Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Directors/New Films

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2009 at 1:08 PM

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By Cullen Gallagher

New Directors/New Films is caught in the middle of a film festival traffic-jam that starts every year (post-Sundance, Slamdance, Berlin, and SXSW; concurrent with Sarasota and Full Frame; and pre-Tribeca and Cannes). Running from March 25-April 5 at The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Society of Lincoln Center, ND/NF brings the international festival circuit home for viewers who prefer not to rack up the frequent flier miles that would otherwise be required. In this year's stylistically diverse program, there are several gems that shouldn't be missed.

The standout of this year's fest is So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain (pictured), the highly anticipated follow-up to Kim's debut feature In Between Days, a Sundance and Berlin award winner from 2006. When a mother leaves her two daughters with their aunt in Seoul in order to finalize a divorce, she also leaves them with a piggy bank. When it is full, she tells them, she will return. And so they wait, grilling grasshoppers to sell to local youths, and counting their change. Kim saturates her film with the pregnant stasis of childhood, and her young actors, Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim, express more depth than any of this year's leading or supporting Oscar noms.

Coincidentally, two of ND/NF's other strongest contenders are both South American narratives that focus on the emotional plight of maids. The Maid, the second feature from Chilean director Sebastían Silva, looks at a live-in-housekeeper/nanny suffering a midlife crisis. In her 40s, she sleeps in a single bed, has no boyfriends, few hobbies, and little contact with her own family. She exercises her frustration by locking out the family's other hired hands and other not-so-passive aggressive gestures. Meanwhile, the Peruvian The Milk of Sorrow examines the psychological trauma that is handed down from rape victims to their children. Not wanting to suffer the fate of her mother, young Fausta has placed a potato in her vagina — an emotionally and physically scarring decision whose side effects are now life threatening.

Whereas the weight of reality is clearly felt by the protagonists of The Maid and The Milk of Sorrow, the same can hardly be said for Harmony and Me. Mumblecore poster-boy Justin Rice is dumped by his girlfriend and proceeds to go to work, be grumpy, make inappropriate remarks at a funeral, and generally embody the dictionary definition of Ennui. However, "the bored middle class" is hardly a new subject, and the token disaffected, ironic humor is hardly a replacement for a compelling story. To make matters worse, the film feels like a web series whose episodes have been strung together.

Justin Rice isn't the only young'un who is lost and confused in ND/NF. Teenage Axl has traveled from Spain to London in search of his long-lost father in Unmade Beds, only to find him married with children and working in a real estate office. Posing as a customer, Axl examines prospective apartments by day and by night indulges in sex, drugs, and rock n' roll (as well as other genres) with a community of hipster squatters. Director Alexis Dos Santos renders earnest angst through Godard/Raoul Coutard-inspired color schemes. The lively and engaging script only falters with its ending, which is a tad too neat and symbolic for my taste (particularly the sky-diving — but see for yourself). On the other side of Europe, Russain sixteen-year-old Mukha is burning down buildings and practicing her boxing skills in The Fly. But then her mom dies, and her absent father suddenly appears. Neither wants each other, and their mutual inability to conform to small-town standards is at once unapologetically severe and idiosyncratically funny.

The travels don't end there, however. Pascal-Alex Vincet's Give Me Your Hand follows two twin brothers as they tromp through the woods and hitch-hike from France to Spain for their estranged mother's funeral. Alternating whimsical escapades and anonymous sexcapades, the film sometimes imitates its characters and wanders off-course, though it ultimately conveys something of the contrary attraction and contraction of brothers. Reversing the formula, Barking Water has a dying father searching for his distant daughter. With the help of his ex-lover , he escapes from the hospital and goes on a cross-country road trip, visiting old friends and family and reliving memories. The two leads have a strong emotional rapport on-screen together; however, the film too often prefers to cut short their dialogue in favor of a mix-tape soundtrack and sepia-toned flashbacks.

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Among the most formally daring films featured in the fest, Alexey German Jr.'s Paper Soldier (pictured) is both fully conceived and meticulously executed — a stunning film for a "new" director. Set in the muddy wasteland of a converted prison camp, Paper Soldier follows a team of scientists and cosmonauts in their preparations to put the first man in space. Occurring in the early days of post-Stalinist Russia, the obscure narrative is a clever counterpoint to the supposed "progress" the characters think they are making.

While the protagonists of Paper Soldier look to the heavens for a new lease on life, characters in other films are looking elsewhere. The confused youth at the center of $9.99, an Australian stop-motion claymation feature, purchases a "meaning of life" book for the price mentioned in the title. Vivid, skilled animation keeps the film interesting, even if its earnest answers about "life" aren't so captivating. More substantial is Ordinary Boys, a Tetouan, Morocco-based story about the religious, economical, and political struggles facing a modern Muslim community. On the other hand, the real life protagonists of Every Little Step are less in search of meaning than validation. Documenting the casting of the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, it pays more attention to the pipe-dreams-come-true of a small handful of actors than the almost three thousand who were turned away. Fans of the musical will be enchanted by the backstage details of the original Broadway production — but those unfamiliar/uninterested in the show itself will be frustrated by the lack of any "honest" criticism during the auditions.

Capping off the fest is We Live in Public, a profile of Internet upstart/prophet Joshua Harris. Directed by Ondi Timoner (DiG!), the film follows him as his experiments in chat rooms and webTV net him upwards of 80 million dollars, which he channels into a pair of audacious and uncomfortably visionary projects that presaged the current explosion of webcams, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and all other internet-based-realities. Alternately frightening and fascinating, We Live in Public will make you shudder before checking your blog comments for the day. And while it may not stop you, it at least puts the whole phenomenon into much needed perspective.


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