New Directors/New Films

For an introduction to this notoriously erratic but cleverly timed series -- by early March, I'm invariably hungry for anything that doesn't ostentiously announce itself as clearing-house crap -- see my rundown of the remarkably-stellar-in-hindsight 1997 lineup. The past couple of years haven't been nearly as impressive, quality-wise -- Buffalo '66 and Leila have been the only real standouts -- but I still hope to see most of this year's programs, and I'll try to jot down at least a sentence or two on each -- more for those with distributors and/or (please!) those that knock me on my ass. Note to the gods of cinema: I could really use an ass-knocking right about now...

(NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, the films below are not currently scheduled to be released in the U.S.)

Shower (Zhang Yang): C

Jumped into mine the second I got home, hoping to scrub off the forced whimsy and manufactured pathos that had leaked off of the screen and invaded the air of the room: moist, sticky droplets settling tenaciously on exposed skin. Most of it plays like a so-so pilot for a Chinese variation on "Cheers," albeit with a bit of Rain Man thrown into the mix: the bathhouse, where everybody knows not only your name but your various dermatological anomalies, substituting nicely for the bar; its proprietors (including reluctant #1 son in the Diane Chambers role, viz. the outsider who finds a home in an unexpected locale -- home, in this case) solving the problems of colorful minor characters -- saving troubled marriages, helping aspiring opera singers realize their dream of belting out "O Sole Mio" before an appreciative, fully clothed crowd, etc.; its bickering cricket-fighting aficionados a rough equivalent of good ol' Norm and Cliffie. And then, of course, there's the irrepressible mentally-challenged sibling, whose innocent, affirmation-happy nature provides numerous opportunities for our driven protagonist to learn valuable life lessons involving the cessation of motion and the olfaction of flora. Aging all-male clientele might be a problem for middle America, but no doubt some of the town's spunkier females could stage a raid or something during sweeps week, get some firmer behinds in view. Anything that might keep tepid dreck like this from usurping precious foreign-film slots in the nation's few remaining arthouses is okay by me, frankly. [Opens 7 July 2000 in New York City]

Jesus' Son (Alison Maclean): B+

Difficult to pinpoint exactly what's so singular about this extremely episodic, often downright digressive junkie odyssey -- an exponential improvement on Maclean's intriguing but highly stilted 1992 debut, Crush, with which I belatedly caught up last summer. Part of it's the sure-footed way that she sustains a peculiarly bracing tone, simultaneously bemused and poignant; unlike the typical indie-film addict, FH never once comes across like a tragic victim -- more like a perpetually addled dreamer for whom the abuse of narcotics is just the latest (and not even necessarily the most potentially dangerous) in a seemingly never-ending series of trials/adventures. Trainspotting garnered kudos for its allegedly non-judgmental depiction of drug use, as I recall, but the needlework here is so resolutely matter-of-fact, so completely offhanded (not one fetishistic closeup of skin being punctured!), that the question of judgment simply never arises; shooting up is given the same dramatic weight as munching on cornflakes or tying shoelaces. So that's part of it...and then there's Billy Crudup, whose next-big-thing hype at long last makes sense to me, after solid but unremarkable work in Grind and Without Limits and an embarrassingly somnambulant performance in this year's Waking the Dead. Words fail me: he's just plain brilliant, veering from emotion to emotion as if his psyche's alignment were shot to hell. Pretty much the only thing that prevented Jesus' Son from hittin' the ol' A-with-a-tail, in fact, was the nagging sensation that it would be little changed if it were snipped into a bunch of eight- or ten-minute segments, tossed into the air, and then reassembled at random; watching it is like watching a dozen first-rate short films that all happen to feature the same protagonist, with stellar character actors -- Denis Leary as a morose, taciturn cowboy looting his own abandoned house; Jack Black as the least orderly orderly in the history of medicine -- emerging from nowhere, doing their thing, and then vanishing from the picture, usually for good. With an unforgettable-moment quotient this high, however ("We'll camp in the wilderness, and in the morning we'll breakfast on its haunches!"), I'm not really in much of a mood to grumble. [Opens 16 June 2000 in NYC.]

