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Film Comment Selects

March 7, 2010

Morphia, 2008

morphia.gifAdapted from Mikhail Bulgakov's collection of autofictional stories, A Country Doctor's Notebook, Aleksei Balabanov's Morphia is an unvarnished portrait of rural Russia at the cusp of the Bolshevik Revolution. Told from the perspective of an idealistic young doctor, Polyakov (Leonid Bichevin), Morphia retains the humor and texturality of Bulgakov's prose to underscore Polyakov's difficult and overwhelming adjustment to the isolation of life in the country where he has moved to serve as the region's only physician. Still uncertain over his medical skills (often running back from the clinic to his nearby study in order to review textbooks on the medical procedures that he is about to perform) and struggling to cope with the backwardness of the community that often endanger his patients (in one episode, the parents of a girl suffering from acute asphyxia refuse to consent to an emergency tracheotomy, arguing that such a procedure would cause certain death), Polyakov finds unexpected respite in a morphine injection that had been administered by head nurse, Anna Nicolaevna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) to treat an allergic reaction. However, as the demands of his job continue to mount, Polyakov's dependence soon turns into full-blown addiction, leading him to increasingly desperate and reckless acts when a war-driven medical rationing threatens to cut off his supply. By emphasizing the intersection of personal and national history, Balabanov not only captures the social conditions that enabled the revolution, but also establishes Polyakov's obsession and paranoia within the context of his seemingly more altruistic efforts to educate the rural community, not unlike the agitprop trains that toured the countryside to spread the gospel of the revolution (note that Polyakov is first seen arriving by train). In essence, by correlating Polyakov's self-destruction with his idealism, Morphia also serves as a pointed allegory for the dysfunction that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union - a tragicomic denouement to a noble social experiment that, like the film's flawed, well-intentioned hero, had lost its way.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 07, 2010 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

Air Doll, 2009

airdoll.gifDuring a poignant encounter in Hirokazu Kore-eda's idiosyncratic, yet droll and resonant contemporary fable, Air Doll, a reclusive doll maker, Sonoda (Jô Odagiri) tells a troubled inflatable doll turned video store clerk, Nozomi (Du-na Bae) that the main difference between her and a human being is biodegradability. In a way, Sonoda's simplified differentiation between burnable and nonburnable trash captures the essence of Air Doll as well, exploring not only socially reductive gender roles, but also the meaning of being human in a culture of technology, mass production, and consumption that substitutes connection for instant gratification. At its most basic is Nozomi's role as a sexual surrogate for her owner, Hideo (Itsuji Itao) who, despite naming her after a former girlfriend, prefers to avoid the emotional entanglements of a real-life relationship. Another is her misdirected attempt at goodwill towards an insecure receptionist that alludes to the problems of aging in a youth-obsessed society, having been increasingly marginalized at work, replaced by her younger coworker. Another is her friendship with an elderly man who relies on a portable breathing apparatus for survival, recasting the notion of the human body as a network of biological functions within the modern reality of artificial life support systems. Another surrogacy emerges in the brooding Junichi's (Arata) fetishistic attraction towards her, implied in his continued obsession (and perhaps guilt) over a lost love. It is this recurring convergence of organic and synthetic, structure and plasticity throughout the film that is also reflected in the bookending image of a young woman awakening to find beauty in the mundane, a transitory affirmation of humanity in the face of obsolescence and disposability.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 07, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

March 6, 2010

Land of Madness, 2009

land_madness.gifIn its idiosyncratic, tongue-in-cheek mixture of documentary, self-confessional, and deconstruction, Land of Madness is a droll and refreshing throwback to Luc Moullet's early essay films like Anatomy of a Relationship and Origins of a Meal. Returning to his bucolic, ancestral hometown in the Southern Alps, Moullet embarks on a whimsical, homegrown investigation of the region's disproportionally high rate of mental illness. Proposing that this geographical hotbed forms a pentagonal "land of madness" - one that, for some unknown reason, has an inactive center that, like the eye of a hurricane, defies the phenomenon - Moullet suggests some suspect pathologies, perhaps mutations caused by a Chernobyl-styled irradiation, or behavioral adaptation to a medical affliction, such as a prevalence of goiter that would have invariably led to a culture of "slowness". Moullet then expounds on his theory by presenting a string of bizarre crimes that have occurred over the past century at the vertex towns - some motivated by passion, theft, or revenge, others remaining unsolved mysteries. As in his earlier essays, Moullet concludes with an intersection of personal experience and social observation that recontextualizes the basis of the argument and leads to further debate (with his wife, Antonietta Pizzorno) - in this case, a harbored family grief over a relative who had committed a senseless murder.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 06, 2010 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

March 2, 2010

Kinatay, 2009

kinatay.gifThe opening sequence of Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay provides an intriguing foil in its organic, intersecting stories that mirror the chaos of the city, as a young working class couple (and new parents) Cecille (Mercedes Cabral) and Peping (Coco Martin) make their way to city hall to get married and, along the way, encounter a news crew reporting on a potential suicide jumper. With a year left to his police academy training, Peping is eager to make a good impression on his superior officers, even helping out in their daily routine of intimidating street vendors to extort money. However, when an officer recruits him for an unspecified operation involving an exotic dancer, Peping is soon initiated into a darker world of drug dealing, prostitution, and violence, and is forced to confront his complicity in the systematic corruption. Similar to Mendoza's previous film Serbis, Kinatay provides an illuminating, if truncated regional panorama of a contemporary Filipino city - in this case, the industrial city of Mandaluyong. Interweaving cultural landscape and moral ambiguity, the film finds kinship with Orso Miret's Le Silence in its well-intentioned, but ultimately impotent social critique. Indeed, by abruptly shifting from the organic approach of the opening sequence to a distilled, linear (if not myopic) perspective that dominates the rest of the film (except for a tire changing scene near the conclusion), Mendoza oddly supplants his fascinating and detailed cultural observation with a far more conventional psychological portrait of guilt, and in the process, creates a sense of indirection not unlike the dilemma faced by his indecisive protagonist.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 02, 2010 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

Persecution, 2009

persecution.gifThe themes explored in Patrice Chéreau's probing, tightly constructed Persecution are prefigured in the film’s disorienting (and quintessentially Chéreau) opening sequence. Scanning from one anonymous commuter to another, a panhandler makes her way through a crowded train before someone makes inopportune eye contact, and she responds by slapping her face. The episode intrigues a bystander, Daniel (Romain Duris) and impulsively follows the shaken victim to the nearest exit, eager to uncover the non-verbal cues that had been exchanged in the moments before the heated encounter. In hindsight, this convergence of fixation, contact, rejection, and violence also consumes Daniel in his personal life. Hopping from one construction site to another working as a home remodeling contractor (which serves as his temporary residence as well), Daniel is searching for some permanence and constancy in his relationship with his distant, jet-setting girlfriend, Sonia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but their interaction is often reduced to voice messages and chance meetings with mutual friends. Ironically, ever searching for ways to hold his Sonia’s attention, Daniel has only succeeded in capturing the interest of a lonely, middle-aged man (Jean-Hugues Anglade) who has begun to stalk him at his latest job site. Stitching together pieces of a seemingly rootless and unremarkable life as itinerant worker, nursing home volunteer, and insecure lover, Chéreau creates a lucid and provocative exposition on the ephemeral - and searing - nature of the search for human connection.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 02, 2010 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

February 25, 2010

Applause, 2009

applause.gifFrom the first images of Applause, Martin Zandvliet seeks to capture a rawness and immediacy in his complex, if familiar portrait of a recovering alcoholic. Shot in grainy, desaturated medium and close-ups with a handheld camera, a middle-aged woman (Paprika Steen), seemingly under the influence, makes a candid assessment of her relationship with her husband. A reference to their Anglicized names, George and Martha, presents an initial disconnect, and subsequent confrontations with her unseen husband recontextualizes her drunken tirade as scenes from Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The interconnection - and dissociation - between reality and drama also provides the framework for the respected actress, Thea's volatile personality. Unable to maintain a relationship since her divorce from Christian (Michael Falch), and having relinquished custody of her children to him after an alcohol-fueled act of negligence, Thea is eager to turn over a new leaf. But soon, the delineation between real-life and performance collapses for her, measuring her struggle to reconnect within the emotional arcs of a staged drama, and in the process, drifts even further away from finding some semblance of a normal life that continues to elude her. In its grittiness and intimacy, Applause recalls the spirit of John Cassavetes's cinema, most notably, Opening Night and A Woman Under the Influence. However, it is also this association that ultimately undermines the film's potency by framing its provocative character study of self-destruction and recovery in a generic looseleaf of conventional tropes and allusive homages.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

February 24, 2010

Perfect Life, 2008

perfect_life.gifComposed as parallel narratives on the status of women in the capitalist-fueled, rapidly expanding economy of contemporary China - one, a fictional account of Li Yueying (Yao Qianyu), a working class young woman and her search for a better life; the other, a documentary on Jenny, a middle-class housewife and mother undergoing a divorce - Emily Tang's A Perfect Life follows in the vein of Wang Bing and Jia Zhangke in presenting a cultural portrait of the "other" China. Estranged from her parents, disconnected from her coddled, slacker brother, and drifting from one low paying job to another as she chases after job opportunities, Yueying's story is, in a way, a metaphor for China itself in her rootlessness, ambition, and facility for constant reinvention (During the course of the film, Li appears as an aspiring performer, prosthetic factory worker, hotel maid, flight attendant impostor, bride, shopkeeper, and lover). Similarly, Jenny's story embodies the insecurity and disempowerment that comes with profound cultural transformation. Compelled to re-enter the workplace after her increasingly messy divorce, her gradual slide into poverty is implied in her constant job hunting and in the milieu of her interviews that shift from a comfortable Hong Kong apartment to a rented dormitory bunk bed near a dance hall. By capturing a seemingly mundane encounter between the two women at Yueying's shop (Tang ingeniously keeps Yueying out of frame until Jenny leaves the store to maintain the narrative distinction), Tang insightfully reflects on their interconnected destinies - a dissolution of the bounds between reality and fiction that culminates in the image of Yueying posing with her wedding picture, figuratively rejecting and reinforcing her created image.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 24, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

February 22, 2010

Nucingen House, 2008

nucingen.gifStructured as a tale within a tale, Raoul Ruiz's fractured, defiantly illogical Nucingen House returns to the territory of On Top of the Whale and its otherworldly, tongue in cheek sense of foreboding in its hermetic construction of polyglot characters, suspended time, and inescapable limbo. Unfolding as a reconstructed memory told by an American gambler, Will James (Jean-Marc Barr) upon overhearing a nearby dinner conversation discussing - rather imprecisely - a third hand account of the strange events that James and his fragile wife, Anne Marie (Elsa Zylberstein) had encountered years earlier during their stay at a remote estate called Nucingen House, the film incorporates familiar Ruizian elements of mnemonic devices, dark humor, and repetition in its loopy tale of haunting and possession. Having arrived at Patagonia to claim property that he had won in a bet and facilitate Anne Marie's recuperation, the unwitting couple is soon introduced to the household's idiosyncratic rules (one that relegates certain languages and religion to peripheral areas of the house) and equally eccentric family - an insomniac housemaid (Miriam Heard) who seems to exist in a perpetual state of waking dream, an indifferent patriarch (Laurent Malet) who refuses to leave but cannot pay rent, a young man who seems constantly pressed for time (Thomas Durand), a flirtatious young woman (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre) who continues to mourn the loss of her best friend, Léonore (Audrey Marnay), and a perennial houseguest [and family physician (Luis Mora)] prone to taking cat naps at the dinner table. Ever straddling the line between highbrow and camp, Nucingen House ultimately suffers from a broader schism, where atmosphere is counteracted by the starkness of video, and any cultural allegory on modern day Chile is tempered by a reinforcing self-awareness of its construction.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 22, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

