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New Directors/New Films 2008



New Directors/New Films 2008

Now in its 37th year, the annual New Directors/New Films series kicks off tonight with a screening of the Sundance Film Festival prizewinner Frozen River. The schedule for the following week-and-a-half (closing night: Sunday, April 6th) is an outwardly eclectic mix of subjects, though whispers from several festival-fatigued colleagues suggest there’s a lot of same-ol’-same-ol’ chaff among the needle-in-the-haystack wheat—a par for the course reaction as far as these things go, helpful only in pointing up the ease with which cinephilic passion becomes masochistic drudgery. I attended only three press screenings (one of these was for a film I had seen several times before), but that was enough to glean something of a linking theme: the symbolic weight of one’s home/homeland, literally evident via the plantations that figure as central locales in Eat, for This Is My Body and Moving Midway, and more figuratively explored via the cluttered downtown Manhattan loft (a repository for several characters’ perpetually resonant memories and inescapably present-tense hang-ups) in Momma’s Man. Such an observation runs the risk of reducing the New Directors series to some kind of singular, bastardized essence. No doubt the many writers who contributed to this festival preview (heroes all of ’em) would beg to add their own perspective, and that they have done in the entries below (all told, eleven of the series’s twenty-six features are reviewed). Consider the result less a consumer’s guide than a signpost marking a moment—use our collected observations to journey where you will. Keith Uhlich

Manipulative Naturalism: Ballast

When a film’s aesthetic is not far removed from a recognizable trope, it is terribly easy for said film’s style to feel unearned. During the first third of Ballast, I was consistently distracted by the way in which the film appeared to fit into a veritable matrix of aesthetic signposts: the barren, desolate southern landscapes of David Gordon Green; the shaky handheld camerawork of Charles Burnett or the Dardenne brothers; the observant naturalism of the latters’ work. (Much has been made of Ballast’s debt to the Dardennes; one colleague observed that the critical community will probably champion Ballast simply because it’s such a European art-film depiction of a strongly American setting.) It was these qualities that kept nagging at me—until the film proved its sincerity, I found it tough to allow it the credit to employ such obviously manipulative aesthetic tropes. However, while that handheld, shaky camerawork and those dingy landscapes might initially feel manipulative, one emerges from Ballast with a sense that it deserves these elements, for the most part.

Writer/director Lance Hammer explains in his director’s statement that he wanted the film’s narrative to remain “minimal and unobtrusive.” Save for a few scenes that feel out of place (one where two of the characters are pulled out of their car and attacked comes to mind), Hammer’s intent is successfully realized. The storyline is never so important that it gets in the way of Hammer’s tonal/stylistic work, which is clearly the film’s primary pursuit. Ballast is a narrative film insofar as it is about people and the things that they do, but it examines these people and their actions from a point of observation too distant to be traditionally “dramatic.” However, the point of view is not so distant as to be termed anthropological; Ballast operates on a strange middle ground, like a silent family member at Thanksgiving dinner who’s content to sit at the table and watch everyone argue, but won’t join in. He won’t get up and leave, either.

Ballast tells the tale of three people in a small Mississippi Delta township: James (JimMyron Ross), a 12-year-old kid who associates with some small-time drug dealers; Marlee (Tarra Riggs), James’ mother; and Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.), the brother of James’ father/Marlee’s ex-husband. The relationships between these three characters are tested after James’ brother commits suicide. To start, Lawrence shoots himself, but lives. Then James starts robbing Lawrence at gunpoint to impress his drug-dealer friends. Then said drug-dealer friends end up turning on James. This is just the beginning. The film may sound a bit excessive or stereotypical in its portrayal of these events, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, one of Ballast’s triumphs is its consistently maintained tone of understatement, which helps to reel in its seemingly melodramatic story. I have nothing against melodrama personally, but melodrama of this ilk can easily come across as a bit tired. Hammer’s command of the medium is strong enough that Ballast avoids this potential issue.

In the press notes, much is made of the fact that Ballast’s cast is comprised of amateurs. This is another potential minefield—the story of the lo-fi independent film made on a shoestring budget with nonprofessional actors is as played-out as they come. Nevertheless, Hammer’s actors never come across with tired, cliche “naturalism.” As the extremely introverted Lawrence, Smith Sr. is merely adequate. (The great thing about introverted characters is that—while it’s very hard to play one really well—it’s not so difficult to play one adequately; looking somber and speaking quietly is often all that’s needed.) Ross and Riggs are both solid, although there are moments when the tenor of Riggs’ performance as the Concerned Mother Of A Child Caught Up With The Wrong Kids reaches a too sentimental pitch for my taste. Ross’ performance, perhaps the most difficult of the three, is the one that strikes the fewest false notes.

Ballast is a testament to the ability of production design and location to create tone. Oftentimes one feels like the landscapes and locations are so earthy and decrepit, so worn-down and washed-out, that anyone pointing a camera at them could create something beautiful. Perhaps I’m sounding hesitant in my praise of the film, but I do keep asking myself if Ballast is the output of a skilled artist who put an enormous amount of genuine effort into something, or whether it is the work of an intelligent opportunist who realized that certain tried-and-true filmic elements, when combined with one another, would form a great film (like instant macaroni or something). That’s probably unfair: many great artists are great because they make it look easy, but my lingering doubts remain. The film’s restrained, observant qualities, combined with its effective aestheticism, make for a rewarding experience; but in the back of my mind, I still question whether Ballast manipulates its audience in all the wrong, but still expertly executed ways. Zachary Wigon

Savage Grace: Eat, for This Is My Body

The opening sequence of Eat, for This Is My Body is a simple stunner: two gliding helicopter tracking shots—the first moving across a pristine blue ocean and the rundown Haitian shantytown at its banks, the second traveling through the same locale’s mountainous inner regions—that captivate the mind and the soul, and which also act as the make-or-break entryway into writer/director Michelange Quay’s heavily symbolic colonialist parable. Take note of the soundtrack, too, which moves from a cacophonous world music beat to more primal, guttural cries as Quay’s camera probes further inland. If I describe it as a regression, it’s only in the sense of Mesmer: a true, unadulterated trip into a most unique subconscious. From what I gather, Quay’s surrealism is a sledgehammer to some, and it is true that his aural/visual interplay errs on the literal side of black/white dichotomies. Yet it is this very approach that, for me, gives Eat, For This Is My Body its unshakeable power.


