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Thread: New York Film Festival 2019

  1. #31
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    ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (Roy Andersson 2019) US release Apr 30, 2021

    ROY ANDERSSON: ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019)


    OPENING SCENE OF ABOUT ENDLESSNESS

    Gloom as high art and profound philosophy

    In Swedish, the title is Om det oändliga, which sounds so exotic, it may have different overtones to it. People speculate (in English) about what the director, Roy Andersson, means by it. Last things? Is it ironic, focused on the finiteness, rather than the endlessness, of our individual petty existences? For me it's a mystery, perhaps, but alludes to human limitation. We are small beings, our actions but a flicker in the vast firmament that opens the film with the "Chagall" image of the supine, embracing couple floating horizontally in the sky over the ruined city of Cologne, which fades into tiny floating stars that form into the words of the title.

    What follows is a very sui generis feature-length series of short scenes, more tableaux than tales. In them, people often move slowly, imperceptibly - except, notably, for the big central dream sequence (thankfully it is a dream, if - worse luck - a recurrent nightmare) of the man carrying a huge wooden cross pursued by a mocking, abusive crowd, a modern Jesus on a Stockholm street. This is the storyline most carried on through various episodes. This is the dream of a priest who has lost his faith, and his daymare ordeal goes on.

    Andersson sees this priest's predicament as a particularly terrible fate. It represents not only the sadness of lost hope, broken dreams, but what he sees as being stuck in a demanding job you can't get out of, so this priest must go on celebrating mass, etc., feeling like a fraud, encouraging parishioners when his heart is no longer in it. Leaving the priesthood is not an option, as the director sees it. Inertia contributes to endlessness. Perhaps that is what the word means: no way out. No end, no exit.

    The sadness that pervades Andersson's sometimes ironic, sometimes witty scenes can be interpreted biographically. Frank Kermode, inThe Observer, explains: "The fact that Being a Human Person [a documentary tribute to the director by English filmmaker Fred Scott released last year] depicted Andersson creating these scenes while struggling with alcoholism and detox (the latter at the insistence of his friends and family) simply adds a further layer of frailty." I want to ask: did Andersson drink because he was depressed, or was he depressed because he drank? A very Scandinavian question, perhaps. But while I've heard Sweden has a drinking problem, worldwide statistics show alcohol consumption to be as high or higher in Europe, Australia, Canada, Korea and above all, Russia.

    Anyway, relief from this film's very depressive (and perhaps that is Swedish) worldview is that, aesthetically, more than ever, Andersson has made a film that is nonetheless a delight to the eye, every shot finely crafted - the result of largely being precisely made, after careful planning, inside the studio where Andersson likes to work. The color, rather as before, is of a pervasive, delicate pearl gray. Every set is denuded of anything unnecessary. For a while, the "look" is so distinctive and so pleasing, simply drinking it in from sequence to sequence (in moderation, of course!) is enough. Though the world seen here is dry, drained of energy as of color, there is compensation in the sense of control the style exudes that so amply satisfies the director's and our own rage for order.

    I said in reviewing the director's 2007 You the Living, he is "master of the static middle distance shot" and noted for his wit, "which ends every scene with a smile." There's not as much wit here, but the style still reigns, and this like that earlier film (I missed his 2014 A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence), is a series of little skits unified by worldview and style. These are linked this time by a godlike woman's voice often saying "I saw..." defining how to see what we've just witnessed. "I saw a man with his mind elsewhere," "a woman..incapable of feeling shame," a man who did not trust banks," "a young man who had not yet found love, "a man who had stepped on a landmine, and lost his legs." If I described these incidents it would destroy the spell the voice creates, with the images. The voiceover creates a linkage that's a bit arbitrary.

    The priest who has lost his faith is a theme that does connect. The priest goes to see a therapist in a white coat. (Not a very promising figure.) Maybe there is no god, the therapist says. He suggests one had best just be satisfied to be alive. This seems the bottom line, the film's ultimate message. In the context this may appear grim and sardonic. In another, it would be quite positive. Some scenes are positive in themselves here: girls dancing near an outdoor café; a man who bends over to tie his little girl's shoelaces walking in the rain. The lady who loves champagne.

    As I said in 2007, "there's a kind of stillness that comes out of the visual style, the pacing of scenes, and the detached humanism of the overall outlook. There's something about a fully mastered style that's calming, reassuring." Well, with Andersson there is.

