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New York Film Festival 2008: I’m Gonna Explode, Tulpan, Let It Rain, It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks, & Tokyo Sonata

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New York Film Festival 2008: <em>I’m Gonna Explode</em>, <em>Tulpan</em>, <em>Let It Rain</em>, <em>It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks</em>, & <em>Tokyo Sonata</em>

As noted in every single NYFF dispatch, Gerardo Naranjo’s I’m Gonna Explode is Pierrot le Fou for Mexican emo teens, which means it’s not nearly as intellectually cogent or insightful as its inspiration. The flaw is by design; either you think this kind of thing is fun and worth doing or you don’t, but you can’t argue that Naranjo has let his film get away from him. His specialty is a kind of ludicrously heightened melodrama, in which acts of extreme violence and unpleasantness become almost cheerful because of his verve and energy. E.g.: 2006’s Drama/Mex opened with the world’s funniest rape sequence. Girl to man: “Can you put on a condom?” Man: “Are you kidding? I’m raping you.” Naranjo comes from a self-reported rough background, and his ability to have fun in the midst of what would normally be extremely unpleasant is his greatest asset.

The misdirection starts with Roman (Juan Pablo de Santiago), a brooding little creep with visions of taking a pistol to the priest of his private school and forcing him to admit his hypocrisy before going the old murder-suicide route. It’s all rather unpleasant, and in shaky taste given America’s little problem with angry kids shooting up schools. But Roman’s too much of a wimp to do anyone any real, lasting harm, thank goodness; his biggest rebellion to date is staging a talent show number called “See You In Hell” where he pretends to hang himself. It’s that kind of neutered rebelliousness that attracts Maru (Maria Deschamps). Maru’s better adjusted—she has girlfriends—but her parents still ground her, and she’s looking for the exit out of the usual teen anomie. Roman and Maru run off—except they don’t. They pretend to disappear and hide out on the roof of Roman’s senator’s father’s house.

As in Taking Off, the indulgences of the parents may be greater (if strangely parallel) than those of their kids: while Roman and Maru are relatively temperate in their drunkenness until they hit the road, there’s nightly tequila binges down below. On the roof, there’s tentative barbecues, shared headphones for the music, passive-aggressive sparring over whether Maru will actually sleep with Roman. If the kids are on faux-holiday, the adults are off gallivanting hopelessly to wherever misdirected clues tell them to go, getting a real holiday in the process. Maru and Roman eventually go on the run for the real, but they end up cuddling in fields, listening not once but twice to Bright Eyes’ “Easy Lucky Free.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Your sympathy for I’m Gonna Explode will therefore depend directly on how much you’re willing to deal with bright, funny but fatally solipsistic teens. Naranjo grounds them against a vague background of general political corruption and, at the last second, an appearance from one of Roman’s dad’s friends—a far less successful hippie burnout, and hence a figure of integrity. Naranjo’s critique of Mexican political corruption is at once grounded in a specific kind of disillusionment and very vague; it doesn’t really explain that much about the teen rebellion shown here. (Naranjo also seems to believe that the less successful you are the more integrity you have, which may not be always true.) There’s also the inevitable moment when things stop being fun and start being Serious, a 20-minute crawl to the end of Consequences Coming Home To Roost. Most of the time, though, Naranjo knows what he’s doing, and he does it well, bringing nervous energy to everything. If he can corral his impulse to indulge all of his characters’ stupidities formally, he’ll be fine.

I’m Gonna Explode was preceded by Katie Wolfe’s New Zealand short This Is Her, which displays a good deal of wit and story-telling ambition in using a woman giving birth as the fulcrum to keep moving forward and backwards in time to display the unexpected ways the lives of her and everyone around her will change over the years. Unfortunately, Wolfe then cues an endless epiphany to some horrible sub-soft-rock singer-songwriter garbage in an unwise attempt to summon the one-time-only magic of Magnolia.

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I hereby nominate Sergey Dvortsevoy for the Werner Herzog Jr. award on the basis of Tulpan, the outrageously entertaining sheepherders-on-the-steppes saga counterbalancing Chouga, the other Kazakh film in NYFF. Where Chouga is all festival-movie gloss, a Rotterdam-funded dose of sophistication, Tulpan is rough-and-ready you-can’t-believe-your-eyes kind of stuff. There is, ostensibly, a plot, though it’s sketched in raucous comedy, like a Hawks movie where the drinking scenes never stop. Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov) comes to live with his sister’s family, to herd sheep, and to marry the luscious Tulpan; unfortunately, his ears are too big (as his well-meaning friend demonstrates by comparison, as big as those of the “American prince” Charles), and his idea of winning the bride and parents over is telling gory tales of how an octopus almost ate him. No bride means no flock of his own and no way to enact his dream: a private spread with satellite TV.

I’m sticking to summary because Tulpan is basically all visceral stimulation and not much in the way of subtext (unless you, like me, are surprised by the way Boney M refuses to die). There’s tension in Asa’s relationship to his rural roots, but nothing that isn’t spelled out in the narrative. The big thrills are in the kind of coups you only get when you’re patient enough to film for four years: a much-noted scene showing a sheep giving birth in real time is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s an indescribable blast, poised somewhere on the Herzog scale right on par with Cobra Verde.

Tulpan was preceded by Dyana Gaye’s even-better Deweneti. Gaye is apparently a Senegalese-based director, and Deweneti is 15 minutes in the delightful company of urchin Ousmane (named, perhaps, in tribute to the late Sembène—they both have a knack for going in and out of various strata of African society). Gaye shoots like Jafar Panahi with light doses of magical realism that, amazingly, aren’t completely cloying. A first feature is hopefully in the making.

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Agnès Jaoui’s Let It Rain is the kind of film it’s hard not to be snotty about. I’m not sure where I stand with Jaoui, because I found 2001’s The Taste Of Others to be a warm-fuzzy humanist blast, but I was 15 and hence trust nothing I thought. When 2004’s Look At Me dropped, I couldn’t tell if Jaoui had changed or if I had. But one of the downsides of NYFF is that, going in, you start expecting either stellar mise-en-scene or purposefully ugly anti-compositions. Going in, I was thinking “There isn’t going to be a single shot that doesn’t either train squarely on the actors and/or is an establishing shot.” And I was right.

The other thing I was right about: every character here experiences a minor romantic conflict, conflicts build to a mild head, then finally everyone emerges relatively unscathed in a mild fashion, sadder but wiser in a sub-Renoirian way. And so it goes: Michel (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has an affair that’s broken off, but that’s OK because he reconciles with his son and meets a fellow parent at the end. Agathe (Jaoui) has her feminist principles questioned as overly strident, but sees the light and reconciles with her partner, so that’s OK. Karim (Jamel Debbouze) feels some discomfort about how Arabs are treated in French society, but then he has a monologue to get it off his chest, so that’s OK. It’s all so compromised and resigned and flat-lined. It should be admirable that Jaoui wants to make these films about The Compromises Of Life, but it’s finally exasperating to see a film where good actors trudge through typically “unresolved” situations on their way to a final happiness that will be sadder but wiser and ultimately truer. Why does it feel so complacent? I mean sure, I’m not immune to the charms of this genre—Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September is about as fine and moving an example as there is—but between the predictability and the lack of pizazz, I’m just not sold.

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Daniel Leconte’s It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks is a fine documentary considering the impossible hurdles it sets for itself. Dealing with the 2007 trial of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo over printing caricatured cartoons of Mohammad, Leconte’s big problem is that the trial itself couldn’t be filmed (or, evidently, transcribed), so he has to use a lot of footage of either himself reading the questions to interviewees, who attempt to reconstruct their answers, or footage from outside the trial room (which is a madhouse) of people basically mouthing what they said inside. As a parade of current French intellectual society (pretty much everyone shows up for the trial, and Bernard Henri-Levy sends a text message of support), it’s invaluable; as a recitation of differing views on the sensitive subject of where the satirical line is drawn with Muslims, it’s enlightening. As anything other than an an ugly, flat video documentary of interest only to the pre-interested (with an incredibly obtrusive score that, in the name of building drama, has pseudo-dramatic pizzicato strings galore), it’s not really worth looking at.

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata is pretty delightful, insofar as it’s easily comprehensible and hence makes me interested in Kurosawa again (as opposed to Bright Future, which was all watchable curiosity but so strainingly bizarre I promptly stopped paying the NYFF tariff to keep up with his work). And, oddly enough for a film about the toll unemployment takes on one man and his family, Tokyo Sonata is frequently hilarious, in a Kafka-lightens-up kind of way. Kurosawa has a lot of ideas floating around—if Bright Future seemed to some people to be aiming for Marxist critique, Tokyo Sonata ups the ante on legible ideas outside Japan, considering not just work culture, the oft-remarked-upon oppressive Japanese school, etc., but a vision of the US army allowing foreigners to enlist and Japanese youth contributing. I’m not sure what that’s about. Point of fact, I don’t really care about Kurosawa’s ideas, which are generally bad (Pulse is a terrific film, but it really didn’t need a scene of a computer program with someone explaining “when the dots touch, they’re destroyed”), as his rhythms. Tokyo Sonata is as crisp and latently menacing a film as he’s ever made. It’s pure sensual pleasure, and what it’s “about” is irrelevant to me. Which is good, because that marks the last film I saw at NYFF, and now I can finally stop typing. Til ’next year.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.