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New York Film Festival

October 17, 2010

The Strange Case of Angelica, 2010

Angelica.gifThe retrospective screening of Manoel de Oliveira's Acto da Primavera alongside his latest film, The Strange Case of Angelica provided a great opportunity to see the evolution - or rather, reconstitution - of his cinema from documentary to narrative fiction. Indeed, by evoking images from his first film, Douro, Faina Fluvial in Isaac's (Ricardo Trepa) desire to photograph the workers who still manually farm the valley, de Oliveira validates his continued preoccupation with film as a tensile medium for documentation, translation, and creation (the "in between-ness" described in the notes on Acto da Primavera). In hindsight, Isaac's fascination with their dying way of life proves to be an underlying symptom for his own dislocation and estrangement. Hired by a prominent family to take photographs of their daughter Angelica on the eve of her death, Isaac soon becomes haunted by her, leading him further into a state of suspension between reality and image, the physical and spiritual, life and death. Framed within this seemingly banal tale of obsession and longing, The Strange Case of Angelica, nevertheless, provides de Oliveira with a broad canvas to explore his recurring themes of doomed love, the relationship between image and reproduction, and cultural extinction.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, New York Film Festival

Acto da Primavera, 1963

acto.gifIn Le Quattro volte, Michelangelo Frammartino uses the staging of the Passion Play by the local villagers to bridge the ancient and the modern. This dialectic also provides the connective tissue in the Views from the Avant-Garde program, Station to Station, capturing the ancient tale as it unfolds in the streets of New York City (Jeanne Liotta's Crosswalk) and the Portuguese countryside (Fern Silva's Servants of Mercy), and culminating in the restored print screening of Manoel de Oliveira's sublime early work, Acto da Primavera. Filmed in the ancient village of Curalha in Northern Portugal (the film was released a year before Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew) where the local residents have been staging this rite of spring since the 16th century, Acto da Primavera straddles the bounds between documentary and fiction, action and performance. Bookending the film with episodes that reinforce the contemporaneity of events against which the play is staged (a reading of a newspaper early in the film that comes full circle with the concluding images of modern warfare), de Oliveira explores the notion of "in between-ness" - from the quaint village that seems anachronistic in its competing landscape of medieval architecture and electrical power lines, to the idea of film as a literal and figurative medium and conjurer of images, to the hybridization of reality when it consciously plays out before a camera.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, New York Film Festival

October 16, 2010

Le Quattro volte, 2010

quattro_volte.gifThe idea of permeable boundaries between life and death, reality and fiction also captures the spirit of Michelangelo Frammartino's distilled, yet richly textured fresco, Le Quattro Volte. Composed of four seasonal portraits that collectively present the cycle of life in the ancient village of Calabria, the film is something of a hybrid between Raymond Depardon's Profils paysans documentaries on the dying culture of rural farmers and Otar Iosseliani's pastoral comedies. By shifting narrative focus in each episode - an aging shepherd who cures his ailments with a nightly dose of holy dust obtained from the charwoman of the village church, a kid who sets out on his first graze and is separated from the herd, a tree that is cut down to be used as a maypole for the town festival, the construction of a coal-fired kiln to produce charcoal - Frammartino gives equal weight between the organic and inorganic to convey a sense of cosmic, eternal interconnectedness.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, New York Film Festival

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010

boonmee.gifLike Mija in Lee Chang-dong's Poetry, the eponymous, ailing protagonist of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is similarly haunted by memory and mortality. Retiring to a secluded country estate to live out his final days in the company of concerned family and friends (as well as a devoted Laotian illegal immigrant [Sakda Kaewbuadee] who administers his dialysis), Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is soon visited by ghosts from his past - his late wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) who had died decades earlier, and son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) who had disappeared as a university student (alluding to the communist movement of the 1970s), and has now emerged from the jungle as a transmogrified monkey-man. Expounding on the themes of reincarnation, parallel lives, and eternal recursion explored in Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong gorgeously conflates past and present, history, and subconscious into an indelible stream of consciousness, where the troublesome geopolitics of porous national borders serve as a mundane, yet poetic metaphor for the interpenetrating modes of reality that haunt our human struggle for legacy and meaning.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, New York Film Festival

Poetry, 2010

poetry.gifWhile Lee Chang-dong's Poetry has invited comparison to Bong Joon-ho's Mother in its tale of morality, filial devotion, and culpability in the absence of memory, its theme of capturing the ephemeral beauty in the quotidian and transforming it into something eternal suggests a closer association with Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life. And like After Life, the film is stitched together by mundane interactions and memories both real and constructed (in this case, as told by students in Mija's (Yun Janghee) class struggling to find a source of inspiration for their poetry writing assignment). By interweaving fractured moments of grace and (implied) brutality, youth and old age, innocence and death (the opening image is of children playing in the river who subsequently discover a body floating in the river), Lee creates an understated metaphor, not only for the idea of preserving the poetry in everyday life, but also for the indomitable heroine's struggle to find beauty - and legacy - in the face of brutal reality.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2010 | | Filed under 2010, New York Film Festival

October 18, 2009

Broken Embraces, 2009

broken_embraces.gifIngeniously constructed as parallel metafilms - one, Ray X's (Rubén Ochandiano) behind the scenes documentary that illustrates the intersection (and disjunction) between reality and fiction; the other, Mateo's (Lluís Homar) reconstruction of a doomed film project made 14 years earlier that reflects the role of the filmmaker as archaeologist and conjurer - Pedro Almodóvar's wry, multivalent, and voluptuous Broken Embraces is also a poignant rumination on grief, guilt, and loss. The theme of duality is prefigured in Mateo's adoption of the name Harry Caine, his screenwriter alterego, after a tragic accident that left him blind, as well as office secretary, Lena's adoption of the pseudonym Severine (in a playful nod to Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour) when she moonlights as a call girl to help pay for the mounting expenses incurred by her father's terminal illness.

This assumption of persona is also implied in an early episode of Lena trying out assorted costumes that emulate iconic images of Hollywood actresses as part of her screen test for Mateo's film project, Girls and Suitcases (a reflexive reworking of Almodóvar's earlier film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), simultaneously evoking Blake Edwards's Breakfast at Tiffany's in Lena's literal and figurative prostitution to her employer turned lover, Ernesto (José Luis Gómez) that is as motivated by financial necessity as it is by gratitude, as well as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in Mateo's attempt to conform Lena to the image of his creative vision and desire. It is interesting to note that the idea of projected desire is also revisited in the episodes of Ernesto spying on Lena through his son's unsynced documentary footage with the help of a neutral lip reader - an image that not only finds affinity with Chantal Akerman's recurring theme of "who speaks for the woman", but also converges into a sublime double projection when Lena enters the room and repeats her on-camera declaration in person, in essence, supplanting the image with the real. It is this transformation that perhaps best captures the haunting closing image of a reinvigorated Mateo against a magnified, recovered footage from the accident - revealing, not only a longing to suspend time and reconfigure the past, but also, in casting his own shadow against the projected image, an invocation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 18, 2009 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Bluebeard, 2009

bluebeard.gifOstensibly an adaptation of Charles Perrault's baroque fairytale, Bluebeard is also a distilled and densely layered exposition on Catherine Breillat's recurring preoccupation with socioeconomic and sexual politics. Structured as a tale within a tale, the film alternates between past and present, childhood and adolescence, fiction and reality. On one level is bright, cherubic Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) who sneaks away into the attic with her older, more gullible sister, Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) to read Perrault's fairytale. On another level is the realization of the fairytale itself: the plight of dowry-less, virginal Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) who is compelled to marry the reclusive nobleman, Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) in order to lift her mother (Isabelle Lapouge) and older sister, Anne (Daphne Baïwir) from a life of poverty following the accidental death of her father. By interchanging Catherine and Marie-Catherine during a pivotal staircase shot, Breillat draws an implicit parallel between the real and fictional younger sisters. At the core of the intersected stories is the idea of role reversal: Catherine, who relishes her ability to terrify her older sister with her all-too-animated readings of Bluebeard; and Marie-Catherine, who not only brings financial security to her family, but also asserts influence over her world-weary, murderous husband with her disarming innocence. Combined with elements of reflexive construction - specifically, the mismatched cuts of Marie-Catherine ascending the tower staircase that emphasize a looped editing used to achieve the illusion of verticality - Breillat creates a droll and incisive metaphor for the nature of empowerment.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 18, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 17, 2009

White Material, 2009

whitematerial.gifA textured panorama of modern day Africa's dynamic and volatile cross-cultural landscape, Claire Denis's White Material is an abstract and elemental, if oddly sterile rumination on colonial legacy and socioeconomic stagnation. Unfolding in episodic flashbacks as second-generation coffee plantation owner, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) scrambles to make her way back home after a forced evacuation of European settlers in light of an escalating civil war, the film structurally interweaves the parallel lives of the Vial family, a band of roving child soldiers scouring the countryside for "white material" trophies from fleeing settlers, and a charismatic military officer turned rebel leader known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) who has gone into hiding to recover from injuries sustained during a recent skirmish. With the family patriarch, Henri (Michel Subor) removed from day to day operations, her estranged husband, André (Christopher Lambert) seeking protection from the corrupt, warlord-like mayor (William Nadylam) by secretly agreeing to sign over the deed to the plantation, and her immature son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) unwilling to take on responsibility for the family business, Maria is left alone to manage the upcoming harvest, negotiating with former employees and impoverished villagers in an attempt to bring the coffee to market. But as agents of the civil war circle ever closer towards the near deserted plantation, Maria's illusive quest soon becomes a journey into the heart of darkness. By decentralizing the conflict to an indeterminate country even as she incorporates real-life elements from contemporary African history (most notably, in the Boxer character who is based on assassinated Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara, and the induction of child soldiers in the civil wars of Angola and Sierra Leone), Denis incisively dissociates the issue of African stagnation from reductive presumptions of long-standing tribal (and implicitly localized) conflict, reframing it instead within the broader context of racial, economic, educational, and class division. It is perhaps this sense of universality that ultimately defines the form of Denis's uncharacteristically raw and unfocused film, reflecting, like the unprocessed coffee beans, an immediacy that transcends simple economic reality and instead converges towards murkier implications of globalism and cultural survival.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2009 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Mother, 2009

mother.gifInasmuch as Life During Wartime explores the limits of forgiveness, Bong Joon-ho's Mother poses a sinister corollary in its tale of a parent's unwavering devotion to her child. The price exacted is prefigured in the opening shot of the impassive, titular mother (Kim Hye-Ja) wandering through the countryside with arms flailing to the rhythm of an imaginary dance. The sole provider and caretaker of Do-joon (Bin Won), her dimwitted, accident-prone adult son, she anxiously watches over him from across the window of her herb shop as he invariably gets himself into precarious situations. Sideswiped by a speeding car one day when he leans out into the street, Do-joon is goaded into chasing the occupants into a golf course to retaliate, even as he seems to have forgotten the reason for the pursuit. A trip to the police station leads to more confusion when the driver decides to file a complaint for vandalizing his car, and Do-joon is forced to pay for repairs when he is unable to remember who had caused the damage. Soon, Do-joon's pattern of short-term memory loss strikes a more somber tone when a schoolgirl is found murdered on the roof of a hillside building, and all clues seem to lead back to him. Suggesting a loose reconstitution of Bong's earlier film Memories of Murder in the pursuit of a handicapped suspect, Mother similarly subverts the crime fiction genre in its implication of national history in aberrant psychology. It is also in this context of repressed memories that Mother transcends the genre in its potent social commentary on the illusion of cultural amnesia as a way forward from traumatic, unreconciled history.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2009 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 15, 2009

Around a Small Mountain (36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak), 2009

around_mountain.gifIn a scene that occurs midway through Jacques Rivette's 36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak, former circus performer turned textile designer, Kate (Jane Birkin) returns to Paris with a batch of fabrics that she has dyed during a visit to her family's provincial circus and tries to match the color of the swatches to a Pantone chart, discovering that the hues had turned out differently from how they appeared when she had inspected them under the circus lights. The idea of the circus as facilitating a different way of seeing is a theme that surfaces throughout the film, creating a broader analogy for the stage as an intersection between real life and performance. It is this sense of novelty that would also draw globe-trotting Italian businessman, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) into the world of a dying circus, prompted by Kate's invitation to see the show as a token of gratitude for fixing her stranded car. Returning after years of forced separation in order to mourn the loss of her father (who, in turn, was responsible for her exile) with her sister, Barbara (Vimala Pons) and niece, Clémence (Julie-Marie Parmentier), Kate is reluctant to step into the ring again, having once been involved in a tragic accident that would claim the life of her lover. But as Vittorio becomes as increasingly seduced by the elusive Kate as he is by resident clown, Marlo's (Jacques Bonnaffé) infinite variations on the opening skit for each show, he begins to immerse himself further into the everyday chaos of the circus in the belief that the ring represents the key to finding closure. Composed of self-contained episodes that underscore the construction and artifice implicit in a performance, 36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak is a whimsical and bittersweet allegory for the stage as a place of adventure, mystery, and wonder. Alternating sequences between the performers and their performances that allude to their interchangeability, Rivette creates a poignant metaphor for life as human comedy and ever-changing spectacle.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 13, 2009

Life During Wartime, 2009

life_wartime.gifDuring the Q&A, cinematographer Edward Lachman commented that the more aesthetic look to Life During Wartime with respect to Todd Solondz's earlier work was a result of Solondz's direction that the film convey a degree of unnaturalness and plasticity. On the surface, this image of conscious construction seems inconsistent with the sense of organic continuity achieved by revisiting characters (albeit transfigured) from Solondz's earlier film, Happiness: a narrative progression existing outside the frame that is suggested in the in medias res opening sequence with neurotic couple, Allen (Michael K. Williams) and Joy (Shirley Henderson) celebrating their anniversary at a restaurant before having their romantic dinner scuttled when the waitress recognizes Allen's voice as that of her obscene phone caller. As in Happiness, Life During Wartime is also interconnected by the three sisters' unrequited search for happiness: Trish (Allison Janney) the divorced mother just returning to the dating scene after her ex-husband, Bill (Ciarán Hinds) was imprisoned for pedophilia; writer Helen (Ally Sheedy) whose persona ever teeters between mercurial artist and narcissistic celebrity; and fragile Joy who, still haunted by her jilted lover, Andy's (Paul Reubens) suicide, decides to run away to Miami to re-evaluate her marriage. At the core of Solondz's perversely wry satire is the nature - and limits - of forgiveness in its various incarnations, from crime and punishment, to moral transgression, to weakness and despair. Framed against the image of pervasive artificiality, Solondz creates an eccentric metaphor for longing as a manifestation of impossible construction, where only the prospect of redemption, not happiness, lies within our grasp.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

The White Ribbon, 2009

white_ribbon.gifSet in an unidentified Protestant village in northern Germany during the early part of the twentieth century, Michael Haneke's luminous and atmospheric The White Ribbon is a crystallization of his recurring preoccupations with the ambiguity of truth, class division, surveillance, and the violence of repression. Prefacing the story with the acknowledgment that his memory of the past may be flawed, the narrator - the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) - recounts the strange events that happened to their community in the preceding years before the war, tracing the initial occurrence to a widowed doctor (Rainer Bock) who sustained serious injuries after falling from his horse near his home. A more ominous, unrelated tragedy would soon overshadow the mysterious circumstances behind the doctor's fall: the death of a peasant woman who fell through the rotted floor of a mill owned by the baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his wife (Ursina Lardi). Wary of public opinion over his own culpability for the accident, the baron begins to distance himself further from the community, briefly emerging to host a harvest festival for his tenant farmers that only serves to reinforce their mutual disdain when a drunken guest exacts revenge by uprooting the baroness's vegetable garden. Distracted by his own romantic pursuit of the baron's governess, Eva (Leonie Benesch), the schoolmaster initially remains indifferent to the mysteries surrounding the village, until another incident derails his own prospects for happiness. Part deconstructed mystery and part clinical observation, Haneke's combination of crisp black and white and neutral framing insightfully reflects the spectrum of social division - wealth, age, gender, education, spirituality, moral conscience - that equally serve as historical précis for prewar Germany and contemporary allegory for religious extremism (an analogy that is implied in the image of parishioners in church as the schoolmaster conveys the news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination).