Herod's Law (Luis Estrada): C+

Cynicism run amuck: the tone remains disturbingly jaunty even as the film's initially Chaplinesque hero becomes more and more hideously corrupted by political power; and a movie in which even the town chaplain is openly avaricious, extracting cash as penance for sins and demanding bigger tips from graveside mourners, had better be a truly savage Buñuelian satire. Not even close, alas.

Crane World (Pablo Trapero): C+

Quick, somebody pilfer P.T. Anderson's abundant caffeine supply and spike whatever soothing beverage Pablo Trapero is currently quaffing. Shot in a rust-corroded b&w so incredibly grainy that some scenes look as if they were conceived by Seurat (I'm partial to visible grain, so no complaints here), Crane World is one of the best movies I've ever seen in which absolutely nothing of any narrative or even emotional consequence happens; those of you who know my aesthetic preferences (or who've already glanced at the grade) (i.e., everybody) will recognize that this is not really saying a whole helluva lot. Okay, maybe a few semi-significant events occur between fade-in and fade-out, but they never remotely faze the film's rotund, ridiculously resilient protagonist, who just keeps on keepin' on no matter what befalls him. He gets a job on a construction site. He banters with his son. He deflects admiring remarks about his past as the bass player in a one-hit-wonder band. He tentatively woos the lady who sells him sandwiches at lunch. He fails to pass the physical at work and gets canned. He gets another job many miles away. He calls his son long-distance, feeding coins into a pay phone. He falls asleep in front of the TV set. Have I left anything out? No, I think that's the entire movie. Does said movie, in fact, evince "the authenticity associated with 1950s Italian Neo Realism," per the festival program? I suppose...but y'know, that guy in The Bicycle Thief got kinda despondent when his wheels suddenly disappeared, and Umberto D. didn't exactly shrug it off when he and Flik wound up on the street. (In fact, Umberto D. is probably the single saddest motion picture I've ever seen.) Stoicism is one thing; serenity is another. [Opened in NYC immediately following its festival screenings.]

Our Song (Jim McKay): B

I've got the pow-ah! Four years ago, reviewing Jim McKay's debut feature Girls Town, I complained that he'd ruined a potentially compelling portrait of lower-class teen girls by inexplicably choosing to cast upper-class adult women (most notably Lili Taylor, who should never say "Sup?" onscreen again) as his three protagonists. Apparently he took my remarks -- or, okay, maybe a lot of other people's similar remarks -- to heart, because damned if he hasn't essentially made Girls Town again, except with actual girls in the lead roles this time. And by god, it works. Nothing earth-shattering, mind -- just a carefully observed, quietly naturalistic look at some people whose lives are rarely portrayed onscreen -- but the actors are uniformly terrific, the feeling of authenticity is pervasive, and McKay's use of the real-life Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band as a combination symbol/transitional device is genuinely inspired. The resolutely minor key prevents it from astonishing, but I found myself feeling incredibly grateful for trivial instances of verisimilitude: the main trio are quickly established as fast friends, but on a couple of occasions we briefly see one of the girls hanging out with a completely different peer group, and the mere recognition that in real life people frequently have more than one social option was remarkably refreshing. It helped, of course, that I believed every word that these characters said. Sorry, Jim, but I can't resist: told ya so.

El Medina (Yousry Nasrallah): C

Sluggish, vitamin-fortified culture-clash melodramas are a mainstay of ND/NF, and Nasrallah's tale of an Egyptian actor seeking his fortune in France plays like the quintessential festival time-waster, devoid of even a hint of a possibility of a scintilla of any kind of dramatic or cinematic spark. My thanks to the ever-watchable Roschdy Zem for fending off my impending coma with his appearance around reel three.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato): C

I dunno, maybe you have to be gay. Bailey and Barbato, who according to the press kit are the kings of queer-related nonfiction filmmaking, simultaneously celebrate Tammy Faye's resilience and compassion and mock her taste and beliefs, and throughout the film I experienced the same queasy feeling that I did while watching American Movie: namely, that the subject was essentially too dim to recognize (or, perhaps, too greedy to care) that (s)he was being exploited. That qualm aside, however, this one's just way too campy/cutesy for my taste, what with the RuPaul narration and the sarcastic authorial interjections ("Tammy wanted an apology; Sheperd wanted an autograph!") and the riff on Babe's chapter-reciting mice featuring hand puppets speaking in falsettos. (Besides, nothing the directors think up is half as funny as the sight of a pre-fame Kevin Spacey playing Jim Bakker in the TV-movie Fall from Grace.) Not once did I get the impression that anyone involved truly cared about TF-formerly-B as anything but a savvy career move; a scene in which she starts crying seems to have been included solely because it's a "great scene" (she's long since finished speaking when the tears come, but the camera rolls on and on, and every frame is included in the final cut). Now that I think about it, I guess I disliked more or less everything that audiences are likely to embrace; oh well. And the cheerfully crappy look of docs shot on video now supplants rainy days on the list of things that always get me down. (Mondays can stay.) [Opens 28 July 2000 in NYC.]

Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay): B-

Exceedingly well-trod turf being worked here; with the exception of a handful of lyrical interludes -- Snowball's trip to the moon bumped the grade a notch all by its lonesome -- it's a fairly standard-issue child's-eye Glum-o-rama, and yet another instance of a filmmaker confusing downbeat verisimilitude and art. For a brief, idyllic moment it looked as if it might veer off in a less numbingly predictable direction, perhaps winding up adjacent to the mildly mordant tract of land occupied by Soderbergh's criminally underrated King of the Hill...but almost immediately it was back to bleakness as usual: parents haggard and oblivious; sexuality furtive and joyless; symbolic refuse piled in every corner; ending precisely what I'd both expected and dreaded from reel one. Impeccably made, I concede, but at this point little short of all-out Terence Davies-style expressionism can prevent me from brandishing my commemorative Mouchette t-shirt at this genre in weary exasperation. [Recently picked up for U.S. distribution; probable fall release]

Suzhou River (Lou Ye): B-

Pity the poor soul responsible for writing the program blurb, who finally (in desperation, I suspect) came up with this: "In his second feature, director Lou Ye has created a dazzling homage to classic cinema in the form of a steamy melodrama about obsession, with a contemporary twist." Which does, I admit, sound way more enticing than: "In his second feature, director Lou Ye has basically transplanted Vertigo to Shanghai, except he's added a pointless but trendy subjective-video-camera conceit and changed the ending." Incredibly, Lou claimed in the Q&A that his film's remarkable similarity to the Hitchcock classic had never once occurred to him until critics and audiences began asking him about it; the resemblance certainly didn't escape the attention of his composer, however, who deliberately quotes Bernard Herrmann's achingly lovely score at key junctures throughout. All that said, the movie's actually not half-bad, if only because the basic scenario's more or less idiot-proof; Lou's got a decent eye, too (the opening sequence, an impressionistic jump-cut portrait of the titular location, overlaid with a forlorn noiresque voiceover, is the film's high point), and his slight subversion of the dual-identity motif, while ultimately underwhelming, does make for one quite affecting moment (viz. the barely-glimpsed note Meimei leaves behind at the end). Nothing in the picture itself, however, is as mysterious as the fact that it's a Chinese/German co-production. Say what? [Opens 8 November 2000 in NYC.]

Le Bleu des villes (Stéphane Brizé): B-

I suppose the mere fact that I've been drumming my heels against the base of my ergonomic chair for the past ten minutes or so, staring vacantly out the kitchen window, trying to think of something, anything to say about this perfectly competent road-not-taken drama -- well, I guess that's somewhat suggestive in and of itself. Nice sad-sack work by Florence Vignon in the lead, and it's all eminently watchable; memorable's another story, however. [Speaking of memory: I just now experienced my first-ever instance of what I guess you might call déjà déjà vu: I felt not simply as if I'd written this review before, but as if I'd previously experienced a bout of déjà vu while writing this review at some point in the indeterminate past -- as if this were the third time I'd written the thing. If that makes any sense at all. It was pretty damn weird.]

Two Women (Tahmine Milani): C+

File alongside Philadelphia under Sociological Primers I'm Glad Somebody Made Even If I Didn't Necessarily Need to Sit Through 'Em Myself. Believe it or not, in some respects this story was told with more complexity and less didacticism in Not Without My Daughter; I'd rather watch Niki Karimi than Sally Field any day, though, so we'll call it a draw.

Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se): A-

And the final score: Style 237, Substance nil. For once, however, I couldn't care less; this is easily the most visually astonishing film since Fallen Angels ("I feel there are things I did first that Wong Kar-wai does, and people identify these things with him because he became famous," carps Lee when the comparison is made), and while it has no emotional heft whatsoever -- if it's "about" anything, it's about making every single shot as preternaturally cool as possible -- its saving grace is that it never for a moment pretends to be aspiring to anything more (e.g., to the sort of philosophical claptrap that crippled Run Lola Run). Plot barely functional ("cops chase criminal"), dialogue minimal, characterization nonexistent; it's an exercise in impressionism, pure and simple, and that purity and simplicity are what make it so immensely appealing in spite of the hollow sound it makes when you thump it. Imagine the Hong Kong action film abstracted to such a degree that it begins to feel as much like Brakhage as like Woo, and you'll start to get the idea; now toss in a waggish sense of humor -- fistfights photographed entirely via shadows on walls; wrestling matches that abruptly turn into delirious waltzes; a protagonist who moves like a bulldog, perpetually hunched over with his head cocked to one side -- and what's not to like? Memo to Bryant Frazer (and like-minded readers of his site): if it hasn't already sold out, go buy a ticket to this right now.

Idle Running (Janez Burger): B-

Reasonably engaging when it's trying to be Slovenia's answer to Stranger than Paradise; bogs down considerably during a lengthy mid-film breakup argument (accurate but tedious -- maybe that conjunction should be 'and,' actually); protag's re-engagement with the world happens a bit too easily and abruptly to be satisfying; final scene, featuring two minor characters, so strong that the film belatedly feels like it actually is Slovenia's answer to Stranger than Paradise.

Adrenaline Drive (Shinobu Yaguchi): B+

Not being familiar with popular Japanese teenage girls' romances, I'm not in a position to say whether this is truly a masterful parody of same, as the festival blurb suggests; my guess, though, is that its weirdly deliberate brand of zaniness pretty much transcends context. Imagine the timorous lovers from Delicatessen thrust into a yakuza flick written by Preston Sturges to get a vague idea of the flavor. Slow to get rolling, not because nothing's happening but because what is happening -- explosions, chases, taciturn gangsters apparently returning from the dead -- seems oddly muted, somehow; the more ridiculously convoluted the narrative became, however, the more I found myself warming to Yoguchi's rather affectless style (though I still think the first half could have used some additional visual brio, or at least a more aggressive score -- there's a lot of dead air). It's all so promising that it almost makes my head hurt; this is exactly the kind of movie ND/NF ought to be showcasing. More, please. [Opens 5 May 2000 in NYC.]

An Affair of Love (Frédéric Fonteyne): B

On the one hand, the cowardly alteration of the title from A Pornographic Affair is unquestionably ludicrous, tantamount to calling Todd Solondz's most recent film Misery; on the other, I have to admit that the new moniker is more or less in keeping with the film's unfortunate spell-it-out-for-the-slowpokes methodology, wherein every quick sidelong glance and nigh-well-imperceptible shift of posture either confirms or contradicts something we've already been laboriously told. I mean, I can understand why the retrospective-interview structure (which is basically just a dual voiceover in pomo disguise) might have seemed necessary on the page, but you'd think that when Fonteyne got a look at the dailies -- at Nathalie Baye's uncanny ability to project terror and desire simultaneously, for example, or the way that Sergi Lopez sort of half-smiles as a means of deflection -- you'd think at that stage that Fonteyne would've come to his senses, and that all of the pseudo-doc stuff, nicely acted though it is, would have wound up a fascinating "special feature" on the DVD. Not a bad movie by any means -- rather a good one, in fact, despite a certain narrative/thematic familiarity, and a must-see for anyone hankering for a thoughtful adult romance -- but what kept running through my mind on the subway ride home was: "Thank god Fonteyne didn't direct Un Coeur en Hiver." [Opens late June 2000 in NYC.]