Friday, March 13, 2009

New Directors/New Films 2009: Review Round-up

The 2009 edition of New Directors/New Films screens at the Walter Reade Theater and the Museum of Modern Art from March 25 through April 5. Below are brief reviews of this year's selections.

Amreeka (Cherien Dabis)

Amreeka (the title is Arabic for “America”) is not a bad film, just utterly predictable, as safe a crowd-pleaser as can be for the opening night film. This coming-to-America tale featuring Muna (Nisreen Faour) and Fadi (Melkar Muallem), a Palestinian mother and son escaping their constricted West Bank existence, telegraphs every element with heavy-handed sincerity, smothering any hint of nuance. Setting the film at the start of the Iraq War saps what little subtlety is left in the scenario, as the clueless Americans (of course) associate them with Iraqis. What saves the film from being a complete waste of time are the strong performances of Faour and Hiam Abbass as her sister Raghda. The film sweats and strains for authenticity, beginning with the grainy visuals, but the by-the-numbers script, containing such cardboard villains as the racist high-school bullies who harass Fadi, make it all for naught. Amreeka is competently made, to be sure, but there are no real insights, nothing on this subject that hasn’t been explored much better elsewhere. The press notes go into great detail about how personal this story is to the filmmaker, which makes it so much more of a shame that this experience has been flattened out into such a generic presentation. The strongest sections of the film are the early scenes depicting the daily humiliations of Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints, which felt the most directly drawn from actual experience. The film’s conclusion is nicely understated, as the entire family retreats into an ethnic enclave, a respite from the cruel, prejudicial world outside. But at that point, it’s just too little, too late. At least White Castle gets some nice product placement out of it. (Mar. 25, 26)

Stay the Same Never Change (Laurel Nakadate)

“I made this film, because I wanted to talk about beauty, loneliness, desire and hope,” video artist Laurel Nakadate says in her director’s statement describing her debut feature. This film began life as another video art piece, until she was given money to expand it into a feature. Whether or not you like this film depends very much on your tolerance for extended single-shot tableaux which mostly exhibit the creepy vibe stemming from the interaction of men with much younger girls, which in each case skirt just at the edge of transgressive behavior. The film desultorily follows a series of characters, many of them young blonde girls wearing very short shorts, ambulatory doll figures with glassy stares, set in unnervingly generic domestic settings and featureless Midwestern landscapes. The result isn’t a film per se, and would probably be more at home in an art gallery. Which is to say, that sitting through this for 90-plus minutes may be torture for some. Nakadate does have a knack for giving her banal settings a touch of the sinister, however, and the predatory gaze of the men toward the walking jailbait paraded in front of them does have a sort of creepy fascination. It may not be your thing, or most people’s thing, for that matter, but Nakadate’s fierce commitment to her perhaps dubious vision comes through clearly. (March 26, 28)

Barking Water (Sterlin Harjo)

A film like this makes me wonder if the Sundance Institute (also behind Amreeka and several others of this year’s selections) isn’t actually helping to destroy the vitality of American independent cinema, whatever great things it does for filmmakers. Like Amreeka, Barking Water is utterly generic down to the final frame. Harjo is telling a story that clearly has great personal import, but precious little of that interest comes through to the viewers, or at least this one. Essentially a road movie, the film follows Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman), who is spirited out of a hospital where he is dying of cancer, and who is accompanied by his ex-wife Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) on their way to meet Frankie’s daughter by another woman, whom Irene has never met, who lives at a place called (spoiler alert!) “Barking Water.” Along the way they meet relatives and various strangers, and there are interminable music montages that feel more and more like lazy padding as the film wears on. There are attractive vistas, to be sure, but they aren’t very well served by the flat video cinematography. What a shame that films such as this are shackled to such tired, exhausted forms. There is nary a narrative surprise to be found anywhere, which made staying awake through this a monumental struggle. It would have been nice if Harjo could have at least attempted to come up with a form for his film that would actually reflect the Native American culture depicted, rather than simply using these details as window dressing for tropes we’ve seen a million times before. (Mar. 26, 28)

The Fly (Vladimir Kott)

This Russian comedy (which oddly mixes elements of perestroika-era Russia with the present day) follows Fyodor (Alexey Kravchenko, who was the boy shattered by war in Elem Klimov’s Come and See), a drinking-and-whoring trucker who comes to a gray and drab town to search for an old lover who has written him a letter. When he finds out the woman has now died, he finds out he may have fathered a daughter, Vera (Alexandra Tuftey), who since being left by her mother and forced to care for herself, has now become the town’s holy terror, engaging in gang fights and arson. When a local tycoon holds Fyodor responsible for Vera’s latest crimes, Fyodor decides to stay in the town, taking an interest in this troubled young girl. The film’s humor is quite broad and earthy, including a scene of a man showered with the contents of a septic tank. Much of the references in the film would seem to be lost on non-Russians, as they were lost to me, and there isn’t much interesting happening visually. (Mar. 26, 29)

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