Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New Directors/New Films 2008 Review Round-up

The 2008 New Directors/New Films festival, screens from March 26 through April 6 at the Walter Reade Theater and the Museum of Modern Art. This year’s edition is the strongest in years, collectively providing a potent snapshot of current social, political, and cinematic trends. Civil wars, multicultural life in major cities, the legacies of colonialism, and natural disasters are but a few of the major themes touched upon in this year’s film selections. Quirky and individualistic character portraits are also thrown into the mix, with varying results.

Frozen River (Courtney Hunt)

The opening night film’s central image, the frozen-over St. Lawrence River, over which the protagonist Ray (Melissa Leo) smuggles illegal immigrants over the Canada-U.S. border, is a potent representation of the fragility of the circumstances that Ray and the other film’s characters find themselves in. Their constricted existences, and their struggles to gain some sort of financial and personal stability, resonate between the worlds of the upstate N.Y. trailer park where Ray lives and the Mohawk reservation where Lila (Misty Upham) tries to get back her son from her mother-in-law. Ray’s big dream is to find a new double-wide trailer for herself and her two kids, which is jeopardized when her husband runs off with the money needed for their home. Authority lays a heavy hand on everyone, although it works differently for Indians as opposed to whites. Ray, as a white woman, is able to travel more freely, at least at first, between these two worlds. But as circumstances force them together, their destinies crisscross in an unexpected fashion. Stark, de-saturated colors dominate, as the harsh elements mirror the lives, and often desperate circumstances, of the characters. The Chinese and Pakistani immigrants who are used for money by both sides are the most powerless of all, shuttled back and forth as human cargo and commodities, unwilling pawns in the efforts of the poor to survive. (March 26 and 27)

Jellyfish (Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen)

This gentle comedy crisscrosses the destinies of several denizens of Tel Aviv, creating a portrait of the city that beautifully captures the ebb and flow of their lives. Honeymooners Michael and Keren (Gera Sandler and Noa Knoller) are stuck in a hotel in the city, unable to travel to the Caribbean because of the bride’s broken foot. Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipina caretaker, deals with two very different charges, while feeling guilty over the young son she left back home. Batya (Sara Adler), an aimless young woman is put in charge of a mute little girl (Nikol Leidman) who comes out of the ocean. This scenario flows naturally, without feeling contrived or forced. Beneath the genial, comic tone of the piece is an underlying melancholy and loneliness that comes through, with Joy’s pining for her son, the single woman who lives alone in the same hotel as Michael and Keren, and an actress’ strained relationship with her mother. Appropriately making extensive use of marine imagery as a metaphor for the characters’ desire for connection, Jellyfish offers memorable images and incident (e.g. a hilarious experimental staging of Hamlet), and is a successful transition to cinema for the film’s co-directors, who previously made their names as literary artists. (March 27 and 30)

Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat)

Set in the Thailand coastal town of Takua Pa, which lost thousands of its inhabitants in the December 2004 tsunami, Wonderful Town represents a beautiful expression of the figurative (and possibly literal) ghosts that haunt this place, still existing in the woozy hangover of the town’s loss. This is a quiet film, full of silent spaces, and hushed, funereal tones, dealing in the contrasts between country and city, history and progress. Ton (Supphasit Kansen), an architect overseeing a new development in town, stays at a nearly deserted hotel, run by Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn), who up to this point has remained safe in the cocoon of her life in town, running her daily errands in the hotel. As Ton, longing for an escape from the hectic bustle of Bangkok, and Na, feeling trapped between mountains on one side of Takua Pa and the sea on the other, are inevitably drawn together, the delicate balance that has existed in this lonely town is upset. The aimless youths riding through the streets on their motorbikes (including Na’s troubled younger brother) become steadily more menacing, and the whispers of gossip grow ever louder. This is an impressive debut, its odd melancholic rhythms encompassing mordant humor, lyrical visual passages, and a conclusion that combines heartbreak and hope. (April 2 and 4)

Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)

Ever since the initial calamity and continuing outrage and horrors that resulted from Hurricane Katrina, films on this subject have been a virtual documentary sub-genre. In this extraordinarily moving film, something new and vital is brought to the table: a view from the inside, literally, of the storm. This unique perspective comes courtesy of Kimberly Roberts, a resident of the lower Ninth Ward who brought her camcorder with her as the raging waters trapped her and her family on their roof. Scenes from this footage are inter-cut with her efforts to rebuild her life after the storm, complicated by both bureaucratic barriers and her own difficult family history. The co-directors, who previously worked with Michael Moore, allow this footage to tell their own stories, without a falsely authoritative voiceover, which puts into vivid relief such moving scenes as Kimberly performing her rap song directly to the camera, documenting her life story and her unflagging resilience. (April 3 and 6)

Soul Carriage (Conrad Clark)

UK director Clark delivers a reasonable facsimile of recent Chinese cinema: Xinren (Yang Fen Jun), a young construction worker paid such low wages that he can’t even afford a few beers to entertain his friends after work, is forced to carry the body of his dead co-worker (killed in a workplace accident) to the man’s hometown. He is given some hush money to give to the family, so that the company can keep everything below the radar of the authorities. The rapid industrial creep and lack of humanity prevalent in this vast landscape, represented by the hapless protagonist, a physical manifestation of depression and hopelessness, are duly present. Despite some brief flashes of attempted humor, misery is the dominant mode. However, what one misses is the sort of formal brilliance found in such filmmakers as Jia Zhang-ke, which would have added some substance to what is essentially a shallow outline for a film, rather than a fully realized one. Interestingly enough, Zhang Yang’s recent film Getting Home features a nearly identical basic storyline, but Zhang uses these elements to create a comic story told with much more soul and a firmer grasp of the complexity of the characters depicted than in Clark’s film. Soul Carriage, despite its lofty ambitions, remains an outsider’s view, however sympathetic, that fails to get below the surface of its minimal scenario. (April 3 and 5)

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