New Directors/New Films
Museum of Modern Art
22 March - 7 April, 2002

Here's how it works: Every year, the folks at the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center get together and devise a diabolical plan to take over the tri-state area using only a few simple household tools and plenty of elbow grease. When this ploy backfires, as it invariably does (to the accompaniment of canned laughter and a single muted flugelhorn), they regroup and attempt to distract the populace by screening a bunch of obscure movies made by people we've never heard of. The indifference generated is contagious and can be sensed from a distance of over three miles by dogs and bees. One's thing for sure, though: I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night. Sorry, folks, ordinarily this stuff doesn't make it past security.

Anyway. My history with New Directors -- devoted mostly to world cinema's potential up-and-comers, though occasionally a veteran who's little-known in Gotham sneaks in -- has been somewhat erratic. At first, like most sensible people, I bought tickets to the pictures that sounded interesting and skipped the ones that didn't. Alas, this made far too much sense, and I quickly decided that no true-blue cinéaste could face his pasty reflection in the mirror if he didn't see every single program on the slate, even the ones sporting titles like Waste of Your Time Dude and Hey I Think Maybe Taco Bell Might Still Be Open. When this strategy proved to have a slight hitch, viz. paralyzing ennui, I swung the Pendulum o' Selectivity perhaps a little too far in the opposite direction (must...take...nap), ignoring the fest like a needy ex-; last year, demoralized, I only bothered to attend three of the press screenings. This year, in the hope of extending my record-breaking series of dumbass criteria-related decisions still further, I'm attending every film, but allowing myself the option of bolting if I'm not at least mildly interested by the end of the second reel (roughly 35-40 minutes in). Next year, I plan to watch only the films with an even number of letters in the title, plus anything shot in a Baltic nation. Etc.

Comments will probably be brief and sardonic; hopefully they'll be somewhat less irritating than the above. Did I mention I'm kinda tired?

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

Late Marriage (Dover Kosashvili, Israel/France): A-

To be reviewed next week in TONY. Short version: Unfailingly incisive, memorably frank (including the most realistic sex scene ever filmed -- realistic, mind, not graphic), quietly devastating.

El Bola (Achero Mañas, Spain): W/O

Apparently I bolted just before the child-abuse angle -- implicit but unmistakable during the first two reels -- gets pushed front and center. Perhaps a savage beating would have penetrated my ennui.

Jeunesse Dorée (Zaïda Ghorab-Volta, France): W/O

Couldn't get into this movie's metronomic yet herky-jerk rhythm, in which every scene is completely unrelated to the equally unemphatic scenes that precede and follow it. Plus it looked like the Erick Zonca version of Ghost World, which I don't think so.

The Mars Canon (Shiori Kazama, Japan): W/O

Bland direction, inexpressive actors, prosaic storyline. Never actively bad, and hence the kind of movie I used to sit through to the bitter end with what I imagine must be a look of weary petulance. Say it with me, brothers and sisters: Life is way the hell too short.

The Slaughter Rule (Andrew & Alex Smith, USA): B-

Towering David Morse performance inspires superlative emotional volleys from Ryan Gosling; pity the whole thing's mired in the sort of bogus, wounded-machismo sensibility that you usually only find in films written or directed by Paul Schrader (or lectures given by Robert Bly). Also -- and I wouldn't mention this had it not been a major distraction -- roughly 10-15% of the dialogue at the screening I attended was partially or entirely inaudible, and not in a cool overlapping Altmanesque way. Either the sound mix is faulty or -- more likely, given the budget and Montana exteriors -- some serious ADR needs to take place prior to the commercial release I suspect it will eventually secure. Promising.

Paradox Lake (Przemyslaw Reut, USA/Poland): W/O

Just the title's enough to make you itch, but it gets worse: This is basically an earnest documentary about a summer camp for autistic kids disguised as a hallucinatory low-budget quasi-narrative indie of the trans formation. Combines the worst habits of self-congratulatory docs and self-indulgent experimental hogwash; apparently it gets even dumber as it goes along, though I didn't stick around to find out.

The White Sound (Hans Weingartner): C

Couple of inspired ideas here involving the chorus of accusatory voices heard by the schizo protagonist (probably even more effective if you understand German) -- giving the dude a job at a mannequin factory, in particular, was a stroke of demented genius. Dissolves into month-old treacle the moment he's diagnosed, though, and by the end it actually makes A Beautiful Mind look penetrating by comparison.

The Inner Tour (Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, Israel/Palestine): W/O

Extra Credit: Write a review of a documentary that follows a group of Palestinians on a guided bus tour of Israel without actually bothering to watch the film. Predict the conflicted emotions of the passengers, the andante rhythm of the journey, the number of close-ups of careworn faces and the frequency with which said close-ups will be succeeded by shots of a moving landscape. Then watch the movie and see how it closely it conforms to your expectation. With this experience in mind, compose a 1000-word essay comparing the documentary to the next Austin Powers movie, due this summer. Use examples to support your argument. 100 pts.

Delbaran (Abolfazl Jalili, Iran/Japan): W/O

You know what I think is really awesome is when you're watching a movie and all of a sudden, without any warning, something actually fucking happens.

The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada): W/O

Might have to give this one another chance at some point, as I'm told it does pick up eventually. The two reels I caught at Thessaloniki looked to me like National Geographic: The Movie, and I wound up bolting to catch Late Marriage (also in this year's ND/NF, coincidentally), which turned out to be a smart move. Still, the first 35 minutes of a three-hour picture isn't necessarily representative; presumably later in the film there is some fast running, etc. Digital video looked remarkably good here, I must admit; I hereby decree that all future DV features must be shot entirely in frozen wastelands. [Opens 7 June 2002 in NYC.]

Take Care of My Cat (Jeong Jae Eun, South Korea): B-

Characters remain one-dimensional types -- the self-absorbed careerist, the moody rebel, the lonely peacekeeper, the goofy twins -- but Jeong still manages to evoke a palpable sense of disconnection, made all the more poignant by the incessant use of cell phones. Experiments with onscreen text feel arbitrary but are still kind of cool. Also there is a cute kitty in many scenes for maximum awww-itude.

God's Children (Hiroshi Shinomiya, Philippines/Japan): W/O

Going rate for a picture's a thousand words, so let's see...105 minutes at 32 frames per second...carry the four...multiply by ten to the third...and I estimate that an equivalent newspaper/magazine article about the unfortunates who eke out a living scavenging scraps from a Manila garbage dump would run, oh, roughly 500,000 pages. I got the gist pretty quickly, in other words, and didn't feel like hanging around for additional lessons in misery and stoicism.

Truly Human (Ake Sandgren, Denmark): C+

Enough with the holy fools, Dogme folk! Hard to resist a movie featuring an aborted fetus as a protagonist, but Sandgren helps out by trafficking in cheap sentiment and outsize contrivance; my favorite bit was the kindly old store manager who's lascivious enough to invite the infantile hero to watch gay porn with him yet not quite lascivious enough to make a move (since that would ruin the tragic payoff). Good performances, style still surprisingly invigorating, but the well is running dry.

The New Country (Geir Hansteen Jörgensen, Sweden): B+

File confidently under Moodysson, Lukas -- who technically served only as cowriter, true, but whose distinctive sense of wry optimism suffuses every (rassafrassin' digital) frame. Admittedly, the scenario sounds pretty risible in synopsis -- sour Iranian man and irrepressible Somali boy, illegals both, hit the road in search of milk and honey, bickering and bonding, accompanied by a former beauty queen on the skids -- but it works surprisingly well from moment to moment, especially given that it's a TV mini-series whittled down to feature length (which I'd never have guessed). First impressions in Moodysson films are inevitably misleading, which is why it's a mistake to impute any sort of ideological agenda to his sympathetic treatment of neo-Nazi bikers or his gentle ridicule of naive samaritans; the fun for him lies in poking behind the mask with a stick, revealing perversity lurking within the commonplace and nobility leaking silently from the degenerate. Too episodic, ultimately, to achieve any lasting power (guess the shape of the original mini-series is discernible after all), and the ending's a complete botch, but let's at least give credit to the most unexpected and disturbing sexual fantasy since Peter Greene uttered the immortal words "Bring out the gimp."

Daughter from Danang (Gail Dolgin & Vicente Franco, USA): B+

Welcome to the documentary as slow-motion train wreck, or perhaps as high-toned "Jerry Springer" episode; not since the mighty Paradise Lost have filmmakers stumbled upon such a literal embarrassment of riches. Surely conceived as a feel-good journey of filial healing -- a project that would salve old wounds even as it exposed them for our collective tsk-tsking -- the film slowly but surely devolves into a fascinating, cringe-inducing portrait of cultural solipsism, climaxing in an emotional meltdown that wouldn't look out of place in mid-period Cassavetes. Conflicted feelings abound: Even those who consider Heidi Bub the quintessential Ugly American (her name seems uncomfortably iconic, especially in concert with her deep southern accent) can't help but feel some empathy for a young woman who's been abandoned not once but twice, and whose longing for unconditional love clearly carried with it no inkling of familial responsibility, much less of the degree to which being abruptly presented with the life she might have led would undermine her sense of identity. Editing gets a tad manipulative here and there -- interview nuggets with Heidi's family seem to have been chosen largely for their propensity to provoke knowing titters -- but nobody alive could fuck up a story this rich and complex; on second viewing, the quietest of moments ("I'll learn English and write Hiep a letter, and then she'll see what kind of a man her brother is") had me furtively brushing away tears.

Tirana Year Zero (Fatmir Koçi, Albania/France): C

Suffers from severe narrative aimlessness, which might have been tolerable if the characters weren't so frustratingly indistinct. I perked up a bit when Lars Rudolph turned up as a wild-eyed German obsessed with bunkers, but it turned out be a false alarm.

Real Women Have Curves (Patricia Cardoso, USA): W/O

And real movies don't resemble earnest, didactic after-school specials about positive body image and grrl power.

Not seen (at all): My Wife Is an Actress (Yvan Attal, France); Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl, Austria); Kira's Reason -- A Love Story (Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark)