Sunday, March 22, 2009

New Directors/New Films 2009: Review Round-up #3

The Maid (Sebastián Silva)

A cross between Luis Bunuel and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, The Maid focuses on Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), the titular servant who has been serving her family for over two decades. Repetition and routine, as well as her long separation from her own family, have taken their toll on her mental health, as she constantly pops pills to ease her splitting headaches, and becomes increasingly passive-aggressive toward the family, especially the eldest daughter, who cuts her to the quick by reminding her that she’s just the hired help and not a true member of the family. A young maid from Peru (Mercedes Villanueva) is hired to help out after Raquel’s condition begins to affect the quality of her work. Raquel takes this as an insult and a threat to her status in the family, and proceeds to terrorize the new girl. Silva’s camera tracks sinuously through the house (he shot the film in his own family home), subtly raising the tension between the maid and the other members of the house. Saavedra (who won an acting prize at Sundance; Silva also won the Grand Jury Prize in the world cinema dramatic category) makes this forbidding, opaque character increasingly sympathetic as we discover more about her. (March 27, 29)

Parque vía (Enrique Rivero)

Another intensely penetrating character study is at the heart of Parque vía, an unnervingly quiet film which retains its riveting intensity right up until the conclusion, which still startles even though such an ending is somewhat anticipated. The film’s central figure, Beto (Nolberto Coria), is the custodian of an empty house in Mexico City, where he has been living for ten years while his elderly boss (Tesalia Huerta), called “Lady” in the credits, searches for a buyer. “I’m a weird man,” Beto says of himself at one point. The initial scenes take us into his daily routine, where he lives in (to him) glorious isolation. The only people he interacts with on a regular basis are his boss and Lupe (Nancy Orozco), a prostitute whom Beto takes an almost fatherly interest in, despite his frequent use of her services. Beto has developed a form of agoraphobia as a result of his self-imposed separation from the world. In one brilliantly staged scene, on a rare outing in the daytime, Beto is overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of the outdoors, and faints in a supermarket. When the house finally has a buyer, and Beto is about to be expelled from the careful cocoon he has wrapped around himself, Beto resorts to extreme measures to preserve the life he has become so used to. Rivero proves to be remarkably adept at calibrating a slow-burn mood of tense anticipation, in which it becomes clear that the quiet prevalent in much of the film will be violently disrupted. Rivero is also an apt disciple of the minimalist mode of Mexican filmmaking that is a hallmark of such directors as Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante, to name a couple. In fact, a remarkable 360-degree panning shot recalls a similar one in Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven. However, Rivero brings a penetrating, sensitive approach to character on the table that make the central character of Beto a fully realized one, rather than a blank cipher, as too often happens with spare films such as this. The effect is also greatly aided by Coria’s riveting performance. An opening title tells us the film is based on his life, and indeed Coria in real life is the sort of caretaker depicted in the film, although of course this film is far from a documentary. (April 4, 5)

The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa)

The title of Claudia Llosa’s film refers to what has been passed on to Fausta (Magaly Solier), the traumatized woman at the center of this film, whose mother was a rape victim during Peru’s brutal 20-year civil war before regime change in 1990. The terror that her mother experienced, which Fausta witnessed while in the womb, was transmitted to Fausta through her mother’s breast milk. (The film’s title in Spanish translates as “The Frightened Breast.”) In the film’s extraordinary opening, Fausta’s mother sings about her brutal rape and the murder of her family in front of her on her deathbed. After her mother dies, Fausta struggles to find a way to give her mother a proper burial, which entails making a long trip which she must raise money toward. Fausta separates herself from others, and has planted a potato inside her vagina to prevent what happened to her mother from happening to her. Fausta is the living aftermath of this dark period of Peruvian history, and she remains consumed by the terror of this time. Fausta’s fear and extreme discomfort is contrasted with the colorful wedding ceremonies she works at along with her uncle. Llosa’s beautiful sense of composition, along with her understated use of magical realist elements, makes this a mesmerizing and memorable work which astutely connects personal and national trauma in an indelibly vivid way. (April 1, 3)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

