Monday, August 16, 2010

New York Film Festival 2010 Slate

The 48th New York Film Festival main-slate:

Opening Night
THE SOCIAL NETWORK, David Fincher, 2010, USA, 120 min

THE TEMPEST, Julie Taymor, 2010, USA, 110 min

Closing Night
HEREAFTER, Clint Eastwood, 2010, USA, 126 min

ANOTHER YEAR, Mike Leigh, 2010, UK, 129 min

AURORA, Cristi Puiu, 2010, Romania, 181 min

BLACK VENUS, (Venus noire), Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 166 min

CARLOS, Olivier Assayas, 2010, France, 319 min

CERTIFIED COPY (Copie conformé), Abbas Kiarostami, 2010, France/Italy, 106 min

FILM SOCIALISME, Jean-Luc Godard, 2010, Switzerland, 101 min

INSIDE JOB, Charles Ferguson, 2010, USA, 120 min

LE QUATTRO VOLTE, Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010, Italy, 88 min

LENNON NYC, Michael Epstein, 2010, USA, 115 min

MEEK'S CUTOFF, Kelly Reichardt, 2010, USA, 104 min

MY JOY (Schastye moe), Sergei Loznitsa, 2010, Ukraine/Germany, 127 min

MYSTERIES OF LISBON (Misterios de Lisboa), Raul Ruiz, Portugal/France, 272 min

OF GODS AND MEN (Des homes et des dieux), Xavier Beauvois, 2010,
France, 120 min

OKI'S MOVIE (Ok hui ui yeonghwa), Hong Sang-soo, 2010, South Korea, 80 min

OLD CATS (Gatos viejos), Sebastian Silva, 2010, Chile, 88 min

POETRY (Shi), Lee Chang-dong, 2010, South Korea, 139 min

POST MORTEM, Pablo Larrain, 2010, Chile/Mexico/Germany, 98 min

REVOLUCION, Mariana Chenillo, Fernando Embecke, Amat Escalante, Gael Garcia
Bernal, Rodrigo Garcia, Diego Luna, Gerardo Naranjo, Rodrigo Plá, Carlos Reygadas,
Patricia Riggen, 2010, Mexico, 110 min

THE ROBBER (Der Räuber), Benjamin Heisenberg, Austria/Germany, 90 min

ROBINSON IN RUINS, Patrick Keiller, 2010, UK, 101 min

SILENT SOULS (Ovsyanki), Alexei Fedorchenko, Russia, 75 min

THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA (O estranho caso de Angélica), Manoel de Oliveira,
Portugal, 97 min

TUESDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS (Marti, dupa craciun), Radu Muntean,
Romania, 99 min

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010, UK/Thailand, 113 min

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Somos lo que hay), Jorge Michel Grau, Mexico, 90 min

The 17-day New York Film Festival highlights the best in world cinema, featuring top films from celebrated filmmakers as well as fresh new talent. The selection committee, chaired by Peña also includes: Melissa Anderson, contributor The Village Voice; Scott Foundas, Associate Program Director, The Film Society of Lincoln Center; Dennis Lim, Editor, Moving Image Source & Freelance Critic; and Todd McCarthy, Critic indieWire.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Love Is Blonde

by James Hansen

With his stature becoming more and more mythic with each passing year (and each new film), 101-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira has become something of a godfather of contemporary cinema. Active in filmmaking since 1931, his career has persisted while cinema searched for (and found) its foothold throughout the world. Meanwhile, various other art forms have redefined and recontextualized themselves in light of the rise (and fall) of the moving image, modernism, post-modernism, et al. The few Oliveria films I’ve seen have all centered around a conflict between competing art forms, art and reality, representation and actuality. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl does the same. Eccentricities’ complex peculiarities – from the title, to the cinematography, to the 58-minute running time, to the ambiguousness of its storytelling – help contain its expanses and expand its containment. Replete with contradictions and anachronisms, Eccentricities plays like a photo-painting projected onto a cinema screen – several things all at once and each element is instantly isolated and united, beautiful and repellent, true and false, past and present, now and forever.

It starts with the Blonde-haired Girl whose hair color is one of the only things Eccentricities makes clear about her. Eventually her name is dropped – Luisa – but from the interactions seen with the protagonist, Marcario, she exists predominantly as a figure of the imagination. Marcario gazes into her room from across the street in his accounting office. Her window serves as a canvas into another world, one with a beautiful blonde-girl who waves her enchanting Chinese fan and stares longingly (but for what?) across the street. She fans herself and smiles. She fans herself and frowns. No matter for Marcario – he is completely under her spell. We never know very much about her or their relationship, but Marcario quotes romantic poets when speaking about her so there is little reason to doubt his honest sentimentality. Marcario, blinded by his love, misses the several, all be them brief, clues as to the true nature of his blonde.

Soon, Marcario pleads with his uncle to allow him to be married. His uncle, with no explanation, rejects the request and fires him from his accounting work. With his economic future in shambles, marriage is out of the question. Determined nonetheless, Marcario leaves in search of other work in hopes of becoming sound enough to marry his would-be goddess. Though the moral fabric of the story is undoubtedly 19th century (the film is based on a short story by Eça de Queirós), Oliveira fills the frame with eccentricities of its own. Macario recalls the fated story of the blonde-haired girl on a high speed train, his office has a computer, he does a goofy dance when he discovers a friend of his knows the family of blonde. Even more oddly, perhaps, Marcario visits the estate of Eça de Queirós with Luisa. Eccentricities shows Eça de Queirós in alternating forms – sculpture, figurine, and modernist painting (not to mention the film itself as a further extension of Eça de Queirós’ work). This sense of historical presence exists ambiguously (no one in the film mentions the oddity of the situation or winks towards the existence of contemporary objects) but is undoubtedly a primary concern for Oliveira. Michael Sicinski wonderfully summarizes, “Oliveira is implicitly asking his audience to lend a 21st century ear to works in a classical mode, to admire their beauty and present-day resonance, despite but perhaps in some ways even because of their temporal alterity to our world.” And, of course, this works both inside and outside of the film. Oliveira’s role as a contemporary cinematic figure shadows the historical presence within Eccentricities, while the film creates characters as figures with inescapable pasts and futures.

