the tree wherein its roots are wrapped, while his dad, holding its thin trunk, rocks it side to side. Up a plank they go, but just before entering the truck, it falls down, do they must work it all the way back to the beginning of the plank, to start anew.

    People encountered in the village are sullen and unattractive. Xiuying's family are not welcoming, but don't expel the pair from a grim outdoor meal.

    Looking for Xiuying's father's spirit, they believe they've found it in an unruly, highly sexed dog. The New Directors series of which this was a part has included more than its share of animals slaughtered onscreen. This one can boast the most morbid and prolonged animal execution, which we're forced to watch all of. It involves strangling a sheep held to the ground. It takes an age for the sheep to die.

    When the task is done, as promised Xiuying leaves, and Leili's body goes limp. We see Ming Chun carrying it on his back -- another Sisyphean task? -- and calling to Leilei's spirit to return. But it does not return.

    While we are making sophisticated western references, we might mention Beckett. The meaning of the film's title in Chinese is "labyrinthine branches with plentiful of leaves," obviously deeply ironic as applied to the scrawny tree that's moved. It's a tree off the set of Waiting for Godot, and the words recall Clov's when he looks toward the audience and Hamm asks him to report and he says, "I see a multitude in transports of joy."

    Life After Life/Zhi fan ye mao, 80 min., debuted at Berlin's Forum section Feb. 2016. It's listed on IMDb as being "in development." Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (FSLC/MoMA), New York, Mar. 2016.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-03-2016 at 08:38 AM.

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    THE FITS (Anna Rose Holmer 2015)

    ANNA ROSE HOLMER: THE FITS (2015)


    ROYALTY HIGHTOWER IN THE FITS

    Black girls at a rec center in Cincinnati; a girl torn between two worlds

    In this engaging but frustrating debut feature -- another one in 2016 New Directors (like the Brazilian Kill Me Please) that's more like an extended short than a feature -- tomboyish 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) moves from boxer training, which she shares with her older brother, to a dance-marching band group across the way that is all girls. And some of these girls start having epileptic-like fits, which are initially attributed to the water -- a timely reference in view of the recent scandal about the water supply of Flint, Michigan.

    Holmer blends scenes back and forth between Toni and her brother at the boxing gym, the dance workouts, a couple older boys and girlfriends, the fits, an empty swimming pool, and walks home with Toni and her brother. There is a lot of well-filmed physical activity, especially exercises like pull-ups and sit-ups, repetitious dance routines (standing in place, body and arm movement, not leg), and byplay between Toni and her brother. The best things are the warm and playful interactions between Toni and her brother. They play so naturally together. Royalty Hightower is a poised, versatile charmer.

    Though she's presented as a tomboy, Toni's ear-piercing and nail-painting moments show she's not un-feminine; but she is simply a little detached from the others at times.

    In a Variety review from Sundance Nick Schrager describes this film as "An abstract portrait of adolescent emotional dynamics," and says Holmer "crafts a meticulous mood of psychological isolation and beguiling mystery through her metaphorical tale, which exhibits less interest in traditional dramatic conventions than in situating viewers in its protagonist’s particular headspace." This is accurate in the way it suggests The Fits is more like an art piece, or at moments a music video, than a conventional feature film, but it's not so clear how Toni's "headspace" is being simulated, since that's all wordless and inarticulate. Suppose she had had a voiceover or a diary? Clearly Toni and her brother live in the projects. But the camera never follows them all the way home. And though Holmer conveys a vivid sense of the youth community at the rec center, the other characters are visited only fleetingly. There is a lot of staccato, natural dialogue. But it doesn't gain much narrative purchase.

    Schrader explains that the film was developed through a "micro-budget program at the Venice Biennale institute that stipulates all projects be completed in under a year." It does indeed show promise, for its vividness and energy. But Holmer needs to work more on story and delve deeper into her characters.

    The Fits, 72 mins., debuted at Venice, and showed also at Sundance and New Directors/New Films, where it was screened for this review. Picked up for US distribution by Oscilloscope. Opens in Theaters on June 3rd 2016. (Well received: Metacritic rating 77%.)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-03-2016 at 02:03 PM.

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    SHORT STAY (Ted Fendt, 2015)

    TED FENDT: SHORT STAY (2015)


    MIKE MACCHERONE (RIGHT) IN SHORT STAY

    Mumblecore schlub's abortive summer sojourn in Philly

    Mike MacCherone is a towering nerdy guy, and he gives phatic nerd utterance an almost epic level of inexpressiveness.

    According to the festival blurb, in Short Stay the director, Ted Fendt, "delivers on the promise of his acclaimed short films without sacrificing an ounce of his singular charm and rigor." Really? The "singular charm" is a bit hard to perceive. Whose? Certainly not the protagonist's; he has none. Short Stay reads like a rudimentary "mumblecore" film, with no progress beyond the minimalist genre's early days -- depicting, as the first halting examples of the genre often did, the unremarkable everyday doings of an unappealing thirty-something going nowhere very slowly. Mike (Mike MacCherone, who presents as height and bulk almost without personality), whose job delivering pizzas has few career opportunities, is offered a chance to sublet a friend's room in Philadelphia. He also gets to do the guy's city walking tours.

