Thursday, October 22, 2009

Short Film You Must See: "We Were Once A Fairytale" (Spike Jonze, 2009)

See the film here

by Brandon Colvin

It is the second collaboration between Spike Jonze and Kanye West.

It is a portrait of the artist as a forlorn failure, a charismatic creep, a self-hating superstar.

It is a feverish, fickle-focused fiction about fantasy, fucked-upness, and frustration.

It is a dreamlike documentary of digital-age debauchery, of a drunken dude in debonair duds desperately clinging to the final shards of his identity.

It is auto-tuned lyrics, cultural convergence, and sweating strangers shrugging off the awkward advances of a semi-suicidal, seppuku-committing icon of media megalomania.

It is NewTube.

It is a performer performing a performance of himself as a performer performing.

It is Kanye’s stilted slurrings and their amateur-professional truth.

It is the dancefloor tears that slyly suggest both autobiography and shameless solipsism.

It is confetti blood.

It is Godard.

It is a seriously shocking ending, for once.

It is the sincerity in such an ending, for once.

It is what I expect from the director of Adaptation.

It is a poem.

It is easily one of the best films of 2009.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

NYFF 2009: In Praise of Festivals

A week removed from the final press screening of the New York Film Festival, I have had a little more time to think about this year’s festivities after the verbal fireworks that were threatened to diminish the actual program being presented. Some of these charges have come from critics (who will remain nameless) who I assume no one takes seriously, but the more surprising charges have come from AO Scott the The New York Times. Given his stature, his piece roused the rabble of pretty much everyone, including this critic. This post is my festival wrap up (a top ten is posted at the end) and an attempt to grapple with the criticisms offered by Mr. Scott in light of the actual festival of films being presented, which get less than half the actual text of Scott’s piece. I wondered if it was worth responding to in the first place. Full of baffling contradictions, I honestly have had a hard time trying to discover where Scott is coming from and what he is after. So, a festival of the multiplex? An underground festival? A conceptual festival of popular, passably interesting, fun movies yet to be made? Still, I got worked up enough I couldn’t help but give some thoughts. Please excuse this former debater for the self-indulgence. If you’re just here for the top 10, feel free to skip down to the end.

This week, AO Scott resituated himself as the smarter-than-the-populus populist in the New York Times, shifting his role from film critic to axe grinder, shredding the festival as one that “seems to have been organized in pointed opposition to the pleasure principle” and challenging the selection committee as critics out to sustain their own worldviews entrenched in guilt and depravity. Mr. Scott goes on to call the situation “festivalism” which fails to recognize “the nature and value of fun.” Following that with a quotation from TS Eliot, Mr. Scott plays both sides in his call for some kind of middle ground, again accusing the critics of programming the festival “more as critics than as curators” – an especially odd suggestion after Mr. Scott slams the cohesion of theme of the overall festival. Curatorial work is the thing where you use a variety of works to build around a central idea, right? Seems both worlds would be met (even though it’s a misplaced cry to suggest there is an actual theme other than the simple criticism that “those movies were depressing,” which, naturally, is also not all true.) What exactly is required to make a variety? 26 films of 26 different genres from 26 different countries? Instead, it just seems to be a complaint about festivals, in general. The general criticisms of festivals showing the same films over and over, making it a participatory back-and-forth between the same groups of people, is valid, but I wonder what the alternative is. Seeing as Mr. Scott doesn’t really discuss the films at hand and rather merely their status as “festival movies,” it hard to say if an addition of more accessible [American] titles such as A Serious Man or Where The Wild Things Are (two of the three most mentioned films amongst the “snubs,” along with Audiard’s A Prophet which was also at Cannes) would have transformed this, or if maybe its just a sad, depressing year for international movies. But, again, I ask what is the alternative? A festival full of Hollywood films? Or films never before seen? Or more passable international work? Who knows. Mr. Scott’s piece ends up being a call against festivals, more than anything else, offering no suggestions or alternatives other than “find other movies.” Good luck with that.