In the opening sequence of the film, voice-over narration advises, “If you can’t tell it to a friend, tell it to a stranger.” The voice-over then shifts to a conversation between Marcario and a stranger on a train, which ultimately functions as extended voice-over narration in conversation form. Thus, the romantic Maracario’s relationship with the blonde is fated (as always), but what is more interesting about Eccentricities is how the characters, the camera, and the film text itself serves as mere figures or identifiable objects rather than being entrenched, definable characters. However, this isn’t to say the choice leaves the film and its characters empty. Quite on the contrary, it allows Eccentricities to double back on itself and extend the characters and the film’s ideas in multiple ways. The stilted, awkwardly staged conversation between Marcario and the stranger seems almost as if the actors are reading from cue cards beyond the frame. They rarely look at one another, instead gazing at a strange angle off screen. Perhaps the mark of Oliveira’s translation, Marcario and the stranger may as well be holding his novel and reading from it. (Later, a man does exactly this with a book of poetry). The scenes on the train seem like cameos for the source text, where the characters suddenly exist as mere actors reading the narration. The actors are playing parts in a new artistic dimension, which may be understood as a piece of its own, yet – like the sculpture, figurines, and paintings of Eça de Queirós, or the harpist who plays Debussy, or the poet who recites Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa) – they embody the livelihood and existence of these "dead" artists.

On a more narrative level, even in this opening scene, Marcario doesn’t refer to Luisa but rather “the blonde.” While this may contain different national signifiers, but she fits the Western bill and serves as a traditional figure of unfathomable beauty and mystery whose downfall, in the end, is vanity (and perhaps a dash of poverty). The blonde functions simultaneously functions as everything the sentimental romantic ever wants and the last thing he should ever have. Her inability to fulfill Marcario’s initial expectation of the mystical blonde-haired girl with the Chinese fan, precisely because of the flawed assumptions in defining her as such without any details, leaves her broken and rejected, possibly forever. Unlike the artists kept alive through the arts, she becomes a dead symbol by destroying her own "meaning." Her chief sin seems rather slight, but, for Marcario and the film, once her iconography is shattered she slumps over, as Keith Uhlich argues, and becomes an “animate still life” – stunningly real, almost alive, yet always already disintegrating.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

The Horrors of War

by James Hansen

Samuel Maoz’s debut feature Lebanon - winner of the Golden Tiger at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival (and one of the few films I missed at NYFF 2009) - may offer little “new insight” in the war movie narrative (war is hell, everyone is unprepared, you’ll never get out the same, etc.), yet its intensely personal evocation of the unavoidable, manufactured chaos inside a clunky, constantly deteriorating war machine makes Lebanon a harrowing horror movie.

Set almost entirely within the confines of a tank named Rhino, Lebanon focuses on the first 24 hours of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The four soldiers who operate Rhino - Assi, Herzl, Shmulik, and Yigal - only see the outside through their targeted scopes. With no experience in combat, the four soldiers become increasingly wary of their situation. Shmulik, the gunner, refuses to shoot a bomb at an oncoming truck which attacks the platoon and ultimately kills one solider. Soon after, a chicken truck driven by a civilian approaches and Shmulik blows up the truck without a warning shot.

Although the POV scope becomes Lebanon’s chief gimmick – overused and oftentimes too directly staged – it makes clear that throughout the battle everyone and everything becomes a target. A sign in the tank reads, “Men are made of steel. The tank is only a piece of iron.” As the scope whirls around the landscapes throughout Lebanon, the sounds of the clanking, rotating lens are a constant reminder of the mechanical nature of the Rhino. The soldiers are reminded that they need to be unflinching steel machines, but, as the film progresses, the fallacy of this idea becomes more and more apparent.

While Lebanon has many interesting parallels with the terrific HBO miniseries Generation Kill, in its last third, Lebanon begins to feel much more like The Descent. The Rhino becomes an inescapable cave. After the Rhino is attacked and nearly destroyed, it begins oozing oil, dripping water, and slowly deteriorating as the soldier’s sanity and optimism does the same. Lebanon's formal rigor – the constant, intense close ups, the violent bouncing of the tank, the horrified glazed over eyes of the soldiers – makes the claustrophobic fear palpable. The only way to get out alive is to keep driving and continue fighting in the start of a war with no leaders and no clear objective. The soldiers rarely know where they are, much less how to get out.

Even with its brief 85 minutes running time, Lebanon formally echos the traumatic mission in such a way that unprepared audience members may flee from the theater. And Lebanon makes clear, for the soldiers (and thereby Maoz himself), there are never going to be explanations for the trauma. However, in a wonderful scene near the end of Lebanon, a seemingly simple act with a POW proves the one thing the soldiers can’t afford to lose is their humanity. This might be a typical anti-war message from a war movie, but Lebanon’s focus is experiential rather than sentimental. The sentiment arrives in bursts and always feels a little overdone, but the experience is frightening.


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