New Directors/New Films
Alice Tully Hall | MoMA @ the Gramercy | Walter Reade
26 March - 6 April, 2003

Comes a time when a man has to say, in effect: Hey, you know the drill, and if you don't know the drill then you've been painfully remiss in your study of the drill and Remedial Drill Appreciation is probably in order. This festival takes place in New York City every spring. It is called New Directors/New Films. Its focus is new directors and the new films they have made. Most of these pictures are vaguely promising at best, who-did-the-Albanian-cultural-minister-blow-to-get-this-selected-and-where-can-I-meet-a-girl-with-that-kind-of-skill-and-enthusiasm at worst. Occasionally, however, they sneak a Daughter From Danang or a Leila or a Buffalo '66 in there, so it pays to be exhaustive, however exhausting that may be. I try to hit as many as I can, frequently bail at the end of reel two; as ever, all a walk-out signifies is that I wasn't having the world's greatest time and chose to conserve my forbearance for the next Hou Hsiao-hsien anomiefest. What follows are not so much reviews as drive-by impressions, largely unencumbered by clarity or insight but liberally garnished with sarcasm. I am too lazy to provide context; if you want to know some basic information about these films, mosey over here. Anybody falls below a certain level I'm not permitted, listen to me, I'm not permitted to give them the premium leads. I'm trying to run an office here. Will you go to lunch. Go to lunch. Will you go to lunch.

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

The Glow (Igal Bursztyn, Israel): 51

Effectively creepy and impressively textured when it keeps the supernatural elements distant and obscure, so it's terribly disappointing that Bursztyn ultimately chooses to provide an explanation -- particularly this trendy explanation -- for the mounting sense of unease he's so carefully cultivated. Matter of fact, I think he could easily, and more profitably, have created that sense of "something askew" without any recourse to the supernatural at all. In other words -- to register a complaint that I make perhaps once every five or six years at the most -- this movie is insufficiently mundane. Performances and generational/denominational dynamics are nicely judged, though, and Burzstyn exhibits enough intelligence and confidence that I feel confident we'll be hearing from him again.

Wild Berries (Miwa Nishikawa, Japan): W/O

Note to Ms. Nishikawa: The correct procedure for introducing your film (especially when you're coming back afterwards for Q&A) is to say something along the lines of, "Thank you very much; honored to be invited; hope you enjoy the film; see you later bye." Launching into a 15-minute exegesis on the project's genesis, purpose, themes, and relevance to contemporary Japanese society -- all of which must be laboriously translated into English, so it's actually closer to half an hour before the projector starts rolling -- is not a good way to engender audience goodwill. Also, before making your next movie, please learn to write, direct, recognize the difference between what is funny and what is merely tiresome, etc. thanks bud-san.

A Red Bear (Israel Adrián Caetano, Argentina/France/Spain): 62

Impossible not to play compare/contrast with Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, another stab at a contemporary urban Western; the films even share the same basic plot, in which a violent criminal attempts to re-establish contact with his ex-wife and young daughter, now living with an ineffectual loser. If Caetano's film, with its taciturn outsider hero and expertly choreographed showdown, better captures the dusty, elemental flavor of its quasi-genre, it does so at the expense of originality -- Midlands, which sides with the goodhearted buffoon rather than the charismatic psychopath, boasts the more intriguing vision. On the other hand, Caetano has a surer grip on his material, a stronger sense of composition (Meadows is at his best when he's impulsive, which perhaps explains why his shorts work better than his features), and a secret weapon in hulking, brooding Julio Chávez, who miraculously makes something spartan and affecting out of the potentially cutesy contradiction between raging bull (or bear) and doting dad. Liked the daughter better in Midlands; liked the milquetoast better here. Didn't especially need the themes spoken aloud by the supporting cast in either film. I dunno. I gave 'em both a B-. Call it a draw.

The Clay Bird (Tareque Masud, Bangladesh/France): W/O

Zzzzzzzzzzzz. Halim why are your people so boring bud.

