2004 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS
TARNATION (Jonathan Caouette) ***

Supposedly made for $218 (minus final post-production costs and the blowup to 35mm for theatrical distribution, of course), Caouette’s debut documentary  is an example of film as therapy. It suggests that computer editing technology is about to launch a whole new genre of autobiographical work. (He edited TARNATION himself on iMovies, the problem included for free with Macs.) A dense assemblage of home movies and newly shot images, it’s also filled with  wall-to-wall music. Early on, Caouette seems to have thrown together all the footage he had, regardless of its relationship to the soundtrack or larger meaning. Still, he digs up some amazing material, especially a chilling performance by his 11-year-old self as an abused housewife. His mother’s mental problems, especially after an overdose of antidepressants,  become the subject of the film’s final half. She’s an unforgettable character. TARNATION is sometimes a bit narcissistic, but there’s a real charge to Caouette’s auto-psychoanalysis.

Distributed by Wellspring. Opens in New York October 6 .

UNDERTOW (David Gordon Green) **1/2

Green is a keen observer of everyday life, but he’s not much of a storyteller. The most narrative-oriented of his three films, UNDERTOW depicts a single father, John (Dermot Mulroney), raising two sons, Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan), on his hog farm. Their lives are thrown into chaos when his convict brother Deel (Josh Lucas) drops by. This film comes close to being a thriller, but whether by temperament or lack of chops, Green rarely plays it for suspense. Instead, he includes leisurely scenes of meals or Chris and Tim digging around a junkyard. These moments ring true, but the big picture feels like secondhand Southern Gothic. (The occasional religious references are particularly half-assed.) THE RETURN created a parable about fathers, sons and the road that worked seamlessly on both a surface and mythic level; Green strives for an American counterpart, drawing on Charles Laughton’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and co-producer Terrence Malick, but doesn’t quite get there.

Distributed by UA. Opens in New York October 22.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS 2 (Andrew Lau/Alan Mak, Hong Kong) ***

For the first time since the ‘80s, the NYFF has taken an interest in Hong Kong genre films (long after their hipness quotient expired) over the past two years. The INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy (whose first installment is about to be released by Miramax) is a much better choice than Johnnie To’s mediocre PTU, shown last year. Lau and Mak’s sensibility - and tendency to blow up B-movie material to ambitious proportions - recalls Michael Mann, but they never value style over substance or get too pretentious. (Granted, I don’t really understand the references to Taoist hell.) A prequel to INFERNAL AFFAIRS, INFERNAL AFFAIRS 2 begins in 1991 and ends on the day of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China.  It sets up the series’ basic situation: a cop, played here by Shawn Yue, infiltrates a gang, who have placed a mole in the police force. This isn’t an action film. Its violence is sudden and jarring, rather than artfully choreographed. Instead, it’s a somber reflection on family and betrayal. While the protagonists are played by a new set of actors, the whole cast, including Eric Tsang as the crime boss, is quite impressive. INFERNAL AFFAIRS 1 & 2 don’t quite live up to comparisons to THE GODFATHER, but they’re certainly signs of hope in a Hong Kong film landscape that’s lately been looking barren.

No distributor.

MILES ELECTRIC: A DIFFERENT KIND OF BLUE (Murray Lerner) ***

For its first half, MILES ELECTRIC is a fairly standard documentary, although  Lerner put  some real thought into its look. Relying heavily on interviews, he stylizes them by having musicians introduce themselves by playing Miles riffs and pose against a blank white background. He spoke to Miles’ sidemen and fans like Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell, as well as nay-sayer Stanley Crouch. Miles’ 1970-5 period continues to be controversial: conservative jazz books often cite the fractured funk of 1972’s ON THE CORNER as his worst album. MILES ELECTRIC makes the best possible case for its merits by showing a lengthy performance in front of 600,000 people at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. (Lerner has made several other films based around Isle of Wight footage.) The music is astonishing. Seemingly an unstructured jam, flippantly named “Call It Anything” by Miles, it layers his passionate solos over a powerful backdrop of electric keyboards, bass, drums and Latin percussion. When Lerner cuts back to interviews afterwards, the comedown is unavoidable, although Santana’s New Age claims that Miles’ music created “multidimensional consciousness” suddenly ring true. Essential viewing for Miles fans, and I hope it might convert spectators who’ve never heard IN A SILENT WAY or BITCHES BREW.

No distributor.
NOTRE MUSIQUE (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France) ***1/2

NOTRE MUSIQUE  echoes other Godard films, especially ORIGIN OF THE 21ST CENTURY, FOR EVER MOZART and NOUVELLE VAGUE, but it brings a mellower, more measured mood than usual. (Appearing as himself, Godard gives his least grumpy performance ever.) It opens with “Hell,” a well-edited 10-minute montage of real and fictional war footage, moves into “Purgatory,” an hour-long segment set at a literary conference in Sarajevo (with several writers playing themselves) and ends up in “Heaven,” which lies in the Swiss countryside. Politically, it’s far more thoughtful than the America-bashing of IN PRAISE OF LOVE: a lucid meditation on the conflicts in Israel and the former Yugoslavia. Godard  achieves more with a few photos than Michael Moore could in two hours.  As with much late Godard, the dialogue is made up largely of quotations, but they’re allusive rather than didactic or cheaply provocative. (Best line:”He who kills another man in defense of his ideas has not defended his ideas, but has killed a man.”) The film’s most potent when it shows the intersection of natural beauty and human cruelty. Godard has directed few scenes as moving as the one in which a phone call revealing a character’s tragic fate is followed by a tracking shot over flowers. This paradox, which dominated NOUVELLE VAGUE,  comes to a head in “Heaven,” where paradise is guarded by U.S. Marines. (This image will be especially resonant for New Yorkers, who’ve seen Uzi-toting soldiers guarding our subway stations on and off for the past 18 months.) NOTRE MUSIQUE unites the spiritual, philosophical and political undercurrents in Godard’s work, achieving a brilliant synthesis and real urgency.

Distributed by Wellspring. Opens in New York November 24.
TROPICAL MALADY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand) ***

TROPICAL MALADY comes in 2 parts, complete with a separate title and credit sequence for the second, united by the presence of the same character. In the first, a soldier falls in love with a  farm boy, while the second chronicle his night in a forest, tracking down a tiger that may be a human spirit. Like MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON, TROPICAL MALADY starts off in the realm of the banal, using it as a springboard for myth and metaphysics. Unfortunately, the 2 sections, while powerful in their own right, don’t gel cohesively. It’s easy to interpret the second as a metaphor for the protagonists’ love, but nothing in their tentative, fairly casual relationship justified its tense, obsessive and (literally) dark tone. Superficially, this has more subtext than BLISSFULLY YOURS, which opened in New York last week, but both films attempt new forms of narrative to express passion, suggesting that  straightforward romance is dead in the water. (In this, it’s a kissing cousin to ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.)  I think BLISSFULLY YOURS, which opened in New York last week, does it more successfully, although the problem of representing passion may be the ultimate subject of TROPICAL MALADY. Weerasethakul was smart to make a gay love story this time around: as Scott Tobias wrote, “Thank goodness it has homoerotic undertones; otherwise, I doubt it could find a distributor.”

Distributed by Strand Releasing. Opens in early 2005 .
KINGS AND QUEEN (Arnaud Desplechin, France) ***

In MY SEX LIFE...OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT, Desplechin took the stereotypical French art film - with all its navel-gazing conversations about love and philosophy - and created something new by expanding it to epic proportions. KINGS AND QUEEN does much the same with melodrama, to lesser effect. It interweaves the stories of Nora (Emanuelle Devos), who’s coping with a dying father, and her ex-boyfriend Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a musician committed to a mental hospital against his will. Desplechin’s interest in theatricality and the nature of acting, evident in ESTHER KAHN and PLAYING “IN THE COMPANY OF MEN,” is replaced by a fascination with the possibilities of editing, both on a macro (flashbacks) and micro (jump cuts within scenes) level. Death is everywhere here, but the film’s ultimately optimistic and witty. However, it feels lopsided, since Ismael is so much more colorful and interesting than Nora, whose narrative  is drained of life and humor in comparison. I can’t explain the grocery store robbery scene except to wonder if Desplechin somehow wanted to prove that he likes Tarantino as much as Rohmer and Eustache. His directorial skill remains strong, but his material - and command of tonal shifts - is shaky, more soap opera than literature.

Distributed by Wellspring. No release date set yet .
OR (MY TREASURE) (Keren Yedaya, Israel) **1/2

I can see why Yedaya’s debut won the Camera D’Or at Cannes last May. Visually, it’s a striking film. She may be the first director influenced by the look of pan-and-scan VHS. (However, OR is shot on film.) Her framing is deliberately cramped and uncomfortably intimate. Characters often stand on the edge of the screen, with only a portion of their bodies visible. Yedaya is uncommonly sensitive to her chosen aspect ratio, 1.66. Unfortunately, OR falls flat as a piece of storytelling. It centers around the relationship between Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz), a middle-aged hooker, and her teen daughter Or (Dana Ivgy.) In their household, the roles are reversed: Or acts like a parent towards her slacker mom. The twin demons of moralism and miserabilism eventually make their presence felt, leading Or down a path that doesn’t ring true to her behavior and attitudes. The film’s view of prostitution is odd: it sees it as a kind of addiction or communicable disease, rather than a job women turn to out of poverty. Yedaya may be a feminist, but she mystifies the world’s oldest profession as much as any middle-aged guy in love with hookers with hearts of gold.

No distributor.
PRECARIOUS GARDEN (Ernie Gehr)
THE ASTRONOMER’S DREAM (Ernie Gehr)
THE COLLECTOR (Ernie Gehr)
PASSAGE (Ernie Gehr)

THE ASTRONOMER’S DREAM, made on video (like THE COLLECTOR), turned out to be the highlight of this program. Its images are squeezed and distorted until they resemble a bar code, but the effect occasionally lifts to reveal something that looks like a ‘30s Hollywood costume drama. The music and sound design implies drama and emotion, but all we see are light fluctuations. The struggle to interpret them and adjust to their rhythms becomes fascinating.  Except for the silent PRECARIOUS GARDEN, all of these shorts pivot around the counterpoint of image and sound. THE ASTRONOMER’S DREAM does it most successfully. Like it, PRECARIOUS GARDEN defamiliarizes conventional images: home movies of a backyard garden, in this case. The screen is split, with the relation between the two halves constantly changing. Sometimes they show the same thing, different perspectives on it or completely unrelated images. It is pleasantly disorienting. THE COLLECTOR and PASSAGE both wore out their welcome before the end. PASSAGE echoes earlier and better Gehr films, like EUREKA and SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE, in its use of footage shot from an elevated train window (in the former East Berlin). Compared to them, it’s clunky and forced. THE COLLECTOR is drawn from still photos of early 20th-century life, set to a busy soundtrack of waves, horns and clanking machines. Visually, it combines stasis and montage, while the sound suggests clutter and movement. One gets the point pretty quickly, though, and the nostalgic mood grows tired.
TRUTH AND POETRY (Peter Kubelka, Austria)
Kubelka’s first film in 27 years, it suggests the influence of his compatriot Martin Arnold’s Hollywood deconstructions. Using found footage of commercials, he edits the outtakes together to make them look both funny and creepy. A man brushes his hair in a mirror and then smiles; two women eat chocolates with an expression of delight. These people are supposedly enjoying themselves, but the actors portraying them are stuck in a monotonous loop of repetitive gestures. intentionally or not, it’s a witty indictment of advertising’s false promises of pleasure.
THE 10TH DISTRICT COURT: MOMENTS OF TRIAL (Raymond Depardon, France) ***

Depardon’s entertaining documentary lands halfway between the rigor of Frederick Wiseman and the obfuscations of reality TV. A portrait of a few days in a French courtroom, it depicts excerpts from 25 trials. Alas, it seems designed to make the defendants look like buffoons. Granted, some would undoubtedly look bad under any circumstances, but Depardon plays their baroque excuses and petulant shows of attitude for laughs. He also encourages us to identify with the judge by cutting to her reaction when defendants are being particularly exasperating. Not surprisingly, almost all are found guilty, although we never learn the fate of the final one. (It’s a crime in France to call a meter maid a bitch!) Luckily, Depardon does cut deeper at times, especially in a domestic violence case and the trial of a sociologist charged with possession of a knife. The man makes a decent case that it doesn’t qualify as a weapon, although the giant chip on his shoulder doesn’t help. A double feature with PERSONS OF INTEREST, Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse’s documentary about Arabs and Muslims unjustly imprisoned on suspicion of terrorism, would be instructive. Nevertheless, THE 10TH DISTRICT COURT is often hilarious, even if I felt guilty as I laughed.

No distributor.
THE HOLY GIRL (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina) ***1/2

Martel takes a story that could form the basis for made-for-Lifetime trash and treats it with extreme grace and subtlety. During a week-long medical convention, Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso) rubs his crotch against Amalia (Maria Alché) in a crowd in front of a music shop. Deeply religious, the girl follows him around, convinced that her vocation may lie in saving his soul. The plot emerges as much  through framing and blocking as big dramatic moments. Martel’s close-ups, in which faces fill much of the screen, are extremely expressive. As in OR (MY TREASURE), she often fragments her characters’ bodies by keeping a portion offscreen. The film avoids demonizing Dr. Jano or making Catholicism look silly. As THE HOLY GIRL progresses, it creates a hothouse atmosphere, leading to a near-Hitchcockian level of tension and suspense. Yet it resists melodrama and easy conclusions all the way through, ending with a shot that evokes both isolation and friendship.

Distributed by Fine Line Features. Opens in 2005.
ROLLING FAMILY (Pablo Trapero, Argentina) **

Would you enjoy spending a hot summer in a van with cranky senior citizens, crying babies and a cute stray dog? Do you like Walter Salles’ films but find them too edgy and challenging? If so, you’re the perfect audience for this piece of crap. The Emperor’s New Indie Cred strikes again. If the exact same script were filmed by an American sitcom hack rather than a respected Argentine director, it would be more likely to turn up on the Hallmark Channel than at film festivals. In it, an extended family goes on the road to a wedding. Trapero’s background in neo-realism ensures that the events are convincingly grating, but I preferred this story when it was called NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION. I can understand why the NYFF selection committee would pick a seriously flawed adventurous or provocative film, but the rationale behind choosing ROLLING FAMILY escapes me. It’s too abrasive to work as mindless entertainment and too dumb and clichéd to be anything else.

No distributor...yet. I’d imagine that it will roll towards a Landmark theater eventually, though.
THE WORLD (Jia Zhang Ke, China) **1/2

I seem to be alone in finding this a minor film - Jonathan Rosenbaum has just proclaimed it his favorite of the year so far  -  so take my qualms with a grain of sand if you’re a Jia fan. After a spell as  the unofficial poet laureate of backwater China, THE WORLD is  set in Beijing, where he now lives. (He’s also received government approval for the first time.)  However, he’s still portraying the anomie and disaffection of Chinese youth, just in a different setting. It’s named after a Disneyland-style theme park, which offers a simulation of the Eiffel Tower at one third the height and a World Trade Center that’s still standing. A readymade metaphor for China’s position in the world, it’s a bit facile. Travel and emigration play a large role in the film: the most touching scene depicts a Chinese and Russian woman who don’t speak each other’s languages trying to converse. It’s also fascinated by cell phones, incorporating animation based on text messages. All this emphasis on globalization and technology’s inability to create a better life feels pat, like a generic Alienated Arthouse Asians film made by a talented Jia disciple. At 143 minutes, it also feels bloated - PLATFORM was longer and slower but better paced. The deeply unsatisfying ending created the final twist in my ambivalence.

No distributor.

KEANE (Lodge Kerrigan) **1/2

There’s something bemusing about upper-middle-class festivalgoers paying $15 to see a film about a mentally ill - albeit not homeless - man whose real-life counterparts aren’t exactly in short supply on New York’s streets. Still, I’ve got to give Kerrigan credit for his unfashionable, ongoing concern with Americans living on the margins.  KEANE starts off quite strong, with the director auditioning to be the third Dardenne brother. His camera tracks the movements of William Keane (Damian Lewis), an apparent schizophrenic who believes that his daughter disappeared. He wanders around New York and northern New Jersey’s train stations and bus terminals, hoping to see her. Alas, KEANE turns out to be a more conventional film than its surface would suggest. The notion of a bitter or troubled middle-aged person redeemed by taking care of a child has been an arthouse-lite staple for the past decade: it pops up in CENTRAL STATION, KOLYA and KIKUJIRO. Kerrigan hedges his bets through disorienting camerawork, a lack of psychology, a menacing atmosphere and an emphasis on ambiguity, but that storyline, parodied brilliantly in BAD SANTA, still runs through his film. It leans a little too heavily on Lewis’ performance. While he’s impressive much of the time, especially when not straining to mutter just loud enough to ensure we can all hear what he’s saying, it ultimately feels like a stunt. At best,  its mix of urban grit with a  deeper layer of sentimentality plays like  a hyperbolic, jacked-up riff on early Vittorio de Sica. The final scene’s lack of closure is a coy, lazy gesture that doesn’t match the beauty of the similarly abrupt closing shot of THE HOLY GIRL. As Michael Sicinski wrote , “challenging art films have their conventions too.”

No distributor. 
WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) **1/2

Captivating yet frustrating, this ultimately feels like an interesting failure. It revolves around the resonant concept of a trip back to a thirtysomething man’s old stomping grounds. A filmmaker visits an old friend from college, now a professor. As the two sit around a restaurant getting drunk, they decide to look up a woman who  loved both men. Hong’s direction is precise and detached, using long takes and framing in which the characters stand at the center of the frame. The world he describes is emotionally, if not sexually, repressed, and everyone seems at least a little passive-aggressive and nostalgic for the recent past. At the end, I was left with the feeling that I’d spent an unenlightening 90 minutes watching the travails of a dull jerk. Still, it looks like a masterpiece compared to the soporific, endless Hungarian short that preceded it, apparently designed for everyone who thought Tarkovsky’s films would be improved by T & A.

No distributor.

CAFE LUMIERE (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Japan/Taiwan) ***

Hou’s latest, made in Japan as part of a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, is an improvement on MILLENNIUM MAMBO but hardly the equal of GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE or THE FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI. Still, he once again confirms his mastery of mise-en-scene. Few directors use space so skillfully. The film’s aesthetic is based on long takes and deep focus, with one’s attention constantly drawn to the frame’s background and rewarded. The protagonist’s friend  walks around the subway recording ambient sound, a fitting metaphor for what Hou’s trying to do here. He’s obviously more interested in observing life than telling a story. That’s fine, but he’s nonetheless made a narrative film. The plot, about a Japanese woman who doesn’t want to marry  her Taiwanese boyfriend even though he’s impregnated her, is muted and slight. Even when his characters spend time “doing nothing,” as in GOODBYE, SOUTH GOODBYE and MILLENNIUM MAMBO, Hou brings an implicit sociological or historical perspective. That’s missing from CAFE LUMIERE, maybe because he’s working outside Taiwan. An extremely modest and simple work, it might benefit from being pared down even further.

No distributor.

SARABAND (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden) **1/2

Impeccably written and acted, Bergman’s return to cinema - after 22 years directing theater and a few made-for-TV projects - left me almost entirely cold. A sequel to SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, it’s rigidly structured: 10 episodes - each consisting of a dialogue between 2 characters - with a prologue and epilogue in which Liv Ullmann addresses the audience directly. Taking off from an encounter between Marianne (Ullmann) and her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson), it focuses more on the relationships - full of emotional manipulation - between them, Johan’s son Henrik and Henrik’s daughter Karin. Almost the whole film could easily be staged as a play. Bergman’s use of dissolves is expressive enough to make one wish he utilized them more often. Film Forum’s Bergman retrospective earlier this year helped clarify my feelings about him: after the late ‘50s, the spontaneity and humor drained out of his work, although he still had a few great films left. (These qualities did return in his farewell to cinema, FANNY AND ALEXANDER.) SARABAND is full of intense emotion, yet it’s stiff  and inert. Even the colors, which suffer from the fact that it was shot on video, are muted and muddy.  Only in the eighth part did I come close to being moved. I’m afraid that in ten years, I’ll sound like a philistine panning Carl Dreyer’s GERTRUD in 1964, but this late work suggests that Bergman’s going out with a whimper. IN THE PRESENCE OF A CLOWN, a video shown at the 1997 NYFF, would have made a better coda to his oeuvre.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens in 2005.