New Directors/New Films 2009 Review Round-up #2

The Shaft (Zhang Chi)

Recycled stylistic and cinematic tropes rear their ugly heads once again in The Shaft, which separately details the lives of three members of a family in a bleak mining town in western China. Not to be confused with Li Yang’s far superior film Blind Shaft, The Shaft seems to follow every rule in the playbook for cinematic depictions of present-day China. The film’s very structure of refracted perspectives of a single family is identical to yet another much more artistically successful Chinese film, Gu Changwei’s Peacock. In the first story, Jingshui (Zheng Louqian) a safety monitor at the town’s mine, is forced to leave her job when vicious rumors spread about her supposed affair with a superior, ruining her relationship with her boyfriend Daming (Li Chen). The second story follows Jingshui’s brother Jingsheng (Huang Xuan), who vows not to become like their father Baogen (Luo Deyuan), working his whole life at the mine until it kills him, either through an accident or through slow attrition from failing health. Jingsheng entertains dreams of traveling to Beijing to become a pop star and pursues various schemes to achieve this end. The results bring to mind the saying that if you want to make the fates laugh, tell them your plans. The film concludes with Baogen’s story, as he searches for his wife who had left many years before, and whom we learn he had actually bought. Time is short for him, as his lungs are practically shot from decades of working in the mine. The Shaft misses no opportunity to indulge in the familiar long-shot landscapes and the artful arrangement of actors in the sort of scenes so familiar from recent Chinese films, to such an extent that almost no shot composition (especially in the arrangements of characters in the frame) looks the least bit natural, and we are always painfully aware of the self-conscious auteur behind the scenes. All this pseudo-art does little to mask a scenario that is banal and shallow in the extreme. (April 1, 2)

Mid-August Lunch (Gianni Di Gregorio)

This delightful Italian comedy goes down as smoothly as the wine that freely flows in the film. Di Gregorio, a major screenwriter in Italy (he most recently co-wrote Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah), essays the main role here, as Gianni, a middle-aged man who lives with his widowed mother (Valeria De Franciscis) in a condominium and whose life consists of caring for his mother and consuming wine and beer and shooting the breeze with his pals to make his monotonous existence a bit more bearable. Months behind on his rent and on the verge of being evicted, the building manager proposes that Gianni look after his mother while he goes away for the mid-August bank holiday, promising to forgive Gianni’s debt. Although Gianni’s mother is a handful on her own, this is the proverbial offer he can’t refuse, and he reluctantly agrees. However, the manager also foists his aunt on Gianni, and later his doctor friend asks Gianni to take care of his mother as well. Now saddled with four old women to care for, Gianni is run ragged trying to negotiate each of their needs, especially the hilariously elaborate diet the doctor has put his mother on. Much of the film takes place in the rather small condo apartment, and Di Gregorio fluidly moves his camera in this space with great skill. All four women are played by nonprofessional actors, and their performances brim with life, making the film a tribute to women such as themselves, who are not revered for their wisdom, but are treated as nuisances to be fobbed off on others at the first opportunity. Mid-August Lunch is a great example of a uniquely Italian approach to depicting families, and Di Gregorio enhances the charm of his film by not imposing a plot, but letting his characters determine the flow of events. (April 3, 4)

Home (Ursula Meier)

