Tuesday, April 20, 2010

SFIFF53: Frako Loden's Review Capsules

And since variance of opinion by its very nature defines a film festival audience, The Evening Class is proud to offer 24 review capsules from Frako Loden to compare, contrast and conflate with Michael Hawley's previous 14. [Frako warns that a few of these capsules allude to what may be plot spoilers!!]

* * *

Father of My Children (France/Germany: Mia Hansen-Løve, 2009)
This film is a realistic rendering of a French art-film producer with a loving wife and three adorable daughters, who is millions of euros in debt with several film projects hanging in the balance. Gregoire's family is resigned to his being in the room with them but always distracted by his cell phone and deal-making at their country home on weekends. Clearly he's a loving, if distracted, father and husband. But things are closing in on him, much as he'd like to deny it and stay hopeful. A Swedish director (based on Lars von Trier) is being difficult, but he's a "genius" that Gregoire must humor. A Korean filmmaker brings her larger-than-expected entourage to France and complains about an incompetent French crew. Gregoire grows more and more withdrawn, until one day he shoots himself on the street. (The story alludes to the real-life suicide of Humbert Balsan, who produced films by Claire Denis, Lars von Trier, Béla Tarr.)

The rest of the film shows everyone looking to his inexperienced widow to pick up the pieces, doing Gregoire's job and trying to save their production firm in the face of financial disaster. She even goes to Sweden to talk with the genius director and be set straight on how much Gregoire's vision meant to him—and that his successor Serge (played by the actor who will appear as Serge Gainsbourg in another filmfest film, Gainsbourg [Vie Héroïque]) has no such vision, in fact dislikes the director and "hates cinema." Meanwhile, their eldest daughter befriends a young filmmaker whom we saw Gregoire court at the beginning of the film and who is left out in the cold when Gregoire dies. Nothing is made of this coincidence really—there's no shattering realization when the daughter finds the filmmaker's script in Gregoire's office. The most powerful part of this last half is watching the eldest daughter mourn. At the very end, their visit to Gregoire's grave is cancelled because they've run out of time in their preparations for departing Paris. She suppresses her tears as they drive away in the car.

I was completely absorbed in this film—maybe to an unhealthy degree, since knowing Gregoire was eventually going to commit suicide created enough suspense. I just wasn't sure how soon he would do it. I believe it happened at the halfway point, at least it felt that way. The film gave us a long time to appreciate how much love and patience there was in the marriage and family so that we would equally appreciate the loss. All acting performances were understated and effective. There is something terrified and terrifying in the eldest daughter's eyes as she absorbs the enormity of her father's death. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

The Man Who Will Come (Italy: Giorgio Diritti, 2009)
Another film with extremely effective and moving acting performances by young females is The Man Who Will Come, about a 1944 massacre of nearly 800 Italians by the SS near Bologna. Unlike City of Life and Death (about the Nanjing Massacre), this film doesn't feel a need to follow a sympathetic Wehrmacht soldier. Instead it focuses on a small village, the partisans who try to protect it, and the Nazis who target it for termination. It has similarities to Pan's Labyrinth in its main protagonist's being a canny little girl who's trying to protect her infant brother from Fascists—minus the rich imagination, of course. I guess one interpretation of the title The Man Who Will Come refers to the child who is born in the middle of the massacre—a review reminds me that the story time of the film begins at conception and ends at the first month after birth. But I think it could also refer to the second coming of Christ. Like in City of Life and Death, we have a long time to be with the villagers until they are almost totally wiped out by gunfire. At the end we're left with a tiny bit of hope, with the little girl cradling her baby brother sitting on a bench. She's escaped from another church whose parishioners she knows are doomed, since she survived a massacre of her own. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

My Dog Tulip (USA: Pau & Sandra Fierlinger, 2008)
I was expecting to make heavy use of my handkerchief for this one, but it never left my purse. I thought it was going to be another Umberto D. Instead, this is a lighthearted, naughty-minded animated story of the love between an old man (based on ex-BBC correspondent J.R. Acklerley) and his rambunctious Alsatian dog Tulip. It's hard to say if the film's focus on Tulip's scatological and sexual tendencies is due to J.R.'s personal obsession or just an integral part of living with a dog that doesn't get full coverage in more prudish stories. Still, all the energy expended in breeding Tulip seems so unnecessary, maybe even a bad idea. I found that the animation illustrating these sequences, in which Tulip wears a dress, was overliteralizing and not as funny as it thought it was. I'm sure dog-training ideologues will find plenty here to complain about the proper way to handle a dog, but in the end it's clear this is a grand love story. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

