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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.

The New York Film Festival 2008

The New York Film Festival 2008 opened with Entre les murs, the new film by Laurent Cantet, shot in an informal style with non-professional actors and much improvisation. The admirable rigor and compositional strength visible in Cantet's earlier films has here been replaced with a more exploratory, experimental approach. The result was emotionally moving but less satisfying artistically, as here one encountered less of the formal unity which enhanced, for example, the director's earlier, fine "Time Out".

Jia Zhang Ke's "24 City", a synthesis of fiction and documentary, shot on and presented in video, was difficult to assess on a single viewing. Jia's trademark formal control was evident here as elsewhere and here the director moves into more avant-garde territory than in his previous narrative features but whether this film will bear comparison with the magisterial "Platform" remains to be seen.

The debut film by the young filmmaker, Antonio Campos, "Afterschool", was also distinguished by careful framing and thoughtful employment of long-takes, characterized by a Kubrickian coldness. The foundation for the visual narration is an intelligent screenplay and the film is enhanced by sensitive direction of its mostly young actors. There does seem to be an authorial vision at work in the film's moral-psychological penetration.

The premiere of "Ashes of Time Redux", a "restoration" of Wong Kar-Wai's classic wuxia art-film, aroused eager anticipation but I was unable to endure viewing what appeared to be a digital reworking of the original 35-millimeter material, inevitably degraded by transfer back to the original format.

"Bullet in the Head" by Jaime Rosales was unusually challenging in its spareness, shot mostly with long lenses and largely inaudible dialogue, with an obscure narrative that only becomes clarified in the film's final minutes. Nonetheless, this was a striking work, and a second viewing confirmed the aesthetic rewards dimly perceived in the first. At the press conference, the director defended his unorthodox approach on political grounds but if I find this argument not entirely persuasive, it seems to me irrelevant since the artistic achievement here requires no political justification.

Steven Soderbergh's ambitious, two-part, four-and-a-half hour film,  "Che", was unexpectedly successful in achieving its aims. The film is much aided by an impressive performance by Benicio del Toro. The most significant weakness here was the inability of the digital cameras to produce a sufficiently robust image in bright light. Soderbergh managed to be sensitive to the political complexities of his subject in a meticulously researched script while conveying a sense of both the grandeur of the Cuban Revolution and of the demoralization afforded by the defeat of Guevara's Bolivian campaign.

"Shuga" was another notable work by the distinguished Kazakh director, Darezhan Omirbaev, a personal film of delicate sensitivity and unspeakable sadness. It is difficult to say more after a single viewing except that Omirbaev has remained remarkably consistent in his artistic vision with its affinities to the minimalism of, say, a Robert Bresson, which may be most apparent in the construction of images with a certain neutrality in their valences and in an unaccented quality in the editing.

 "A Christmas Tale" is another eccentric, brilliant, unwieldy excursion of novelistic density by Arnaud Desplechin, again starring the extraordinary Mathieu Amalric in another exhilarating, seriocomic performance. The primary difficulty here was what appeared to be degraded image quality caused by a digital intermediate transferred back to film, a circumstance possibly further aggravated by the shooting of the film in Super 35, a generally inferior widescreen format. Desplechin continues to be one of the most exciting filmmakers working today but one rues the lost of filmic texture in his cinematography.

The long-awaited new film by Jerzy Skolimowski, "Four Nights with Anna", also seemed limited by a video transfer to 35-millimeter, despite a somewhat engrossing and unique narrative, shot with a sometimes thrilling, highly mobile camera. Here, the voyeurism had Hitchcockian overtones; however, Skolimowski's style is observational and unclassical in a European tradition.

"Gomorrah" by the Italian director, Matteo Garrone, also suffered from being shot on video and transerred to 35-millimeter with degraded image quality. It was, however, a stimulating and ambitious work with a highly episodic, complex narrative which provides an expansive portrait of the Italian underworld in Naples and features effective employment of hand-held camerawork, taking full advantage of several scenic locations. A certain jaggedness in the editing also accords well with the uncertainty and abruptness of events of the milieu portrayed in the film.

The new film by Mike Leigh, "Happy-Go-Lucky", was rewarding in its sympathetic humanism and, as usual, was enlivened by some memorable lead performances, where characterization balanced tragic elements with comic dimensions. Visually, however, the sensuous photographic qualities of the filmic material were irreparably damaged by reliance on a digital-intermediate transferred to film. Although Leigh was never a major stylist, many of his works have been considerably strengthened by the attractive images achieved by his director of photography, Dick Pope and one senses that that could have been the case here but for the regrettable reliance on a digital format.

