Monday, September 17, 2007

27th Atlantic Film Festival

As I said in my introduction to this blog, given the fact that I live out in the sticks, there isn't much opportunity for me to talk about new films. But once a year, the Atlantic film festival rolls into town and, while they won't be showing the new films by Olivier Assayas, Abel Ferrara or Gus Van Sant that I've heard so much about coming out of Cannes, this year's line-up is relatively promising (last year was a nightmare). It's also the first time in three years that I'll be paying for tickets rather than working the festival as a volunteer, but even if I was, the lesson of previous years is to limit myself only to the films that I absolutely must see based on the director's previous work and/or festival buzz coming out of Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam et al (this late in the year I'm not making any discoveries, and certainly not at this festival). My only regret is that I won't be able to see Lady Chatterly because it's playing at the same time as The Man From London.

Friday, September 14th

The Walker (Paul Schrader, USA/UK)
Here is a film so bad I couldn't believe my eyes, or maybe I just didn't want to. Surely Schrader, who wrote the scripts for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) knew that the more the characters explained the plot to us the more difficult it became to follow; surely the man who made Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) knew it was pedestrian as filmmaking; surely the man who coaxed such great performances out of Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe in Auto Focus (2002) knew that the dialogue wasn't funny when it wanted to be (although everyone on screen seems to find Carter Page/Woody Harrelson a laugh riot, the audience I saw the film with had no trouble maintaining their composure--maybe it worked on the page but it doesn't transfer), and surely there was enough money in the budget for re-shoots. After an entire reel where literally nothing happens, a dead body turns up almost on que to set in motion a blackmailing melodrama that, as they say, goes all the way to the vice-president (who may or may not even appear in the film--the movie's not big on introductions), but if this story has any contemporary resonance, it must have sailed right over my head. And do I need to tell you that the protagonist's artist boyfriend/Moritz Bleibtreu (from The Elementary Particles, one of the worst movies I saw at last year's festival) specializes in kinky, pseudo-Mapplethorpe black-and-white stills meant to suggest Abu Garib?

Saturday, September 15th

Zoo (Robinson Devor, USA)
Although its stance can't be called "pro-bestiality" (if it doesn't kill you, it'll make you a social outcast), the filmmakers seem to have no moral objection to people having sex with horses; the argument that animals can't give consent is countered with a talk radio host who wonders, if the animal didn't consent, how did any of this happen in the first place? Working in the mode of an Errol Morris (with wall-to-wall narration in place of the ol' interrotron), the film consists almost entirely of Zoos relating their life stories over semi-abstract recreations, so the image of a news helicopter descending on the farm where it all happened is made to seem as allegorical as the locusts in Days of Heaven (1978), signalling the end. Indeed, one of the Zoos interviewed in the film describes the group as a kind of utopian, classless society where farm hands and engineers for Boeing could come together and just be themselves. I don't think one can ever understand why some men are drawn to having sex with horses, although one hypothesis we hear is that the man/horse dichotomy is a man-made construct, and that animals don't categorize. In other words, bestiality is a form of transgression that breaks down walls, connecting Zoos with other Zoos (via the internet), and men with nature. Whether one finds this silly or wrong-headed or both, it doesn't make the experience of this film any less fascinating as a glimpse into a subculture I'd much rather not go anywhere near. Recommended.

Sunday, September 16th

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, UK/Netherlands)
Greenaway is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, or at least he used to be. His last film to have any kind of critical or commercial impact was The Pillow Book (1996), more than a decade ago. His 8 1/2 Women (1999) wasn't well recieved when it premiered at Cannes, and even a partisan such as myself found it to be an almost deliberately minor work by this most ambitious and idiosyncratic of filmmakers; he followed it with Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003), his multimedia magnum opus centered on a seven hour feature film, shot on digital video, which hasn't been released in North America. Greenaway's latest film, about the Dutch painter Rembrandt/Martin Freeman, which seems intended as his commercial comeback, is nothing short of a disaster. Here is the best-looking film I've seen in years, shot on 4K HD video (after the screening, Greenaway's most provocative statement was that the 35mm print we had just seen looked rather drab compared to seeing it projected digitally), yet it didn't engage me on any level. Greenaway's other films, like The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), are above all masterpieces of tone, but this film just sits there on the screen; scene after scene falls flat, and it drags on for an interminable two and quarter hours. Greenaway and his cinematographer, Reinier van Brummelen, have done an excellent job of reproducing the look of Rembrandt's work, but to what end? Here is a film that knows exactly what it wants to look like, but has no concept of how it wants us to feel. What an appalling waste of a film.