The White Meadows (Iran: Mohammad Rasoulof, 2009)
This hypnotically beautiful film absorbed me from the beginning, as a man rows his boat toward a white-salt island to perform rites over, and take away the corpse of, a young woman. It's said she was bound to die because her beauty humiliated all the men around her—like one man says, "She led men to the well and left them thirsty." This boatman also collects sufferers' tears in a bottle and pours them into the very salty waters of Lake Urmia. In his voyages from island to island, the man gathers and helps reconnect unfinished stories through his healing, if sometimes cruel, rituals.

Director Mohammad Rasoulof, who was recently released after having been arrested at a party thrown by fellow filmmaker, arrestee, and this film's editor Jafar Panahi, follows his excellent film Iron Island (2005) with this saga set in spectacular vistas of white-salt beaches and islands in remote Western Iran. His themes from that earlier work of the exoticism of Iranian minorities, the rule of ancient laws and behavioral codes over human collectivities, and our relationship with the sea are in rich evidence here. It's definitely one of the most beautiful and suggestive films at this year's festival. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

Simonal: No One Knows How Tough It Was (Brazil: Cláudio Manoel/Micael Langer/Calvito Leal, 2009)
On first viewing, this felt like a not-totally-successful documentary about a person who's no longer around to speak for himself. In other words, I didn't feel there was enough definitive information about his aborted career to commit to an interpretation about what disaster befell him. It's about Wilson Simonal, who was a huge Brazilian pop star in the 1960s until rumors of dictatorship collusion and spying, and ultimately racism, got him blacklisted from the entertainment world. He died in 2000.

Simonal admired Sammy Davis Jr.'s persona as the total entertainer, a showman. He adopted Davis's attitude of multiple musicianship and total control over the audience, telling jokes, getting them to sing in parts and even walking off the stage and taking a break while they sang. I'm sure the filmmakers used the best available footage they could find of Wilson Simonal's performances, but I wish there was more. I like that he sired two sons, Wilson Simoninha and Max de Castro, who became successful entertainers themselves and speak in support of him even if he might have been an imperfect father. They talk about the racism Simonal encountered trying to "pass for white" as a big-time entertainer. They even show a musical skit he did on TV bemoaning his minstrel-like status. But he was no civil-rights activist.

I didn't know anything about pilantragem until I saw this. Apparently this "rascal" or street style, or vernacular attitude toward music, involves dropping final syllables of words—"faking it," deliberate cheesiness. (The talking heads disagree about pilantragem's authenticity or whether it helped or hurt Simonal. One says it was the only style that could compete with rock 'n' roll in dance clubs—it made everyone dance.) I loved some of the montage sequences and colorful '60s-style collages. There's a great clip of him silkily singing "The Shadow of Your Smile" with Sarah Vaughn. He was a huge star in Central and South America, the first international Brazilian star. He did commercials for Shell—in one ad he's flying a helicopter over motorists, flirting with them, calling himself "Super Shell, the best for your engine." He was identified with the Mug, a stubby little black doll with a carrot top.

Simonal's success at the International Song Festival in the years 1967 through 1972 apparently caused envy that turned into resentment and the beginning of his career slide. He opened for Sergio Mendes (which I learned you pronounce "Ments") at a return-to-Brazil concert after Mendes' Grammy win. That's when he wore his signature headscarf wrapped around his forehead—some say it was just for show because he didn't need to hold back nappy hair, but his son says it was to fix in place a potato or onion that would relieve a terrible nervous headache. The stage people called him and he left the scarf on. He had the huge audience (and this was before the era of stadium concerts) in the palm of his hand, so much so that Mendes didn't want to go on after him. Maybe Mendes thought he was being cocky—that he should show more deference for an artist who had just won a Grammy, or who was "white."