One of the most extraordinary films in the festival was "The Headless Woman" by Lucrecia Martel, a filmmaker who appears to be moving from strength to strength, an artist with a developed worldview and an utterly distinctive visual style by which to convey it. In this film it was ultimately the images which were eloquent, and the relations between images; acting and dialogue are transmuted into organically expressive components by the sheer force of Martel's eccentric and distinctive mise-en-scène, with its unusual camera placement and subtly elusive rhythms. The feature was preceded by a strong short film from Argentina, "I Hear Your Scream", photographed in long-shot.

Another impressive surprise was the debut film, "Hunger", by artist Steve McQueen, a riveting and disturbing account of the imprisonment of Bobby Sands, distinguished by some exceptionally well-written dialogue and by a visually mesmerizing orchestration of all the stations of the cross of the revolutionary's passion. "Hunger" is unforgettable.

"I'm Gonna Explode" by Mexican director, Gerard Naranjo is an absorbing, episodic story of teenagers on the run but was also marred by virtue of its video source being transferred to 35-millimeter film with consequent loss of image quality; however, Naranjo appears to be a promising quantity. The two attractive leads bring considerable force (and pleasure) to the work.

"Parlez-moi de la pluie" confirms the expressive abilities of writer-director Agnès Jaoui who delicately balances satire with poignancy here, as she did in her last feature. Jaoui's widescreen frame is characterized by an elegance inflected by a nuanced visual wit which acts as a counterpart to the meticulous craftsmanship evident in the construction of her scenario, to the delicacy of her direction of actors, and to the pointed dialogue conceived by her and her writing partner, Jean-Michel Bacri.

A restoration of "Lola Montès", the swan-song of supreme master, Max Ophuls, was a highlight of the festival. Some intriguing, previously unavailable footage was visible in this version, with the color superior to that in many prints -- although I still have the sense that this may be a lost film since this print didn't attain the gloriousness of color I imagine for the film. The film itself remains one of the glories of cinema.

Although I found the new feature by Korean director, Hong Sang-soo, "Night and Day" to be a worthwhile experience, with manifold depths and resonances, it does not seem to measure up to the stature of the director who gave us, "The Turning Gate", one of the strongest Korean films I have seen. Hong, in recent work, seems to be foregoing the rigor of his earlier style for a looser, more pragmatic mode but I think this change has arrived at the price of a certain loss in intensity. A further problem is the transfer of video to film which too noticeably diminishes the quality of the image. However, the comic element which Hong seems to be further developing does possess an authentic charm, communicated gracefully by his appealing lead actors.

The enigmatic, high-modernist "The Northern Land", a video by veteran Portuguese director João Botelho, on a single, baffling viewing, appeared possibly to be the strongest new film in the main body of the festival with highly controlled, sometimes intricate compositions but this work will require several more encounters to unlock its complexities and symmetries before it can be comprehensively evaluated.

I did not see Brillante Mendoza's "Serbis" because of the inadequacy of the transfer from video to film, which was a difficulty also with the compelling "Summer Hours" by Olivier Assayas, another Renoirian, novelistic exploration of the contemporary French bourgeoisie, shot in the director's trademark style with a sinuous mobile camera in relatively longer takes. The sensuality of the image, so strong a feature of the director's earlier films, was greatly missed here.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's comically mournful, finally moving -- indeed, haunting -- "Tokyo Sonata" was notable for its unusual narrative tonalities, a trait in line with the distinctiveness of the director's earlier works. Kurosawa successfully manages to orchestrate his incongruous materials into a coherent statement, largely through careful compositions supported by authenticity in performance. I regret to say, however, that this film too is weakened by virtue of its being shot on video and transferred to film, with consequent degradation of image-quality.

"Tony Manero", by Pablo Larrain of Chile, has a very original story, effectively told with notable directorial restraint in a fluid, confident style. This is another film with an unusual tone, a chilling portrait of a psychopath portrayed with strong satirical overtones. Shot in 16-millimeter and blown up to 35, I have questions about whether the imagery may have been weakened by possible recourse to video-processing. It was preceded by an excellent short film, "Love You More", by British artist Sam Taylor-Wood, featuring two charming leads; the events unfold with assurance in the visual storytelling and an attractively lit color image.

"Tulpan" the first fiction film by by the Russo-Kazakh documentarian Sergey Dvortsevoy is an engrossing, neorealistic ethnographic study photographed with observational, verité technique and many non-professional actors deployed with a beautiful ingenuity. The film is shot on the Kazakh steppe with a palpable sense of place. Again, possible recourse to video-processing here seemed to result in a weakness in the cinematographic texture by virtue of a transfer to 35-millimeter.

I did not see "Waltz with Bashir" but Kelly Reichardt's slight, modest "Wendy and Lucy" afforded several minor pleasures such as an evocative feel for the American Northwest and several fine, naturalistic performances, notably a sensitive, heartbreaking turn by Michelle Williams. Reichardt's style is simple, uncluttered, and restrained, with effective color photography, falling back upon the unobtrusive rhetoric of one strain of American independent cinema.

The worst film in the festival was the disastrous "The Windmill Movie" incompetently assembled from material by the interesting, experimental documentarian, Dick Rogers. Whatever merit this film may have lies entirely in its subject-matter and in the intrinsic interest of the original material but Olch's own "creative" decisions only managed to unspeakably disfigure the footage at his disposal. However, Rogers's own "Quarry", an exquisite black-and-white short from 1970 was scintillating in its visual textures and in its poetic, associative editing.

The festival centerpiece this year was Clint Eastwood's disappointing "Changeling" which was not without its minor pleasures by virtue of its preponderantly graceful classical storytelling, its handsome period art-direction, and several excellent performances, notably those by John Malkovich and Jason Butler Harner. However, the film failed to transcend a conventionality of conception and will be esteemed as one of Eastwood's lesser efforts.

The festival closed on a lesser note with the resolutely minor "The Wrestler" by Darren Aronofsky, another too conventional although not unlikable, commercial melodrama happily unmolested by stylistic extravagances. The film features a strong performance by Mickey Rourke, among others, but I would have preferred a work of greater significance to the art of cinema.

Roberto Galvadon

In the past several years, various venues in New York — all with consistently poor projection — have undertaken major retrospectives of such masters as Mikio Naruse, Luis Bunuel, Kon Ichikawa, Manoël de Oliveira, Jacques Rivette, amongst others. At the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with its Walter Reade Theatre, one of the best viewing options in the city for its great projection, large screen, and banked seating, we were instead offered a selection of the work of the resolutely minor Mexican director, Roberto Gavaldón. That said, I am still grateful to the Film Society for bringing such relatively obscure works to light, especially in the mostly excellent prints they unearthed for this series. However, with no explanation, the earliest film in the series, La Barraca, was shown in a 16-millimeter print, described as in "fair condition". Possibly, this is the only print which exists in the world; possibly not. Either way, we have no way of knowing because programmers don't seem to feel any compunction to provide such information.

The Other One, with Dolores del Rio in a dual role, proved to be among the most entertaining of the Gavaldón features screened here, with its wild soap-opera plot and exquisite high-contrast photography by Alex Phillips; it was presented in a beautiful UCLA print. The Hollywood influence of something like Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror on a film like this proved salutary.

As a whole, Gavaldón's earlier films tended to be better — less heavy-handed, more inspired, and more energetic. Rosauro Castro may be the strongest of those screened, with an excellent performance by Pedro Armendariz, a classical actor in excelsis. The film was slightly limited by an occasionally bombastic score that obtruded upon the atmospheric, Western imagery which was among the film's strong-points.

Night Falls, an imitation noir — also with Armendariz, in fine form — was enjoyable too, particularly for its genre mechanics. Soledad's Shawl, with Arturo de Cordova and, once again, Pedro Armendariz in his trademark role, was magnificently photographed by the extraordinary Gabriel Figueroa and succeeds as a melodrama. Both films were screened in excellent new prints, although possibly too dark.

The later films by Gavaldón were generally more pedestrian. The Littlest Outlaw, a children's film produced by Disney Studios, was almost wholly uninteresting, despite the presence of Armendariz and photography by Phillips. At least the film was screened in a very good IB Technicolor print.

Macario, Gavaldón's most famous film, based on a B. Traven story, is not without some merits, but scarcely an authentic classic, despite being photographed by Figueroa. La Rosa Blanca, a political film based on a Traven novel, ultimately sustained little narrative interest.

A partial exception among the later films was Autumn Days, also based on a Traven story and photographed by Figueroa; it features a moving performance by Ignacio Lopes Tarso who starred in several Gavaldón films. This film has something of the mysterious atmosphere of films like Leopoldo Torre Nilsson's Hand in the Trap or Joseph Losey's The Ceremony. One appealing aspect was the perspective on young working-class women the film offers, contrasting, interestingly, in its warmth with Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes, for example.

One would have thought that a film based on a Juan Rulfo short story, and co-scripted partly by both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes, would be more absorbing, at least narratively, than the tedious The Golden Cockerel appears to be. The story was effectively retold by Arturo Ripstein as The Realm of Fortune in 1986. The film was presented in an excellent, new color print.

Film Society Recap of Kawakita Prize Winners

The Film Society of Lincoln Center's salute to filmmakers who have won the Kawakita Prize spotlighted three films each by eight directors, with all the prints imported from Japan.

Akira Kurosawa's absorbing Stray Dog was presented in a print inferior to those shown in New York recently, so I didn't stay to see it again. The print of Rashomon was better, not pristine, but with good tonalities. This work is not quite the masterpiece it is often reputed to be but it has many fine sequences, such as the woodman's walk through the forest at the film's beginning — it is interesting that the image of sunlight seen through the treetops was an early influence on Stan Brakhage. The print of Ikiru — a much more ambitious film — was even more impressive. This film, featuring an extraordinary performance by Kurosawa stalwart, Takashi Shimura, is remarkable for the conflicting reactions it has aroused from formalist critics — praised by the Catholic humanist, André Bazin, but dismissed as a sentimental, metteur-en-scène film by the advocates of la politique des auteurs, yet championed as one of the greatest, postwar Japanese masterpieces by the Marxist, Noël Burch in a radical analysis.

Nagisa Oshima has also been extravagantly praised by Burch, especially for the disjunctive, intense editing of a film like Violence at Noon, long unseen in New York; it was screened in an excellent 35-millimeter print. Formally, this film contrasts with the longer-take styles of Boy and The Ceremony, both presented in good, color prints, although one reel of Boy appears to have been misprinted in soft focus. While the stylistic strategies of Oshima vary greatly, the films are united by a thoroughgoing approach to critiquing modern Japanese society by way of his attraction to extreme material — these films featuring rape, murder, suicide, child-exploitation, incest, etc. Oshima composes sensitively for the widescreen frame, a trademark of the Japanese cinema of the 1960s.

Kaneto Shindo's The Island is also beautifully photographed, in black-and-white; the attractive cinematography is elegantly complemented by rhythmic editing which structures the entire film, unencumbered by dialogue, and reinforced by a fine score. Possibly, more remarkable is Onibaba, Shindo's surprisingly disturbing, poetic horror film, forcefully shot in black-and-white widescreen; the print screened here was outstanding. Discerning a directorial vision uniting Shindo's disparate filmography has thus far defeated this viewer; A Last Note, an odd, quasi-Chekhovian elegy adds to the perplexity. The film is notable as the last appearance of the great Japanese actress and Ozu regular, Haruko Sugimura.

Shohei Imamura's early masterpiece, Intentions of Murder relates its bizarre story by recourse to eccentric, black-and-white, widescreen compositions. After his stylistically innovative works in the 1960s, Imamura shifted to a more classical style, as can be seen in his serial-killer drama, Vengeance is Mine, distinguished by a career performance by Ken Ogata. This classicism reaches its apotheosis in Black Rain; it's a pity that the print of this film was warped, preventing any possibility of having the full frame in focus.

The inclusion of three works by documentarian, Sumiko Haneda, seemed to me to be a questionable choice. I didn't stay through the full three hours of Ode to Mt. Hayachine but it was refreshing to see a film of this kind which eschewed the format of television documentaries. Overall, this sober, straightforward, observational approach was employed effectively in Akiko: Portrait of a Dancer. Haneda's attempt to retell a classic Japanese tale by means of  documentary images in Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa seemed to this viewer to be an aesthetic disaster.

Kon Ichikawa's vivid and moving A Full-Up Train, photographed in the standdard ratio, now seems exceptional considering the director's expressive engagement with the widescreen frame in his most celebrated works. Ichikawa's left-wing sympathies provide an interesting contrast with the reactionary outlook of the author, Yukio Mishima, who provided the source material for the director's Conflagration. But I was even more impressed to re-see the heart-breaking Her Brother shot with a muted color palette by the great master cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, and graced by gloriously subtle performances by Masayuki Mori and Kinuyo Tanaka; the print it was presented in was lovely.

Yôji Yamada is surely a less distinguished director than the others in this series, with the exception of Haneda; however, the three films by him presented here — Where Spring Comes Late, Tora-san's Sunrise and Sunset, and The Yellow Handkerchief, all featuring the talented actors, Kiyoshi Atsumi and Chieko Baisho — although conventional in approach were surprisingly touching. Yamada clearly has a feel for portraying the Japanese underclass and combining sentiment with humor. Additional pleasures could be found in the moving presence of Chishu Ryu as the grandfather in Where Spring Comes Late and the measured, lead performance of Ken Takakura in The Yellow Handkerchief.

I hope it is not excessively revisionist to speculate that Suzuki Seijun might be the greatest filmmaker presented in this series. Tokyo Drifter is a stylistic tour de force which one imagines Cahiers du Cinèma would have celebrated had the film been screened in France in the 1960s. Branded to Kill, although somewhat slighter and more in thrall to an exploitation formula, was, nonetheless, thoroughly engrossing. Despite the considerable reputation of the director's later, art film, Zigeunerweisen, after two viewings I still find the film, except for a few poetic moments, thoroughly unengaging. All three films were presented in good prints.

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