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Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

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Tokyo Sonata
I'm Gonna Explode
(Voy a explotar)

Nearly half of this year’s New York Film Festival selections have no U.S. distributor as of yet. The more high-profile films have already won awards at other festivals or generated plenty of buzz—Changeling, The Class, and The Wrestler —and others, like Waltzing with Bashir or Happy-Go-Lucky, will be released by the year’s end.

What about what’s under the radar? To discover the festival’s hidden gems, I approached these largely unknown films as a blank slate, following actress Tilda Swinton’s example. In a BBC Radio interview, she said she treats festival-going like a night out at a restaurant where she lets the chef pick and choose for her. (We all should be so lucky.) She wants to be surprised, not needing to know anything about the film she’ll see. (Using this approach, I had no idea that Chouga was a resetting of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in contemporary Kazakhstan.)

Ezra Miller as Robert (Photo: Jody Lee Lipes/Coproduction Office/Film Society of Lincoln
The most attention-getting and audacious film so far (out of the 10 films seen at this point) is the debut by a 24-year-old American, Antonio Campos. It’s hard to beat Afterschool’s sensational combination: teens + sex + death. The first few minutes assault the viewer with alternating shots of YouTube stars (the laughing baby and the piano-playing cat) with Saddam Hussein’s execution and a Webcam from a hardcore porn site. Campos certainly demands your attention, and has it for most of the film. He convincingly updates the teenage wasteland of many films, like 1986’s River’s Edge.

Set at an East Coast private boarding school, the privileged (and medicated) teenagers have no sense of right or wrong and are so dispassionate that lead character Rob (a convincingly somnambulant Ezra Miller) has to slap himself to feel anything. His treatment of his girlfriend (not that they articulate their feelings) obviously parallels the treatment he witnesses of a Web porn model. But Campos doesn’t settle on shock value alone. This is not a retread of Harmony Korine’s disastrously received Gummo (NYFF, 1997). You know Rob has problems, but not until the end do you get the full picture (or diagnosis).

The teenage cast, sullen and disconnected (mumblecore goes to prep school!), play out their scenes with such realism that the the viewer becomes a voyeur. And the casting of high school-age teenagers adds to the viewer’s unease. Unlike Summer Bishil’s sexually abused teenager in Towelhead, there is no reassurance that the youthful-looking actors are over 18. Though in one misstep, Campos casts the adult authority figure as an out-of-sync Clueless Administrator, played with phony cheerfulness by Michael Stuhlbarg.

But Gerardo Naranjo’s brash, bratty, and far livelier I'm Gonna Explode (Voy a explotar) gives Afterschool’s naturalism the finger. It also blatantly borrows from other movies, especially Bonnie and Clyde, with its two headstrong teenage outcasts-turned-renegades. (Actors Gabriel García Bernal and Diego Luna from another teenage angst-ridden wild ride from Mexico, Y Tu Mamá También, are executive producers.)

Romano (Juan Pablo de Santiago), the only child of a right-wing politico, and middle-class Maura (Maria Deschamps) connect—but only to each other. Here, the sexual coming-of-age actually has meaning for the characters. On the run from their parents, the two form their own black-and-white world where the media is used as a common bond rather than a weapon. Hiding out, cut off from the rest of the world, they still have to have their music, movies, and magazines.

The parents are portrayed from the kids’ viewpoint—self-involved and rather clueless, but the adult actors never slip into buffoonery. In the movies’ time-honored tradition, what the duo are actually rebelling against is never really made clear, although Romano’s dad, remarried to his secretary shortly after his mother’s death, may be one indication.

When Naranjo focuses on the teenagers, the film engages—the simpler the details the better. Unlike the ever-serious Afterschool, these kids have a sense of humor. However, the film’s operatic turn toward the end left me a bit behind. But then again, my impulsive, live-for-the moment teenage years are way behind me. Naranjo, like his protagonists, takes the conclusion to the extreme.

Photo: Fortissimo Films/Film Society of Lincoln Center
The loveliest surprise of the NYFF so far: Tokyo Sonata. It lives up to the expectations implied by its title: acutely observed Ozu-inspired domestic drama, beautiful composed yet unfussy shots, and emotional restraint. Yet director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (of J-horror fame and no relation to Akira) takes the film in a wildly unpredictable direction in the second half.

Fired forty-six-year-old administrator Everyman Sasaki leaves dressed in his suit with his briefcase every morning, joins a breadline at lunch, and eventually takes up the only work available to him, as a janitor, all without telling his wife, a setup similar to Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (NYFF 2001).

But everyone in this middle-class family conceals a secret: the youngest son secretly takes piano lessons (after his father, to save money, had forbid him); and the eldest slacker son wants to join the military—the U.S. military—without his father’s consent. His wife, always wearing an apron, takes care of the home, obeying her husband’s wishes. If anyone’s hungry, she immediately whips up a meal. But her façade falls when she has a misadventure of her own.

Even in the first half, Kurosawa shatters the pensive, quiet tone. When the plot turns, the consequences are earth-shattering. And never do the characters’ behaviors neatly fall into place; the film thrives on contradictions. With the Japanese economy described in the movie as a sinking ship, could Tokyo Sonata have come at a more precipitous time? Kasaki’s challenge—how, at his age, can he start over?—may have more resonance than anyone could have predicted. Recently acquired by Regent Releasing, the film is set to open early next year.

Ainur Turgambayeva as Chouga (Photo: Paris-Barcelone Films/Film Society of Lincoln Center)
Now back to Tolstoy and adultery. The exotic, sci-fi-like location will be Chouga’s calling card: the Soviet totalitarian architecture mixed in with space needle towers and the glow of the Christmas decorations. But the story remains remote; those looking for Anna Karenina’s emotional core will be disappointed.

Within the first 10 minutes, it will be easy to match the film’s characters, all living within the world of the nouveau riche, with those of the novel. Chouga (Ainur Turgambaeva), at one point, is dressed in a leopard-print skirt, mink coat, kinky boots, fedora, and sunglasses. As a variation of Anna, she is portrayed more imperiously than passionately. Even after she abruptly falls in love with a thug and abandons her little boy and her much older husband, Chouga never loses control—a performance Lana Turner would be proud of.

At 88 minutes, the plot moves briskly, but the pace does not. Filmed in the ubiquitous quasi-documentary style, director Darezhan Omirbaev unhurriedly films in long, uninterrupted takes with characters walking in and out of frame. A French coproduction, the tone is unmistakably European. Kent Turner
New York Film Festival Round Up, Part Two
September 30, 2008



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