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Select 2009 New York Film Festival Reviews

directed by Bong Joon-HoDirector Bong Joon Ho
This new Korean film concerns a woman whose simple-minded son is accused of murder. Bong, famous above all for "the Host", notably directed the extraordinary Memories of Murder, one of the strongest of all Korean films, which was characterized by a brilliantly controlled style deployed in the service of a complex, but eccentric, screenplay. These singular qualities can also be seen to good, if lesser, effect in Mother, which is not without its moving moments even if it didn't seem to me to quite fulfill the promise of the earlier film and may not be entirely absent of overblown elements. Mother is anchored by an outstanding naturalistic performance by Kim Hye-Ja -- who manages to efface all self-consciousness -- but all the performances here are excellent.

White Material
directed by Claire Denis
Denis' recent films have maintained a certain consistency of style even as she has sought, seemingly, to challenge herself by approaching a wide range of subject-matter. Although she has filmed in Africa before -- and dealt with the subject of colonialism  -- in White Material she engages more directly with politics in this study of a coffee plantation in the midst of of civil war. Isabelle Huppert's characteristically nuanced performance occupies the film's center but Denis has always been interested in viewing her characters in wider contexts, and Huppert is supported effectively here by Christopher Lambert and Michel Subor, among others.

The films of Claire Denis always have an powerful sense of place, although her reliance on a digital intermediate here attenuates the textural intensity found in her earlier work even if her control of camera-movement and editing remains as assured as ever.

Life During Wartime
directed by Todd Solondz
Revisiting several characters from his earlier chef-d'oeuvre, Happiness, Solondz employs different actors in his new, Life During Wartime. The achievement of Happiness was grounded in the sheer ambitiousness of its long, complex, and multilayered screenplay; the subsequent films of Solondz have seemed slight in comparison and this goes also for "Life During Wartime", which, like the other films, has several effective scenes. One scene between Ciaran Hinds and Charlotte Rampling is a tour de force of outrageous dialogue and perfectly-timed acting.

Solondz has elected here to shoot in a digital format -- although he was immeasurably aided in this endeavor by the wonderful cinematographer, Ed Lachmann, who finds an effective visual correlate for the director's perverse vision of a New Jersey Jewish family. Of course, Solondz is a very talented writer of dialogue and he is well-served by a marvelous cast, including the unheralded Shirley Henderson as well as Michael Lerner, Paul Rubens, Ally Sheedy -- in a hilarious turn -- and several others.

directed by Catherine Breillat
My own view is that Breillat became a major filmmaker with her devastating Fat Girl and has upheld a remarkable consistency of achievement across several subsequent films of surprisingly varied material; however, her newest work to date, Bluebeard, seemed to me to be a significant miscalculation. The film, partly an adaptation of the Perrault fairy-tale, here framed by a modern story, seems nothing so much as pointless. Breillat seems to take a certain pleasure in the sheer physical reality of her young cast but this fascination is unable to entirely offset a not infrequent, but discomfiting, stiltedness often seen in child-actors.

However, it would be easy to overlook these weaknesses in performance if there were a compelling vision of the tale at the center of Breillat's film, but the director's approach is fatally literalist. There is some beautiful digital photography here and Breillat's interest in these young actors is not without its justifications but the film's charms are suspended in a tedious void.

Broken Embraces
directed by Pedro Almodovar
Broken Embraces is a typically convoluted story -- it recounts the tragic events in the life of a blind screenwriter -- which blends disparate generic elements after the fashion of the director's other recent works. Here film noir, high melodrama, romance, and farce intertwine, held together by Alomodovar's oddly distanced, postmodern style, characterized by careful art direction and excellent deployment of color.

The film garners considerable intensity from the sensual presence of his star, the gorgeous Penelope Cruz. The film is enjoyable and well-crafted but does not settle the question of whether Almodovar is really a major artist or not; however, one has to admire the consistency with which he can generate such sophisticated fare.

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