The reaction to his living large, with big cars and big blondes, seems to have been his downfall, like boxer Jack Johnson. He dedicated songs to other men's wives. He was friends with Pele and got tricked into thinking he might join the national soccer team. The film's explanation of his supposed kidnapping of an accountant that started all the trouble is a bit confusing, or maybe the events are just confusing. But watching this a second time is making me like it more than I did the first. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Presumed Guilty (Mexico: Roberto Hernández, 2008)
An effectively told story of an innocent man's struggle to clear himself in the corrupt Mexican court system. The filmmakers have an appealing subject, a monolithic bad guy, and a cause to fight. Their crisp, uncomplicated storytelling style and amazing footage of the trials conducted in what looks like a busy, indifferent office make for riveting filmmaking. Winner of SFIFF's Golden Gate Award in documentary. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Micmacs (France: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009)
I never got into Micmacs at all. All the whimsy and humor seemed terribly forced or just too mild. It made me wonder if I really liked Jeunet's previous films or just put up with their tics to favor their overall conception. The filtering resulted in a dingy yellowish cast to everything that made me slightly sick to my stomach. And I couldn't help wondering how much more interesting Jamel Debbouze (Days of Glory, Angel-A), for whom the script was originally written, might have been in the lead role. I had a feeling for Micmacs similar to how I felt about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus—scattered moments of elation between long stretches of boredom and even slight embarrassment. However I loved Yolande Moreau—she was just wonderful in her scenes. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (Denmark: Kaspar Astrup Schröder, 2009)
A documentary about an eccentric Japanese inventor that simultaneously shows how special and perhaps how bogus he is. Most famous for inventing the floppy disk and a pump that sucks soy sauce out of a large can into a small dispenser, Nakamatsu Yoshiro continues to patent thousands of his products, from sproinging running shoes to the libido-enhancing Love Jet. Meanwhile he's well on his way to achieving his target age of 144, eating only one meal a day, needing only four hours' sleep a night, and getting ideas for new inventions as he takes notes underwater. Apparently the filmmakers never met their subject, getting all their material via Skype and the Internet. I see no ill effects from this kind of long-distance collaboration. (Seen on DVD screener.)

A Brand New Life (South Korea: Ounie Lecomte, 2009)
Very moving drama about a little Korean girl whose father dumps her in an orphanage and never returns. Without an explanation for his actions, she digs in her heels and resists efforts to be adopted by a Western family while everyone around her aspires to it. Her pale little face still haunts me, as her joyous smile fades and one anchor in her life after another slips away. She seems almost to understand what will happen to each child sent out into the world, and it's not exactly a middle-class life of privilege in a Western suburb. So far this festival has been a showcase for excellent performances by girl actors (Father of My Children, The Man Who Will Come), and Kim Sae-ron as the non-orphan gives perhaps the best. At 10, she's older than Victoire Thivisol, who won the Best Actress award at Venice for her four-year-old turn in Ponette (1996). But the two actors resemble each other in their unself-conscious and utterly natural responses to the loss of their parents. A Brand New Life is a great fictional counterpart of the numerous transnational-adoption-themed documentaries screening at Asian American film festivals of late. Unlike so many of them with their adult-POV retrospection, the point of view here is deeply immersed in the pre-adoptee's immediate present. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Shirley Adams (South Africa: Oliver Hermanus, 2009)
This film opens in a poor Cape Town apartment, with the title character fighting to revive her teenage son from a suicide attempt. Donny lost the use of all his limbs when he was shot in the neck over a year ago. Her husband vanished without a trace three months before. Deeply wounded by his desertion and Donny's despair, Shirley soldiers on with her son's full-time care, unable to work for pay and relying on handouts from friends. The more help she's offered the more stubborn her refusals grow, and she fiercely resents the young white physical therapist who comes with groceries, offering to make life easier for Shirley and Donny. After accepting a Tupperware full of cookies from the mother of Donny's childhood pal Jeremy, Shirley learns that Jeremy is a suspect in the shooting. This litany of outrages doesn't sound like a pleasant invitation to a film, but you will be riveted by veteran South African actress Denise Newman's remarkable performance as Shirley, a woman who must hold her head up because pride is all she has left. Director Oliver Hermanus admires a 19th-century painter "who always painted women from behind, so we never truly know what they are thinking about." The camera simulates this technique by perching on Shirley's shoulder, hounding her and monitoring every move she makes. This restless camera is a visual correlative of Shirley's status as a colored (mixed-blood) woman hounded by violence and poverty in post-apartheid South Africa. Its precise, unsentimental focus seeks along with her the resolution that will free her from its bounds at last. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (USA: Ricki Stern/Annie Sundberg, 2009)
Closing Night picture. Frankly, I wasn't expecting much from this film since I feel near-indifference for the subject, but the filmmakers have made great documentaries on what feel like weightier issues: they produced/directed The Devil Came on Horseback (about the Darfur genocide) and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (about an African American man who was wrongly convicted for a rape-murder and imprisoned for almost 20 years).

The film opens with shots of heavy makeup being applied to Rivers' surgically altered features. She's in a career slump—she complains that her spotty, low-prestige appearances don't add up to a decent tour without any Vegas-style club dates—Kathy Griffin has taken all of them. Her here-now-AWOL-tomorrow manager Billy Sammeth says that Rivers jokes she needs sunglasses to look at her datebook because the blank white page is too glary. But "this queen of comedy will not abdicate ... there will be nail marks on that red carpet before she's through." One source of hope is that both she and daughter Melissa are booked on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice.

Five minutes in, I was completely captivated with Stern/Sundberg's treatment of pioneering comic Joan Rivers. We watch her get angsty and intolerable preparing for the opening of a play she's written about her life to be performed in Edinburgh and then in London. She's terrified yet hopeful about the prospect of taking the play to New York if she doesn't bomb in the UK. The memory still smarts of the way Manhattan critics savaged her performance in the play Fun City way back in 1971, and she still holds it against them. She claims, in tears, that her acting ability is dearer to her than her comic talent. As it turns out she's spared the Manhattan critics—the London critics are condescendingly cruel enough. The play dies offshore.

Despite what seems like a thick skin, she’s easily hurt and holds grudges for a long time. When Johnny Carson told her "You're going to be a star" in front of his Tonight Show audience in the 1960s, she says her life changed. She was on her way up: she became his permanent guest host in 1983 (in addition to having made comedy albums, written a bestseller, directed the Billy Crystal-starrer Rabbit Test, and hosted other talk shows). When the new Fox Network made her host of her own late-night talk show produced by her husband Edgar Rosenberg, Johnny Carson "slammed down the phone and never spoke to me again," even blacklisting her with NBC until recently. Unable to fire her own husband, Joan let herself be fired. Then Edgar killed himself.

I guess what makes this film so good is that we get a few glimpses of Joan's irritating side—the way she doesn't listen to Melissa and makes every conversation all about herself, her petulance, her inability to shut up—but then we see her essential decency and professionalism. She supports relatives; she needs a 17-foot-long dining table to seat invited "strays" for Thanksgiving; on her pre-turkey dinner charity deliveries for God's Love We Deliver, she's moved by a blind woman who used to be a Life photographer.

But best of all, we see her skill as a performer. She masterfully shuts down an off-screen heckler who's offended by her Helen Keller joke ("I have a deaf son!"). And she's unbearably funny, especially when she's making herself look bad. It's amazing how much she puts up with during her recent roast at Comedy Central. She is such a sporting pro and—and she loathes this word—an icon. As Addison DeWitt would say, "You're maudlin and full of self-pity—you're magnificent!" (Seen at a festival press screening.)

14-18: The Noise and the Fury (France: Jean-François Delassus, 2008)
This documentary for French TV uses colorized newsreel footage, dramatic and propaganda films, sound effects and voiceover narration (dubbed into English) to tell a story of a low-ranking French infantryman who witnesses the worst of World War I. During his four years of combat, the soldier sees everything but a good reason why so many of his fellow combatants must live in ghastly trenches and be bombed, gassed, killed and maimed in the "war to end all wars." Much has been made of the effect of all this post-production tampering of the silent image, that it brings the subjects' faces and emotions alive and introduces the horror of the early 20th-century war to a generation who wouldn't sit still for a plainer, black-and-white film without sound. It's wonderful if this compilation will indeed have such effects, but those of us who already love silent film may not appreciate the anachronistic tinting, sound effects and constant background chatter to match the moving lips of speaking characters. I think I would have been able to imagine "the noise and the fury" without all those simplistic audio-visual aids. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Littlerock (USA: Mike Ott, 2010)
Waiting for a replacement rental car, Japanese tourist siblings Atsuko and Rintaro are stuck in the tiny town of Littlerock in the desert north of Los Angeles. Their plans to visit Manzanar and San Francisco are stalled at the Pearblossom Motel, where they get mixed up with partying local teenagers. If you're reminded of the kooky Japanese couple in Mystery Train ("Elvis Presley." "Carl Perkins."), forget it—this couple isn't interested in paying homage to their Memphis rock gods and they're drearily passive. Still Atsuko is feeling the power her exotic beauty, and inability to communicate, have over the small-town boys, while Rintaro wants to get away from there as soon as possible. When Rintaro leaves unable to persuade his little sister to go with him, she moves in with the infatuated Cory and tries to learn how to make burritos for his father's bodega. In Littlerock she gets a lesson in American life that no trip to Disneyland or Fisherman's Wharf could teach her. This movie is worth watching only for the performance of Cory Zacharia as an ersatz Crispin Glover-like airhead who invites himself on dates, wants to be told he could be a model, and may win you over by the end. (Seen on DVD screener.)

