Reviews

New Directors/New Films 2012 – Critic's Choice

The Independent’s senior film critic Kurt Brokaw is viewing the entire 41st annual edition of New Directors/New Films, which includes 24 narrative features, 5 documentaries, and 12 short films representing 28 countries. His critic’s choices begin here:

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
(Terence Nance. 2011. USA. 90 min.)

Imagine a self-indulgent, self-conscious, live-action romance exploring the pangs of unrequited young love in Brooklyn today. What a lame premise. Now imagine it deftly executed through animation, claymation puppetry, cut-cut paper sculptures, and a slew of other visual techniques by a filmmaker who possesses both the playful artfulness of Michel Gondry and the formal aestheticism of Milton Glaser. Oooh, there’s a combination of talents you couldn’t have predicted would fuse in a bluesy, free form, full-tilt, gabby-to-the-point-of exasperating and utterly original movie-movie. You don’t get David Foster Wallace but you get echoes of William Faulkner and a healthy dose of Louise Erdrich with passages read from her novel Love Medicine.

The director, Terence Nance, has said that this three-year project is all about him as a young African-American male, that it concerns romance in the black community, and that his character projects “both the cool outside, and then the little boy inside crying if a girl doesn’t find me fast enough on Facebook.” This all happens formatted into an earlier film-within-a-film by Nance that keeps asking the viewer, “how would you feel?” if the relationships shown (usually Nance not getting or holding the attention or interest of his co-star, the buoyant Namik Minter) were happening to you and not to him.

The director claims he shaped his character as a combination of Bean and Jacques Tati—so it’s no wonder he’s not connecting very well with women. Nance is 29 and a recent graduate of NYU—but his art is mysterious and mischievous in ways that feel way beyond his age and experience. On the one hand, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty looks like it was created in tiny pieces (probably according to whatever miniscule amounts of money the filmmaker had on hand). But Nance kept drafting and shooting these little bits, on and on, building layers on layers, content overloads styled like voice-mails, iPhone messages, and social media apps that keep piling up and up. It’s more than anyone can absorb and completely sort out in 90 minutes—which is probably exactly what the director intends. Why else would he put a title on his movie that won’t fit on most theater marquees?

If you page through Milton Glaser’s giant Art is Work hardcover book (2000, Overlook Press), you’ll see a host of illustrations and paintings that may have inspired some of Nance’s animation. And if you happen to catch this film in its showing at the Museum of Modern Art, note there are 15 of Glaser’s master works housed in the museum’s permanent collection, including the iconic silhouette of Bob Dylan with its flowing, enhanced locks. Big-hair imagery like this turns up in many of the director’s musings. And Nance’s art stands on its own in ways that Glaser, the preeminent designer and conceptualizer of the 20th century (and counting) would find pleasing.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty will be shown Saturday, March 24th, at 4:15 pm at the Walter Reade theater, and Monday, March 26th, at 9pm at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan Maut)
(Gareth Huw Evans. 2012. Indonesia/USA. 100 min.)

Honestly now, have you ever in your moviegoing life seen a film whose end credits listed close to a dozen medical doctors? What else would you like to know about this head-banging, bone-crunching martial-arts slaughterfest? That it’s fashioned around an Indonesian form of hand-to-hand combat called Pencak Silat, developed in the 8th century in Java and Sumatra, and here enlivened with daggers, axes, machetes, swords, plain old hammers, Glocks, and assorted automatic weapons? That its director, Gareth Huw Evans, says, “I deal in blood and mayhem…I’m the guy who makes stunt performers take multiple kicks to the head for the pleasure of what I hope is a captivated audience”? That Sony Pictures Classics, one of the world’s premiere distributors of independent cinema, has now ventured into what we might call arthouse grindhouse?

You might think you’ve seen this film recently, as it begins with a handsome hero and special-forces team member Rama (Iko Uwais) tenderly kissing his young pregnant wife goodbye before heading out to his chaotic day, exactly like the handsome young male heroes in two of last year’s slambang French action thrillers, The Assault and Point Blank. Rama’s mission with his armed-to-the-teeth team is to storm a grimy 15-story SRO and capture a crime lord isolated on the top floor with a bank of television monitors and a slew of trained murderers. The term “killing floor” has never been used more aptly.

The Raid: Redemption is burdened with a comic-strip script and the usual unending stream of rude language, which seems unusually dumbed-down in its subtitles for US viewers. But that hardly matters, since what draws us to a film like this is watching 50 ways to slice, dice, cripple, maim, and demolish enemies. Evans’ film has this in abundance, along with razor’s-edge editing and a music score by Mike Shinoda of Linkin’ Park that’s replete with growling synthesizers and percussion as effective as the score Trent Reznor created for The Social Network. The one-on-one, man-to-man, empty-hand fight scenes are staggering in their athleticism, choreography, and ferocity, and you may sit there wondering how many ambulance drivers were pressed into service along with those multiple attending physicians.

