J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

NYFF ’10: All Flowers in Time (short)

If you have always been unnerved by French cowboys, it turns out your fears were justified. It is hard to explain, but it makes for interesting viewing in Jonathan Caouette’s new short film, All Flowers in Time (trailer here), which screens tonight with Hong Sang-soo’s feature Oki’s Movie at the 48th New York Film Festival.

The French Cowboy is sort of like the old MTM cat, giving the sign-off at the end of a warped Dutch children’s program. Its barrage of subliminal images seems to give kids strange ideas and red glowing eyes, sort of like the monkey spirits of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee.

Those prone to obsess over questions like why and how this is happening are likely to be frustrated by Flowers. However, if those who ever wanted to see Dutch television produced somewhere deep within the Black Lodge of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks will delight in Caouette’s bizarre visuals (no giants or dwarves, though). However, the greatest surprise in store for viewers is Chloë Sevigny’s unexpectedly likable and charismatic lead performance, especially given the macabre twist of her central scene and Flowers’ overall surreal vibe. Indeed, the let-me-show-you-a-scary-face game she plays with the young boy in her charge (relationship unknown) is an effective set-up vehicle for creepy chills, not that Caouette is really going for that (or maybe he is, who can say really?).

One thing is certain: Caouette is indulging in quite a bit of gamesmanship throughout Flowers. However, it actually builds towards something interesting, even if it leaves a ten gallon hat full of question unanswered. Strangely entertaining (strange being the operative word), Flowers screens tonight (9/30) as part of the 2010 NYFF at Alice Tully Hall.

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Incentivize Me: Freakonomics

So this is what passes for iconoclasm in the age of hope and change? Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner scandalized millions with their mega-bestselling Freakonomics. In a nutshell, they argue correlation is often confused with causation, incentives matter, but people are often motivated by unforeseen factors, yet they are often willing to cheat for a valuable reward. What can you say about that, except maybe: “duh.” However, their flair for colorful illustrations sold millions of books and has now inspired Freakonomics (trailer here), an anthology documentary opening tomorrow in New York.

Featuring four separate short docs adapted or inspired by the book, Freakonomics the film is held together by author segments directed by Seth Gordon, who seems to understand the material far better than the other participating filmmakers. In addition to Levitt and Dubner’s kvetching, Gordon illustrates one of the most topical Freakonomics case-studies, an incident in which Chicago public school teachers were caught cheating. To protect their own interests, they were filling in the correct answers on students’ unfinished standardized tests, suspiciously starting from the bottom with the hardest questions of the exam.

Likewise, education is the also the topic of Freakonomics’ best (and final) constituent sub-film. Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady’s self-explanatory Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed? follows a pilot program advised by Levitt that dispensed small cash payments to underperforming students who sufficiently improved their marks each quarter. The results were okay, but not overwhelming because of the myriad of competing incentives for teenagers.

By contrast, Alex Gibney’s Pure Corruption is easily the worst segment of the film. Gibney and the Freakonomists assume the mere idea of cheating in the sport of sumo will be shocking in and of itself. However, after MLB’s steroid scandals and the open secret of American wrestling’s scripted nature, most viewers will simply shrug at such revelations.

That is not to say an interesting film could not be made about sumo corruption, but Gibney himself seems bored by the topic. As a result, he frequently tosses in non-sequitur references to Wall Street indiscretions and American conduct in the War on Terror. He would be perfectly within his rights to do so in his own film (as debatable as such stretches might be), but Freakonomics carries the imprimatur of Levitt and Dubner, who honestly seem to make a good faith effort to resist partisanship in their own work. Gibney does them a disservice and does not do any favors for audiences either, dashing off a murky film that visually resembles an early 1990’s episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

Like Gibney, Morgan Spurlock does not seem to have much of a handle on the Freakonomics methodology either in A Roshanda By Any Other Name, which asks the question whether children’s names can determine whether they will be successful later. The answer seems to be it can’t, except when it does, but really not. Various sociological studies are cited, but they leave us asking more questions. In one experiment, it was determined resumes with bland white-bread names were more likely to get a response from prospective employers than those with what were assumed to be African-American names. However, it would be interesting to compare the presumed African-American call back rate to that for white trashy names like Billy Bob Bakersfield, but Spurlock never delves into any such crosstabs.

Though still a mixed bag, Eugene Jarecki’s It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life is more successful tackling one of the most challenging arguments of Freakonomics: that the precipitous drop in crime during the mid to late 1990’s was directly attributable to Roe v. Wade. Like Levitt & Dubner, Jarecki is careful not to explicitly advocate anything. However, in framing the debate, he seems to take great pleasure in denying credit to Mayor Giuliani’s proactive policing policies, while speedily glossing over the insignificance of gun control. (Again, showing his partisan colors would be fine in his own film, but in a very real sense, Jarecki is representing Levitt & Dubner here). It is provocative argument that raises a host of ethical questions everyone basically punts away. Still, the stylized animation is effective and Melvin Van Peebles adds some serious coolness as the narrator.

Levitt and Dubner did not invent incentives. They have always been a fact of life and they have always mattered. In fact, Freakonomics-style analysis has been around for decades. Economist James Buchanan argued the self-interest of politicians and bureaucrats should always be taken into account when analyzing government regulation. Of course, his Public Choice Theory of economics did not spawn a New York Times bestseller—just a Nobel Prize. Still, Levitt and Dubner are bright and engaging speakers, which Gordon conveys fairly well. The rest of the film though, is just all over the place. It opens this Friday (10/1) in New York at the Angelika.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Kristin Scott Thomas in Leaving

No one enjoys infidelity like the French. So, when immigrant workers starting taking amorous affairs away from Frenchmen, it will surely lead to trouble. Indeed, there are definite social and class-based issues in play when an English wife leaves her French husband for Spanish migrant worker, but old fashioned jealousy trumps them all in Catherine Corsini’s Leaving (trailer here), a star showcase for Kristin Scott Thomas that opens this Friday in New York.

Suzanne and Samuel’s teenaged son and daughter are not quite out the door yet, but that day is fast approaching. Increasingly bored around the house, Suzanne wants to re-launch the physical therapy career she put on hold for the sake of motherhood. Her doctor husband obliges her, hiring Spanish day labors to renovate the garage into her private office. As fate would have it, this includes the hulking but sensitive Ivan. Though their initial attraction is relatively circumspect, when Suzanne tends to Ivan after he suffers injuries in an accident she caused, the embers ignite.

Before you can say Madame Bovary, Suzanne has left her husband for her lover. Unfortunately, Samuel is not the sort of person to accept such rejection, so he uses his local clout to make life hard for them. Given Leaving’s flashback structure, it is safe to say this will all end in tragedy.

A number of French infidelity films have found their way to art theaters in recent months (the excellent Let it Rain, the good Mademoiselle Chambon, the so-so Change of Plans), but Scott Thomas’s tour de force performance truly distinguishes Leaving. As Suzanne, she is exquisitely sensitive and truly fearless. Though there is fine work from Yvan Attal in the rather thankless role of the spurned Samuel and Sergei Lopez as the passionate everyman Ivan, Scott Thomas makes the film.

Corsini wisely focuses on her lead, allowing Scott Thomas to shine. Still, Leaving (written by Corsini with “the collaboration” of Gaëlle Macé) is also a remarkably honest depiction of familial turmoil. Though it is hardly pretty either, the children’s choosing up sides (son David with his mother, daughter Marion with their father) rings especially true.