Accident, 2009

accident.gifPart caper film and part psychological thriller, Soi Cheang's Accident is an early highlight in this year's Film Comment Selects program. Opening to the gruesome image of a fatal car accident scene, the film immediately recalibrates the viewer's expectation over the notion of accident in another seemingly random traffic-related episode as an impatient driver, blocked by a woman in a disabled vehicle (Michelle Ye), tries to navigate around a narrow street. A fishmonger (Suet Lam) swerves past and splashes the car, occluding the driver's view. An advertising banner collapses. An old street peddler (Shui-Fan Fung) looks on and absentmindedly discards his cigarette holder along with his spent cigarette. Before the series of events is over, the driver would lie mortally wounded on a street corner waiting for an ambulance that arrives too late. And curiously, an onlooker (Louis Koo) subsequently retrieves the discarded cigarette holder from the street. Their actions prove to be interrelated, pieces of an elaborately planned assassination of a local triad boss by a band of contract killers led by a ringleader, Ho Kwok-fai - known as "The Brain" - who, in his grief and meticulous attention to detail, is convinced that his wife's death, too, had been orchestrated. Staging one accident after another, the group has become a surrogate family to the still haunted Ho, a bond that is strained when the team plots the death of a wheelchair-bound shopkeeper. Evoking Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Claude Chabrol's L'Enfer in its themes of obsession and paranoia, Accident is a taut, clever, and engaging film that, like its haunted antihero, finds art in coincidence and intrigue in the mundane.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 22, 2010 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2010, Film Comment Selects

March 3, 2009

Demon Lover Diary, 1980

demonlover_diary.gifInasmuch as Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines collaborative documentary, Seventeen provides an intimate and compassionate portrait of teenaged life in middle America, DeMott's earlier film, Demon Lover Diary - a diary of Kreines's reluctant involvement with the shooting of a schlock horror film called Demon Lover in suburban Michigan - proves to be its antithesis in its grotesque and increasingly surreal first-hand account of a no-budget, DIY film production gone awry. Invited to work as a technical director and cameraman, Kreines' working relationship with the film's producers becomes strained from the onset when he unexpectedly arrives - complete with girlfriend DeMott and a production crew friend in tow - several days later than planned, and is berated by factory workers turned aspiring movie moguls, Don Jackson and his friend, Jerry on the added personal and professional toll that his late arrival has taken on their already tight shooting schedule (with Jerry alluding to having cut off his finger at work in order to collect insurance money to finance the film, and Don having apparently mortgaged his house and taken an indeterminate sick leave from his job in order to work on the film [and now risks being fired if he continues to extend his absence]). The logistics of the production also proves to be more complicated than Kreines had expected. Don's arranged accommodations for the shoot turns out to be a guest room in his parents' house, and because of Mrs. Johnson's religious convictions, DeMott and Kreines must not only pose as a married couple, but also refrain from discussing the actual content of the film in her presence. The working script is virtually non-existent, and consists solely of Don's personal journal outlining the story (with Kreines oddly left without access to the material). And despite dispensing with any trace of realism in their over-the-top gothic sets, piecemeal costumes, and amateurish performances, Don and Jerry insist on using real weapons borrowed from Ted Nugent's private collection in order to film a crucial scene (complete with product demonstrations from an eager Nugent himself) - a bizarre encounter that grows even more absurd when Kreines attempts to pin down his role in the production by approaching the producers with a contract. In its idiosyncratic combination of documentary and real-life human comedy, Demon Lover Diary may be seen as an integral link, not only in the development of the mockumentary genre, but also in the thematic development of films that transect the bounds between real-life and performance (particularly, in the construction of metafilms) - a convergence between truth and staging that is perhaps best illustrated in DeMott's attempts to goad her friend into arranging a romantic encounter with the film's lead actress during a production break.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

March 2, 2009

Seventeen, 1983

seventeen.gifOne of the highlights from Film Comment Selects this year was the screening of Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines's underseen cinéma vérité film, Seventeen, a reverent and candid cross-cultural portrait of working class high school students from Muncie, Indiana that was once deemed objectionable for broadcast on PBS (the film had been commissioned as part of a documentary series on middle America) for confronting such (still) relevant social issues as race relations, drug use, unplanned pregnancy, underaged drinking, and dying young. Loosely centered on a headstrong girl named Lynn and her circle of friends, the film opens to the shot of Lynn and her classmates half-heartedly following the teacher's baking instructions, instead, using the hour to socialize with friends. In a way, the cooking lesson serves as a metaphor for the students' casual preparation for their transition into adulthood as well, having been filmed over the course of a year (the span of time subtly framed between varsity season and the senior prom). In one episode, news of Lynn's flirtation with an African American student named John sends the campus gossip mill abuzz, inciting the burning of a cross in her parents' yard and repeated telephone harassment by a young woman who may be one of John's acquaintances. In another episode, fellow cooking student, Robert confirms to the teacher that he is father of a pregnant student's baby, despite having ended the relationship with the girl earlier, and is unjudgingly counseled by the well-intentioned teacher on parental responsibilities. In still another episode, an alcohol-fueled party at Lynn's house becomes a sobering reminder of mortality when a mutual friend is gravely injured after a car accident. DeMott and Kreines insightfully frame the students within the context of home economics and sociology classes that serve to reflect the teenagers' interpersonal relationships, further reinforcing the integral role of the school experience as both a microcosm of an individual's domestic and social environments, and a real-life civics lesson on the importance of contributing to society.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 02, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

February 28, 2009

The Frontier of Dawn, 2008

frontier_dawn.gifPhilippe Garrel's atmospheric and luminous, if oddly cold and alienated The Frontier of Dawn represents an amalgam of the filmmaker's familiar themes: the haunting of a failed love affair, the helplessness of seeing a loved one self-destruct, the guilt (and isolation) of survival, the fear of fleeting happiness. In this respect, the film's crepuscular title represents a young photographer, François's (Louis Garrel) anxiety in the days before his marriage to pretty, well-to-do Ève (Clémentine Poidatz) and impending fatherhood - a reluctance to lead a life of resigned "bourgeois happiness" that a friend once suggested after having lead a carefree - and largely bohemian - existence. Having once embarked on a passionate, if volatile relationship with a well known, highly strung actress named Carole (Laura Smet) only to devolve into uncertainty, disenchantment, callousness, and ultimately, abandonment when she continues to spend time with her estranged husband (and hides their affair from him) despite swooning, mutual declarations of love, François seems ready to move on from the ghosts of the past, until one day when he is tormented by the sight of Carole's apparition in a mirror and is compelled to face their unreconciled destiny. Departing from the cultural specificity of his previous film, Regular Lovers, Garrel instead returns to the stark, hermetic environments of his earlier films - barren apartments and tightly framed interior spaces (particularly beds and dining tables), where even outdoor scenes are often devoid of other people) that reflect interiority. However, while the chamber framework serves to reinforce the visceral directness of earlier works such as Savage Innocence and I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, the singularity in The Frontier of Dawn instead creates a detached, fabular atmosphere (a sense of otherworldliness that is also suggested by François's dream involving a house in the forest) that detracts from the implicit emotional intensity given the story's autofictional premise, resulting instead in a film with quintessential Garrelian elements that, like the film's alterego, seems content with sleepwalking through familiar haunts and gestures.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 28, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

February 27, 2009

The Chaser, 2008

chaser.gifAlternating between taut horror film and absurd comedy, Na Hong-jin's The Chaser is an audacious, if over-contrived and diluted procedural thriller. Inviting comparison to Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (much to the detriment of Na's film) in its spiraling investigation of a series of murders, The Chaser also suggests kinship with Kiyoshi Kurasawa's Cure in its portrayal of a blank-faced, disarming, everyman killer. Centering on a former police detective turned pimp, Joong-ho's (Kim Yun-seok) lone pursuit of a mysterious client (Ha Jung-woo) who has been linked to several missing call girls after the disappearance of another young woman in the same neighborhood, the film shifts abruptly from intrigue to a morbid rendition of Keystone Kops when the client, Young-min is hauled away to a local precinct and immediately confesses to the murder of several area prostitutes. Convinced that Young-min had kidnapped the women and is confessing to more sensational crimes in an attempt to confuse the case, Joong-ho unwittingly delays the investigation when the suspect suggests that his latest victim, single mother Min-jin (Seo Yeong-hie) may still be alive. With the situation further complicated by heavy media coverage in the case involving the mayor and a man protesting stalled sewage projects, the police are eager to put the public relations fiasco behind them, until officials, fearing even greater backlash from an apparent case of police cover-up, threaten to quash the interrogation even before an official investigation can be launched. Na's odd combination of intricate plot (one that seemingly also implicates the church and relies on repeated incompetence and failure of technology) and facile caricatures (a money hungry pimp, a bumbling police squad, an impotent suspect) creates an underlying imbalance that contributes to the film's manic tone which, given the film's gruesome denouement, comes across as either half-baked or mean-spirited.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

A Woman in Berlin, 2008

woman_berlin.gifBased on the autobiographical novel by a German international correspondent who published her wartime journal under the pseudonym Anonyma, Max Färberböck's A Woman in Berlin presents a raw and sobering account of the waning days of World War II as the Russian army seized control of a town in war torn Berlin and, consequently, lorded over the decimated population of women, children, and elderly men left behind. Shot from the perspective of the unnamed heroine (Nina Hoss), the film chronicles her journey from victim to survivor, as encamped troops, prevented by their superiors from advancing their campaign to Reichstag, channel their weariness and displaced aggression by systematically raping and terrorizing the women of the town. But rather than facile characterizations of good and evil, the idea of victim and perpetrator in the film also proves to be malleable. In an early scene, the residents, having sought refuge in a cellar for protection against the Russians searching for their next victim, implores the Russian-speaking heroine to approach the soldiers in order to plead for the release of a captured young woman who, in turn, then flees to the safety of the locked room, leaving her savior to endure her intended fate. Later in the film, a young Russian soldier details the killing of children in his village by German soldiers, and the heroine reluctantly translates his testimony, repeatedly asking if he had actually witnessed the massacre. In still another episode, a Russian nurse named Masha (Aleksandra Kulikova) tries to dispel the notion of her superior's affection towards the heroine by revealing that the wife of Major Rybkin (Yevgeni Sidikhin), the commanding officer who had once refused to intervene and stop the violence, had been killed by the Germans. However, inasmuch as the film illustrates the grey area between survival and exploitation, transgression and moral conscience, the complexity of human behavior is also reduced to predictable caricatures - the proud, old world resident (Irm Hermann) all too eager to curry favor from their captors, the sullen, lovestruck nurse reduced to icy glares and adolescent tantrums to register displeasure at her rival, the smarmy lothario (Roman Gribkov) who uses his privileged position to his advantage, the craven young German soldier (Sebastian Urzendowsky) who wallows incessantly in self pity over the humiliation his girlfriend endures to shelter him, yet does nothing to protect her - resulting in a well intentioned, if superficial exposition on the untold victims of war.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