The Missing Gun (Chuan Lu, China): W/O

Starts off loud and frenetic, as if to say, "Ha ha! We Chinese are not as somnolent as you assume!" (I think there's even an exclamation point in the original title: The Missing Gun!) Settles down quickly, though, and then staggers about blindly in search of a tone -- at the point at which I bailed, I still hadn't determined whether it's an unfunny comedy, an unexciting thriller, or some unabsorbing combination of the two. What it resembles most of all is a hackneyed American genre flick badly translated into Chinese; thanks to Theo, I spent the last ten minutes of reel two imagining Martin Lawrence in the Jiang Wen part.

The Day I Will Never Forget (Kim Longinotto, UK): 49

Fully expected this to be two reels of Human Rights Watch browbeating and then adios muchacho, but the superior first half of Longinotto's documentary about female circumcision (or "genital mutilation," depending upon your viewpoint) is neither as lazy nor as righteous as I'd feared, in large part because it (wisely) takes the viewer's indignation for granted. Rather than lecture us about why the practice is wrong (a premise with which most Western viewers already concur), Longinotto yields the floor to the Kenyan women who conduct and endure it, allowing them to make a case for its continued utility and relevance. They're not terribly convincing, as it turns out, coming across a bit like automatons programmed to dispense bromides about cultural relativity and the value of ritual (certain phrases crop up with suspicious regularity); we might as well be listening to Patty Hearst talking about the SLA in September '75. On the other hand, the film's implicit anti-circumcision argument isn't what you'd call cogent, either, glossing over the patriarchal fear and loathing of female sexuality that lies at the heart of the matter in favor of a bland "right to choose" sentiment. (Speaking as someone who once had part of his genitals snipped off without permission or anaesthetic, and who intends to circumcise any male children he may one day have [pending negotiation with purely hypothetical partner], I don't find this logic very persuasive.) In any case, the film reverts to type in its latter half, devoted to a group of runaway kids who file suit to prevent their parents from circumcising them, and I gradually lost interest. Warning to the squeamish/sensitive: the scene you will never forget features not one but two on-camera "operations" -- shot at a discreet distance, yes, but still far more upsetting, at least to this viewer, than the rape scene in Irreversible. These screams are real.

Guardian of the Frontier (Maja Weiss, Slovenia): 58

As muddy as the banks of the river down which our tough 'n' tender trio travel -- but delectable, too, and not just because all three women are prone to whip their tops off at the first (and second, and third) opportunity. Weiss' deliriously libidinous fairy tale employs grade-Z genre syntax (fluctuating haphazardly between cheesy horror and Radley Metzger soft-core) to investigate the demarcation point between...well, beats the hell outta me, frankly. Slovenia and Croatia? Reality and fantasy? Propriety and gratification? Weiss touches briefly on all of the above, and tosses in a blunt critique of xenophobia for good measure (the bogeyman ultimately revealed as a parochial politician given to jingoistic rants); personal and political never really mesh, though, and Zana's climactic Dance of Despair and Disillusionment isn't so much cathartic (cf. Denis Lavant's spaz attack in Beau Travail) as just plain baffling. (The scene's fuck-you-I'm-fabulous vibe reeks of thinly veiled, none-too-relevant autobio.) Still, the surface pleasures come fast and furious: catty dialogue, gorgeous scenery, preposterously ominous music and compositions, and, well yeah, quite a lot of skin. Like Secret Things -- this is shaping up to be a primo year for high-toned erotica, I have to say -- it fails to make the disreputable reputable, but you're liable to walk away thinking that repute is highly overrated anyway.

Black Tape: A Tehran Diary (Fariborz Kamkari, Iran): 60

Remarkable in the most literal sense of the word -- pretty good movie, fantastic conversation piece. Essentially, it's the Iranian Blair Witch Project, with patriarchy and xenophobia time-sharing the role of the boogeyman; like Heather Donahue, the film's lead actress is largely reduced to a disembodied voice, though in this case her visual absence obviously packs an additional sociological punch. Abrupt narrative ellipses and fleeting glimpses of unspeakable atrocities combine with the helter-skelter camerawork to create a powerful sense of dread and disorientation, which Kamkari then proceeds to undermine via increasingly ludicrous plot twists. Ultimately, the conceptual gimmick runs out of steam, but at least there were no wide-eyed, endearingly inquisitive moppets or obligatory stabs at reflexivity.

My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn, USA): W/O

Tell it to your therapist, pal. Just because your dad was famous doesn't mean you get to inflict your banal troubles on the rest of us.

Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak, Hong Kong): 68

First things first: Somebody's used this premise before, right? I mean, I can't think of another instance off the top of my head, but there's just no way an idea so blatantly ingenious could have been overlooked until now. Only trouble is, the movie is all premise -- you could get positively weepy imagining the emotional heft that John Woo would have invested in these stoic, yearning inverse doppelgängers, with their twin crises of conscience and their serrated psyches and their intricate shadow play. Peaks early, achieving a giddy tension via the taut cross-cutting between Leung's Morse twitching and Lau's alphanumeric fumbling; remains engrossing thereafter, thanks largely to an agreeably old-school vibe and the charismatic brooding of its two stars. Both the brutally ironic climax and the terminally drippy denooeyment ("that's not how it's pronounced") seem to have been filched wholesale from L.A. Confidential, except that the former is arguably even more powerful and the latter is undeniably much less preposterous. The fanboys need to be hosed down, as usual, but this is good stuff.

Bus 174 (José Padilha, Brazil): 79

Had a tough time settling on a numeral for this one, and still occasionally wonder whether I may have over- or underrated it. The film qua film is really more of a solid "B" effort, thorough and considered with occasional flashes of inspiration (e.g., the opening and [almost] closing helicopter shots; a jailhouse interview shot as a negative image, ostensibly to protect the identities of the subjects but also to emphasize the inhumanity of their condition). I find it hard to imagine a Brazilian audience being wowed by it, because they'd presumably know the story already and have seen the news footage many times before. For those who haven't seen the news footage before, however, this is probably the year's most relentlessly gripping movie, simply because the Rio cops somehow failed to establish a perimeter and allowed TV journalists to stand right beside the bus for the entire five-hour standoff, thus turning it into a real-life version of Dog Day Afternoon, only never funny. A lot of Bus 174's appeal is frankly voyeuristic -- we're just not used to seeing this stuff up-close. At the same time, Padilha is dogged (some say too dogged) in researching and laying out the personal, historical and sociological background, and does a fine job both of indicting a failed system for the crime and of investigating the uncomfortable degree to which the presence of cameras influenced events (to the point where the hostages were in effect engaged in street theater). Bottom line: There was never a moment when I wasn't completely engaged, and that's exceedingly rare.

Ticket to Jerusalem (Rashid Masharawi, Palestine/Netherlands/France): W/O

Apparently it is somewhat difficult for the Arabic type persons to enter Jerusalem on account of there is the ethnic strife, etc. And yet one man makes the effort anyway in order that he might bring the Magic of Cinema to the little children. In other words what we have here is Divine Intervention as directed by post-'96 Zhang Yimou. No thanks bud.

Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, USA): 77

Seen at Toronto 2002; regrettably brief TONY review now available.

Angel on the Right (Jamshed Usmonov, Tadjikistan/Italy/Switzerland/France): 61

Seen at Cannes 2002.

Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, Spain): 61

Neglected this one in my Rotterdam rundown (it was the last film I saw), but you can't escape your destiny, it seems. Talk to Her it definitely ain't, and those allergic to the ensemble crowdpleaser will find plenty to grouse about, but the film's warmth seemed to me genuine, its cast in fine fettle (Javier Bardem, his handsome features buried beneath a thick beard and 20 or 30 extra pounds, has rarely been more appealing), and its adherence to the Full Monty template counterbalanced by careful attention to the particular climate and tempo of northwestern Spain. Admittedly, it's kind of "cute" -- a typical scene being the one in which our unemployed heroes happily watch a football match from a freebie perch, only to find that their view of the visiting team's goal is blocked by an overhanging girder -- but only the tiresomely pedantic (hi Gabe!) think every film should present a challenge. [Opens 18 April 2003 in New York City.]