Initially comforting domesticity gradually takes more disturbing and sinister tones in Home. Featuring outstanding turns by principal actors Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet and Adelaide Leroux, and equally outstanding cinematography by Agnes Godard, Meier’s film is both an intense chamber drama and a potent satire on modern construction’s assault on the environment. The family in this film lives on an abandoned stretch of highway in virtual isolation from the rest of society. They have constructed their own quiet little world, playing hockey on the road and other games at home; the eldest daughter (Leroux) spends her days sunning herself by the road and listening to death metal. It is mentioned that they live here due to the mother’s fragile health, but the exact nature of her illness remains unspecified. But the bad old industrial world intrudes in a big way: the long promised extension of the highway, which runs right in front the family’s house, is finally realized, and soon the thunderous sounds of passing traffic invade every inch of their existence. The fissures that have been kept underground by their previous idyllic life come roaring to the surface. The simple act of crossing the road now becomes a potentially deadly activity, the younger daughter becomes obsessed with the pollution from the cars’ exhaust tanks, and the eldest daughter defiantly continues her sunbathing, despite now giving practically the whole country a free show. These new changes impact most dramatically on the mother who, unable to bear the noise, begins a radical process of soundproofing the house that turns the home into a prison. Meier deftly controls the film’s tone so that it doesn’t veer too far in the direction of overwrought melodrama or silly farce. As the family attempts to maintain its separation from society, the psychological states of the family members are drawn with an astute attention to detail and a perceptive sense of naturalism. Meier and Godard deliver a number of indelible scenes, including a massive traffic jam which becomes an elegant tip of the hat to Godard’s Weekend. (April 2, 4)

You can view the trailer for Home here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New Directors/New Films 2009 Review: So Yong Kim's "Treeless Mountain"

Treeless Mountain. 2008. Written and directed by So Yong Kim. Produced by Bradley Rust Grey, Ben Howe, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, and So Yong Kim. Cinematography by Anne Misawa. Edited by So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Grey. Music by Asobi Seksu. Production design by See Hee Kim.

Cast: Hee Yeon Kim (Jin), Song Hee Kim (Bin), Soo Ah Lee (Mom), Mi Hyang Kim (Big Aunt), Boon Tak Park (Grandma).

So Yong Kim's ineffably lovely second feature Treeless Mountain, having already screened at the Toronto, Pusan and Berlin film festivals, is one of the major must-sees of this year's New Directors/New Films. Beginning from an autobiographical place in much the same manner as her auspicious debut In Between Days, Treeless Mountain focuses in almost microscopic detail on two sisters, 7-year old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her younger sister Bin (Song Hee Kim), and their increasingly precarious existence after their mother (Soo Ah Lee) suddenly decides to search for the girls’ absent father. She leaves them in the care of Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim) while she is away. Big Aunt, a boozy and neglectful guardian, reluctantly takes them in and afterward can barely be bothered to look after them, leaving the girls mostly to their own devices. When Big Aunt finally tires of having the girls around, she sends them to the countryside to live on the farm tended by their grandmother (Boon Tak Park). That’s the story of the film in a nutshell, as simple as can be. But this description doesn’t begin to convey the magic Kim works with her materials. Alternating close shots of the girls playing, fighting, and roasting grasshoppers with startlingly lovely static shots of the sky, trees, and other natural phenomena, as well as a stunning landscape that concludes the film (all testaments to the skilled cinematography provided by Anne Misawa), Kim allows everything to unfold with an uncommonly patient subtlety that yields rich rewards. The film is so subtle, in fact, that it took me a second viewing (I first saw the film in Pusan) to fully appreciate its gifts, proving that it often pays to revisit films. The first time I saw Treeless Mountain, I did appreciate its visual beauty, but I felt somewhat emotionally distanced from what was happening on screen. During my second screening, that distance dissolved as I got more in tune with the intensely intimate nature of this film, and as I began to understand that Kim was making evocative use of a fairy tale structure to inform the girls’ journey. Abandoned children are a perennial fairy tale motif, Hansel and Gretel coming immediately to mind. What brought me to this reading was the detail of the piggy bank that the girls’ mother gives to them just before she leaves them, telling them that if they listen to Big Aunt, they will receive a coin for the bank. When the bank is full, their mother promises to return to them. This piggy becomes a magical object that the girls invest all their hope and faith in. One of the film’s loveliest and most humorous sequences occurs when they discover that one large coin can be exchanged for much smaller ones, after which they rush from store to store to exchange their money. When the piggy bank is bursting, they rush to a large pile of dirt and rocks (the “treeless mountain” of the film’s title) to await their mothers’ return. What occurs afterward becomes the poignant aftermath of lost illusions, especially for Jin, forced to grow beyond her years as a surrogate mother to her sister Bin (whose beloved “princess” dress reinforces the fairy tale theme).