The title alone sets up a potent parallel between Christian liturgy and “uncivilized” savagery, though Quay’s characters and situations never play as hollow, representational cardboard. The bed-ridden old Mother (Catherine Samie), overlord of the plantation that acts as the primary setting, speaks the film’s themes in an early monologue-to-camera, but her frail passion (devilish smile, streaming tears) complicates her brutal, comically frank racism. Quay puts the most obvious meanings front-and-center (I don’t mean it as a slight when I say that the film’s juxtapositions come off, at times, like those old Warner Bros. cartoons where planes fly into black-colored/block-lettered “deepest, darkest Africa”) as if to call forth a mysterious, underlying spirit—cinema as incantation for and exegesis of both the self and the masses. At the extremes of Quay’s frame are Mother and the group of Haitian children who provide her nourishment (the trade-off is simple: “Eat of the goddess, and ye shall be eaten”); caught in-between are Mother’s daughter Madame (Sylvie Testud) and the shape-shifting butler Patrick (Hans Dacosta St-Val), each of whom have an unspoken desire to move beyond their prescribed servile functions. At times a document (as in an extended fireside party sequence), at others a passion play (as when the Haitian children shoot each other “dead” with toy rifles), at still others a languorous dance (though music and movement, tellingly, do not always sync), Eat, For This Is My Body is an especial highlight of this year’s New Directors/New Films series. Keith Uhlich

Not Turning Japanese: Japan Japan

Lior Shamriz’s Japan Japan follows a small-town boy adrift in the big city, in this case a fresh from the army 19-year-old named Imri (Imri Kahn), who has left his hometown for the bright lights of Tel Aviv. He moves in with an insane young woman who uses her hand as a phone and throws soirees for invisible friends (even makes out on the couch with one), works at a party store with a boss who wears cat ears while she instructs him on the proper restocking of candy jars, chills in wigs with his NYC-bound best childhood friend, and cruises the Internet for gay porn in his large chunk of spare time. He also jacks off, dreams of moving to Japan, takes Japanese lessons, eats sushi, loses his job and begs his mom for money, picks up a trick who rhapsodizes to the music of a Turkish protest singer (then storms out because the man’s “pathetic”), has sex with another guy his age after which he declares, “Cinema is dead.” All of this told nonlinearly and often with the use of multiple frames, fast motion, shakily handheld shots with excessive zooms, and some photo stills. Sprinkle in pounding techno beats and opera during a rave scene and you’ve got a visual stew resembling a high-adrenaline, art school thesis project.

I’ll admit it. I’m not a fan of restless camera syndrome, nor of movies that roll the credits twice—both times in the middle of the film (in case I didn’t get that the lead character was constructing his own life/movie, I guess). I don’t understand why the best friend emails footage of herself dressed like a Mott Street restaurant hostess and singing, “I’m a Chinese girl in New York City! I’m a Chinese girl in New York City!” down by the World Trade Center site. (I also don’t know why this and all the other English-language scenes are subtitled.) But then I’m one of those philistines who doesn’t immediately think “Ah, art!” when I see a piece of string hanging from the ceiling at the Whitney. I also never knew cinema was dead.

What I do know is that Japan Japan, like its lead character, seems in an awful hurry to go nowhere. Director Shamriz has been attending the Institute for Time-Based Media in Berlin since 2006, and Japan Japan is more an experiment, an excuse to dice and frame interesting shots above all else. Which would be fine except for the fact that Shamriz also wants to tell a story—of a young man trying to discover his place in the world—and his cinematography and editing tricks are senseless and distracting, not connected to any greater purpose. The story instead becomes self-conscious, inorganic, forced—as disjointed as the bits of graphic porn thrown in every once in awhile to stir things up. This is too bad because there is a deeper foundation buried beneath all this nonstop movement. Imri is a lost soul longing for Tokyo while his best friend has already fulfilled her dream of moving to the Big Apple. Imri can’t bear to return to his small town while his friend has only happy memories there. “It doesn’t make a difference where you are. Only what you do with yourself,” she advises him at an outdoor cafe during a rare moment of stillness. But no sooner have the words left her mouth than the camera jumps to the two madly dancing on the beach, lip-synching to Abba’s “SOS,” the director once again as adrift as his lead. Lauren Wissot

Butterfly Kisses: La Zona

La Zona tells you what it’s going to be about in the opening credits, as a butterfly flits through a middle class neighborhood on up to a forbidding wall that separates the gated community from a Mexican slum. The butterfly touches some electrified wire at the top of the wall and disintegrates. Zztzzt—What Price Security? Not since the meandering feather in Forrest Gump have CGI poetics been put to such criminal use. La Zona manages to live down that butterfly, keeping the crude metaphors mostly at bay while telling a cautionary Homeland Security parable fit to tangle with M. Night Shyamalan’s underrated The Village.

La Zona (The Zone) is a suburban enclave that somehow manages to police itself with minimal outside interference. Private security keeps watch over the entire community through a network of surveillance cameras. When a lightning strike sends a billboard crashing into a section of the wall one stormy night, lights and cameras go dead. Kids from the other side of the tracks seize this opportunity to go looting in The Zone. Before the night is over, two of the robbers, an old woman and a Zone security guard are dead. According to surveillance tapes, one of the boys must still be hiding out somewhere in the neighborhood. The residents vote to leave the police out of it. Time for revenge.

La Zona works a gang of tangled subplots, but the main ones are a vigilante manhunt, a cover-up and, most interestingly, the moral awakening of a 16-year-old middle class brat. Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), curly-haired son of the lead vigilante (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), looks like a Mexican rendition of Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia, but he chooses a path more befitting the wayward son in La Promesse: He secretly harbors Miguel (Alan Chavez), the fugitive kid, in his parents’ basement and gets his side of the story. With the Alejandro/Miguel thread, co-screenwriter-director Rodrigo Plá finds his real wings, and they’ve got nothing to do with that stupid butterfly. The boys’ increasingly desperate cat-’n’-mouse game builds to a passionately overblown, operatic chase that finds Miguel fleeing a lynch mob of furious soccer moms and dads to his only hope, a carload of corrupt cops turning a blind eye. Damn. The film’s concluding passages are worthy of Luis Buñuel, who had the heart, in Los Olvidados, to show a Mexican slum kid like Miguel ending up in a landfill, just another piece of trash. Plá goes there and further, to a place of humane meditation and even hope. Hard to believe the same guy came up with that butterfly. Steven Boone

Sweet and Simple and Irritating: Megane

Megane is sweet and simple and irritating at times. It’s basically the story of one extremely uptight Japanese career woman’s uneventful vacation on a oceanside resort. Not much happens, really. She gets annoyed at being hounded to join the host and the resort’s only other guest at meals; at waking up to silly music from the beach every morning. When she’s had enough, she goes down the road to another inn where guests are forced to work in a field, like it’s some kind of crazy plantation. So she goes back to the first resort and learns to like it.