February 25, 2009

The Third Generation, 1979

third_generation.gifAn early cursory comment that capitalists invented terrorism as a means of selling security (that, in turn, will safeguard their own survival) provides the trenchant context for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's delirious and provocative satire, The Third Generation. Alluding to the emergence of a new generation of terrorists who, unlike their predecessors, lack a coherent agenda for their radicalism, the film may also be seen from the perspective of the generation of Germans born after the war whose lives were lived in relative privilege from their forefathers, having been raised during the reconstruction and the expansion (and globalization) of the German economy and dissociated from the stigma and austerity resulting from the war. This analogy is further reinforced in the early shots of a television broadcast featuring excerpts from Robert Bresson's The Devil Probably - a film that captures the sentiment of disaffected youth (representing a generation after May 68) - being recorded by Susanne Gast (Hanna Schygulla) for her supervisor, industrialist Peter Lurz (Eddie Constantine). Using the referential, secret passphrase "Die welt als wille und vorstellung" (after Arthur Schopenhauer's four volume treatise) after Lurz's arrival, Susanne sets an ambiguous covert plot into motion, alerting ringleader, August (Volker Spengler), Susanne's composer husband Edgar (Udo Kier), schoolteacher Hilda (Bulle Ogier), friend Petra (Margit Carstensen) and her husband Hans (Jürgen Draeger), and subsequently, even recruiting recently discharged soldier and explosives expert, Franz (Günther Kaufmann) who has arrived at the apartment to reunite with his drug-addicted lover, Ilsa (Y Sa Lo). Part deconstruction on the aftermath of the Baader-Meinhoff affair, part criticism of bourgeois alienation (and complacency), and part exposition on celebrity and media addiction (note the saturation of ambient sound, presumably from a constantly running television that crystallizes in the shot of Ilsa with arm outstretch against a foreshortened radio antenna that seemingly displaces a heroin needle as the instrument of her overdose), The Third Generation reflects Fassbinder's singular melding of manic ingenuity with contemporarily relevant social commentary, where the incisive observations serve not only as a reflection of a country's troubled past and uncertain present, but also foretells the corrosive, self-serving dynamics that will define the geopolitical climate of the future.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

The Tiger's Tail, 2006

tiger.gifThe fable of catching a tiger by the tail only to be bitten back serves as a wry allegory for the modern day booming economy of Ireland, dubbed the Celtic tiger, in John Boorman's The Tiger's Tail. A contemporary retelling of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, Boorman establishes the profound social disparity created in the wake of the country's rapid economic development in the opening shot of well-respected property developer, Liam O'Leary (Brendan Gleeson) trying to navigate his way through a traffic jam on a bustling Dublin street, where shiny new automobiles become sitting targets for squeegee men and street hawkers (often bearing newspapers that reflect equally grim social statistics), and the reliance on new technology collides with old world realities of grazing sheep inopportunely planting themselves in the middle of the road to rest. (In one episode, Liam's reliance on his cell phone to communicate with his attractive trophy wife, Jane [Kim Cattrall] precludes him from noticing that he has been driving alongside her in the next lane.) Believing that he has crossed paths with his doppelgänger among the panhandlers on the road, Liam's life becomes increasingly complicated when the sighting turns out not to be a harbinger of his own death, but the surfacing of a double out to steal his identity and assume his privileged life. At the core of Boorman's sincere and commendable, if well worn cautionary tale on materialism, spiritual bankruptcy, and urban alienation is the idea of a modern, amnesic, and soulless society built on the hollow foundations and buried transgressions of the past: a forgotten and unreconciled history that is not only reflected in the relational dynamic between Liam and the people around him (most notably, in the degenerative memory loss suffered by Liam's elderly mother, his sister Oona's (Sinéad Cusack) long harbored secret, and a childhood friend's instability stemming from the trauma of abuse), but also in the cutthroat, often underhanded way he conducts business that reflect the exploitation and inhumanity of corporate politics.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

Paradise, 2009

paradise.gifSomething like an unconstructed take on Peter Mettler's epic essay film, Gambling, Gods and LSD, Michael Almereyda's Paradise similarly assembles a series of fragmentary, cross-cultural, quotidian images taken from the filmmaker's video diaries that reflect on fundamental human questions of life, existential purpose, and transcendence. In an early episode in the film, a man passing through a bleak winter landscape impulsively stops on the side of a road in order to photograph cattle grazing in a pasture, risking injury to capture an ephemeral moment of austere beauty. In another episode, the tables are turned, and nature intrudes on civilization in the shot of pigeons perched on a child who has been feeding the birds at a cobblestone town square. In Los Angeles, a group of revelers wend their way through dark, labyrinthine streets of in search of an optimal spot to view fireworks. In a rural town, rambunctious children strike the embers on a charred tree near a barbecue pit, trying to hasten the roasting of a pig. Converging towards Jacques Rivette and Manoel de Oliveira's recurring theme, Almereyda also examines the nature of the stage and spectacle in a shot of a tented, outdoor concert that becomes the site of a secondary "performance" in the silhouette of dogs playfully responding to the attention of unseen bystanders behind the screen (a shot that loosely evokes the shot of curious onlookers milling around a Roman-era excavation site in José Luis Guerín's En Construcción). Less cohesive and visually arresting than Gambling, Gods and LSD, Paradise repeatedly resorts to familiar tropes of children at play to reflect essential ideas of innocence and paradise lost, paradoxically framing moments of enlightenment as trite, self-conscious observations.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Comment Selects

February 21, 2008

Before I Forget, 2007

before.gifIf there is a kindred spirit to Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget a stark and brooding portrait of aging, mortality, and loneliness, it is probably Ventura Pons's contemporary film, Barcelona (A Map), a rumination on architecture and empty spaces as a reflection of internalized, decaying emotional landscapes. This internal struggle is uncompromisingly laid bare in the film's opening sequence, as a restless and convulsive Pierre Pruez (Jacques Nolot), wracked with pain from his failing health and struggling with the side effects of his HIV medication, rises from his bed to vomit on the bathroom sink, before mechanically taking another tablet to quell his nausea. A ruggedly handsome, well-heeled former gigolo who once cruised the red light district of Pigalle with such notable figures as critic and philosopher Roland Barthes, Pierre, now aging, estranged from friends (usually fellow hustlers who navigated through the same social circles in their youth), and financially insecure after having separated from his benefactor, Toutoune (Albert Mainella) years earlier, approaches twilight of his life with a somber defiance, penning his memoirs in his self-created isolation. Forced into increasingly humiliating situations by his paid young lover, Marc (Bastien d'Asnières), repeatedly cut short at potential breakthrough moments by his inattentive psychiatrist (David Kessler) during their therapy sessions (only to be offered superficial advice as a remedy for his despair), disinherited by Toutoune's estate when his former benefactor dies intestate (his will having curiously disappeared in the days before his death), and learning of his pragmatic friend, Georges's (Jean Pommier) success in obtaining an inheritance for an ex-convict and escort, Bruno (Bruno Moneglia) after a benefactor's death, Pierre's life has been reduced to a series of transactions that provide a semblance of connection. In this respect, the film also evokes Robert Bresson's Une Femme deuce in the way companionship and intimacy are negotiated and commodified, where even grocery deliveries and lunch dates equally serve as excuses for fleeting intimacy as reflections of their implied role within the relationship (in one humorous encounter, Georges boasts of his bargain hunting abilities in procuring a young companion at half the price that Pierre pays Marc, and offers to arrange an introduction). Curiously, it is within this intersection of commodity and intimacy that Nolot similarly finds kinship with Pons's film, closing with the idiosyncratic image of the protagonist in drag that neither reflects a social perversion nor self-mortification, but rather, an act of reinvention, libertine defiance, and reasserted identity.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

February 19, 2008

A Wonderful World, 2006

wonderful.gifA drunken vagrant, Juan Pérez's (Damián Alcázar) unexpected turn in fortune after sneaking into an office at the World Financial Center headquarters one cold and rainy evening sets the stage for Luis Estrada's A Wonderful World, a dense, darkly comic, and provocative, if mean-spirited sardonic fairytale on the politics of poverty, charity, globalization, and social reform. Scurrying out the window to avoid being seen, Pérez discovers that he has been locked out when the janitor secures the office after his cleaning rounds. Now stranded on the ledge on the eve of the finance minister Lascuraian's (Antonio Serrano) landmark speech to the international community declaring that there are no longer any poor people in Mexico, the sight of the disheveled Pérez raving incoherently on the front façade of the building immediately captures the attention of the opposition press, who believe that his boorish attempts to draw attention to himself are the desperate cries of a man brought to the end of his tether by poverty. Seeking to make headlines and impress his hard-nosed editor (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.), a young reporter (Carlos Arau) embellishes Pérez's passing comment and reframes his misadventure as the iconic image of the government's failed policies. But when Pérez becomes an overnight cause célèbre in the newspaper's call for social reform, he soon finds himself courted by Lascuraian's own political operatives who see his support as a means of discrediting the opposition. Juxtaposing saturated tones and soft lighting that create the appearance of vintage film with contemporary themes of exclusion, marginalization, and disposability ushered by the global economy, Estrada presents the intrinsic fallacy of globalization in its engendering of social polarization. However, inasmuch as Estrada's indictment of institutional power proves relevant and impassioned - political exploitation by both left and right wing factions, religious hypocrisy, geopolitical meddling, and entrenched bourgeois values - the film's tendencies toward stereotyping and caricature in its injections of humor (most egregiously, in the portrayal of the poor as grimy, lazy, and oversexed drunkards) ultimately serves to dilute the film's potency, obscuring more fundamental issues of class stratification and socioeconomic genocide with facile illustrations of an exaggerated national character.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

Joy Division, 2007

joydivision.gifGrant Gee frames the documentary of seminal band Joy Division as a city symphony that mirrors Manchester's revitalization - a convergence of musicians and friends coming of age during the city's decline from its heights as the cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution, as equally marked by the rebellious angst of a vibrant punk music scene and the groundbreaking modernist fiction of writers such as William S. Burroughs and Franz Kafka, as they were by the constant flux of their grim environment under the repressive conservatism of the Tory party government headed by Margaret Thatcher (a figurative social institutionalization that, as Peter Hook suggests, was reflected in the area's wide-scale construction of high-density housing to replace war-era ruins, as well as dilapidated houses that fell to neglect with the economic downturn). For local artists, this environment of institutionalization and decay, mass production and commodification would shape the hard edged, ambient (and often, electronically tinged) industrial sound of Factory Records, a homegrown, independent record label founded by charismatic television personality Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus, and by the creative team of record producer Martin Hannett and graphic artist Peter Saville, that intrinsically captured the pulse of the city's deprivation, chaos, and angst. Composed of archival and home video performance footage, written annotations from Ian Curtis's wife, Deborah, and assorted, talking head interviews with former band members (Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, and Peter Hook), Tony Wilson, Peter Saville, industry critics, as well as Curtis's then-mistress, Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, Gee's articulate and understated approach to charting the trajectory of the band and its troubled lead singer serves to demythologize Curtis's enigmatic persona - from the band's inauspicious origins as an imitative, controversy-courting punk band, to an early photo shoot with rock photographer Anton Corbijn that would provide the group's iconic images, to the critical and commercial success of their first album, Unknown Pleasures, to the stress of Curtis's separation from his young family caused by the demands of touring and international fame that would lead to his increasingly violent bouts of epileptic seizures. Gee's astute incorporation of overlapping images, layering, and stitching (especially between Curtis's subdued television performances and his more spastic, autonomic trances during live shows) creates a sense of continuum that paradoxically underscores the film's themes of transformation and passage, even as it presents Curtis's death as a momentary, tragic act of human frailty, crystallizing an ephemeral moment when music captured the emotional landscape of an anonymous and disposable city and rehabilitated its wounded soul.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

February 18, 2008

Wolfsbergen, 2007

Wolfsbergen.gifOn the surface, the stationary, extended long take of a desolate, tree-lined woods, the unhurried opening shot of Nanouk Leopold's Wolfsbergen (channelling a sublimated naturalism that recalls Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light), seems disconnected from the film's succeeding, fragmented images of the quotidian. In one episode, a middle-aged woman, Maria (Catherine ten Bruggencate) travels out of the country to have a cosmetic procedure secretly performed, and is unsettled by a letter read during her return flight. The clinical images of the cosmetic surgeon's examining room is subsequently reflected in the shot of a middle-aged man, Ernst (Jan Decleir) briefly resting in the examination chair of his dental office before the arrival of his next patient. In another episode, lovers Sabine (Tamar van den Dop) and Micha (Oscar van Wounsel) sit in familiar silence post coitus, before parting for the afternoon. Their silent, unaffected intimacy is similarly evoked in the image of an emotionally fragile violinist, Eva (Karina Smulders) who looks on as a former lover flirts openly with a fellow musician during rehearsal. In still another episode, a contrite adolescent girl, Haas (Merel van Houts) helps her mother pick up the shards of broken tableware that she has dropped on the floor. Soon, the connection between these isolated characters emerge - Maria and her husband Ernst, their daughters Sabine and Eva, Sabine's husband Onno (Fedja van Huêt) and lover Micha, Sabine and Onno's daughters Haas and Zilver (Carmen Lith) - reluctantly brought together by the family patriarch, Konraad (Piet Kamerman) after he declares his intention of committing suicide on the anniversary of his wife's death. Hewing towards Jaime Rosales's Solitary Fragments (released in the same year), Leopold similarly integrates episodic, fragmented narrative, compartmentalization, and obstructed shots (often framed through doorways or against occluding objects) as a visual reinforcement of the characters' estrangement and emotional fracture. However, while Solitary Fragments uses bifurcated narratives as a means of illustrating converging emotional states, the bifurcations in Wolfsbergen are symptomatic of their own internalized fissures (a dysfunction that is harrowingly reflected in Haas's unconscious act of self-mutilation during her parents' argument). It is this self-destruction and emotional starvation that is poignantly embodied in Konraad's chosen method of suicide - an abstinence of water - that, like Tsai Ming-liang's recurring images of water, reflects an elemental human need for connection and intimacy.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 18, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas le hache), 2007

Langeais.gifJacques Rivette returns to the rigorous formalism and claustrophobic interiors of La Religeuse to create a refined, bituminous, and cooly smoldering tale of seduction, obsession, and manners in The Duchess of Langeais. Remaining faithful to the spirit of Honoré de Balzac’s nineteenth century novel (the second installment featuring the adventures of a secret organization known as the Thirteen), the film, nevertheless retains the imprint of Rivette’s recurring preoccupations with the stage, performance, conspiracy, and malleable time. In The Duchess of Langeais, the tell-tale signal for the start of the performance is cleverly concealed behind the rakish military officer and Napoleonic war hero, Armand de Montriveau’s (Guillaume Depardieu) impatient tapping of his cane during mass at a remote Spanish cloister, sullenly registering his displeasure at not being able to catch a glimpse of Las Descalzas, the barefoot nuns of St. Theresa, during services. Having arrived at the desolate peninsula on the Mediterranean after sailing to the ends of the earth over the past five years in search of his lost love, a Parisian aristocrat named Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), Montriveau is quick to dispense with formalities and exploit his influence in order to obtain a meeting with the order's sole French initiate who, accompanied by a Spanish-speaking chaperone, seems willing to consent to Montriveau's request for an audience by claiming him as her brother (note the reinforcement of the theater image in the parting of curtains that separate the cloistered nuns from the outside world). However, when Antoinette exposes the ruse in order to escape Montriveau's desperate entreaties, he is forced to confront the ghosts of their unreconciled past as he hatches a plan to liberate her from her spiritual captivity and compel her to return to face their impossible destiny. In presenting Antoinette and Montriveau's courtship as a choreography of performance, mise-en-scène (especially in Antoinette's feigned illness during one appointment, adjusting the room's lighting and accoutrements that reinforce their encounters as exercises in role-playing), and timing (in Antoinette's insistence on punctuality that provides the irony - and denouement - for their uncoupling), Rivette creates a potent metaphor for performance as both a mask and a nakedness, where the impenetrability of the human heart is exposed through frustrated, arbitrary rituals and untenable desire.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 18, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Comment Selects

February 28, 2007

These Encounters of Theirs, 2006

these_encounters.gifIn its exaggerated formalism, idiosyncratic performance, and extended temps morts, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's These Encounters of Theirs is a rigorous and subversively irreverent, but thoughtful, sensual, and articulate meditation on the search for enlightenment, the rapture of divine inspiration, the intranscendable distance of gods, and the elusive quest for immortality. Composed of five distinctive, self-encapsulated, two-actor conversations adapted from the last five stories of Cesare Pavese's Dialogues with Leucò, the film presents a series of mythological encounters - siblings (eccentrically facing away from the camera) attempt to come to terms with the ephemeral nature of divine will, a young couple discusses the nature of human fragility that propels its eternal quest for enduring legacy, an older couple (in a sumptuous panning sequence that concludes with a vertical pan of a Garden of Eden-like paradise) wistfully observes the exhilaration of wide-eyed discovery and new sensations, an artist and his muse contemplate the integral friction and trauma intrinsic in the artistic process (an idea that evokes Straub's impassioned, if abstracted monologue in Pedro Costa's Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?), two men - perhaps warriors - reflect on the simple pleasures of human contact. Concluding with a sublime two-axis, panoramic survey of the landscape that terminates with a stationary shot of an electrical power line that visually bisects the earth from the sky, the film converges into a profound, yet instinctual image of human transcendence through humility, mortality, struggle, experience, and creation.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 28, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

Twilight's Last Gleaming, 1977

twilight.gifLoosely adapted from novelist Walter Wager's 1971 thriller, Viper Three, Twilight's Last Gleaming is Robert Aldrich's impassioned and provocative excoriation - and, perhaps implicitly, exorcism - of the American government's administrative Cold War policy that sought to wage a representative, small-scale, protracted ideological war in Vietnam in order to reinforce a "doctrine of credibility" to the (then) Soviet Union and world at large of the country's resolve and willingness to win war at all cost, even if the rules of engagement are reduced to levels of barbarity, untold casualty, mass murder, and human atrocity. Aldrich frames the country's deeply troubled moral conscience through an unlikely pair of world-weary idealists: a former military general and conscientious objector turned escaped convict named Larry Dell (Burt Lancaster) who, in his increasingly criticism of the war and volatile temperament, became a convenient target for government discreditation, and the newly elected president, David Stevens (Charles Durning) who, even in holding office in the aftermath of Vietnam, cannot escape its haunted, unreconciled legacy in his appointment of seasoned cabinet advisors who had weathered the political fallout (and dodged accountability) for the interminable war (Aldrich astutely assembles a cast of veteran actors including Joseph Cotton, Richard Widmark, and Melvyn Douglas to reflect the advisors' status as fossilized relics out of touch with the consequences and social reality of their ideological war game). Recently escaped from a correctional facility where he is serving time on a trumped up murder conviction, Dell enlists the aid of fellow convicts, musclemen Willis (Paul Winfield) and Augie (Burt Young), and trigger-happy safecracker, Hoxey (William Smith) in an elaborate plot to break into the nuclear silo of a military base, commandeer its ICBM missiles, and hold the government - and the world - hostage in exchange for a large sum of money, a safe passage on Air Force One, and above all, the full disclosure of a top secret transcript detailing the former administration's attempts to continue the Vietnam engagement despite already known inevitable consequences and the impossibility of victory as a means of deterrent by proving the country's willingness to use nuclear weapons in the event of an all out war under a policy of mutual assured destruction. In its bracingly contemporary and profoundly relevant exposition on the moral consequences of entrenched ideology and disconnected (and delusive) righteousness, Twilight's Last Gleaming articulates a sincere and elegiac plea for transparency in government and empowerment of the people - a sobering vigil for the restoration of the dignity of political service and the dying ideals of a once great civilization that, in the myopic intoxication of power, has lost its way.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 28, 2007 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

February 27, 2007

Summer 04, 2006

summer04.gifStefan Krohmer's deceptively lyrical Summer 04 chronicles the unexpected, life altering summer vacation of domestic partners Mirjam (Martina Gedeck) and André (Peter Davor), and their teenage son Nils (Lucas Kotaranin) as they attempt to navigate through the murky, uncharted waters of romantic - and emotional - entanglements caused by the introduction of Nils' precocious, 12 year old girlfriend, Livia (Svea Lohde) into their comfortable and predictably routine lives. In retrospect, the idyllic images of weather worn summer cottages, bicycle rides through the country, sun drenched days, outdoor dining, and afternoon sailing excursions would prove to be a deceptive foil to film's the dark, slow brewing tale of dangerous attraction and forbidden desire, as Livia's unorthodox - and uncomfortably libertine - attitude creates an complicated emotional dynamic when, one day, Nils turns over the helm of his father's catamaran (along with his unresisting girlfriend) to an attractive, young American expatriate named Bill (Robert Seeliger) and invites him into their home. Unsettled by Bill's implicit over familiar response to Livia's obliging attention and bound by a sense of responsibility over Livia's entrusted care in her parents' absence, Mirjam seeks to drive a wedge in the budding relationship between the two, an insinuation into their lives that unwittingly exposes the fragile emptiness of her own unfulfilling relationship with the all too complacent and easy going André. Evoking the moral tales of Eric Rohmer in its understated, yet perceptive conversational approach to the inconstant rationalizations and (over) intellectualizations that seek to reconcile (or at least self-justify) the mysteries of the human heart, the film is an acutely observed exposition on the amorphous terrain of human attraction, fidelity, guilt, and longing.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters, 2006

tachigui.gifAlternately baffling in its unclassifiable lunacy, infectious in its inspired creativity, irresistible in its tongue-in-cheek audacity, and admirable in its visionary integrity, Mamoru Oshii's deliriously off-kilter, rapid fire superlivemation animation feature, Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters presents an epic, cultural and socio-political survey of twentieth century history (and into the early years of the new century) as idiosyncratically told from the underground mythology of fast food grifters: a group of reputed con artists who - through a collective arsenal of intelligence, charisma, ingenuity, brute strength (or rather, appetite), and even sheer incomprehensibility - have managed to make a successful practice out of talking their way out of paying for tachigui fast food meals from assorted shops throughout Japan, and consequently elevated the art of fast food grifting. The first profile is of Moongaze Ginji, a priest-like elder who emerges from the shadows of the thriving black markets shortly after the end of the Pacific War (and the beginning of American occupation) and who, in his evocation of classical landscape in a bowl of noodles, attempts to kindle the nostalgic sentiment of Japan's rich, cultural past. In the 1950s, as the recovering country was experiencing a "post war economic miracle", a new hero(ine) emerges among the grifter mythology in Foxy Croquette O-Gin, an attractive, liberated, modern women who uses her sensuality and cunning intelligence to equally charm and outwit her gullible (and decidedly male) victims. As Japan sought a symbolic international re-emergence by hosting the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Crying Inumaru employs a radically different tactic by playing the role of perennial loser - an incisive strategy that, juxtaposed against the seemingly tangential anecdote of Mothra's release, provides an incisive broader comment on the collective amnesia and propensity towards revisionism inherent in the nation's reinvention and self-portrayal as victims in the terrible aftermath of the Pacific War. Within this context of social and historical intersection, the sensationalized death of grifter Cold Badger Masa in the late 1960s may also be seen, not as an act of random violence, but as a reflective symptom of the country's (if not, the world's) increasing radicalization and social upheaval that was ushered by the rise of the Red Army movement. Culminating with a series of characters that reflect the country's transforming (and decidedly, un-Japanese) culinary palate - Beefbowl Ushigoro, Hamburger Tetsu, Frankfurter Tatsu, Medium Hot Sabu - the film serves as a provocative and trenchant satire on the country's inexorable path towards recovery, modernization, consumerism, global assimilation, and cultural dilution.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2007 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects, Mamoru Oshii

Longing, 2006

longing.gifAt the heart of Valeska Grisebach's slender, yet meticulously observed slice of life portrait, Longing, is the seemingly ideal marriage of metalworker and volunteer firefighter, Markus (Andreas Müller) and his wife, Ella (Ilka Welz), a chorus singer who, in the film's establishing sequences, casually describes their romantic union as the result, not of love at first sight, but of a friendship that evolved into a latent, but profound intimacy. Separated from each other when Markus travels with his colleagues to a firefighter's convention, the time apart proves especially unbearable for Ella who, in his absence, begins to realize the depth of her affection for her absent husband. Similarly, their separation proves equally difficult for Markus, who, in the haze of intoxication and youthful nostalgia, succumbs to the shy attention of a charming and attractive waitress named Rose (Anett Dornbusch). However, as Markus returns home to Ella and to the familiar routine of his bucolic and uneventful life, the emotional repercussions of his brief affair with Rose proves to be an inescapable reality that he must confront to preserve the integrity of their mutual intimacy. Recalling Barbara Albert's cinema in its episodic, extrapolative, organic narrative and the integral incorporation of zeitgeist pop songs as a generational soundtrack and tongue in cheek, short hand mode of contemporary expression that articulate the contours of interior, emotional landscapes, and infused with Michael Haneke's familiar penchant for illustrating subtle perturbations within quotidian ritual that lead to unforeseen and irreparably transformative consequences, Longing is a distilled, yet thoughtful and sensitively rendered tale of intimacy, betrayal, and elusive nature of desire.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

February 26, 2007

Ten Skies, 2004

tenskies.gifWhile James Benning's 13 Lakes captures the materiality, self-equilibration, and memory of water, the film's equally rigorous and abstractly hypnotic companion piece, Ten Skies illustrates the mutability, ephermerality, and transience of nature. Shot in Val Verde, California, the film consists of ten minute, stationary shots of ten isolated skyscapes set against the ambient sounds of the unseen (but implied) diverse landscape, as each cloud formation dissipates, morphs, displaces, or is otherwise transformed by its environment: the shifting symmetry of parallel line trails created by the residual plumes from jet engines that have long traversed the airspace, the tincture of orange that suffuses the lower frame from a setting sun, the obscuration and otherworldly discoloration from a distant, raging fire, the rapid movement of billowy clouds to the top of the frame, accelerated by the propulsive, rapid expansion of liberated exhaust fumes from an industrial factory operation, the tranquility of a near static sky momentary interrupted by the intrusion of real and artificial birds in flight (an earlier image of a traversing airplane is visually repeated a shot of a small flock of birds darting across the frame). In illustrating the decontextualization of cloud formations from a fixed point of reference in their insubstantiality and amorphous autonomy, Ten Skies reflects their seeming existence outside of time, creating a contemplative, peaceful, and indelible illustration of environmental fragility and transitory - yet paradoxically eternal - quotidian sublimity.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

February 25, 2007

13 Lakes, 2004

13lakes.gifComposed of a series of episodic, stationary long takes, each recording an uninterrupted, ten minute shot length and punctuated by an extended, interstitial black screen, James Benning's structuralist film, 13 Lakes is a rigorous and demanding, yet hypnotic and transfixing meditation on diurnal rhythms, climatic changes, and the implications of (irreversible) man-made transformation. The opening image, shot in Jackson Lake, seemingly establishes the composition of the images: the deep, russet colors of a land mass bisects the frame, the skies emerge from the contours of the irregular landscape in the upper frame, occupying the golden mean, the tranquil waters ripple across the lower frame, finely perturbating the reflection of the landscape to create impressionistic, angular, virtual depressions in the water. The subsequent shot of Moosehead Lake overturns the placidity of the preceding installment in its grey tones and overcast skies - the reflection of the land mass now nearly imperceptible in the aqueous stipling of raindrops. A third installment at the Salton Sea then redefines the now familiar spatial (and implicitly hierarchical) tripartite bounds of earth framed by water and sky, as the water body is, itself, bisected into a region of foam and still waters: this curious separation produced by the violent churning of speedboat motors that intermittently, but palpably, dart across the frame - the layer of froth, unable to recover completely before the turbulence of a subsequent speedboat, migrating forward towards a stratified layer of foamy suspension. The introduction of (residual) human imprint also serves to subconsciously shift the perspective of the viewer from a terrestrial - and more importantly, implicitly human-centric focus (the demarcation of the land from water as a point of identification to the position of our own natural habitat) - to the image of humans as intruders and disrupters of an overarching natural order. This inferential breakdown in symbiotic relationship between land and water caused by the human interference is perhaps best exemplified in the wintertime image of Lake Superior, as fragments of broken ice floating in the water restlessly shift in relation to each other, creating a figurative plate tectonics - the abstract rhythm of their dynamic, puzzle-like, cause and effect displacement only momentarily disrupted by a passing freight ship. Converging to an internal symmetry of indigenous ecology (the saline, almost alien whiteness of the Salton Sea, the frozen waters of Lake Superior, the sublime, undistorted landscape reflection of Crater Lake), man-made intrusion (the impressive bascule bridge that spans Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, the sound of a long, lumbering freight train in Lake Okeechobee, the sound of intermittent, sequential gunfire in Crater Lake), sublimated landscape (as in the images of Lake Winnebago and Oneida Lake where the land mass is reduced to near slivers of demarcation in the edges of the bisected frame), the film serves an austere, bracing, and indelible image of symbiotic landscape, the encroachment - and imposition - of civilization, and the fragile process of ecological balance.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2007 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

February 21, 2007

Retribution, 2006

retribution.gifKiyoshi Kurosawa's brooding, atmospheric, surreal, and sufficiently creepy, but woefully underformed and uncharacteristically messy horror film, Retribution unfolds with the formulaic familiarity of a haphazardly (and irregularly) sutured career retrospective digest. A rumpled and overworked detective, Yoshioka (Kôji Yakusho) and his partner Miyaji (Tsuyoshi Ihara) are called in to investigate the apparent murder by drowning of an unidentified woman wearing a red dress near a shallow, saltwater depression at a recently completed land fill. However, what appears to be a routine investigation soon takes on a more ominous tone as Yoshioka becomes increasingly consumed by the unusual circumstances surrounding her death. Instinctually finding a trail of clues that curiously tend to implicate him (evoking traces of Doppelgänger) and following a rash of dead end, yet seemingly coincidentally related saltwater drowning deaths where the individual perpetrators appear all too easily caught (an amnesic, viral compulsion that recalls Cure), Yoshioka continues to be haunted by the unreconciled ghost of the woman in red (Riona Hazuki), an implacable torment that may, perhaps, be rooted in the disruption of the ecological balance caused by the city's aggressive land fill construction development and waterway redistribution of Tokyo Bay - a hypothesis that seems to be corroborated by the increasing frequency of concussive, earthquake tremors that plague the area (the profound repercussions of an upended natural order that is also alluded to in Pulse). As in Kurosawa's earlier film Charisma, Retribution channels the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky's allusive cinema (most notably, Stalker) in its somber exposition into the profound consequences of irresponsible technology, ecological violence, and the integral interconnectedness between psychology and environment. In the end, despite illustrating the pensiveness, playfulness, and intelligence that have characterized Kurosawa's prolific body of work, the motley and arbitrary (and arguably, more fascinating) pieces of the film's irresolvable puzzle are inevitably scattered and relegated to the peripheral for an abrupt turn, accelerated conclusion - summarily abandoned and forgotten like the sunken, derelict postwar buildings that have disappeared from the ever-transforming modern landscape, erased in the ephemerality of collective consciousness.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

Colossal Youth, 2006

colossalyouth.gifOn a derelict building illuminated by the crepuscular glow of a night sky, assorted pieces of furniture and household goods are intermittently discarded from upper level windows, crashing into the razed ruins below. A woman emerges from the shadows, brandishes a small kitchen knife, and recounts her fragmented tale before disappearing, once again, into the cloak of darkness. A deliberative, grey haired man named Ventura hides behind a structural pilaster protruding from a wall - made all the more monolithic and formidable by the low angle shot - as he abstractedly gazes elsewhere, beyond the frame. From this muted, elliptical, and deceptively facile (and seemingly atemporal) opening composition, Pedro Costa establishes the pervasive sense of disposability, social invisibility, longing, and desolation that would define the contextual framework for the film. For the characters in Colossal Youth, the third installment of Costa's loose triptych of quotidian encounters among a community of Cape Verdean itinerant laborers from the shantytown of Fontaínhas in Portugal, the historical landscape of the Cape Verde islands as barren land, exploited colony, commercial way station, slave port, and leprosaria institution is not a forgotten anecdote, but a suffocating reality that continues to weigh on the collective consciousness of its inhabitants, even in their migration and displacement. Within this immateriality of a haunted, unreconciled burden of past - an imprinted spiritual memory of enslavement, isolation, expendability, impermanence, and social rejection - these transitory, everyday interactions may be seen, not as polite, communal gestures, but rather, as personal testimonies of people living in the ever eroding margins of the visible, struggling to emerge from the liminal before receding into the shadows.

