Wednesday, April 06, 2005

New Directors/New Films 

This was the first year I’ve attended the film festival collaboratively programmed by Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art called New Directors/New Films.

I was interested to see the volume of films that overlapped with this year’s Sundance festival and was glad for the opportunity to catch one film I’d considered seeing there (see below) as well as the fact that NYC audiences were being exposed so soon after Sundance to some of the great films that were there, namely Murderball, Junebug and Live-In Maid.

I enjoyed the range of things I chose at New Directors, although the roster did not offer that many things that I felt compelled to see. (Which is probably just as well since the Tribeca Film Festival is only a few weeks away anyway.) Nonetheless, each of the screenings I attended gave me something different, and worthwhile, to mull.

They Came Back
Robin Campillo, a French screenwriter turned director has created an audacious, original and thought film. The story tackles the question, “What if we got our (sometimes spoken and often silently desired) wish and our loved ones came back from the dead?” The film gives no back story. It simply starts with a cemetery in a small French town where a flood of people, clothed and healthy, are walking deliberately forth into the streets.

In a classic zombie movie, this scenario would be played for terror. But Campillo isn’t going for that effect. He’s trying to tackle what the realities of the situation might be if this were to happen. What would the living say to the former dead? How would we make a place for them in our homes, our lives, and our workforce? How would the dead describe their experiences in the beyond to us? What if they refused to reveal what happens after death?

Some of the town’s attempt to deal with these very (for lack of a better word) human issues is unexpectedly quite funny. The French being the French, they form committees to deal with finding jobs and to study the behavior of the risen and determine their health, their mental states, and their likely longevity on this second go-round.

These are the results of attempt to cope by people as a collective. On an individual level, there are terrible struggles. One couple tries to reintegrate their dead child who is acting peculiarly – who can know exactly why under the circumstances? – and who is painfully unresponsive to their ministrations. The town mayor bravely tries to welcome his elderly wife back to their extended family and every time he turns his back she’s trying to escape over the garden wall to an unknown destination.

The living and the risen dead have entirely separate desires in this movie and Campillo often leaves them spookily unexplicated. We simply witness the interactions and have to struggle, as the characters do, to make sense of this painful, awkward, and frightening situation. It’s a quiet, peculiar, troubling and ultimately engaging affair.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
I had considered seeing this documentary at Sundance, but it sounded like a downer and I’d had enough good crying jags by the end of the festival. So I passed. The fact that it ended up winning Best Director for Jeff Feuerzeig left me curious about what I’d missed and now that I’ve seen it, I’m very glad I did.

The movie is a portrait of Daniel Johnston, a mentally ill songwriter, singer and artist who is admired by many other artists. The director effectively combines home movies, concert footage, and audiotapes, (it seems that Johnston compulsively records nearly every second of his waking life) to reveal the intersection of talent (some claim genius) and madness. In retrospect, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is almost a “what if?” movie. Or perhaps it’s better to say that it belongs in the Ripley’s museum where life’s oddities can outstrip our expectations of fiction because what has happened to this poor man is nearly too much to reckon.

Raised by fundamentalist parents with whom he was at war as a young man, Johnston pursued his artistic ambitions with the blind, focused narcissism often seen in the gifted. But something came unraveled (his diagnosis is apparently manic depression) and Johnston’s life began sliding from the unpredictable to the unbelievable. Episodes include running away with a carnival, being discovered by MTV, causing and surviving a plane crash, frightening an elderly woman to jump out of a second story window. It goes on and on. Throughout it all, a band of interested parties – some altruists and some idiots – conspire to create enough guardrails to keep him alive and creating.

Perhaps the best feature of the film is that it is truly a human interest story. One need not buy into Johnston’s “genius” label to be shaken, moved and perhaps even inspired by his single minded struggle to create; fighting his way through the mists of his mania and his depression.

Hungarian American filmmaker Nimrod Antal’s impressive debut is not in any way marred by its obvious predecessor, Luc Besson’s debut film (at the tender age of 20), Subway.

(Granted I have a special fondness for Subway. It was perhaps the first independent film I ever saw under my own steam. My high school girlfriend and I saw the nifty posters advertising its engagement at The Ritz (then a single venue, now four!) in Philadelphia. It was the first time I ever saw Isabelle Adjani. I immediately declared that if Grace Kelly was the most beautiful blonde on screen, then Adjani took the prize for the brunette category.)

Antal’s feature takes place in the Budapest subway, the second oldest system in the world after London’s and not particularly well maintained. The key to the film is that the subway works on the honor system and therefore has bands of “controllers” whose job is to ask riders at random to display their tickets to prove they have paid to ride. Our hero is Bulcsú, the leader of one of the ragtag bands of misfits that apparently comprise the ranks of controllers. He and his cohort battle daily against the apathetic and sometimes violently aggressive patrons of the subway, making the best of a bad and often dangerous situation.

Blending aspects of horror, crime, and romance – all of them stylishly executed, Kontroll makes for a very impressive debut. Additionally, the writer/director bravely decides not to explain each and every detail. People do what they do. Sometimes we understand their motivations, sometimes we don’t.

Time will tell, but Kontroll may possess all of the lovable flaws that occasionally make for a cult film: originality of execution, visual panache, pastiche, paeans to other films and filmmakers, and the raw energy of a young filmmaker who doesn’t yet have any boundaries to contend with.

Our Brand is Crisis
People, watch out a charming and pretty young filmmaker named Rachel Boynton. I would not normally point out the gender and appearance of a documentarian (I must protest my innocence on this while it may be hard to credit given the links to Grace Kelly and Isabelle Adjani above), but having watched her handle the festival Q&A session like an old pro, I cannot help to speculate that her charm and her looks forced her subjects to overlook the fact that she’s extremely bright and that she was going to be pointing a camera at them while they tried to engineer an election.

Let me explain in more detail. Our Brand is Crisis shows how the American-born and educated technocratic politician Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, (known colloquially as “Goni”) hired the polling/political strategy consulting firm owned by James Carville and Stan Greenberg to help him return to the presidency of Bolivia. It was a high stakes adventure as his country was teetering on the brink of complete anarchy and how the politically idealistic American consultants managed to get him back in the front of the race after starting from a dismal position is a wonder of modern electioneering.
What makes Boynton’s film so compelling, and her accomplishment so impressive, is that she managed to acquire and maintain tremendous access to all of the key players during a terribly dangerous affair for all involved. The Carville/Greenberg team was attempting to ply their modern trade in a foreign market, far from the culturally specific context in which they honed their skills. Goni was risking his wealth, his reputation and potentially his life. The going was extremely rough and the parties inevitably did not always see eye to eye. The result is a striking first effort with many insights into the many challenges facing America’s effort to “spread democracy” abroad to countries and cultures that have very different priorities, histories and desires.

Australian director Cate Shortland’s impressionistic feature spins the story of Heidi, a blossoming young girl whose sexuality is fast spinning out of her control. Caught kissing her mother’s boyfriend, she runs off to the ski resort of Lake Jindabyne where she meets a handsome young farm boy who is engaging, emotionally elusive and also not quite in control of his libido. The two enact a confused romance, each trying to sort out what they want out of life and each other.

This film seems to fall into a category with a number of other films that I’ve seen over the last eighteen months that are driven by the character of a young-woman-bursting-forth-in-confusion including Thirteen, Blue Car, and All the Real Girls. Like the others in its category, Somersault features highly watchable performances from its young actors (Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington). I found that Somersault was not always consistently engaging but had enough moments of true excellence and stark emotional reality to suggest that director Cate Shortland future work is worth anticipating.
hi tony,
i have a question for you about that daniel johnston movie and an old post of yours about john leguizamo...can you email me at friar55@aol.com

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