That’s about it. This film’s comedy is so soft-spoken and slight, it makes Bill Forsyth seem like Tyler Perry. I suspect it works only if your blood pressure is settled in that sweet spot between sleepy and caffeinated. Writer-director Naoko Ogigami seems to savor every moment of your exasperation: It sort of proves that she’s got you hooked. Outrage over this film’s lack of “story” only calls into question what constitutes narrative. What does it take to get your investment, to keep you watching? Ogigami bets that all you need for a story is a simple human need and a series of obstructions on the way to fulfilling it. Also, a dash of ambiguity. We are never sure why Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi) has come to the resort or from where, nor is the relationship between any two people here ever defined. Is the resort owner the son, lover, soulmate or disciple of the saintly old woman who spends her summers here selling shaved ice? Is she a ghost? Who is the young man that’s followed Taeko to this hideaway and why does he call her “professor”? When any character is asked to clarify his or her relationship with another, the coy evasions are frustrating/adorable.

Ogigami’s world is chaste, immaculate and serene, a maddening utopia, but her control of the frame is sensual, ironic and alive. She can make an insert shot of bacon and eggs tickle the ribs. Scenes of pleasurable eating and drinking will make you groan with envy. The minuscule tensions she manipulates between her actors are on a scale that ranges from bliss to mild irritation to gentle concern, but the notes are piercingly accurate. Though comparisons to Yasujirô Ozu are sort of apt, Ogigami’s characters aren’t roiling with pain or deep longing under the smiles. What’s weirder are their strange rituals, which Taeko rejects at first but eventually grows to love, like the pastime called “twilighting.” Nobody tells her exactly what twilighting is, just that one must have a talent for it. When Taeko accidentally finds herself twilighting, she glows as if sliding into a warm bath. I was right there with her.

Megane gets weirder, more coy and protracted toward the end, with lyrical longueurs that sent my eye rolling off the screen. Ogigami might be aiming for a vision of heaven, but the endless beach exercise scene set to what sounds like kindergarten music is sheer hell. Steven Boone

Variations on Emotions: Momma’s Man

Momma’s Man might look like it’s coming out of nowhere, but there’s a dense frame of references and connections surrounding it: it’s Azazel Jacobs’ third feature, but only his first to get any real traction. His last film—2005’s The GoodTimesKid—was pegged as an amiable Jarmusch knockoff, and I skipped it. I started regretting that when I realized that the co-writer and one of the actors was Gerardo Naranjo, whose Drama/Mex (self-consciously lurid melodrama done right) unfairly died a quick death at the IFC Center last summer. Other connections place Jacobs not just as one of the hip new kids saving Sundance from itself, but grounded in the boho NYC tradition that came before: Richard Edson (Eddie from Stranger Than Paradise) has a small, eccentric part, paying tribute to Jacobs’ forebears through casting. The film itself takes place in Tribeca, but a part of Tribeca so stubbornly, persistently down-to-earth and shabby as to be positively repugnant to anyone from American Express who’d consider shooting a “My New York” commercial there. (Here’s hoping the recession brings it back.)

And then there are Jacobs’ parents: avant-garde pioneer/strobe terrorist Ken, painter Flo. As “themselves”—or versions of themselves that are parents to the fictional Mikey (Matt Boren), but who still live in the real Jacobs loft, watch the real Jacobs’ movies, etc.—Ken & Flo provide the anchor for this portrait of stasis and self-paralyzing nostalgia. The film begins with Mikey riding the A train to JFK but not getting out; back home, he lies and says there were mechanical problems, allowing him to stay a few more days with his parents. Mechanical delays turn to a wish to hang out a few more days—allegedly sanctioned by Mikey’s wife (Dana Varon), whose phone calls go answered—to naked emotional dysfunction.

Momma’s Man is basically a series of variations on two related emotions, dread and indecision; there’s no real development, only increasing paralysis. At first, Mikey makes a few trips out: to catch up with old friend Dante (Piero Arcilesi). “Mom, Mikey’s not a virgin anymore!” Dante blurts out—which might function as a clue of sorts to the kind of traumas that are paralyzing Mikey, but I don’t think so. Mikey’s blank malaise allows for audience projection of whatever you want: “the general panic of a generation that knows it won’t be better off than its parents,” suggests Scott Foundas, which sounds more like a rehash of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X than the movie I saw. Mikey’s symptoms include playing awful songs with high school journal lyrics (“Fuck fuck fuck you/I hope you die too”) and playing with his leftover ‘80s toys (the Garbage Pail Kids make an appearance), which, all in all, sounds like an average evening of VH1. Mikey’s symptoms just peg his generational status; his deeper malaise is harder to pin down.

Momma’s Man eventually gives us some extended comic sequences; Flo interrogating Mikey as to whether or not she can get him anything (“Some tea? Some coffee? Some tea? Some coffee?”) is a nightmare of near Philip Roth-esque maternal intervention. Ken reveals himself as the avant-garde’s Clint Eastwood, staring sternly and saying little; at one point, he’s discovered lying cozily in bed, reading the cheerily titled American Fascists to lull himself to sleep. Momma’s Man makes itself at home in the loft’s clutter, going through iterations on the same theme over and over. I found it kind of hypnotic, if ultimately minor, and I’m worried that the advance hype team will try to dub this a masterpiece, a title it can’t possibly live up to; here, at least (as opposed to the insipid Ballast, a ND/NF companion also from Sundance), is a solid minor film. I wish it were a little less invested in modesty for its own sake or a little less oriented towards showing a character who’s living purely in the moment, with no distance, but it’s still reverbing in my head a few weeks later, which is good enough. Vadim Rizov

It’s a Start: Moving Midway

Godfrey Cheshire’s Moving Midway features the largest object actually being moved on-screen since Fitzcarraldo: an entire plantation house, uprooted from its site and relocated away from Raleigh’s suburban sprawl. Cheshire (full disclosure: an excellent critic I know in passing) arrived in Raleigh in 2004 to find that his cousin Charlie Hinton Silver was planning on moving the house—there since 1848—because the verdant green surrounding it was being rapidly displaced by miles of traffic and strip malls. The house itself wasn’t enough as a repository of meaning; surrounded by urbanity, it was just another old house.

So Cheshire documents the awe-inspiring mechanics of moving an entire plantation house; in between, he does something even more interesting. As a critic, Cheshire wants to examine the image of the plantation in American cultural mythology: from self-consciously racist emblem of a bygone way of life (The Birth Of A Nation) to willfully naïve dreamland of the same (Gone With The Wind) to a more complex signifier (Roots finally undermining the whole thing). Cheshire’s eloquent history is abetted by two different interview types: presumably disoriented historians (Bruce Chadwick, author of The Reel Civil War) and relatives still on the ground. The non-interrogative latter interviews allow revealing statements to slip out without challenge, as when Cheshire’s mother demurs “I’m sure there are plenty of nice Yankees” or a cousin blusters about how he once spent a night sleeping in the same bed as the niggers and feels mighty progressive about that.