At the nucleus of this rended community from the demolished Fontaínhas slum is Ventura, a laborer forced into retirement by disability who has assumed the role of informal village elder to an assortment of uprooted friends, acquaintances, former colleagues, and extended family (a paternal character that evokes the musician with an inordinately large family (from a series of out of wedlock relationships) in Casa de Lava): a recovering drug addict (and titular character of Costa's earlier film, In Vanda's Room) whose awkward maternal instincts reveal her own stunted maturity, a government housing agent bemused by Ventura's vague and often arbitrary requirements for his new home, a daughter still living in the ruins of Fontaínhas awaiting relocation to public housing, an injured laborer undergoing physical rehabilitation who longs for a less hazardous job in his trained vocation as a goldsmith, a museum guard who scuttles Ventura from a gallery exhibiting Diego Velázquez paintings, his lean and angular physicality momentarily cutting a dark and sinuous figure as majestic and transfixing as the works of art that frame him (note Costa's homage to Straub/Huillet in their strategy for full representation (or proportion) framing of the paintings in Cézanne and A Trip to the Louvre), an illiterate migrant worker who enlists Ventura to write a letter to send home to his beloved. However, as Ventura's role transforms from transcriber to author - or more appropriately, ghostwriter - the love letter increasingly takes on the profound weight of his own longing and sense of despair after his lover's abandonment. Inevitably, the repeated recitation (or perhaps, incantation) of Ventura's work-in-progress, visceral prose in subtly alternating forms throughout the film becomes a reflection of the overarching structure of temps morts that characterize the encounters of Colossal Youth itself - the transfiguration of the corporeal into the ethereal through mundane ritual - in all its awkward composition, disarming humility, and poetic ineloquence.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2007 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

February 19, 2007

Play It As It Lays, 1972

play_it.gifSomething of a prelude to David Lynch's explorations into the dark side of tinsel town (and in particular, the intersecting alternate realities of his sprawling metafilm Inland Empire), Frank Perry's Play It As It Lays is a stark, fragmented, and disjointed, but instinctually cohesive, occasionally luminous (and humorous), and inevitably heartbreaking adaptation of Joan Didion's acclaimed novel on Hollywood starlet, Maria Wyeth's (Tuesday Weld) gradual descent into madness and self-destruction following the dissolution of her marriage to influential filmmaker (and erstwhile Svengali), Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) - an emotional rupture that was perhaps catalyzed by their daughter's commitment to a sanitarium for behavioral problems near the completion of their latest collaboration, a highly controversial autofiction film in which he elicited a raw and soul-baring performance from his increasingly vulnerable and fragile wife by incorporating autobiographical elements culled from her tumultuous and impoverished childhood. The film opens to an angular shot of Maria leisurely walking through the footpath of a meticulously manicured garden, symmetrically - and diminutively - framed by a pair of tall, majestic evergreens. This double entendred image of nature and construction, openness and constriction serves as a recurring metaphor into the unsustainable paradox of Maria's vacuous life of excess and profound isolation - a sense of pervasive estrangement and entrenched hopelessness that she has learned to subsume through a string of meaningless affairs, aimless road trips to nowhere, and intimate philosophical conversations (that inevitably lead to the unarticulated silence of mutual resignation) with Carter's closeted producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), whose transparent double life reflects his own irreconcilable spiritual ambiguity. Evoking the demoralizing ennui of industrialized dehumanization (or, in this case, the manufactured dream world of Hollywood) of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Red Desert fused with the asequential, fractured recursion of inescapable, haunted memories that pervade Alain Resnais' Je t'aime, je t'aime, Play It As It Lays is a caustic, disorienting, and ultimately bracing exposition into the profoundly isolating process of role rejection, the human search for meaning, and self-discovery.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

Summer Palace, 2006

summerpalace.gifRecalling the resigned regret of Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy (albeit less potent) and Stanley Kwan's Everlasting Regret in its elliptical intersection of personal and (implicitly political) national history, Lou Ye's sprawling epic, Summer Palace is an adept and thoughful, if largely perfunctory and tenuous survey of late twentieth century contemporary history from the parallel perspectives (and bafflingly, the sexual histories) of a group of close knit students - a young woman, Yu Hong (Lei Hao) who leaves her provincial hometown and devoted childhood love to embark on her university studies in Beijing, her friend and informal roommate Li Ti (Ling Hu), and a charismatic student leader named Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo) - as the euphoric seeds of youthful idealism, newfound liberation, and social protest were germinating towards the halcyon days of the spring and early summer of 1989 in what would inevitably prove an ideological collision with the government that would culminate with the Tiananmen Square massacre (a violent encounter that is presented in such a sanitized, almost surreal manner of students throwing rocks at a burning vehicle before running away, and a flank of soldiers shooting their rifles into the air). But beyond the historical superficiality inherent in Lou's cursory treatment of contemporary history - a short-hand approach to historical re-enactment that borders on revisionism, undoubtedly fueled in part as a creative appeasement to circumvent government censorship - perhaps the key to the film's estranged and oddly sterile portrait of the toll of profoundly traumatic history on a generation's collective psyche may be seen through its evocation of a humorless (and consequently, less incisive) cultural analogy to Jean Eustache's indelible film, The Mother and the Whore in its bracing, intimate portrait of the aftermath of the failed May 68 revolution, where faithlessness, despiritualization, and the disillusionment of unrealized idealism have been displaced by the oblivion of desensitizing escape, acts of self-erasure, and an inescapable sense of dislocated, perpetual exile.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2007 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

Exterminating Angels, 2006

exterminatingangels.gifIt's tough to find something redeeming about Jean-Claude Brisseau's Exterminating Angels, a conflated, borderline pornographic, and execrable projection of the female psyche as seen through the murky gaze of a successful, middle-aged filmmaker, François (Frédéric van den Driessche) whose encounter with an actress recounting her sexual fantasy during an interview triggers his own personal and creative journey into capturing the intersection of desire and intimacy. Auditioning a series of actresses to act out their unsimulated moments of pleasure during increasing transgressive public situations and resurrecting them before the camera, François' impenetrability over his unwillingness to cross the line between his role as artist/observer and his implication in the process of his actresses' arousal as emotional manipulator/voyeur inevitably transforms the nature of the dynamic between the filmmaker and his actresses with profound and irreparable consequences for the both the participants and the film itself. Perhaps the key to the film's opacity resides in Brisseau's allusive reference to Luis Buñuel's comedy of manners, The Exterminating Angel - the awkward encounters, polite conversations, and hollow gestures of feigned geniality that demarcate the intranscendable distance between control and vulnerability, manipulation and complicity, attraction and obsession, reality and performance. It is in this surreal illustration of moribund ritual that Brisseau's incorporation of quasi-mythology in the appearance of Delphic guardians- one of whom may have been a former protégé who decided to leaving the profession (Raphaële Godin) - that the film's overindulgent (un)eroticism seems perversely suited in illustrating the filmmaker's ambivalence towards the role of women as nurturers, confidantes, and objects of desire - the transformation of fallen angels into unreconciled muses hovering the earth in search of true, and profoundly cataclysmic, inspiration.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2007 | | Comments (7) | Filed under 2007, Film Comment Selects

February 24, 2006

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, 2004

kekexili.gifIn an early episode in Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, retired army officer turned volunteer poacher tracking commander Ritai (Duobuji) explains to a Beijing reporter Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) that according to custom, a Tibetan native would point his knife inward when cutting his meal at the dinner table. It is a seemingly anecdotal comment on cultural particularity that also serves as a broader metaphor for the environmental and social climate of the Kekexili during the mid 1990s, a stretch of uninhabited land dubbed the last virgin wilderness in China, as natives increasingly redirected their meager livelihood towards the dangerous and ecologically destructive, yet more lucrative trade of poaching Tibetan antelopes to meet international demand for their woolen pelts. With the antelope population quickly plummeting from a million to nearly 10, 000 within the span of a few short years, and unable to enlist the aid of the government into declaring Kekexili a wildlife refuge (and therefore, deploying troops to secure the area) in order to protect the endangered animals, Ritai has assembled his own army of volunteers to patrol the mountain region in an attempt to intercede the trafficking of pelts, often leading to violent - and sometimes fatal - skirmishes with the ruthless, well-armed poachers. Embarking on long expeditions away from family, friends, and colleagues, each parting is tainted with the impassioned, bittersweet realization of tragic inevitability. Based on the Ga Yu's real-life chronicle of the volunteer militia's final expedition to track down a band of poachers responsible for the murder (and publicly symbolic humiliation) of a colleague, the film is an understated, yet tightly constructed and compelling portrait of moral imperative, sacrifice, and everyday heroism. Recalling the austerity and geographic isolation of Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Horse Thief, Lu Chuan similarly evokes a metaphoric image of alienation and spiritual desolation through panoramic shots of the majestic and unforgiving landscape (most notably, in the recurring shots of antelope carcasses and laid out animal pelts that reinforce the criticality of an unfettered mass extinction). It is in these curious images of despiritualized landscape that the film can be seen, not only through the filter of ecological responsibility, but also as a cautionary tale for the extinction of cultural identity within the unbridled frontier of globalism.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 24, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 21, 2006

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?, 2005

eli.gifShinji Aoyama returns to the desolate geographical and spiritual landscapes of Eureka to create a thoughtful and idiosyncratic - if patently offbeat and unclassifiable - concoction of doomsday angst, picaresque humor, synthesized cacophony, natural communion, and even redemption in Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?. The film's allusive title, taken from the Aramaic transcription of Jesus' ninth hour utterance upon the cross ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"), provides an insightful framework into the isolated lives of a rural hamlet's increasingly dwindling population after a flu-like, suicide-inducing virus causes a global epidemic called Lemming's Disease (presumably named after the popular misconception that lemming herds commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs as a means of self-regulated population control). The film opens to a curious image in the not-so-distant future of the year 2015 as Mizui (Tadanobu Asano) and Asuhara (Masaya Nakahara) - donned in filtering face masks, goggles, and white coveralls and carrying sound recording equipment - seemingly emerge from the sea and make their way towards the shore where a deserted tent has been staked. Showing little reaction to the sight of dead bodies inside the tent, they instead turn their attention to the recording of the ambient sounds entombed with the occupants of the campsite. It is a wordless ritual that has come to define their daily life since retreating into the countryside on self-imposed exile after abandoning their former careers as world-renowned experimental musicians. However, when a scientist presents a controversial theory that the cure for the malady may lie in a patient's live exposure to the eccentric duo's music, their familiar ritual is disrupted by the unexpected appearance of a wealthy industrialist named Miyagi (Yasutaka Tsutsui) who, with the aid of a private detective (Masahiro Toda), has tracked down the reluctant saviors in order to plead for salvation of his afflicted granddaughter, Hana (Aoi Miyazaki), a dubious "treatment" that the musicians believe will actually trigger the suicidal impulse. Aoyama eschews conventional images of the apocalypse and instead presents a metaphoric image of antiseptic detachment and profound disconnection: apocalypse as the figurative end of humanity, a world without true human contact. It is this cautionary tale of humanity in the face of despair and instilled determination to survive that ultimately reconciles the film's seemingly dissociated, final image of snowfall - as Mizui's messianic experimental performance becomes an anthem for willful survival, so too does the snow represent a glimpse of silent grace in the midst of overwhelming darkness - a rage against the dying of the light.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2006 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 20, 2006