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 10, 2009

Everyone Else, 2009

everyone_else.gifThe title of Maren Ade's quietly observed film is subtly conveyed in passing, a desire expressed by uninhibited rock publicist, Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) to her architect boyfriend, Chris (Lars Eidinger) that their relationship will not be reduced to the banal paradigm of being like "everyone else". But romanticism soon collides with reality for the couple during a holiday to Sardinia. This rupture crystallizes in an episode in which Chris (Lars Eidinger) gives a tour of his mother's sitting room to dinner guests, Hans (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and his wife Sana (Nicole Marischka) despite Gitti's reluctance - an eclectically furnished room with a painted tree branch, personal mementos, whimsical curios, and a passé record collection that prompts Sana to remark that the room is filed with longing. It is a comment that would also embody the nature of Chris and Gitti's relationship and its gradual unraveling. Increasingly insecure over professional setbacks, the reserved Chris is reluctant to involve Gitti in his affairs, avoiding disclosure that he had lost a prestigious design contest by claiming that the selection had still not been announced. Reuniting with old friend and fellow architect (and implicit rival) Hans, Chris and Gitti begin to reevaluate their relationship within the paradigm of Hans and Sana's seemingly parsed, well-defined roles within their own relationship and, in the process, begin to lose their own identities. Ade insightfully uses flat compositions and medium shots to de-dramatize the action, creating a neutral framing that reflects the fluid dynamics intrinsic in the formation and dissolution of all relationships. Framed in the context of the mother's sitting room, their struggle is also an unarticulated longing expressed through ridiculous, imperfect displays of personality and validation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2009 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Min Yè, 2009

MinYe.gifDuring the Q&A for the film, Souleymane Cissé and lead actress Sokona Gakou remarked that with only one remaining movie theater in the country, just being able to make a film in Mali is something of a small miracle. It is a responsibility to Malian and African culture that is not lost in Min Yè, a vivid panorama of contemporary middle-class life in Mali that eschews all too familiar images of stagnation, illiteracy, and poverty that often serve as scapegoats for enabling archaic customs. In Min Yè, the polygamist is not an uneducated villager but a Westernized filmmaker, Issa (Assane Kouyaté), whose third wife, Mimi (Gakou) is a doctor and high-profile health minister. Accustomed to a certain degree of empowerment and independence from her husband (deciding to stay in her own house instead of moving into his household), Mimi carries on a not-too-subtle affair with the married Abba (Alou Sissoko), a fishmonger who sends her a tell-tale case of fish after each encounter as a token of his affection. Confronted by Issa with his suspicions of infidelity after he finds Abba in the courtyard, Mimi decides to file for divorce, a move that soon brings on a new set of complications, as relatives plead for reconciliation to avoid the shame, Issa's second wife increasingly resents the attention paid to Mimi, and Abba's wife begins to grow suspicious of Mimi's role in her husband's life. Cissé subtly, but incisively explores the question of polygamy through its corrosive repercussions - from abrogated custodial rights of women to their children, to the hypocrisy of adultery laws that enforce a one-sided marriage fidelity, to societal pressures that foster a status quo, even among the powerful, educated leaders and professionals who are in a position to enable social change.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 8, 2009

Hadewijch, 2009

Hadewijch.gifBruno Dumont's Hadewijch departs from his familiar aesthetic of landscapes as abstract manifestations of internal states to create a spare and intimate, yet equally provocative exploration of absolute faith, martyrdom, and God's silence. From the opening shot of an ascetic postulant, Céline (Julie Sokolowski) making her way across the woods to visit a Pietà at a nearby church, Dumont channels Robert Bresson's cinema, suggesting an updated version of the frail country priest in Diary of a Country Priest walking to his new parish. Sent back to live in the "real world" after disobeying the Mother Superior's entreaties that she end her self-imposed mortification, Céline's reality proves to be far from the terrestrial grounding that the nuns had in mind, returning to a comfortable, if aimless bourgeois life as the daughter of a cabinet minister. Befriending a young man from the banlieue, Yassine (Yassine Salim), Céline becomes increasingly drawn to his older brother, an imam named Nassir (Karl Sarafdis) whose theological discussions on the Koran mirror her own unrequited quest - a connection that would lead her further into spiritual darkness. In its portrait of disaffected youth in the aftermath of traumatic history, Hadewijch converges towards The Devil, Probably, where revolution is borne of uncertainty and displaced passion. However, inasmuch as Dumont invokes the spirit of Bresson throughout the film, the concluding shot of Céline by the river proves to be a subversion of the iconic sequence from Mouchette, achieving transcendence, not from immolation, but from salvation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Ne Change Rien, 2009

NeChangeRien.gifLike his earlier documentary, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? on seminal filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at work on Sicilia!, Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien plays on the idea of répétition as the act of rehearsal and iteration to capture the ephemeral nature of the creative process. Shot in black and white, Costa's chiaroscuro and neutral framing compositions create distinctive textures from a monochromatic palette that illustrate the spectrum of Jeanne Balibar's diverse performances. For the prelude song, Torture, a down-directional spotlight illuminates Balibar on a dark stage, framing her slight figure in a cone of light that echoes the song's sentiment of emotional captivity. In a studio rehearsal for Cinéma, Balibar and guitarist Rodolphe Burger are framed in an extended, stationary medium shot as they explore variations on the refrain, "peine perdue" before deciding to slow down the delivery of the second instance as a way to "emphasize the silence", reinforcing the nuances achieved in the seeming sameness of the repeating line. Another side of Balibar emerges in the rehearsals for the opéra bouffe La Périchole by Jacques Offenbach - appropriately framing her in profile to reflect her multi-faceted artistry - as an off-screen voice coach emphasizes the precision intrinsic in the pronunciation and intonation of the piece. For These Days, Costa shoots the live performance with a shallow depth of field, resulting in a sharply focused Balibar against a blurred, almost ghostly cast of musicians that take on a metaphysical dimension in its stark contrast between the tactile and the ethereal. Concluding with the isolated spotlighting of Balibar and Berger during the studio recording of Ton Diable, the image becomes a metaphor for the deconstruction of the creative process, the synthesis of distinctive, individual voices into crescendoed, sublimated polyphony.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 7, 2009

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, 2009

inferno.gifA reconstruction of Henri-Georges Clouzot's aborted film project, Inferno assembled from found (or more accurately, negotiated) footage, interviews with film crew and on-set observers, and script reading by actors Jacques Gamblin and Bérénice Bejo in the roles of Odette and Marcel, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno loosely recalls José Luis Guerín's cinema in exploring the intersection between fiction and non-fiction, reality and memory. Re-contextualizing the reality of the captured footage with first-hand accounts of the film shoot, Bromberg and Medrea similarly illustrate the amorphous bounds between the real image and its projection. In one sequence, a shot of lead actor Serge Reggiani running across a bridge, appearing visibly distressed after witnessing his wife, Odette (Romy Schneider) water skiing with lothario Martineau (Jean-Claude Bercq) is framed against interviews revealing his escalating animosity with the ever-demanding Clouzot that led to the filmmaker's perverse attempts to reassert his authority by imposing multiple takes of the physically grueling scene on an already ailing Reggiani. In another scene, comments on Clouzot's anxiety and insomnia that contributed to Clouzot's heart attack that would ultimately derail the project is juxtaposed against found footage of the director taking extended close-up shots of sexy, twenty-something actresses Schneider and Dany Carrel in bathing suits for a provocative dream sequence, wryly suggesting a more visceral reason for fifty-something Clouzot's distress. By incorporating Clouzot's shot technical experiments featuring Schneider that were to be used as a basis for dream sequences - but were not intended to be seen in their entirety in the final cut - Bromberg and Medrea cleverly introduce another dimension of "truth" between film image and memory that, like the deconstructed found film in Guerín's Tren de sombras, reflect on the role of cinema as conjurer of images, revealing lost phantoms that exist only in the frames between the visible.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Sweet Rush, 2009

sweetrush.gifPart coming of age story set in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising, and part personal testament by lead actress Krystyna Janda on her husband, Edward Klosinski's battle with cancer during filming, Andrzej Wajda's poignant, if disarticulated Sweet Rush, on the surface, suggests kinship with the metacinema of Abbas Kiarostami in exploring the interpenetration between art and life. This ambiguity is suggested in the film's opening sequence, as Janda awakens gasping for breath in a sparely furnished room before expressing her recounting her husband's diagnosis, reluctance to embark on a new project, and disbelief that he would succumb to his illness. However, inasmuch as the scene suggests a shift from dream to reality, it also underscores its construction - Janda's acting in the staged awakening and delivery of the subsequent monologue. The juncture between reality and fiction is also reflected in the image of a film crew setting up a scene that transitions to the sequence of a country doctor (Jan Englert) diagnosing his wife Marta's (Janda) terminal illness. Still mourning the loss of her sons and distanced from her overworked husband, Marta begins to turn her attention to a handsome young man, Bogus (Pawel Szajda), briefly finding a renewed sense of purpose in her life in the midst of disillusionment and uncertainty. At the core of Wajda's interweaving stories of grief and loss is the nature of performance. Juxtaposing Janda's real-life ordeal with the tragic denouement of the fiction film, Wajda transforms a seemingly conventional, period romance into an intimate and contemporary tale of enduring love and, in the process, elevates the grace of everyday struggle into the realm of art.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 6, 2009

Independencia, 2009

independencia.gifThe idea that history is written by the conquerors and not the vanquished shapes the consciousness of Raya Martin's distilled and meticulously crafted film, Independencia, a highly formalized reconstruction (and reclamation) of a lost, unwritten history: one communicated in the language of an indigenous people but framed in the conventional, accepted syntax of "official" (and implicitly, Western) history. The second installment of an envisioned trilogy on the history of a dominated Philippines, Independencia succinctly bridges the end of Spanish colonization at the turn of the nineteenth century with the advent of American occupation in the opening shot of Filipinos in an already subjugated state (dressed in traditional Spanish attire in lieu of native clothing) at an unidentified village who are thrown into chaos by the sound of distant bombing. A mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and her dutiful son (Sid Lucero) flee to the forest, holing up in an abandoned hut in an attempt to outlast the advancing invaders, subsequently joined by a young woman (Alessandra de Rossi) who had been raped by American soldiers and left to die in the wilderness. However, as time wears on and the invaders continue to encroach ever deeper into the heart of the forest (ingeniously reflected through the overtly artificial, painted backdrop of trees that become progressively deforested during the course of the film), the displaced natives - which now includes a young boy (Mika Aguilos) - retreat further and further towards the mountains, finally reaching the edge of the shore. Martin incisively explores the intersection between national history and cinema history to illustrate the idea of a mediated gaze that defines the other through distanced, imprecise, subjective codes that ingrain a sense of hierarchy. Visually, Martin reflects this process of cultural imperialism in the images of supplanted native identity that bookend the film: from the opening shot of Filipinos in figuratively handed down Spanish clothing (that also alludes to the reinforcing of dominant cultures implicit in the act of international charity), to the ominous tincture of color suffusing the horizon against a Mount Fuji-esque scenic landscape (reminiscent of scroll work) that augurs the arrival of the Japanese.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 06, 2009 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Ghost Town, 2009

ghosttown.gifComposed of three chapters - Voices, Recollections, and Innocence - Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town is a textured, graceful, and indelible panorama of the "other" China, a sobering account of threadbare lives lived in the shadows cast by China's modern day economic miracle and its founding architect, Chairman Mao Zedong, whose imposing statue graces Zhiziluo village's deserted and overgrown town square. Isolated in the mountains of Yunnan Province near the Burmese border, abandoned by Western missionaries after a government purge during the Cultural Revolution, and repeatedly passed over for state-financed development projects since the 1980s, Zhiziluo's few remaining villagers have become figurative ghosts wandering through a rarefied, uncertain landscape in a state of perpetual limbo, searching for transcendence.

In Voices, the ethnic minority Christian community of Lisu and Nu villagers struggle to preserve their faith in the face of emigration, an aging congregation, and cultural despiritualization. But far from a dying culture on the cusp of erasure, what emerges in Voices is a vibrant and devout extended community, reaffirming their faith by returning to their beloved church in an annual pilgrimage to Zhiziluo for a midnight mass to celebrate Christmas with other parishioners.

In Recollections the face of emigration is embodied by a young couple: one, contemplating moving to the city in search of a better life, the other, increasingly pressured into entering a financially beneficial, arranged marriage (and whose fate is mirrored in the parallel story of a returning Christian pilgrim who has brought her new baby for her first visit to her hometown since being sold into marriage). The dissolution of love is also reflected in the wistful observations of a divorced, alcoholic drifter who pines for his estranged family, even as he continues to alienate himself from their lives with his chronic drinking.

On the other side of village depopulation is the fate on those left behind, the subject of the film's third chapter, Innocence. Abandoned by his family (who, like most working-aged men and women, moved to the city to seek out job opportunities), a twelve year-old boy named Ah Long scavenges for food in the wilderness and tries to retain some semblance of a normal adolescence with his matinee idol pinups, loud music, and wrestling with his playmates. Biding his empty hours participating in a traditional Lisu exorcism ritual, then subsequently attending mass, Ah Long's seemingly incongruous pastime intrinsically reveals what modern China has abandoned in the pursuit of modernization and economic growth: community, family, cultural heritage, and spirituality.
First posted on The Auteurs Notebook, 10/03/09.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 06, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 2, 2009

Police, Adjective, 2009

police_adjective.gifThe disjunction between moral and bureaucratic law, meaning and intent shapes the discourse of Corneliu Porumboiu's meticulously observed, if clinical and muted procedural film, Police, Adjective. Assigned to conduct surveillance on a typical, middle-class teenager named Alex (Alexandru Sabadac) who is suspected of dealing drugs, junior detective and newlywed, Cristi (Dragos Bucur) spends his days trailing his young suspect through his daily routine - going to school, meeting friends, walking home, receiving visitors - before returning to the precinct each evening to write detailed reports on the suspect's (in)activities for the day, often wrapping up his observations by expressing his skepticism over the necessity to continue the suspect's pursuit. But his supervisor, Angelache (Vlad Ivanov) believes that he has found probable cause among Cristi's daily reports, citing an occasion when Alex was spotted smoking hashish with friends near a playground. For Angelache, the simple act of passing around the hashish to his friends constitutes "distribution" and becomes more determined to make an arrest, pitting him against a reluctant Cristi on the role of law enforcement in society. Porumboiu reflects this sense of moral rupture through the film's overarching structure, contrasting Cristi's near-wordless, real-time surveillance sequences with his nightly composition of one-page reports that underscore the impreciseness of language (an ambiguity that also surfaces during a conversation with his wife, Anca [Irina Saulescu] over the lyrics to a song that she repeatedly listens to over dinner). Framed against Cristi's didactic, extended meeting with Angelache near the end of the film, Cristi's crisis of conscience serves as a provocative, modern day reflection of innate humanity that is being systematically erased in the soulless pursuit of civilized society.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 1, 2009

Vincere, 2009

vincere.gifLess a biography on the early life of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini than a dissection into creating (and sustaining) a cult of personality, Marco Bellocchio's Vincere is a textured, operatic, and incisive historical fiction based on the fate of Mussolini's secret first wife, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) who, along with their son, Benito Albino, were erased from Mussolini's official record as he sought to consolidate power and build a totalitarian state. From the early sequence of a flashback within a flashback as Ida watches a defiant Mussolini (Filippo Timi) challenge Socialist party officials by invoking God's wrath, triggering a memory of their first encounter, Bellocchio introduces the idea of altered chronology that also foreshadows her struggle for legitimacy and validation as the true wife of Mussolini in the face of systematic whitewashing. Having once sold all of her belongings in order to fund Mussolini's ambition to create a rival political newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia after his split with the Socialist periodical, Avanti!, Ida's symbolic gesture of surrendering her fate to the hands of her lover would soon take on an even more ominous dimension when he marries his mistress, Rachele - the mother of his illegitimate daughter - in order to sanitize his public image as a traditional family man (and consequently win the support of the Catholic church). Interweaving archival footage with historical re-enactment and fictional adaptation, Bellocchio insightfully structures the film to reflect a pattern of reconstituted history that enabled the usurpation of power and political suppression, not through a display of force, but through the control of information.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 01, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Kanikosen, 2009

kanikosen.gifIn its incarnation as a 21st century, recession-era satire on worker exploitation and the intersection between globalism and geopolitics, Sabu's Kanikosen is an atmospheric, if diluted adaptation of Takiji Kobayashi's Shōwa-era leftist novel. Set aboard an Imperial Navy-escorted (and implicitly, sanctioned), crab canning ship operating near (and often, over) the Russian-controlled Sea of Okhotsk, the film paints a grotesque and wryly comical portrait of inhumane working conditions, classism, and poverty that would sow the seeds of revolution. At the core of Kanikosen's particular melding of polemic and gallows humor is the inclusion of recurring, outdated references that underscore the sense of fiction and staging beneath the film's stylized construction and cultural anachronism: oversized gears reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (a 1936 film that would have chronologically succeeded the film's interwar, 1920s setting) that reflect the role of the worker as interchangeable cogs in the machinery of industrial production; the specter of Soviet socialism that threatens the fabric of the Japanese free market economy collides with the modern day reality of a post-communist, capitalist Russia; the ubiquitous presence of the Imperial Navy - dissolved since the end of the Pacific War - that reinforces the cycle of exploitation between workers and businesses (through their representative management). Polarized to the point of caricature but without the impassioned execution of agitprop, and evading correlation between the economic expansion of an Industrial Revolution created in the midst of increasing totalitarianism with the realities of an Asian tiger-fueled new global economy, Kanikosen ultimately struggles to offer more than well crafted imagery, paradoxically creating an estranged and complacent call to arms.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 01, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

September 30, 2009

Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, 2009

eccentricities.gifInasmuch as Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl returns to Manoel de Oliveira's recurring theme of doomed love, the film also embodies Oliveira's preoccupation with subjectivity and modes of representation. On one level is the adaptation of Eça de Queiroz's literary work into a screenplay, retaining a degree of formalism and dramatic structure associated with classical text. On another level is narrative subjectivity, where the story is told as a first-hand (and therefore, implicitly "true") account by Macário (Ricardo Trêpa) to a fellow traveler (Leonor Silveira), but, as a retelling of a past - and traumatic - event, has been shaped by the filters of personal memory. Another is the disjunction between image and reality, as embodied by the elusive object of Macário's desire, Luísa (Catarina Wallenstein), a charming, enigmatic young woman who captures his attention one day from a neighboring window in his office. Facing disinheritance from his uncle and benefactor, Tio Francisco (Diogo Dória) after announcing his plans to marry Luísa, Macário decides to forge his own path and agrees to take on an extended assignment in Cape Verde in the hopes of raising enough money to start a new life with his beloved. However, when Macário becomes unwittingly implicated in his business acquaintance's messy private affairs, his destiny seems once again determined by honor and obligation. With a slender running time of 64 minutes, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl is a compact, richly textured illustration of Oliveira's multivalent approach to storytelling - distilling human desire into its unexpected, essential incarnations to create not only a timeless story of longing and unrequited love, but also a relevant, modern day cautionary tale on materialism and excess.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Sweetgrass, 2009

sweetgrass.gifDuring the Q&A for Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor indicated that they had spent three years filming sheepherding through the Beartooth Mountains on what had initially been conceived as a family activity for the summer because of a desire to capture the last time that a pair of ranchers - hailing from the one remaining sheep farm within three adjacent counties in rural Montana - would drive their flock to public lands to graze: a cultural capstone that would end up being deferred for another two summer pastures before the owners finally sold the farm and resettle to a larger, more remote farm near the Canadian border. In hindsight, this sense of romanticism towards capturing a dying way of life shapes the rigorous, painstakingly observed, panoramic form of the film as well. Initially, the film suggests kinship with Nikolaus Geyhalter's Our Daily Bread in its wordless images of farming as mass production, as sheep are herded into the barn at the end of the day, lambs are re-distributed among a group of nursing ewes to maximize nutrition, and ranchers shear rows of sheep with lulling efficiency. However, the film eventually breaks away from the economy of the paradigm as ranch hands, Pat and John set off into the mountains with their flock of sheep for the summer, capturing instead the vastness of the difficult terrain, constant threat of wildlife, physical toll, and boredom that define their everyday lives. Ironically, in the filmmakers' objective to shoot the landscape, sheep, and people with equal parity, what is lost is the sense of diurnal rhythm intrinsic in their ritual, where the passage of time is obscured by an editing strategy that heavily favors daylight over night time shots - the three year excursion unfolding in three days (a blurring of time that contributes to confusing sequences over John's apparent meltdown during a call to his mother and subsequently, while rounding sheep, after having seemingly spent only a day in the wilderness) - revealed only through the growth of new wool on sheep making their way down the mountain at the end of summer.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