Suggesting echoes of Breathless and I am Love, Leaving exalts in-the-moment passion, even as the consequences come crashing down around the furtive lovers. Yet, the extent to which it stacks the deck against Samuel would be a blatant distraction, if it were not for Scott Thomas’s riveting performance, powering the film past such flaws. Indeed she is the reason to see the film. Highly recommended for Scott Thomas’s flawless turn, Leaving opens this Friday (10/1) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Chinese Rom-Com: Hot Summer Days

For most Americans, Chinese cinema conjures images of costume dramas and martial arts mayhem. Festival patrons might just as easily think of long, slow art films from Jia Zhangke and his contemporaries. Yet, Chinese movies goers like a good rom-com as much as anyone else, so for Fox International’s first Chinese film production, co-directors Tony Chan and Wing Shya intertwine four to six love stories (depending on how you count them) in the romantic anthology Hot Summer Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For Asian film connoisseurs, Summer has “guilty pleasure” written all over it. Featuring big name HK, Mainland, and Taiwanese actors and pop-stars, it certainly has an attractive cast. During one scorching hot summer, several sets of couples pursue romance, with wildly varying results. In this case, Summer’s large cast of characters is an advantage. Screenwriter Chan creates a number of relatively entertaining rom-com premises, which are not completely beaten into the ground thanks to its braided structure and large ensemble cast.

In provincial China, Xiao Fan pines for a cute worker in the local teddy bear factory. Reluctant to get involved with a player, she insists he prove his devotion by faithfully standing in the noonday sun for one hundred straight days before she will go out with him. Meanwhile, a Sushi Chef may have realized just in time he sabotaged something good with his girl friend. However, she will not make it easy for him. Each time he calls, she adds another post-it to her apartment window and she won’t answer until she has filled in the entire heart-shaped pattern.

Amongst the working classes, a wrong-number STM leads to a Sleepless in Seattle-style flirtation between Hong Kong-based Wah and Shenzhen-based Li Yan, though naturally both misrepresent themselves. Air-conditioner repairman Ah Wai would have been considered the poorest of the lot, but with the current heat wave, he is suddenly flush, allowing him to aggressively pursue his mystery biker girl. In what seems to be Summer’s odd-man-out story arc, a suddenly blinded fashion photographer’s search for the model he wronged appears to be more about closure than romance. Yet, it ultimately ties the film together well enough for government work.

Ah Wai’s motorcycle romance is easily Summer’s most manipulative storyline, but also its most cinematic. Indeed, Barbie Hsu is quite beautiful and surprisingly effective supplying the film’s tear-jerking moments. As the text-messengers, Jacky Cheung and René Liu probably represent the film’s most likable and realistically grounded couple. Though the upper-class culinary love story is the film’s least involving (despite the radiant present of Vivian Hsu as “Wasabi”) it leads to film’s best scene, when Maggie Cheung (a true superstar) making a cameo appearance as a lovelorn restaurant customer, upstages everyone. Martial arts fans will also enjoy seeing Shaolin star Gordon Liu as Wai’s estranged father, desperately seeking a discontinued light bulb for his dearly departed wife’s shrine, in what arguably constitutes the film’s sixth strand.

Summer very clearly follows in the tradition of Hollywood date movies, but it actually somewhat surpasses most recent examples of the genre. Fine, call it a guilty pleasure, but on the art-house circuit, the film’s utter lack of cynicism is quite refreshing. Nearly as cute as its cast, the completely apolitical Summer opens this Friday (10/1) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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NYFF ’10: The Strange Case of Angelica

A true marvel of world cinema, Portuguese centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s latest film is a paranormal romance, still the hot genre all the young girls are crazy for. Of course, no bodices are ever ripped in de Oliveira’s elegantly meditative The Strange Case of Angélica, which screens during the 48th New York Film Festival.

There are no vampires or angels (strictly speaking) in Strange either, but there is a serious case of love from beyond the grave. Isaac is an outsider, both culturally and temporally. A Sephardic Jewish immigrant to the Douro region of Portugal, he prefers vintage cameras to modern technology and romanticizes traditional forms of manual labor. In the dead of night, he is summoned to stately home of the local landed gentry. Their young daughter Angélica died shortly after her wedding, so the family matriarch wants a final photo to preserve her ethereal beauty. Respectfully obliging, Isaac is shocked to see Angélica suddenly open her eyes through his lens. Not only does she show signs of life, she seems almost flirtatious.

So begins a most unusual cinematic courtship. As Angélica visits Isaac in dreams, he becomes ever more preoccupied with the tragic beauty. Yet, even though de Oliveira’s spectral bride story sounds like something akin to the works of Poe and Irving, he consistently de-emphasizes the gothic elements, while holding fast to a distinctly European sensibility. Indeed, Strange is an elegy for Angélica, the Annabel Lee dying before her time, and for the Old World that gave way to the new.

Though playing the part of a corpse might not sound demanding, one look from Pilar López de Ayala’s Angélica says a lot. As Isaac, Ricardo Trêpa is also convincingly earnest and confused. Yet, de Oliveira keeps viewers at arm’s length, refusing to allow any crass displays of emotion. Eschewing such manipulative techniques, he earns Strange’s gracefully tragic atmosphere the hard way.

At 102, de Oliveira is reportedly in pre-production on his next film. Given his longevity, he obviously knows what he is doing. Though de Oliveira sets a deliberate pace for Strange, it feels decidedly brisk in comparison to many of the NYFF’s Romanian New Wave selections. At just over an hour and a half, it is also one of the shorter films of the festival, but de Oliveira packs a great deal into the deceptively simple vessel. A finely crafted film, Strange is certainly recommended during the 2010 NYFF. It screens Sunday (10/3) and Wednesday (10/6) at Alice Tully Hall.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

NYFF ’10: Carlos

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez killed on behalf of just about every violent extremist movement of the twentieth century. Sheltered by the East German Stasi, he was most closely aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). An ardent Marxist and notorious terrorist, Ramírez Sánchez is best known as the infamous “Carlos the Jackal” (though he preferred just plain “Carlos”). French director Olivier Assayas dramatizes his infamous crimes (and there are a lot of them) in his grandly ambitious five-hour, thinly fictionalized historical thriller Carlos (trailer here), which screens in its entirety during this year’s New York Film Festival.

Soviet educated, the Venezuelan Ramírez Sánchez views the world through a radicalized prism. He is convinced “direct action” (meaning terrorism) is necessary to bring about supposedly progressive change. A promising volunteer for the PFLP terrorist network, Carlos steadily establishes a reputation for ruthlessness with a number of grenade attacks on cafes and the unsuccessful assassination attempt of Edward Sieff, president of Marks & Spencer and a prominent member of the British Jewish community.

Carlos forged alliances with the Japanese Red Army and extremist German Baader Meinhof/RAF splinter groups, acting more or less in concert. While he was not directly involved in the murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics or the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 freed by IDF’s famous Entebbe operation, he was personally charged with subsequent reprisal attacks. However, his greatest international infamy probably arose from his attack on the 1975 OPEC meeting, taking the cartel’s delegates hostage.

Ramírez Sánchez is an anti-Semitic mass murderer. His crimes have no justification. Wisely, Assayas does not really go down that road. While his Carlos has a certain animal magnetism and a voracious sexual appetite, the film never makes a martyr of him, unlike the terrorist agit-prop of Uli Edel’s Baader Meinhof Complex. Essentially, Assayas shows Ramírez Sánchez going about his destructive business rather matter-of-factly, only occasionally paying lip service to some leftist cause, such as Allende in Chile. Yet, there are a handful of truly telling scenes, as when a former RAF accomplice remarks to Carlos how sick it is for Germans like himself to be killing Jews.

The five plus hours of Carlos are packed to the gills with violent intrigue. Yet, it is all pretty well grounded in historical fact. Indeed, it is quite in synch with the facts established in Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate, a documentary profile of Jacques Vergés, the attorney for Ramírez Sánchez, the PFLP, and just about every other terrorist of the twentieth century (who also briefly appears as a character in Carlos). Frankly, it would make a much better double feature with Assayas’s film than Edel’s love-letter to terror.