So Yong Kim proves to be not only a master of mise-en-scène, but a wonderful director of actors, of both nonprofessionals and veterans. Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim as the sisters are mesmerizing to watch, every gesture drawing the viewer further into their world, filled with as much humor and joy as sadness. (The two girls aren’t related in real life, despite a shared surname.) Song Hee is especially memorable, with her twinkling eyes and pixie smile. The fact that she is an abandoned child herself (So Yong Kim found her in an orphanage located in suburban Seoul) only makes her performance all the more remarkable. The adult actors impress as well. Soo Ah Lee, a veteran actress returning to films after a long absence, interprets her character with such bold strokes that she remains a strong presence in the film, even though we see her in very few scenes. Mi Hyang Kim skillfully conveys the delicate nuances of a character who is not simplistically evil despite her benign neglect towards her charges. The contrasts between the film’s two locales, Seoul City and Heunghae (Kim’s hometown), are rendered in vivid detail, making the film’s exquisite pastoral conclusion all the more moving.

Treeless Mountain screens at New Directors/New Films on March 27 and 29 and opens in New York on April 22 at Film Forum, and nationally soon after.

Interview with So Yong Kim on Treeless Mountain:

Treeless Mountain trailer:

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)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Film Comment Selects Q&A: Celina Murga and Paul Schrader, 3/3/09

Below are clips from the Q&A following the screening of Celina Murga's A Week Alone during Film Comment Selects. Moderating was Film Comment editor Gavin Smith.

And here is Paul Schrader introducing Adam Resurrected:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Film Comment Selects 2009 Review Round-up #2

Better Things (Duane Hopkins)

Set in Cotswolds, an especially bleak area of rural Britain, Better Things features a large cast of young characters who are mostly strung out on heroin and moving in zombie-like extreme slow-mo, and is a potent entry in a particularly minimalist and miserablist school of filmmaking particularly in vogue at film festivals. This particular film had a very prominent perch in its premiere as part of Critic’s Week at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where the critical consensus was quite divided. This film, to my eye, derives at least part of its lineage to the 1960’s realist British cinema of Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, and others, as well as latter-day depictions of dead-end rural lives to be found in such directors as the Dardenne Brothers. However, Better Things, if anything, is even more despairing than any of these cinematic forebears. The fulcrum around which most of the film’s characters revolve is the heroin overdose of a young woman, whose death and whose presence in flashbacks haunt not only the girl’s surviving boyfriend (who skips the funeral over his guilt in feeling complicit in her death) and friends, but even those who have not met her, since the angst of the landscape sweeps up everyone we see. In these wintry hinterlands, far from any signs of joy or life, these heroin-addicted kids seemingly have nothing else to do but desultorily play video games, and dabble in sex games. Living alongside this lost generation are other characters who have retreated from this world. One is an agoraphobic girl caring for her ailing grandmother, who spends most of her time reading – quotes from these books provide the girl’s voiceover, which is heard intermittently throughout the film. Another is an elderly man who has checked himself into the hospital for an unspecified condition, and when he emerges distances himself from his wife, because of something that happened between them a very long time ago, a thing which is yet again unspecified. A free-floating melancholy drifts in this film, which recreates the woozy, distracted air of drug addiction, and there are many lingering shots of needles searching for an untapped vein, and heroin dissolving in a bent spoon. This is the perfect drug for the environment depicted here, stretches of wintry (the chill persists even in the warmer seasons), drab nothingness. Hopkins’ style, as immaculately and evocatively framed as it is, tends to become a bit monotonous as the film progresses, the dialogue sparse and deliberately banal. However, in the final sections, two of the characters manage to escape this dead world, in strikingly opposite ways, and in this world’s universe, it certainly comes as close as we’ll get to a happy ending, or at least the hope of living up to the film’s title.

A Week Alone (Celina Murga)

Home Alone in Argentina” could be the tagline for this brilliantly observed portrait of privileged youth left to their own devices, an Argentinean answer to Truffaut’s Small Change, which Murga herself cites as an inspiration. The film is set in an upscale gated community patrolled by private security (wryly termed “copycops” by the kids) and protected by armed guards from invasion by the unwashed masses beyond the community walls. As the title tells us, these kids have been left alone by their parents, who are never seen in the film and only heard as disembodied voices on the phone, and they try to pass the time and kill their boredom by drifting in and out of each other’s houses, their passages made easy by the fact that no one locks their doors. The kids’ world is an insular, hermetically sealed one where they are only among their own kind, going to school, shopping, and doing everything else within the community gates, never seeing anything of the outside world besides video games, pop music, and television. The only adults in sight are those who enforce the rules of the community, and also a family maid who is the closest the kids have to a parental presence. Outsiders are looked upon with great suspicion, as evidenced by the treatment of a young man invited by the maid who is given an extremely hard time getting in, and once allowed entry is treated especially cruelly by one boy. Murga’s second feature has a beautiful sense of pacing and a willingness to let things simply happen in front of the camera without insisting too much on plotting. We watch these kids play with each other, fall in and out of love, experience the first pangs of longing for the opposite sex, and what subtly emerges is their unspoken wish for a caring, permanent adult presence, something that will provide some structure to their drifting, aimless existence. The kids’ repressed chafing against the arbitrary rules they must live under, authoritarianism being a poor substitute for parental guidance, erupts late in the film as they trash one of the houses, a denouement that in a way recalled the ending of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, all the more so since the trashing is initiated by seemingly the most sensible, level-headed character. As is so often the case, the enemy isn’t beyond, but within.

You can watch the film's trailer here.

Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader)

Paul Schrader’s beyond-weird adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk’s 1968 novel (called Israel’s version of Catch-22), gains practically all of its success to Jeff Goldblum’s brilliantly unhinged performance as the title character, Adam Stein, a Holocaust survivor who lords the mental institution to which he has been committed, deep in the deserts of Israel, along with those who have also failed to make a smooth transition from wartime horrors to the present time (in this case the early 1960’s). Stein, a Berlin magician and circus performer taken to the camps along with the other millions of Jews, manages to survive by catching the eye of Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe), and amusing him by impersonating, indeed embodying the role of a dog, kept in a cage, fed and treated like Klein’s real dog. Stein attempts to bargain for the lives of his wife and daughters, but to no avail. He emerges from this experience shattered and ostracized by other survivors for taking the house and inheriting the fortune of his Nazi captor. In the institution, under the watchful eye of the asylum’s founder, Dr. Nathan Gross (Derek Jacobi), Adam is introduced to a young boy (Tudor Rapiteanu) who also believes he is a dog, and becomes the doctor’s experiment as he attempts to cure Adam. Goldblum commits to his role completely, going for it, pardon the expression, like a dog to a bone. His commitment to accurately portraying the mannerisms of a dog was such that Goldblum had his own dog trainer and consulted with Cesar Milian, TV’s “Dog Whisperer.” The rest of the cast, especially Dafoe and Israeli actresses Ayelet Zurer (as the head nurse Adam philanders with) and Hana Laszlo (as an especially expressive inmate), try their best to keep up, but Goldblum overwhelms them all. My main fault with Adam Resurrected is that it is too controlled and too straightforward, not quite insane enough. (It would be especially interesting to go back to the original novel and see how much of the source material’s tone survives in the film.) The film does successfully puncture the reverence that informs the vast majority of Holocaust stories, painting the camps, and especially life afterward for survivors, as a theater of the absurd – an especially murderous one, to be sure. So although the film doesn’t bring the crazy as much as it could have, Goldblum, in one of his most impressive performances, ably shoulders the burden of insanity, making this an ideal showcase for his eccentric talent.