Les Herbes folles, 2009

herbes_folles.gifRevisiting the shifting perspective, stream of consciousness narrative of Providence, Alain Resnais's Les Herbes folles is a more whimsical variation on the themes of subjective reality and causality. An early image of wild grass poking through cracks in the concrete provides a paradigm for the film's seemingly organic tale of subverted expectation: a middle-aged man with time on his hands, Georges Palet (André Dussollier) recovers a wallet from a parking garage and immediately begins to devise scenarios on how he should approach the owner, a dentist named Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) to return it. However, when his initial contact proves to be a terse, anticlimactic "thank you" telephone call in the middle of a family gathering - precipitated in part by his wife's (Anne Consigny) suggestion that he bring the wallet to the local police station to arrange the actual return instead of handling it personally - Georges decides to re-initiate contact with the indifferent Marguerite, intrigued by her more adventurous hobby as an aviatrix of restored World War II planes that, in some small way, rekindles childhood memories of his late father. Resnais' playful re-arrangement of Hollywood genres - romance, mystery, adventure (most notably, in reference to Paramount Studio's The Bridges of Toko-Ri) - results in a remarkably fluid, wry, and idiosyncratic exploration of chance, connection, and noble pursuit.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival

October 20, 2008

Serbis, 2008

serbis.gifSet in the overcrowded, noise-polluted, bustling city of Angeles, the former location of the U.S. military-operated Clark Air Force Base, the characters in Brillante Mendoza's kinetic and vertiginous Serbis are, in a sense, integrally connected to fortunes of the city's postwar history as an entertainment district for the nearby air base. Once owning a chain of movie houses, the proud, Pineda family matriarch, Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño) is now struggling to keep her last remaining movie house afloat by featuring all day, second-run adult films, aided by her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose), her son-in-law, Lando (Julio Diaz) who runs a small cafeteria near the street entrance, and her nephews Ronald (Kristofer King), the projectionist, and Alan (Coco Martin), the building superintendent. But soon, it becomes apparent that the Pineda family is too distracted with the circumstances in their own lives to properly attend to the business of the failing theater. Consumed by a protracted trial that she had initiated against her husband for bigamy in the hopes that a guilty verdict would clear the way for a proper divorce and vindicate her name in society, Nanay Flor occupies her time with courthouse visits and meetings with her attorney. Faced with impending fatherhood, Alan is being pressured into marriage by his girlfriend, Merly (Mercedes Cabral). And even the dependable Nayda finds herself increasingly attracted to the introverted Ronald. Revolving around the titular theme of service - from the city's past history of entertaining locally stationed American servicemen (an idea that is reinforced in the appearance of biracial characters in the film), to the Pineda family's continued dedication to the movie house despite personal conflicts and petty jealousies, to young men hustling gay patrons in its dark aisles - Mendoza parallels the plight of the Pineda family with the dilapidated movie theater. Framed against recurring images of interconnected, labyrinthine stairs, the juxtaposition reflects the constant struggle between old world values and harsh economic reality, dignity and survival, culture and commercialism.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 20, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 19, 2008

Bullet in the Head, 2008

bullet_head.gifIn a way, Bullet in the Head continues to push the level of alienation created in Jaime Rosales's earlier films, The Hours of the Day (shot from the perspective of a serial killer) and Solitary Fragments (shot from the parallel perspectives of a terrorist attack survivor and members of an estranged family), this time, to maddening - and arguably dislocated - effect. During the Q&A for the film, Rosales indicated that he wanted to create a new film language in order to reflect the need for new ways of communication on the still unresolved, decades old Basque issue. In hindsight, Rosales's strategy seems woefully incongruous to his near wordless approach to the film. Ostensibly based on the real-life, deadly chance encounter between ETA members and unarmed Spanish police officers near the Franco-Spanish border, Rosales exclusively uses generic, ambient street sounds in lieu of conversations (with the exception of a brief, verbal exchange between the terrorists and the police officers on a cafeteria parking lot) effectively negates the idea of fostering dialogue on domestic terrorism, creating instead a murky and underformed correlation between silent witness and moral complicity.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 19, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

Tulpan, 2008

tulpan.gifSimilar to Kazakh filmmaker Serik Aprimov's perestroika comedy, The Last Stop, Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan is also a chronicle of a young man's readjustment to a civilian life in the bucolic steppes after an adventure-filled military service that brought him to the far reaches of the former Soviet Republic. Longing for a nomadic life in the plains of the Hunger Steppe, Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov) has traded in his life as a sailor (where he had sketched out his pastoral dream on the back of his uniform collar) to live with his sister Samal (Samal Eslyamova) and work as an apprentice for her husband, an experienced shepherd named Ondas (Ondasyn Besikasov), in exchange for receiving his own sheep to tend after he finds a wife to marry. To this end, Asa has his heart set on a young woman named Tulpan, and enlists Ondas and his best friend, truck driver Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov) to act as intermediaries for his introduction, trying to impress Tulpan's parents with stories of epic battles with a giant octopus and decorative (if not at all practical) gifts from his seafaring days. However, when Tulpan unexpectedly rejects his marriage proposal on a whim, and Ondas becomes reluctant to give him his own sheep after a rash of stillbirths in his already dwindling flock, Asa becomes even more determined to strike out on his own and pursue his elusive destiny. Dvortsevoy's idiosyncratic fusion of ethnographic documentary with understated comedy creates a lyrical realism that reflects the paradoxical beauty of the harsh, desolate landscape. As in Aprimov's seminal film, Dvortsevoy captures the human comedy intrinsic in the characters' defiance of their fates, finding quotidian grace in the simple act of survival and natural community.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 19, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 17, 2008

Let It Rain, 2008

let_rain.gifThe insidious nature of racism and marginalization that underpins the discourse in It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks also surfaces in Let It Rain, Agnès Jaoui's third (and lightest) ensemble collaboration with screenwriter and actor, Jean-Pierre Bacri. Having scheduled a visit to her childhood home in order to help her sister, Florence (Pascale Arbillot) sort out their late mother's affairs, career oriented, Agathe Villanova (Jaoui), agrees to participate in a documentary profiling successful women that is being co-directed by a family acquaintance, Karim (Jamel Debbouze) and his mentor, Michel Ronsard (Bacri) a respected, if past his prime filmmaker. But soon, the shooting of the film becomes secondary to the unraveling controlled chaos in their lives. The son of Florence and Agathe's housekeeper, Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji) who was brought to France as a teenager by their parents during Algeria's decolonization, Karim resents his mother's subservience to the Villanova family, continuing to live with them in an adjoining, rundown shack while having to take on additional jobs in order to compensate for their inability to pay her wages. Florence, bored by her life in the country and stifled by her husband's (Guillaume De Tonquedec) neediness, embarks on an affair with the equally neurotic and insecure Michel. Agathe, eyeing a run for public office, compromises her principles by moving to town in order to take advantage of a gender-based quota that will guarantee her spot in the electoral ballot. And even the reliable Karim, juggling a marriage, independent filmmaking, and a day job as a hotel manager (appropriately named Hôtel le Terminus), soon finds his life complicated by his friendship with an attractive co-worker, Aurélie (Florence Loiret-Caille). At the heart of Jaoui's humorous and insightful observation is the implicit, often subverted power struggles that exists in all relationships: entrenched racism and classism that reinforce archaic values of hierarchical, inherited privilege, favoritisms that engender arbitrary exclusion and victimization, and traditional gender roles that suppress identity by masking the appearance of weakness. Concluding with the sequential shot of the characters seeking refuge from the rain, the image becomes a figurative return to nature and rejection of the mask, finding community in the acknowledgment of their mutual vulnerability.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 16, 2008

It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks, 2008

jerks.gifThe murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist in 2004, followed by the publishing of twelve satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed that was commissioned for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, provides the incendiary framework for Daniel Leconte's provocative documentary, It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks. Chronicling the 2007 civil trial of the French weekly Charlie Hebdo and its editor Philippe Val for reprinting the now infamous Jyllands-Posten cartoons (along with an additional series of similarly themed cartoons) for the February 9, 2006 edition, the film is an incisive examination of the complex, often conflicting issues of free speech, self-censorship, secularism, and assimilation. On one side of the argument is the broad stroke, caricatured depiction of a minority community that not only tenuously associates the terrorist acts committed by a subculture of Islamic extremists with the wider, mainstream Muslim culture (who often bear the retaliatory brunt of these acts in society), but also resurrects the specter of colonialism in their continued treatment as marginalized, derided second-class French citizens: a sentiment that is reflected in prosecutor (and Jacques Chirac's counsel), Francis Spizner's terse comment, "We are no longer the Indigenes of the Republic!" On the other side is the idea that exercising political correctness by innoculating a specific religious community from being a target of satire is, itself, an act of racism: an implication of difference and self-consciousness that runs counter to the ideals of tolerance and inclusion (as Val's defense attorney, Richard Malka, humorously argues by displaying equally irreverent cartoons satirizing Catholic church controversies that were previously published in Charlie Hebdo, causing members of the prosecuting team to break out in laughter) and, more importantly, detracts from the real social problem of global terrorism. Interweaving footage shot during the course of the trial (or, more appropriately, the media circus surrounding it as people alternately vie for attention to promote their agendas, however tangential) and interviews with participants from the case (including prominent defense witnesses such as filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, Iranian political refugee, Professor Mehdi Mozzafari, and exiled Algerian journalist, Mohamed Sifaoui), Leconte emulates the dialectic structure of a trial to convey a sense of social dialogue - contributing to an evolving public discourse that, like the blasphemous cartoons, paradoxically upholds the ideals of civilized society.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 15, 2008

Chouga, 2008

chouga.gifA transposition of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to the modern day city of Almaty, Darezhan Omirbaev's Chouga revisits the urban alienation of Killer to create a spare and charming, if diluted exposition on the role of fate, materialism, and moral bankruptcy in post-Soviet society. The idea of an economic-driven natural selection is foretold in an early episode in the film, as a shy film student from the steppes, Tiburon (played by Jasulan Asauov, the fragile boy in Omirbaev's earlier film, Kardiogramma), waits to present a small bouquet of flowers to Altynai (Ainour Sapargali) at a campus lounge, only to be upstaged by the appearance of the self-confident Ablai (Aidos Sagatov) bearing an ever larger bouquet in tow to present for her birthday, before whisking her away to a party in his sports car. Meanwhile, Altynai's father, now seemingly assured of his daughter's impending engagement to the wealthy Ablai, turns his attention to his unraveling domestic life, inviting his younger sister Chouga (Alnur Turgambayeva), the wife of an influential politician, for a visit from the capital city of Astana in the hopes that she will help to patch things over with his wife after a martial indiscretion. However, Chouga's appearance in their lives soon proves to be disruptive, dislodging Altynai as the newfound object of Ablai's fickle affection, succumbing to their mutual attraction, and with it, an aimless life of separation and exile from her family. Omirbaev's distilled aesthetic - oneiric sequences that equally allude to internal conflict and creative impulse, disembodied framing of hands and feet that evoke Robert Bresson's cinema, and elliptical, de-dramatized action - proves especially suited in reflecting the sterility of the city's cultural transformation through the image of lavish, but idiosyncratically forbidding spaces represented by the cosmopolitan world of opera houses and luxury passenger trains (in one insightful shot, the apparent sameness of Ablai and Chouga's residence is differentiated only by the sight of the Eiffel Tower in the background). Juxtaposed against Tiburon's recurring idyllic dream, the image suggests a figurative return to nature, and implicitly, to an essential identity.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 15, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 13, 2008

A Christmas Tale, 2008

tale_christmas.gifReturning to the recurring themes of parental alienation and surrogacy of La Vie des morts, Playing "In the Company of Men", and Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale is a quintessential Arnaud Desplechin film in its ingenious, heady collision of disparate, often contradictory, yet integrally interconnected forms. On one level is the intersection of savior and prodigal son that Henri (Mathieu Amalric) paradoxically embodies: once conceived by his parents Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) as a potential - but ultimately incompatible - donor for their terminally ill eldest child, Joseph, and now a neurotic, financially unstable drifter returning home for Christmas after a five year separation, having invested in a failed theater to win the affection of his emotionally distant elder sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) (and who, in turn, would settle the bankruptcy on his behalf with the provision that he is now banished from the family). Inherent in the idea of the messiah is also the theme of Jewish versus Catholic faith that runs through the film, both cultures ingrained with the assumption of guilt and responsibility that also represents Henri's inability to save his dying brother, and the commonality of ancestral origin and history that binds the religions together, not unlike the unintended legacy of rejection and rivalry that Joseph's death represents for the succeeding generations of the family (note the implication of sibling rivalry in Abel's name). Indeed, the ideal marriage between Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), Junon and Abel's youngest son, also becomes an unexpected source of re-evaluation when a cousin's devotion proves to be more than familial. Another is the idea of blood rejection, reflected both literally in the type of leukemia that would take Joseph's young life and the blood disorder that now afflicts Junon, and figuratively in Junon and Elizabeth's severity towards Henri. Similarly, this familial rejection also serves as a broader implication of the film's Roubaix setting, a city with a thriving community of colonial repatriates and people of North African descent, contextually alluding to the often unreconciled relationship and tenuous assimilation between French society and immigrants (and their descendents) from its former colonies. Bookended with images from Elizabeth's childhood puppet show, the film draws implicit association with the idea of human comedy as manipulated construction, theater of the absurd, and representation of sublimated desire.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 10, 2008

Tokyo Sonata, 2008

tokyo_sonata.gifAfter a retreat to the atmospheric and spectral Loft and Retribution that reinforce Kiyoshi Kurosawa's reputation as a horror filmmaker, Tokyo Sonata continues in the vein of his idiosyncratically personal (and arguably, more interesting), yet equally unsettling films that began with Bright Future. As the film begins, the family patriarch, middle-aged senior administrative manager, Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) has been notified that the company has outsourced his job to China (where his salary would pay for three language-fluent office workers) and, without portable skills that could be applied to another department, will be immediately laid off from work. Reluctant to tell his family for fear of undermining his authority, Ryuhei continues the pretext of leaving for work with his briefcase each morning, spending his days alternately lining up at a job placement office and a charity lunch service on the park. Meanwhile, his stay-at-home wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), has begun to feel trapped in her unappreciated role of keeping the household together, her newly obtained driver's license symbolizing her liberated, if guilty step away from the familiar routines of domestic life (a search for identity implied by her intended use of the license as a form of identification). Their university-aged son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) is similarly adrift in his part-time job distributing flyers on the streets, and sees a provision for foreigners enlisting in the U.S. military as a means of asserting his independence. Younger son, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), having been caught passing a manga book in the classroom, stages his own minor rebellion: exposing the teacher's own penchant for reading erotic themed manga on the train, and subsequently, taking piano lessons against his father's objection. Inspired by the four-movement structure of a sonata, Tokyo Sonata is a humorous and incisive modernist (and globalist) evocation of the shomin-geki salaryman picture popularized by Yasujiro Ozu, chronicling the increasingly divergent lives of the Sasaki family who, like the families in Ozu's cinema are on the verge of disintegration. However, while both filmmakers reflect the inevitability of this dissolution, Kurosawa paradoxically sees the rupture as a necessary trauma towards rebuilding - a sense of renewal that is reflected in the parting image of the family leaving the stage, figuratively stepping away from the performance to forge their own path in the uncertain darkness.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

The Headless Woman, 2008

headless.gifIn retrospect, the swooning, haunted enigma of Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman is revealed in the metaphoric image of a landscaper digging around in frustration along the perimeter of a garden bed, trying to make room for ornamental trees that the owner, Verónica (María Onetto) had purchased during a recent trip to the nursery. The backyard had once been the site of a water structure (perhaps a pool or fountain) that had since been buried, and the ground is no longer suitable for planting, salvageable only by creating the appearance of planted trees by placing them in large earthen pots along the periphery, to be hidden behind more ornamental shrubs. Like the hidden, seemingly trivial abandoned garden object, a concealment also subtly - but palpably - alters the surface of the landscape in The Headless Woman. Hurrying to a rendezvous with her lover (and family friend), Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) in another town, a distracted Verónica, reaching for her cell phone, collides with something on the road - the outline of a dog's carcass visible on the far edge of the frame - and continues on for a few yards before stopping to compose herself and driving away. But as Verónica returns to the familiar rituals of her daily life - a busy dental practice, a never-ending landscaping project, a supportive, but equally distracted husband named Marcos (César Bordón), a sickly, coddled daughter - the fissures in her empty, privileged existence of cultivated gardens and choreographed white lies begin to surface, manifesting in her increasing apprehension that she has accidentally killed somebody on that desolate road. Martel further hones the visual economy and organic (yet meticulously structured), fractal narrative of her earlier films to create an Antonioniesque portrait of ennui and bourgeois dysfunction (in one insightful sequence, the housekeeper offers to dress a game animal that had been shot by Marcos during a recent hunt, repeating the idea of killing and interceded cleaning). Moreover, Martel's recurring themes of classism and privilege are elegantly brought to the forefront in The Headless Woman, reflected explicitly in the disposability of a potter's missing errand boy (who becomes immediately replaceable when his younger brother takes over his job), and implicitly in an impoverished town's profound disconnection from the nearby, more affluent city (in one episode, Verónica ventures into the missing boy's neighborhood and the residents are unable to provide directions on how to get out of the slums, illustrating the social - and institutional - reality of their inability to escape their poverty and marginalization).