As a counterbalance, Cheshire discovers Robert Hinton, an Africana professor at NYU whose relationship to the Cheshires and Silvers is probably not genetic (along the way, though, Cheshire discovers up to 150 possible cousins, fathered by an old relationship between a plantation patriarch and a slave), but whose background gives him a different stake in Midway: while he can appreciate the family’s mixed emotions about moving the house, Hinton can’t help but express a little glee that a site once made rich by slaves he was probably related to will soon be paved over with indifferent concrete, never to grow anything again. (Here’s the upside to the environmental destruction presented in Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen.) Hinton is the documentary’s auto-correct: Cheshire is too ambivalent about seeing his childhood refuge uprooted to fully commit to politically cheering it on. Between an amazingly composed Hinton (whose anger only comes out in small but potent doses) and Cheshire, a balance emerges.

Moving Midway is open and engaging, finding its own balance between lived experience and academic distance. If anything, it’s not academic enough: I get the feeling that Cheshire is holding back sometimes, offering some readings of the plantation but not wanting to lose anyone in the audience. It’s still scintillating viewing, and one of the more honest films about how the past’s racial legacy spreads into the present (in light of Obama’s speech, it may be more timely than ever); every encounter between Cheshire, his cousins and their new branch of the family is fraught with potential disaster. You’re unlikely to see a more heartwarming scene this year than Godfrey’s mother bonding with her new relative Abraham Hinton: not over race, but because they’re old enough to have the same sense of manners. It’s a start anyway. Vadim Rizov

A “Now” of the Now: Sleep Dealer

Hegel once remarked that a good portrait looks more like the person it represents than the person itself, and Slavoj Žižek rightly applied this aphorism to Children of Men. CoM was a great film because it wasn’t set in the future so much as it was a more prescient version of the present, a more “now” portrait of the now. Most of the elements of the film that were meant to be apocalyptic are in fact already in place—detainment camps that suspend habeas corpus, a sense of class warfare towards illegal immigrants, and a wielding of the fear of terrorism in order to increase what is essentially martial law.

The same could be said for the intent of Sleep Dealer, the debut feature that Alex Rivera has been working on for years. As he points out in his director’s statement, many of the elements of the film’s futuristic world—violent reality shows (COPS), private military contractors (Blackwater), the global water crisis (Bolivia), and outsourced labor (India) already exist. However, while Children of Men was greater than the sum of its political references and polemics, Sleep Dealer feels like a hodgepodge of political criticisms that play better in theory than in practice.

Theory is indeed central to the film, with its central concept derived out of a capitalist fantasy that reads like Marx’s description of labor on overdrive. In the future, people in Mexico can work in the United States without ever having to cross the border. This is due to “nodes,” electronic circuits that connect the bodies of laborers to machines situated in various locations throughout the States. The concept is brilliant; here, the one commodity the laborer has to offer—his labor—is isolated from all complications, extracted from his body and sent to the place of work, while he himself remains in his own country. It’s the sort of thing that’s both extremely dehumanizing and equally cost-efficient in the way only capitalist inventions can be; if Rivera doesn’t have a future as a filmmaker, he could move into the business sector with ease.

Our protagonist is Memo (Luis Fernando Pena), who leaves his water-deprived village (a massive dam has been built by the Government) for Tijuana after his father is killed by a bombing drone. Memo, who is interested in technology, was using an old radio to intercept frequencies, and the Government dispatched the drone believing they were eliminating an “Aqua-Terrorist” cell. It plays more than a bit hammy, and a bit too direct as well.

Memo, on the way to Tijuana, meets a beautiful woman named Luz (Leonor Varela) who he befriends. Luz ends up installing nodes into Memo, and well, you know what they say about girls who install nodes on the first date. It turns out that Luz has been prompted to continue seeing Memo by a client who has been purchasing her “memories” of him from her website. Unsurprisingly, this client is Rudy Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), the pilot who was operating the drone (via nodes) that killed Memo’s father. Luz and Memo grow closer and become romantically involved, and Memo begins working at a labor factory; over these proceedings hangs an obvious plot point—that Rudy will come to Tijuana for some reason. When he does, the film’s climactic events are sent into motion.

Sleep Dealer is a perplexing work because it’s not really about what it wants to be about. It wants to be about governmental exploitation of the working class, the frenzied state of xenophobia the United States has entered, and romantic connection as the only solace from all of the above. There’s a moment in the film where Memo tells Luz, in reference to his nodes, “I’m only connected when I’m with you.” Nodes can serve to connect a worker to a machine, but they can also serve to connect two people to each other, to heighten a sexual experience. The problem is that the poignancy of a relationship in the face of all else is never really exploited; the relationship between Memo and Luz fails to reach a significant level of believable intimacy, and, through a meandering middle section, we can’t help but wonder what exactly the film has turned into.

If Sleep Dealer’s political points were utilized in a more effective manner (read: more insightful and less direct), then the political background could have served to enhance the relationship, making it a bit more tolerable. Instead, the film’s political analysis reads like that of Southland Tales, minus the self-awareness. Indeed, Sleep Dealer is like something of a cross between Children of Men and Southland: it has the self-seriousness of the former, and the polemicism of the latter. Of course, Southland Tales was able to make that polemicism artful, by employing a self-aware mockery of the apocalyptic political film genre; in Sleep Dealer, Rivera seems to be completely unaware of just how absurd the tone of his political critique is. His points are all right-on, but his delivery is way off.

The film shares another connection with Southland—the production design. Like Southland Tales, Sleep Dealer’s production design smacks of that (seemingly growing) niche of futuristic-cheesy: the neon panels, the oversaturated color scheme. The photography of Sleep Dealer also contributes to that impression, as the film has a sort of digitized-film look that makes one think lo-budget sci-fi. Again, these are all qualities that were present in Southland Tales, but they were present in a self-critical fashion; not the case here. To Rivera’s credit, the world of Sleep Dealer is not as aggressively futuristic as it could have been (perhaps this owes as much to budget constraints as to the director’s vision), and this scaling-back of what might be expected contributes to the sense of Sleep Dealer as a portrait of the present.

Rivera has made a film that comes out firing on many fronts—it’s observant of the world around us and is certainly the work of an intelligent man. But the failure of Sleep Dealer illustrates the pitfalls of making a political work of art. Politics and art are so diametrically opposed as to make any significant conjoining of the two almost impossible. Where art is subtle, politics is overt. Where art is ambiguous, politics is clear. For a work of art to represent an intense political situation without becoming overwhelmed by it is a rare and impressive thing—Half Nelson is an example that comes to mind. I have no doubt that Mr. Rivera’s films will continue to grow in their political consciousness; I can only hope that they will grow in their artistry as well. Zachary Wigon

DAM It All: Slingshot Hip Hop

After exposure to bootleg rap CD’s from Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur, “how could they not expect us to love hip hop?” cries Tamer Nafar, leader of the first ever Palestinian rap group, DAM (Da Arabian MC’s). Descriptions of the pain and injustice inside American ghettos lost little in translation for Tamer and his homies in Lyd, Israel. Slingshot Hip Hop documents how DAM formed as clueless teenagers, became politicized in the wake of the second Intifada and inspired a hip hop movement across the Palestinian territories.