    The blurb author says the film shows "economy of expression." That's easy: not much is happening: a few parties, a few uneventful dates, the room, the job. And also, we're told, Fendt has an "incomparable nose for the tragicomic dimension of the everyday." Actually, the events are drab and ordinary. They are neither tragic nor comic.

    And then there are the tech aspects of the film, its nonexistent artistry. The images are 16mm blown up to 35mm, but a very far cry from the gorgeous look such formatting can have as exemplified by the Oscar-nominated work of Edward Lachman for Todd Haynes'd Carol last year. This looks like a movie shot in home video, but it isn't ironic or period, as in mumble "godfather" Andrew Bujalski's strange, fascinating Computer Chess. While Lachman has shot on super 16 for "grain," a rich human texture, in Short Stay the images just look rudimentary and blurry. There is no visual sense here. The shooting gets us through the scenes, just barely, and that's it. The déjeuner sur l'herbe still (shown above) is a rarity. Most shots are medium closeups you might see in a telenovela.

    As for Fendt's moving up from shorts without loss, the problem is that he has only barely moved up. Short Stay, with its repetitious incidents and scenes, reads simply a short film in need of editing. It makes 61 minutes seem like a long time. It is a bore. However, Fendt may grow, as a few "mumblecore" directors (notably Bujalski) and actors (notably Greta Gerwig) have done. Miracles can happen. But this audition isn't very promising.

    Short Stay, 61 mins., debuted at the Berlinale 12 Feb. 2016. It shows again 20 Feb. as part of New Directors/New Films in New York, where it was screened for this review.

    Reviewed in Hollywood Reporter at the Berlinale by Jordon Mintzer. It debuted in the Forum section there. Shot in 16mm. and blown up to 35 mm. film. The director and his project are sympathetically described by Caroline Marques in an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-03-2016 at 09:00 PM.

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    KAILI BLUES/LU BIAN YE CAN (Bi Gan 2015)

    BI GAN: KAILI BLUES/LU BIAN YE CAN (2015)



    A dreamy Chinese road picture that's a visual tour-de-force -- and an impressive debut

    Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong), the protagonist of Bi Gan's complex and breathtakingly enthusiastic exploration of cinematic possibility, has for some time now been a country doctor, working in a small clinic with an an older woman doctor, Guang Lian (Zhao Daqing), in the subtropical province of Guizhou. In time through hints and finally his own crabwise confession in a barber shop, we learn that he previously spent nine years in prison, taking the rap for others. In the long dreamy sequence that makes up most of the latter part of the film Chen is on the road, initially at least in search of his nephew, Weiwei. He has believed that his gangster half brother, Weiwei's cruel father Crazy Face (Xie Lixun), had sold the boy. There are other differences with Crazy Face -- over inheritance of a house, and his mother's tombstone. On his trip Chen hopes not only to visit Weiwei but a former gangster associate known as Monk who now runs a watch shop and an old friend of Guang Lian's she's been dreaming of lately and wants to send a gift to; she says she's too old to travel.

    So this is a road picture, one with elaborate motives and back stories, concepts and commentary with built-in homages to great Chinese filmmakers of the previous generations. But it's also simply a demonstration of the joy of filmmaking. From the outset Bi Gan shows a passionate awareness of the aesthetic possibilities of his rural Chinese milieu, of everything the eye of the camera encounters. The lens of his cinematographer Wang Tianxing, remarkably debuting here, seems to gobble up the diverse scenes, whether they be a sweeping verdant hill landscape, a jumble of rundown buildings and debris, a mobile crane performing a nimble maneuver off a truck, a bunch of motorcycles mounted by young men acting as rudimentary cabbies, or young toughs -- in classic scenes right out of iconic Hou Hsiau-hsien films -- hanging out, striking poses, and playing pool. Whether the material filmed is superficially "ugly" or "beautiful" or simply drab, it's arranged on screen in ways that show a sure eye and a keen sense of composition. But the scene is what matters, not some arbitrary arrangement.

    And then, along Chen's journey by train, bus, truck, and motorcycle, the camera takes flight, following people around and weaving in and out the hillside town for a 40-minute unbroken long take in the virtuoso tour-de-force manner of Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, but focused not on period costumes and museum art works but humid landscape, scruffy men, pretty women, roads, motorcycles, interiors with decaying walls.

    The search, which is also a memorial journey, taking Chen to the riverside city of Kaili and town of Dang Mai, has seemed primarily motivated by concern for the well-being of Weiwei (Luo Fengyang as a youth, Yu Shixue older), whom he meets magically by chance. But voiceovers of poetry, the mesmerizing camera movements, begin to suspend us in a magical present time, like a drug high, where plans and goals are suspended and nothing matters but everything is hyperreal. We are there. China, this awesome, terrifying, destroyed and destroying country, seems magical again. One is brought back to the early films of Wong Kar-wai, Hou, and Jia Zhang-ke. (Others have seen a link with the Thai Cannes darling and explorer of magic and ghosts, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but that seems more of a stretch. The director, barely thirty, has mentioned Andrei Tarkovski as an influence.