Ah, but who actually does offer something? The selection committee. Love it, like it, or hate it, they were, in fact, showing something over there at Avery Fisher for the last two weeks. Scott’s claims can’t really be dismissed, or verified, without talking about the movies – something I have tried to do here throughout the course of the festival, and something which some major outlets have failed to do, instead turning their nose up at the smell of something serious asking for more popular alternatives. Yet, “festivalism”’s key feature is showing films that have not been seen before and may never be seen again. Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, New York all feature multiple titles that will never get distribution or only get distribution because of their presence at such festivals. This makes these festivals and their ongoing presence a celebration of work being done around the world. Rather than spit at what we’re given, it seems infinitely more positive, amid the dark films, to actually consider them for what they are and why they are here at this time, rather than searching for an enjoyable program of world movies that don’t exist. Moreover, I wonder what kind of “variety” people are missing. Mr. Scott calls for variety and unpredictability –two tenets I would strongly second. He finds weakness in the predictable selections allowing no room for “high-minded middlebrowism” to actually find an audience. Yet again, as Selection Committee head Richard Pena has said in years past, what is lacking is not adventurous movies, but adventurous audiences. Have any of these films been seen in New York before? In the United States? And have we become so redundantly theme-heavy in our criticism that major critics have actually started believing that this isn’t a variety? In a festival with numerous documentaries, ranging greatly in style and substance, foreign films, from old masters and young guns, and, yes, challenging films embraced by audiences at other festivals, the New York Film Festival continues to represent the best of world cinema out there in a given year. Party lines might be followed, as Mr. Scott says, but it’s a party for everyone and everything. New York, let’s keep the party going.

And now, the top 10 from a very strong slate of very different movies.

1. Trash Humpers
2. Ne Change Rien
3. Police, Adjective
4. Antichrist
5. To Die Like A Man
6. Everyone Else
7. Ghost Town
8. The White Ribbon
9. White Material
10. Bluebeard
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

NYFF 2009: Broken Records and Old Standards

by James Hansen

In order to make this post before the actual close of the festival, I have opted to posting even shorter reviews that will more or less give you a feel for how I reacted to several films that I have not yet had the chance to cover. I’ve decided to skip over some new works that I saw, since it seems slightly silly to post actual reviews after the festival has ended and several of the films I saw long enough ago that I don’t really feel comfortable trying to remember them accurately enough to write anything worthwhile. This is unfortunate, particularly for one film I really liked (To Die Like A Man) that has yet to receive a distributor. I take it no one will really mind waiting to hear about Precious, though, which will open in a few weeks anyway. And I’ll skip on The White Ribbon since it has already been featured prominently on this site, but I will say that I disagree with the enormous praise Brandon heaped upon it. To me, its a bit too overstated to be great Haneke. Thats not to say its bad (I do think its quite good), but probably not Palm d’Or material. This will be the final round up of reviews, but expect one or two more posts reflecting on the festival this week. After that, everything will be back to normal. On with the reviews!

Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, France)- For those who don’t know, I wrote my Masters thesis on Madame Breillat so if there’s one filmmaker who I might claim to be a kind of expert on, it is probably her. Now, I’m not making that claim, but I feel like if I don’t say something about this slight new work, its a crime against myself. Based on a children’s fairy tale that Madame loved as a child (and haunted her older sister with, since the youngest child is the only one to survive), Bluebeard feels small in the scope of Breillat’s audacious oeuvre, but I think buried within it are some key questions and issues that Breillat has dealt with for years. Its an interesting shift, taking on a children’s story, as Breillat has always dealt with real young girls. Strangely, if Bluebeard feels like any other fairy tale film, it is Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. From some creepy close ups to the bizarre atmosphere, Breillat allows the children to project themselves into the story of Bluebeard – a large, ogre like man who has had several wives who have all disappeared. In Breillat’s tale, innocence trumps all as the virgin queen, refusing to consummate the relationship by literally holing herself in a closet that Bluebeard is too large to enter (crash symbols!), with the help of her sister are able to defeat the violent male. Beauty gets the Beast, but never tries to tame him. When he sadly lashes out – its equally strange how empathetic the character of Bluebeard actually is, giving the girls no real reason to despise him – beauty and innocence find a way out. Meanwhile, two young girls narrating our story create a mirroring effect for the story to find strange modern-ish application with a twist ending. So, while Breillat is treading familiar territory, she continues to shift her perspective and challenge herself along the way. Bluebeard is an odd little film, but I also think it may be a minor gem. B

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)- My ambivalence towards Almodovar post-All About My Mother turns into downright dislike with this new work. Sure, Penelope Cruz is beautiful and there is one kind of remarkable sex scene featured in here, many thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. But, in a movie about a blind screenwriter with hidden mysteries that you, or the film, ever give even half a hoot about, it seems Almodovar is completely of of tricks and instead is taking up the challenge of directing a film with one hand tied behind his back and his heart totally left out of it. Broken Embraces ends with a kind of joke about the need to finish a film even if you do so blindly (ca-zing!), but I don’t think it meant to actually advocate the action and call itself out for being blindly haphazard and torpid. This scrambled grab bag of things-we-have-seen-in-an-inspired-way-before is chalk full of late game revelations that have little to nothing to do with anything, shrewd colors, goofy characters, and plenty of references to older films. But, lo – just because you reference things doesn’t mean you’re using them effectively. Its just a kick back to a steady base of fanboys who will smile, smirk, and laugh at all the references that they get. Unfortunately, Pedro’s biggest fanboy is starting to look like Pedro himself. C-

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, USA)- The people are plastic, the atmosphere is plastic, and there is no reason to buy into anything Solondz is doing here. This psuedo-sequel to Happiness, a film I remember liking, asks questions about redemption of the characters who have done despicable acts and the choice to recast new actors seems an inspired turn in this direction. Little else can be said to be anything near inspired, however, as the story rambles from scene to scene making the characters feel cynical, inauthentic, and outright depressing. Solondz attempts to throw in some empathy against the background he has set by the purposeful contradictions between the screenplay, the actions, and the look of the film (shot on the RED by the great Ed Lachman) highlight the shortcomings of this experiment. His humor has always been a little forced, but here it is just embarrassing. Life During Wartime is trying to balance two worlds of fake and real, past and present, even film and digital, but it just can’t get past its own insufferable attitude. C-

White Material (Claire Denis, France)- Boy does Claire Denis know how to use a soundtrack. This meditation of cross cultural exchange during wartime, shot on location in Africa, features striking imagery and a haunting atmosphere that exudes long after the final images. Denis’ stylistic convictions remain evident where spaces create their own language – from flowing grass, to a pool of water, to coffee beans bouncing through a machine. Anchored by the visuals, White Material also features some great performances from Isabelle Huppert, Isaach de Bankole, and William Nadylam who separately bring out the three different worlds at work in the film – the Western presence in a foreign land, the natives, and the rebels. Taking on civil war is certainly an admirable goal, and one that usually falters on sanctimonious predilections, but Denis manages the material well as she grapples with a devastating portrait of a world out of control. If something is holding White Material back from greatness, it is the puzzle-like structure, which isn’t confusing by any stretch, but, in this instance, has the tendency to undercut some of the action and rings a little false amid the subject matter. Nevertheless, White Material is another solid work by one of cinema’s greatest female directors. High B
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

NYFF 2009: Trashing Concepts/Conceptual Trash - [online text reviews of four films, two of which the writer of the text loves]

This third dispatch from the New York Film Festival features reviews of one highly anticipated work (any work from Rivette at a site named after a film of his is a major event), two works that I was cautiously looking forward to (Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien and Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers), and one work that I knew absolutely nothing about (Raya Martin's Independencia). I've already previewed my response to Trash Humpers, which comes at the end of this post complete with a defensive tangent that I probably shouldn't publish, but that I left anyways as a way of working out my own thoughts and ideas about the work and about how we should write about films in general. I meant to post this third dispatch sooner, and now am falling behind in my attempt to write about everything I see, especially with a busy last week of screenings this week. I'll attempt to persevere with good content. This post, above all others, seems to have contrarian written all over it, considering the other responses I have read to a couple of these films. Nevertheless, I stand by my rankings and unexpected love (well, one was unexpected) of these controversial works. There's nothing quite like the challenge of writing about a work you really care about (much less two in one post!) while also being genuine and not aggressively overwriting for the sake of your excitement. Lets see how well I did...