The Loved Ones (Australia: Sean Byrne, 2009)
Imagine Brian De Palma's Carrie as a vengeful reject even before her prom disaster, and imagine Tommy, the high school's cutest boy, traumatized by a car accident in which he—to avoid a suddenly-appearing figure in the road—crashed into a tree, killing his father. Withdrawn, getting high all the time and trying out his death wish on a local cliff side, Brent at least has a nice girlfriend Holly, with whom he's going to the dance. But he's not prepared for what happens when Lola, the school dork, asks him to the dance and is rejected. What follows is an ordeal that we've seen in torture-porn movies, but this film actually has a heart and a sense of humor. Sure, the horror takes precedence over everything else and the levels of horror get pretty implausible, but within its limits it's an entertaining ride, giving a nod to moments from iconic teen films like Carrie of course, Pretty in Pink and even Donnie Darko. A subplot involving Brent's best friend and a surly Goth girl has an unexpected outcome. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Northless (Mexico: Rigoberto Perezcano, 2009)
The English title for Norteado seems wrong somehow. I'm not a Spanish speaker, but doesn't Norteado mean more like "northerned" or "turned north"? I understand it implies disorientation or dislocation, but the north is certainly still there.

It's there because our young male protagonist Andrés is trying to get there. But, leaving his wife and children behind in Oaxaca, he's apprehended at the border between Mexico and the US because his coyote has abandoned him. As he waits back in Tijuana for the next opportunity to climb the fence and cross the river, he feeds himself by helping a woman and her helper run a bodega. Each woman is still waiting, years later, for a man who went north and cut off all contact with her. Sensing that that is what Andrés will do as well, they try to get him to stay while their friend Don Asensio, to make up for one unsuccessful attempt, tries to find another way for Andrés to get across at last. In a plot turn that recalls The Graduate, Andres tries to squirm out of the older woman's grasp in order to woo the younger.

The film's deadpan, often silent exchanges give it authenticity and authority, and the photography conveys a landscape that makes heat, hunger and thirst the biggest threats to life. Repeated visual clues of plot development are slyly funny: portraits of Bush and Schwarzeneggar on the wall signal deportation yet again, and Andrés commemorates his dates in a photo booth. And the final result of all the characters' concerted efforts is so surreal in its melancholy humor that it may have you laughing too much for tears. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Marwencol (USA: Jeff Malmberg, 2010)
(The screener DVD was a temp rough cut, but it was good enough for me!) Winner of the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at South by Southwest 2010. In the tradition of Jeff Feuerzeig's 2005 The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Jessica Yu's 2004 In the Realms of the Unreal, this documentary takes us into the very private fantasy world of an outsider artist whose work flourishes as a result of mental disturbance. The preceding 38 years of bad alcoholic Mark Hogancamp's memory was wiped out in a vicious 2000 barroom attack by five teenagers. Brain damage forced him to relearn how to eat, walk, read, write and remember his previous life. Miraculously, his desire for alcohol vanished. He was making progress when his therapy was cancelled due to inability to pay, and this is when he decided to "create my own therapies."

The solution was to construct outside his trailer a dollhouse-scale model of a World War II-era Belgian town he dubbed Marwencol, into which his action-figure soldier alter ego crash-lands. The brutal SS, who have already staged one massacre in the town, keep returning and demanding to know the whereabouts of a bar called The Ruined Stocking, where owner Mark now hangs out with his warrior buddies. A coterie of beautiful battle-hardened women survivors, played by Barbies, protect Mark and his friends from the SS. On Nazi-free evenings he pays the women to stage "cat fights" for entertainment. Life is one long party at The Ruined Stocking even if soldier Mark himself drinks nothing but coffee.

Mark the artist resembles Yu's subject Henry Darger, another very introverted artist who created details-rich universes full of combat, women's clothing and more than a whiff of fetish. Darger had his Vivian Girls and Mark has his 27 Barbies, individualized into glamorous avatars of real women in his life: his mother, his boss, his ex-neighbor. In his fantasy life, soldier Mark often gets kidnapped, tied up and tortured by the SS and is rescued in the nick of time by his fiercely protective women. Mark's photographs of his tableaux, peopled by dolls loving and battling in minutely detailed landscapes, are astonishingly realistic and more evocative than the movie stills they resemble. Think Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story or the puppet animation of Kawamoto Kihachiro: Dolls come to life for us when they play out our fears and obsessions. And they tell us of our lives—they do what we're afraid to admit we want to do.

Over the course of the film we begin to learn, through the Marwencol enactments and then in the preparations for showing Mark's work at a Manhattan gallery, what was going on in Mark's life pre-assault—and what still haunts him. I feel guilty saying how funny I thought Mark's angst was over what to wear at his opening, since it was a hugely serious matter for him. But his term "fuckin' man-shoes" has entered my vocabulary for something you feel forced into wearing. I'm not sure I've seen another film that creates so much goodwill and admiration for a damaged man trying to put himself back together and then becoming an artist in the process. (Seen on DVD screener.)

To Die Like a Man (Portugal: João Pedro Rodrigues, 2009)
When I see a film that emotionally devastates me, puts me in a real state, I usually try to see it again to figure out why I had such an extreme reaction. But I've decided not to see To Die Like a Man a second time because I'm not sure it will survive it. If it withers under my gaze, if it never coheres (a common criticism by reviewers), if I'm left cold, I don't really want to know it. We'll always have Palm Springs.

I saw this there in January and was undone by it. That's good enough for me in this case. It's about a middle-aged transvestite entertainer named Tonia who realizes that her breast implant is leaking and poisoning her to death. Her young lover urges her to have her penis surgically removed, a procedure we see described by a physician with the help of origami. Should she die like a woman or like a man? That’s just one of many sources of anguish for Tonia, whose AWOL son we see killing a fellow soldier in the opening scene, whose young lover is a junkie and treats her like shit, who's losing her top billing at the nightclub. But this plot summary is insufficient to describe a movie that affected me so much, without my being able to really say how. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Air Doll (Japan: Koreeda Hirokazu, 2009)
Now this film is one that I do plan to see again after a first viewing at Palm Springs left me undecided. Throughout it I had a feeling of mild disappointment, like I knew what the film was trying to do but not succeeding completely. What a different reaction I had to Koreeda's previous film Still Walking, which I consider a near-masterpiece. But several hours after viewing Air Doll I paused, thought, "Ahhh, that's what he was saying!" and decided to give it another try. If I'm still somewhat disappointed on a second viewing, it won't be because of Bae Doo-na's brilliant performance as the inflatable sex doll who longs to walk among humans. She's a perfect choice, being Korean walking among Japanese. That layer of her real life enriches an already complex portrait of a creature who needs to learn how females look, talk, move and work in Japanese society in order to blend in and be undetectable as the unique being that she is. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Wake in Fright aka Outback (Australia: Ted Kotcheff, 1971)
I had seen this in 10-minute segments on YouTube, so I wasn't prepared for the horribleness of the kangaroo hunt scene on the big screen. Several people walked out at the beginning of that scene at the Palm Springs Filmfest screening in January. It seemed to go on forever and I had to pull out my hankie to stop the flow of tears as I watched one kangaroo after another be thrown in the air by the force of bullets and lie there twitching or staring straight into the camera as it died.

A disclaimer at the end of the movie said that the scenes were shot during a sanctioned hunt "conducted by licensed professional hunters. No kangaroos were expressly killed for this motion picture. Because the survival of the Australian kangaroo is seriously threatened these scenes were included with approval of leading animal welfare organizations in Australia and the United Kingdom."

The story is about genteel schoolteacher John Grant (played by UK actor Gary Bond) who's stuck in the tiny outback hamlet of Tiboonda, part of a bond contract in which the state pays for his education. He starts his six-week Christmas vacation hoping to head for Sydney, but during a night's stay at Bundanyabba (or "The Yabba") before catching a flight to the city, he drinks with a cop and loses all his money in a coin-tossing game called two-up. He meets some outback yahoos and a weird character named "Doc" Tydon (played by Donald Pleasence), and they carouse, hunt for kangaroos and tear up a bar—there's even a hint that Doc rapes or tries to rape a shitfaced Grant.