    And yet though I respect it, I do not love it. If we compare Andersson with the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki we find the latter also has a dry, droll, dark worldview and style, but a more expansive, easygoing one. My memories of Kaurismäki films are happy. Andersson doesn't leave a warm glow of any kind. But he may prompt more philosophical reflection. Every tiniest scene seems universal and general and points irresistibly toward last things so our thought must go there too. If this is Andersson's last feature, as has been said, he will have made a little corner of the world of cinema utterly his own. He is a miniaturist. But like Jane Austen and her "little bit...of ivory" his tiny pictures, dominated by gloom, nonetheless are high art and present a profound philosophy of hope that survives great challenges.

    About Endlessness/Om det oändliga, 78 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 3, 2019 and played at some two dozen international festivals, among them Toronto, Vienna, and Rotterdam. It is scheduled for US release by Magnolia Apr. 30, 2021. Metascore: 83%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-11-2021 at 07:13 PM.

  2. #32
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    THE COUNTY/HERAÐIÐ (Grímur Hákonarson 2019)

    GRÍMUR HÁKONARSON: THE COUNTY/HERAÐIÐ (2019)



    In The County/Héraðið, Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir plays Inga, a farming wife who suddenly becomes a widow. She is a tough middle-aged woman something like Frances McDormand. The death of her husband Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) in his truck is suspicious. It may be self-caused and related to impending bankruptcy. But later we learn the problem was worse than that. And it all goes back to the local coop. It's the only place the farmers can sell their products, and they must buy all their supplies there too or face dire consequences.

    After Inga's husband's death has settled in she starts to speak out on Facebook, calling the coop a "mafia." The local TV news comes to interview her. So begins this rapidly moving drama about the manipulations of an over-powerful local body. Hákonarson was already known for his intensely focused 2015 Rams about feuding sheep-herding brothers. This time the focus is on dairy farmers. They're at odds too, but not entirely. We also get a look at the leading figures of the coop. This is a timely tale again drawing on Hákonarson's documentary background.

    In the nineteenth century the community around Erpsfyörður were Inga lives was dominated by a monopoly that controlled where the dairy farmers sold their products and bought their supplies. This was when the coop was established - to free them of that. Then, it was democratic and run by local citizens. Now it has become like the old monopoly. The need is to find an alternative, sufficiently overcoming the farmers' fears from the coop to organize.

    Hákonarson's movie again has authenticity, though nothing is out of place, almost to a fault. I said the real topic of Rams was austerity and that's partly true here. We can't fault the director for focusing on people when they aren't having a good time. But don't expect a smile. I only saw one: a younger man when he agrees informally to join the new coop. It stood out like a sudden ray of sunlight.

    This topic is more than ever topical. It is not too much a stretch to compare what Inga is turning against to the way corporate power and Bill Gates have pushed the "Green Revolution" in India that is leading to massive suicide by farmers there. An analogy in the current situation is how Reynir have converted their barn to a robotic operation to produce more milk, but put them heavily in debt.

    The power to manipulate is ever easier to spread and small farmers are fair game. We don't know where the power behind the this local Icelandic "mafia" can be back traced to, but power is ominous and must be constantly fought. This is Hákonarson's true subject. Austerity is only a byproduct of the situation this time.

    The Variety reviewer at Toronto called this "the yin" to Ram's "yang" as "an appealing and endearingly modest tale." This indeed is more rousing than Ram's, but it's stern stuff too.

    In the film we get to hear Icelandic spoken. The title Héraðið preserves the ð (capital Ð) or eth, in Old English called ðæt. Icelandic is the descendent of Old Norse, which was a cousin of Old English. It's interesting to hear a modern language spoken in an underpopulated, isolated part of the world that may be not unlike the language Beowulf, English speakers' most ancient literary treasure, was originally recited in.

    The County/Héraðið (2019), 90 mins., debuted internationally at Toronto Nov. 2019, showing at over half a dozen other festivals including Hamburg, Chicago, Leiden, Palm Springs and Göteborg. It releases in the US Apr. 30, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; Yesterday at 12:59 PM.

  3. #33
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    BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (urhan Qurbani 2020)

    BURHAN QURBANI: BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (2020)


    WELKET BUNQUÉ AND ALBRECHT SCHUCH IN BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ


    Boatload from the south

    This screen reinterpretation of Alfred Döblin's important 1929 novel, the first since Fassbinder's famous 1983 miniseries, follows a doomed refugee from Africa living illegally in Berlin in the grip of a madman drug dealer while believing he is leading a decent life. That he, the African, can think that suggests he may be rather unhinged himself. The film plays a cat and mouse game with its African protagonist Franz (the sculptural, preternaturally calm Welket Bungué), and of course in the way it plays with us. Mietze (the tough, gutsy, sweet Jella Haase) plays with him, then Reinhold (a hunched, fidgety, deranged-seeming Albrecht Schuch). Frantz (originally Francis here, then renamed by Reinhold) will be broken and tattered when they're done. We know at the end he won't survive: Mietze in her quiet voiceover tells us that from the start. And our patience will be strained, when, as the protagonist is saved only to be thrown in danger once more, like a serial melodrama - though the film's switchbacks of fortune and its exaggerated personalities more closely suggest a graphic novel.

    This is a game that tries the viewer's patience. But, tortuous as it is, it fascinates - and, yes, entertains - us. Everything is beautiful and watchable in Qurbani's film, thanks above all to the images of dp Yoshi Heimrath, and listenable too, thanks to the genre-ranging score of Dascha Dauenhauer. The actors are admirable. Welket Bungué, a multilingual international man of the theater, has a powerful presence. His Franz has sudden flashes of dangerous anger and soft sudden smiles. He is almost too sculptural - he can't help it, I guess - so one spends a lot of time admiring his profile from alternate angles. I'm not such a fan of the disconcertingly boyish and ordinary-looking Albrecht Schuch: he's too mannered, and it's hard to figure how such a nutcase could be running a substantial segment of Berlin's street level drug dealers. Jella Haase has something equally hard to sell us, the whore with the heart of gold. If she's a whore, how can se be so nice? Luckily, Welket Bunqué remains somewhat enigmatic. HIs complexity is left to us, and to a few gorgeous and in themselves somewhat enigmatic flashbacks, steeped in red, some of them upside down, and under water. This is a gorgeous movie that plays with many cinematic tricks.

    And it has several other interesting characters. There is Eva (Annabelle Mandeng), a glamorous nightclub boss with a trans helpmate (Nils Verkooijen) who repeatedly lends Franz a hand, and Joachim Król as Reinhold's racist but flexible old guard gangster overlord Pums (Joachim Król), who makes the rounds through his territory in Hasenheide in nondescript pensioner beige. Hasenheide itself is the park Qurbani lived near with black Africans dealing drugs on its pathways: the director originally wanted to cover it, and the famous novel was his entree.

    At least in the Anglophone world, for every critic who is ecstatic there are several who're dissatisfied: they find the new Alexanderplatz a little thin. The principals do so much with their lines but they are not given enough material. These few main characters drain the stage of life from a story originally meant to have panoramic sweep. Some of the raw rough reality of the essential "Berlin" has been left out, even though a lot of details have been worked in and the transfer to a contemporary "multicultural" Germany has been made.

    Fans of European art film may want to see this creative new movie. I differ, though, with the citizen critics who call it a triumph of new German cinema. It lacks the latter's edge - the kind of edge that arguably Fassbinder may have had in his day. Maybe this would be seen as closer to Fatih Akim - German born Turkish descent to Qurban's actual Afghan birth - rather than people of the new 2000's Berlin School like Christoph Hochhäusler, Ulrich Köhler, Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach, and Benjamin Heisenberg. Burhan Qurbani probably sought to reinterpret Berlin from something more of an ausländer point of view, or from the angle of a more diverse Germany than existed either in Döblin's or Fassbinder's time - a very much more diverse one. But whether this was the best way to approach that task, whether this depicts a diverse Germany or a "real" Germany of any sort, may be debated. Qurbani is a fluent director of " unimpeachable craft" (as Jessica Kiang wrote in her Variety review) who combines a taste for melodrama with a sense of the contemporary. But I view his planned next glamorous remake, of Kieslowski’s Three Colors, a favorite film trilogy of the nineties, with some apprehension.

    Berlin Alexanderplatz, 183 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2020, opening in nine international festivals including Moscow, Haifa, São Paulo, Busan, Stockholm. Starting April 30, 2021 in the US in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; Today at 12:15 PM.

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