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, USA)
There's still a few I haven't seen--namely, The Wedding Banquet (1993), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Ride With the Devil (1999)--but so far the tally on Lee and screenwriter James Schamus is five good or very good films and no bad ones, but nothing I've really loved. Here as usual, they depart completely from their earlier films in terms of genre, period, tone and, for the first twenty minutes, style (after an awkward stretch of quasi-Wongian quick pans and fast edits, Lee finds his groove again in the more languid pacing of his other films, which is when the story started to engage me), this time serving up a post-World War 2 thriller whose most obvious precedent is Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). During the war, Wang Jiazhi/Wei Tang, joins a patriotic acting troupe in Hong Kong that puts on propaganda plays to raise money for the resistance on the mainland, less because she's politically motivated than to spend time with the dreamy leading man, Kuang Yu-Min/Wang Leehom. Putting their politics into action, the troupe conspires to murder a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee/Tony Leung, and Jiazhi is assigned to seduce him à la Alicia Huberman/Ingrid Bergman--at one point, Jiazhi even walks past a poster for Suspicion (1941). The plan goes awry, leading to a murder so clumsy and pathetic that I felt as though I'd wandered into a Larry Clark film; Lee's handling of this sequence is particularly masterful. Jiazhi returns to the mainland after the war, withdraws from politics and even takes Japanese lessons, but Yu-Min soon finds her and the mission resumes. In contrast to Alex/Claude Raines, the sympathetic Nazi of Hitchcock's film, Mr. Yee is a sadistic monster who's so suspicious that he beats and abuses Jiazhi because her tears and blood are the only things he can be certain are real. Given its debt to Hitchcock, it's hardly surprising the story plays at times like an illustration of Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"; in much the same sense that Scotty/Jimmy Stewart constructs Judy/Kim Novak as Madeline, here it's Yu-Min who transforms Jiazhi into Mrs. Mak, but when Mr. Yee abuses her, it's not to punish her for the deception but to strip away any artifice. I'm hesistant to say more, partly because I don't want to give away the story, but more because I'm not sure why Jiazhi makes the decision she does (the movie didn't end until almost one o'clock, and after the Greenaway I was exhausted): is it because she pities him, or is she motivated by revenge? This engaged me for almost all of its two-and-a-half hours, but I liked it far less than Lee's more character-driven films like The Ice Storm (1997), Hulk (2003) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). Is it a coincidence, given that Schamus is an American, that this film and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) are much more melodramatic and plotty? In a talk he gave Sunday afternoon, Greenaway said that in ninety-nine percent of films you can see the director following the text, and Lee was the filmmaker who immediately popped into my mind since all of his movies adapt novels or short stories. But seeing this film immediately after Nightwatching, one realizes that it's not just a matter of having three acts and a turn-around and all these other commercial elements; much more important is the way in which Lee is really in control of the tone of the piece--something Greenaway is not.

Monday, September 17th

Ensemble, c'est tout (Claude Berri, France)
It's remarkable how forgiving we are as moviegoers, how much we want to like a film. I'll give you an example: in contrast with the two leads--Camille Fauque/Audrey Tautou, an anorexic cleaning woman, and Franck/Guillaume Canet, a grumpy chef--who are resolutely ordinary, Franck's roommate, whose full name is Philibert Marquet de la Tubelière/Laurent Stocker, is a broadly concieved caricature who almost seems to belong to another film altogether. Yet, for much of the film, I was able to convince myself that Berri was making a meaningful distinction between the working class leads and their aristocratic pal. But when he proposed to his girlfriend, I found it hard to feel happy for them since they hadn't had a single onscreen conversation, let alone something so much as resembling a romantic obstacle--Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce they aren't. There are some nicely observed moments (when Philibert comes home to find Franck asleep on the couch after a hard day's work, he gently removes his boots for him), although it's the broader stuff that got the biggest laughs from the audience I saw it with. I can't say I hated this, but there's so little standing between the two leads and a happy ending that one begins to long for the contrivances of an American romantic comedy. We're now at the mid-point of the Altantic Film Festival, which began on Thursday and wraps up Saturday, and I have yet to see anything that's really impressed me; I admired Robinson Devor's Zoo and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, but so far no masterpieces. Is it my own fault for not trying hard enough? After all, there was a lot of applause when the film ended so if I didn't enjoy it more, it's not because the story lacks drama, but because I failed to appreciate the movie for what it is as opposed to what it isn't. Right?

Tuesday, September 18th

The Hottest State (Ethan Hawke, USA)
Generally I'm in favor of personal filmmaking, but in this film and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005)--also starring Laura Linney as a divorced MILF--I reach a point where I really don't want to hear any more about the director's fucked-up childhood. As a child of divorce myself, you'd think I'd be more sympathetic, but maybe that's the problem: I'm not going to bore you with the details and I expect the same courtesy from others. Of course, I don't know for a fact that the story is autobiographical, but I do know that Hawke adapted the screenplay from his own novel and its protagonist, William/Mark Webber, is a struggling actor originally from Texas; it goes without saying that William's father is played by the director. Admittedly, Hawke does broach the larger issue of masculine gender identity; the film opens with William's father as a teenager coolly seducing his mother, and in flashbacks to William's childhood, his father tells him to never leave Texas in his heart. The decision to make Mark an actor, while obviously autobiographical, is never-the-less integral to what the film is about: without a father-figure in his life, William only knows how to relate to women through the movies. The Hottest State is Hawke's second feature as director after Chelsea Walls (2001); I didn't see that film, but on the evidence available here, Hawke is clearly a talented filmmaker. At times the film suggests an insipid mumblecore script made with a great deal more craft, energy and sexiness; in contrast to the anonymous world of Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha (2003) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), where Boston is made to seem interchangable with New York and both cities have a population of roughly six white twentysomethings, this film oscilates between Texas, New York, Connecticuit and Mexico, and each of those places is vividly captured, illustrating the difference a good set dresser can make. The film's biggest surprise is Catalina Sandino Moreno, who I had previously seen only in Maria Full of Grace (2004), and here plays a part as radically different from her role in that film as one could imagine: she prooves not only to be a wonderful actress but a star as well. There's a lot I liked about this film, but when it was over I felt a sense of relief rather than gratitude.

Wednesday, September 19th

The Man From London (Béla Tarr, Hungary/France)
Another Tarr fanatic at the screening felt this was a minor work, and quickly apologized to a friend he'd recommended it to, but it almost goes without saying that minor film by Tarr is still far and away the best thing in the festival. I haven't read the Georges Simenon novel Tarr adapted the screenplay from with his usual collaborator, novelist László Krasznahorkai--or any Simenon novel, for that matter--but my feeling is that Tarr is consciously working against the grain of the novel, telling the story in a deliberately enigmatic way that leaves certain plot points and character motivations mysterious. The first shot in particular is a stunning stretch of non-narrative filmmaking, and the second, while it establishes quite a bit, is so elliptically handled that we don't grasp its full signifigance until well into the film. In other words, it's a film that's more about creating a mood and an ambience than plot or character. Tarr has been criticized for his decision to dub Tilda Swinton's dialogue into Hungarian, but given how highly constructed the sound mix is, this strikes me as perfectly appropriate. At one point, the camera looks down on a character from a second-floor window, yet despite the moving train only a few feet away, we can still hear the man's footsteps with absolute clarity. I haven't seen Tarr's early neo-realist features, though I glean from Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay, A Place in the Pantheon, that they're much more socially engaged than his subsequent work; his very first feature, Family Nest (1979), is about a young couple sharing a flat with the husband's parents, alluding to a housing shortage in Budapest at the time. Like Krzyzstof Kieslowski, Tarr only reached an international audience when he abandoned social issues for more abstract and metaphysical themes in Almanac of Fall (1984) and Damnation (1988), and the decision to shoot his last four features, and a five minute short for the omnibus film Visions of Europe (2004), in black-and-white feels like a self-conscious attempt to make them appear more timeless. It's been observed of Sátántangó (1994), which I still haven't seen, that post-communist Hungary is made to seem identical to life under communism; Tarr has justified this by saying that "human nature, and the police, are the same everywhere." Here, Tarr's distance from the contemporary world is even more deeply felt. It goes without saying that none of the characters carry cell phones, go to the cinema or build an avatar on Second Life, but it's not even clear whether the story is set in Hungary or England; when the protagonist, Maloin/Miroslav Krobot, buys a mink stole for his daughter, it's using British currency, but the architecture and ambience are virtually identical to Tarr's other films. So yes, this is a minor work next to Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), yet given what a rare achievement it is never-the-less, it would be ungrateful to dwell on it too much.

[ADDENDUM: In his blog, David Bordwell writes that Tarr "vehemently disagrees" with critics who say his early films--Family Nest, The Outsider (1981) and The Prefab People (1982)--are radically different from the five that followed. And when asked about influences, Tarr has stated that he gets his ideas from life, not from other films. On the first count, I obviously over-simplified things in my review in order to make my thesis: after all, Almanac of Fall refers to the same housing shortage as Family Nest, and for all its abstraction, Werckmeister Harmonies was inspired by the genocide in the former Yugoslavia. On the second count, however, I'm going to have to disagree. I don't know much about life in Hungary before or after communism, though in an interview on the New Yorker Films DVD of Platform (2000), Jia Zhang-ke talks about how during the time when he was growing up in China, there was literally no culture for him to experience: he would go home every evening, and his family would sit in silence until it was time for bed. Whether or not life in Hungary was the same I cannot say, though Tarr's films certainly make it seem that way. But even in such a cultural vacuum, there is no such thing as a pure, unspoiled essence of a person. We all learn by example--whether it's our parents, our friends or the cinema, what we see has an influence on how we behave. Therefore, I would argue that cinema is very much a part of life.]

Thursday, September 20th

Puffball (Nicolas Roeg, UK/Canada)
I don't think Roeg could ever make a boring or unwatchable film; there will always be a certain level of craft and intelligence in whatever he makes. The Witches (1989) is considered by many an impersonal commercial assignment, but it has a Surrealist edge that Tim Burton can't even approximate: the shape-shifting characters (not just the hero but the witches as well), and the way in which it transforms an ordinary kitchen into seemingly the most dangerous place on earth (at least for a mouse) recall for me the silent serials of Louis Feuillade. I haven't seen any of the films Roeg's made since then, which consist of two theatrical features, Cold Heaven (1991) and Two Deaths (1995), and three films for television--Heart of Darkness (1994), Full Body Massage (1995) and Samson and Delilah (1996)--but it's hard for me to believe they're as bad as their reputation suggests. And while Puffball, Roeg's first film in over a decade, isn't very good, it's not an embarrassment and I was never bored. The problem, as my girlfriend so eloquently put it, is that every time I started to like this something really stupid happened. Things pick up slightly towards the end, after the crazy old bitch/Rita Tushingham kicks the bucket, but we still have the heroine's idiot boyfriend/Oscar Pearce to deal with. There's one shot in particular that everyone who sees the film will remember: late in the film, the pregnant heroine, Liffey/Kelly Reilly, is in danger ("Trouble at the old mill?!") and the boyfriend comes to the rescue standing in the back of a pick-up truck like a modern-day Lone Ranger ("Hi-oh, Chevy Silverado!"). Surely Roeg knew this shot would get an unintentional laugh; one imagines Pearce on set trying to convince him that the shot will look really cool. It doesn't. The presence of Donald Sutherland in a meaningless supporting role, which also gets unintentional laughs, is obviously intended to remind us of Roeg's great supernatural thriller Don't Look Now (1973), but the characters in that film were, you know, not retarded. At one point, a doctor explains to Liffey and her boyfriend that Liffey's placenta is in the wrong place, blocking the baby's exit, to which the boyfriend responds: "What does that mean?" I'm not making this up.

Friday, September 21st

La France (Serge Bozon, France)
This strange, whimsical, surprising film is the first feature directed by Serge Bozon, a French actor who's appeared in Cédric Kahn's L'ennui (1998), Eugène Green's Le Pont des arts (2004) and several other films I haven't yet seen--though given what I know about Green, whose worked has been described as a cross between Bresson and Wes Anderson, I suspect his influence rubbed off on Bozon. During World War 1, Camille/Sylvie Testud recieves a letter from her husband saying she won't hear from him again, and impersonating a boy, she heads to the front to find him, along the way joining a division of French soldiers who dream of Atlantis and periodically break into song. The narrative has a rambling, episodic quality that makes the film feel somewhat a road movie, and the tone of the film is appropriately eclectic. An early sequence on the homefront with strong lesbian overtones suggests that the war has divided the country along gender lines into those not allowed to fight and those who must, which in turn brings out the masculine in women and the feminine in men. The austerity of Bozon's sounds and images (almost the entire film takes place outdoors), juxtaposed with the catchy tunes, reminds one of Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past (2002), which made such memorable use of Finnish rock stars Marko Haavisto & Poutahaukat, but without any of the sadsack stuff that's become Kaurismäki's bread and butter. If anything, Camille is a little like Mathilde/Audrey Tautou, the plucky heroine of Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004), but without a trace of pixie-ishness. After a week of disappointment and bordem, it was nice to smile for a change.

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