Reviews

New Directors/New Films 2015 – Critic’s Choice

Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw watches all 26 features and 12 shorts at Lincoln Center, and presents his favorites.

“The current Rendez-Vous with French Cinema boasts more than its share of offbeat new youth and crime films, but all of them stay within what you can safely term “accustomed” zones of screen violence, sexuality, and the usual blue language that seems to roughen every surface of contemporary culture. (Not to mention the spate of “red band” trailers that now include R or NC-17 content.)

But the 44th edition of New Directors/New Films (ND/NF), presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art March 18-29, evidences the first thematic turning of a mainstream New York fest toward extreme imagery. It’s not dominant enough (yet) to be called a fixation or obsession, and obviously it doesn’t mean erudite curators are trying to lure in more readers of Bloody Disgusting and Aint It Cool NewsBut a lot of newly chosen screen content is pushing the sensitivity envelope in new and distinctly disturbing ways.

The promotional copy from these two premiere film organizations describes this recent turn in festival programming as reaching out to “adventurous moviegoers” with “coming-of-age narratives that are vivid—one might even say ‘explicit,’…inhuman’ violence” (referring to dogs), and “an abrasive assault on audiences.” A press release seems to summarize a growing curatorial feeling that “abrasive and discomfiting is a big part of what makes [the work] so interesting.” Consider this sampling:

* The opening night presentation, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, is set in San Francisco in 1976 and posits a 15-year-old girl (played by Bel Powley, who’s 23), having an endless round-robin of sexual intercourse with her mom’s lover (Alexander Skarsgard, who’s 38 and looks every day of it). It’s based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, and was staged in 2010 without the nudity and simulated sex that inform the film. And so we have consensual sex of every kind between a minor and an grown adult more than twice her age. “It quite simply is very ‘now,’” says MoMA’s chief curator. Is it?

* The closing night presentation, Rick Alverson’s Entertainment, already bears Varietys warning that it contains “one of the most unsettling childbirth scenes this side of Eraserhead.” The Hollywood Reporter says, “Entertainment feels like a sick joke.” “This is a festival that values originality,” counters a Film Society curator in the FSLC announcement. The picture follows a grade Z comic who specializes in sex jokes across the Mojave desert. (One printable sample: “What’s the worst thing about a gang rape by Crosby, Stills and Nash? No Young.”) He slumps on a restroom floor holding whatever’s been birthed in his lap. The teen mime who opens for this chap concludes his act by miming defecating into his hat. Is this how you want to be entertained?

*White God announces its core concept not in a press release but in the huge one-sheet hanging in the windows adjoining Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. It’s Lili, the Hungarian teen heroine of Kornél Mundruczó’s robustly visceral drama, pedaling her bike for dear life through Budapest streets packed with savage dogs in hot pursuit.

This is the main image used in White God's, promo poster.

This is the main image used in White God’s, promo poster.

White God is a new twist in horror films—mistreated, beaten, tortured and mutilated dogs (many are also either shot dead by armed police or killed in a ‘fighting cock’ ring with spectators cheering on their favorite). Dozens of these abused dogs break out of their pound and revenge themselves on humans. (The numerous end credits, some in capital letters, spell out the usual no-animals-were-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-motion-picture provisos.) Do you believe your lying eyes or what most viewers rarely bother to read after the movie has ended?

According to the film’s publicist, White God is going into the IFC Center, downtown Manhattan’s most fiercely independent showplace. But it’s also scheduled to show at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on upper Broadway, where ladies-who-lunch accompanied by exquisite pets slip into their favorite multiplex for the latest Catherine Deneuve. They’ll see White Gods one sheet out front of Lili playing her trumpet with all the hounds of hell, including Hagan, her gorgeous Labrador cross-breed, peacefully snoozing at her feet, and may assume this is a sweet little doggie movie. Then they’ll walk into the theater and start fainting after ten minutes. Variety calls the dogfight “the most grueling watch for dog lovers since Amores Perros.

* The Tribe, directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy from Ukraine, is set in a boarding school for the deaf and mute, and boasts three Cannes Critics’ Week prizes. It’s performed entirely in sign language and follows one boy who over the course of 132 minutes is brutally kicked and beaten in no less than five scenes, has repeated and forced sex with a classmate who he’s pimping out to local truckers, and exacts revenge on the boys who’ve savaged him by murdering them all in their beds. Oh, and let’s not forget the back-room abortion scene, performed and detailed in real-time on one of the young girls who’s been whoring herself out. It’s the one scene where we hear a human voice—the girl’s ear-splitting shrieks of pain. Bloody Disgusting, are you listening?

