All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




-Phantoms of Nabua (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / Germany) [s]

This short film is a component of Apichatpong's current multi-part project Primitive, the first part of which, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, was commissioned by world premiered at the Munich Filmmuseum. It appears to remain an open question whether or not Primitive will culminate in a feature, but based on Phantoms, it would certainly be Joe's most abstract feature to date, which is indeed saying something. Of course, he has also made experimental films and videos alongside his career as a feature filmmaker, and Phantoms is a dark, dense, sculpture-and-performance driven work that stands nicely along such short-form Apichatpong marvels as Worldly Desires and My Mother's Garden. Beginning with a shot of a night sky at dusk, jet-black silhouetted trees rustling through the frame, Joe slices the center of the composition with a searing white fluorescent light. From the chosen angle, it looks as if a Dan Flavin sculpture is hovering in a village clearing surrounded by an ambiguous jungle, some kind of Thai version of Marfa, TX awaiting discovery. Soon, however, Phantoms moves from the strictly sculptural realm to the arena of video installation. We soon see that Apichatpong is filming a double projection; a makeshift screen in the distance displays our earlier view, now framed by even greater darkness. The second shot is of a tiny, almost postage-stamp scaled projection image of the previous shot, waving gently in the lower left hand corner of a frame dominated by trees and wind. For his next trick, Joe creates a small-scale rendition of Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, sending almost uniformly perpendicular bolts of electricity (either actual lightning or capacitor charges, I am not sure) down to the village square, illuminating surrounding figures, buildings, and foliage in the uneven flashes. We see what looks like a church spire in the distance, and it becomes apparent that these shock-and-awe sculptural feats are formally indistinguishable from the nighttime illumination of bomb blasts. In actuality, it's just the lightning as seen from the other side of the scrim.


As shadowy human figures begin to take the field, the lightning-strike portion of our program is repeated, this time as a projection in the distance. By now, Joe's overall plan is clear. Any light phenomenon, particularly those which render illumination and destruction visually indistinguishable, will be repeated, once as a direct image, then as an image twice removed. It's difficult for the mind to bracket out Baudrillardian / Virilioesque considerations of the impact of televised warfare, the cognitive dissonance that comes from making its horror and sublimity small and containable. Yet the forces Joe harnesses here are so elemental (indeed, "primitive") that metaphors only dull their laser-sharp materialist edge. This problem, and Phantoms of Nabua as a whole, reaches its tipping-point just after the two-minute mark, when three light sources are convened within the frame simultaneously, at a descending, left-to-right diagonal. In the upper left, the fluorescent hashmark. In the center, the video projection of the lightning charges. And now, entering the frame from the lower right hand corner, the banal / mystic fetish-object that will dominate the remainder of the film. Unseen footballers kick a flaming soccer ball into the field of play. As they dribble it back and forth, and they themselves bulge and recede in the frame, the players take on manifold qualities. They are performance artists first and foremost, acting in tandem with the video screen. They are also keepers of a flame, working to protect it against the all-enveloping darkness. But, as Apichatpong's freer, more mobile cinematography indicates, they are players of a game, ordinary people partaking in everyday pleasures that, by their very lived-in character, come to signify art as community, a sense of belonging, of having all the right moves. Of course, Joe being Joe, an image like this is never purely, unproblematically affirming. When a player gets a good kick in, and the ball becomes airborne, it crosses the night sky with an eerie whoosh, looking and sounding like low-grade ordnance. In precarious times, when the learned gestures of communal masculinity can be turned just as easily toward either sportsmanship or violence, it may be possible to feel too comfortable in your own skin.[Phantoms of Nabua can be viewed here.]


CORRECTION:A Letter to Uncle Boonmee was not in fact commissioned by the Munich Filmmuseum, as I previously wrote. The Primitive project was commissioned by Haus der Kunst (Munich), FACT (Liverpool), and Animate Projects (London). I thank Klaus Volkmer of the Munich Filmmuseum for informing me of my mistake, and apologize for the factual error.




-Four Nights With Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland / France)

As many reviews following Cannes, Toronto and New York have noted, Four Nights With Anna is considerably more than it appears to be at first blush. However, it is also considerably less at the same time. Part of what makes Skolimowski's comeback film so fascinating, so rich and yet so frustrating, is that it finds the auteur lavishing his exacting gaze and formal mastery upon a scenario that, once all the pieces fall into place, is far less than the sum of its parts. In fact, it's rather ironic that it was Skolimowski's work with David Cronenberg that rekindled his interest in directing, since Four Nights displays the finest execution of a fundamentally dumb premise since Cronenberg's Spider. At the center of the film is overgrown farmboy Leon (Artur Steranko), a character and physical figure who is something like a cross between Herzog's Bruno S. (Kaspar Hauser / Stroszek) and otherworldly, scent-driven cop Pharaon (pheromone?) de Winter from Dumont's L'humanité. Leon appears in virtually every scene in the film, and since Skolimowski is implicitly aligning us with his point of view, Four Nights' elliptical editing and temporal dislocations create a double disjunction. It's not just that we cannot immediately discern the order of events. We also cannot tell whether Leon's internal consciousness is itself jumbled, "unstuck in time." All we know for sure is, Leon at some point stumbled upon Anna (Kinga Preis) being raped in a barn. She was attacked from behind, and couldn't see the face of her assailant. Leon was incapable for acting to halt the assault, and so once the rapist flees, only Leon is left with Anna, and he takes the fall for the rape. This act (or "inact") is slipped in among the chronological four nights, wherein Leon creeps into Anna's bedroom to watch her sleep. She is is next door neighbor, and he has managed to substitute the honey and sugar in her pantry, not with Folger's Crystals but with identical products that Leon has adulterated with sleeping-powder. Creepy Leon engages in such "harmless" nighttime acts as mending a ripped garment or painting Anna's toenails, essentially playing husband by night. Slotted between these interludes are Leon's daily business, caring for then burying his grandmother, trying to work a job, and eventually being grilled by detectives.


Once all secrets come out in a courtroom coda, the basic dunderheadedness of Skolimowski's premise begins to dawn on you. Leon the peeping tom / night visitor is the stunted subject and, I suppose one could argue, the ultimate film spectator, incapable of action when thrust into horrific events, then content to arrange his life and libido around chaste observation and false intimacy. But what really rankles is that Four Nights With Anna is a fantastic film to move around in. Its sense of space and atmosphere are second to none. Skolimowski depicts a rural Polish village as a permanent inkwash of brown and gray, Adam Sikora's cinematography flattening out buildings against sky while at the same time using a highly mobile camera to activate Leon's field of operations. Most of the action occurs between Leon's and Anna's houses, in the sightlines between the two, and in the negative space of muddy fields and open countryside that frames them. Intellectually, we understand this farmland to be open, but Skolimowski's movement within it creates a paradoxical claustrophobia, which in turn provides a sense not of "timelessness" in some fairy-tale sense but of mudbound stuckness, an entrapment within tired, bloodless, backward values that envelop all. Leon's view into Anna's bedroom is a sole portal to another world, where midnight blue replaces shit brown. Nevertheless, Leon's bumbling, skulking inability to negotiate this liminal space (his ultimate undoing) only serves to further emphasize Skolimowski's formalist achievement in shaping such a full, rich environment. The final shot, then, clarifies just what has been at stake for Leon, and for Four Nights With Anna overall. "The balcony is closed." "They're closing down Girlland. Some say it's a shame." The end.


Holy Woods (Cécile Fontaine, France) [s]

