Film Comment Selects 2007

Film Comment Selects 2007

 

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This year’s “Film Comment Selects” program collects 18 features that span the full spectrum of the cine-world stage: 11 U.S. premieres, one New York premiere, and six films sans distribution in this country. Courtesy of the editors and contributors of Film Comment, the program revels in the new and old, and modes of expression both conventional and avant-garde. (Two films we couldn’t sample, James Benning’s Ten Skies and 13 Lakes, could be the program’s must-not-miss events.) Last year’s slate featured a spotlight on Raúl Ruiz and a focus on Elaine May. No such tributes this year, but the program does include two stellar retrospectives: a screening of Frank Perry’s 1972 film Play It As It Lays and the director’s cut of the great Robert Aldrich’s 1977 political thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming, starring Burt Lancaster and Charles Durning. Fret not if you can’t get to Aki Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, Jean-Claude Brisseu’s Exterminating Angels and Johnnie To’s Exiled—all are coming soon to an arthouse near you—but this may be your only chance to see Pedro Costa’s acclaimed Colossal Youth, Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building, and the last collaboration between Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, These Encounters of Theirs. For a full schedule of films and ticket information please see the festival’s main program. Plan wisely. Ed Gonzalez

Bardo (Lin Tay-jou, 2005)

Taiwanese director Lin Tay-jou’s three-part video Bardo (borrowed from a Sanskrit word literally translated as “between two things”) is only sporadically effective. This can mostly be attributed to the work’s glaucoma-by-way-of-Vaseline visual style, so homogenous in its textures that it calls constant attention to the haphazard, obvious symbolism in which Lin’s effort engages. It’s a problem frequently encountered in visual media riffs on religious texts—Lin may know his Tibetan Book of the Dead inside and out, but his image-music-text interplay (pompously skirting apocalypse) is the work of an outsider as opposed to an obsessive. An end-times grab-bag with more than its fair share of booby prizes, Bardo occasionally hits on a resonant image (a duck wallowing in blood that may or may not be its own) and—in its use of the Taipei escalator that served as a memorable location in Tsai Ming-liang’s The River—attains a measure of the profundity it so desperately grasps at otherwise. Keith Uhlich

Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)

Designed to please fans of Soldier of Orange and Showgirls (and perhaps to apologize for their transgressions), Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book may end up disappointing everyone. Based on true events but not a true story (at least according to a sly Verhoeven), the film imagines Nomi Malone’s vagina dentata laying waste to the Nazis. This is an enticing proposition, except this voluptuously directed epic crumbles beneath the weight of its well-oiled but mechanical plot. Verhoeven is interested in the idea of a woman’s sexual agency as a weapon of mass destruction but doesn’t care to clarify where his main character’s natural feminine wile ends and where her artificial Mata Hariness begins. In the end, she is not unlike the film itself—a creature of fierce action but vague instincts. Gonzalez

Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006)

Johnnie To’s Exiled is a flabbergasting spectacle of kaleidoscopic violence that abstractly appraises codes of masculine honor. The coolest director on the block, To channels the spirit of the western throughout this elegantly tossed-off triumph, though he never misrepresents the natural essence of Macau, a small territory on the southern coast of China that exudes a sweaty tropical-like vibe. A bass-heavy Ennio Morricone riff would not be entirely out of place in this film, which boasts one jaw-dropping set piece after another, beginning with an elegiac confrontation between childhood friends outside the home of a woman and her newborn child. Thrillingly prismatic, this robust film bests Martin Scorsese’s visually proficient but emotionally flat The Departed by actually having buildings, photographs and a jingly memento mori resonate with existential and metaphysical import. Gonzalez

Exterminating Angels (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2006)

A sober surrealist, Jean-Claude Brisseau is charting terrain that has been of similar interest to both Catherine Breillat and David Lynch—only he shuns the sometimes repellent intellectualism of the former and the exhilarating visual pretenses of the latter. Like Lynch’s films, Exterminating Angels rattles and hums with metaphysical interruptions. Ghosts and angels make their appearances, unseen to everyone except for the audience, plotting interference and pointing to a director’s shame about what he may be doing to his actresses. A man, the devil perhaps, narrates with chatter about a great blue desert and calls to order, multiple references to “three times” suggesting that a filmmaker’s search for the perfect actresses isn’t so much a matter of casting as it is a matter of life and death. Gonzalez

Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki, 2006)

Aki Kaurismäki is at it again, refurbishing his previous work and pawning it off as if it were new. His latest, Lights in the Dusk, is The Match Factory Girl without the catharsis—a dry wheeze of Helsinki still life about a working-class hangdog, Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), who can’t get any respect. Deliberately or not, co-workers forget his name, and those who don’t address him as if he had more than one head. He accepts embarrassment like clockwork, and though he flirts with romance with two women, he relates most to a pooch that’s been left alone outside a bar for a week. Light on rationale, his crisis is both existential and pointless. Suggesting what it might be like to stare at Bill Murray in a coma for 75 minutes, the film teeters on the edge of self-parody. Kaurismäki’s hipster base may be disappointed. Gonzalez

Longing (Valeska Grisebach, 2006)

Longing is a Michael Haneke-lite wank job, though before being cannibalized by its intellectual pretensions, German writer-director Valeska Grisebach’s intimate tale of small-town infidelity maintains some level of interest for the vivid ways it sketches in its milieu. Grisebach has an eye for lived-in faces and locales, though the soullessness of her point-by-point narrative structure (spiraling along to a preordained, miserabilist outcome) undercuts these complicated pleasures. As is clear from its unbearably schematic finale, Longing means to interrogate and explicate the assimilative nature of myth, but it plays as more of a trivial snuff film, not so far removed from a bunch of junior high bullies passing an evening by filming pickle-jar suffocating fireflies. Uhlich

Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (Mamoru Oshii, 2006)

Mamoru Oshii’s essay-film anime examines post-war Japan through the perspectives of the so-called Fast Food Grifters, mysterious persons (bearing monikers such as Moongaze Ginji, Foxy Croquette O-Gin and Beefbowl Ushigoro) who frequent soba stands and hamburger chains, conning a free meal out of the proprietors through advanced rhetoric or thinly-veiled revolutionary actions. Oshii might be the greatest rhetorician of them all: as in his Ghost in the Shell movies he throws around so much verbal and visual information that one is left reeling from the aftereffects. (You should expect to leave any Oshii film with a splitting, if not entirely displeasing headache.) Is Tachigui an illuminating cultural exegesis or a masterfully executed—in puppet theater-style “Superlivemation”—CGI con job? A perhaps unanswerable rhetorical to ponder as you view one of the undisputed highlights of the Film Comment Selects series. Uhlich

These Encounters of Theirs (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 2006)

Say this for Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet’s final collaboration, These Encounters of Theirs: it has a clearly delineated momentum and purpose, though I confess to having got next-to-nothing from it. Perhaps beginning at the end (this is my first encounter with the highly regarded husband-wife filmmakers) was ill-advised—I eagerly await the Straub-Huillet that, like Diary of a Country Priest for Bresson, will better illuminate their place in the canon. At the very least, this 68-minute, unintended finale to their body of work (a series of Deities-descended-to-Earth dialogues written by the Communist philosopher Cesare Pavese and rhythmically declaimed by Italian performers) is impressive for its simple, scenic compositions and structural rigor; clearly there’s more here than meets my currently inexperienced eye. K.U.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Robert Aldrich, 1977)

While younger directors in the 1970s were applying gauze to the nation’s post-Vietnam gashes, veteran maverick Robert Aldrich was storming institutional gates to demand answers. Twilight’s Last Gleaming, the auteur’s unheralded 1977 scald, explicitly voices its disgust with a war described as “a theatrical holocaust perpetrated by the criminally negligent,” though even in its anger the picture refuses clear-cut opposites; the rogue general (Burt Lancaster) holding a silo of nuclear missiles and the U.S. President (Charles Durning) he considers personally responsible for the debacle are not so much foes in a thriller as similarly disillusioned pawns in a cancerous system, united rather than separated by split-screen sutures. Aldrich risks shrillness by foregrounding the despairing political outrage usually submerged in genre conventions, but the director defuses simplistic views by caustically positing an order where the act of rebellion can be as corrupt and futile as the government it aims to correct. Presented in the director’s cut, Aldrich’s portrait of internal terrorism and power abuse makes for a particularly trenchant revival, locating in post-Nixon America the fallout from the annihilating nuclear blast which closed his seminal Kiss Me Deadly. Fernando F. Croce