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 9, 2008

Four Nights with Anna, 2008

fournights.gifRecalling Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love and Patrice Laconte's Monsieur Hire in its dark, brooding tale of voyeurism, unrequited obsession, and ache of desire, Jerzy Skolimowski's Four Nights with Anna may be seen as a modern day evolution of the cinema of moral concern, where the traumas (and transgressions) of history are intertwined within the moral fabric of contemporary life. Composed of temporally ambiguous, interweaving episodes from past and present (or perhaps, future), the film is shot from the perspective of Leon Okrasa (Artur Steranko), an attendant who works in the dank, grimy crematorium of the local hospital, alternately spending his time struggling to retain his employment after a patient accuses him of theft, caring for his ailing, elderly grandmother (Barbara Kołodziejska) (often crushing medication into a more palatable form in order to help her sleep), and watching a nurse, Anna (Kinga Preis) through the window of her room in the nurses' dormitory. But the object of his desire would still prove to be too distant, and soon, Okrasa begins to break into Anna's apartment at night through an opening in the window to be closer to her, washing her dishes, sewing loose buttons, covering her with a blanket, and leaving tokens of affection for her, embarking on a familiar, if disturbing routine to fill the void in his life. Skolimowski shoots primarily in cold tones, contrasting palettes, and darkness that reflect the myopia and moral ambiguity that underlies Okrasa's obsession. Using a fragmented, asequential structure that reflects the characters' fractured lives, Skolimowski illustrates the impossibility of reconciliation and closure in the wake of unreconciled trauma and complicit silence.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 8, 2008

Night and Day, 2008

night_day.gifIn a way, Night and Day continues the narrative bifurcation of Hong San-soo's earlier work while converging towards Luis Buñuel's late period films in conflating reality with sublimated desire. A married, middle-aged painter, Sun-nam (Kim Youngho), having impulsively run off to Paris in order to avoid a confrontation with police following a pot smoking incident, lands at a flop house run by Korean expatriate, Mr. Jang (Kee Joobong) who arranges to introduce him to École des Beaux Arts student, Hyunju (Seo Minjeong) and her roommate, Yu-geong (Park Eunhye). Disoriented by the unfamiliarity of a new city and lacking the motivation (and wherewithal) to reignite his foundering art, Sun-nam fritters his time away wandering the streets, running into a former girlfriend, Ming-sun (Kim Youjin) who tries to re-connect with him by bringing up episodes from their past. Seemingly bound by a sense of newfound morality culled from a Bible that he has begun to read and carries around town in a plastic bag, Sun-nam strives to remain faithful to his distant wife, but soon finds his faith waning, falling under the spell of the city. While evoking the perceptiveness of an Eric Rohmer comedy, Night and Day also suggests a loose kinship with Chantal Akerman's identically titled (and, not coincidentally, most Rohmerian) film, creating an interchangeable pattern of nights and days as a metaphor for dislocation, romantic uncertainty, and malleable identity: an ambiguity that is perhaps best reflected in Sun-nam's awkward encounters with a North Korean student, where the competition not only reflects a national consciousness over who is Korean, but is also a reminder of his glaring incongruity in a community of young people.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 7, 2008

Lola Montès, 1955

LolaMontes.gifThe tawdry, carnivalesque atmosphere of the traveling Mammoth Circus provides the ideal framework for Max Ophüls's resplendent Lola Montès, serving as both a pungent deconstruction of the cult of celebrity and a demystification of an elusive woman. Revisiting scandalous episodes from her life through a series of kitschy, seemingly incongruous reenactments involving constructed stage props, facile acrobatics, tableaux vivantes, and clown routines, former dancer and tabloid personality Lola Montès (Martine Carol) alternates between past and present, reality and myth, reconstructed memory and fictionalized performance, prompted at each salacious biographical juncture by a brash and goading ringmaster (Peter Ustinov). The flashback to the mutual end of a love affair with Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) illustrates a fickleness and vanity that would lead to her numerous failed relationships with distinguished men (pragmatically towing along, on each rendezvous, her own coachman and personal attendant in order to retain a method of transportation after the inevitable break-up). Her return to England following her father's death in India, escorted by her mother (Lise Delamare) and her mother's young lover, Lieutenant James (Ivan Desny) exposes a reckless streak, leading to an impulsive, failed marriage to the volatile James (although ironically described by the ringmaster as a happy one) in an attempt to escape her mother's efforts to marry her off to a wealthy, much older man. Her early career as a chorus girl suggests a mediocrity for dancing that is compensated by a talent for courting attention, culminating in a scandal on the Riviera when she publicly upbraids her lover - the orchestra conductor - after discovering that he was married. A doomed affair with Bavarian king and arts patron, Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook), reveals an unexpected generosity and uncompromising, idealized romanticism. Creating an intrinsically bifurcated gaze by juxtaposing sumptuous images within a gaudy staging, Ophüls poses the question of audience complicity in cultivating the public appetite for celebrity, a moral ambiguity that is reflected in the shattering, parting shot of patrons queuing for a chance to kiss Montès's hand between the bars of a cage - collapsing the illusion of separation between reality and spectacle.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 07, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

September 28, 2008

24 City, 2008

24city.gifIn its portrait of a culture on the verge of erasure with the advent of redevelopment and gentrification, Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City shares kinship with José Luis Guerín's En Construcción, reflecting the idea of a city built from the rubble of abandoned, forgotten histories. Interweaving first person and composite, fictional interviews with workers, friends, and children in Chengdu whose livelihood had revolved around the state-owned factories and who now face an uncertain future with the dismantling of the industrial complex built around Factory 420, a former top secret aircraft parts manufacturing plant that had been realigned for closure as the country transitions from planned to market economy, Jia returns to the themes of social disparity enabled by a dual economic system (most notably, in Unknown Pleasures) and the dissolution of the traditional family caused by shifting social policy (in particular, the displacement caused by job relocations designed to encourage industrial development in southwest China). In 24 City, the characters are paradoxically connected by a sense of estrangement and disconnection. A retired factory worker visits his ailing mentor and foreman only to retreat in silence, unable to sustain a conversation because of his mentor's declining physical and mental health. A middle-aged worker riding a bus remembers the hardships caused by mass layoffs in the state-run factories, and her tearful, once in a lifetime reunion with her grandparents in the country after moving to Chengdu for work, expressing her gratefulness for being able to bring her mother to live with her in the city for the final months of her life. A retired pensioner (played by actress Lu Liping) tells the story of losing her son during a forced evacuation of the high security industrial complex, and her unexpected role reversal from her nephews' benefactor during the height of Factory 420's production, to charity recipient after its closure. An unmarried, middle-aged woman nicknamed by coworkers as "Little Bird" for her resemblance to actress Joan Chen (collapsing the bounds between reality and fiction by having the actress play the character) recounts her reluctant decision to leave her family home in Shanghai because of overcrowded living conditions (also alluding to the era before the institution of the "one child" policy), and now feels equally isolated in Chengdu without the support of her surrogate family of coworkers. But perhaps the most direct correlation to En Construcción lies in the story of twenty-something fashion consultant, Su Na (Zhao Tao) who, like the young couple in Guerín's film, observe the construction of the luxury apartment building from a condemned vantage point, figuratively reflecting their status as outsiders within the revitalized city. In this sense, Jia illustrates the trauma of country's fundamental change in economic policy as a reflection of moral consciousness, where the ingrained frugality of finding utility in even the most worn down of archaic tools has been replaced by a myopic commerce of exploitation and disposability.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 28, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, New York Film Festival

October 14, 2007

Paranoid Park, 2007

paranoid_park.gifThere is a palpable sentiment of trying to capture the ephemeral that runs through Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, a film that further modulates his now familiar aesthetic of melding abstract episodes of hypnotic time drift with the alienated portrait of imploding, angry youth that have characterized his more recent films (beginning with his Béla Tarr epiphany film, Gerry). Based on the young adult novel by Portland author, Blake Nelson, the film follows a cherubic, teenaged skater, Alex's (Gabe Nevins) process of writing a diaristic letter to an unknown recipient (later revealed to be a classmate and casual acquaintance named Macy (Lauren Mc Kinney)) at an overgrown lookout near a desolate sound. Unfolding in often repeating, time altered flashbacks that recount Alex's suppressed, traumatic experience - and moments of pure bliss - surrounding his consuming, but reluctant obsession to visit Paranoid Park (an abandoned industrial site that was transformed into an advanced skate park by homeless, thrill-seeking kids), that are juxtaposed against images of his upended personal life as his separated parents (Grace Carter and John "Smay" Williamson) attempt to reassure him of their undying love and support despite their impending divorce, and his flighty, cheerleader girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) continues to pressure him to have sex, the film is an airy and swooning, if delicate and friable tone piece that strives to give form to an adolescent's subconscious awareness of passage, moral consequence, and impermanence that comes with the process of maturation. In a sense, his parents' vain promise that everything will be the same as before becomes a sobering reinforcement of his own realization of its consequential impossibility after a reckless, life-altering experience. It is within this consciousness of irretrievable time that the impressionistic, swooning slow motion images of skaters riding the concrete waves of Paranoid Park become an intrinsic reflection of Alex's own impressionable psyche - a naïve representation of his own desperate, unarticulated desire to manipulate time and return to an enchanted place of blissful innocence and fanciful imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 14, 2007 | | Comments (7) | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

The Last Mistress, 2007

lastmistress.gifThere is a moment in The Last Mistress when the Comtesse d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau), after having played her part in mitigating the scandal surrounding the dashing, but inscrutable rogue, Ryno de Marigny's (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) unresolved romantic entanglement with his long term mistress - and, consequently, enabling his marriage to the Marquise's granddaughter and heir, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) - contently looks out of the window of the Marquise de Flers's (Claude Sarraute) seaside estate and observes, "How the sea rises!" It is a line taken directly from the text of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly's titular novel that, delivered by veteran actress Moreau, becomes a double entendre reference to her own directorial debut feature, When the Sea Rises.... In a way, Catherine Breillat's infusion of subtle humor in the film reflects a certain accessible, newfound sensibility to her cinema. Using the metaphor of the brewing sea as a portent for the reappearance of Ryno's former mistress, a Spanish enchantress named La Vellini (Asia Argento) into his life following his marriage (an image that is incisively reinforced by Hermangarde's discovery of La Vellini, dressed in a fisherman's clothes and smoking a cigar) - Breillat diverges from the (explicitly) transgressive elements that have come to define her cinema towards a more implicit and refined, yet still sensual, atmospheric, and deeply romantic tale of fidelity, passion, and obsession. Ostensibly a tale of the penniless Ryno's attempts to win Hermangarde's hand in marriage by convincing the Marquise that his reputation as a reckless womanizer is behind him, the film proceeds in extended flashback as the sprightly Marquise conducts a thorough inquisition, not of his sexual exploits, but of his more problematic history of having conducted a ten year affair (which, as the Marquise appropriately points out, is essentially a marriage) with La Vellini. Framing La Vellini and Ryno's tumultuous relationship within the context of Breillat's recurring explorations on sexual ambiguity (most notably, in Romance and Fat Girl), the androgyny inherent in La Vellini's aggressiveness and Ryno's sensitivity become a reflection, not only of their inherent narcissism as dandyist provocateurs seeking to ingratiate themselves into aristocracy, but also their emotional interdependence and mutual obsession.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 14, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

October 13, 2007

I Just Didn't Do It, 2007

I_Just.gifOn an unassuming morning, a preoccupied young man, Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase) irregularly boards an overcrowded train (with the assistance of the station's white gloved, attendant shover) with his briefcase in hand on his way to a job interview and, while in transit, realizes that his jacket had been caught between the closing doors. Pinned to the doors of the train, Teppei instinctively continues to pull his jacket free, much to the irritation of the other passengers, until the train arrives at the station and releases him. On the surface, what appeared to be little more than a minor inconvenience in his morning commute would prove to be the beginning of a Kafkaesque nightmare when a schoolgirl grabs his sleeve at the platform and publicly accuses him of having groped her inside the train. Interrogated by police officers who immediately advise him to put the matter behind him by accepting the charge (on an apparently common occurrence) and paying a token, punitive fine (an advice subsequently echoed by his unmotivated public defender), Teppei instead refuses to be railroaded into a plea bargain and becomes more determined to prove his innocence in court. Caught in the judicial hypocrisy of having to remain in jail until the trial is underway because of his proclaimed innocence (even as other admitted offenders, having paid their customary fines, are immediately allowed to return home), the naïve Teppei enlists the aid of his mother (Masako Motai), best friend, Tatsuo (Koji Yamamoto, an idealistic defense attorney, Arakawa (Koji Yakusho), and his more skeptical junior colleague, Riko Sudo (Asaka Seto) to accept his long-shot case in the idealistic belief that innocence can triumph over the weight of judicial expediency. Masayuki Suo's I Just Didn't Do It is a taut, painstakingly observed, and incisive procedural on the intricacies of Japan's highly efficient, juryless, one judge criminal justice system. During the Q&A, Suo remarked that the story had been loosely inspired by newspaper headlines of an appellate court's reversal of a conviction handed down by a lower court. For Suo, the media's particular attention in broadcasting such rare acquittals reinforces a public misconception and fosters complacency towards the dispensation and fairness of the justice system. At the heart of his sobering social realist drama is the country's boasted 99.9% conviction rate, a daunting statistic that implicitly assumes a defendant's guilt, despite the founding tenets of blind justice. Framed against Japanese society's inherent cultural conformity, the statistic itself has become a symptom of perverted justice - an egregiously exploited tool for inducing confession, rather than a resulting measure of the system's infallibility.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2007 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

October 9, 2007

Alexandra, 2007

alexandra.gifOne of my favorite films from this year's festival is Aleksandr Sokurov's Alexandra, a spare, poetic, and understatedly affirming elegy on the spiritual and moral consequences of a corrosive, interminable war. At the heart and soul of the film is the stubborn and indomitable babushka, Alexandra, played by the famed Russian soprano and sprightly octogenarian (and wife of the late pre-eminent cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich), Galina Vishnevskaya, who, as the film begins, has curiously embarked on an ill advised, physically demanding journey of cramped boxcars, all terrain vehicles, and even battle tanks to arrive at a military outpost near a war torn Chechen village. Waking in her barracks "hotel" to the sight of her devoted, Denis (Vasili Shevtsov), a dashing and well respected officer in the Russian army who maintains a busy schedule with short deployments to insurgency hotspots, Alexandra soon grows weary of the inscrutable, yet highly regulated movements and seemingly arbitrary rules that define life within the camp (a frustration that is understatedly reflected in Alexandra's disorienting navigation through a maze of barracks) and undertakes her own journey to find a sense of normalcy in the most mundane of tasks - going to the local market - where she encounters and finds communion with an elderly Chechen refugee named Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), a former teacher who, now in her twilight years, is forced to make a meager living selling sundries at a market stall under the sobering reality of an inhumane existence in the decimated, occupied village. Returning to the metaphoric landscapes of Spiritual Voices and Confession in their evocative images of quotidian ritual and the profound desolation that exists within the remote frontiers of a long forgotten war, Sokurov uses desaturated sepia tones, arid and barren landscapes, primitive living conditions, and battle-scarred architectures to create a metaphor for a wounded humanity struggling to survive against the madness of conditioned barbarity, where solidarity and a lasting peace are achieved, not in the systematic demoralization of a people, but in the fragile community of mundane, yet defiant, ennobled gestures.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

In the City of Sylvia, 2007

Sylvia.gifOne of the most striking aspects of José Luis Guerín's preceding film, En Construcción is the recurring image of cast shadows in motion as a metaphor for the "ghost residents" of El Chino - the migrant laborers, evicted tenants, and even unearthed ancient corpses whose traces of existence and personal histories are gradually being displaced by the gentrification of the port town. In retrospect, the reappearance of these elusive, transient shadows in In the City of Sylvia (this time, as phantasmagoric projections onto the wall of the dreamer's hotel room) also provides the haunted tone of the film as the young traveler (Xavier Lafitte) - an artist and dreamer - returns to the cosmopolitan, medieval city of Strasbourg where, six years earlier, he had met a woman named Sylvie at a bar. For the dreamer, Sylvie is also a ghost, a remembrance of things past that grows sweeter in the abstraction of memory, and all he can do is to attempt to recapture her essence and give form to the ideal by immersing himself in the atmosphere of her city. Spending his waking moments religiously jotting down details and random observations in his sketchbook (a figurative act of historical reconstruction) - the cut of the hair, the curve of the neck, the shape of the mouth - these (appropriately) faceless, impressionistic sketches begin to converge and overlay each other within the faint intersections of their organic, evolving stories in the pages of his notebook (in one episode, a distracted waitress, annotated as "elle", is placed in the milieu of the café's equally interesting patrons and re-annotated as "elles"; in a subsequent episode, the dreamer's quick succession scanning through his notebook suggests flipbook animation, in a sense, making Sylvie come to life) until one day when he spots a young woman (Pilar López de Ayala) who may or may not be Sylvie through the window of the café. As in En Construcción, the seemingly incidental, interstitial sequences of passing shadows become a reflection of a resurfaced, dislocated past - a transformed memory that not only grows more ephemeral with the passage of time but also continues to reinsert its own vitality in the present. In a way, the stories of these ghosts, like the idea of Sylvie, never completely fade away even in their conscious supplanting: their histories retold in the silent architectures (most notably, in a graffiti proclaiming "Laure - Je t'aime" that traces the dreamer's pursuit of Sylvie), passing conversations, recycled artifacts, accidental encounters, and recounted - and often, colored - personal histories chronicled in the animated chapters of an eternal, quixotic quest.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

I'm Not There, 2007

NotThere.gifTodd Haynes's I'm Not There is an audacious and ingeniously conceived, if overlong and diluted free verse composition on the enigma of legendary artist, iconoclast, seeker, and voice of a generation, Bob Dylan. Haynes's idiosyncratic portrait of the artist as a loosely interwoven collage of overlapping incarnations filmed in different stylistic genres that reflect the inhabited personas embodied by Dylan is particularly inspired. Illustrated as a picaresque adventure, Dylan is a charismatic, young drifter with a nebulous (and seemingly troubled) past named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), whose penchant for outmoded folksongs reflects his old soul. Shot as a grainy, early television broadcast, he metamorphoses into poet, Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) whose writing reflected a sense of indulgent, libertine anarchy. Presented as a 1950s rebellious youth film, he is tortured artist, Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) seeking to maintain the relevance of his music in turbulent times. Framed as a 1970s, "me generation" film, he is an alienated rock star, Robbie (Heath Ledger) struggling between the temptations (and excesses) of celebrity and his failing marriage. Depicted as newsreel footage, he is a misunderstood, chameleon-like personality, Jude (Cate Blanchett), whose creative integrity (and sincerity) comes under attack in the face of his increasing musical and recreational experimentation. And finally, filmed as a western, he is a reclusive outlaw, Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), still haunted by the shadows of his legendary fame. Using parallel personality traits as a means of self-referentially that connects the disparate personas - Woody and Jack's search for salt of the earth authenticity, Arthur and Jude's (implied) sexual ambiguity, Robbie and Jude's disillusionment with fame - Haynes creates an initially cohesive portrait of the artist as a young man that ultimately unravels under the weight of increasingly indulgent and only marginally connected vignettes (most notably, in the inclusion of the uninvolving, hermetic Billy the Kid persona which does little to expound on the Dylan enigma).

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

October 2, 2007

The Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007

flightredballoon.gifDuring an early conversation in Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), having only recently met her young son, Simon's (Simon Iteanu) new minder, Song (Fang Song), a student from Beijing who moved to Paris to study film, expresses her gratitude for lending a copy of a short film that she had recently completed, remarking that the film had reminded her profoundly of her own childhood - not in the familiarity of the content itself, but in the sensations, aromas, and memories that were stirred up in the collective association of the disparate images. In a way, Suzanne's experience also conveys the intangible ideal behind Hou's vision for the film, a slender and diaphanous, but accessible and finely rendered homage to Albert Lamorisse's beloved postwar short film, The Red Balloon. Hou filters the child's perspective of Lamorisse's film through the alterity of Song's (and implicitly, Hou's own) gaze: as a foreigner in Paris, as a new member of a chaotic household adjusting to the rhythm of the fractured family's set routines and nuances (and dramas) of unarticulated histories, as a personal filmmaker working through the intersections and divergences between Lamorisse's approach to the children's tale and her own. Similarly, Hou's patient and painstakingly observed vision is inherently a dual natured one, tempered by both his figurative innocence (as a non-native filmmaker shooting an homage to a culturally rooted French film with a child actor) and knowingness as an adult - an implied understanding of life's everyday complications that is also reflected in his heroine's muted, polite (and perhaps resigned) responses of "d'accord". To this end, Hou's disarmingly (but appropriately) facile illustration of the film's inherent duality is elegantly encapsulated in Simon's school trip to the Musée d'Orsay, where a curator's interaction with the children reveals the ambiguities in even a seemingly banal image of a child at play in Félix Vallotton's The Ball. This impossibility of absolute recreation (and consequently, interpretation) is also reflected in the drifting, omnipresent red balloon that Simon spots hovering beyond the glass roof of the museum - in its own way, an evocation - a subjective reality shaped by the estrangement of culture, time, history, and memory.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2007 | | Comments (7) | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

Go Go Tales, 2007

gogotales.gifDuring the Q&A for Go Go Tales, native New Yorker Abel Ferrara indicated that although the film's main setting, Ray Ruby's Paradise Lounge looks like something straight out of the city's seedier sections, the authentically gaudy look of the cabaret was actually inspired by an interchangeable array of fly-by-night strip clubs that used to operate around Union Square and painstakingly reconstructed as one continuous set at the famed Cinecittà Studios in Rome. In hindsight, the association with Cinecittà, the legendary studio that also served as the blank canvas for Federico Fellini's imagined worlds (including such masterworks as La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2), proves conducive to channeling the carnivalesque atmosphere of Fellini's cinema towards Ferrara's own risqué, disorienting, and perversely funny comedy. Framed as a loose, 24 hour chronicle of life at a run down strip club that is anything but paradise, the film follows the chaos surrounding the singular personality that is Ray Ruby, a smarmy, charismatic, Rupert Pupkin-styled club owner, master of ceremonies, perennial dreamer, and self-admitted lottery addict as he struggles to find a way to bring in more customers and keep the club afloat, continues to (re)negotiate with his increasingly disgruntled staff of unpaid exotic dancers (and who, in turn, are constantly being incited to strike by a seductive, new dancer/performance artist from Eastern Europe named Monroe (Asia Argento)), tries to placate his curmudgeonly landlady (Anita Pallenberg) who unexpectedly pays a visit to revoke his tenancy so that she can lease the space to Bed, Bath and Beyond, and argues with his silent partner, younger brother Johnie (Matthew Modine) - the most successful hairdresser in Staten Island - who wants to pull his financial support from Ray's money draining venture. Ferrara's penchant for organic structure, over-the-top imagery, and twisted, if innately humanist, morality especially suit the film's rich ensemble casting and intersecting storylines that provide texture and authenticity to Ferrara's unfiltered commentary on the plight of the poor, often immigrant, working class who take on these humbling, unseemly jobs in the pursuit of the American dream. Using the beleaguered club as a symbol of the staff's own unrealized ambitions (a correlation that is reinforced in the club's hosting of a weekly, after hours talent showcase, mostly catering to family and friends), Ferrara creates a polarizing and blunt, yet astute and unexpectedly compassionate allegory for the inextinguishable creative spirit in all its chaos, volatility, isolation, hope, and exhilaration.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

September 30, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007

4months.gifCoincidentally, like Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a film that is also characterized by the element of subverted expectation, but this time, to indelible and bracing effect. Set in Romania during the waning days of Soviet bloc communism under Nikolai Ceaucescu in the late 1980s where abortion had been outlawed as a means of increasing the country's birth rate, the film chronicles a day in the life of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a pragmatic university student who, as the film begins, has agreed to assist her confused, but determined roommate, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) in obtaining an illegal abortion. But almost immediately, Otilia realizes that her flighty, unreliable roommate has not planned things with appropriate consideration: a hotel room reservation was not confirmed 24 hours before arrival and has been released to accommodate a convention, only a fraction of money needed for expenses has been raised with no money left over for contingencies, Otilia's boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean) insists that she attend a family dinner party to celebrate his mother's birthday (Luminita Gheorghiu), a male abortionist bearing the ironic moniker of Bébé (Vlad Ivanov) has been enlisted in lieu of a preferable female one, housekeeping materials that were to be brought in order to clean up and conceal traces of the performed procedure from the hotel room had been left behind, a personal, face-to-face appointment had been carelessly disregarded by Gabita, leading to Bébé's predisposed animosity towards the young women. During the Q&A for the film, Mungiu indicated that while the film is a work of fiction, the underlying story is based on a composite of several experiences (some, far more horrific than the one portrayed in the film) of several people he knew who were of his generation and who also came of age during the Cold War and witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the re-emergence of Romania as a democratic country. In this respect, Mungiu's film is not only an understated allegory for the inviolability of humanity and solidarity in times of profound crisis, but also a personal testament to a forgotten, recent past that has been suppressed from a society's collective consciousness in the wake of profound social transformation. In essence, rather than recreating an interesting, but archaic national artifact, the film remains contemporary and exceedingly relevant, not only in its attempt to exorcise and come to terms with an unreconciled history, but also as a cautionary tale on the preciousness of earned rights and personal freedoms that have been taken far too much for granted in a social climate of expected liberties, political herding, comparative wealth, and cultural apathy.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

Silent Light, 2007

silentlight.gifOn the surface, it's hard to find fault with the execution of Carlos Reygadas's latest film, Silent Light, a timeless tale of love, betrayal, desire, and sacrifice set within a remote (and appropriately atemporal) Mennonite community in rural northern Mexico. Nevertheless, despite an implicitly spiritual context that is suggested by the religious community setting, and drawing loose inspiration on themes from Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet, Reygadas's vision subverts expectation in its portrait of eternal human struggle, not as a path towards transcendence, but rather, as evidence of immanence in the everyday ritual. Reygadas visually encapsulates this sense of quotidian grace in the remarkable, bookending long take of a desolate landscape transforming under the diurnal revolution of an oblate earth - the kind of meticulous, vaguely oneiric, self-contained opening shots that have come to define his cinema - as the sublime image of a transforming, yet eternal nature cuts to the disconnected image of a Mennonite farmer, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and their children in quiet prayer (in a sense, a personal expression of silent grace) before eating their breakfast. In its abrupt visual and tonal shift, the film's oblique segue also suggests the influence of Lisandro Alonso's inverted narrative form in Los Muertos, where the introductory shots of a tactile, corporeal reality gives way to a metaphoric journey of interiority. Moreover, in its cyclical representation of life and death, good and evil, beginning and ending of relationships, Reygadas also channels familiar Bruno Dumont themes and the essentiality of his representational images (most notably, in the framing of landscape and casting of non-actors as physical archetypes) to create a film that is decidedly anti-Dumont. This seemingly conscious subversion of Dumont's aesthetics is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence involving a reckless driver in a red pickup truck who tailgates Johan on a desolate stretch of road before speeding away - an episode that invites immediate association with the ominous encounter of Twentynine Palms. It is this repeating pattern of adoption and subversion of familiar, repurposed images throughout the film that, for all its elegant cinematography and self-awareness of its role as art, ultimately detracts from the singularity of Reygadas's admirable vision, a puzzling strategy for realizing impeccably constructed, personal filmmaking through the filtered reconstitution of borrowed gazes and short hand iconography.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2007 | | Comments (10) | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival

October 18, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth, 2006

panslabyrinth.gifDuring the Q&A for Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro commented that he conceived the image of Pale Man, a child-eating creature who could only see by raising his hands up to his face (as if paradoxically covering his eyes), as an allusion to the perverted image of stigmata - an affliction often associated with enlightened grace and saint-like piety - an acerbic, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the destructiveness, corruption, and myopia of institutional authority that the Church (and Fascism) represents. The evocation proves particularly relevant within the context of the incestuous alliance between the Nationalists and the Catholic Church during the Spanish Civil War that installed, and subsequently enabled, the repressive regime of General Franco. Set in 1944, the year that the annals of history have officially annotated as the year that the Republicans were defeated, thus marking the end of the civil war, reality proves less than neatly conclusive as the insurgency rages on (and would continue for nearly two decades), the resistance fighters fortifying their strongholds in the mountains with the covert aid of sympathetic villagers. It is against this turbulent, isolated environment of unresolved battles and nebulous allegiances that a ruthless officer named Captain Vidal (Sergi López) has been sent to establish an outpost and stamp out the mountain insurgency campaign - a strange, remote, and verdant rural region that a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) also reluctantly enters when Vidal sends for his new wife, Ofelia's mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) from the city so that his anticipated son and heir may be born in the house of his father. From the introductory images of Ofelia preciously holding her fairytale books and her curious sighting of a wasp-like insect that she believes is an actual fairy, Ofelia's inevitable confrontation between the harsh reality of adolescence and the escapist fantasy of childhood seems inextricably connected. Shuttered in an old, gloomy, and mysteriously creaking house with an adjoining derelict garden labyrinth, and left to her own devices after her mother becomes bedridden with complications from the baby's imminent birth (except for the attention given by the housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú)), the neglected Ofelia embarks on a heroic quest at the behest of the inscrutable, mythical fawn, Pan (Doug Jones) in order to prove herself as the reincarnated princess of the labyrinth, and consequently, fulfill her destiny of immortality. Evoking the early, metaphor-laden cinema of Victor Erice in manifesting a child's fear and uncertainty through the gothic figurations of the imagination - not only in the overt parallel of the metamorphosed, humanized monster of Spirit of the Beehive, but also in the mythification of an absent father in El Sur (note the fetishized pocket watch that Valdez retains as a souvenir of the moment of his father's death) - Pan's Labyrinth is an intelligently rendered, provocative, and incisive cautionary tale on barbarism, repression, narcissism, rigid ideology, blind obedience, and inhumanity.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 18, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 17, 2006

Insiang, 1976

insiang.gifTo some extent, author and national hero José Rizal's Spanish colonial-era novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo paved the way for a certain propensity towards melodrama and tortuous, epic narratives that continue to shape and define the aesthetics of Philippine indigenous cinema. So, while there is the temptation to characterize Lino Brocka's cinema through facile comparison with the works of contemporary filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder through the commonality of incorporated elements of melodrama and kitsch - as well as in the symbolic brutality of the slums that is encapsulated in the opening sequence of Insiang that prefigures a key, metaphoric slaughterhouse sequence in Fassbinder's subsequent film, In a Year of 13 Moons - there is also a stark divergence in Brocka's more classical aesthetic of gritty, social realism and subversive politicization that eschews the overt stylization and formalism intrinsic in Fassbinder's critical, yet introspective cinema. In hindsight, the character introduction establishing sequences of Insiang already articulates Brocka's overarching theme on the dehumanization of poverty: from the image of the opportunistic Dado (Ruel Vernal) at work at his part-time job eviscerating pigs as a slaughterhouse matadero, to a shot of Dado's older lover, the carping and miserly Tonya (impeccably played by legendary Filipino cinema character actress Mona Lisa) selling produce at an open market (a metaphoric image on the commodification of human interaction), to the first words spoken by Tonya to her attractive daughter Insiang (Hilda Koronel) at their overcrowded home in the slums of Tondo to run an errand and buy sugar for the household (an implicit commentary on the absence of sweetness in their everyday lives), to Tonya's scandalous eviction of her sister-in-law (Mely Mallari) who, along with her grown children and extended family, had moved from the province in search of better life and job opportunities in the city of Manila (a familiar illusion of a better life that continues to spur migration from the rural provinces to the overcrowded city of Manila, as seen recently in Ditsi Carolino's staggeringly intimate documentary, Life on the Tracks), and now find themselves homeless, unemployed, and literally cast out without even the shirts on their back (as Tonya demands that the clothes that she had given to the toddlers as gifts be returned) in order to make room for Dado. Inevitably, when Dado, in turn, sets his sights on the visibly indifferent Insiang, both mother and daughter become locked in a vicious, consuming, and emotional power struggle for their very survival. Inevitably, inasmuch as the title implies character identification and individuality, Brocka's harrowing, indelible, and unsentimental canvas is, instead, an encompassing sociopolitical national landscape of rootlessness, suppression, and moral bankruptcy that define the nature of endemic poverty. It is this uncompromising spirit that ultimately evokes the specter of Rizal's seminal novels (and his martyrdom) in Brocka's inspired film, an impassioned call to revolution and solidarity on the collective psyche of a marginalized and dispossessed people.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Marie Antoinette, 2006

marie_antoinette.gifBased on Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Sofia Coppola's irreverent, sumptuously stylized, and audaciously freeform, if decidedly uneven adaptation of Fraser's re-evaluative biography casts the controversial monarch in a more human, accessible, and contemporary light - not as an arrogant, out of touch queen who, as proof of the height of her insensitivity over the bread shortage in Paris, was quoted (inaccurately) as saying, "let them eat cake", but as an immature, lonely, out of place, and misunderstood young woman, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), an adolescent literally stripped of her national roots and sent away from her native land of Austria to be married off in a symbolic diplomatic merger to the dauphin, Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), and who, barely past her teenage years, was prematurely thrust into the forefront of complicated (and convoluted) eighteenth century domestic and international politics (as the American colonies began their struggle for independence against the British) following the unexpected death of King Louis XV (Rip Torn) from smallpox and the subsequent succession of her shy and introverted husband, crowned Louis XVI, to the throne. Ironically, the transformation of Marie Antoinette from vulnerable Versailles outsider to insulated, (over)indulgent, privileged insider also proves to be the point of divergence for the film, from an idiosyncratically anachronistic, but insightful and thematically attuned exposition on loneliness and alienation, as well as the absurdity of the comedy of manners and soul-crushing rigidity of ceremonial protocol (as personified by the unflappable Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis) who ensured that the rules of court etiquette were strictly enforced) that government every aspect of social behavior, to the more conventional (and consequently, less compelling) portrait of privileged excess, aimlessness, and decadence. Consequently, what emerges from Coppola's manic direction is not only the incisively anachronistic and contemporary reflection on the insularity of privilege, but also the contravening mixed message of oblivious insensibility and fashionable ennui, where the vacuity of the iconic images subvert - and inevitably upstage - the very ideals of a transformative revolution.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 17, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 16, 2006

Climates, 2006

climates.gifNuri Bilge Ceylan elegantly channels the spirit and self-reflexivity of Atom Egoyan's Calendar and Roberto Rossellini's seminal Voyage in Italy (that in turn, paved the way for Michelangelo Antonioni's psychological landscape films) to create an equally sublime, serenely composed, and understatedly bittersweet chronicle of the dissolution of a relationship through the austerity and desolation of the landscape in his latest film Climates. As the film begins, a middle-aged university instructor and doctoral candidate named Isa (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), en route to a summer holiday in the idyllic Aegean coast with his younger lover, a television art director named Bahar (Ebru Ceylan), deliberatively shoots a series of photographs of ancient ruins for possible use in a class lecture, oblivious to his traveling companion's noticeable discomfort and tedium over his latest distractive side trip (a figurative myopia that would subsequently be manifested in Bahar's reckless, symbolic act of blindness during a motorcycle ride), her sense of profound desolation and estrangement momentarily betrayed by the eruption of tears that also escape the self-absorbed Isa's regard. The metaphoric image of the troubled couple standing amidst architectural ruins serves as an insightful prefiguration of their seemingly inevitable separation, a distance that was made all the more insurmountable by Isa's act of infidelity with his former lover, Serap (Nazan Kesal) during one of Bahar's recent, on location shooting trips away from Istanbul. In hindsight, Isa's unfinished thesis also reveals his self-inflicted pattern of irresolution, emotional cruelty (a sadistic streak that is also revealed through his act of forced intimacy with a resistant Serap) , and inability to commit, an emotional paralysis that has perhaps even sublimated into a physical affliction (through a chronic, stiff neck running gag that recalls the pollution-induced malady of Tsai Ming-liang's The River). Charting the indefinable trajectory of Isa's restlessness, alienation, and melancholy through the climatic and geographic changes that reflect the interiority of Isa's unrequited - and indefinable - longing, Climates exquisitely (and indelibly) maps a spare, elegiac, and achingly intimate meditation on the ephemeral seasons of the human heart.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Poison Friends, 2006

poison_friends.gifCapturing the point of intersection between the conformity of adolescence and the independence that comes with maturity, Emmanuel Bourdieu's Poison Friends is an intelligent and insightful, if oddly sterile and empirically rendered chronicle of academic life as seen through the perspective of a loose knit group of university-aged students at the transformative stage when they begin to break free from their mutualist - and inherent dysfunctional - alliances and the comfort zone of social circles and strike out on their own, metamorphosing from group identification to individual identity. The chaotic and seemingly dislocated opening sequence incisively sets the tone for the film as new student, a budding thespian named Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger), unintentionally draws unwanted attention to himself when he arrives late to class with his luggage in tow, creating such a distraction as he struggles to make his way up the stairs towards the back of the lecture hall that the professor singles him out for public castigation. It is an embarrassing episode that is soon mitigated by the sympathetic attention of a charismatic student named André Morney (Thibault Vinçon), the kind of rabid intellectual and perennial student with grandiose ideas on the sanctity and incorruptibility of art (even as he expresses open contempt for those who seek an outlet for creative expression) who has created his own insular dominion within the hallowed walls of the university (a sense of entitled territoriality that is also reinforced by his encroachment into Alexandre's room to store his books). Soon, André becomes a figurative puppeteer of his own Grand Guignol, lording over the movements and decisions of his personally assembled cast of characters - Alexandre, Eloi Duhaut (Malik Zidi), the son of a famous (and recently scandal-plagued) novelist (Dominique Blanc), an aspiring writer named Thomas Blanchard, André's lover Marguerite (Natacha Régnier), and even his faculty advisor and mentor Mortier (Jacques Bonnaffé) - seduced by his bravado, fierce intelligence, and uncompromising ideology on artistic creation, until his academic complacency, coupled with Eloi's increasing attraction to Marguerite and Alexandre's cultivated passion for the dramatic arts, threatens to wrest control over his elaborate, hermetic construction. Ironically, Bourdieu's clinical and rigidly cerebral approach to the tale of the young friends' intellectual coming of age itself serves as an appropriate reflection for André's nebulous psychology and unresolved fate, illustrating not only the traumatic collision between the uncompromising, black and white world of youth and the realization of grey area, real-world compromises of adulthood, but also the inevitable estrangement that comes with the outgrowing of one's hero or mentor, when the illusion of Pygmalion is broken and the venerated idol becomes all too human.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 16, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 13, 2006

Our Daily Bread, 2006

daily_bread.gifEvoking the aesthetics of Harun Farocki's antiseptic images of production crossed with Chantal Akerman's structuralist ruminations on organic landscape, Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread is a bracing, surreal, sobering, and strangely transfixing exposition into the dehumanized technologies and industrially engendered process efficiencies intrinsic in the mass commerce of industrial-scale food production. Composed of a series of incisive and intelligently edited medium to long take shots and devoid of contextual information, illuminating interviews, or expository narration, the film crystallizes on the collective implication of the indelible - if perversely sublime - images of food production: a stream of newly hatched chicks are sifted from the eggshells and transferred onto crates through a high speed conveyer belt sorter in a process that resembles the propulsion of a tennis ball machine; the quick and "humane" slaughter of livestock is nevertheless made all the more discomforting by the precise and systematic process of exsanguination, skinning, and butchering; an idyllic image of a sunflower field is subverted by the appearance of a crop duster plane and supplanted by the subsequent image of the charred, withered plants harvested en masse by a tractor; a large and seemingly formidable tree shakes violently under the grasp of a clawed tractor designed to draw nuts from its branches for faster collection by an automated sweeper; a group of migrant workers hand pick vegetables for placement onto their manual roll carts at a collapsible greenhouse. What is particularly admirable about Geyrhalther's critical and observant exposition into the curious dystopia of agricultural production and commerce is the parity and unpolemical representation of his gaze, a matter-of-factness that is perhaps best encapsulated by the film's titular allusion to The Lord's Prayer, a reminder of the sacredness, gratitude, and quotidian grace of survival.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2006 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

The Host, 2006

host.gifScreened at slightly more than the halfway mark of the festival, Bong Joon-ho's The Host offers a particularly refreshing pause in the mind bending aftermath of the Inland Empire, a smart, offbeat, and competent horror film that effortlessly weaves the ingredients of a well-crafted monster thriller with an incisive, cautionary tale on environmental responsibility and cultural arrogance. At the core of the film's untenable nightmare is a lone grieving family's defiance to seek and exact revenge on the monster, a seemingly indestructible, made-made mollusk-like giant creature borne of genetic (and perhaps viral) mutations that begins to terrorize revelers at a park on the steps of the ubiquitous Han River. But beyond the film's less than subtle jab at the (pointedly American) arrogance and abuse of authority that lead to the environmental disaster, the film is also a wry commentary on the culture of conformity and unquestioning deference to authority, as the survivors and first-hand witnesses to the monster's rampage are relegated to the role of quarantined victims, forcibly isolated from the general population for decontamination, subjected to inhuman diagnostic experimental procedures in the name of exploratory science, and systematically deprived of civil liberties and basic human rights under the amorphous rubric of national security. Deploying convenient, unsubstantiated (and insubstantiable) quack theories and misinformation through the media in order to exploit the victims' disorientation and cultural submissiveness to obfuscate the true nature of the threat, and in the process, transforming the monster's already real menace into an almost mythical bogeyman responsible for all of the indefinable plagues that afflict contemporary society, The Host serves as a trenchant and provocative satire on the dysfunctional geopolitics of anti-terrorism.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Inland Empire, 2006

inland_empire.gifOne of the recurring ideas that resurfaces from the Q&A with David Lynch after the screening of Inland Empire was the sense of liberation that high definition digital video afforded him, and this democratization of the medium can certainly be seen in the film's mind-bending, sprawling, opaque, hallucinatory, sinuous, and harrowing exploration of identity, performance, déjà vu, reality, intertextuality, surveillance, jealousy, betrayal, and fatedness. Indeed, inasmuch as the film can be accurately classified as indecipherable twaddle, it is also a description that defies reductive dismissal. Ever teetering between uncompromising inspiration and overindulgent madness, Inland Empire, as the title suggests, is a journey of interiority - not only of the way sectors of the cognitive brain can be arbitrary probed to recall seemingly random temporal and psychological regions of dreams and memories, but also in the way that the mind then subsequently maps the terrain of these disparate logic puzzle pieces in an attempt to reintegrate the information into some semblance of resolution, to make sense of our own indecipherable subconscious: a hysterical woman fixated on the static pixellations of her television; an eccentric sitcom featuring a rabbit-headed family; a privileged actress named Nikki (in a bold and uncompromising performance by Laura Dern), who is married to a powerful man has learned that she has just been cast in the role of a lifetime; the resurrection of a cursed screenplay that once led to the death of the two lead actors (and whose fate may be again be tempted when a well-known lothario named Devon (Justin Theroux) is cast as the male lead); a woman named Sue (also played by Dern, perhaps in the role of the film character) attempting to outrun her demons. But because of its entrenched irresolvability, Inland Empire, like Claire Denis' L'Intrus (albeit not as thematically distilled and compact), is the kind of film that becomes more intimate and intuitively - albeit abstractly - coherent with (temporal) distance and osmotic assimilation - when the arbitrariness of the seeming non-sequiturs, tangential encounters, oneiric repetitions, parallel images, conflated (and interpenetrating) realms of reality, and self-reflexive humor dissolve into the less concrete, impressionistic contours within the permeable fabric of human memory.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 13, 2006 | | Comments (16) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 11, 2006

Falling, 2006

falling.gifSomething of a muted hybrid between a thirty-something version of the existential crossroads between the freedom of academic emancipation and the responsibilities of adulthood captured by Jae-eun Jeong in Take Care of My Cat crossed with Alain Tanner's perceptive portrait of the May 68 generation in the aftermath of the failed cultural revolution in Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Falling is an admirable, understated, and introspective (and, perhaps, even redemptive in light of Barbara Albert's insubstantive and maddeningly divergent preceding film Free Radicals) self-reflexive exposition on the inevitable temperance of idealism, relevance, and integrity that comes with maturity, disappointment, and the realization of real world compromises. Chronicling the journey and solemn reunion of a group of former schoolmates and best friends, now independent women in their mid thirties who have returned to their hometown in rural Austria to mourn the death of a favorite, idealistic teacher and lifelong, uncompromising May 68 radical who instilled in the once impressionable young women a sense of activism, critical thinking, and social responsibility (and who, for some of the women, also signified an erstwhile lover): a modestly successful voice dubbing actress who lives in Germany, a pregnant bohemian resigned to the reality of bringing up her child as a single parent after her lover is deported, a career office worker who after years of struggle has finally established herself as a serious businesswoman in the corporate world, an ex-convict on continued monitored supervision who has minimal contact with her adolescent daughter, and a reticent, enigmatic woman who has remained in the small town long after the others set out to find their fortunes in the big cities. Confronted with the sobering realization of their own mortality, disappointment, and unrealized dreams as they leave the carefree days of youth behind and begin to approach the critical, life altering choices and peremptory responsibilities of marriage, career, children, and even moral direction that come with being of age, the film is a thoughtful, elegiac, and sensitively rendered zeitgeist portrait of passage, regret, community, friendship, and survival.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 11, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 10, 2006

Syndromes and a Century, 2006

syndromes.gifIn Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul revisits the bifurcated structure of his earlier feature films, Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady as well as the fragmented, dissociative visual and aural images of his experimental short, The Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves to create a languid, lyrical, organic, and contemplative exposition on the malleability and impermanence of a person's sense of place, a reality defined by a conflation of past and present, located both in the concreteness of geography and the ephemerality of memory. A chronicle of the parallel lives and quotidian encounters of a pair of physicians (presumably based on the filmmaker's parents) as well as an enterprising dentist named Dr. Ple (Arkanae Cherkam) who moonlights as a traditional ballad singer - ambiguously unfolding in either contemporaneity or temporal ellipsis - a female country doctor named Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) and a male city doctor and recently discharged military veteran named Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), the film is also an illustration of the recursiveness and atemporality of human behavior that not only reflects the intrinsic (and intuitive) repetition in the performance of mundane rituals, but also underscores the interconnectedness of a collective consciousness enabled by the accretive cycle of spiritual reincarnation: the performance of a staff psychological evaluation and physical examination prior to assignment to a hospital ward, the interactive complications of diagnosing and treating insular (and old-fashioned) monks, the integration of traditional and modern medicine in patient treatment, the intoxication of new love, the ache of longing, the inevitability of separation. Presented through a series of allusive, often complementary images - a visual theme that is figuratively reinforced in the transfixing image of the occluding eclipse that is subsequently repeated in the industrial image of smoke suction through the flue of a hospital exhaust system undergoing renovation, as well as literally through the film's penultimate sequences shot from the basement of a hospital where prosthetic limbs are fabricated and stored (the physical complementation of a disabled patient) - the film is an evocative and impressionistic meditation on the persistence - and indefinable elusiveness - of human memory.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Paprika, 2006

paprika.gifBased on the futuristic novel by seminal science fiction author Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika is a bold, provocative, mind-bending, and fiercely intelligent exposition into the nature of terrorism, the demystification of the subconscious, and the psychology of fetishism and objectification. A rash of thefts involving a developmental prototype dreamcatcher device, code named DC Mini, the brainchild of an affable, if overindulgent prodigy named Dr. Tokita that is currently under testing at a Tokyo psychiatric research headed by a reserved and methodical scientist named Dr. Atsuko Chiba, sets the stage for the film's delirious collision between reality and dreams, as Akiko enters the treacherous mindfield of the conjured alternate reality through her superhero, a literal "dream woman" alter ego named Paprika. Searching for the dream's architect (and therefore, the thief), only to realize that the dreams have cross-pollinated, assimilated, and transformed with the dreams of other victims and perpetrators - as well as those originating from the subconscious of other investigating psychiatric detectives, including a real-life police inspector named Konakawa who initially sought the institute's help in resolving his own anxiety over an unsolved homicide investigation - the team soon realizes that their quest is also a race against time as the rapidly fusing dreams spiral uncontrollably into a collective delusion that threatens to supplant the "real" reality with its fantastic and nightmarish incarnation. It is interesting to note that in manifesting the public's collective delusion through the phantasmagoric assembly of assorted netsuke figurines, oversized transformers, porcelain greeting cats, wind-up toys, and synchronized bobbing dolls images conjured by the victims, Satoshi Kon presents an implicit correlation between psychological terrorism and the distractive diversion of innocence. Inevitably, it is this ephemeral quest for a return to lost innocence through the delusive panacea of regressive insularity that reveals the film's especially incisive and relevant cautionary tale on the destructive repercussions of conformity, imposed ideals, and collective delusion.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Coeurs, 2006

coeurs.gifThere is an early survey of the interiors of a vacant Bercy apartment at the opening sequence of Coeurs that immediately evokes early Alain Resnais in the recurring theme of architectural memory, as the camera pans to the majestic domed ceiling of a converted building, artificially bisected by a superfluous wall constructed for the sole purpose of inflating the advertised unit as a three room apartment. However, while the introductory evocation is revealed within the seemingly mundane context of apartment hunting, the ensuing conversation between the client Nicole (Laura Morante) and her real estate agent Thierry (André Dussollier) on the impracticality of shared access to the subdivided room's lone window foreshadows the film's overarching structure as the recurring thread of shared spaces between the film's unfulfilled characters - Thierry and his hopeless romantic sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), Thierry and his pious office partner Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), Nicole and her layabout fiancé Dan (Lambert Wilson), the bartender Lionel (Pierre Arditi) and his cantankerous invalid father Arthur (Claude Rich) - reveal the complexity of the interconnected relational dynamics that bind them to their loneliness, emotional stasis, and unrequited longing. Based on Private Fears in Public Places by British playwright Alan Aykbourn (whose play Intimate Exchanges also serves as the basis for Resnais' earlier film Smoking/No Smoking), Coeurs is perhaps Resnais' most satisfyingly cerebral film since Mon Oncle d'Amerique (a correlation that is further reinforced by the schematic crane shots of interior spaces that recalls the maze-like behavioral observations of Mon Oncle d'Amerique). A sublime, elegant, and reassuring convergence in the aesthetic evolution of Resnais' cinema from the experimental structures of his early films to the conscious formalism of his later work, Coeurs is a thoughtful and melancholic exposition on the interconnectedness of memory, isolation, and loneliness - the unarticulated vulnerability behind the constructed artifice - liminally revealed through the awkward formality and passing glances of near encounters and existential coincidences that map the indefinable and enigmatic trajectories of the human heart.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2006 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 9, 2006

Volver, 2006

volver.gifVolver ingeniously opens to the title sequence illustrating a familiar All Souls Day ritual in a rural village in La Mancha, a solemn occasion when families visit the gravesites of their loved ones in a day of caretaking, remembrance, and homecoming, as sisters Sole (Lola Dueñas) and Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), along with Raimunda's adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo, who coincidentally appeared in Carlos Saura's The Seventh Day, a film that also chronicles the repercussions of unraveling buried secrets in a small town), tend to the graves of their parents before paying a visit to their dotty aunt (Chus Lampreave), an ailing elderly woman who continues to live alone in the family home (under the watchful eye of a concerned neighbor named Augustina (Blanca Portillo)), even as the trauma of her beloved sister, Irene's (Carmen Maura) death has confined her to the memories of an eternal past present. This commemorative ritual that implicitly acknowledges the coexistence of the living with the dead provides an incisive prefiguration to the unforeseen complications befall the sisters after their return from La Mancha, as Raimunda's unemployed husband (Antonio de la Torre)'s transgressive impulses threaten to wreck their already tenuous relationship, and Sole returns home to find that the ghost of their mother had stowed away in the trunk of her car. Pedro Almodóvar's incomparable eye for detail and delightfully subversive dark humor suits his recurring paean to the strength, resilience, communality, nurturing, intuitiveness, and ennobled beauty of women especially well, from the neorealist-inspired working class clothing worn by Raimunda that nevertheless, exuded irrepressible sensuality (evoking the wardrobe of iconic actress Sophia Loren), to the image of Anna Magnani made immortal by late night television rebroadcasts, and especially to the metaphoric image of the Manchegan windmills that literally harness the collective energy of the elusive, enduring - and perhaps even a bit maddening - winds that blow across the rural landscape of this enigmatic town of secretive, superstitious, surviving women that visually reinforces the film's theme of return and eternal cycles.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2006 | | Comments (13) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 4, 2006

Offside, 2006

offside.gif In March, 2006, after the Iranian team's victory in a World Cup qualifier match over Japan, seven people were trampled to death and dozens of others injured after soldiers forcibly attempted to divert the large exiting crowd from a military helicopter that had landed near the main gate and blocked it. Only six of the victims would be publicly identified in the local papers, leading to popular speculation that the seventh victim may have been a girl dressed up as a boy in order to sneak into the game, where women are traditionally banned from entering sports stadiums. This tragic incident, along with Jafar Panahi's own personal experience with attempting to bring his own daughter to a sports stadium for a soccer match during a previous World Cup competition, provides the thoughtful, incisive, and provocative subtext to Offside, Panahi's most lighthearted, humorous, and accessible, yet still perceptive and relevant social inquiry into the arbitrary interpretation of laws and (often outmoded) traditional customs that define the paradox of modern day Iranian culture. The introductory juxtaposition of the elderly man searching in vain for his errant granddaughter in an attempt to thwart her plans of sneaking into the stadium and averting a (perceived) communal scandal, and a group of boys on a bus offering assistance on how to escape detection to an anxious girl transparently disguised as boy in an oversized shirt, hat with overhanging ear flaps, and face painted with the national colors, illustrates the spectrum of public attitude towards the seemingly innocuous inclusion of women in such public events, and more implicitly, sheds an uncomfortable spotlight into the pricklier context of cultural re-evaluation towards broader social equality. With the less successful (or just plain unlucky) impersonators unceremoniously rounded "offside" into a makeshift holding pen that has been set up on the elevated, outside perimeter of the stadium - and conveniently, next to a window opening so that the soldiers can continue to watch the game uninterrupted from the sidelines - where the girls will be segregated from the crowd until the arrival of a van for an escorted trip to the police station to be booked on vice charges, the ideological (if not symbolic) battle towards equal rights is brought to the figurative front lines, as the girls argue with the often accommodating, but equally bemused soldiers who are torn between sympathy and reluctant duty in an attempt to persuade their captors into setting them free from their unjust detention. Structured in the framework of a situational comedy, the film's deceptive facileness proves to be its most irresistibly potent weapon in a brewing (and perhaps, inevitable) ideological revolution, upending the laws of inequitable social convention into a rote reflection of its own incomprehensible - and untenable - contemporary absurdity.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 04, 2006 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 3, 2006

Belle Toujours, 2006

belle_toujours.gifOstensibly an homage to the principal creators of Belle de Jour, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Belle Toujours is, nevertheless, a quintessential Manoel de Oliveira film: formalist, dramaturgic, contemplative, and discursive. Continuing where Buñuel's film left off 38 years earlier, after the sadistic scoundrel Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) would whisper an undisclosed secret to Séverine's invalid, devoted husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel) that would move him to tears, the tables seem to have turned in the opening sequence of Belle Toujours as it is now Husson who, riveted to his seat, is found openly weeping at a symphony. This evocative juxtaposition between Pierre's involuntary betrayal of erupted emotion in Belle de Jour and Husson's reflexive reaction to an artfully orchestrated performance integrally illustrates the point of departure between Buñuel and Oliveira, even as the two episodes converge on the same elusive image of Séverine Serizy: one, more in tune with the visceral representations of human behavior in all its absurdity, the other, with the intellectual characterizations behind them. Indeed, inasmuch as the idea of Séverine's elusiveness dominates both films, Oliveira's Séverine, now played by the equally iconic actress Bulle Ogier instead of Catherine Deneuve (in a transparent role switch that recalls Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire) is essentially an adaptation rather than a re-casting of the original - a more cerebral (re)incarnation of the bourgeois housewife turned prostitute of Belle de jour - a widow whose erotic fantasies have been diffused by age and faithful devotion to her late husband, even as her temperament remains fearless, uncompromising, and defiant. Moreover, the lonely hearts cocktail bar frequented by a pair of underworked prostitutes can also be seen as a reconfiguration of Madame Anais's clandestine brothel - a thematic association that is visually reinforced by a nude oil painting that is displayed in both establishments - transforming the theme of sexual surrogacy that pervades Buñuel's film to the figurative psychotheraphy (enabled in part by a sympathetic, probing bartender) and introspection of Oliveira's film, where the local bar has become the contemporary venue for unburdening the problems of failed intimacy and connection in the modern world (most notably, in Husson's recurring trips to the bar after a series of missed - or more appropriately, thwarted - encounters with Séverine). It is within this framework of passage and transformation that the climactic confrontation between Husson and Séverine can be seen, not as a nostalgic elegy, but as an affirmation of a life-long passion, curiosity, iconoclasm, and irreverence, where the insightful, tongue-in-cheek mind games of Buñuel have been transformed into an altogether different kind of psychological deconstruction, one that faithfully - and exquisitely - resonates within Oliveira's own recurring expositions on aging, vitality, self-reflexivity, and memory.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 03, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 2, 2006

Gardens in Autumn, 2006

gardens_autumn.gif Otar Iosseliani's understated and reassuringly familiar abstract comedies are incisive, universal expositions on human absurdity, the complications of modern life, and the seasonality of fortune, so it is particularly satisfying to see the unremarkable (anti)hero of his latest film, Gardens of Autumn break through this corruptive and dysfunctional cycle of power, materialism, and social mobility to find some measure of happiness. The film's opening sequence provides a wry and irreverent glimpse into Iosseliani's acerbic satire on social behavior, as a handful of customers browse through a limited product selection at a coffin maker workshop, staking their claim on their preferred unfinished caskets in relative civility until several potential buyers begin competing for custody over a particular, one-size-fits-all "custom" model. The absurd juxtaposition of insatiable consumerism even in the face of mortality provides an insightful preface to the film's subverted expectation, as possession and privilege become intertwined with the mundane reality of inevitable death. In Gardens in Autumn, the unlikely hero is Vincent (Séverin Blanchet), a sad-eyed, rumpled, middle-aged cabinet minister with an attractive, shopaholic mistress, a distracted, coddling mother (in the hilarious casting of Michel Piccoli in drag), a string of jilted lovers (and almost as many adopted, commemorative exotic animals), and a meaningless, time-wasting bureaucratic job. Once an influential political appointee with seemingly important ceremonial (albeit nebulous) responsibilities (an early episode of a goodwill diplomatic visit with an African dignitary over the hunting of wild game, and a subsequent ribbon-cutting duty on a farm inauguration suggest an agriculture and wildlife post), Vincent's comfortable life is upended (even literally, as he resorts to standing on his head to in an attempt to regain his composure after the traumatic ordeal) when a widespread scandal and public protest leads to a change in the political winds, and with it, his forced resignation from office and ouster from the well-appointed, government furnished estate that he has called home for years. Returning to the shuttered family apartment in the working class neighborhood of his youth only to find his home overrun by squatters, Vincent soon finds refuge in the company of old friends (including a street artist played by Ioselliani) and former lovers as he settles into a carefree, bohemian life, drifting through a series of makeshift shelters alongside his eccentric - and often inebriated - companions and strange bedfellows. Iosseliani's familiar aesthetic of medium shots, muted humor, near wordless scenarios, and endearing, representational characterizations proves especially suited to the film's timeless, modern fable of a person's fall from grace, transforming the humiliation of the vanquished into the humble victory of the everyday hero, reinvigorated and impassioned by the quotidian pleasures found in the often overlooked minutiae of quiet self-liberation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

October 1, 2006

Days of August, 2006

days_august.gifMarc Recha channels the spirit of Lisandro Alonso's primitivistic, metaphoric journey of interiority in Los Muertos (a derivation made all the more transparent by an extended river exploration sequence) to a visually sublime, but soporific and tediously unoriginal effect in Days of August. Ostensibly a personal chronicle of a writer, Marc (Marc Recha) who embarks on a road trip with his fraternal twin David (David Recha) in order to reinvigorate his creative energy for an unfinished project and retrace the journey of an influential, but inscrutable and almost mythical journalist and acquaintance named Ramon Barnils who spent the final years of his life wandering the desolate, largely untouched Spanish countryside where traces of the long won - and eventually lost - Revolution can still be seen in the scarred walls and abandoned ruins, the brothers' unstructured and aimless road trip also becomes an examination of how a person can lose his identity by walking in someone else's shoes in the vastness of an impersonal, eternal landscape (an existential theme that also evokes a pastoral rendition of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Man Without a Map), dissolving into the atmosphere of disconnected atemporality. Chronicling the brothers' encounters with a series of equally unengaging drifters along the way, similarly played in a blurred truth and fiction manner by real-life characters who recount their own personal stories (recalling the interpenetration between documentary and fiction of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Objects at Noon) - a hitchhiker who once lived in New York as a flamenco dancer, a forest ranger who lives from abandoned house to abandoned house playing his trumpet, a waitress who once left an over-possessive lover - Days of August ultimately collapses from the elliptical vacuity and insubstantialness of its glossy, self-important travelogue images.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 01, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Bamako, 2006

bamako.gifFrom the opening image of the first witness called to testify in Bamako, the village griot - a tribal ancient and tale teller who passes on his culture's collective history from generation to generation through the orality of ancient chants - who, paradoxically, is unable to communicate his testimony (and, in broader implication, the testimony of his people) in his own native country of Mali because of logistical difficulties with translating his indigenous language to French, the country's official language for governmental and bureaucratic affairs, Abderrahmane Sissako unveils his critical, impassioned, caustic, and uncompromising approach to examining the repercussions of globalization and subsidized trade on the developing nations of post-colonial Africa. Framed against the backdrop of quotidian life in a Bamako village as couples marry and separate, cloth dyers attend to their business, the unemployed spend their idle time waiting for something to happen (or immersing in speculative studies in the hopes of gaining future employment opportunity), and local villagers alternately look on at the proceedings with equal bemusement, apathy, and tedium, Sissako launches an allegorical, provocative, and bracing indictment against the World Bank, the G8, and the International Monetary Fund for transgressions against the African continent that have led to systematic underdevelopment, insoluble debt, cultural marginalization, and continued reliance on international charity. Like the incongruous juxtaposition between the lives of the villagers and the intrusive tribunal, the disparity between the issues presented by the self-appointed arbiters of justice and the society that they represent is also a tenuous balance that confronts the very notion of indigenous cultural solvency at the beginning of the 21st century, as the sub-Saharan nations stagnate between economic development and exploitation, bureaucratic efficiency and corruption, modernization and cultural extinction, global interdependence and neediness. This dilemma is inferentially encapsulated in the film within a film Western sequence (with a cameo by actor Danny Glover who co-executive produced the film) that incisively channels the spirit of Nigerien film pioneer, Moustapha Alassane's Le Retour d'un Aventurier, the first native African film ever made that, ironically, depicted all the conventions of a Hollywood Western plot (albeit with African cowboys chasing zebras instead of wild horses). In evoking the specter of Alassane's seminal, but intrinsically derivative film, Sissako traces the inequitable history of western subservience and imitation to the figurative beginning, a sobering imputation that the socio-economic problems of post-colonial Africa are not only the residual legacy of economic imperialism and unfair trade, but also culturally self-inflicted in the naïve imitation of an unattainable western ideal.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 01, 2006 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2006, Abderrahmane Sissako, New York Film Festival

September 30, 2006

The Go Master, 2006

go_master.gifIn distilling the life of one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Go players in history, Wu Qingyuan (Chen Chan) - an ethnic Chinese who immigrated to Japan (where he is referred to by the Japanese reading of his name, Go Seigen) in order to continue his pursuit of the game through officially sponsored tournaments into a few essential moments in the now nonagenarian's lifelong search for enlightenment - it is interesting to see Tian Zhuangzhuang's cinema converge towards the aesthetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Presenting a series of essential, elliptical, and seemingly alienated, self-encapsulated episodes that characterize, not only the shape of history (and in particular, the protracted conflict between China and Japan as a result of the conflict for sovereignty over Taiwan, the occupation of Manchuria, the Pacific War, and the rise of Communism), but also the psychological isolation imposed by the uncertainty of world events and further complicated by the problems of assimilation into a monoethnic adopted culture, The Go Master is more impressionistic than biographical, allusive than anecdotal (although certain particularly illuminating episodes that reveal Wu's phenomenal concentration and character are recreated, such as an infamous match for the title of Go Master in which Wu was so engrossed in the game the he was completely oblivious of his opponent, Kitani Minoru's infirmity from a nosebleed and subsequent collapse; his marriage to a Japanese woman, Nakahara Kazuko; his brief association with the controversial Buddhist sect, Jiu Kyou; and the symptomatic after-effects of nerve damage sustained from a pedestrian accident that cut short Wu's dominance over the game). By framing Wu's own words excerpted from his autobiography as written quotation chapter markers - a visual aesthetic reminiscent of the interstitial pillow word structures of Hou's A City of Sadness - Tian elegantly and understatedly illustrates the thematic context of humanity as impotent witnesses to forces beyond their control, a humble, yet remarkable life lived in the periphery of turbulent human history, ennobled, not by victories, but by the everyday struggle and integrity of the perpetual quest.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

September 29, 2006

Woman on the Beach, 2006

woman_beach.gifAfter observing Hong Sang-soo's previous three films bucolically retreating within a predictable safety zone of recurring preoccupations and reflexive encounters illustrated through linear narratives in somewhat uncharacteristic fashion following what had been his most structurally experimental film to date, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, it is refreshing to see Hong crystallize his now familiar flat structured, mirroring triangulations on the ephemeral nature of human desire with Woman on the Beach. Opening to the seemingly innocuous, but incisive image of film director, Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) unrelentingly goading his reluctant friend (and more importantly, car owner), Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) into taking a road trip to a quiet, off-season seaside resort in Shinduri Beach (and who, in turn, agrees to accompany him under the provision that his girlfriend, an international traveler and composer named Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyeon-geong) also come along for the impromptu getaway), in order to stimulate his creativity after struggling with writer's block on a long overdue script, Hong implicitly reveals not only the selfishness and insecurity, but also the resigned acquiescence that shape and define Joong-rae and Chang-wook's character. Alternately distracted from his work by sheer procrastination and indiscipline, as well as squandering his time by vying for the affections of the seemingly receptive Moon-sook, Joong-rae is an inscrutable paradox: seemingly thriving in his self-inflicted distraction by perversely deriving inspiration from the intoxicating chaos of romantic pursuit, yet already mourning the inevitable disappointment of the conquest, when the bliss of anonymous encounter and transitory connection with a new lover soon give way to the insecurity, paralysis, and mundane reality of emotionally investing in a fledgling, potential relationship. Chronicling Joong-rae's dysfunctional creative process through the unresolved wreckage of his messy, unraveling, and patternistically recurring romantic entanglements - a theme that coalesces in Joong-rae's diagrammatic explication of his theory on the interpenetration between memory and dimensional knowledge - Hong transcends his now familiar portraitures of flawed, self-indulgent men, obliging, but elusive women, and failed intimacy by endowing his characters with the possibility of self-revelation even in the midst of human frailty, allowing them to find their way to break free from their self-inflicted, ensnaring sand dunes towards the liberating landscape of personal closure.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 29, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

September 28, 2006

The Queen, 2006

queen.gifThe Queen transforms the morbid spectacle surrounding Diana's tragic death in the summer of 1997 into a trenchant, elegant, and compelling exposition into the nefarious role of the media as both creator (and self-generator) of news and manipulator of public sentiment. By juxtaposing Diana's death within the framework of Tony Blair's recent election to the office of prime minister under the Labor Party platform of initiating a wide-range of sweeping reform ever to be instituted in the country after decades of Tory government (with visibly lackluster results), filmmaker Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan contextualize the atmosphere as a symptom of a broader social angst - a synchronicity that intrinsically transformed a family's private grief into a disoriented public's search for leadership and direction in a time of crisis. It is within this context of media complicity that Frear's strategy to incorporate substantial scenes of archival footage, coupled with a distanced, almost anecdotal reenactment of the infamous paparazzi chase on the streets of Paris that led to the tragic accident, proves especially incisive in illustrating the media's ensuing, self-perpetuated escalation of the episode into a blunt, sensationalistic, and incendiary public referendum to re-evaluate the relevance of the monarchy towards the end of the twentieth century. What is perhaps most commendable about the film is the remarkable integrity intrinsic in the cast and crew's complex and dimensional portrayal of the royal family - and in particular, Queen Elizabeth II (in a pitch-perfect performance by Helen Mirren) - as well intentioned, sensitive, but humanly flawed and woefully paralyzed by the rigid insularity and protocols of its venerated institution: caught in the tide of a self-fueled media circus, baffled by the public idealization of "the people's princess" who had privately challenged the very institution that she implicitly agreed to serve, and driven into a stoic silence in keeping with the dignity of the crown, but at odds with the increasing (and perhaps unjustifiable) public sentiment to lionize her. It is interesting to note that in serving as the unofficial mediator between the queen and the grieving public, Frears illustrates the conservatization of Tony Blair, a nascent glimpse of his increasing departure from the ideals of radical reform and towards the inertia and morass of politics as usual (an ideological realignment that seems particularly stark within the context of post 9/11 global politics).

Posted by acquarello on Sep 28, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival

Mafioso, 1962

mafioso.gifAlberto Lattuada irreverently - and uproariously - explores the nurtured regionalisms, preconceptions, and ethnic stereotypes between the more progressive, industrialized north and more conservative, old world traditions of southern Italy - and in particular, Sicily - that continue to pervade and shape the social attitudes between the two divergent cultures of contemporary Italian society in his underseen comic masterpiece, Mafioso. Told from the perspective of a well-intentioned, if perhaps too obliging and gullible Antonio Badalamenti (played impeccably by the great comic actor Alberto Sordi), an automobile assembly factory foreman and efficiency expert who moved from his beloved village in rural Sicily to seek his fortune in the north, the film throws caution to the wind with its delirious fusion of pitch black satire, gangster film parody, and comedy of manners, as the proud native son decides to bring his young, fair haired (and inescapably northern), visibly bemused family to his beloved ancestral home and into the crosshairs of an equally bemused and unsuspecting rustic town still lorded over in hushed tones by a reclusive godfather and town benefactor named Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio) whose vast influence seems to ripple even to the distant shores of Trenton, New Jersey. Arriving giddily at the town square and into the surreal view of a funeral service from the window of a taxicab - an apparent gunshot victim for defying the will of (and consequently falling out favor with) Don Vincenzo - Antonio's homecoming soon becomes as riddled with as many complications as the pock-marked, tell-tale bullet holed walls that line the town when his wife's modern manners and unfamiliarity with local customs reduce the normally animated household into retreated silence and polite evasion, and Don Vincenzo decides to call in a personal favor in return for enabling Antonio's success on the mainland. Still as incisive and relevant forty years since its initial release, Mafioso continues to provoke and entertain in equal measures by casting its critical eye into the Sicilian code of honor to create an audacious, sharp-witted, and perversely funny satire on honor-bound duty and hypocritical tradition.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 28, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Alberto Lattuada, New York Film Festival

October 10, 2005

Caché, 2005

cache.gifMichael Haneke's latest offering, Caché brilliantly converges towards early Harun Farocki themes of surveillance and terrorism though images while retaining his own recurring themes on the abstraction of videoimage representation (as in The Seventh Continent), the desensitization of images (as in Benny’s Video), and the breakdown of (social) order as a consequence of failed communication (as in Code Inconnu) to create a challenging and provocative examination of guilt, complacency, and reckoning. From the opening stationary image of a quiet suburban neighborhood that begins to display video tracking marks, revealing the surveillance nature of the recorded image (as Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) study the anonymously recorded tape of the front of their house for clues on its origin), Haneke presents a literal self-projection of the characters' actions (and implicitly, our own) that serves as a mirror to examine human conscience and collective responsibility. Moreover, as the frequency and unsettling specificity of the mysterious video correspondence escalates to include child-like, crudely drawn images of seemingly intimate knowledge from incidents from Georges' childhood - in particular, his one-sided rivalry with his Algerian "almost" brother, Majid (Maurice Benichou) for his parents' attention - the tone soberingly shifts from sinister mystery and critical self-assessment (and national, as in the case of the massacre of Algerian residents by French authorities in 1961) to one of exposing the baseness of instinctual human behavior that manifests in destructive, inhuman acts of crippling paranoia, racism, misdirected blind aggression (as in the case of the couple's near collision with a cyclist on a one-way road, an episode that hauntingly recalls the catalytic encounter of Code Inconnu), and self-righteous retaliation. The film's penultimate sequence of Georges' surveillance-like, regressive dream into the pivotal episode that lies at the core of his childhood guilt, captured from a stationary, medium shot camera recalls the framing of the opening sequence (as well as prefigures the concluding sequence), establishing a connection between the two visually innocuous - but implicitly traumatic images: an omniscient view, not from a distant, God's eye perspective, but from an equally inescapable perspective of personal conscience.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 10, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

October 9, 2005

The Sun, 2005

sun.gifAleksandr Sokurov has always seemed to be particularly in his element with his dense and amorphous expositions of integrated, Eastern spirituality (A Humble Life, Dolce) and the commutation of collective history (Oriental Elegy, Russian Ark, so it comes as no suprise that the third installment of his historical tetralogy, The Sun - a film that incorporates both aspects of these recurring themes - is his most accomplished (to date) of the series. Rendering a painstainkingly detailed portrait, not of the biographical life of Hirohito (Issei Ogata), the (hu)man, but rather, of the culturally unquestioned institution of the divine Emperor of Japan, Sokurov’s vision eschews the conventional framework of illustrating the turmoil and decimation of the waning days of war in order to present a more challenging and illuminating portrait of a physically slight, pensive, and perhaps reluctant national ruler trapped in the eternal performance of traditional rituals and bound to the rigid social codes of his inherited role. From the opening sequence of the emperor impassively listening to his itinerary for the day over a private breakfast - including his exact hour for catching an afternoon nap - the film provides an image of the imprisoning rituals - and consuming weight - of assumed power. The selection of Richard Wagner's elegiac compositions (Wagner also composd the magnum opus operatic tetralogy, the Ring Cycle) seems especially suited to this twentieth century portait of götterdämmerung, chronicling the literal twilight of the sun god, as the defeated Japanese emperor transforms from deity to mere mortal after his official surrender to General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson) and the American occupiers. However, even more than the actions of Hirohito himself, the film's incisive study of the cultural framework that underpins the source of the emperor's absolute power provides a particularly relevant context to Sokurov's expositions on the dynamics of power and (false) idolatry, most notably in the filmmaker's treatment of the mythification of a political leader that seems eerily resonant of contemporary American politics in which a destructive culture of unquestioned faith, intractable policies, isolationism, and evocation of divine rule serves to unwittingly precipitate the nation's own predestined failure and international marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

October 8, 2005

Three Times, 2005

threetimes.gifAfter two films that admittedly left me uncertain over the direction of Hou Hsiao Hsien's cinema, it was particularly satisfying to see Hou incorporate his earlier (and specifically, more overtly political) films with his recent expositions into more distilled and highly elliptical mood pieces. Evoking Chantal Akerman's Toute une nuit in its essential distillation of singular, transformative episodes that define the formative substance of all romantic relationships, Three Times presents a series of vignettes, each chronicling a series of understated encounters between two lovers played by same actors Chang Chen and Shu Qi, as their destinies weave through the complex socio-political terrain throughout the last century of Taiwanese history. Set in a 1966 rural province, the first chapter A Time of Love recalls the nostalgic innocence of young love of Hou's earlier film Dust in the Wind as a young man spends the few remaining days of his civilian life at a billiard parlor before reporting for compulsory military service and falls for the parlor's attractive, new employee. Infused with a tonal romanticism of unarticulated longing that rivals the atmospheric texturality of a Wong kar-wai retro period piece, Hou's melodic rendition is imbued with a poetry of sensually charged gestures and understated intimacy.

The second chapter A Time for Freedom unfolds as a silent film variation of Flowers of Shanghai. Set at a brothel in 1911 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the film follows the evolving relationship between a highly influential newspaper editor (and political activist) and a courtesan approaching the age of marriage who is prompted to re-evaluate her own future when her patron decides to intervene in the fate of one of the junior courtesans. Retaining the atmosphere of insularity that pervades Hou's earlier film, the episode similarly reflects Taiwan's increasing estrangement from mainland China at the turn of the century while presenting a social critique on the consuming national and sexual politics of the times.

The third chapter, a contemporary piece set in Taipei entitled A Time for Youth recreates the modern-day rootlessness of Goodbye South Goodbye (sans implicit humor) and Millennium Mambo as a young couple lead an aimless existence of club hopping, wordless intimacy, and escapist motorcycle rides through town. Replacing the stylized, melancholic romanticism of the earlier chapters with a dedramatized, alienated realism, Hou illustrates a sense of estrangement borne, not of external circumstances, but of a pervasive spiritual inertia. Expounding on similar themes of absent parents, broken communication, and missed connection that Hou explores in his previous film, Café Lumière, the film becomes an elegy, not for the nostalgia of a bygone era, but of lost opportunity in an age of liberation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 30, 2005

Something Like Happiness, 2005

something_happiness.gifNear the halfway mark of the first week at the festival, Bohdan Slama's exquisitely rendered Something Like Happiness provides a good-natured, refreshing, leisurely paced, and satisfying palate cleanser: a slice-of-life serio-comedy on devotion, friendship, family, and missed connection. At the heart of the film is the scruffy bohemian, a perennial "sweet guy" named Tonik (Pavel Liska) who lives with his aunt in a derelict house on a scrap of land overlooking a sprawling industrial complex in which they are two of the few remaining holdouts in a proposed factory expansion project (long after other residents, including his own parents, have moved into residential apartments with all modern conveniences). Secretly carrying a torch for his childhood best friend, a beautiful store clerk named Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmová), his prospects for winning her heart prove ever fading when, at the start of the film, her dashing and affable boyfriend immigrates to America and subsequently sends her a ticket to join him after he secures a steady job for both of them. However, when the Tonik and Monika become unexpected custodians to a pair of young boys after their mother is institutionalized, her decision to defer her trip until her release from the hospital provides the shy Tonik with a glimmer of hope for their long awaited romantic union. Like the character Tonik, the film is also gentle and unassuming, but ultimately haunting and endearing portrait of compassion, unrequited longing, and human dignity.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

Capote, 2005

capote.gifDuring the Q&A for the film, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman commented that the inspiration behind his remarkable transformation into the character of novelist Truman Capote came from the idea of someone who needed the other person much more than the other needed him, but concealed this lopsided dependence in such a manner that the other believes the reverse. This posture provides an insightful glimpse, not only into the controversial relationship between Truman and Perry (Clifton Collins, Jr.) one of the killers of the Clutter family whose senseless murder served as the basis for his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, but also in his self-consumption and eccentricity. From the opening sequence recreating the discovery of the bodies in the Klutter family in their Kansas farmhouse that cuts into the image of Capote transfixedly reading the article on the murder from his New York City apartment (figuratively holding the open ended resolution of their deaths in his hands), filmmaker Bennett Miller creates a sense of interconnected fatedness in this chance "encounter", a compulsion that would propel him to visit Kansas with his childhood friend (and implicit beard) Nell Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). While I disagree with Bennett's characterization of Truman as a narcissist but rather, as an insecure outsider whose abandonment as a child led him to perpetually seek attention, the film achieves resonance into Capote's true character (and ties into the theme of fate) in a scene in which Truman describes Perry as coming from the same house, an image of himself who left through the back door, while he left through the front.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 29, 2005

I Am, 2005

i_am.gifDorota Kedzierzawska continues to demonstrate her strength in directing young actors (particularly evident in the performance of the lead actor, Piotr Jagielski) that she had earlier illustrated in The Crows with her latest film I Am. Recalling Ken Loach's Kes or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows in its modern day, pseudo-Dickensian tale of instinctual survival shot from a child's perspective, the film is a familiar story of a neglected, troubled child's fugue, retreat into a makeshift world of his own imagined creation, and inevitable return to the "outside" world, I Am renders a less metaphoric journey for parental connection in a similarly suffused and foreboding vein of Andrei Zvyagintsev's Return). However, while Kedzierzawska's execution is impeccable and remarkably adept, the film, nevertheless, retains an oddly sterile conventionality to its manner of storytelling, an impression that is further reinforced by composer Michael Nyman's swelling and overwrought (if not patently manipulative) soundtrack that suffuses each dramatic scene with an inconguent, near-mythic sense of tragedy.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 29, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 27, 2005

Bubble, 2005

bubble.gifThe title of the film provides a glimpse into the fragility of the hollow, empty life led by the main character: a middle-aged airbrush operator at an Ohio doll factory named Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) who takes cares for her invalid father, shuttles her car-less, twentysomething best friend and fellow factory worker Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) to his second job in neighboring West Virginia, and spends her evenings sewing doll clothes. It is a predictable routine that is soon perturbated when the company foreman hires a second airbrush operator named Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) to ramp-up production for a large order, a nebulous, young single mother with a penchant for stealing. Shot with a cast of non-professional actors, Steven Soderbergh's low budget indie film Bubble has the signature look - and rides the familiar clichés - of an independent film set in rural America: pot-smoking, high school drop-out blue collar workers, dysfunctional family lives (burdensome and unemployed parents, volatile ex-boyfriends, a steady diet of fast food), and distended sequences of dead time. Skirting the narrative and muted emotional arc of monotonic ritual, betrayal, and senseless violence, the characters' lives - like the film itself - are reflected in the dolls of their creation: fractured, colorless, inanimate, and underformed.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 27, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 26, 2005

Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, 2005

avenge.gifFilms about the effects of Israeli occupation on the Palestianian population are always bound to be inflammatory and subject to often unfair, prejudicial criticism of justifying terrorism, and this ugliness unfortunately surfaced from a particularly hostile member of the audience at the Q&A with filmmaker Avi Mograbi for his penetrating documentary Avenge But One of My Two Eyes. At the heart of Mograbi's organic essay is the juxtaposition of two events. The first is the ancient history of the mass suicide of the zealots at Masada during the Jewish Revolt as a final act of defiance against an inevitable Roman capture. The second is the Biblical text of the emasculated, blinded, and captured Nazirite Samson standing between the main pillars of the temple who implored God to find the strength to "avenge but one of my two eyes" (a phrase that, coincidentally, is also used in a rallying song by the minority militant, right-wing settlers), collapsing the temple - which brought his own death - in such a way that he killed more Philistines with his final act of suicidal retribution than during his lifetime. While the film does not inherently correlate the defiant act of the Masada with the modern-day act of suicide bombing, it was the juxtaposition of these two ideas that clearly vexed a few people. However, rather than directly commenting on the suicide bombing as a consequence of the occupation, the film instead explores the psychology behind the egregious act, laying bare the underlying callous indifference, insensitivity, racism, and uncertainty that the occupation has caused in the conduct of everyday life for the Palestinians: an ambulance carrying a seriously ill woman is physically blockaded by two armor tanks and repeatedly ordered to go home, refusing any pleas from the anxious husband and her family with the terse response "I don’t care. Go home!" broadcasted through a megaphone; a group of farmers who must cross a checkpoint in order to harvest their olives are refused permission to enter because of military exercises and denied information for a set time that they can return in order to be admitted entry; a group of young schoolchildren returning from school are refused passage through the checkpoint gates under "military orders" that the soldiers refuse to present. Mograbi’s vérité-styled filmmaking effectively captures the turbulence, humiliation, and uncertainty of occupation, presenting a thoughtful and incisive call to action for the return of humanity in increasingly entrenched and inhuman times.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 26, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

L'Enfant, 2005

enfant.gifThere is a palpable spirit of Robert Bresson (most notably Pickpocket and L'Argent) and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment at work in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s L'Enfant, so it comes as no surprise that during the subsequent Q&A, the brothers remarked that one of the images that they had wanted to capture in the film was how the fallen hero, a petty thief and new father Bruno (Jérémie Régnier), learns to "see the woman facing him". This woman (Déborah François), appropriately named Sonia, is a Dostoevsky archetypal chracter: devoted, suffering, taken for granted. As in the Dardenne's earlier film, The Son, the "child" of the film is also a figurative embodiment of redemption that is defined by more than one character: the newborn son Jimmy who is sold by his father on a whim, the immature Bruno, a flightly and rootless young man who sees his son as a disposable accessory, the band of young boys recruited by Bruno to perpetrate the petty crimes for a share of the profits. In this respect, the repeated shots of Bruno aggressively pushing the pram through the streets (and subsequently, in a situational permutation of him pushing a scooter) becomes a refiguration of Raskolnikov's dream: an image of burden, reluctant responsibility, and duty.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 26, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

September 25, 2005

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 2005

lazarescu.gifSomething of a hybrid between the sardonic humor of a talkative Otar Iosseliani or Béla Tarr and the vérité-like, social realism of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a thoughtful and incisive slice-of-life comedy on the impersonalization (and desensitization) of institutional health care. Exploring similar issues of entrenched bureaucracy as Moussa Bathily's Le Certificat d'indigence that serve to impede the proper dispensation of proper medical care (and, more importantly, lose sight of the face of humanity behind human suffering), the film unfolds as an absurd subversion of Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych in which the isolative process of dying becomes occluded in the pettiness, moralizing, helplessness, and coincidental distractions that invariably occupy everyday life as the lonely widower and retired engineer, Larazescu, is scuttled from one hospital to another throughout the evening after suffering from a bout of migraine and nausea. As in Tolstoy's novella, the process of death does not alter the process of living, but rather, becomes only a momentary distraction in an eternal - and seemingly interminable - human comedy.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 25, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival

Regular Lovers, 2005

regularlovers.gifRegular Lovers is a quintessential Philippe Garrel film. Part self-exorcism of the failed idealism of the May 68 counter-culture revolution that inevitably burned out in a haze of recreational drug use, sexual liberation, and the inertia of bohemianism, and part elegy on love found in the wreckage of a heartbreaking aftermath that, too, becomes inevitably lost, the film follows the plight of a young poet and draft dodger, François, as he devolves from impassioned idealist and revolutionary, to hopeless romantic (who once - perhaps, half-heartedly - offered to put aside his art and find a wage-earning vocation in order to provide a more stable life for his new lover, Lilie), and eventually, to adrift bohemian and parasitic houseguest. The film's final sequence - an evocation of the romanticism of revolution - is a fitting double entendre that recalls an earlier extended dream sequence of the French Revolution, as the latent potency of the dross opium becomes a metaphor, not only for the crystalized potential for upheaval and (self)destruction that continues to sublimate within the souls of a consumed and demoralized May 68 generation, but also, in its stabilized, incombustible form, represents the consumed residue of a transitory and ephemeral moment of bliss and paradise lost.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 25, 2005 | | Comments (16) | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival