Sunday, April 24, 2011

Catching Up -- Tavernier, Capotondi and Tribeca

Lots of new films to talk about, what with the Tribeca Film Festival in town, the Israel Film Festival right around the corner and the usual steady flow of product all over the place. Let's be quick about it.

La Princesse de Montpensier -- Bertrand Tavernier
Bertrand Tavernier was always rather more of a publicist than a film critic, and that difference has frequently been reflected in the glossy surfaces of his sedate films. If ever there was a filmmaker who seemed a direct descendant of the "tradition of quality" much derided by Truffaut and others at Cahiers de Cinema he's clearly the one. Although he seems to consciously alternate period films with contemporary subjects, his films all have the slightly stuffy air of an obscure museum. When emotions break through in a film like A Sunday in the Country, the result can be quite satisfying but I have generally found his films better mounted than directed.

Regrettably, La Princesse is of the latter group. Drawn from a story by Madame de la Fayette, the film bears a strange, faint resemblance to Kobayashi's magnificent Samurai Rebellion, with the husband in an arranged marriage, blandly played by Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, coming to love his new bride, the title character (Melanie Thierry) with unforeseeable and disastrous results. Instead of Toshiro Mifune as proud father and previously loyal retainer, Tavernier gives us Lambert Wilson as the Comte de Chabannes, a Montaigne-like polymath who has fought on both sides in the Wars of Religion and who counsels moderation in most things. Sadly Wilson, who was so staunch and moving in Of Gods and Men, a beautifully nuanced performance in a brilliant film, is just inert here and, since he is apparently the mouthpiece character for much of the film, he sets a tone of harrumphing indignation that hangs over the entire project.

Not that Tavernier has any trouble setting that tone himself. La Princesse is like an overstuffed chair, ponderous and uncomfortable.

The Double Hour -- Giuseppe Capotondi
Imagine a version of Vertigo told from the point of view of Madeleine/Judy. An idea with considerable merit and something of a quick-and-dirty synopsis of Capotondi's feature film debut. Ksenia Rappaport is a hotel maid who meets Filippo Timi at a speed-dating evening. Both are clearly undelighted with the process but pleasantly surprised by one another, and a relationship begins. He is an ex-cop who now is a security consultant for the very rich. One afternoon, he brings her to his current workplace for a romantic lunch and suddenly they find themselves the victims of a highly organized heist. When he tries to resist, one of the thieves shoots him, also wounding her. Capotondi handles all of this action with flair and skill, but the film goes wildly off the tracks in its next section, which is either a fever dream experienced by the woman while she is comatose or a very creepy turn of events in which she finds herself accused of being part of the gang. After that, as in some of the worst of Brian DePalma's Chinese box puzzle narratives, you stop caring. And the final third, in which all the narrative threads are seemingly worked out, is perfunctory and unconvincing.

When will filmmakers realize that there are some plot twists that leave an audience feeling betrayed, that break the chain of identification so severely that one loses faith in the filmmaker? Capotondi is clearly a talented tyro, and it will be interesting to see where he goes after The Double Hour, but this film is so over-elaborately plotted, yet so slackly written that the middle section serves no purpose whatsoever and we are left with little or no sense of who the characters really are.

The Tribeca Film Festival has begun its 10th annual run, and my review of the two Israeli films in the event can be found here. It's a strong offering from festival that usually carries a great deal of interest. Lately, Tribeca has been showing a lot more genre films, but they've been choosing quirky, unpredictable stuff that swings a lot harder than the run-of-the-mill crap that turns up at the multiplex.

One excellent example is Dick Maas's Sint, a Dutch horror-comedy that, like the Israeli film Rabies, has a lot more on its mind than teens threatening to have sex. Sint reworks the Dutch version of the legend of Santa Claus by having Niklas turn out to have been a renegade bishop who headed a gang of vicious, murderous thieves during the Middle Ages; they were finally stopped by vengeful villages (pitchforks, axes, torches -- you know the drill), but every December 5 on which there is a full moon, they come back from the dead to wreak havoc on unsuspecting Dutch folk. Maas tells this twisted fable with the same knowing meta-commentary smarts as Wes Craven did with the first Nightmare on Elm Street and the early installments of the Scream franchise. He doesn't have Craven's way with a political subtext -- any paranoia about government cover-ups is strictly lip service in Sint -- but the film is brisk and sufficiently goofy to keep you well-occupied for 84 minutes.

I'll have more Tribeca to mull over during the coming week.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Movies Under the Stars

As someone whose first film experience was under the stars, watching 101 Dalmatians at the drive-in, I find the idea of open-air screenings very enticing. But where in NYC can you see a movie in the open-air? Of course, the city's Parks Department does film programs all summer and some of the movies they show are good ones, but if you are in the mood for something a little more testing, you could check out Rooftop Films, which will be in its 15th year this summer.

They've posted their schedule and it's more than intriguing:


Friday, May 13, 2011
Rooftop Films Summer Series Opening Night: This is What We Mean by Short Films
Opening Night of Rooftop Films 15th Annual Summer Series will feature grand stories in little packages, with some of the greatest new short films from all around the world.

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Freeloader (Zachary Raines | New York | World Premiere)
A special World Premiere of a new film by New York based filmmaker, Zachary Raines. A serious comedy following Frank, a feckless young man recently dumped by his girlfriend. In need of a place to stay, Frank moves from couch to couch, testing the patience of friends - and the kindness of strangers - until his luck runs out.

Thursday, May 19, 2011
Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson & Johannes Stfarne Nillsson | Sweden | NY Premiere)
A clever and maniacally entertaining Swedish comedy about a group of "musical terrorists" who break into hospitals, banks, and other public places to play compositions using the surroundings as their instruments. The screening will feature a special live performance by the musicians from the film.

Friday, May 20, 2011
Dark 'Toons (Short Films)
Our popular annual program of enjoyably evil animation.

Thursday, May 26, 2011
Short Film Thrillers: Trapped in the Machine
A selection of heart-racing, breath quickening, edge-of-your-seat films featuring all kinds of people and things struggling to break free.

Friday, May 27, 2011
Romance Short Films
Romance, served up with a twist.

Saturday, May 28, 2011
Bad Posture (Malcolm Murray | Brooklyn, NY)
A nuanced, visually inventive vista of young life in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bad Posture follows Flo as he seeks to make amends - and make a connection - with Marisa, a beautiful girl whose car his best friend has stolen.

Screenings continue every weekend from May 13 through August 20.

A full schedule will be available soon.

Additional 2011 Feature Selections will include:

Green (Sophia Takal | Brooklyn, NY | NY Premiere)
A haunting meditation on jealousy and the ways women manipulate and attempt to destroy each other.

The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal | Brooklyn, NY | Part of BAM Cinemafest)
www.catechismcataclysm.com
Rooftop continues our partnership with BAM Cinemafest with Rooftop alum Todd Rohal's madcap story about Father William Smoortser, who drops his bible into a toilet at a rest stop just before embarking on a day-long canoe trip, breaking loose all glorious hell.

The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of Jose Gonzalez (Mikel Cee Karlsson and Fredrik Egerstrand | Sweden | NY Premiere)
www.plattformproduktion.se
Shot over a three year period in José González's studio, at home and on tour, using a combination of video diary, surveillance camera, tour footage and animation, filmmakers Mikel Cee Karlsson and Fredrik Egerstrand provide a look into the life of one of Sweden's most interesting artists.

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Madeline Olnek | New York, NY | NY Premiere)
http://bit.ly/febsWy
Special Gay Pride Weekend celebration. Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same is a joyously campy nod to 50's sci-fi, following the adventures of lesbian space aliens on the planet Earth, and the romance between Jane, a shy greeting card store employee, and Zoinx, the woman Jane does not realize is from outer-space.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion | Washington, DC)
Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka General Butt Naked, has reinvented himself from the murderer thousands during Liberia's horrific 14-year civil war to the evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi. In a riveting cinema vérité journey that unfolds over the course of five years, filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion follow Blahyi's unrelenting crusade to redeem his life.

Where Soldiers Come From (Heather Courtney | Austin, TX)
www.pbs.org/pov/wheresoldierscomefrom
From a snowy small town in Northern Michigan to the mountains of Afghanistan and back, Where Soldiers Come From follows the four-year journey of childhood friends and their town, forever changed by a faraway war.

Northside DIY Film Competition Winner
Rooftop partners with Brooklyn's Northside Festival to present a special outdoor screening of Northside's first annual DIY Film Competition winner. (www.thelmagazine.com/blogs/NorthsideFestivalNews/)

La Bocca del Lupo (Pietro Marcello | Italy)
Pietro Marcello's elegant, mysterious and moving film tells an epic love story from the ancient Italian port city of Genoa. As Marcello artfully weaves a gorgeous array of archival footage from Genoa's rich history, breathtaking modern-day 35mm recreations and a sweeping orchestral score into this incredible Italian chant d'amor.

Family Instinct (Andris Gauja | Austria)
Family Instinct is a film about incest - social taboo and a violation of religious norms. The film provides an extraordinarily intimate look into the lives of several people that live on the extreme margins of Latvian society, drawing you into a claustrophobic but compelling world that few viewers will have ever experienced.

Neurotypical (Adam Larsen | New York, NY | US Premiere)
www.neuro-typical.com
What is the standard that identifies one person as whole and capable and another as disabled and broken? Neurotypical parallels the lives of three individuals on the autism spectrum, each facing a pivotal stage of growth.

Bellflower (Evan Glodel | New York, NY | NY Premiere)
An apocalyptic love story for the Mad Max generation, Evan Glodell's impressive feature debut paints a classic, yet urgently contemporary, tale of the destructive power of love.

Convento (Jarred Alterman | New York, NY | NY Premiere)
convento.tumblr.com
With gorgeous, flowing camerawork filmmaker Jarred Alterman transports us into the world of Dutch kinetic artist Christiaan Zwanikken, who resurrects the deceased local wildlife by reanimating the skeletal remains with servomotors and robotic engineering. Christiaan Zwanikken and his robots will be there in person at the screening.

Fake it So Real (Robert Greene | New York, NY | NY Premiere)
fakeitsoreal.com
Filmed over a single week leading up to a big show, the film follows a ragtag group of independent, semi-professional wrestlers in North Carolina, exploring what happens when the over-the-top theatrics of the wrestling ring collide with the realities of the working-class South. The show will include a live wrestling match featuring the film's subjects before the screening.

At the Edge of Russia (Michal Marczak | Poland)
Alexei is a nineteen year old recruit being flown in to perform his military service on the frontier of northern Russia. The base is one of few such remaining outposts on the Arctic Ocean. There are five other seasoned and long serving soldiers stationed here, each with their own personal story or secret that has caused them to retreat from the real world. Their training and breaking in of the new arrival is sometimes humorous, at times harsh. Gradually, they each reveal something of themselves in their daily interactions and private moments as they continue their absurd duty in this snow covered no man's land, hundreds of miles from the nearest human settlement.

World's Best Dad (Joshua Gross | New York, NY | World Premiere)
www.worldsbestdadmovie.com
Miles hasn't seen Matt since their father passed away. Now, they're going to blast him into space. Once they steal his ashes. And figure out how to launch the rocket. And get him to Nevada...

Falling Overnight (Conrad Jackson | Los Angeles | New York Premiere)
www.fallingovernight.com
Falling Overnight tells the story of twenty-two year old Elliot Carson on the day before he has surgery to remove a brain tumor. Facing what could be his last night, Elliot's path intersects with Chloe Webb, a young photographer who invites him to her art show. Elliot welcomes the distraction and as the night descends, Chloe takes him on an intimate and exhilarating journey through the city. But as morning approaches, and Chloe learns of Elliot's condition, the magic of the evening unravels, and they must together face the uncertainty of Elliot's future.

Additional 2011 Summer Series Short Film Programs include:

New York Non-Fiction
Scratches, beats, and elegies from the city of cities.

Clermont Ferrand
Rooftop works with the world's premier short film festival to bring you a stunning selection of short gems from across the globe.

Animation Block Party
Some call it punk rock, some call it grass roots, but labels aside, NYC-based Animation Block Party is dedicated to exhibiting the world's best independent, professional and student animation.

Kill Screen Video Game Night
Rooftop partners with the avante garde video game magazine Kill Screen to bring you an evening of short films that ask the question, "What does it mean to play games?"

Orbit (Film) (NY Premiere)
www.orbitfilm.com
A collaborative, feature-length omnibus movie about our solar system where every planet is represented by a short film. Co-produced by Rooftop Films and Cinemad.

Rural Route
A program of film offering city dwellers a glimpse of the rural life, where the grass is indeed greener. This program will be fittingly screened on a brand new Rooftop Venue: The Brooklyn Grange, an organic rooftop farm in Long Island City, Queens.

Industriance
Razor sharp short films about the changing industrial and agricultural landscape in urban and rural America and beyond.

Rooftop Shots
The official Closing Night of Rooftop Films 2011 Summer Series includes short films all about endings. Films so sharp we call them shots, fired from the roof one last time this year.


***

Rooftop Films is a non-profit organization whose mission is to engage and inspire the diverse communities of New York City by showcasing the work of emerging filmmakers and musicians. In addition to our Summer Series - which takes place in unique outdoor venues every weekend throughout the summer - Rooftop provides grants to filmmakers, teaches media literacy and filmmaking to young people, rents equipment at low-cost to artists and non-profits, and produces new independent films. At Rooftop Films, we bring the underground outdoors. For more information and updates please visit our website at www.rooftopfilms.com.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Speaking of the Iras . . .

Oh, yes. The Iras did, as they always do, take place. Being a lazy SOB, I will merely refer you to the fine reporting of my friend and colleague Michael Giltz, whose reportage is as close to definitive as is humanly possible. As you can imagine, Michael crawled half-naked across the burning sands of the Sahara to bring this story to you, kind reader.

Next year, we will take up a collection to buy him a shirt.

And, another piece of Ira ritual, my ten-best list for 2010, based on 110 films, neatly enough:

1. The Strange Case of Angelica – Manoel de Oliveira

2. White Material – Claire Denis

3. Carlos – Olivier Assayas

4. The Ghost Writer – Roman Polanski

5. DDR/DDR – Amie Siegel

6. Boxing Gym – Frederick Wiseman

7. The Social Network -- David Fincher

8. The Portuguese Nun – Eugene Green

9. Un Prophete – Jacques Audiard

10. Mademoiselle Chambon – Stephane Brize

Honorable Mention (in no particular order): Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor), Carmel (Amos Gitai), The Girl on the Train (Andre Techine), Daddy Long Legs (Josh and Benny Safdie), The Juche Idea (Jim Finn), Lebanon (Samuel Maoz), Our Beloved Month of August (Manuel Gomes), Nora’s Will (Maria Chenillo), I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino), Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-Dong), Eyes Wide Open (Haim Tabakman), Inspector Bellamy (Claude Chabrol), Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette).

All in all, a very good year. The length of the honorable mention list suggests what I have felt all along about 2010 -- it was a year in which there were a lot of very good movies, a year of rich and varied pleasures, although not a year with any single drop-dead stand-out monster work of genius. Given a choice between a deep field of imperfect but graceful works like these and a year of one great movie and not much else, you can imagine where I stand.

I never have cottoned to drop-dead masterpieces anyway. I like my films like I like people, with all their flaws intact. (Of course, I'd rather spend time with, say, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ted Williams or Alfred Hitchcock, than with folks whose flaws vastly overbalance their virtues, like Bernie Madoff or Leni Riefenstahl.)

And another year goes in the books.

Just Before the Door Shuts

Well, I certainly procrastinated well this time. New Directors is almost over -- it ends Sunday -- and I've managed to waste a week before offering my quick round-up of the series. I could blame it on the run-up to the Iras and post-Ira letdown, which would be partly true, but regular readers know it's just laziness. However, my review of the two Jewish interest films is here.

I only got to a half-dozen of the films in this year's event, but here are my impressions of the other ones I saw.

Hit So Hard -- Patty Schemel was the original drummer for Hole, Courtney Love's band, and her life has been pretty complicated, to say the least. In addition to working with Love and being a close friend of her husband Kurt Cobain, Schemel had drinking and heroin problems. The first 40 minutes or so of this documentary, directed by P. David Ebersole, are riveting. Schemel is a likeable personality and the rapid rise of the band and its impact on her life make for lively viewing. After that, though, it turns into an increasingly self-serving episode of This Is Your Life. That's what happens when the director is a personal friend of the subject and her partner is the co-producer. A missed opportunity, particularly since Ebersole had the use of hours of privately shot video and film from Schemel.

Incendies -- A highly anticipated film from Quebec, directed by Dennis Villeneuve, with a strong cast headed by Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin (who is the best thing about the film). Azabal is the dead mother of Desormeaux-Poulin and her twin brother, Maxim Gaudette. In her will she sets out a task for the twins that involves excavating her mysterious past in a country that is clearly based on Lebanon. They are dropped unprepared into a history of tribal jealousies, political and sectarian violence, revenge, torture and the like. Villeneuve directs this material with considerable detachment, and the script is too schematic. Despite some nice performances and a few striking sequences, the result suffers from a significant lack of heat. The last line of the film says something about "breaking the chain of anger," but the film belies that phrase. More like breaking the chain of mild annoyance.

Majority -- Given its title, one might expect this to be a film about Turkey's slightly fragile democracy. Unfortunately, it's another meaning of majority that is at stake here. Metkan (Bartu Küçükçag ̆ layan) is 21, but he lives at home with his parents and works as a lowly errand boy for his father's construction firm. When he begins an affair with a young Kurdish woman, there are signs that he may be groping towards the adulthood that his age confers legally. But his father's vitriolic racism threatens the relationship and the girlfriend hasn't a chance against the sheer inertia of Metkan's life. Sort of an aimless Turkish variant on mumblecore, with more at stake and a thoroughly unappealing protagonist.

Hospitalite -- This one is the keeper, the best of the six films I saw, a hilarious farce by second-time feature director Koji Fukada. Kobayashi (Kenji Yamauchi), the owner of a small print shop finds himself importuned by a man (Kanji Furutachi) who claims to be the son of the shop's late co-owner, the guy who bailed out Kobayashi's dad when times were tough. Kobayashi offers him a job and he moves in, literally. First he brings his blonde girlfriend (Brierly Long), who is Brazilian or Bosnian or, more likely, American, and a teacher of English and/or salsa dancing. Then he gradually imports some new staff and eventually fills the shop and apartment with an army of mysterious foreigners. Fukada could have played this sinister intent like a junior Joseph Losey (there are echoes of The Servant) but, refreshingly he turns the project into spirited comedy with devastatingly effective timing and an alternately obsequious and menacing performance by Furutachi. The result is a sort of Tokyo-based Jonsonian comedy of humours, deftly orchestrated and terrific fun.