* In the Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy, directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the mother of twin 10-year-old boys comes home swathed in bandages from facial reconstruction. But the boys, who have a massive collection of black beetles in a tank, doubt this quirky woman who has a twin lookalike of herself in a photo, is really their mom—especially after she kills a stray cat and wanders nude in the moonlight, her head literally spinning. So the kids turn the tables on mom, slipping a beetle into her sleeping mouth (there’s a dream sequence where they cut her chest open and beetles pour out), then binding her hand and foot to the bed, gluing her eyes and mouth shut, later going to work on her teeth to torture the truth out of her. When that doesn’t work, they decide to rid their lives of mom forever. You shouldn’t be surprised CraveOnlines critic writes “what this mother endures could be too much for a real parent to endure.”

* Shim Sung-bo’s Haemoo, produced by the respected Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), revolves around a tough-as-nails freighter captain who agrees to illegally transport a fish hold full of Japanese/Korean refugees to a better life. The refugees are like Herzog’s City of Gold, El Dorado, which Klaus Kinski kept soldiering toward in Aguirre, The Wrath of God. In Sung-bo’s outing, the human cargo is another bag of gold, and when they all die in their sealed chamber from a freon gas leak, the captain, like Kinski, goes mad and decides to take himself and the crew (including one stowaway beauty) down with his ship.

This is a grim, glum thriller that has some of the inevitable tragedy of The Perfect Storm mixed with Herzog’s world class conclusion of the camera circling Kinski on his raft in Aguirre, wild monkeys crawling all over his armored body. The crew killings in Haemoo are gratuitously detailed (spikes through the head, et.al.) and the captain’s demise, like Kinski’s, is grandly, memorably awful.

Is there a more responsible, viewer-friendly side to all this carnage, violence, and under-age sex? In a word, yes: let’s consider first a satiric dramatic short and then a dead-serious, feature-length documentary—both carefully conscious of their directors’ honed sensibilities—that become the first critic’s choices of 2015 ND/NF:

Discipline
(Christophe M. Saber. 2014. Switzerland. 11 min.)

Where can confrontations among a multi-racial, multi-ethnic body of people thrown together by chance take place? Anyplace! Christophe Saber’s setting is a grocery store in Lausanne, run by a trio of young Egyptian men. When a 9-year-old girl gets into the kind of argument children often get into with parents over junk candy, her dad slaps her. Not hard, but hard enough that it stings. This immediately triggers a protest from a classy blond woman, not the kid’s mom. Several other shoppers chime in. Dad defends his action. One store owner, then another, then the third put in their two cents. Shoppers demand service at the front register. The discipline issue escalates into ethnic slurs. The hoopla carries into the street. An apartment dweller above screams for quiet. Insults are hurled.

The little girl’s harried mom turns up, telling the classy blond to shove off. Then a can thrown from above strikes a man. Push turns to shove. Four-letter insults get hurled. One angry guy savagely kicks a mirror off another’s car. The girl sits and sulks, munching on her junk candy, oblivious to the mounting chaos around her.

Saber is a Swiss/Egyptian 2014 filmmaking graduate of ECOL in Lausanne. Discipline was his diploma film. It’s a shrewd and well-observed mini-drama every viewer who’s witnessed (or been involved in) a public dust-up will recognize and watch with keen, knowing eyes. It’s well cast, well shot, well edited. We recognize the line between civil disputes that get heated but stay on point, and dangerous confrontations that cross the line into race and ethnicity—often in a New York minute.

Discipline shows as part of Shorts Program 2 on Sun. March 22nd at 2:45 pm at Lincoln Center and Mon. March 23rd at 6 pm at MoMA.

Western
(Turner Ross and Bill Ross. 2015. USA. 93 min.)

The drugs come from Mexico. The demand comes from here. Careful now.

You’re stepping into a documentary that steadily, stealthily coils itself like a rattlesnake around a peaceful and prosperous American community. “Here” means Eagle Pass, Texas, a town of 28,000, bordering the meandering Rio Grande River and directly across from its much larger Mexican neighbor, Piedras Negras, Coahuila. The cities are less than an hour from Bracketville, where John Wayne rebuilt the Alamo for his 1960 epic western.

All that glitters... Western challenges the facade of denial along the Rio Grande.

All that glitters… Western challenges the facade of denial along the US-Mexican border.

In 2012, when this Westerns filming took place, the two towns found themselves just 40 miles from a drug-smuggling corridor where multiple killings (including a beheading) closed the border and all but paralyzed an entire population, from a prominent cattleman, Martin Wall, to Eagle Pass’ beloved and ever-smiling mayor, Chad Foster. There are trace elements of Wayne’s calm integrity and quiet authority worn into Foster’s persona.

The experienced Ross documentarians are in no hurry to paint a portrait of Eagle Pass’ life being changed so severely that even the local whorehouse shuts down. Instead, they patiently etch a daily portrait of life being lived normally, even joyously—Mayor Foster (who died of cancer at 63 shortly after a year of filming wrapped) is the very essence of a southern gentleman, his welcoming office filled with signs like “just another day in paradise” and “no wall between amigos.”

Mariachi bands play, children study, cowhands ride bucking bulls, and a matador wins ovations at a rodeo while fireworks displays dot the evening skies. It all masks an undercurrent of denial and fear that feels like a poison chillingly seeping its way into the narrative. This is filmmaking and cross-cutting of a very high order, and you may experience some of the same unease you felt in CitizenFour when Edward Snowden started unraveling all he knew about how government tracks every move of suspect populations.

Foster isn’t blind to the drug running and active killing grounds less than an hour from Eagle Pass, but he has a persuasive optimism (at least on camera) that’s rooted in his love of the land and its people. You may find his persona harder to buy when you learn that he narrowly missed being killed in a 2009 cartel shootout in a restaurant across the border that took the life of one woman, and that his Mexican mayoral counterpart was killed more recently in a mysterious airplane crash that some say was narco-related.

The major cattle rancher, Martin Wall, has a more aggressive personality, veering between playing with and lavishing attention on his six-year-old daughter, and musing disconsolately on how the drug activity coupled with the rebuilding of the border wall is wrecking his cattle trading business. The cartels have never messed with local business owners, he tells us, “but now they just kill anybody.” What dawns on the viewer, and it takes a while for this to settle in, is that Wall’s version is the truth and that Foster is living on an illusory edge of John Wayne’s screen legend. Wayne never went looking for a fight, but he never backed away from one.

Western is flavored with symbology like black crows circling above the stunning vistas of scrub brush and mesquite trees, but it shies away from picturing the oil and natural gas wells that dot the rural landscape, and the 10-foot black steel fence that theoretically separates Eagle Pass from any unwanted intruders and potential kidnappers of teens. Westerns mission is not to speculate on any specifics regarding the bad guys. They remain an undocumented evil, as do the open “crawl holes” under the fences, the prison near Piedras Negras where 130 prisoners recently escaped, and the fact that one corpse a day (over 5,000 in the past 15 years) is found decaying out in the badlands. This extreme imagery is not needed.

What the Ross directors have given us is far more valuable—a rare, disturbing reflection on how denial keeps children’s kites flying even as cattle pens empty out, border patrol agents armed to the teeth guard town meetings, and men stare unblinking at a river that now runs deep with trouble. One truth this doc demonstrates beyond question is that life in Eagle Pass is no longer “just another day in paradise.”

Western shows Sun. March 22nd at 3:30 pm at MoMA and Mon. March 23rd at 8:45 pm at Lincoln Center.

The Kindergarden Teacher
(Nadav Lapid. 2014. Israel/France. 119 min.)

Nira (Sarit Larry), the enigmatic title character in the festival’s most sleekly fashioned and poignantly troubling drama, is a head teacher with 20 years experience in a pleasant Tel Aviv school. She’s married to a gruff engineer and they have a daughter in boarding school (not seen) and a handsome son, advancing well in army service. The slimly attractive educator has kind eyes and a ready smile, and seems every bit the quintessential early ed teacher; her passion is for poetry and she’s taking classes with others in her young adult community. Her husband doesn’t have much interest or use for the arts. (He’s Ashkenazi, she’s Sephardic, though this is not an issue point.)