The movie seems to be saying that the "horrors of mateship" happen when white men try to live in the bush. There's no explicit statement saying that, nor is there a comparison of white with aboriginal people—few aborigines appear in the film—but it's implying that the bush is a heart of darkness where the worst instincts of man come out and women and kangaroos just have to put up with it. The white natives have been twisted—by the landscape, by the isolation, by inbreeding, who knows?—into a subhuman form, something like the hillbillies in Deliverance (which was released the year after Wake in Fright). The female bar servers work grimly and a 30ish woman Grant meets at the house of one of his drinking buddies is so starved for human companionship that she takes him outside and lies down, unbuttoning her dress and practically pulling him on top of her. He pukes, ruining the moment, and he later finds out that many men in the town have had sex with her. The YouTube segments I viewed, which I now realize were of the expurgated American release (titled Outback), didn't show Grant nude or vomiting and abridged the kangaroo hunt. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Everyone Else (Germany: Maren Ade, 2009)
This is a terrific intimate drama about a relationship that starts ripping apart at the seams when a young German couple stays at his parents' beachside house in Sardinia. As Chris awaits the results of a design competition, Gitti is anxious to go out and enjoy herself. Their stay is disturbed by the presence of another couple who remind them of their shortcomings, and awkward scenes ensue. I loved this film for its unpredictability among people I might normally consider easy to peg as types. The film won't let you get away with that. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Moscow (South Korea: Whang Cheol-mean, 2009)
My viewing companion called this a "headscratcher," and I have to agree. It's not a completely satisfying experience watching two junior-high friends reunite as young women, having taken very different paths in their working lives. One has abandoned a hunger strike at a factory, and the other works robotically as an office lady. They become roommates and their relationship intensifies in complexity and tension. There's plenty of potential for significance in their conflicts involving the South Korean working world and women's aspirations, but these themes don't knit together in an interesting way. Maybe it's because I'm not familiar enough with Chekhov's The Three Sisters, to which this film apparently makes numerous references. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Woman on Fire Looks For Water (Malaysia: Woo Ming-jin, 2009)
I loved Woo's Monday Morning Glory (2005) but I missed The Elephant and the Sea (2007), which I'm intent on seeing now that I've fallen in love with his latest. I laugh when I read Tony An describe the title as something "Hong Sang-soo would have picked"—I believe the Chinese title is simply Regret(s). The plot of this lovely and haunting film is simple: An elderly fisherman visits his married lost love more frequently now that he knows he's dying. The fisherman's son loves a young woman who works in a fish processing plant, but the cockle factory owner has him in mind for his daughter's husband. As these story strands work their leisurely way through the film, we watch these people mend nets, strip fish, harvest cockles and gently manipulate events to their gain. I suspect that this film will be even more immersive and intimate on the big screen. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Around a Small Mountain (France: Jacques Rivette, 2009)
Its French title, 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup, must be derived from Hokusai or Hiroshige's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, both works being a series of woodblock prints that show Japan's emblematic mountain in all seasons from different perspectives. So this film purports to be a series of views of the famous wolf-fang-shaped mountain in Languedoc-Roussillon near Montpellier, where an Italian businessman follows a dying circus troupe as it performs to near-empty rooms, gradually wearing down the resistance of a woman (Jane Birkin) returning to the troupe after a tragic accident caused her to leave it 15 years before. I probably shouldn't be writing about this film since I dozed off for a good half-hour of it. The parts that I did see left me cold. I know that Rivette is one of the giants of the French New Wave with a brilliant body of work, and I risk sounding like a disrespectful philistine complaining about this relatively short and accessible work. But I was bored and slightly embarrassed by it. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Nymph (Thailand: Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2009)
From the long opening traveling shot that hovers lingeringly over a jungle incident, this film tries to maintain a level of enigmatic suspense throughout that it can't sustain. A young married couple show signs of strain after the photographer husband takes his secretly unfaithful wife camping in a forest where many people have gone missing. When the husband is captivated by a mysterious tree and then vanishes, the film enters horror movie cliché-land when the wife insists on returning alone to the scene of the disappearance and comes in contact with the unseen power herself. Miraculously the husband shows up on her sofa in an altered state, but nobody—especially her illicit lover—believes that he has really reappeared. Maybe the characters are too understated, but I wasn't affected by what happens to them or how they respond. I hope I merely misjudged the tone of the film and that it wasn't a moralistic tale about adultery. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Cross-published on
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