One of the inevitable frustrations of being an experimental film fan in North America is that despite the best efforts of some of our most intrepid programmers, a lot of European film work is just really difficult to see. There are historical reasons for this (residual habits from the North American co-op movement's consolidation and aesthetic line) as well as material ones (often-prohibitive rental and shipping costs), but I think we all feel somewhat lacking in this area, no matter how much we try to fill in the gaps. Cécile Fontaine is a French collage filmmaker and film abstractionist who, relative to her peers, has received a fair amount of attention in North American venues. But that and $1.75 will get you on the subway. Fontaine's work remains substantially underseen in these parts, and based on the four Fontaine films I have seen, she has few equals when it comes to contemporary found footage filmmaking. Fontaine tends to assemble found elements into tightly woven, unnerving new skeins, frequently creating disjunctive, contrapuntal rhythms. Her work exploits the jagged discrepancies that emerge when one filmstrip is connected to or layered with another. Her most recent film, Holy Woods, is a dense construction that plays footage from an Australian Forest Service educational film about logging against excerpts from a science film about insects. In discussing a film, one might generally say something like, "on the surface, things seem straightforward, but look deeper and there's considerably more going on." However, filmmaking like Fontaine's almost completely reverses these hermeneutical terms. All the action, all the mastery, occurs precisely "on the surface."


Although Fontaine has made no effort to disguise the representational content of her source material, her organization of it tends to largely hinge on surface effects. For example, the triangular form of a tent is replaced with an almost exact angular rhyme of a bent grasshopper leg. Or, Fontaine places painterly stripes down the length of a human figure, who is then replaced in her movement by segments of trees or close-ups of the insect. The gently rolling landscape observes the same slope as the bug's arcing leaf. Again and again, Fontaine uses not only shape and movement but also color as a device with which to join and disarticulate different forms in the editing process. Unlike most collage films, which maintain at least the appearance of a struggle to integrate themselves into a whole, each segment of Holy Woods has a considerably different painted tone and texture, so that each splice emphasizes visual discontinuity. And all the while, framelines and painted edges flicker in and out of the frame, a human voiceover is replaced by the blurping of leader against the sound head, and inside the image itself, trees keep right on falling. In its organization, then, Holy Woods attempts over time to organize its components, moment to moment, without ever falling together, or ever falling apart. There is a sense that Fontaine wants us to consider issues of scale (tree / human / insect), or environmental encroachment. However, the more one presses on these (somewhat unavoidable) themes, the more one robs Holy Woods of its coarse, twitchy material presence. Like certain Bruce Conner works (A Movie, Report), Holy Woods seems to hint at a crisis point for the civilization it depicts. But much more like the brutal, nerve-jangling found footage works of Luther Price, Fontaine's film is interested in evoking the somatic sensation of catastrophe, not speaking through logical appeals. Fontaine's films are rough, dirty, and verging on collapse, although certainly not to the extent of Price's cinema. (In terms of orderly aesthetic conduct, Price makes Fontaine look like Robert Beavers.) Like a woodsman, or an editor, Holy Woods moves through things in order to cut. Like a spectator, or a mantis eating its mate, Holy Woods consumes that upon which it relies. [Holy Woods can be viewed here.]


-My Dear Enemy (Lee Yoon-ki, South Korea)

Lee, as many of you may know, is an up-and-coming Korean director on the festival circuit, although none of his previous three films have really caught fire in North America. He's best known here for his previous film, Ad Lib Night, which received some degree of notice here and there. (Unsurprisingly, the Vancouver IFF has been his biggest booster on this continent so far.) He's sometimes compared with Hong Sang-soo and now, having seen his latest, I can see where people are coming from, although the two guys are really quite different. The Hong connection can be seen from the fact that Lee's film is rather talky, zeroes in on male / female relationship patterns, and derives awkward comedy from social embarrassment, male misbehavior and/or cue misapprehension. But that's really where the similarities end. Hong has become a more interesting visual stylist over the years (I personally thought his film Tale of Cinema was a high point in this regard), but for the most part he channels his energies on script and performance, then organizes them into a total-film structure(often a half-and-half narrative mirroring) rather than some minute-by-minute formalist scheme.


By contrast, My Dear Enemy is almost disorienting in terms of visual richness, puzzling to such a degree that I occasionally thought it might work against the film's best interests. The basic plot (no big spoilers here): Hee-su (Jeon Do yeon from Secret Sunshine) shows up at a racetrack to confront her ex-lover Byong-woon (Ha Jung-woo from Time and The Chaser) about a year-old unpaid debt of $3500. Then Byong-woon begins a process that will serve as the basic throughline of the film -- he takes Hee-su on a trip through Seoul as he shakes down lover after lover for loan money with which to pay her off, each meeting generating a unique set of discomforts. Over the course of the day, Hee-su is aggravated with Byong-woon's grinning, devil-may-care optimism and apparent inability to meet basic adult obligations. He's a gambler and a layabout, living catch as catch can, harboring big dreams and schemes but exhibiting little in the way of follow-through. And, apart from a coda, that's pretty much it for the film's denotative contents. But each and every scene is fragmented into a kaleidoscope of startling compositions, with Lee and d.p.Choi Sang-ho provinding crisp, almost Tatiesque urban cinematography and a frequently Cubist disarticulation of space. A simple conversation in the car, for example, is broken up to include: shots of Hee-su through the windshield, as the underside of a bridge is reflected on her; a long shot of the car and bridge against the bay; a windshield two-shot with the dark of the bridge and the light of the sky bisecting the frame; a long rearview two shot; a low dutch angle from the back seat, making it appear that Byong-woon is a kiddie car seat instead of a man; and, like, twelve other distinctive views. To be honest, it would take a Bordwell / Thompson shot table to adequately display the complex compositional shenanigans Lee's up to here. And aside from a few patient, winding long takes, the whole film is constructed like this.


Now, the magic of it all is, Lee's cinematography and natural rhythms of speech coincide, so that, if you're consciously tuning in to the film as a visual experience, you can notice all of these spatial break-ups. And sometimes it's a bit hard to miss. But, My Dear Enemy's style is so grounded in an unobtrusively radiant urban realism that its visual style can, and frequently does, recede into transparency. In fact, when Lee drops a bit of jazz clarinet during certain transitions, it's Woody Allen, not Hong Sang-soo, who comes to mind. And like Woody's New York, there's a sturdy-bones style of imagery that brings the script and performances forward without denigrating film's inherent visuality. My Dear Enemy constantly teeters between that self-effacing mode and an almost Vertovian approach to montage. This self-effacing construction, it seems, is working to Lee's detriment in terms of careerism, even as it makes for exciting, effortlessly enjoyable filmmaking. Although My Dear Enemy is a well-composed artwork, it is a fundamentally accessible popular entertainment. (It was, however, a box office flop at home, for whatever that's worth.) The festival circuit isn't clicking with Lee in quite the way it ought to be. (My Dear Enemy is having its North American premiere at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, several notches down the "official" totem pole of festival hierarchy.) British critic Neil Young remarked on Enemy's Hollywood remake potential, and he's not wrong. But again, part of the falling-between-chairs quality of Lee's work is the fact that its accessible character occludes a full recognition of its artistic ambitions, and vice versa. Think of it this way. Over the course of the film, our locus of identification shifts, from sharing Hee-su's consternation with the rather ridiculous Byong-woon, to slowly seeing his inherent, albeit unconventional value. (In this way, Byong-woon is a sort of distant cousin to Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky.) In some ways, My Dear Enemy itself operates along this axis, courting two distinct types of film audiences (the popular and the arthouse) and slowly showing them the virtues of the opposite form of cinema. Naturally, in these distressed economic times, when even the giants of the festival circuit cannot elbow their way onto the American movie screen, Lee's brand of subtlety is exactly the sort of work destined to fall by the wayside.




-Lion's Den (Pablo Trapero, Argentina / South Korea / Brazil)

This is the fourth film I've seen by Trapero, and while I still haven't made up my mind about him as a director, Lion's Den confirms him as a filmmaker we have to reckon with, one whose impact on global cinema is significant at the very least. His debut feature Crane World was a modest work of proletarian portraiture which both displayed ample promise and left wide open the question of where Trapero might go next. His second film (and to my mind his best), El Bonaerense, maintained Crane World's focus on labor as a linchpin of male identity while introducing an element of social critique. Basically a close study of an aimless bumpkin who joins the Buenos Aires police and is inculcated into corruption and brutality as if he were human clay, Bonaerense found Trapero honing his formal chops, in particular employing deep underlighting so as to make the environment rather inscrutable to both audience and newbie alike. What's more, the film's political considerations in no way preclude several bits of offhand humor. Unfortunately, Trapero turned up those subtle grace notes until they blared like obnoxious car alarms for his third film, the excruciating "comedy" Rolling Family. The less said about that claustrophobic road trip fiasco the better. But suffice to say, it was deplorable enough that I sat out PT#4, the well-regarded Born and Bred.


Lion's Den is undoubtedly a flawed effort, but it is one of those rare films which zeroes in on a milieu that has, it seems, been right there in the world all along, and yet somehow cinema has managed to miss it. For this alone, the film commands notice, and is never less than compelling. After an ambiguous and rather cursory narrative instigation, Trapero takes us inside the maternity / infant cellblock of a women's prison outside Buenos Aires. That's right: women who are pregnant at the time of incarceration, or who have children under four, are committed to an open cellblock which doubles as a concrete nursery. When the children turn four, Argentina's insistence that mothers and children should be kept together at all costs magically elapses, and the kids are taken away to live with relatives; if none exist or are willing, they become wards of the state. It is almost embarrassing to realize how little we know about women and children experiencing this plight, and Lion's Den explores various dimensions of this social sphere with bracing directness. But of course, every film, documentaries included, must be judged on the basis of its cinematic achievements rather than the nobility of its goals. Lion's Den generally succeeds due to Trapero's agile balance between social realism and a sharp formalist aesthetic. His stylistic invention can be witnessed in his careful scrolling out of the space of the cellblock, for example; his still-frame compositions of the prison exterior; or (as with Bonaerense) his burnished, painterly use of color and light, particularly during a nighttime riot scene.


Where Lion's Den's falters is in the management of its narrative, and in particular the demands of articulating a single character's throughline with the sociological material that clearly interested Trapero far more. This isn't to say that the plot strand has no worthwhile elements. Martina Gusman, who is onscreen for almost the entire running time, anchors the film with an exceptional performance as Julia, a young bourgeois woman thrust by an odd, underexplained crime of passion into a world largely peopled by the underclass. Her transformation by both prison life and her relationship with her son do provide key emotional touchstones for the larger-scale issues Trapero is exploring, but frequently there are logical gaps in the movement of the story, particularly as it relates to the question of Julia's impending trial. By the same token, Trapero's depiction of the women's prison atmosphere occasionally lapses into cliché (bitch fights, unwanted lesbian advances), but not in the usual way. It's clear that Trapero's thorough research into actual prison life revealed elements that happened to coincide with popular conceptions of "women behind bars," and in making Lion's Den he incorporated those aspects, secure in the belief that their truthfulness would obviate their complicity with stereotype. Alas, Trapero failed to account for the fact that a representation of a thing, however accurate, always carries a different force than the thing itself. Nevertheless, it was probably impossible, given the subject matter, for Trapero to avoid these pitfalls altogether, and so it's admirable that he sallied forth without getting caught up in the paralysis of liberal handwringing. Despite its flaws, Lion's Den is clearly one of the year's more significant releases. I'd recommend it without hesitation.


-Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey / France / Italy)

At present, there are at least a couple of camps regarding Ceylan and his latest film, and neither of them is exactly right. There are those who, back around the time of his previous film Climates, decided that Ceylan was a severely overrated merchant of self-serious "white elephant art," a filmmaker whose status as Turkey's leading auteur (much less a Gold Circle member of the international cinematic elite) is mostly undeserved. Most of my Cinema Scope brethren hold this view, and Three Monkeys provided some key evidence for the prosecution. There are also those who have generally been on Ceylan's team (like the posse of critics who've formed the most recent NYFF selection committee), but found Three Monkeys an overstuffed curio, fussy to a fault but fundamentally empty. I'm more sympathetic to this way of thinking, but there is a flipside to it as well. Cursory as it may have been, Monkeys' noirish plot does in fact make it go down more smoothly than his previous features. The plot, for what it's worth: local politician Servet (Ercan Kesal) is involved in a hit-and-run accident. Servet's driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) agrees to take the rap for the hit-and-run, in exchange for a large sum of money upon release. In the meantime, his son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) and wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) are in financial trouble. Hacer goes to ask Servet for a loan, and ends up having an affair with him. This leads to numerous complications and recriminations upon Eyüp's release. Sadly, though, the film appears to lay all culpability on Hacer's shoulders, as if she were merely a wanton woman. This is Monkeys' most distasteful aspect, and it actually makes me reconsider whether the rather flamboyant misogyny of Climates is male autocritique, as I'd originally thought, or just a picture of Ceylan's actual worldview.


At any rate, this plot unfolds according to basic storytelling mechanics, complete with substantially longer passages of standard (if slow-paced) montage, making this film somewhat more accessible than Distant or Climates. The tale may not have been rendered with a great deal of originality, or arguably a great deal of care, but it does provide a sturdy bracket for Ceylan's formalism. And, on a pictorial level, Three Monkeys is ravishing. From the opening sequence, in which Servet commits the hit-and-run in his jet black towncar on a wooded backstreet in the dark of night, through Ceylan's numerous, meticulously etched cityscapes and color-enhanced seaside views, this film is a remarkable bulletin on the state of digital video. Of particular note is Three Monkeys' spectrum-pushing employment of some of the deepest blacks I've seen in a DV feature, and, provided the film is screened through properly calibrated equipment, this aspect alone provides a feast for the eyes. (FWIW, I was watching a New Yorker screener disc on my new Panasonic Viera TH-C42FD18 Plasma, a set I highly recommend for true blacks. It even passed the Brakhage Test.) Having said this, it is simple enough to extrapolate a story-based objective correlative for Ceylan's dark palette, pertaining to the dark deceptions which drive the three main protagonists into their downward spiral. However Three Monkeys' look and feel is so much more advanced than the tale it tells that drawing connections between the two threatens to cheapen Ceylan's pure-cinema achievements. Granted, in some ways he does this himself. (I'm not sure why he has such a fondness for space-flattening wide angle close-ups, which at best recall Terry Gilliam and at worst make his nervous Turks look like extras from an old David Lee Roth video.) But for the most part Three Monkeys hypnotizes, so long as it manages to stay out of its own way. (In fact, this is a rare case when those of us who don't speak the film's language might have the advantage. If you don't know Turkish, you can watch it at some point with the subtitles off.)




-Megane (Glasses) (Naoko Ogigami, Japan)

As cheap in its peddling of canned Buddhist Japanoiserie as any Doris Dörrie film, Megane is an insufferable quirkfest thoroughly besotted with its own sitcom-level insights. And yet, remarkably, Ogigami's film is also achingly slow and frequently appears to have been shot by the Hubble telescope. It's practically a parody of Asian master-shot filmmaking, and, given that Megane operates through a system of misfired comic riffs and forced alternative-family humanism, one can only assume we're witnessing the pitfalls of cultural exchange, that awkward moment when Jim Jarmusch's soulful, fully imbibed engagement with Ozu comes back to us as a muddy, nth-generation Xerox. The basics: Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi) is a bespectacled, black-sweater wearing female professor who finds her way to a remote seaside resort. She is soon irritated by the special rituals of this self-consciously insular, passive-aggressively Zen community, with their in-room wake-up service, oppressively family-style group meals, oddball beach exercises, and unexplained insistence on "twilighting" as the resort's chief attraction. She leaves, finds some even worse accommodations (a work commune! eek!), and returns, chastened, intent on integrating with the funky fold. Also, there are mystical snowcones. I suppose Megane is nicely shot, if only in the sense that Ogigami empties out her frames so as to encompass a clean bare minimum much of the time. And, when compared to the murky look of much arthouse fare, there is something rather refreshing (for ten minutes or so, anyway) about a film whose visual style is almost constantly saturated with golden sunlight and clear blue water. But these postcard pleasures hardly compensate for Megane's agonizing, flitty march toward its inevitable koan-on-the-cob. A final metaphor, about as stupid as any you've ever seen in any film ever, I assure you, only certifies the nearly two hours wasted in Ogigami's directorial company.