The child Nira begins watching most closely in her class is the five-year-old Yoav (Avi Schnaidman, a remarkably unformed yet mysteriously assured amateur), who’s developed a ritual of pacing back and forth, then spouting out a dense, philosophically profound piece of verse. His original subjects include matadors, lions, and a figure, ‘Hagar,’ an undefined subject who he calls ‘truly the son of God.’ A poem titled “Parting” includes the line “a moment of parting is a moment of death.” Nira senses Yoav is a child prodigy—maybe a Mozart in the making—and we’re surprised and more than a little shocked when we watch her in her poetry class, reciting the boy’s poem about Hagar and then claiming it as her own invention. The ruse works—her teacher is duly impressed.

Nira begins taking notes in the schoolyard whenever Yoav goes into his poetry-reciting mode. She gets down on the ground with him, making sure he knows “this is what the ground looks like from the height of a cat.” Probing deeper, she asks the boy’s caregiver, Miri (Ester Rada, strikingly chic), what Yoav likes writing about most. “Unrequited love,” replies Miri with a shrug, “like a 40-year-old spinster.” Miri’s an aspiring actress and uses the child’s work in her auditions, performing a vivid example, and we note—or are we imagining?—the first twinges of protective jealousy clouding Nira’s face.

The teacher begins flanking Yoav during naptime, at play, even helping him shower at school to wash off sand. It will dawn on you that she’s searching for his muse, partly to protect it but partly to make it her own. Yoav calls her at home, just as she’s about to make love with her husband, with a newly created poem. The boy tells Nira his uncle inspired his love for poetry, and she goes to see him—a man defeated by modern technology (having lost his job on a now defunct newspaper), who’s glumly teaching remedial reading.

The Kindergarten Teacher is a film that could've opened or closed ND/NF, observes Brokaw.

The Kindergarten Teacher is a film that could’ve opened or closed ND/NF, observes Brokaw.

At this point The Kindergarten Teacher begins to strongly echo writer/ director Lapid’s first picture, Policeman, also a film about what Lapid calls “a female character at war with ‘the spirit of our times.’” It’s a no-win place for something as fragile and ephemeral as poetry, and Nira seals her consuming fears when she visits the child’s divorced father, a fabulously successful restaurateur who, like her own husband, has zero interest in Yoav’s poems. Nira tells him Miri has been reciting his son’s poems in auditions, and the angry father instantly phones the caregiver and fires her. The father asks Nira to spend more time with his son. Nira smiles again, but this time we realize it’s because she knows Yoav’s inventions can now become exclusively hers.

The Kindergarten Teacher is by no means done at this point; it evolves into a series of far sharper revelations. Suffice it to say they involve Nira’s sudden intimacy with her poetry teacher and his betrayal of her to Yoav’s father, which precipitates a terrible, life-altering decision on Nira’s part. The director defines his motivations: “Nira embodies that typical mixture of revolutionaries, between innocence and violence, between strong insights and total thoughtlessness. She hungers for absolute justice and is capable of anything to obtain it.”

Larry is sublimely severe as Nira. Whether she’s simply studying her prodigy, gently laying a supportive finger on her husband’s shoulder, or briefly, almost violently bursting her conservative shell in a disco crammed with poetry recital revelers who let their hair down with unaccustomed fury, she owns this movie. Hers is the knockout performance in the 2015 New Directors/New Films fest.

The Kindergarten Teacher is, to be sure, ultimately a crime drama, like many in both this fest and the recently concluded Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. But it’s a picture of taste, contemporary relevance, and a haunting indictment of the technology (“those claustrophobic, raw, narcissistic ‘selfie’ images,” complains Lapid) that dominates Tel Aviv and, indeed, most of a world in transition. No child is injured and the criminal is apprehended without a single frame of extreme imagery. It’s a film that easily could have opened or closed New Directors/New Films, and probably would have under its previous curatorial directors.

The Kindergarten Teacher shows Tues. March 24th at 8:45 pm at Lincoln Center, and Wed. March 25th at 6:15 pm at MoMA.

Listen to Me Marlon
(Stevan Riley. 2015. United Kingdom. 100 min.)

Marlon Brando (1924-2004) never made a classic film noir in the 1940s or 50s. But he was familiar with the legions of untrustworthy narrators—publicists, journalists, screenwriters—that gave him all the trappings of fame while whittling down a giant, proven talent into roles that weakened his confidence and sapped his integrity. Little wonder he made over 200 audio recordings including this self-hypnosis session from 1996:

Listen to me Marlon… This is one part of yourself speaking to another part of yourself. Listen to the sound of my voice and trust me. You know I have your interests at heart. Just relax, relax, relax. Im going to help you change in a way that will make you feel happier, more useful… I want you to accept what I say as true. What I tell you here and now is true.

As a movie star portrait, Stevan Riley’s novelty documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, has a one-of-a kind, beyond-the-grave tingle running through it. Brando’s own confessional narratives are the film. He describes himself as an actor trapped in a world of confusion, sadness, isolation and disorder—“maybe this is a swan song for all of us,” he intones. We let him hold the screen once again—as he held it for decades through a thicket of good and bad movies—because we believe this is his unfiltered, rueful truth, an embittered legacy he’s leaving to history.

These voice-over recordings support an exhaustive but conventional biographical assembly of film and news clips, archival photos, interviews, and scenes of the actor’s pastoral life on his French Polynesian atoll, Teti’aroa. We glimpse his serious commitments to civil rights and Native American justice, including giving his prime time moments on the 1972 Oscar awards to Sacheen Littlefeather, who passionately protests “the treatment of American Indians by the film industry” to a stunned audience.

We also witness his sly, flirty, and all-but-devouring manner with female interviewers. He’s close to a real-life version of Nadav Lapid’s fictional revolutionary in the review you just finished reading. The doc’s only re-creations are Brando’s former living room on Mulholland Drive, where the camera prowls its empty, ghostly presence, and an animated, 3-D Cyberware rendering of his head, slowly turning and introducing the film. (There’s a whiff of cryogenics circling this weird opening.)

Brando’s early years, migrating from Nebraska to Manhattan where he took classes at the American Theatre Wing Professional School (part of The New School) and studying with Stella Adler, are delicious to watch. She’s instructing him and he’s on point, shedding painful childhood memories of abusive and alcoholic parents, and his supporting Broadway roles from ’43 to ’46 prepare him for Elia Kazan’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Jessica Tandy. Riley uses repeated clips from Kazan’s filming of Streetcar in 1951 (with Vivien Leigh replacing Tandy) to demonstrate Brando’s mastery of Stanislavski’s method acting, as well as his smoldering sensuality, which remains palpable and immediate. You can smell Stanley Kowalski’s sweat coming off the screen.

So many memorable roles flank Streetcar: Brando plays Ken, the paraplegic veteran, in The Men; Terry the Jersey longshoreman, in On The Waterfront, his first Oscar-winning performance; Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata!; Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar; Johnny the biker, in The Wild One; Sky Masterson the song-and-dance man, in Guys and Dolls; Calder the Southern sheriff, in The Chase. Brando insists his character marry his Japanese sweetheart in Sayonara, and doesn’t hesitate to play a closeted gay officer in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. And these are all before his triumphs as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (his second Oscar, this one refused) and Colonel Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

The tapes roll on with Brando narrating his own lackluster performances in Mutiny On The Bounty (opposite the fiercely possessive Trevor Howard who never yielded an inch of the screen to anyone) and The Countess From Hong Kong (opposite the demurely scene-stealing Sophia Loren). It’s unnerving watching a lead actor talk so easily about his colossal downfall as Jor-El in Superman, speaking with candid disgust about the nearly four million dollars he was paid for 13 days of shooting. Director Riley wisely leaves out most or all of another dozen pictures, from Bedtime Story to Desiree to Candy, that show the actor mailing in his performance.

Brando wasn’t shy about breaking screen taboos and engaging in the extreme imagery of the era. We watch a discrete few moments of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) which included a simulated anal sex scene (with butter as lubricant) between Brando, playing a widowed ex-patriot, and the sultry Maria Schneider as an unfaithful Parisian. That film drew a mix of outrage and praise; Montclair residents picketed its theatrical showing, while Pauline Kael called it “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made.” (From the same year, one should also acknowledge The Godfathers bizarre moment when actor John Marley wakes up in bed with a severed horse’s head at his feet—another early precursor of extreme imagery that thankfully isn’t included here.)

As the tapes wind down, the actor confides to us that he’d like a microphone installed in his coffin, because someone listening is sure to say, “Wait, do this line differently.” Conceptually innovative and sadly endearing, Listen to Me Marlon is a case history that’s a must-see for every drama student eager to launch a career in theater or film.

Listen to Me Marlon shows Fri. March 27th at 6:30 pm at Lincoln Center, and Sat. March 28th at l pm at MoMA.

This concludes the critic’s choices. Watch for Brokaw’s recommendations in the 14th annual Tribeca Film Festival, April 15-26, 2015.

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