Edgar Ramírez is appropriately both charismatic and creepy as Ramírez Sánchez, nicely capturing the ferocity of extremism. There are also scores of effective supporting performances from its large but completely credible ensemble cast. Yet, Carlos is much more a director’s film than an actor’s, seamlessly recreating complicated historical events around the globe and staging gritty action sequences with tick-tock precision.

Originally broadcast on French television, Carlos might be divided into three parts, but it truly is one unified film, entirely helmed by Assayas (unlike the three interlocking films of Red Riding). Truthfully, 319 minutes are a long haul. As fascinating and absorbing as it is, most viewers will be desperately hoping for his capture by the final half hour. For those with short attention spans, a two and half hour cut will eventually screen at the Lincoln Plaza. However, if you are going to see a big epic film like Carlos, you should do it right and get the entire experience. The full unvarnished and uncut Carlos screens this Saturday morning (10/2) during the 2010 NYFF.

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Master Ip Man

The Ip Man biopic has become a genre unto itself within the Hong Kong movie industry. With two filmmaking teams already offering their takes, art-house auteur Wong Kar-wai will soon enter the fray with his own Ip. However, internationally the contest is already more-or-less over. For martial arts enthusiasts, Donnie Yen personifies Ip in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and its sequel. Why the bumper crop of Ip films? Even the tragically sheltered unfamiliar with Ip will recognize his most famous pupil: Bruce Lee. Though the Lee family tightly controls cinematic use of Lee’s name and likeness, Ip is fair game. Yip and action director Master Sammo Hung show viewers the roots of Lee’s Wing Chun in Ip Man (trailer here), which finally makes it into New York theaters this Friday, uncut and undubbed as it was meant to be seen (unlike the DVD edition currently available).

Based on the Ip films and Bodyguards and Assassins, Yen is arguably the world’s biggest action star at this time. Without him, The Expendables will probably be pretty expendable in certain markets, even with Jet Li and British kickboxer Gary Daniels (completely ignored in the American marketing campaign). Indeed, he is perfectly cast as Ip, effortlessly conveying the Master’s spiritual wisdom, while excelling at the fist-flailing action.

As the film opens, Ip Man is the man. He lives well and has the respect of his sifu peers in Foshan, the martial arts capitol of Southern China. Periodically, he is called upon to defend Foshan’s honor against upstarts looking to make their names. Good luck with that. Tragically, their salad days abruptly end with the Japanese occupation. With the Imperial Army using Foshan martial artists as punching bags, Ip is again called upon to defend the honor of his city and Wing Chun. Naturally, it all builds towards a big showdown with the deadly General Miura.

Though Ip Man is first and foremost a martial arts movie, it has the look of a finely crafted historical period drama. It also boasts a first rate cast, including HK superstar Simon Yam (Election, Tactical Unit) as Ip’s best friend, capitalist Chow Ching-chuen. Beautiful and classy, Chinese model Lynn Hung looks like the Donna Reed of 1930’s Foshan as Ip’s ever patient wife Cheung Wing-sing. While her part is woefully underwritten, she has nice on-screen chemistry with Yen.

Still, the action is the heart of Ip Man, choreographed with verve by Master Hung. Ip’s trademark flurry of reverse punches is all kinds of awesome to behold. Yet, the film always emphasizes Ip’s passion is for sparring not fighting. He is a man of peace who fights only when he must.

Ip Man is a great martial arts film. Dubbing is an abomination though, particularly with Ip’s big name cast, so martial arts fans are advised to see that real cut that set the house on fire when it screened at the New York Asian Film Festival. A very cool film with more substance than causal viewers might expect, Ip Man opens this Friday (10/1) in New York at Cinema Village.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

NYFF ’10: Tuesday, After Christmas

A big beefy guy, Paul Hanganu does not exactly look irresistible, yet he has both a wife and a young professional mistress. Frankly, he ought to consider himself lucky to have just one of them. We can say this with certainty thanks to the long, revealing nude scene that opens Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (trailer here), one of several Romanian films screening during the 48th New York Film Festival.

A reasonably successful banker, Paul is fairly good about sharing family duties with his wife Adriana. It is he who escorts their young daughter Mara to her attractive pediatric dentist. As a result, Paul and the younger Raluca do indeed strike up an affair. She has been largely content as the other woman, but when Adriana impulsively decides to accompany them for an appointment it proves to be a destabilizing event. Paul will have to choose between his wife and his mistress—a decision that will directly affect his plans for that titular Tuesday.

Helming Tuesday with all due deliberation, Muntean’s approach is clearly compatible with the aesthetics of the so-called Romanian New Wave. Yet, his deceptively simple story of infidelity particularly lends itself to a style that privileges intimacy over action. In truth, Tuesday is defined and distinguished by a handful of masterful scenes marked by Muntean’s long continuous shots. As the film opens, Mundean half seduces us with Paul and Raluca’s naked forms (she is in great shape, him not so much), only to de-romanticize their assignation, ultimately grounding viewers in all their imperfections. Uncomfortable hardly does justice to the awkward dynamic when Adriana invites herself along to Raluca’s office. However, her response to Paul’s eventual confession scorches with honesty.

Like so many recent cinema exports from Romania, there is simply no denying the demanding nature of Tuesday. It is definitely a film for mature adults as well—truly its poster does not mislead. However, patrons with a respectable attention span will be rewarded with some exceptional performances. As the wronged Adriana, Mirela Oprisor is totally convincing and absolutely devastating. Though her role is less showy, Maria Popistasu makes the reserved Raluca a believably fully dimensional human figure. However, Mimi Branescu’s big unfaithful lug should have had more of an edge. Instead, he seems desperate for everyone to like him, which will not be happening.

Individual scenes of Tuesday will sear themselves into viewers’ memory, while the filler in between might tax their patience. Still, altogether it is a brutally honest work. One of the festival’s stronger Romanian selections, it screens tomorrow (9/28) and Friday (10/1) as the 2010 NYFF continues at Alice Tully Hall.

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Nine Nation Animation at the IFC Center

At its best, animation creates a stylized world to express the truth of the very real world around us. Several of the award winning animated shorts recently collected by The World According to Shorts do exactly that. Titled Nine Nation Animation (trailer here), their mostly very strong animated shorts program starts an exclusive one week run at the IFC Center this Wednesday.

Starting strong, Nine kicks off with Kajsa Naess’s Deconstruction Workers from Norway. Employing actual photos of actors animated against a chaotic construction site, Deconstruction certainly has a distinctive look. Yet, had screenwriter Kjartan Helleve’s caustic dialogue about life and relationships been produced in a live action film, it would still be quite funny, which is indeed the ultimate test of an animated film. It is followed by Burkay Dorgan’s Average 40 Matchsticks, representing Turkey. Its stop motion animation would be impressive in a show-reel, but it is rather a trifle within the overall program.

Easily the richest, most substantial work in Nine is French animator Patrick Pleutin’s Bâmiyân. Told through multiple narrators, Bâmiyân first follows Chinese monk on his 632 AD pilgrimage to view the great Buddha statues of Bamyan. Eventually, the first child storyteller is interrupted by a second who glorifies the statues destruction centuries later at the hands of the Taliban. It is a chilling illustration of Islamist intolerance learned at an early age. Bâmiyân’s visual style is also quite dramatic, evoking not just traditional Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian art forms, but even hinting at the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux. Indeed, Nine is worth seeing for Bâmiyân alone, but it is followed by two more quite rewarding films.

If Philip K. Dick had rewritten Adam Sandler’s Click with the Hello Kitty characters and set it in the world of Tron, it might resemble David O’Reilly’s Berlinale Golden Bear winning Please Say Something. Obviously, that is worth checking out. It is a bit of a surprise Belgian Jonas Geirnaert’s Flatlife won the Cannes Jury Prize, because this cross-section view of life in four contiguous apartments is very funny, but not the least bit political. Though easily the most sentimental, Robert Bradbrook’s Home Road Movies might be the most innovative, manipulating images of British actor Bill Paterson (recognizable from Comfort and Joy, Smiley’s People, and a host of other credits), appearing as the filmmaker’s late father, to create a tangible sense of pathos.

There are the occasional misfires. Veljko Popoviç’s She Who Measures is an ugly-looking, predictable didactic screed against commercialism. The South African Blackheart Group’s dodo bird fable The Tale of How is impressively baroque, but the operatic narration makes it nearly impossible to follow. A collection in itself, the concluding Never Like the First Time dramatizes three Swedes relating their first sexual experience. Though uneven, it has its moments, including the harrowing middle story of a young woman that serves as a cautionary tale and something of a corrective to the Maxim-esque episode that preceded it.

Happily, this is not an assemblage of Benetton’s commercials or UNICEF infomercials. Nine simply collects some of the best animated shorts around the world as determined by World According to Shorts’ rather eccentric aesthetic judgment. Indeed, their overall record here is quite good, picking one film of true distinction, three high passes, and two mixed bags that are still rather good on balance. That is a far better batting average than you get with most festival short programming blocks. Well worth seeing, Nine starts a week long run in New York at the IFC Center this Wednesday (9/29).

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NYFF ’10: Certified Copy

It is a major auteur’s first production outside his native Iran, featuring a British opera singer in his on-screen acting debut. Fittingly, their efforts were in service of a film that explicitly challenges notions of authenticity. While there is indeed a bit of narrative gamesmanship afoot, the sophistication and seductiveness of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (trailer here) is such that it may be enjoyed at face value when it screens at the 48th New York Film Festival.

It is worth noting up front both Kiarostami and lead actress Juliette Binoche condemned the Iranian government’s arrest of his fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi at Cannes, where she eventually won best actress honors for her work in Certified. One wonders if Kiarostami will have trouble shooting future projects outside the Islamist prison of Iran. At least in this case, he certainly made the most of his romantic Tuscan locales, which genuinely sparkle through cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s lens.

As Certified opens the audience (both in the theater and in the film) are staring at an empty chair. Eventually, it is filled by British author James Miller, unapologetically late for his own book talk, though he cheerfully admits he has no reasonable excuse. No matter. His baritone voice and erudite charm quickly wins back the restive crowd. However, one woman in the front row reluctantly leaves early, literally pulled away by her hungry son. Clearly, she has also fallen under the speaker’s spell, though she vehemently disagrees with Miller’s premise.

An amateur art historian, Miller wrote a treatise extolling the value of replicas, de-coupling notions of value and authenticity from each other. As an antiquities dealer, the unnamed woman sees things more conventionally, but even her son perceives her interest in the writer. In fact, she is visibly nervous when the writer agrees to meet her before his evening flight. They spar good-naturedly over aesthetics and soak up the stunning scenery—so far, so good.

Shortly after a woman mistakes them for a married couple though, the dynamic abruptly changes. The woman is now much more forceful, while the formerly suave man is suddenly petty and petulant. Are the characters play-acting or is Kiarostami playing with us? Either way, we have just heard some very smart discussions about grown-up issues, against an evocative La Dolce Vita backdrop.

One of the world’s finest (and most beautiful) screen thespians, Binoche again demonstrates women can be sensitive and vulnerable, without being weak or compliant. As the woman, she essentially takes on a number of roles so convincingly it makes it difficult to truly know what to make of Certified. In his first screen outing, opera singer William Shimell is nearly as impressive. He projects an elegant but manly presence quite befitting the character and his rich voice well serves the film’s heavy dialogue.

Ultimately, Certified is such an intelligent and inviting encounter, it overcomes any viewer resistance to its rather slippery nature. Indeed, it is a strange pleasure to submerse one’s self into, thanks to the charm of its leads and the craftsmanship of Kiarostami and his dp. One of the best selections of this year’s NYFF, Certified screens this Friday (10/1) and Sunday (10/3) at Alice Tully Hall. It is also worth noting, Panahi’s short The Accordion will also screen during the festival, accompanying Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem next Monday (10/4) and Tuesday (10/5).

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

NYFF ’10: Silent Souls

Russia might not be the most hospitable of homes for its ethnic minorities, but the simple forces of time and assimilation are far more responsible for the waning cultural identity and appreciation of the Merja Russians, ethnic cousins of the Finns. However, one Merjan writer’s efforts to preserve his cultural heritage takes him on a fateful road trip with his grieving boss in Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls, which screens during this year’s New York Film Festival.

Though much traditional Merjan culture has faded from everyday memory, Miron knows his friend Aist is fully versed in their people’s traditional funereal rituals. The son of a well regarded Merja poet-laborer, Aist researches and records nearly forgotten Merjan lore as a private passion. More Nordic than Slavic, Aist is not a talkative man, but he will provide Silent’s narration. Indeed the rough hewn character of his (or actor Igor Sergeyev’s) voice makes him one of the most effective narrators heard on film in recent memory, even when subtitled.

Miron and Aist will drive across the frozen west central Russian landscape to Lake Nero, the site of his honeymoon with his much younger, yet now tragically dearly departed wife Tanya. There they will build her funeral pyre in much the same manner the Norsemen did millennia ago. For company, they have themselves, their memories, and two caged buntings Aist recently purchased. Those birds are not just for show. Like everything else in Silent they might appear to be a causal impulse buy, but their significance will become apparent later.

Though relatively unheralded among NYFF selections, Silent is one of the strongest films of the festival. Elegiac in multiple ways, it is a powerful meditation on the death of an individual and the protracted demise of a culture, without ever becoming heavy-handed. While it is deliberately paced, it actually gets someplace, both geographically and cinematically.

Throughout Fedorchenko displays a deft touch. Though his symbolism is inescapable, it is always accessible rather than pretentious or obtuse. While in lesser hands, Silent’s ending might have been problematic, Fedorchenko’s methodical groundwork makes it feel logical and fitting, without outright telegraphing it clumsily. Fedorchenko and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman also take full advantage of the evocative landscape, presenting some striking winter vistas.

Whether it is engaging in salty talk with Miron or ruminating on what it means to be Merjan, Sergeyev brings a remarkable naturalness and genuine gravitas to the film as the protagonist-narrator. It is the sort of accomplished work that is often unfairly overlooked due to its lack of affectation.

Though it requires viewers’ full attention, there is great depth beneath Silent’s austerely chilly surface. An excellent film featuring a great lead performance, it is one of the unexpected highlights of the 2010 NYFF. It screens this Tuesday (9/28) at Alice Tully Hall.

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NYKFF ’10: Bestseller

Take it from someone in book publishing, most bestsellers are highly derivative. Still, they should not constitute outright plagiarism. Regrettably, one popular author inadvertently crosses that line. In proper K-horror tradition, her comeback will be even more painfully than the scandal itself in Lee Jeong-ho’s Bestseller (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2010 New York Korean Film Festival now running at MoMA.

Needing refuge from the media, Baek Hee-soo and her daughter Yeun-hee rent an old lake front manor in the Korean equivalent of the Maine fishing villages found in Stephen King novels. Being a sweet-tempered child, the supernatural force at work in the villa wastes no time in keying in on Yeun-hee. Of course, since Baek is already somewhat emotionally taxed (and will only become more so), it is also a safe bet her sanity will eventually come into question. Her discovery of a twenty year old crime committed in their temporary digs is hardly a stabilizing development either, but Baek considers it rich source material for her literary return.

Bestseller’s big mind twist actual comes at the halfway mark. At that point, as its characters deal with reality redefined the film down shifts into a psychological thriller gear, while still retaining some of the trappings of its Grudge-like horror. Korean super-star actress-singer-lingerie designer Uhm Jung-hwa takes a bit of risk in Bestseller, tackling a character that is not always sympathetic, yet she launches into the bloody melodrama with admirable zeal. Indeed, she helps sell the film, even when logic threatens to intervene. She also gets an effective assist from Park Sa-Rang, an unusually expressive child actress, as the supernaturally targeted Yeun-hee.

Lee and cinematographer Choi Yeong-hwan create a moody atmosphere and handle the visions, flashbacks, and other complications of reality relatively nimbly. Oddly enough, the fantastical elements hold up quite well (if you can buy The Grudge you can buy Bestseller), whereas the film’s only credibility issues are of a more conventional nature. Still, for genre cinema, especially K-horror, that’s not bad.

Solid genre entertainment, Bestseller should appeal to a wider audience than traditional K-horror aficionados. To draw comparisons from a dying industry, regular readers of King, Koontz, and Matheson should have no trouble with the themes and tone of Bestseller. It screens again at MoMA this Wednesday (9/29) and at BAM this Friday (10/1).

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

NYFF ’10: The Robber

Running is a solitary sport, but Johann Rettenberger is not exactly a social guy. It is also a handy talent for his chosen line of work: armed robbery. There will indeed be plenty of running and daring daylight larceny in Benjamin Heisenberg’s existential crime drama, The Robber (trailer here), which screens during the 48th New York Film Festival now officially underway.

Recently released from prison, Rettenberger used to while away his days running round and round the yard and spend his nights chugging away on a treadmill. Frankly, his routine has not changed much with freedom, but at least the scenery varies. Of course, he is not one for square jobs, so he simply knocks over banks when he needs funds. He really ought to be going straight, particularly when his out of nowhere finish in the Vienna Marathon shocks the Austrian sports world, making him a mid-sized celebrity over night. Yet aside from regular exercise, Rettenberger is not about doing what’s good for him.

Rettenberger might look like he is cut from the same cloth as the surfer robbers in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, but he is really more closely akin to Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger. Similarly emotionally distant, Rettenberger also commits a hitherto out-of-character act of impulsive violence that will set off a sensational series of events. A great deal of running will be involved.

Somehow, Andreas Lust is simultaneously impassive and twitchy as the loner protagonist. A performance that keeps viewers consistently off balance, just as it appears he is about to finally plumb Rettenberger’s depths, he erects more barriers to keep us at bay. Lust also clearly trained like a mad man for the part, shedding any trace of body fat to play the anti-social crook.

Though Heisenberg effectively stages a long, complex chase sequence that serves as the centerpiece for the film, Robber is far quieter and ruminative than most action fare. While not nearly as self-consciously stylized as Tom Tykwer’s vaguely thematically related Run Lola Run, Heisenberg and cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider bring a distinctly chilly aesthetic to bear on their road-running morality tale. An intriguing blend of art-house and action, Robber is definitely recommended during this year’s NYFF. It screens this Monday (9/27) and Wednesday (9/29) at Alice Tully Hall.

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NYKFF ’10: A Frozen Flower

During the Goryeo Dynasty, a young king has been unable to conceive an heir, despite his perfectly willing queen and concubines. He prefers spending time with the chief of his elite guards, who were hand-picked as young boys to serve his whims. Yep, you guessed it. However, when the king orders his loyal bodyguard to fulfill his husbandly duties, it leads to quite the royal love triangle in Ha Yu’s A Frozen Flower (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2010 New York Korean Film Festival now underway at MoMA.

Forced to swear allegiance to the Chinese Yuan Dynasty, the king is already in a delicate position. Obviously, his arranged marriage to a Yuan princess is a loveless affair, though she enters into it in all good faith. Unfortunately, his lack of an heir further weakens his position at a time when conspiracies are brewing. Enter the reluctant Hong Lim, chief of the guard and royal boy toy. Though certainly awkward at first, the queen and the soldier warm to each other quickly. Soon enough, they are going beyond royal orders, recklessly meeting for midnight trysts at the palace library. As one would expect, complications soon arise.

Frozen is sort of like a Korean version of Starz’s Spartacus series, with a lot of straight sex, gay sex, and hack-and-slash swordplay, wrapped up in the classy veneer of a historical costume drama. Ha Yu also throws in the occasional bloody jolt that should satisfy the fanboy audience, notwithstanding its subject matter. In fact, despite its gay subject matter and sex scenes, Frozen might not constitute “gay-friendly” cinema. It is not exactly a sympathetic portrayal, after all.

There is plenty of action though, including a nice sequence pitting Hong and his men against hordes of Japanese-financed assassins. Joo Jin-mo makes a pretty convincing villain as the increasingly unstable king, nicely illustrating the corrupting nature of power. Conversely, as Hong, Jo In-seong is blandness personified. Likewise, his fellow guards are almost indistinguishable from each other. At least Song Ji-hyo’s queen supplies a few surprises. Instead of playing her merely as a victim, she shows a spark of self-assertion, to the extent possible given her circumstance. Clearly, she was also game for a fair amount of nudity.

Energetically paced, Ha Yu never lets the action (of one sort or another) flag throughout Frozen. Not exactly a high art film, it definitely follows in the tradition of bodice-ripping guilty pleasures. It screens again tomorrow (9/26) at MoMA and the following Sunday (10/3) at BAM.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

NYKFF ’10: Good Morning, President

South Korea’s democracy might be relatively young, but writer-director Jang Jin will age it quickly. In a bit over two hours, he takes viewers through three successive “ripped from the headlines” fictionalized presidencies in the light-hearted comedy Good Morning, President (trailer here), which screens at MoMA as part of the New York Korean Film Festival.

Lame-duck President Kim Jung-ho has two dilemmas. A respected veteran of the democracy protests, he intends to pardon two of his authoritarian predecessors as an act of national reconciliation, but has had difficulty selling the idea to the public. His symbolic purchase of a national lottery ticket also just hit the multi-million won jackpot, but how can he collect?

Eventually, the old warhorse turns over the reins to Cha Ji-wook, the youthful single-father son of one of Kim’s former cohorts. Cha immediately faces a foreign policy crisis when militaristic Japan precipitates an international incident with a peaceful North Korea that was just minding its own business (I kid you not). However, his successor, South Korea’s first woman president, Han Kyuong-ja, faces a more personal crisis when her unsophisticated husband’s ill-conceived dealings raise the danger of her impeachment.

Morning works best when it is least political, finding humor in the rather unusual circumstances that come with being a public figure. As President Kim, Lee Soon-jae has a flair for physical humor and outrageous situations, never resorting to crass mugging. Han Chae-young is also quite attractive as his daughter Kim Ei-young, who eventually becomes the press secretary of President Han and a potential love interest for President Cha.

In contrast, Cha’s political story arc is essentially kumbaya wish-fulfillment that ignores the psychotic nature of the Northern regime, while indulging in old-fashioned American and Japanese bashing. Still, Jang Dong-gun has movie-star presence as Cha. Bringing to mind Cherry Jones’ President Allison Taylor on 24 (unfortunately), President Han’s administration gets short shrift, concentrating instead on her domestic problems. In fact, the best scenes of Morning’s third leg feature the reappearances of her two predecessors.

Politically, Morning is rather simplistic, but it is fairly accomplished in the fart joke department. There are indeed a number of gentle laughs, particularly in Kim’s administration and enough romance throughout to pull viewers through. A film with a Clintonesque need to be liked, Morning screens again this afternoon (9/24) at MoMA and Sunday after next (10/3) at BAM, as the New York Korean Film Festival continues.

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NYFF ’10: Letter to Elia

No director portrayed the immigrant experience or the struggles of the common man with greater sensitivity than Elia Kazan, but to this day, he remains widely reviled on the left. Even a figure of Martin Scorsese’s stature took heat for presenting Kazan a lifetime achievement Oscar at the 71st Academy Awards. Yet for Scorsese, Kazan’s influence extended far beyond his early stylistic debt to the great filmmaker. Scorsese explains Kazan’s significant both to cinematic history in general and himself personally in Letter to Elia, an hour-long documentary he co-directed with Kent Jones, which screens with Kazan’s epic America, America at the 48th New York Film Festival.

Regardless of political controversies, Kazan’s reputation as an actor’s director is without peer. A co-founder of the Actor’s Studio, Kazan began his career on the boards before finding his calling as a theater director. Letter reminds us it was Kazan who helmed the Broadway premieres of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Of course, he would revisit Streetcar on film with original cast-member and frequent collaborator Marlon Brando, one of several legitimate masterpieces he crafted. However, for Scorsese, East of Eden stands out first and foremost in his consciousness, claiming to have “stalked” the film through second-run cinemas as a boy.

Looking straight into the camera, Scorsese forcefully and lucidly describes Kazan’s contributions to stage and screen, with the help of generous clips from the director’s filmography. While Eden and the best picture nominee America, America capture the most screen time, Scorsese and Jones duly include Kazan’s arguably single most famous scene, Brando’s “could have been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront, the classic tale of union corruption.

In contrast, they are clearly uncomfortable addressing Kazan’s testimony to the HUAC committee. Kazan was a former Communist who became disillusioned after the Stalin-Hitler (Molotov-Ribbentrop) non-aggression pact came to light. Considering Communism a severely flawed ideology, Kazan defended his decision in an op-ed piece, but Scorsese and Jones largely ignore his motivations, preferring to gloss over the incident with vague language of “difficult choices,” which does little to serve Kazan’s memory.

Of course, Scorsese is on solid ground when celebrating movie history. Letter is definitely an effective commercial for Kazan’s rich body of work, which really speaks for itself throughout the documentary. However, if any of his masterworks is under-represented, it would be Gentleman’s Agreement, a powerful examination of anti-Semitism that won Kazan his first Oscar.

Truly, Kazan is due for a critical renaissance, unblinkered by partisan score-settling. Letter is a well intentioned, mostly well executed effort to spur just that. Due to be included in a forthcoming Kazan boxset, Scorsese and Jones’ film screens this coming Monday (9/27) with a rare big screen presentation of America, America at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2010 NYFF.

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Ozu at IFC: Tokyo Twilight

Marrying off daughters is a tricky business. Shukichi Sugiyama largely botched the job with his eldest daughter Takako, whereas he might have waited too long with his youngest, Akiko. However, it is mother issues that plague the young women in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight, which screens this Friday at the IFC Center as part of their continuing Ozu weekend series.

Old man Sugiyama enjoys the company of his daughters, but their domestic lives are out of equilibrium. Takako has left her husband, moving back into her father’s house with her young daughter. Akiko never left, but she is clearly restless. Having fallen in with a fast crowd, she is desperately seeking her no-account boyfriend, which obviously portends bad news. Instead, she finds a mahjong parlor proprietress of roughly the same age as her long deserted mother, who seems to know an awful lot about the family.

Kisako Soma is indeed the girls’ mother. Clearly regretting their separation, she is eager for reconciliation, but her daughters will have none of it. We get the distinct impression there is more to her story of abandonment than meets the eye, but viewers will not get to hear it, since Takako and Akiko are not listening.

Though certainly restrained, Twilight is rather unapologetically melodramatic by Ozu’s standards. Yet, many of his frequent themes reappear in spades. In fact, the closing scene between Takako and her father surprisingly parallels that of Late Spring and Early Summer, though it reaches that point via a more tragic route. Ozu regular Setsuko Hara again personifies filial duty, but she projects an uncharacteristically severe presence as Takako. By contrast, Ineko Arima is hauntingly frail as Akiko, but the film’s real pathos comes from Isuzu Yamada’s moving performance as the prodigal mother Soma. All too aware of her terrible mistakes, she cuts a heartbreaking figure.

Twilight displays all the hallmarks of Ozu’s style, but at a relatively expansive 140 minute running time, there are a few extraneous distractions along the way. Still, when Ozu lowers the emotional boom, it is definitely heavy. As usual, Yuuhara Atsuta’s black and white cinematography has a warm, soothing quality, while also capturing a tactile sense of post-war Japanese daily life. Though Hara again demonstrates a movie star command of the screen, it is Yamada’s devastating work that really distinguishes Twilight. A worthy representative of the auteur’s body of work, Twilight screens this weekend (9/24-9/26) at the IFC Center.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

NYTVF ’10: Luther

Before donning the mantle as the new Alex Cross, the detective-profiler thus far more famous for the bestselling books and absolutely dreadful vanity commercials from author James Patterson than the Morgan Freeman films, Idris Elba will be fighting crime on BBC America. His DCI John Luther definitely follows in the tradition of edgier, wounded cops, to judge from the first episode of Luther (trailer here), which screened last night as part of the 2010 New York Television Festival.

The driven Luther used to be good at his job. In his last big case, he saved a young girl’s life by “encouraging” serial pedophile-abductor Henry Madsen to reveal her location. However, when Luther’s actions put Madsen in a coma, he nearly cracks during the ensuing scandal. Frankly, Luther is haunted by the incident because he does not have murder in his heart. Alice Morgan is a different story.

In his first case back, Luther investigates the brutal murder of Morgan’s parents. A former child prodigy astro-physicist, her glaring lack of empathy immediately attracts his suspicion. Their verbal sparring quickly evolves into a game of catch-me-if-you-can that will obviously form the meta-story of Luther’s limited series run. Things have already gotten personal in episode one, complicating Luther’s attempts to reconcile with his wife Zoe, a “human rights lawyer,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

Episode one establishes the cat-and-mouse dynamic rather effectively, in large measure thanks to its leads. Elba is perfectly cast as the hyper-tense Luther and Ruth Wilson already appears to have Morgan’s manipulative ice queen persona nailed. Unfortunately, Indira Varma will obviously be all kinds of annoying as Zoe Luther.

Clearly, Associate Producer Elba really will be what drives Luther. He has screen presence that even shines through in an unintentionally funny b-caper movie like Takers. In fact, one Midwestern critic noted the whoops and hollers that greeted a scene of Elba in his boxers during his combo press-promotional screening. The same reaction occurred a similar New York screening. That is definitely a kind of star power.

To judge by episode one, Elba and Wilson really are quite good in Luther. Crime novelist and British television veteran (MI-5) Neil Cross’s writing also already has a promising sharpness that should appeal to fans of other UK psychological crime dramas, like Wire in the Blood. Luther premieres on BBC America Sunday, October 17th, while the NYTVF continues through Saturday (9/25) with pilot competition screenings at the Tribeca Cinemas and primetime events at the SVA Theater.

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NYFF ’10: Nuremberg

In 1949, American service men were risking their lives to defy the Soviet Union’s Berlin Blockade, while taxpayers were spending billions on the Marshal Plan to rebuild the German economy. Perhaps for these reasons, Hollywood studios were not eager to distribute Stuart Schulberg’s Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (trailer here), a U.S. Army Signal Corps produced film documenting the Nuremberg tribunal and the crimes for which the National Socialists stood accused. Though it played throughout Germany as part of the de-Nazification campaign, it is only now reaching American theaters in a special restored version, beginning with a special screening this coming Tuesday as part of the 2010 New York Film Festival.

Schulberg and his brother Budd (of What Makes Sammy Run fame) were attached to the OSS’s film division when they were assigned to work on special films at the behest of U.S. Nuremberg prosecutor Justice Robert H. Jackson. The resulting four hour The Nazi Plan, consisting of the Nazis’ own footage, and the one-hour Nazi Concentration Camps, compiling film shot by the liberating allies, were indeed shown as evidence during the tribunal, with select clips also incorporated into Nuremberg.

With Nuremberg, Schulberg was greatly constrained by the availability of footage. Only twenty-five hours of video was shot and the audio was recorded separately, out of synch. As a result, his cuts relied entirely on narration. However, Schulberg’s filmmaker daughter Sandra and Josh Waletzky replaced some narration with the actual audio recorded during the tribunal for their restoration, rerecording the rest with Liev Schreiber. Unfortunately, the prospective American nitrate prints had deteriorated beyond use for the so-called Schulberg-Waletzky Restoration, but the surviving German print frankly seems more appropriate, given its role in the de-Nazification process.

There are indeed some horrific images in Nuremberg, as well as a succinct Cliff Note guide to the tribunal. Arguably, understanding of Nuremberg is a mile wide and an inch deep. For instance, our current president once favorably cited the military tribunal in his own opposition to military tribunals. It is certainly also worth bearing in mind that the Nuremberg Tribunal returned three acquittals.

Had Nuremberg reached American theaters in 1949, it would have shocked audiences. Educated viewers should still be sickened by the crimes Stuart Schulberg documented, but they ought to be somewhat prepared for them. To be sure, Nuremberg is a historically significant film, but it is hardly the definitive documentary on the Holocaust. Viewers should also take note, if the NYFF post-screening panel is anything like the press conference, it is likely to resemble a politically charged advocacy session on behalf of the International Criminal Court, which would push the boundaries of decorum considering the gravity of Nuremberg’s subject. Recommended (particularly for the historically challenged), Nuremberg screens this coming Tuesday (9/28) at NYFF, with its regular New York theatrical run beginning the next day (9/29) at Film Forum.

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NYFF ’10: Robinson in Ruins

It is sort of a socialist Blair Witch Project, but without any tension. Purportedly the found footage filmed by a prescient early Twenty-First Century sociological researcher, stitched together by an academic sometime in a Bellamy-esque post-capitalist future, Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins is more closely akin to non-narrative experimental filmmaking than speculative fiction. Unfortunately, even those inclined to agree with its philosophy are likely to find it a slow-go when it screens during the 2010 New York Film Festival.

Had Keiller wished to film a European country in a state of economic collapse, he could have taken his cameras to Greece. Of course, the lessons of their bloated government sector would not necessarily fit with Ruins’ world view. Instead, we hear Vanessa Redgrave’s silky narration make tenuous connections between the abandoned fuel depots and lonely mile markers Robinson ostensibly shot and the promised economic collapse, supposedly prefigured by the global recession we now find ourselves in. Indeed, when watching Ruins, one gets the sense the British economy of 2009 solely revolved around delivering fuel to American military bases.

Keiller is a lovely nature photographer, capturing some very pleasant images of bees pollinating flowers. However, his cocktail of actual and fictionalized economic history lacks punch, despite its didacticism. Consequently, the film is largely dependent on its static images, leading to long periods of drift, as when the filmmakers (real and imagined) fixate on lichen growing on country motorway signs.

“Experimental film” is always a tough sell, particularly those that mix in extreme politics for good measure. However, smart and nuanced “cinematic essays” that also provide viewers hooks to hold onto, like Amie Siegel’s DDR/DDR, demonstrate the perniciousness of such labels. In contrast, Ruins really is a film for devotees of the avant-garde, pretty much exclusively. It will probably find an appreciative audience at the Anthology sometime in the future and is sure to play numerous college campuses. It screens this Sunday (9/26) at Alice Tully Hall as part of the NYFF.

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NYFF ’10: Uncle Boonmee

An old commie hunter, Uncle Boonmee is haunted by spirits. However, his ghosts are largely benevolent, seeking to comfort Boonmee during his final days. Rife with magical realism but deliberately toying with narrative structure, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes Palme D’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall Past Lives (trailer here), screens this weekend at the 48th New York Film Festival.

Boonmee is slowly dying from a humiliating kidney dysfunction. He is faithfully attended by his Laotian servant Jai and the ghost of his deceased wife Huay, among others. Even his long lost son Boonsong pays his final respects, despite having transformed into a red glowing-eyed monkey spirit, lurking the dark heart of the jungle with his beastly cohorts.

It has been an eventful life, but it is nothing compared to Boonmee’s visions of his previous incarnations, particularly an episode in which a mystical catfish ravishes a self-esteem-challenged princess. Consistently obscure throughout Recall, Weerasethakul never explicitly spells out Boonmee role in this Leda-like tale, but since the lagoon is described as the place where Boonmee’s lives began, it seems safe to assume there is some fishy DNA in his karma.

Though Boonmee ruefully suggests his current bad karma stems from his past anti-Communist military activities, perhaps he should ask the Cambodians about what he helped spare his countrymen (“you did it for your country,” his sister-in-law Jen reminds him). Regardless, Weerasethakul’s somewhat veiled commentary is so deeply buried under multiple layers of symbolic meanings and narrative gamesmanship, it is doubtful Recall will inspire many viewers to spontaneously erupt in a rendition of “The Internationale.” Instead, those so inclined will probably break the film down into the parts they can deal with, whether they be the animatronic catfish or Buddhist reincarnation themes.

Of course, there is something problematic about a film’s whole if it is less than its constituent parts. Between its double-secret allegories, nonlinear forms, and deliberate stylistic shifts, Recall is so busy displaying a self-conscious artiness, the rain forest gets lost for the trees. In fact, Recall along with the experimental companion short Letter to Uncle Boonmee were conceived as part of Weerasethakul’s multi-media, multi-platform project Primitive. There are indeed times when the static quality of Recall and particularly the narrative-free Letter seem more closely akin to installation videos than stand-alone films. Though the late reappearance of characters from Weerasethakul’s past films might be enriching for those in the know, bringing things full circle, in practice it is a limiting strategy. Yet, Thanapat Saisaymar still manages to express something fundamentally human as the dying Boonmee, while Jenjira Pongpas also adds a bit of grace to the proceedings as Jen.

Obviously, Recall is a film for festival audiences, but its Cannes laurels have earned theatrical distribution via Strand Releasing. It will be a tough sell. Recall boasts some fine performances, but it thoroughly blurs the line between avant-garde provocation and pretentiousness. A likely sell-out anyway, it screens this coming Saturday (9/25) and Sunday (9/26) at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 2010 NYFF.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hipster Musical: Fruit Fly

If you envision the Broadway show Rent without the tragedy, you will have a pretty good sense of H.P. Mendoza’s latest movie musical. It might be set in San Francisco’s Castro District instead of Alphabet City, but the Bohemian spirit is the same in Fruit Fly (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York

In the film, “Fruit Fly” is offered up as a less derogatory term for a woman who befriends gay men almost exclusively. Bethesda suddenly finds it applied to her, after moving to San Francisco and becoming fast friends with her gay roommate Windham and his circle. They do not break it to her gently either, explaining it to her in a song with the more traditional soubriquet “Fag Hag.”

After a sojourn in the Philippines, Bethesda has come to town in hopes of mounting her one-woman performance-art piece about her search for her birth mother. Almost everyone staying in Bethesda’s Real World-like house harbors similarly artistic ambitions, inspiring some amusing cynicism from their decidedly un-hippy landlord, Tracy.