Around A Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, France) - Maybe this just feels slight from the get go because of the running time. Clocking in at 84 minutes, the shortest film in Rivette’s oeuvre by half an hour, Around A Small Mountain sets a mystifying stage, this time quite literally, by centering on a sparsely attended circus. Following a wordless exchange, an Italian gentleman, Vittorio, befriends a carnie and subsequently spends his time wandering the premises, meeting more eccentrics, and discovering long hidden secrets of the circus many of which revolve around an infamous trick gone awry. At times dry, if not outright stale, Around A Small Mountain has the all the elements of Rivette’s strongest work, but, in the concise brevity of this tale which could have headed in various directions, it gets a bit of a short shrift. From the overlapping mysteries to the numerous rehearsals, Rivette chooses not to dwell on subjects or moments longer than needed. This refuses the world of characters, so often the lifeblood of ecstatic energy present in Rivette’s films, the chance to pivot, rotate, and revolve around each other. The world seems more isolated, the figures more singular, and the mysteries less interesting. Maybe its just the marathon movie fan, but I would have loved to spend another hour or two really getting lost in the fascinating world that Rivette establishes. My criticism is perhaps harsher than Around A Small Mountain deserves. It really is a perfectly fine film with interesting characters, an odd location, plenty of hidden mysteries, and a unique assemblage of theater, cinema, and performance (read: everything you want from Rivette), but I can’t help but think this could have been a lot more. B-

Independencia (Raya Martin, Philippines) - If last year’s inclusion of Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis at NYFF introduced New York to an uprising in Filipino cinema, Independencia displays the wildly different kinds of work being done right now. Independencia was one of two films Martin, age 25, had at this years Cannes Film Festival where the Best Director prize was won by fellow countrymen Mendoza for his controversial film Kinatay. With Independencia, Martin shows some real promise, even while the film never completely works. Set in the Filipino jungle in 1943, a family awaits the arrival of American troops into their country. A bit obviously, the family waits for most of the film until a massive storm finally comes and sends the characters in different directions. Martin, above all else, does what he can to achieve the look of a 1940s Hollywood film, complete with beautifully hand drawn sets that give Independencia a remarkable look while creating an undercurrent of the American invasion of Filipino culture. Still, this concept only goes so far, as the flowing cinematography overwhelms this small amount of dramatic tension given to the actual plot in the first two-thirds of the film. The storm sequence is rather tremendous and won me over for Independencia as a whole. Wonderfully executed, Independencia ends with the mood and attitude it needed to sustain throughout. Though its not a complete success, its shows some real complex thinking from Martin about his films and should help in turning Martin’s idea around on him by finally bringing a larger Filipino presence to the US film scene. B-

Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa, Portugal)- Apparently most people hate this. It drew the smallest crowd of any press screening I’ve been to throughout the festival (partially because of the canceled press conference with Mr. Costa, I assume) and still managed to have the largest number of people walk out. I imagine this has something to do with the labeling of Ne Change Rien as a music doc for French actress/singer Jeanne Balibar. Certainly its a somewhat accurate description – you do, in fact, listen to Balibar rehearse and perform for the entirety of the documentary – yet it lacks in identifying Ne Change Rien as perhaps the most experimental feature at NYFF. Costa’s is able to transition his long take form, introduced to New York audiences in 2007 with a retrospective and the presence of his short Rabbit Hunters at NYFF, into Ne Change Rien with almost alarming effect. With no narration and no interviews, Ne Change Rien shows Balibar in never-ending rehearsals, looping the same chords, the same notes, the same sections of songs over and over searching for perfection in every nuance of the voice. Using two or three different pieces throughout the film, from a strange Gainsebourg-esque rock number to an Offenbach opera, Balibar’s face is shown in shafts of light as she ceaselessly counts, thinks, and ponders every detail of her performance. Ne Change Rien, shot digitally with high contrast black-and-white, shows the dancing of the light across Balibar’s face as she sways through the frame in isolation. Drenched together in more muted tones of white and gray during collaborative sequences, an equally important story of the reflection of light, creating profound nuance in black blacks, light blacks, mid grays, light grays, and bright whites as the very process of creation and perfection shimmers across the screen. Costa’s engagement with Balibar’s quest for perfection is found in the smallest of details. The long takes give ample time for the mind to soak in every bit of the soundtrack while becoming enamored with each subtle shift in Balibar’s voice and the light as the performers directly influence the way the camera records Balibar and, subsequently, the way we see the film. This may sound like a small feat, but make no mistake: Ne Change Rien is a major accomplishment. A-

Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, USA)- Unearthed from a hidden ditch somewhere in Tennessee, Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers serves as an artifact from a unknown culture of deformed villains – a hybrid of The Hills Have Eyes and the laughing baby. The humpers exist in a world not so unlike our own, yet one where they have free reign of the ditches, parking lots, and backyards of whomever they choose. Acting partly as perverted peeping Toms and deranged lunatics, Trash Humpers acts as a piece of found footage in which the humpers run around hysterically cackling and chanting as they break TVs, smash lights and concrete blocks in the middle of abandoned parking lots, and find a host of unforgettable friends: a kid who smashes baby dolls with a hammer, a homophobic comic who tells jokes with no punch lines, and a man who plays a one-stringed guitar and sings songs about his oh-so-large penis. Yes, Trash Humpers is essentially a celebration of anarchy. Very funny but at times quite haunting, Korine has described Trash Humpers as a kind of horror movie, perhaps of the American Dream being flushed down the toilet. But how then, amidst the nonsensical cackling and hysterical, neverending chants (“Make it, make it! Don’t fake it!) and recitations (“Three little devils jumped ovvvverrrr the waaaaallll...”) is Trash Humpers so genuine, so heartfelt, and so damned inspired? Korine’s connection and return to the South seems pertinent, as this return home has also returned him to non-commercial practices and more of an exploration of images and ideas, which is where Korine’s films have been most comfortable in the past. But where each of his past features has seemed overstretched by their strangest elements, Trash Humpers, despite, or maybe because of, its [purposefully] haphazard construction, is undoubtedly Korine’s most complete work yet. The ending sequence, at once bizarre and strangely moving, is the final punch card for the way Trash Humpers works through its characters and finds an open ended space for the humpers to go on...and maybe in a different way. Chaos reigns? Maybe not.

And now a tangent: While several critics have questioned Korine’s effort, calling the deck stacked and the concept of creating an artifact as one in which you can’t fail, these criticisms seem largely unfounded to me – not only because I can cite one film in the festival that has the same central concept and is less successful, but mainly because, frankly, that its just a flat out stupid criticism. If critics actually attempt to meet films on the films own terms (which I’m not exclusively advocating, mind you), then a success is a success and a failure is a failure based on the work, not on what you read or what someone else said about it. Whether success means accomplishment is a different matter completely, but I find it hard to suggest that a work with a concept that is achieved is a fraud, a fake, a sham, or anything else. Moreover, it becomes the same criticism of contemporary art (where Korine’s work may more comfortably lay as a kind of performance piece) in that “my kid could paint that” or “its just a shark in a tank.” These questions might purvey through Trash Humpers to certain viewers, but, if we’re wanting to play the Artist card, then who is that did create it, that did ask the question, and that did make you think about all this to begin with. So go conceptual works, and so goes Trash Humpers. I suppose its just going to work for some people and won’t work for others, but to suggest something as a failure because you don’t think the effect is difficult to achieve is fundamentally flawed. Last year, I remember many critics (not sure if they are the same ones who have excoriated Trash Humpers) suggested after Manohla Dargis’s negative review of The Reader that Holocaust films should be judged differently because of the subject matter. most everyone disagreed with that at the time, but now it seems its being flipped back over when convenient to attack someone for creating an admittedly lo-fi thing that “might not even be a movie” (so says Korine). I wouldn’t be so worked up, I suppose, if I hadn’t so bought into Trash Humpers and been impacted by what it captures and how genuine it is while doing it. (It is the only movie I bothered seeing twice, and almost a third time, fearing it may not be coming to a theater near anyone anytime soon). I’ve gone on a huge, largely unnecessary tangent here, so I’ll avoid going on another about why I might connect to Trash Humpers on another level – lets just say it has something to do with also being from the South, also shooting shitty looking movies on VHS in high school, and finding many of the voices and events of Trash Humpers not only funny but frighteningly familiar. If you’re still reading at this point, congratulations! You made it! And, in case I hadn’t mentioned it, Trash Humpers is without a doubt one of the best new works in the festival. A-
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