Director-producer-editor Jackie Reem Salloum initially tells the tale in the style of a rap promo DVD, with the expected fast cuts, graffiti-style graphics and upbeat rise-to-fame narrative. As an advertisement for global hip hop culture in the 00’s, it belongs on a double bill with the recently released Planet B-Boy. But unlike Benson Lee’s international breakdancing saga, it profiles a hip hop scene that is, shockingly but appropriately, more about camaraderie than competition. The handful of rappers in Lyd, Gaza City and the West Bank focus their rage not on each other but on the walls that separate and permanently ghettoize them.

Whenever Salloum samples some of the real tragedy and desperation of this situation, Slingshot Hip Hop becomes something more than a promo. DAM’s unauthorized visit to a refugee camp, where Tamer and crew teach some eager teenage boys the fundamentals of rap, leads to the boys’ imprisonment. The official reason for their arrest, we’re told, is their participation in a demonstration months earlier. Whatever the case, it is devastating to hear Tamer’s phone conversation with the jailed kids as they talk of being tortured and terrorized. We want to know more about them, but Salloum moves on quickly.

Slingshot Hip Hop also profiles PR (Palestinian Rapperz), a trio that idolizes DAM but has a lot more street cred when it comes to facing Israeli bullets. Salloum throws in stock footage of Israeli military attacks on school children—images that haven’t lost their horror despite familiarity from TV news and docs like Gaza Strip. Members Mohammed, Kan’aan and Mezo rap about friends killed in attacks; tour strafed buildings, rubble and fields stripped of every last tree; rage at separation walls and checkpoints. Their and most Palestinian rappers’ favorite anthem is DAM’s “Who’s The Terrorist?” (a title after Public Enemy’s own heart).

The emergence of female performers, particularly DAM collaborator Sabreena Da Witch (Abeer Alzinaty), raises an issue that Slingshot Hip Hop skims even more lightly than the imprisonment incident: What do the Muslim fundamentalists have to say about all this? How does a young Middle Eastern woman take to the stage in hip-hugging Western getup without causing a furor somewhere? The narrator (Tamer’s younger brother and DAM member Suhell) informs us that Sabreena’s cousins warned her to stop performing with DAM, or else. Temporarily, she does, sitting out a crucial TV appearance with the group. But a bit later, she’s back singing hooks for DAM and other acts, with the vague explanation that she’s never one to back down from a challenge? Huh? What happened? What changed? Why don’t we see or hear from these testy cousins?

Slingshot Hip Hop doesn’t really want to go there—to show what other authoritarian bully Palestinian youth culture might be up against, the one residing in its own community. The elders we do glimpse are supportive and fairly liberal. They see vocalists like Tamer as budding political leaders, with lyrics performing the same function as speeches. This is deadly ground. Groups like DAM are preaching resistance, not terrorism. They rap about women’s rights. Somewhere along the line, the Islamists who find such concepts threatening may put as much pressure on these kids as the Israeli government. Salloum should be there to capture it for a more austere, focused Part Two. Steven Boone

A Constantly Changing Body: Water Lilies

Three fifteen-year old girls, three body types, three angles of entry into the perplexities of adolescent life. Water Lilies, Céline Sciamma’s precisely observed coming-of-age tale, splits its burden of teenage anomie between a trio of young women, fitting its catalogue of anxieties to the unique physical attributes of each of its leads. What distinguishes the film from others of its type is precisely this keen understanding of the ways in which the specific complications of female teenage life are tied to the circumstances of the individual’s body. Set against a backdrop of competitive synchronized swimming, a sport demanding an absolute physical precision, there is little room for the characters to hide from the demanding glare of observers, but Sciamma offsets the potential cruelty of a too insistent gaze with a fine-tuned sensitivity to her characters’ emotional orientation.

The wide developmental gaps that puberty often leaves between teens of the same age allow Sciamma to present her leads as three contrasting physical types: Marie (Pauline Acquart), stuck at an early stage of development, seems at least several years younger than the others. Her sense of bodily inferiority leads her to find in the perfectly developed Floriane (Adele Haenel), captain of the synchronized swimming team, an idealized counterpart, for whom hero worship soon gives way to a budding romantic attachment. Floriane, for her part, has to contend with the burdensome demands of insistent male attention (which often finds expression in explicit sexual aggression) as well as the pressure to conform to people’s expectations about what “kind” of girl she is. The third teen, Anne (Louise Blachère), is the most conventionally situated of the three, treading the familiar ground of trying to reconcile self-image and a moderate obesity.

The film may be insistently physical, but it wisely avoids an overly sensual orientation. (And it’s positively chaste in its depictions of sexuality.) Even the swimming sequences, while undeniably graceful, are shot with a certain matter-of-fact detachment, refusing the lure of overly-prettified image-making. But the film’s physicality is exactly detailed, attuned to Marie’s gangly legs and long toes, Anne’s oversized breasts and the synchronous thrusts of muscular legs as seen from an underwater vantage point. Matching her observational sensitivity with a certain formal restraint, Sciamma gets down both the awkwardness of adolescent physicality and the occasional flowerings of physical beauty that emerge amidst the less glamorous stages of teenage development.

But for all the film’s insistence on grounding its characters’ emotional orientation in precise physical circumstances, the two come perfectly together exactly once. In preparation for sleeping with a particularly insistent suitor, Floriane asks Marie to break her hymen, preventing a potentially embarrassing situation when the man realizes that her affectation of sexual experience was nothing more than a piece of adolescent theater. Sciamma films the scene in two fixed long takes, a medium shot and a close-up, which shift the focus from the purely physical act (in the first shot) to the emotions behind it (the close-up is particularly attentive to facial expression). For Floriane, the act may register as little more than a practical necessity, but for her adoring lover it’s the culmination of this specific sexual attraction. As Marie reaches under a carefully placed sheet, the film offers a rare instance of genuine physical intimacy, even if there’s a fundamental disparity between the two participants’ motives.