Through the years, the common wisdom among martial arts fans has been that Kihachi Okamoto’s 1966 samurai drama, The Sword of Doom, was and always will be the defining standard of one masterless samurai (the great Tatsuya Nakadai) taking down a small army of attackers in black-and-white CinemaScope images of carnage and death that seem to go on forever. We may need to rethink this evaluation. Evans’ new film will probably out-gross everything else shown in this festival, combined. One could say as a gross-out, it already has.

The Raid: Redemption will be shown Thursday, March 22nd at 6 pm at Museum Of Modern Art and at 11 pm at the Walter Reade.

Omar Killed Me (Omar M’a Tuer)
(Roschdy Zem. 2012. France. 85 min.)

Crulic: The Path To Beyond
(Anca Damian. 2011. Romania. 73 min.)

Filmmakers worldwide continue to be drawn to stories of common men and women imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. Festival curators, ever alert to films about victims of injustice in remote corners of the globe, are attuned to championing many of these documentaries and narrative dramas. It shouldn’t surprise us that New Directors/New Films is showing two, each impassioned and first-rate, similar in their premises yet totally different in their filmic executions.

Roschdy Zem’s brisk and compactly fashioned docudrama details how an illiterate Moroccan gardener, Omar Raddad (a poignant and heartrending Sami Bouajila) was convicted in 1994 of the slaying of an elderly widow who employed him at her French Riviera home. The woman was stabbed repeatedly, then bludgeoned with planks and left to die in her dark basement. Supposedly she then crawled a considerable distance to two cellar doors and hand-lettered Omar m’a tuer (“Omar killed me”) in her own blood on the doors. But no bloodstains were found on the floor between where her body lay and the doors; Raddad’s DNA didn’t match anything found at the crime scene; clear evidence was given that the defendant was hospitalized in Nice from a motorcycle accident at the time of the killing; and the actual date of the victim’s death was altered, probably to shatter the accused man’s alibi.

Raddad was found guilty in Marseille and sentenced to 18 years in prison. There he learned to write and read, had a book, Why Me? published in 2007, and received a pardon a year later through the combined efforts of former French president Jacques Chirac and King Hassan II of Morocco. Zem’s fast-paced film, based on Raddad’s book plus a second account by a French journalist (played by Denis Podalydès) makes the case that Raddad was framed by the real killer, who’s never been found, and was done in by a prejudiced court system. After Raddad survives a suicide attempt and begins practicing handwriting in prison, he slowly becomes aware of the simplest and most devastating truth of all: in a pitch black cellar it would have been all but impossible for an aged, dying person to write a legible message on a wall with a finger dipped in her own blood.

In the festival’s other new drama of a failed government system, Anca Damian’s splendidly inventive Crulic: The Path to Beyond, Claudiu Crulic never makes it out of prison. The hallmark films in new Romanian cinema—particularly The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) in which a dying alcoholic is hauled from one broken hospital system to another—have taught us that growing up in an impoverished police state almost guarantees a glum, barren existence. The surprise here is that writer/director Damian has tasked five of her country’s most talented animators to weave Crulic’s tragic tale as an unfolding tapestry that’s as memorable, beguiling, and on occasion as majestic, as anything we’ve seen come out of Romania.

Crulic’s youth is vigorously visualized in collages of snapshots, film footage and pin-and-ink drawings that reveal a hardscrabble life but not a desperate plight. In early adulthood the enterprising Crulic starts eeking out a living traveling to Poland and other countries, purchasing general merchandise for resale. Accused of stealing a Polish judge’s wallet (though he offers proof he was in Italy when the theft occurred) Crulic is dumped in the primitive Krakow Detention Center Custody Prison, in which he demands justice and pledges not to eat until his case is reviewed. He’s already on the path to beyond.

As a film, Crulic becomes a death trip in much the same ways that Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly fantasized author Philip K. Dick’s descent into drugged madness, or Gus Van Sant’s Last Days imagined Kurt Cobain’s soul rising from his body after his suicide. The final sequence of Crulic’s own burial shroud, representing his departing soul, wafting off into space following the prisoner’s death from starvation, is enormously moving.

These two journeys of Omar Raddad and Claudiu Crulic are not easy trails to explore, but both affirm desperate and uncompromised thirsts for truth.

Omar Killed Me will be shown Saturday, March 24th at 6:15 pm at the Walter Reade, and Sunday, March 25th at 7:30 pm at The Museum of Modern Art. Crulic: The Path to Beyond will be shown Friday, March 23rd at 6:30 pm at The Museum of Modern Art and Saturday, March 24th at 2 pm at the Walter Reade.

The Minister (L’exercice de l’Etat)
(Pierre Schöller. 2011. France. 115 min.)

The minister in The Minister is a fictionalized Minister of Transportation in contemporary France, Bertrand Saint-Jean (Olivier Gourmet in a career-building performance), and the political events defining and bookending his government’s decision to privatize France’s rail system. Writer/director Pierre Schöller has etched a bruising, swirling, supremely confident and warmly satisfying portrait of the up-close-and-personal lives of public servants who set a country’s course.

Saint-Jean’s character is a complex mosaic of motives and actions, deliberately engineered by director Schöller to make our feelings about this transport chief fluid and subject to debate. On the one hand, he’s an ethical, hit-the-ground-running hard-charger whose philosophy is “to watch the road ahead, to stay honest.” He’s a dutiful husband who makes love with his attractive wife on her birthday, gives an aide who becomes a new father plenty of time off, and depends heavily on the advice of his personal secretary Gilles (Michel Blanc, whose peerless acting matches the focus, gravity, and essential decency of Gourmet).

The minister has the common touch of great political leaders; he’s not afraid to wade into an angry crowd of protestors, and he’ll spend a long, drunken evening in the trailer home of his personal driver (Sylvain Deblé, a persuasive non-actor you’ll long remember) matching the driver’s wife glass for glass and then stumbling out into the night to (of all things) pour cement for the home this couple is building. Saint-Jean is a bear of a man, chewing gastric pills and chain-smoking Winstons, taking calls in the bathroom, muti-tasking his way through a clutter of appointments and documents. It’s the kind of larger-than-life role Gerard Depardieu built his career upon, and Gourmet is working hard to earn that mantle.

There’s a darker, even tragic side to Saint-Jean’s life, and the director doesn’t hesitate to show us that. The politico has ugly, brief, but bizarre nightmares (one of which involves an alligator about to swallow a nude woman and is unwisely being used to promote the movie). He mutters asides to his loyal press secretary (a savvy and efficient Zabou Breitman) like “politics is a wound that never heals,” and tells his wife, “you wouldn’t love me if you knew me.” (She does know him and loves him, warts and all.) He stubbornly resists his government’s gradual shift into a privatization mode for the rail system. Most significantly, he bears witness to a catastrophic transportation accident early in the film and has his own life altered by a second transportation calamity late in the picture.

It is a testament to his resiliency and the writer/director’s sensibilities that The Minister has a surprise, genuinely upbeat ending you’ll embrace with open arms. This is a major film, instantly the best political drama since Marco Belloccio’s 2009 Vincere.

The Minister will be shown Friday, March 23rd at 9 pm at The Museum of Modern Art, and Sunday, March 25th at l:30 pm at the Walter Reade.

The End
(Didier Barcelo. 2011. France. 16 min.)

The standalone short subject in last year’s edition of New Directors/New Films was Stacey Steers’ awesomely animated The Night Hunter, a 16-minute Edward Gorey-like hybrid of fantasy of terror and horror imagery built around screen legend Lillian Gish. Images of Gish from her 1920’s films Way Down East, Broken Blossoms,and The Wind were seamlessly woven into a perilous black-and-while journey spotted with blood-red color.

This year’s most memorable short film is from France and stars a very different (and very much alive) screen luminary, Charlotte Rampling. Playing herself, Rampling settles down in her living room to watch an older film of hers being televised. The picture is Viva la Vie!, directed by Claude Lelouch in 1984. Only what’s on-screen isn’t Rampling playing opposite Michel Piccoli. It’s a 20-something actress (Liz Gareth), considerably younger than Rampling who made Viva la Vie at age 38. What’s going on here?

Confused and angry, Rampling storms into her producer’s office and demands an explanation of why all her scenes in a 1980s film have been replaced by another actress playing her role. “Because she’s the new Charlotte Rampling,” explains the producer, breezily adding that in an age of colorization, remakes and digitizing, replacements are inevitable.

Rampling can’t believe what she’s hearing, and seeks out the set where her “replacement” is working away on another of her films. She’s furious and makes a scene, and all the young actors and technicians stop and stare. They’re in their 20s, polite and respectful, but the attitude is, hey, it’s just a job. Stunned, Rampling walks outside, where the camera closes in on her, tight, and little by little, pieces of her begin to slowly dissolve off the screen. The title of Didier Barcelo’s brilliant little film becomes very clear.

Not to worry. Charlotte Rampling, who recently appeared in Manhattan supporting a new feature documentary of her life (The Look), is building a portfolio of work, large and small, with permanence in its artistry. This is a daring performance by an actress who, like Lillian Gish, doesn’t appear to fear anything.

The End will show as part of Shorts Program 2 on Saturday, March 31st at 12:30 pm at The Museum of Modern Art, and Sunday, April 1st at 12:30 pm at the Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center in Lincoln Center.

This concludes critic’s choices for New Directors/New Films 2012. Watch for critic’s choices on the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival, April 18-29.

For the complete ND/NF schedule, visit here.

(Editor’s note: originally published March 9th with additions March 13, 14, and 22.)

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