Kinetta, 2005

kinetta.gifSomething of a hybrid between Tsai Ming-liang's eccentric, temp morts snapshots of human idiosyncrasy crossed with the glacially paced visual abstraction of Sharunas Bartas (most notably, The Corridor and Few of Us) by way of Philippe Grandrieux's murky, destabilized, and defocused gaze (in particular, Sombre), Yorgos Lanthimos creates a languid, elliptically fractured, and maddeningly opaque, yet strangely transfixing and, on rare occasion, even sublime meditation on ennui, desolation, and ritual in Kinetta. Ostensibly structured as a metafilm (a premise that echoes Tsai's The River and The Wayward Cloud), the film follows the curious activities of a threadbare amateur film crew as they set out to re-enact episodes from recent murder cases for unspecified (and perhaps indeterminate) motives at a near empty, off-season seaside hotel: an emotionally troubled chambermaid who seems to be more consumed with deciphering the lives of the hotel guests by lingering in their vacated rooms and going through their toiletries and personal effects than in completing her tasks efficiently; a printing and photography reproduction shop worker who aspires to become a filmmaker even as he seems oblivious to practical notions of customer requirements and working deadlines; a plainclothes police officer who devotes more of his time transcribing the details of the murders for their re-enactment project than in the actual solving of the cases. Chronicling the film crew's oppressive silence, introversion, and awkward interaction, Lanthimos captures the unarticulated despair behind their morbid obsession to create an incisive (if frustrating) exposition on loneliness, longing, and the human search for transitory connection.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Isolation, 2005

isolation.gifFor his debut feature, Isolation, filmmaker Billy O'Brien channels the spirit of Ridley Scott's Alien and David Cronenberg-styled organic metamorphosis to craft an old-fashioned, by-the-book science fiction thriller. On an isolated, rundown farm on the Irish countryside, a farmer named Dan (John Lynch) agrees to participate on a research project designed to increase bovine fertility and accelerate beef production on the recommendation of the town veterinarian, long-time friend and former lover, Orla (Essie Davis). But soon, despite extensive monitoring that seem to indicate a successful graft, the two begin to sense that the experiment has not gone completely according to plan, a nagging suspicion that is further reinforced when during a routine checkup, Orla is seemingly bitten by the unborn calf. Unable to contact Orla on the evening of the impending birth and unable to manage the task single-handedly, John summons a pair of runaway lovers squatting on the farm for help, a fateful connection that would unwittingly bind them to the mutated creature and the experimental farm. Although O'Brien demonstrates a keen eye for sustaining tension through shot composition and landscape to create a competent and atmospheric horror film, the film inevitably suffers from a derivative plot that lends itself to a certain degree of predictability and formulaic resolution.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Workingman's Death, 2005

workingman.gifMichael Glawogger pulsing, ambitiously conceived global treatise on the drudgery, and often dehumanizing, rituals of manual labor at the beginning of 21st century - over a century after the birth of the Industrial Revolution - appropriately begins in the town of Donbass in the Ukraine, the coal mining town where, in 1935, Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov became the archetypal model of socialist worker efficiency and productivity that gave rise to the Stakhanovite movement throughout the Soviet bloc countries. With the mines now depleted or abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, coal mining remains the primary source of income for many local residents. Working in unsafe conditions in unsecured, illegal mines, the miners articulate what would prove to be recurring sentiments in all the segments: a thankfulness for their ability to earn a living and survive under the direst of circumstances, a humble appreciation for the moments of grace that they have experienced, a determination to do honest work and not fall into the lure of easy money from criminal activity. At each instance, the previous segment serves as a prefiguration of the next installment through linking images - the physical act of mining is repeated in the shot of Indonesian workers chiseling crystallized sulfur from the side of a volcano and carrying them into supple, rickety baskets across the mountainous region and into the weigh station at foot of the hills (or fashioning free-formed sculptures for passing tourists); a sacrificial sheep that is slaughtered at the beginning of the sulfur mine sequence (in a superstitious ritual to pray for the safety of the laborers) is repeated in the open market square in a Nigerian port town where people earn their daily wages from the mass slaughter, dressing, butchering, and roasting of animals; the image of docked ships in the port town is connected to the image of derelict cargo ships lining the shores of a Pakistan salvage shipyard where migrant workers dismantle the ships for scrap metal; the neon glow of the oxy-acetylene cutting torches is mirrored in the shot of steelworkers forging and welding structural construction elements in a Chinese steel plant - to create a provocative and indelible exposition on the illusion of industrial progress and advanced technology that ultimately define the myth of modern civilization.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Saratan, 2005

saratan.gifInviting favorable comparison to Serik Aprimov's Glastnost-era muted comedy The Last Stop (a film that ushered the Kazakh new wave), Kyrgyzstan filmmaker Ernest Abdyshaparov spins his own charming, infectious, and delightful pastoral tale on the doldrums of rural life in post Soviet-era central Asian republics in Saratan. Introducing an eclectic cast of characters - a town mayor who has perfected the art of time-wasting activities to keep up the inflated appearance of official importance (a marginal and largely titular bureaucratic position so completely dissociated from the affairs of the national government that, as his wife points out, he doesn't even attract bribery attempts), a once-irresponsible young man turned resident local mullah with a penchant for oversleeping through the prescribed hour for morning prayers, a lothario police officer who seems to make as many visits to wives left behind by husbands going off to work than to patrolling and investigating crime sites, a Jehovah's witness who has come upon the rural hamlet in search of potential converts, a reactionary who continues to try to instigate the inert population into social revolution and a return to the glory days of heavy-handed Soviet socialism, a little girl who keeps a watchful eye on her unemployed, hard-drinking father, and even a local village idiot who envisions himself as a traffic officer for the town's busiest intersection: the service window of the grocery stand - the town is soon set abuzz by the latest mystery of a sheep thief operating in the dead of night and the news that the richest man in town has purchased a stock of diesel fuel for speculative investment. Ending on an affirming note of survival, community, and humble hope, Saratan strikes the right balance of whimsical, self-effacing humor and incisive human comedy.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Days in the Country, 2004

days_country.gifContinuing his preoccupation with the interpenetration of time and memory, fiction and reality of Time Regained (that would be further explored in the subsequent film The Lost Domain), Days in the Country marks Raoul Ruiz's first Chilean feature film in thirty years. Perhaps inspired by the curious radio news broadcast of his own death, an aging gentleman, Don Federico (Mario Montilles) decides to retire to his country estate in order to put down on paper an unfinished novel that has consumed his thoughts for decades - the incompletion of which has been a long-running joke and recurring topic of conversation by the regulars at his habitual café. But returning to the solitude of the country proves to be an immersive, if not surreal, experience as characters from his unrealized novel begin to act out their roles in real life, and memories from his past - his devoted maid Paulita (Bélgica Castro), family friend and town physician Dr. Chandian (Francisco Reyes), and even an old neighbor who died from an accidental dog mauling - begin to resurface in the present (made all the more tortuous and fantastic by their physical resemblance to the regular cast of characters at the café). Ruiz's whimsical conflation of reality and imagination defies easy categorization or tidy resolution, but nevertheless, provides a witty, incisive, and ingeniously crafted meditation on mortality, regret, memory, and the iterative process of artistic creation.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 18, 2006

Shanghai Dreams, 2005

shanghaidreams.gifDuring the Cultural Revolution, Qinghong's parents took up Mao Zedong's call for a Third Line of Defense by relocating from Shanghai to work at factories on a rural outpost in the Guizhou Province. Years later, their ever-dimming hope of returning home has been re-channeled into the raising of their daughter, believing that their best prospects for their children's re-integration into the city lies in Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan) obtaining a college education and maintaining their social separation from the provincial locals. But Qinghong's sentiments for her adoptive hometown is less entrenched, having become accustomed to the quiet rhythms of the bucolic town (a familiarity of ritual reflected in the recurring images of her morning exercises at school and her clandestine meetings with a local young man who works as a mill apprentice). Driven to near obsession to spare his children from repeating the disappointments and failures of his own frustrated life in exile and encouraged by recent political developments that seemingly point towards an opportunity for relocated workers to finally return home to Shanghai, Qinghong's father becomes increasingly intrusive in his daughter's budding romance and drives a wedge between the two in preparation for what he believes will be their impending departure, unwittingly setting the stage for the reluctant young couple's conflicted farewell. Using predominantly medium shots and incorporating recurring long shot landscape images to create a pervasive sense of distance and estrangement, Wang Xiaoshuai evokes the resigned nostalgia of uprooting and perpetual exile of Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Time to Live and the Time to Die and Jia Zhang-ke's attention for quotidian details that humorously encapsulate provincial youth culture (most notably, Platform) in Shanghai Dreams to create an understated, yet compelling and incisive tale of displacement, consuming obsession, and failed idealism.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 18, 2006 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

The Lost Domain, 2004

domain.gifRecalling the whimsical, organic transections between past and present, dream and reality, literature and real-life of Raoul Ruiz's earlier films Memory of Appearances and Time Regained, The Lost Domain is a more somber and pensive, yet still vibrant, impassioned, and intelligently constructed exposition on the process of maturation, the demystification of a childhood hero, and the inevitable loss of innocent wonder and fanciful imagination. As the film begins, a unseen narrator recounts a tale from his Chilean hometown of a ghost ship once moored near the shore whose presence only became an unprovable myth - the stuff of legends - after the villagers ceased to speak of its strange presence on the horizon and recount its fantastic tale. This introductory notion of tale-telling as the figurative lifeblood to existence and identity serves as the Pirandellian framework for Ruiz's tale of a boy from a rural town who is befriended by an abstracted French aviator and chronic storyteller, Antoine (François Cluzet) (and whose life curiously mirrors the wandering hero from Alain-Fournier's classic novel, Le Grand Meaulnes) after he makes an emergency landing in their community during a topographic surveying expedition. Weaving through past and present as the boy, Max becomes a kind of de facto tale-teller at various stages in life: first, as a young flight instructor (Grégoire Colin) training Antoine, now an obsolete pilot unable to navigate the controls of a modern airplane during World War II, then as a middle-aged country gentleman who harbors a young couple after breaking curfew to meet with him and find information on his grandfather, Antoine, who was declared missing in action after conducting a night-time reconnaissance operation during the war. At each juncture, the encounter becomes an understated elegy of time passed - a skeptical young man refusing to acknowledge his youthful gullibility, a middle-aged man who regrets his imposed estrangement from his boyhood hero during their last encounter, an old man acutely aware of his mortality and solitude.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 18, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 17, 2006

