Thursday, September 30, 2010

NYFF Review: Certified Copy

Certified Copy
Directed By Abbas Kiarostami

            When the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami last appeared at the New York Film Festival, his film had about five camera set ups, one location, and mixed somewhere between reality and drama, all which made Ten one of the most brilliant films of the decade. Now we have Certified Copy, which stars Juliette Binchoe, is shot in one of the most gorgeous areas in Italy, and Mr. Kiarostami moves all and around it. Has he finally caved in?
            Hardly, or not even a bit, though he has made something extremely risky and very unique, a mystery film with his strongest narrative to date and full of gripping emotion, yet at the same time, full of philosophical ideas, lingering questions, and shots that can be debated for months. Mr. Kiarostami may be working outside his home country, but we are really in his playground. Certified Copy is an exploration of perspective more than anything: who’s do we see? What are we paying attention to? And does it matter what it represents in the end?
            The film is a sort of a bait and switch; it begins at a lecture in Tuscany, where James Miller, played by British opera singer William Shimell, talks about his book on the nature of copies of precious works of art. In the audience is Elle (Ms. Binoche), who doesn’t seem to listen to his words, but seems to set up a date with him, despite protests by her son. The two take off to a small town in outer Tuscany, where they begin talking about his book, the nature of being smart, and other small things.
            And then the film becomes something different. The two stop playing “getting-to-know-you” and start acting like something else. Or are they acting? And thus Mr. Kiarostami, not one to ever play straight as us, gives us a mystery wrapped in a romantic drama, and keeps us on our heels the entire time. We want to fall into the drama, but he pulls us out every so often. We wonder why we are following these two people, yet listen to their every word.
            Of course, it’s hard not to deny the power of the film when Ms. Binoche and Mr. Shimell are spectacular at their roles. They go through every emotion: excited, happy, curious, angry, frustrated, morose, longing, dire, and more. They keep us invested in a film that I’m not sure Mr. Kiarostami wants us to be invested on in a basic level, as he seems to be aiming for something higher and grander. Ms. Binoche, as always, particularly takes off. When James gives a speech about seeing a mother and child at the statue of David, Ms. Binoche lets out a single tear, that literally launches the entire film from there. Is it a recollection, or a memory? Mr. Kiarostami doesn’t allow us to truly know, but I’m not sure the film would retain its power if it does.
            The beauty of the actors is often put through Mr. Kiarostami’s most scrutinizing directorial vision he’s created. While he is flexible with his camera, he often puts Ms. Binoche front and center, staring right at us, while Mr. Shimmel stares just off to the side. Is she waving at us, telling us we’re being conned? Or is it something real, and should we care?
            In the end, Mr. Kiarostami is asking us to look at the perspectives we bring not only to our vision of art, but to our vision of life. Early in the film, Elle takes David to a small museum that proudly shows off a forged copy of a part of a Roman temple, just because it is as beautiful as the original. In one way, we may scoff at the idea, but Certified Copy is all about what we are seeing when we look. Do we see a woman living a fantasy, or a wife for fifteen years? Do we play along with our stories, or do we recreate ourselves for an illusion that can feel just as real? Mr. Kiarostami, always wanting to play with the illusion of cinema, will always look through the camera and imagine that the whole world is inside that frame, as long as he can.

NYFF Review: Inside Job

Inside Job
Directed by Charles Ferguson
United States

            It’s easy to make a documentary that targets people and makes them into villains, especially when you have a good topic, such as the 2008 financial meltdown. Consider Michael Moore’s Capitalism, which was conveniently released only weeks after the collapse of Lehman Bros, and the real sign of worse things to come. Yet Mr. Moore, for all his earnestness and narrative skill, never really explained what had happened, he just pointed fingers.
            Enter Charles Ferguson, who may be able to compete for one of the smartest scholars alive (he used to be a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute), or at least in his ability to think critically about situations. In his 2007 film, No End in Sight, Mr. Ferguson took on the complicated task of examining how the Iraq War went wrong, and what were the key factors that caused it to go from a peaceful occupation to a war zone. Mr. Ferguson’s findings, which took aim at things that might not seem that bad, showed the key mistakes in an engrossing way, and left his audience simply shaking their heads.
            In his latest film, Inside Job, those heads are about to be boiling in blood. Mr. Ferguson might be a couple years later than most to take on the topic of the 2008 financial meltdown, but he does it with a clarity and genius that few films reach. Rarely pandering to his audience, and keeping us invested in the narrative with interviews with scholars, politicians, bankers, hookers, and everyone who one could possibly need to do about 40 dissertations on the subject, Mr. Ferguson compacts it all into an under-two hour movie, and in a devastating fashion. There are many great films, but this should be required viewing.
            Inside Job neatly divides itself into five acts, like a good Shakespearean tragedy should, and begins in the strangest of all places: Iceland. A brief prologue basically shows what happens when things become deregulated (hint: they are bad, and especially for Iceland). The prologue serves as a reminder for the rest of the film—deregulation leads to more dangerous activity, and those activities become more and more ludicrous until the people actually paying for the mistakes are not the ones that caused it.
            Some of the materials, for those who have read a dozen articles or listened to an NPR story, are a little redundant. Of course, those who haven’t will be shocked at out ridiculous the system is. However, there are also some other truths that I did not know about that really pissed me off. One involves credit rating agencies, which determine which stocks, mortgages, and other credit-backed securities, are safe buys, and how their “opinions” shaped our financial future. The one that certainly gets the most blood though involves professors at top business schools, such as Harvard and Columbia University. Mr. Ferguson basically depicts how these top economics were paid by banks to write positive articles so they could continue and expand their deregulatory practices. When confronted, the professors respond with anger, bafflement, and embarrassment.
            One should note—Mr. Ferguson is not interested in current political bickering, and neither Inside Job nor No End in Sight blame a specific party for their alignment. In fact, the cold truth at the heart of Inside Job is that both parties, for the last 30 years, have continued to play into the game controlled by the major financial companies, and there seems to be little hope in the current administration, and no promise in the recently passed financial regulatory bill.
            Inside Job ends on the note that some how, these top bankers need to go the jail. It’s a note that seems a little difficult to say the least, but the journey there is simply baffling. Mr. Ferguson jumps from interview to interview without ever losing us. It’s sometimes darkly funny, but mostly just immensely raging. This is the type of film that reaffirms that things are not going to be okay, and that this is not the end. It is only the beginning. Mr. Ferguson sublimely shows that muckraking isn’t a mundanely banal approach, especially when you come backed with more evidence than one would ever need. This is a shot right into the heart, and truly from a non-filmmaking point (though the craft of the film doesn’t hurt either), the must see film of the year. 

NYFF Interview: Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men)

Xavier Beauvois

Xavier Beauvois is a stern filmmaker, and highly outspoken when it comes to politics. Both an actor, and now a director by trade, his film Of Gods and Men has been one of the highlights of the New York Film Festival, a truly moving picture that approaches an extremely difficult subject with grace, civility, and care. Below, along with his co-screenwriter Etienne Comar, Mr. Beauvois discusses his idea process and his politics in making such a film.

When I saw the film I was first surprised that in the 1990s there were communities of French religious living in Algeria. I thought that would have ended much sooner. Could you talk a little bit about the continuity of those communities, and was this one in particular a very unique community, or one of the last ones left?

Beauvois: There are still a lot of these types of communities for example in Morocco. The last survivor, Jean-Pierre, is at the monetary there. Also for example there is one in the Sinai, which the location is a mosque, but it is an old one. There are many such communities, but there are many where they are no religious. For example, doctors, entomologists, and others work in Afghanistan, who are there to help the people and who are martyrs as well, because they end of getting killed.

Could you talk about how you put together the screenplay? Especially with the daily life of the monks—what they did on a day-to-day basis. Were there records? Did you talk to people?

Comar: There were actually quite a lot of things written about this. For example, many of the brothers in the film kept journals that they wrote in every day, including Christian, who you see writing in the film. Also, because in 2006 was the ten year anniversary, there was a lot of things published articles just describing what they’re lives were like. So there was a good amount of information about this. Also, once we started shooting, there was a lot of work that we had to do. So we visited other monasteries to see what their life is like so we could have a practical picture.

Beauvois: Also I did take a few liberties. For example, where the actual monastery was located there were a lot of fruit and vegetable gardens and orchids, and where we shot just wasn’t the case. So what we did was transpose the idea of the gardens and the fruit into honey. So honey became the replacement for it.

There’s an extraordinary sequence with Swan Lake playing, and you have the cutting between all the faces. Could you talk about how you conceived of that sequence?

Beauvois: In the first version of the script, my idea was to have a long scene together where they were perhaps doing the dishes and singing. But then I thought, this might not be very interesting because they’ve been singing throughout the film and also because these are non-professional singers it might not be that interesting. Then I hit on the idea of listening to music instead, and I was listening to a lot of music through my headphones, and I came upon this excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and I suddenly had this idea in my head. I suddenly saw the whole scene and started to cry and then I couldn’t show anyone I was crying, but this was my idea that it was the music. In French, there is a play on words; the word for director where part of the word is also the word for the Last Supper. So I had this idea where Christian as Jesus with the disciples around him. It was a challenge but it just came so vividly to mind.

There’s a bit of dialogue early in the film about girls who are unveiled on the bus. This film is set in the mid-90s in Algeria, but it has a very contemporary feel with the questions of veiling in France. Was that an accurate depiction of what was going on in Algeria at that moment?

Beauvois: Actually no the whole question of girls wearing headscarves had already begun around that time, but this of course is something that is really big right now. In France, they are trying to make people as afraid as possible, so the issue now has become the burka, which covers the head entirely, and it sort of has these phantoms in cinema. The actual number of women—who wear the burka—are probably 0.00001%, maybe 500 women in all of France. And yet this very small percentage of women has really come to monopolize the French press. Perhaps 50% of the French press is devoted to this issue, and what it really is, is an attempt by the Sarkozy government to divert people’s attention from what the real problems are, which are problems surrounding poverty, about people not having enough for their retirement, about suicides over economic troubles, so its really a way of diverting their attention, since it affects such a small number of people.

Comar: In 1993 through 1996 there were many, many killings, about 170 Algerians, Imams, intellectuals, people in the street, religious, so all the stories are larger than what is going on in this film.
Etienne Comar

Beauvois: You’ve had countries like France where girls are fighting to wear headscarves and insisting they be able to do it, where you have other countries where people are fighting not to wear them, or all traditional Islamic wear for women. And in both cases these women can be Algerian but they could be women in Algerian, or Algerian women in France, and its almost surreal, because of this episode…Just to imagine if one day, President Obama declared that people who get dressed up like Batman and try and scare children should be banned. Then you’d get an idea what this would be like.

Going back to the use of Swan Lake, which happens to be not a religious piece, but specifically a secular piece…

Beauvois: Actually music for me is very important I listen to it all the time, for example Sergio Leone and a lot of composers who’s music is used in films. But for myself in using it for my own films, I find it more problematic. For example in my previous film The Young Lieutenant, there was no music at all. What I don’t like about using music in films is I don’t want to cue the viewer when to laugh, when to cry, not to emphasize it by having music. So in this film, there really isn’t any music other than this Tchaikovsky episode, other than the religious music, which is part of their daily lives in the monastery. I think that its significant that the last music that you hear is secular music, and it was important to me because this movie is about men and gods, and perhaps this was the closet they could come to be gods, but they were also just men…I think when you think about it during great moments in life, like great moments of sadness, you are out in the street, there’s no soundtrack behind you. Same thing for kids. They’re on top of the world, and they’re screaming, and there’s no music behind them either.

The scene where the monks links arms when the helicopter is overhead is quite powerful. Was it something you got from the journals or was it something invented?

Comar: It was something completely invented by Xavier but at this time, in the monastery, there were many army operations in the area, because this area was very dangerous, and there was a lot of terrorist threats. So the helicopter was coming some time and very close to the monastery, and some jeeps and some tanks. So we expressed the idea of what was happening there in the scene. But it wasn’t something that they wrote, or was told, it was simply invented.

Beauvois: I always have a very hard time answering where these ideas come from because once you start developing a story and becoming part of a story and filming a story there are a lot of things happening where its not just the story itself. It’s the feelings that are connected with it, the odors that are connected with it. All of these things serve to bring ideas into my head. Sometimes the ideas are symbolic of whatever I’m thinking about and showing. Or some of them are to summarize the things that I have. But it’s a very bizarre thing to tell you exactly where these ideas come from. But one thing I wanted to tell you about having the helicopter over the monastery is that there are many theories about how the monks were actually killed in the end, and one of them is that it was a mistake by the Algerian army, and they were killed by a helicopter attack on the terrorists. So I thought it was good to have this helicopter over them, with the machine guns, and they’re a constant presence over them. So I wanted to hint at that to be present, but I’m not particularly promoting any one theory about what happened, but also I like the idea of trying to show that by linking arms and singing, by song, it’s the contrast by the machines of war that are represented by the machine guns on the helicopter.

One of the great challenges to make a film like this is to create a community of men who are true believers, who believe in something, and that belief fills them and really guides their life. How do you create that belief that is really fundamental to the film?

Beauvois: Actually, if you think about it before you have belief, before you have faith, you have freedom, you have equality, you have brotherhood. Liberté, égalité, fraternité is the motto in France, and what we have here are men who are free men. They are free men who see themselves as being equal to each other, but also brothers as religious brothers, but also with the Muslim people. So these are basically humans. Unfortunately, what we now have in France is a situation where people are a little less free and a little less equal and a little less fraternal. And I think that the important message is that this is really a question of intelligence. These are really people who speak with each other, they question each other, they’re interested in each other and they approach if from that angle rather than one of proselytizing one faith over another. Frankly, I could never really make the film if it was about proselytizing with these missionaries; that was not the case with these men….Actually, an incident happened to us yesterday. We were walking around the city and we saw a Jewish family—the father was wearing a yamaka and was with his wife and child—and they crossed paths with an Arab family—the woman was wearing a veil—and they knew each other and were saying, “Oh hi how are you?” We really stopped and looked at this because this is the message of what my film is, but its not something you would see in France.

What do you see as the message of your film? About hope, about religion, and about reconciliation?

Beauvois: Well first of all, this is a film, and I would hope that it could make some sort of impact, but first of all, it was made as a film, and what happens after, once its on the screen, and we can fantasize what we want. I don’t know what this would correspond to, but we had one million tickets sold in 15 days in France, which is an enormous success. And I think why its had this success in France is people have a need for this kind of reconciliation. I think people have had enough of ego building, and bling bling, and Sarkozy-ism that’s been prevalent up to now. And perhaps its this desire to return to things that are more simple, and I don’t want to be pretentious, but perhaps I hope that my film will encourage people to talk to each other and perhaps have an atmosphere that is less fearful. Schindler’s List was a film that really changed things because a lot of people didn’t know what was had happened during that time and I hope this film can do something similar.

Comar: There’s also something that I’ve been surprised by since we started the project together is the fact that in 1996 when this drama appears, this question between Muslims and Christians was not really spoken even in France. There wasn’t a lot of press about this crime, and how they died etc. But during the anniversary in 2006, it was ten years after that, and we were in the post-2000 years, which is a very different world, and there were a lot of stuff about the fact that what they were saying in 1996 makes it feel like now. They were saying things out of peace, a lot of Ghandi, and Martin Luther King. So this message was quite relevant in the film. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

NYFF Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who goes by “Joe” in the states, is small and a bit quiet, yet extremely friendly when it comes to discussing his movies. He has been considered one of the most prominent film directors of the last decade, and his last two films, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, appeared on numerous best-of-the-decade lists. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives, his Palm D’or winning film, cannot be described as a genre, even though if anything, it might be considered a supernatural film. But during the interview at Film Society below, Joe talks about the different aspects of his latest odyssey.

Not that many of us Americans know much about Thailand. But tell us about this part of Thailand. In other movies we’ve seen Bangkok and a little bit of the South, but this part seems quite different in many ways.

It’s the Northeast part, which is where I grew up, and it’s quite harsh. Many go to work in Bangkok or Phouket, so it’s also poor, and there’s a lot of tension.

Is it a place that’s especially known for spirits, and think more about mystical things.

It’s all over the country. It’s all over Thailand. The thing for an audience and Boonmee are the animals really, and it’s more serious.

One of the things in the credits is that you see British companies, German money, French companies, and many different international co-producers. I’m wondering how that aspect and reality in contemporary cinema are really being produced by a variety of international funders.

It hasn’t changed much for my way of working because the people who help have passion for what I do. I feel protected in a way. In the ending scene, there was a different scene. There were  four flashes, and people said this is impossible to show because of people with epilepsy.

You used the Uncle Boonmee character before; will you use him again?

Yea…But this project, which was part of an art project, let me know more about the region and very interested in learning more about this region.

The beginning you talk about the border and the two differences between Thai and Laos immigrants.

In the North region there are very many Laos and Cambodia…there is a lot more immigrants, especially in the 60s when Laos fell apart, and people came into the country…its important for my work, and in this one in particular, because you talk about life and death, and the nature in the region is very important.

In one scene, Boonmee talks about killing communists. Is there a political background we’re missing here?

This area was prone to communist manipulation, starting in the 50s, and very recently and had a widespread of communism and the villagers were really intrigued by this ideology. So with the support of an American company, there was a lot of crackdown, from Vietnam to Laos and to Thailand. People can read about this and its quite brutal but people had no choice but when you were asked “Are you a communist?” and if they said yes they’d be shot on the spot, and if you said no they’d still beat you up. So many decided to escape into the jungle like the monkey ghosts. There was a monk during this time, in the 1970s that was during the student uprisings in Bangkok, and this famous monk came out and said killing communists is not a sin, so this sentiment in the region until on has spread on.

In the West we are told to go toward the light till when we die, but here we go toward the darkness, and the ghost sister says “Heaven isn’t so great,” and there is a lot about reincarnation. What is the Thai sensibility about death?

We believe that death is not the end, and things go on, but for me I would say that I believe that’s a possibility and to wait for it. And when we die we decompose and become parts of the Earth and the grass and we pass on. In the Buddhist system you go through a cycle.

Could you talk about the princess sequence?

In the film there are several tributes…This is like a style of filmmaking that is dying so this princess scene is one of the styles I want to include, which is often on television—these costume dramas on television always involve a princess and often an animal.

Where do you get your actors?

Two of them are my regulars…but Uncle Boonmee is a fictional character, I wanted a non-actor who doesn’t work on other films. He’s a construction worker.

The film ends with dual realities, could you talk about that?

I wanted to suggest more time and more universes, and the world is multi-verse, and so Tong could become a monk. This movie could happen before Syndromes and a Century, which also showed that, so this is a comment and play on time in the movie itself.

Could you talk about the symbolism in the scene in which the princess sexually surrenders herself to that catfish, and what actually goes on there?

I like that, “sexually surrendered.” Remember, it’s a tribute, but she didn’t feel content where she was and she wants to change and transform, again like the monkeys, which is why she surrenders her physical object in the hope to escape. In fact we had that the scene that you have to buy the DVD for where she is pregnant and is worried that its going to be a monster, where its going to be half-fish half-human, and they talk about human, man, nature, and animals.

Are physical relations between man and animals in Thai legends and stories? In Tropical Malady there’s of course the tiger and the young man.

I think its not just contained to Thailand because here or in other cultures as well. In fact, in Tropical Malady, I quote from a Japanese tale in the beginning.

How did the book it’s based on inspire you?

That book was published in a Buddhist temple, and I got it before Tropical Malady, and Uncle Boonmee is mentioned in that film, but I didn’t know how to do it, because of the time jumping, and I was trying to make it like a biography. But I was inspired by the idea of remembrance and that he is always reborn in that region, which was part of the art installation, which was more focused on political situations in one village. In that village people try to forget, but Uncle Boonmee remembers so much.

How did you get the look of the red eyes?

We used just regular lights, and put it through the make up. Just computer controlled LED lights.

Would you say the monkey ghosts are symbolic of rebels or communists?

It can be, but it’s very open for me. It also can be the idea of people when for parents that your kid has to go away, and I think its kind of the projection that Uncle Boonmee is about to die.

Are you inspired by the ideas of science, such as quantum mechanics, that talk about reincarnation?

Yes but I don’t understand it. I’m more inspired by the mystical portion of it. In fact the idea of reincarnation and the idea of time. And I read somewhere that Einstein talked about this and wrote about this.

