Film Comment Selects 2006

Film Comment Selects 2006

 

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“Film Comment Selects” has become the tapas event of the Film Society of Lincoln Center calendar year—a time to taste small, savory dishes from all over the world before the bigger feast of the upcoming “New Directors/New Films” series. This year’s sample features two stellar tributes (a spotlight on international auteur Raúl Ruiz and a focus on America’s greatest female filmmaker, Elaine May), a one-time-only screening of Carlos Reygadas’s controversial Battle in Heaven, and a lighthearted viral-apocalypse riff from Eureka director Shinji Aoyama titled Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani? Among the festival carryovers are Stanley Kwan’s Everlasting Regret and two Cannes prizewinners, Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams and Vimukthi Jayasundara’s The Forsaken Land, but it’s the horror heads who will feel the most rewarded with screenings of Billy O’Brien’s mad-cow thriller Isolation and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Loft. For a full schedule of films and ticket information please see the festival’s main program. Enjoy! Ed Gonzalez

That Day (Raúl Ruiz, 2003). That Day suggests a film by Manoel de Oliviera from a script by Claude Chabrol—an anatomy of that entire genre of quintessentially French films where bourgeois ghouls sleepwalk their way through life. The goal is to distill and spoof these films (among them Last Year at Marienbad and The Flower of Evil) and, finally, itself. Everything is a formalist gesture to Raúl Ruiz—like the blood on a woman’s blouse that seemingly takes the form of a floral pattern. Some of these motions are pretentious and flat (for sure, you couldn’t bounce a quarter off the film’s surface), but some are deliciously funny, thanks largely in part to the unhinged performances by Elsa Zylberstein and Bernard Giraudeau. The former seduces her victims by showing them a mark (possibly a mole) on her thigh and the latter plays a diabetic psychopath who kills as a means of controlling his blood sugar—conceits that would have made Buñuel proud. Gonzalez

Everlasting Regret (Stanley Kwan, 2005). In Toronto, Taiwanese director Stanley Kwan introduced his new film Everlasting Regret with an invocation of the disaster in New Orleans. Opening with a title card that reads, “When your city is no longer your city, the right man can be the wrong choice,” Regret is the tale of a woman who stays behind in Shanghai while her family and loved ones flee to Taiwan in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. With a coltish star turn by Hong Kong pop sensation Sammi Cheng, a wistful tone, and tastefully deployed slow motion, it’s a tender tale of a city lost to memory. Jesse Paddock

Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas, 2005). Carlos Reygadas’s Cannes flamethrower, Battle in Heaven, the story a frustrated and unattractive proletariat man and his strange relationship to the attractive general’s daughter he’s in charge of chauffeuring, connects our discomfort viewing graphic sex to a daring and unconventionally damning critique of a country’s complicity in its lead character’s frustrated social situation. Reygadas provokes—calmly, not thuggishly—our contempt for his film’s radical aesthetic and explicit sexual nature, suggesting our anxiety with the text’s essential unconventionality is tantamount to racism, bodyism and anti-artism. Gonzalez

Shanghai Dreams (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2005). Compared to his mushy neorealist shout-out Beijing Bicycle, Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams is the pinnacle of restraint, though it still shares its predecessor’s shortsightedness. If the mistakes of this languid drama about a girl living in the Chinese countryside whose father dreams of returning to the titular city he left behind in the ’60s are more easily forgiven it’s only because innocence itself is its subject. But is it the girl or Wang himself who is the innocent? For all its fine visual delicacy and attentiveness to character, Wang fails to suggest what it is about his drab milieu that his main character finds so attractive. A quietly shocking moment during its second half wakes the film from its torpor but carries an insulting implication—that the daughter needed to be punished in order to prove the father right. Gonzalez

Saratan (Ernest Abdyshaparov, 2005). The press catalogue describes Saratan as such: “In a remote Kyrgyzstan village nothing is quite right. An oppressive sense of ennui fills the air…” Perhaps for justifiable reasons boredom is one of the cinema’s most unexplored stylistic and thematic terrains, and Saratan only strengthens the case against its usage and examination. The film gets by for a while because of its relatively exotic Kyrgyzstanian locale (a tract house suburb nestled between rolling mountains and untilled farmland) and its panoply of Central Asian faces (beautifully captured via crisp and penetrating close-ups for which the oft-abused term “humanism” was almost certainly invented). Yet this is an excessively subdued, generally somnambulant comic parable and the initially striking presence of the non-professional ensemble is finally undone by the recognition that they’re little more than chess pieces, moved around on a post-Soviet-era gameboard, in support of a lightweight and highly ineffectual political allegory. Keith Uhlich

Isolation (Billy O’Brien, 2005). On an Irish cow farm, a premature calf that uses humans as host bodies is unleashed into the vicinity after a genetic experiment goes awry. Characters exist only to provide the mad calf with its victims, but what this debut feature by Billy O’Brien lacks in nuance it more than makes up for in the balls-out grue fest of its Cronenbergian body horrors. Given the title of the film, it’s best not to approach it as an allegory for mad-cow disease but as a study of self-imposed solace and inhospitable behavior. Nervy, polished and controlled, it’s amazing the film’s parent company Lions Gate hasn’t already arranged its U.S. distribution. Gonzalez

Digital Short Films By Three Filmmakers. The Jeonju International Film Festival has, again, invited three Asian filmmakers to make short films on digital video and the results are mixed. The best of the lot is Haze, in which Japanese actor-writer-director Shinya Tsukamoto navigates his way through a dank, delirium-inspiring labyrinth. The short masks its profoundly romantic intentions within a claustrophobic J-Horror façade and journeys toward a singular, beatific instant of connection and recollection. Wordly Desires is another jungle reverie split in two by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul: by day, it concerns the filming of a lovers-on-the-lam story; by night, the shooting of a music video. Essentially an elegy to Joe’s memories of shooting in the woods, the perspective of the camera suggests that film, like God, can be everywhere. In Magician(s), the former members of a rock band come together at a bar near a forest to reminisce about life and death, past and present. Inert for the most part, the film finally explodes in a sweet flurry of emotions when the characters leave the bar and embrace the tangle of the trees outside. Gonzalez and Uhlich

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (Lu Chuan, 2005). Without exaggeration, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol’s visual beauty ranks alongside Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness as one of the most succinct and distressing expressions of landscape in crisis. It is across the Kekexili region’s terrain that volunteer patrolmen chase after the seemingly phantom-like poachers that hunt the Himalayan antelope; that we see so little of these creatures not only suggests their decimation but something more deeply profound: the landscape’s own spiritual weakening. Lu Chuan is a stunning visual storyteller—so good, in fact, that we could probably do without the attention paid to repetitious plot and dialogue, which offsets the mysticism of the images. Compromised, yes, but still strong, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol works out its idea of man’s moral struggle by reflecting it in the very fabric of world. In the film’s single most shocking moment, Mother Nature protects herself by killing a man—a stunning vision of transcendental balance. Gonzalez

Elaine May Sidebar

The seeds of Elaine May’s career were planted when she and Mike Nichols met in the late ’50s and appeared in the original, cabaret-style incarnation of The Second City called Compass Players. The duo changed the face of American comedy for many years before choosing to pursue individual careers. (Their relationship soured but they’re simpatico again and continue to collaborate: In 1996, May gave Nichols his screenplay for The Birdcage, and in 1999 she earned an Academy Award nomination for her adaptation of Primary Colors.) Nichols has been long canonized by the Hollywood establishment, but cinephiles will tell you that May is the better filmmaker. This year’s edition of “Film Comment Selects” honors the greatest female filmmaker of the ’70s with a presentation of her four films: Mikey and Nickey, a pitch-black buddy picture that boasts career-best performances by John Cassavetes and Peter Falk and an inventive, oft-imitated structure; two, The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf, are among the funniest and most insightful comedies in American film history—one a scathing portrait of the male ego, the other a heavenly measure of our romantic impulses; and Ishtar, a film so disastrously received that it destroyed May’s directorial career. This 1987 spy-farce starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman and set in the desert of a fictional African country now appears primped for serious reevaluation. Gonzalez