While Mendoza was the composer, lyricist, and screenwriter for the Indie circuit favorite Colma: the Musical, he also takes the added directorial reins in Fly. Musically, the results are a little uneven. Frankly, the intentionally comedic songs are not particularly memorable. However, it starts with an enjoyably upbeat opener, “Public Transit,” and can claim at least one legitimate standout song, “You Do This for a Reason,” that should become an anthem for frustrated artists everywhere.

Despite her character’s many annoying moments, L.A. Renigen shows an easy likability and decent vocal chops as Bethesda. Her housemates are more of a mixed bag though. Some turn in quite solid supporting work, like E.S. Park and Theresa Navarro as the resident lesbian couple, while others seem to be auditioning for a regional production of Rent. However, there are some truly rich comedic supporting performances by Don Wood as the crusty landlord and Christina Augello as the bane of his existence: “Dirty Judy,” the rent controlled upstairs tenant. “I’m the reason apartments are so expensive,” she profanely gloats in a sharply written, economically informed scene.

Anytime a filmmaker creates an original movie musical, you have to give them due credit for ambition. While decidedly hit-or-miss, Mendoza still succeeds fairly often in Fly. It opens this Friday (9/24) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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NYFF ’10: Pale Flower

In a different time and place, Muraki could have been a hard-bitten P.I. or a high plains drifter, but in an early 1960’s Japanese film, he had to be a yakuza. Spectacularly cynical, his contempt for humanity is constantly justified throughout Masahiro Shinoda’s classic Pale Flower, which screens during the 2010 New York Film Festival as part of their Masterworks retrospective tribute to the director.

Recently released from prison, Muraki finds things have changed. His boss has forged an alliance with the rival crime lord whose henchmen he was ordered to kill. This ought to be an awkward situation for Muraki, but he is too cool to care. One gets the sense he is simply looking for a distraction as he waits for death to come calling. In that respect, meeting Saeko is fortuitous.

An innocent looking beauty of apparent means, the mystery woman loves to gamble and does not mind losing substantial sums. Recognizing a man of action when she sees one, Saeko convinces the jaded enforcer to vouchsafe her at the yakuza’s high roller games. Thus begins a chaste but worldly courtship of a sort, not that Muraki will let it go anywhere.

Beyond noir, Flower’s characters seem to live in a preternaturally twilight world, where violence and death are constants, but the only real enemy is boredom. Muraki scrupulously lives by a code of honor, yet it means nothing more to him than observing traffic signals. Indeed, Ryô Ikebe truly delivers the noir goods as the sullen yakuza, perfectly conveying hardnosed grit and existential resignation.

Stylistically, Flower is so hyper-noir, it surpasses the excesses of self-parody, luxuriating in its moody underworld milieu. Thanks to Kosugi Masao’s elegant cinematography, nearly every frame is worthy of framing, despite the dissolute nature of the on-screen action. In fact, so much time is spent in gambling dens and the like, Flower was initially shelved for months after its completion.

A figure associated with the Japanese New Wave, Shinoda displays a genuine mastery of film noir forms in Flower well beyond that of French Nouvelle Vague auteurs inspired by the genre, such as Godard and Truffaut. Yet, it is still edgy and subversive, well deserving the “New Wave” appellation. Seriously hip and absolutely absorbing, a new print of Flower screens Saturday (9/25) as part of the Masterworks tribute to Shinoda at this year’s NYFF.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NYTVF ’10: Gelber and Manning in Pictures

Gelber and Manning’s act is sort of like jazz for the steampunk set. Though they are certainly not neo-Victorian, their retro-flapper era personas and hot-jazz-Tin Pan Alley music is tailored made for dandified play-acting. They have taken their theatrical presentation viral, with the webisode Gelber and Manning in Pictures (trailer here), directed by James Lester, which screens this week as part of the 2010 New York Television Festival’s Independent Pilot Competition.

Gelber is a rag-stride piano player. Manning is the canary. Together they are a smash on the nightclub circuit. They seem like a natural for moving pictures, but down-on-his-luck mogul Bernie Standard must sell them to his underworld “investors.” Indeed, these shadowy mobsters should present plenty of conflict should Pictures advance beyond its first eleven minutes.

Gelber and Manning have built a legit cult following, having made a fair amount of publicity hay from playing Blake Lively’s birthday party (so, she’s the new “It Girl,” evidently). Refreshingly though, they look like real people, which is why the taciturn Mr. Mangene wants to “lose the guy.”

As drama, Pictures is an okay distraction, but the music is really good fun. In fact, the pilot’s central number “Mr. Monaco” is a rather catchy little ditty. Their band is also quite strong, including the impressive trumpeter Charlie Caranicas, a veteran of similarly inspired groups, like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, the Flying Neutrinos, and the Rainbow Room Orchestra.

It would be a happy event if Pictures found the backing to continue. After all, anything that produces more jazz gigs is all to the good. Well worth checking out, Pictures screens at the Tribeca Cinemas tonight (9/21) and Thursday (9/22) as part the Drama program 2 in NYTVF’s IPC completion.

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Noe’s Enter the Void

What do you get when you mix together generous helpings of designer drugs, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an iconoclastic director, and a bunch more drugs? Gaspar Noé’s latest film: Enter the Void (trailer here). Shot in Tokyo by the Argentine-born French director, using a largely American cast, Void is a self-consciously cult film, sure to inspire love and hate in equal measure when it opens this Friday in New York.

Oscar is dying, but Noé is just getting starting. Hooked on DMT, a hallucinogenic that simulates the chemicals released in the brain at the time of death, the expat has become fatally submerged in Tokyo’s drug scene. Tragically, it appears he will be leaving behind his sister Linda. Though they only recently reunited after years of separation in foster-care, they share a deep emotional bond (not incestuous, but seriously codependent).

Indeed, Oscar’s promise to never leave Linda seems to tether his spirit to the terrestrial world, allowing him to watch the aftermath of his death from a God’s eye perspective. We also experience flashbacks to earlier psychological traumas, including the car accident which orphaned the siblings, as part of his psychedelic death rattle.

Void is a trippy brew, explicitly invoking Tibetan Buddhist precepts, when we see Oscar receive a copy of The Book of the Dead from his New Agey stoner buddy Alex. However, the hedonistic scenes at The Void, the techno-hipster strip club his sister performs at, have little affinity with Tibetan asceticism.

On a technical level, Void is bravura filmmaking, completely unlike any previous “head” film. Visual effects director Pierre Buffin’s work dazzles to the point of overwhelming audiences with imagery overload, while Noé and cinematographer Benoit Debie make effective use of the Tokyo backdrop, conveying the seductive menace of the city’s red-light district. Unfortunately, Noé’s coeditors were far too indulgent, allowing the film to fall into a repetitive pattern. After a while, viewers will start looking for an open flame in each successive scene, knowing his camera will eventually swoop into it.

According to Noé, Nathaniel Brown was cast as Oscar because as a first-time actor with ambitions to direct, it was hoped he would easily accept his lack of proper screen time. Since we essentially view the film through Oscar’s POV, aside from oblique glimpses in mirrors, we only see his hands or feet. Yet, Brown is an identifiable presence throughout, which is a tricky accomplishment to pull off, given the circumstances. Paz de la Huerta, soon to be seen in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, is certainly a credible stripper, but her melodramatic angst gets tiresome. At least real life French expat Cyril Roy projects an intriguing vibe, giving viewers something to hold onto when he is on-screen.

Boldly ambitious, Void would deserve cult classic status had it been maybe an hour shorter. Instead, it keeps revisiting the same territory, wearing down the goodwill of all but the most adventurous of audiences. The work of a genuine auteur in need of a stronger editorial hand, Void opens this Friday (9/24) in New York at the IFC Center.

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