Tuesday, February 16, 2010

FILM COMMENT SELECTS, from the FSLC, opens at the Walter Reade

Among the more popular series presented each year by the Film Society of Lincoln Center is Film Comment Selects (Film Comment being, for you newcomers, the society's film magazine). This year's series, the tenth annual, begins Friday, February 19, and continues for two weeks through Thursday, March 4, at the Walter Reade Theater.

The purpose of Film Comments Selects is to showcase "discoveries," re-discoveries (such as its opening night film, Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge from 1979, which struck me as over-rated in its day, but perhaps demands another viewing, per the FCS' instructions) and deserving movies that (so far) have no distribution. In all, there are 24 films to savor (or not), ten of which TrustMovies has seen and will now give you his short-form reviews, in alphabetical order, with the screening times listed at the end of each review.  You can find the entire program -- films, dates, times and ticket availability -- listed here. Don't wait too long to get those tickets, however, as the FCS series often sells quickly.

ACCIDENT directed by Soi Cheang
written by Kam-Yuen Szeto and Lik-Kei Tang
Hong Kong thrillers, if ACCIDENT is any example, may have crested for the time being.  In their quest to become darker, danker, with plots and situations ever more strange, movie-makers are now serving up silly in place of bizarre.  In this, one of the crazier of its kind, a group of assassins, led by  "Brain," makes its hits looks like accidents that are so minutely planned that can they not be traced and thus not investigated.  OK, sure.  We only see two of these "accidents" before things begin to unravel, and both of them are so far-fetched and rely on so much coincidence that you must not only suspend your disbelief but beat it to a brain-dead pulp. While the goings-on are sometimes visually effective, they're also dumb. The victims we see (a Triad boss and a paralyzed old man) are perhaps no great loss to anyone, so our sympathy is not wasted.  But as the paranoia builds and characters get crazier, we should feel we have something invested here.  We don't -- which is probably why more of us are turning to South Korean thrillers that, in addition to their thrills, chills and paranoia, come complete with content, style and heart (even if that heart is sometimes black).  Accident tries to amp up its "feelings" via the usual Hong Kong-style sentimental music coupled to a little visual panache, but I didn't buy it. The film screens at FCS on Fri, Feb 19 @ 6:00 and
Sat, Feb 20 @ 1:30pm.

AIR DOLL adaptation and direction by  
Hirokazu Kore-Eda
If AIR DOLL is not Hirokazu's masterpiece, it's near enough -- even if it is too long and sometimes a bit confusing.  More than any other movie, it reminded me of A.I. (a major compliment in my book) with an eastern slant.  The filmmaker's generosity toward and understanding of all his characters is a wonderufl thing to behold, as is the lead performance from Du-na Bae (from The Host, Linda Linda Linda, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Take Care of My Cat).  She makes one hell of a "living doll."  What it means to be human is up for discussion once again, and Hirokazu peppers his thesis/story with so many ideas and lovely touches that one viewing will not be enough (a second will surely clear up some of that confusion).  Among the director's accomplishments, even though our heroine begins as a sex toy, is to make sex so natural that it becomes, for a change, just one part of the whole shebang.
Air Doll  screens Tue, Feb 23 @ 6:15 and Sat, Feb 27 @ 1:30.

APPLAUSE co-written & directed by  
Martin Zandvliet
If you're familiar with the work of versatile Danish actress Paprika Steen (Adam's Apples, Fear Me Not, Forty Shades of Blue) you'll probably want to see her in just about anything.  APPLAUSE gives the lady (shown at right) one of her best roles -- as a famous actress at the pinnacle (or maybe just past it) of her career who, other-
wise, is falling apart. Divorced and seemingly an unfit mother, she happens to be currently playing the "Martha" role in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, and so life imitates art rather spectacularly here.  Steen is blowsy, beautiful, angry, frightened, funny and fearsome -- and while, yes, this sounds cliched (there's nothing here we've have not seen before), the actress never has a dishonest moment on screen. Consequently she alternately beguiles and yanks us around with her and we follow gladly.  Zandvliet make sure his movie is short and smart -- which is a big help, too. Applause screens Sat, Feb 20 @ 7:30 and Sun, Feb 21 @ 1:00.

BE GOOD written and directed by Juliette Garcias
If you combined The Grocer's Son with The Page Turner and Fatal Attraction, adding one more  theme -- which I will not mention and hope to god no other critic does -- you might end up with some-
thing as bizarre as BE GOOD (Sois Sage), one of the definitive "finds" of the FCS series. In this, her first film, Ms Garcias demonstrates a surprisingly firm hand regarding story, sound, pacing, visuals, performance, the works. Beginning with a look at a strange but attractive young woman on her new job (delivering bread in the provinces), the movie appears to morph first into a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of not keeping one's dick in his pants and then on to something quite other.  A visual feast first to last (you don't want to look away from the screen for one moment), it also gives its leading lady Anaïs Demoustier another opportunity to shine. Though I had only recently seen Ms Demoustier (in Give Me Your Hand and Grown-Ups), I did not begin to recognize her in this chilly and chilling performance. She's the real thing. I can't imagine that Be Good will not be picked up for US distribution -- fast! It plays FCS on Sun, Feb 21 @ 6:30; Tue, Feb 23 @ 4:15; Tue, Feb 23 @ 8:45 and Sun, Feb 28 @ 6:15.

A Lake written and directed by Philippe Grandrieux

And they said it couldn't be done! They were wrong, as usual, and indeed we now have a film that is even darker (as in: "WTF: I can't see what's going on!) than Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. M. Grandrieux's Un lac, however, is art, whereas A vs P: R was schlock.  Or so we are told.  I am of the mind that we're being sold a bill of Grandrieux goods.  This is not an uninteresting film, in fits and starts at least -- an occasional visual well worth watching (a mountain that looks like some rough beast), sound that alternately clobbers and grates (the beginning of the film is a ear-stunner), and a story that is simplicity itself -- if you're a fan of minimalism. The palette is practically drained of color (a red sweater is probably the film's highlight), the lighting is so dark as to render the film often un-seeable, dialog is less than spare, the soundtrack offers no music (there is some singing mid-film, but you may wish there weren't).  All this is toward that minimalist goal, and I would say that the filmmaker has succeeded.  But to what purpose?  The setting is the distant forest by a body of water where a lone family barely eeks out its existence.  When a stranger suddenly turns up, you might think that some extra dialog would occur.  Who is this guy?  Where does he come from?  What does he want? How long will he be staying?  But, no.  Let's not communicate.  Because we might lose some of our minimalism.  Too-pat coincidence, however, a staple of films mainstream and independent, manages to rear its head, even in this minimalist movie.  By film's end, we'd probably all agree that A Lake is utterly primal  -- and, I would add, pointless. It screens Wed., Feb 24, @ 9pm.

LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL written and directed by Hong Sang-Soo
I'm not certain I'd ever describe a movie from South Korea as "frothy" (well, maybe My Sassy Girl and that ilk), but Mr. Hong's latest certainly comes closer to the word than anything else he's done.  Even its title -- Like You Know It All --possesses venacular charm.  As is often the case, Hong's back with what may be his favorite subject, movie people, as a no-longer-so-young director (a stand-in for Hong?) attends a film fest where he's on the jury.  He falls asleep during screenings, gets involved with one woman after another, sexually or not, and with men, but only as friends. As usual, too, our primary  male is terribly self-involved, but still manages to provide some foolish fun.  There's a dream sequence, a lot of drinking, and our hero occasionally tells us what's he's thinking.  At the finale, the camera turns away from humanity and onto something more timeless than these rash and careless people with whom we just spent two delightful hours.  More, please.  Like You Know It All screens Tue, Mar 2 @ 3:45 and 9:00pm and Wed Mar 3 @ 6:00.

MORPHIA directed by Alexei Balabanov, screenplay by Sergei Bodrov, Jr.
Adapted from the stories of Mikhail A. Bulgakov, this follow-up to Mister Balabanov's dark Cargo 200 is equally bleak, though its Russia-circa-1917 setting makes for some exotica.  A young doctor comes to practice in a backwards, backwoods village (where they place sugar in the vagina of about-to-give-birth women in order to entice the babies into the world).  If Preminger and Sinatra were still with us, they would no doubt appreciate this sort of The Doc With the Golden Arm (and tush) homage, as our "hero" (played well by Leonid Bichevin, left) is soon in thrall to morphine (he get his first shot to counteract an allergic reaction to a diphtheria vaccination).  Balabanow shows us life at the time, from the peasants to the gentry (one family scene brings Chekhov immediately to mind) in this snowy outpost, where we even experience a wolf attack. Along the way we get everything from an amputation (as gory as any horror movie) to a breached birth, tracheotomy and more, with another morphine shot and ever-heavier doseage as the consequence. And yet Morphia has a definite black comedy quality, what with art nouveau title cards and silent movie music accompanying the dark plot, theme and visuals. Political change is afoot, of course, and if the movie breaks no new ground regarding getting hooked (it's the same'ol' same ol': symptoms, excuses and lies), it does finally becomes an original metaphor for the Communist Revolution as drug-induced insanity.  The final image can be perceived as "the magic of movies" or -- more likely -- a bunch of nitwits in thrall to a mindless light show.  Morphia screens twice during FCS: Mon, Mar 1 @ 6:00pm and Wed, Mar 3 @ 3:45pm.

NUCINGEN HOUSE written and directed by  
Raúl Ruiz
While I am not a huge fan of Mr. Ruiz, I try to see whatever he does and sometime quite enjoy it (Time Regained), but this attempt to tell a ghost story falls flat -- to some extent due to the use of a video camera that goes oddly light and dark for no particular reason, often robbing the movie of exactly the kind of atmosphere it needs, and at the singular moment that it needs it.  NUCINGEN HOUSE mashes up ghosts with religion, philosophy and ravishing locales & costumes (the time is the 1920s), but the result resembles a home movie shot in a great location but without much sense of plot or pacing.  The cast, led by the sexy Jean-Marc Barr and ethereal Elsa Zylberstein look good and perform as well as possible under these typically odd, Ruiz-ish circumstances. Nucingen House plays Fri, Feb 19 @ 4:00 and Sun, Feb 21 @ 8:30.
PERSECUTION directed and co-written by     
Patrice Chéreau
This filmmaker's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train remains of of my all-time favorites and I have loved a half dozen others in his oeuvre. Persecution? Not so much. Chéreau comes a cropper with this deadly "romance" in which fine actors like Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbrough flounder in what first appears to offer a bit of mystery but by the end is simple nonsense. Post-screening at an earlier showing during the current Gainsbourg retro/fest at FIAF, gentlemen were to be seen and heard wandering the men's room asking, What the fuck was that all about? I tried to explain, but really, what can you say except, When the French get pretentious, no one can top them. I suspect the filmmaker is trying to tell us about modern relationships and the struggle to "love," but before he began filming, he ought to have made at least one trip back to the drawing board so that we might have some minor clue to just who these people are. Persecution plays Fri, Feb 26 @ 4:30 and again @ 8:40 and
Sat Feb 27 @ 6:00.

TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE written by Cristian Mungiu and directed by Mungiu, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu and Ioana Uricaru.

Another winner in the FCS batch, TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE also wins the Ironic Title competition hands-down. Set in Romania during the halcyon days of President Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena, the film takes the form of five short tales or "legends," all written by Mr. Mungiu and each directed by one of the above five.  I am sorry to say I don't who directed which, but since Mr. Mungiu wrote all of them and was in change of one segment, I'll credit him first and just say that every single "tale" here is terrific. (According to Variety, the producers wanted to keep the identities of who-directed-what a secret. Well, OK.) Each segment offers a typical situation from the good old Commie days when you could count on things not working, each in its own special way.  The tales involve The Official Visit of top party brass to a little town that tries so hard to be prepared, with the expected results that literally fly off in their own merry manner. The Party Photographer is a deadpan hilarious spoof of retouched photography and a visit to the Romanian Prez  from France's Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The Chicken Driver (he's not a coward; he's driving poultry cross country) is a sweet, sad tale of a decent guy trapped by circumstance. The Greedy Policeman -- the funniest of the bunch, in which we watch everyone from kids to grown-ups use each other badly -- takes place at Christmas, as Uncle Fane has promised to bring some pork for the holiday meal. The final episode is titled The Air Sellers, though The Empty Bottle Sellers would have been closer to the point. All about making money in Romania, this one's romantic, funny and dark -- and stars a young actress we're certain to be seeing again soon. Tales from the Golden Age, which has been picked up for US distribution by IFC, screens once only: Sat., Feb 27 @ 8pm.

The above constitutes less than half the films on view, so consult the full schedule and make plans accordingly.


tvln said...

i wish i was in new york! a swell round-up -thanks. i would mention, however, that while i fully share your mistrust of minimalism, i found "un lac" a rivetingly hypnotic experience; it's not a success from start to finish, but for the sheer relish of light i cannot remember seeing a recent film to beat it. the forest and mountains are wonderful and totally conjure a kantian awe of the sublime. the dark bits were not too dark, and the out-of-focus stuff astonishingly successful (less so the song, it's true). i could see why audience members were falling asleep all around but it caught me in the right kind of mood and i loved it.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks for the post, tvln. (Wish you were in NYC, too.) I just went on your interesting blog. Nice. Do it more often!

Evidently UN LAC does have its supporters, and I appreciate your comments. I wish I could have felt the same. Maybe I'll come around once I've seen more of Grandrieux's work. Or screw up my courage and try to sit thru this one again. I did find some of the photography gorgeous, but it wasn't enough to keep me going. (But at least I did not fall asleep....)