Battle in Heaven, 2005

battle_heaven.gifProvocative, explicit, horrifying, uncompromising, yet unmistakably humanist, Battle in Heaven is the film that Bruno Dumont should have made after L'Humanité. Instead, it is Carlos Reygadas who rekindles the spirit of Robert Bresson in his exposition on ritualism as a path to transcendence. For the film's protagonist, Marcos (Marcos Hernández), mundane ritual has come to define his entire existence. Working as a security guard at a military fort where his duties include being a part of the ceremonial cadre who raise and lower the national flag at dawn and dusk, the theme of repetitive ritual is also reflected in his wife's (Bertha Ruiz) sideline, hawking clocks at a subway station. Even his employment as a personal driver to a high ranking general involves a certain measure of predictability, often chauffeuring the general's daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) to her boyfriend's apartment or a clandestine brothel operating in an upscale neighborhood where she works as a part-time call girl. Intrinsic in Reygadas' dedramatized, incisive, and occasionally surreal imagery of Mexico's complex physical and metaphoric landscape - and in particular, in the dynamics of Marcos and Ana's unusual relationship - is the metamorphosis of sexuality and spirituality as modes of intimate and personal ritual. In Reygadas' bracing portrait of Mexico's profoundly fractured and polarized - and perhaps irredeemable - society, human connection occurs not through the opacity of the soul but through the characters' disembodied rituals that serve as communion for unarticulated desire. By correlating this seemingly fated and inescapable sense of irredeemability with Marcos' search for redemption following his complicity in perpetrating a grievous and tragic crime, his inner turmoil serves as a metaphor, not only for the casting of a fallen angel alluded in the title, but invokes the allegorical, epic struggle for the very soul of all lost, dispirited, and broken humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 17, 2006 | | Comments (12) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Stranded in Canton, 1974-2005

stranded.gifConsisting of several black and white home videos taken by William Eggleston around the city of Memphis in 1974 using a modified Sony Porta-pak handheld camera (and occasionally accompanied by Eggleston's interstitial voice-over narration that provides contextual or anecdotal point of reference to the episode), Stranded in Canton provides a glimpse into what Amy Taubin would describe in the subsequent Q&A as the view from the outside margins of Eggleston's photography - the periphery of an artist's gaze. Unfortunately, the subjects of the gaze are not particularly interesting - often vulgar, pompous, crass, intoxicated, incoherent, under the influence of psychotropic drugs, or perpetually hamming it up before the camera to attract attention - the resulting pastiche is perhaps only notable for the unremarkability of its lowbrow subjects, uninspired shot compositions, and almost grotesque imagery (an infrared translucency optically distorts much of the physical features in the film, particularly eyes and skin textures that appear to fluoresce) given the film's almost legendary status in certain creative circles. The title is taken from an over-the-top, dramatic impromptu monologue delivered in the film by a transvestite eccentric (whose indescribably bad impersonation borders on caricature), an articulation of exotic otherness and desire for transcendence away from the humdrum of a working-class Memphis bar. Nevertheless, while Stranded in Memphis may have been a more appropriate title, Eggleston's meandering and unstructured film is also too particular in its ensemble of quintessentially lowbrow subjects to serve as an ethnographic study of Memphis circa 1974. Suffice it to say, while Eggleston may be able to find beauty in the composition of mundane objects in his photographs, the translation to film results in a more anecdotal rather than revelatory insight towards the aesthetic deconstruction of Eggleston's gaze.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 17, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

Everlasting Regret, 2005

everlasting.gifChronicling the life and romantic trajectory of a postwar beauty queen named Qiyao (Sammi Cheng) over the span of forty years, Stanley Kwan's epic period drama, Everlasting Regret is a film about unrealized ambition and missed opportunity in more ways than one. The film cuts broad, elliptical swaths across Chinese post-revolution history through Qiyao's childhood relationships and star-crossed love affairs with people who represented the social milieu of Shaghai during the conflicting, often traumatic period of transition caused by shifting and reprioritization of national policies instituted by the nascent government as it sought to consolidate and centralize power to Beijing, secure its borders, and ensure its longevity: a once-powerful nationalist officer (Jun Hu) who is forced to go into indefinite hiding - and subsequently, exile - when the Communists seize complete control over China, a photographer and loyal friend who moves from Shanghai to the province during the Cultural Revolution in order to accommodate the government's call to reinforce the workforce in the rural, state-run industries, a businessman (Daniel Wu) from a well-connected merchant family who finds his economic opportunities increasingly dwindling in the unstable, increasingly state-controlled economy of Shanghai, a young man (Jue Huang) trading in the blackmarket in order to secure a passport to leave the country. Revisiting the narrative structure presented in his earlier film Centre Stage on the short, tragic life of actress Ruan Ling-yu, Everlasting Regret places the themes of changing fortunes, elusiveness of happiness, and social entrapment within the overarching (and perhaps, overreaching) historical framework of political transformation. Unfolding as a tepid invocation of Wong Kar-wai melancholic romanticism crossed with Hou Hsiao-hsien elliptical historicity (particularly evident in the film's incorporation of period pop music to contextualize the era), Kwan's use of temporal ellipses has the paradoxical affect of creating an alienated portrait of an intimate personal and national history.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 17, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects

February 21, 2005

Le Pont du Nord, 1982

pont_nord.gifIntegrating the filmmaker's familiar elements of whimsical, quixotic adventure (Celine and Julie Go Boating), integrated - but unresolved - conspiracy (Gang of Four, Secret Defense, and The Story of Marie and Julien), and liberated bohemianism (La Belle noiseuse, La Religeuse), Le Pont du Nord is an effervescent, ingeniously constructed, and infectiously affectionate paean to the city of Paris. From Baptiste's (Pascale Ogier) hopeful sentiment of arrival after encircling the statue of the Belfort lion in Denfert-Rochereau (a symbol of French Resistance against the Germans) that is reflected in Marie's (Bulle Ogier) literal awakening at a random intersection, Jacques Rivette juxtaposes the theme of rebirth against images of Paris in perpetual state of demolition and construction (a state of constant flux and transition that is similarly captured in Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her) that mirrors Marie's own existential state after being released from prison and an unresolved past of radicalism. Rivette further uses the recurring image of spirals - the serpentine form of a sculptured dragon, the weaving of spider webs (that also reinforces the deceptive, "non-mystery" quality to the film), the characters' labyrinthine pursuit of the contents of a mysterious briefcase carried by Marie's former lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), the district map of Paris (that Marie observes to resemble a children's board game) - to illustrate, not only the inextricability of destiny, but also the inherent impossibility of starting over. Set against a shifting and increasingly alien cityscape that, nevertheless, embodies a deeply rooted, cumulative cultural history of resistance and revolution, the film dispels the myth of tabula rasa - a metaphor for a generation's defeated idealism following the May 68 protests - that seeks to propel modernization and progress through flight and ideological amnesia. Nevertheless, Rivette retains the lyrical tone amid the seeming weight of human tragedy through Le Pont du Nord's indelible film-within-a-film epilogue that, like the parting shot in Abbas Kiarostami's subsequent film A Taste of Cherry, serves as a thoughtful document of transience, an affirmation of mundane ritual, and a subtle appreciation of the here and now.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

February 20, 2005

Deux, 2002

deux.gifA young woman named Magdalena (Isabelle Huppert) retrieves a postcard that had been cast into the wind by her biological mother (Bulle Ogier) from a seaside town in Portugal and discovers that she has a twin sister named Maria. From this seemingly introspective opening premise on identity, connection, and history, Deux diverges into unexpectedly abstract, non-intersecting trajectories that involve a schoolgirl attraction with a fellow classmate, a mother's wartime romance, a serial killer who leaves a tell-tale rose on the bodies of his victims, a lonely woman who adopts a fox as a household pet. Composed of asequential and dissociated vignettes, the film evokes the baroque tableaux of Sergei Paradjanov, the formalism of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and fractured surrealism of Luis Buñuel infused with quasi-religious iconography and Actionism of Otto Mühl (most notably, in the image of disemboweled figures such as ornamental cherubs). Werner Schroeter's latest film is an elegantly operatic, tactile, and voluptuous, but ultimately fractured, opaque, and impenetrable, creating a sensuous and visually dense but also idiosyncratically personal to the point of abstruseness.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated conversation between critic Gary Indiana and Bulle Ogier turned out to be a rambling, disorganized, and incoherent near monologue by Mr. Indiana who seemed far more interested in usurping the spotlight to articulate his opinions on Deux and Werner Schroeter rather than actually interviewing with Ms. Ogier, opening with his expounded personal theory that the relationships between the estranged mother and twin daughters in Deux represented the relational dynamics between Schroeter's recently deceased mother, his late muse Magdalena Montezuma, and Schroeter himself...to which Ms. Ogier could only briefly respond in agreement (before Indiana then launched into a second theory on the meaning of the film). Fortunately, Ms. Ogier was able to provide some personal insight into her oeuvre, such as her continued work in stage and screen both in France and in Germany, which led to her association with Schroeter. Another was how her collaboration with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in The Third Generation led to the development of her character in Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord as a loose sequel to the newly released, imprisoned former activist and revolutionary of the Fassbinder film.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

February 19, 2005

Los Muertos, 2004

losmuertos.gifLos Muertos opens to the visually atmospheric and strangely surreal image of an unpopulated tropical forest, tracking sinuously (and disorientingly) through the lush wilderness, momentary revealing the dead bodies of two young people splayed amid the obscuring brush, before returning to the idyllic shots of foliage that becomes unfocused and diffused, imbuing the image with a sense of organic, subconscious somnambulism. The film then takes on a more mundane and naturalistic tone with the shot of Argentino Vargas waking (perhaps from the haunted dream), assembling chairs at a workshop, and eating in silence, before an intervened confrontation reveals that the setting is a rural prison, and Vargas is serving the final days of his sentence for the murder of his siblings. Eventually released from prison, the taciturn Vargas sets out to honor a promise that he had earlier made to a fellow inmate and deliver a letter to the old man's daughter before embarking on his long, lonely journey home. Lisandro Alonso creates an evocatively atemporal and even otherworldly experience through the film's indigenous primitivism. Like the seeming mystery of the dead bodies in the jungle of the opening sequence, the film represents a subversion of expectation, most notably in Vargas' seemingly arrested memories of - and anticipated reunion with - the daughter he left behind (his purchase of candies and a fashionable blouse for her seems to indicate a young girl or teenager and only later does it become evident that she is already a grown woman). It is this process of supplanted expectation that is perhaps alluded to in the film's contextual reference to the titular dead: a laconic and unstructured presentation of images without narrative form, rather like cinematic ghosts, existing outside of time and physical space in the ephemeral, dense, and impenetrable medium of personal memory.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2005 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

Ma Mère, 2004

mamere.gifA somber and young man Pierre (Louis Garrel) sits inside a car listening impassively as his barely coherent, self-absorbed father (Philippe Duclos) coldly reveals his resigned resentment towards him as an accident of birth who had caused a premature end to his bohemian lifestyle and sexual experimentation with his wife Hélène (Isabelle Huppert). Brought to a secluded summer villa for a tenuous (and decidedly dysfunctional) family reunion with his seemingly delicate and emotionally opaque mother, Pierre is eager to express his complete devotion towards her in an attempt to prove allegiance to her against the emotional betrayal of his father's flaunted infidelities. However, when the father returns to France on "business" (a implicit euphemism for his visits to his mistress), Hélène's awkward intimacy with the tormented and inexperienced Pierre reveals an even more insidious side to her seeming impenetrability. Based on philosopher and author George Bataille's novel, Ma Mère is an insidious, amoral, depraved, and even darkly comical exposition on filial attraction, sexual initiation, and liberation. Although filmmaker Christophe Honoré presents some indelible and evocative images, most notably in the repeated crane shots of sand dunes that visually reflect Pierre's underlying sense of desolation, the pervasive bankruptcy and perverted search for intimacy and transcendence in the story is so alienated and bereft of hope that the film's recurring themes of religion, sexuality, fanaticism, and obsession becomes inextricably moribund and, like the characters' troubled lives, proves to be a transitory exercise in vacuous, empty ritual.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects