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

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Tilda Swinton & Mattia Zàccaro in I AM LOVE (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

March 24 – April 4, 2010
Presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art

Every filmgoer to this series is on the same level playing field. With few exceptions, all of the feature films are by first-time or largely unknown directors. With previous track records, Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country) and Eric Mendelsohn (3 Backyards) are the exception to the rule, having appeared in previous editions of New Directors/New Films. Loosely ranked from the most highly recommended on down, here are three perspectives of this year’s grab bag selections:

Just penetrating the North Korean totalitarian curtain is enough to propel any documentary to the top of a must-see list, but a grand jury prize at this January’s Sundance Film Festival doubly confirms The Red Chapel as one that should not be missed. Danish director Mads Brügger takes a Korean-born but Danish-raised two-man comedy troupe back to their native country to pay tribute to a regime they claim to revere. A cultural liaison, Mrs. Pak, is assigned to watch their every move, and to encourage them to augment the show with bits of North Korean propaganda. What transpires can be at times frustrating, due to the limitations of filming within the country’s borders, but the emotional reactions of Mrs. Pak to the young performers, one of whom especially reminds her so much of her own son, are enough to take away a strong sense of revelation from the filmand to fear for her safety should the cultural higher-ups ever see it.

“I hardened my heart. I had no choice. That’s life.” The mother of the Zhang family offers this bleak realist wisdom in Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, a compelling look at the world’s largest human migration, which takes place every year during the Chinese New Year holiday. Encompassing both northern agricultural and southern industrial China, the director is of the Jia Zhangke school of cultural attention, and finds not only a heartbreaking and unique story within the millions of factory workers who vie for a spot on the inadequate train system, but teaches us an important lesson about those millions and their dedication to a better life for future generations. 

Everybody has something to say about one of the most dynamic Warhol starlets in James Rasin’s Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar. The title pretty well explains this documentary of the late, dynamic transvestite, which occasionally checks in with her widowed best friend, Jeremiah Newton, who labors to transfer her ashes to a grave in a Long Island cemetery. Candy’s beauty and her classic Hollywood-influenced persona lit up the Factory scene until her eventual “junking,” as one of the former Warhol assistants puts it. Writer Fran Lebowitz leads an ultra cool cast of personalities, who give great commentary on the period.

Amer is the kind of horror experience that lulls you into submission, convinces you of its merit as a formal, intellectual exercise, and then pulls a box cutter out of nowhere and goes to work. The film lies somewhere between a professed homage to Italian giallo films and an assignment for the world’s strictest directing class. Hélene Cattet and Bruno Forzani are, at the same time, instinctive and cerebral in their aural choices. Their compositions are meticulously designed, not for a narrative but for how they look and feel. The results are often sexy, sometimes shocking, and always just beyond your reach, leaving you satisfied though without exactly knowing why.

La Pivellina, directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, won’t have anyone at the edge of his or her seat, but it’s not without its innovations. Patti finds an abandoned toddler, and, without hesitation, the cute little one is annexed into the community of benevolent, modern-day Italian circus performers whose poverty means about as little to them as does technological advancement, or keeping up with the rest of a rapidly progressing society. This extended family thrives on the loving bonds that tradition has strengthened. The lucky orphan may not have awoken on Daddy Warbucks’s marble doorstep, but perhaps Patti’s modest trailer offers something better.

French-Canadian first-timer Xavier Dolan’s closing night feature, I Killed My Mother, is a passionate, if not audacious, look at a gay teenager’s relationship with his hard-working but ineffective mother. Dolan writes, directs, and stars, making it one of the most personal of all the entries. A one-sided viewpoint arises quickly, though, stranding the mother character and making this film more about what it means to be a self-righteous teen in nondescript suburbia. Dolan’s star power is undeniable, and if by chance he speaks English, I imagine he’ll make a big splash here very soon. (Regent Releasing will distribute.)

Speaking of non-descript suburbia, Dogtooth envisions a family under the careful design of a sociopath father, whose backward and toxic teachings have turned his three grown children into science experiments. What results is domestic mayhem. Human nature is on full display, and the only question is why—if it looks like a cult, and walks like a cult, then it probably is one. Director Yorgos Lanthimos misses only slightly here, leaving us far too long with the young test subjects and not enough with the all-controlling father. (Kino will release.)

Alexei Popogrebsky directed How I Ended This Summer, a slow-paced but action driven film about a research assistant at the end of his tour of service in the Siberian arctic. A city boy, Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) is frustratingly immature in his responsibilities, which leads to the termination of whatever friendship he has developed with his older could-have-been mentor. All of the great elements of remote Russia are here, including bears, hunting, and radiation. Pavel’s feeble attempts to access and connect with what is an impossible environment are all eventually thwarted. The Arctic always wins. Michael Lee

THE EVENING DRESS (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)
From France, Myriam Aziza’s The Evening Dress is startlingly perceptive at capturing when a 12-year-old discovers the feelings clothes can engender as she grapples with being a girl. Always filmed from the point of view of Juliette (played with aching sensitivity by Alba Gaia Bellugi), the film is refreshingly honest about preteen emotional changes. Everything we see is colored by the overwhelming and confusing sensations of her first crush, on her beautiful French teacher Mrs. Solenska (Lio). Basking in her students’ attention, the unconventional teacher dominates her restless middle-school class with sexy outfits and flirtatious banter, bestowing extra encouragement on a favored few, including Juliette. It is rare for a film to be so sympathetic to a young girl’s perception that we understand her world through her eyes even as we sense the more ambiguously adult truths around her.

An adolescent girl’s dream is the latest target for sharp, deadpan Romanian irony in The Happiest Girl in the World, the debut feature of Radu Jude and co-writer Augustina Stanciu. “My name is Delia Fratila” and the title phrase are about all she (a very poised Andrea Bosneag) has to say during one day of filming a commercial that will get her the car she won in a contest. But with endless problems on the set, her repetition of that increasingly bitter sentence lays bare the rising tensions between her dreams and those of her grasping parents. The long hot ride from their small, poor town to a long hot day on the busy square in Bucharest is an intense guilt trip magnified by the pent-up desires released by the country’s nascent capitalism.

In Hunting & Sons, Dutch director Sander Burger takes a marriage with hints of trouble along a wrenchingly unpredictable trajectory. Tako (Dragan Brakema) and Sandra (Maria Kraakman), small-town high school sweethearts, have reunited since his returned home from Amsterdam to take over the family bicycle business after his father’s death. His ensuing resentments keep him from seeing that his wife has become obsessed with staying thin. While their friends and families expect them to be delighted when she becomes pregnant, their conflicting sense of responsibility to the baby and each other takes step-by-step drastic, yet credible, turns far more intense than any TV "issue" movie or tearful confession to Oprah. While they are also the co-writers, the actors’ performances are so frank and intimately explosive that it may—or may not—be reassuring to know they are a couple in real life.

The Man Next Door gets down with what really matters between men and women these days: real estate. The star of Mariano Cohn’s and Gastón Duprat’s delightfully dark comedy is a white house in Buenos Aires, Casa Curuchet, finished in 1955 as the only residence in the Americas designed by Le Corbusier. Filmed completely in a home that seems to be the epitome of modern design, each room, hallway, window, staircase, and, especially, the central ramp, is shot from a different angle in every scene to convey a very modern paranoia. A successful industrial designer, Leonardo (Rafael Spregelburd, with deliciously slow-cooking exasperation), finds his daily routine of work and domestic life increasingly disturbed by the intrusions of his neighbor, Victor. Daniel Aráoz’s Victor is a very funny fish out of water, a Sopranos-like boil on an Architectural Digest-setting. Even his rough voice is like sand paper over all those smooth surfaces. Good walls may make good neighbors, but this wall builds up to one of the most humorous.

The documentary Bill Cunningham New York is a bon bon for all of us who open up the Sunday New York Times and secretly hope that the photographer has miraculously snapped us from his bicycle as an emblem of style in his "On the Street" visual essay. (Let alone the society dames who compete to get pictured in his “Evening Hours” overview of fundraising galas.) So it is astonishing to learn about the modest octogenarian, a failed milliner from a working-class family discovered Paris fashion on a weekend pass from the U.S. Army and then totally dedicated his life to bringing its beauty to the rest of us, and, through his photos, real people’s flair back to the couturiers. His determined championing of liberté, égalité, and fraternité in fashion led him to quit the sneering Women’s Wear Daily, though this Times production only hints at editorial battles he may have faced there. 

What it’s like to grow up in the Soviet Union and then raise children in capitalist Russia is thoughtfully examined in Robin Hessman’s bemused documentary My Perestroika. Illustrated by a trove of home movies and archival footage, five articulate Moscow primary school alumni reflect on each stage of their lives since their days together in 1970’s Communist youth groups. Their memories of a far more elaborate version of “duck and cover” is one of many comparisons that will make Americans realize how little we knew about daily life in the Evil Empire. Their interpretations of the changes are influenced by how they’ve fared with their families and professionally. The only tradition that seems to remain is that First Day of School in September, still celebrated with pride and excitement by parents and children.

Living through political change is also the theme of the visually striking Women Without Men. Artist Shirin Neshat, in her film debut, uses fantastical images and magic realism to project intense feelings of women who feel powerless. Set in Tehran in the pivotal summer of 1953, when Britain and the U.S. are fomenting a coup against the elected government, Neshat expands on her photographic and video installations to interpret the novella by fellow exile Shahrnush Parsipur (who has a small role as a brothel madam).

Four women, representing a different class, educational level, religious observance, and abuse/mis-use by men, each undertake a challenging psychological journey to meet in a mystical orchard outside the city, like a beautiful mythic garden from ancient Mideast tales or a shimmering desert mirage, far away from the ferment in the streets. (Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is appropriately lush.) But this secret garden seems destined to be nourished only by women’s tears. (IndiePix)

Women-abruptly-without-men becomes the theme of the second half of Mia Hansen-Love’s The Father of My Children. The first half is an extravagantly detailed, loving, almost hagiographic tribute to the role of the producer in getting difficult art-house movies made and distributed. It was inspired by the life of Humbert Balsan, the French producer of such uncompromising idiosyncratic films as Yolande Moreau’s When the Sea Rises and Claire Denis’s The Intruder. Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is so handsome, so beloved by staff, family, and demanding filmmakers that his approaching bankruptcy seems like a minor problem, yet it fatally depresses him. His wife and daughters, particularly the teenage Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing), have to cope with the consequences. (Hansen-Love’s first feature, All Is Forgiven, also featured a young woman dealing with father abandonment.) Their struggle to fill a gaping hole in their hearts is a touching, universal portrait of picking up the pieces of a business, a family, and, finally, their lives with resilience and even a handsome filmmaker, too. (IFC Films)

Far from Iran’s sophisticated capital, Frontier Blues is set at the northern border with Turkmenistan today. In returning to his home region, director Babak Jalali seems to find only lonely, sad sack men longing for women. While the deadpan humor relieves the monotony of their everyday lives (particularly the segments with the big city photographer posing the increasingly annoyed traditional Turkmen musician and his young acolytes in stereotypical shots), there are more convincing ethnographically oriented films about frustrated love on the Asian plateaus, such as Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan, from Kazakhstan, and Wang Quan An’s Tuya’s Marriage, from Inner Mongolia. Nora Lee Mandel


Child and drug trafficking, prostitution, it’s all in the Iranian crime drama Tehroun, slang for Tehran—a frank film for Iranian cinema (and funded by French money). Country bumpkin Ibrahim has left his small town for Tehran, and he’s first seen begging in traffic with a baby boy in his arms. The first clue that the newborn may not be his (or that Ibrahim’s a self-described widower) is that he treats the baby like a prop. Part of the film’s appeal, beside its exoticism, is its exposure of the capital city's underbelly that, for censorship reasons, are usually left untouched by Iranian films that make their way to the U.S., and its lack of redemption. Not only do you feel the desperation of Ibrahim, who tries anything (illegally) to scrape by, director Nader T. Hornayoun sets off an intimate and expansive tender box, all in 95 minutes. 

For me, the most surprising film in the series was Northless, which begins with the travails of Andrés (Harold Torres), attempting and failing to cross from Mexico to the U.S. What may start out as a message movie about immigration becomes a charming, subtle romantic triangle between Andres, stuck in Tijuana; an older woman, who becomes his temporary boss; and a young woman/coworker. Strangely, there’s a noticeable lack of ambient sound in many of the scenes, but the cast more than makes up for that, bringing a lively candor to their characters. For his debut feature, director Rigoberto Perezcano keeps everything from the acting to the story simple and unassuming.

In The Oath, Laura Poitras allows Abu Jandal to hold court, letting him espouse his jihadist views. The former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden from 1997 to 2000, Jandal tries his best to control the film. Now a cab driver in Yemen, Jandal reassures a passenger that Poitras’s video camera is not recording (it is), and somehow he thinks Poitras will never have all the footage translated, including his retraction of his condemnation of the 9/11 attacks. But film is a director’s medium after all. Blown-up transcriptions of his CIA interrogation give a fuller picture of his background, and through the editing, Poitras pierces holes in his sweeping statements. (The title refers to his loyalty oath to bin Laden.) She also travels to Guantanamo Bay for the off-screen trial by military commission of Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, bin Laden’s chauffer. He was the plaintive in the landmark Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

Anthony Mackie & Kerry Washington in NIGHT CATCHES US (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)
The star power of natural movie stars Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington lights up and keeps afloat Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, set in Philadelphia during the bicentennial summer of 1976. Both bring a loaded history to their characters, former Black Panther activists who have gone completely separate ways. Even though they won’t talk about their past (which involved violent confrontations with the police), it’s the pink elephant in the room. There’s a strong sense of place and of the politics that motivate the characters, but this is a movie movie. The two lead actors’ path from estranged comrades to lovers is as clear cut as the dialogue and the script’s themes.

It may take a while to get used to the thick, slangy banter of the bottom-of-the-barrel British criminals in Down Terrace. The very droll and dialogue-driven film is a departure for its U.S. distributor, the genre-heavy Magnet Releasing, with its emphasis on the internal bickering of one crime family, but blood will be spilt. Holding a camera right up in their faces, director Ben Wheatley turns the spotlight on his actors, who deliver the ammunition-as-conversation with equal ease and venom, like the mother’s backhanded compliment of her son’s girlfriend, “She’s a bit full of herself, in a nice way.” The plot twists and turns, though the pattern of behavior becomes predictable.

The unabashedly romantic I Am Love takes a scenario that could have been the propriety of producer Ross Hunter in the 1950s and imbues it with a modern, chic sensibility—an unselfconscious melodrama without a wink or nod. It primarily serves as a showcase for Tilda Swinton in another fearless role. She stars as a Russian émigré and mother of three grown children married to an often-absent Milano industrialist. Swinton’s actually quite understated (perhaps purposely stifled) compared to the lush production design and the dramatic, serialist score by John Adams. Luca Guadagnino’s lopsided film plods along in the first hour then plows through the climax. (Magnolia Pictures)

The cinematography is the star of Every Day Is a Holiday, although director Dima El-Horr allows her three lead actresses to momentarily steal the focus from the often beautiful, sometimes bewildering, hallucinatory images. Hiam Abbass is one of three women stranded in the Lebanese desert after a deadly bus accident. It could be inferred that one woman is Arabic, another Christian (with her red, sleeveless dress), and the other Palestinian, but this is less a political allegory than a nightmarish, surrealistic journey, where all three are overwhelmed by the stark, widescreen landscape—death and destruction lurk around the bend. Like in dreams, the meanings of many scenes are diffused, making it hard to plumb for deeper significance.

Audiences will either find Bilal’s Stand refreshingly sincere compared to many of the series’ films or corny. There’s nothing remotely edgy about it. What you see is what you get. Sultan Sharrief wrote, edited, and stars as a Detroit-area high school senior on the brink of attending the University of Michigan, or remaining home to help his cash-strapped mom. The climax centers on an ice-carving, scholarship-inducing competition (bet you haven’t seen that before). Despite the awkward acting and hackneyed dialogue, the film has an amicable sense of humor. A homegrown effort, Sharrief even casts his high school mentor as a high school mentor.

Can a movie about directionless, bored teenagers with limited coping skills draw a view in? For Samson and Delilah’s first 30 minutes, yes. First, there’s the universal story of two teenage outcasts, here Aboriginals living in the Outback, and their antagonistic courtship—you know they like each other because they toss stones at each other. But director Warwick Thornton keeps the two teens at arm’s length, focusing on their repeated actions for most of the 130 minutes. Sampson violently acts out or gets high, sniffing anything he can get his hands on. Gasoline will do. And Delilah, a sullen observer, suffers several beatings and comes across as more of a pawn than flesh and blood. (IFC Films) Kent Turner
March 30, 2010



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