If Marie never gets closer to the object of her desire, then too Sciamma never quite achieves the same concentration of purpose. Abandoning the formal elegance of the rest of the film, she unwisely attempts a bravura final sequence, bringing the characters together for a party amidst a flurry of slow-mo stagings, cross-cutting and trick lighting effects. But the scene feels aesthetically asynchronous with what’s gone before and the stylistic excesses go some way towards nullifying the cumulative effect Sciamma’s been building towards throughout the film. Even the inevitable kiss between Marie and Floriane fails to build on the intimacy established in the earlier scene. Still, until this final misstep, Sciamma manages to get down much of what marks adolescence as a particularly demanding (if fascinating) stage of human development: the misdirected yearning, the awkward self-consciousness and, above all, the insistent physical anxiety that comes with the burden of a constantly changing body. Andrew Schenker

Best Laid Plans: XXY

Like doctors who operate on inter-sex newborns for the “good” of the child, director Lucía Puenzo, whose film XXY follows the story of one such “genitally ambiguous” individual raised as a girl and now facing puberty, sets out with the best intentions of trying to “fix” society’s perceptions of who these people are. And like those well meaning surgeons, her efforts at healing do more harm than good. The daughter of Argentinean director Luis Puenzo and a three-time novelist in her own right, Puenzo has a secure grasp on both words and cinematography, how to match bluish lighting with the beauty of a South American beach, how to frame her lead Alex (played by Inés Efron, as lithe and androgynous as a glossy magazine model) naked in front of a mirror, genitalia obscured in the shadows, while her adolescent crush Alvaro (a convincingly awkward and gangly Martín Piroyansky) stands watching shirtless in the downpour outside. Alvaro also happens to be the son of a Buenos Aires couple, old friends invited to Alex’s home in Uruguay by her mother—lending an insidious air to the visit is that Alvaro’s father is a reconstructive surgeon.

This is all a wonderful setup for what could have been a masterful film. Unfortunately, in Puenzo’s rush to get so many important ideas into her script, based on the short story “Cinismo” by Argentine writer Sergio Bizzio, she loses sight of her characters as flesh-and-blood beings. What we get instead is a series of melodramatic scenes that don’t ring true to any sort of reality and heavy-handed visuals that virtually hit us over the head. We see genitally ambiguous dolls with “Alex” name-tagged to them in her room, Alvaro discovering Alex’s gender-related notebook drawings, the surgeon reading a book on “origins of inter-sex” as he sits at the steering wheel of a car stuck in traffic, Alex herself reading a book that describes how all vertebrates are originally female while her pet iguana crawls up her leg—images as direct and unsubtle as Alex’s asking Alvaro for sex by way of introduction.

When Alvaro finds a rare species of bug, Alex snaps, “What do you know about the species in my house?” before smashing it. Her father is a biologist bent on rescuing an “endangered species,” the idea of castration/surgery paralleled with both the dead turtles he cuts up (“Female,” he notes, the first words in the film) and Alvaro’s surgeon father, looking like a smug asshole Mel Gibson, forever dicing up food. (“Stay away from my daughter!” Alex’s father yells at a bully at the end before turning to the surgeon and shouting, “Stay away from my son!”) When Alex finally does get to fulfill her sexual desire it culminates in her fucking the (straight?) teen in the ass—and her father catches them in the act! Alvaro escapes to the woods where he jerks off as he sobs. Cut to Alex curled up in bed sobbing. Cut to father pulling out newspaper clippings of an inter-sex child who chose to live as a man (followed by him going to the gas station where the guy works and getting his windshield wiped clean—father can see clearly now). Does it get any more reductive than this?

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Docaviv 2019: Comrade Dov, A Whore Like Me, & The Times of Bill Cunningham

Docaviv continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances.



The Times of Bill Cunningham
Photo: Harold Chapman

Docaviv, Tel Aviv’s biggest film festival and Israel’s most high-profile celebration of documentary cinema, continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances. The festival is partially reliant on government funding, but since her appointment as minister of culture in 2015, conservative politician Miri Regev has done her best to create a nerve-racking environment for Israel’s artists, threatening to withdraw financial support for any cultural enterprise deemed to undermine Israel’s image or criticize government policy.

Yet these threats have largely proven empty, and after spending a week at the recent Docaviv, I was left with a strong sense of Tel Aviv’s film community rallying together to resist censorship and preserve their freedom of speech, albeit in a tactful manner. The festival sustains a tone of political neutrality in its presentation of films, but a striking number of titles in this year’s selection, both from Israel and abroad, centered around tenacious underdogs speaking truth to power, questioning the status quo and remaining optimistic in the face of adversity.

Freedom of artistic expression in Israel is directly addressed in Comrade Dov, Barak Heymann’s affectionate portrait of left-wing Jewish politician and activist Dov Khenin, who represented the Arab-dominated Joint List party at the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, for 12 years before retiring in April 2019. During one of the documentary’s numerous heated parliamentary exchanges, Khenin eloquently voices his outrage at a proposal by fellow member Alex Miller that funding for the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (Docaviv’s primary venue) should be cut in response to a festival commemorating the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The sequence illustrates both Khenin’s innate skill as a negotiator and his effectiveness as a stone in the Knesset’s shoe: He persuasively counters extreme-right rhetoric with an impassioned leftist stance, and deftly steers conversation towards a middle ground.

Heymann is plainly enamored with his subject, and strikes a playful, upbeat tone in the establishing scenes. As we observe Khenin silently moving around his spartan apartment, the filmmaker wryly explains, in voiceover, that “this is the first and only time I filmed him at home. I was so excited that I forgot to turn on the sound.” Shortly thereafter, Heymann remarks that “all of the activists I know are depressed. But Dov always seems to be optimistic, which is why I love being with him.” Indeed, Dov is an instantly appealing protagonist, equal parts scrappy boyish charm, intellectual rigor, and emotional honesty.

But despite Dov’s enviable personal attributes, and his impeccable track record of fighting for social justice, Heymann takes care to ensure that the film doesn’t become too blandly hagiographic. In a particularly poignant sequence, Israeli Arab activist Hana Amoury explains, calmly and respectfully, that while Dov clearly wants to improve the lives of his Palestinian constituents, his desire to simultaneously be part of the Israeli establishment ultimately makes him an ineffective ally. And several of the battles we witness Dov wage over the course of the film, including one on behalf of mistreated factory workers, end in decisive failure.

Sharon Yaish and Yael Shachar’s A Whore Like Me, another Israel-set account of a David-versus-Goliath battle, benefits from an instantly gripping, thriller-like premise. At 22 years of age, Chile was abducted in her native Hungary and sold to Israeli sex traffickers, leaving behind a young daughter. She ultimately escaped her captors, but subsequently lived on the streets for years before conquering drug addiction. Now, 20 years on from her kidnapping, her only hope for successfully appealing against the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s decision to deny her residence is to procure concrete proof of her ordeal. Thus, she hires a private detective and embarks on a quest that forces her to relive past traumas.

The film clocks in at just 60 minutes, but it offers an impressively rich portrait of a woman who’s been failed by society at every turn. The filmmakers keep the exposition succinct, focusing on the emotional cost of Chile’s decades-long ordeal. She has, by all accounts, made a remarkable recovery: When we meet her, she’s 10 years sober, and volunteering at a sexual health clinic helping other vulnerable women. Yet the odds remain depressingly stacked against her. Without permission to work in Israel, she finds herself lapsing back into prostitution to stay on top of legal costs. And in the film’s most uncomfortable scene, we’re introduced to an older man, presumably a former client, who takes complete credit for her rehabilitation and demeaningly refers to her as his pet, while she sits awkwardly by his side.

However, as the investigation into the whereabouts of her captors begins to yield promising results, Chile becomes increasingly emboldened, and uses the filmmaking process as an opportunity to reckon with the ways in which sex work has shaped her identity and sense of self-worth. At one point she begins filming encounters with clients, as if to assert authorship of her narrative. While Chile’s future hangs in the balance at the end of A Whore Like Me, one is left with a powerful sense that Yaish and Shachar have at least armed their protagonist with the tools she needs to build a better life for herself.

As if to offer respite from appalling social injustice and hot-button political issues, Docaviv lightened the tone of this year’s international selection with a host of art, fashion, and music docs. But even among these glossier picks, tales of underdogs and marginalized communities took center stage. Mark Bozek’s The Times of Bill Cunningham, a worthy companion piece to Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham, New York, is structured around a previously unseen interview with the late fashion photographer, conducted by Bozek in 1994. It’s a pleasure to hear Cunningham describe in his own words his rise from impoverished milliner to the toast of Manhattan high society; he’s an irresistible screen presence, with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for his industry, a childlike demeanor, and an occasionally eccentric turn of phrase.


Moreover, when detailing Cunningham’s work as a discreet queer activist, the film packs an emotional punch. Though by all accounts he lived a monastic existence, he clearly felt a deep personal kinship with New York’s LGBTQ+ communities, and took advantage of editorial freedom at the New York Times to celebrate them throughout the dark days of the AIDS crisis. At one point in the film, his chirpy demeanor cracks and he begins silently weeping for the friends he lost to the disease. And yet the film is ultimately celebratory, paying tribute to a headstrong individual who resolutely refused to obey his family’s orders to pursue a more “manly” career, and who pursued his passions entirely on his own terms.

The Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival ran from May 23—June 1.

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Cannes Film Festival 2019: Oh Mercy!, Les Misérables, Young Ahmed, & Atlantics

Many of the selections at this year’s festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements.



Oh Mercy!
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Surprisingly, many of the selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements. By and large, audiences recognized the influence of genre on these works in the moment, as in a UFO randomly popping into frame during Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, or the eyes of a group of women rolling back in their heads during Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

Sometimes, though, a film turned out to be exactly as advertised, and that’s for the worse in the case of Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s follow-up to his prismatic, semi-autobiographical Ismael’s Ghosts. Set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, this modest film about the work of maintaining order in a community stars Days of Glory actor Roschdy Zem as a level-headed police chief in charge of overseeing a number of investigations. Captain Daoud largely farms out his duties to a phalanx of hot-headed underlings, but he takes a determined interest in one case involving the murder of an old woman, possibly at the hands of her two neighbors, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier).

This case paves the way for the film’s most impressive sequence: two parallel interrogations depicting the methods used to meticulously weaken Claude and Marie’s resistance to being interrogated and draw out the truth. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth to this scenario to capture the viewer’s attention. At the margins of the plot, Desplechin’s attentiveness to local color is noticeable, which at least imparts a sense that he knows this community quite well and understands how social dynamics play out within it. But it isn’t too long into its running time that Oh Mercy!, in its generally abiding faith in the effectiveness and general well-meaning of police work, comes off as undiscerning in its pro-cop stance.

Still, Oh Mercy! somehow manages to seem a lot more empathetic and realistic than Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s police drama set in the Parisian commune of Montfermeil. Ly’s feature directorial debut pretentiously co-opts the cultural cache of its Victor Hugo-penned namesake as a means of bolstering its activist political message. A brief and promising montage opens the film, and depicts jubilant Parisians of all races in a state of revelry. (This is actually documentary footage from the aftermath of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, so not exactly the June Rebellion that closes Hugo’s opus.) From this point forward, Ly largely relies on gritty faux-doc aesthetics redolent of The Wire to maneuver through a narrative that splits its time between police on the job and embedding itself with the people they’re meant to serve.

Nonetheless, the focus remains largely on Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the newest recruit of the dubiously named Anti-Crime Squad that’s tasked with patrolling Montfermeil’s crime-ridden Les Bosquets social estate, and the way the soft-spoken man’s conscience is tested on his first day as he rides alongside two corrupt cops (Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga). Ly seems to give the cops too much latitude, or at least he muddles his condemnation of their behavior by lumping it in with a broader message about an untamable chaos in the suburbs of Paris. The film’s explosive finale, which sees the oppressed city kids rise up and start a war with law enforcement, could be interpreted as a call for revolution, but it could just as easily be read as a fortification of the idea that The Streets Aren’t Safe, and a film like this shouldn’t make the conflation of progressive and conservative politics that easy.

Les Misérables does, at the very least, lay bare the reality of an everyday form of violence and prejudice and makes some kind of attempt at responding to it, which is more than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bother to do with Young Ahmed. In the film, the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) puts distance between himself and his family, deciding that his Arabic teacher is a heretic before, finally, turning to violence. The Dardennes’ signature observational cinema, one that’s shaped by lightly applied genre conventions and subjected to chain reactions of dramatic incident, comes to feel exploitative in this context, as Young Ahmed demonstrates little interest in understanding the psychology or pathology of the troubled youth at its center, or even in grasping the sociocultural conditions that affect him.

As is their wont, the Dardennes start their film in medias res, which proves to be their first big mistake: Ahmed has already been radicalized, and so from here on out we observe his actions in a kind of vacuum. The film, then, becomes just an exercise in redundancy for the Dardennes, hitting as it does the same narrative beats of sin and redemption that all their character studies do, albeit with a different cultural face. This isn’t a well written or conceived narrative either, especially in its contrived and manipulative finale. But what makes the film outright offensive is its flippancy toward the Muslim faith. At one point, we get a match cut between Ahmed being kissed by a non-Muslim girl and the young man vigorously washing out his mouth—a moment that elicited much laughter at the film’s gala premiere.

In the past, the veracity and realism of the Dardennes’ aesthetic mode has made for convincing portraits of life on the margins, but here there’s an uncomfortable friction between the way their technique engenders a feeling of truthfulness and the calculated and methodical depiction of Ahmed’s actions. The only party that benefits here are the Dardennes, who’ve brazenly attached themselves to a subject that grants their film an unearned political weight.

One film at Cannes this year that got its genre inflections, its social commentary, and its understanding of race generally right was the steely and quixotic Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature-length fiction film. Atlantics derives some of the broader strokes of its narrative from a short of the same name that Diop directed a decade ago, about Senegalese youths discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic toward Europe. The feature version of Atlantics is set in Dakar and follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old who’s in love with a boy named Souleimane (Ibrahim Traore) but who’s been arranged by her parents to marry a wealthy older business man. After this ostensible love triangle ends in tragedy, Diop’s film briefly morphs into something of a procedural, as a young detective (Amadou Mbow) is called on to investigate a mysterious act of arson committed on Ada’s wedding day.


It’s the way that Atlantics pivots into the realm of the supernatural, and even flirts with the horror genre, that makes it so unique. The blend of folklore spiritualism and commitment to social realism, paired with an ethereal visual sense that emphasizes the spectral experience of the subaltern, can be imprecise in terms of its political implications, but Atlantics nonetheless evokes the palpable feelings of its characters’ displacement through its shift into ghost-movie terrain. Even Diop’s balance between a more visually poetic register and a devotion to maintaining her narrative’s momentum seems less like a compromise than a reflection of this filmmaker’s confidence in her own ability to tell complicated and unusual stories in the guise of familiar narrative form. In fact, that’s a good way to frame a lot of Cannes’ competition films this year: Many are genre-adjacent, but it’s those from filmmakers that display a sense of confidence in their approach that have tended to leave the best impression.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.



Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.


The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.



The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.


If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: The Grand Bizarre, Up the Mountain, & Germany. A Winter’s Tale

Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny.



The Grand Bizarre
Photo: Jeonju International Film Festival

A bustling, overstuffed cinephile jamboree, the Jeonju International Film Festival features a dizzying array of competition selections, sidebars, master classes, student films, and expanded cinematic offerings, such as a VR program and a gallery full of installations. One could spend the entire festival watching nothing but new Korean films, taking in only the best of contemporary European art cinema, or simply watching all the Star Wars movies back to back. And no matter how much you decide to take in, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of what the festival has to offer. Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny, three very different artists united by their willingness to push the boundaries of cinema for their own idiosyncratic ends.

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is, like Jeonju IFF! itself, a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism.

Though it runs just over an hour, The Grand Bizarre is epic by the standards of Mack’s oeuvre, which has mostly consisted of shorts, and so it’s no surprise that the documentary is essentially a series of vignettes providing endless variations on the same themes: globalization, the interconnectedness of culture, and the beauty of traditional textiles. Repeatedly, Mack emphasizes the thing-ness of these fabrics. These are items that were made—some by hand, others by machine—before they were subsequently packed up and shipped off to different corners of the world. Each one originated in the artisanal traditions of a particular place and people, to which they are just as deeply rooted as the music and language of these cultures, parallels that Mack draws with a uniquely jaunty sense of style and wit.

For better and worse, these traditional designs now belong to the world. For examples of the “worse,” simply look to the film’s montage of horrible tattoos of ankhs and tribal patterns emblazoned on white people’s backs—a hilarious sampling of cultural appropriation at its most oblivious and inept. But The Grand Bizarre isn’t really an indictment of this tendency to wrest cultural artifacts out of their historical contexts. (After all, Mack herself doesn’t specify the origins of these fabrics, nor does the English-born American experimental filmmaker identify the varied locations in which she shoots.) The film is, rather, a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century.

Chinese auteur Zhang Yang offers a far more tonally subdued yet no less pleasurable exploration of artmaking and traditional culture in Up the Mountain, a Zen-like portrait of the mountaintop studio of Shen Jianhua, where the artist lives with his family and trains a group of elderly ladies in the ways of folk painting. The film straddles the line between documentary and fiction, with everyone playing versions of themselves. Some scenes seem to have been reconstructed, while others appear to capture candid moments in the studio and in a nearby village. Zhang never clues us in to how much of Up the Mountain is fictionalized, but it scarcely matters. Zhang isn’t particularly interested in interrogating the endlessly fuzzy line between fiction and reality, as his methods are aimed at something richer and deeper: capturing the serene, gentle spirit of Shen’s studio.

The film is like a gentle stream, always moving forward while maintaining an implacable, inviting quietude. Little of dramatic consequence occurs here—there’s no real conflict or character development or traditional plotting of any kind. People paint and chat, Shen and his wife sit around listening to opera, people work in the fields. Time is marked by gradual changes: a painting slowly developing, a baby being born and growing older, Shen’s daughter slowly improving at the accordion. If this all sounds a bit dull on paper, in practice it’s captivating because the film is infused with rich sensory details like the warmth of a fire, the smell of a well-cooked meal, and the celebratory chaos of a New Year’s festival.

With the exception of a roving final tracking shot, Up the Mountain consists entirely of static camera setups composed in a boxy aspect ratio that mimics the canvasses used by Shen’s students. It may be a tired cliché to liken a film’s compositions to that of a painting, but Zhang invites the comparison here. Shooting in digital and manipulating the footage in post-production, Zhang has colored the film like a painting, amplifying a pop of red here, a splash of orange there. Art in Up the Mountain is an extension of life, as Shen’s pupils take the world around them—cats, fields, local gatherings—as the subject matter of their vibrantly colored, highly stylized work. So, too, does Zhang: Rather than simply recording the goings-on at Shen’s studio, he transforms them into a work of contemplative, deeply humane art.

The tranquility of Zhang’s elegant still frames could scarcely be farther from the muddy handheld camerawork of Jan Bonny’s Germany. A Winter’s Tale, one of the most unremittingly ugly films in recent memory. A claustrophobic examination of the sex lives and death drives of a trio of vicious, stupid, horned-up racists (Judith Bohle, Jean-Luc Bubert, and Peter Eberst) who embark on an anti-immigrant killing spree, the film admirably resists even the slightest romanticization of the anti-immigrant killing spree they embark upon. But Bonny also fails to give us any particular reason to care about the vicious antics of these thoroughly hate-able individuals who fancy themselves the vanguard of a right-wing terror movement.

Germany. A Winter’s Tale resists offering context for or commentary about its characters’ actions, save for a bizarrely on-the-nose end-credits song that features lines like “Your violence is only a silent cry for love.” And perhaps that’s the appropriate artistic response to a dangerously atavistic movement that cries out less for explication than annihilation. Even so, Bonny’s attempt to indict his nation’s racism—from the inflated title drawn from Heinrich Heine’s famous satirical poem to the characters’ toasting to Germany just after making some particularly vicious remark—come off as ham-handed and lame. That also goes for the filmmaker’s deliberately off-putting aesthetic: Severely underlit with a harsh, clattering sound design, the film attempts to evoke the feeling of living with such hatred and misdirected anger. But as the characters oscillate constantly between screaming matches and bouts of savage love-making, their antics ultimately feel less like the distressing seeds of a nascent revival of German herrenvolk fascism than the cartoonish spectacle of a Jerry Springer episode.


The Jeonju International Film Festival runs from May 2—11.

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Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.



The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)


Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:


Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.



Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.



TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.


The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.



A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.


Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.



I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.


A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life closed to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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