    Reviewed by Derek Elley for Film Business Asia in his typical meticulous but not infrequently grumpy manner, Kaili Blues doesn't fare so well. Obviously, more is going on than we can possibly gather in one or even many viewings, and we need a guide. Elley helpfully points out that the Chinese title means "Roadside Picnic," and is the name of the main character's anthology of poems. Elley grants that the filming is a tour-de-force: "In sheer planning — as the camera follows the doctor on a motorbike, up and down stairs, into people's homes, on a river ferry, and across a bridge — it's a considerable achievement, with hardly a glitch." But Elly is unmoved. He doesn't see this as a meaningful explication of the narrative or character, or as having the mystical quality that is desired, as suggested by the voiceover "foggy poems" (as he condescendingly calls them) attributed to the main character (and actually by Bi Gan, who is a published poet).

    But I was thrilled, and found the latter sequences of Kaili Blues made me feel high -- high on this exotic world, on the joy of filmmaking and film-watching. I remembered the excitement when a tip in the San Francisco paper led me to a hitherto unknown movie house in Chinatown (or so I remember it) and I saw the first two films of Wong Kar-wai. I didn't make much sense of them then. But I had entered a new world, and was hooked. What Elly calls "a conventional Mainland indie" is dense with ethnographic detail (indlucing visits to the Miau people from whom Bi Gan comes, the locations being his native region), a Diamond Sutra epigraph, intricate motives and backstories (with possibilities for future development) and it's not at all out of place for John DeFore to say in his Hollywood Reporter review that Kaili Blues "invites academic thesis-level dissection." But he is also right to add -- we feel the freshness of the energy and enthusiasm -- that "thanks in part to Chen's unforced performance, it never feels pretentious." Whoever wrote in the ND/NF blub calling this "one of the most audacious and innovative debuts of recent years" was certainly on the right track (despite a surprising lack of buzz since Locarno). There could be a glorious future here.

    Kaili Blues/Lu bian ye can/ 路邊野餐, 113 mins. debuted at Locarno, where it won Best Emerging Director and Special Mention awards.It also won the Montgolfière d'or award at the Nantes Festival of the Three Continents and also has been in the Vancouver festival, where one blogger noted technical flaws in the long hillside take camerawork. Shelly Kraicer provides loving details in a piece reprinted in Cinemascope. It has been hailed by French critics ("of an unheard of virtuosity," Liberation; "a splendor," Les Inrocks) and it's coming out in France 23 March. Screened for this review as part of the 2016 Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art series New Director/New Films. It will show Mon. 21 Mar. at 6:30 p.m. at MoMA and Wed. 23 Mar. at 6 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.



    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-05-2016 at 06:42 PM.

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    Shorts program 2

    SHORTS PROGRAM 2


    THE DIGGER

    Shorts Program Two
    The Digger
    Ali Cherri, Lebanon/France/UAE, 2015, 24m
    Arabic and Pashto with English subtitles
    With ritualistic serenity, a lone caretaker maintains ancient graves in the Sharjah Desert long after the bodies are gone. North American Premiere


    This is a beautiful, dignified visual poem, with no voiceover. The only text is printed literary Arabic. It's probably the best and most memorable of the program, but what can you say about it?

    We All Love the Seashore / Tout le Monde Aime le Bord de la Mer
    Keina Espiñeira, Spain, 2016, 16m
    French and Pulaar with English subtitles
    A poetic distillation of the liminal space of refugees and migrants, developed collaboratively through encounters on the African coast of the Mediterranean. North American Premiere


    "Poetic distillation" means that while actual refugees are used, this like the rest is an art piece. The are highly scripted, arranged, and poeticized. Which given the global refugee crisis at present seems a bit out of touch with reality.

    Of a Few Days
    Timothy Fryett, USA, 2016, 14m
    On the South Side of Chicago, final touches on one’s
    journey on Earth are meticulously made in a decades-old community funeral home. North American Premiere


    A close look at a few details of how a funeral home is run and the preparing of the dead. Not really quite a documentary though, because like the other films here, it is highly selective.

    The Park / Le Park
    Randa Maroufi, France, 2015, 14m
    French and Arabic with English subtitles
    A series of tableaux vivants mesmerizingly locate the intersection of public space, inner lives, and social media within an abandoned Casablanca amusement park. U.S. Premiere


    The strangest and most interesting short in this set because I haven't seen anything like it before. Very suggestive. But I had no idea what this was about, and I'm not sure if we're expected to know. There may be some reference to recent crimes or gang battles or something. The "dialogue" in French and/or Moroccan Arabic is fragmentary, and comes and goes before you can make it out. The "tableaux vivants" are really that. Groups of nice looking young people, mostly men, are frozen in place, some with knives raised as if about to strike, though they have pleasant expressions. The camera moves around among them. They really don't move. At most one guy's eye moves. But what could it possibly mean? A good art piece to show in a museum. No feature film potential imaginable. Hence the New Directors jury in this section have chosen to marginalize the festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-03-2016 at 08:55 PM.

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