Could you talk about the dynamic lighting quality, which seems to have a thin gauze or haze over the screen?

Each of my films has a different look, so we shot in different styles. You can see in the dinner scene that it has my usual style and has a certain type of lighting, but the jungle is a really old tribute to old jungle films. It’s a very different look from Tropical Malady because we used a technique called “Day for Night” to achieve this artificiality.

What were you shooting on?

Super 16mm

Have you ever thought about shooting in either other countries or more urban regions?

In fact, yes, I’m planning a portrait of Donna Gucci in Japan.

In the end of the film, Tong has an ambivalent relationship to monkhood. Was that a sly comment on the difficulties you had with Syndromes and a Century and the censor board’s issues with the portrayal of monks?

I cannot deny, there is a little bit about trying to push them, but more importantly, it’s about that time, and about that relationship between what comes first and Syndromes and a Century. Also when my father died in China, I became a monk for a while, and then stopped. H

Who are the filmmakers that inspire you today?

There are so many, but Bruce Baillie, who is an American experimental filmmaker, and Manuel de Oliviera, and the fact that he’s so old, and he still kicks ass. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

NYFF Review: Silent Souls

Silent Souls
Directed By Aleksei Fedorchenko

            Have you ever heard of the Merjon people of Russia? In Silent Souls, director Aleksei Fedorchenko traces some of the rituals and customs of this ancient Russian tradition, in a narrative that is almost as compelling as the traditions are, which sad to say, does not bode well for both parties.
It’s hard to know if some of these customs—some of them extremely misogynist and offensive—are actual realities, or if Mr. Fedorchenko has taken a very poetic license; They haven’t managed to get a Wikipedia page up yet to explain this all. Of course, the real issue with Silent Souls is that Mr. Fedorchenko wants to tell us about these customs, but never cares to invest a narrative in them as well.
We begin with Aist, a middle-aged and alone Russian man, going to work, in almost a Malick-like fashion of voiceover. And then Miron, he best friend, informs them that his wife is dead, and the two must travel 1,000 miles to perform an ancient ritual. This ritual includes braiding ties to the woman’s pubic hair, rubbing her naked body in vodka, and burning it, while pouring bottle after bottle of vodka onto it.
None of this is really explained well, but Mr. Fedorchenko, who must be a descendant of the tribe, is fascinated by the process, and shoots it accordingly. He finds this all to be a lyrical poem, and his compositions are quite picturesque, if rarely making much sense in the purpose of the narrative, which falls completely behind. We aren’t really given any entry into Aist nor Miron, who travel often in silence, and Aist only uses his narration to explain customs, in the hopes we are less offended by some of the sequences or revelations revealed.
But Mr. Fedorchenko is in love with his symbolism—water, chipping birds, and doubling to name a couple—and thus he forgoes any narrative cohesion for a conclusion that should provoke mocking more than tranquility. On the plus side, Silent Souls runs a brief 75 minutes, so this crash course on why Russians can be offensive people and pass it off as “culture,” comes to an end not a minute too soon. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

NYFF Review: Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men
Directed By Xavier Beauvois

            In times of great dire or need, the saying goes, people always turn toward religion, God, or something of a greater power. We desire for some meaning, some understanding, or simply some compassion. Yet in Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois’s film following a brotherhood of monks in the greatest of crisis, the passions on both sides have never been higher. As the terror that surrounds these men becomes more desperate, these men only become stronger in their faith, and we feel revitalized by it, desperate not to grab them and cure their situation, but that they may be at peace when the time comes.
            Few films in this year, or any year, will strike such emotional chords as Of Gods and Men does. Mr. Beauvois, an actor originally but has made a splash with his last few films, takes a no-holds-bar approach to his style, and thrusts straight into this monestary in Northern Algeria in 1996. Political chaos is high in the cities below, as Islamic fighter and terrorists scour the land to rid their country of a foreign presence, and the French army strikes back without sympathy for anyone but themselves. And despite what sounds like a violent and brutal film, Mr. Beauvois instead keeps us focused on the monastic life, the daily rituals.
            And with his quiet compositions, neatly ordered like the monastic life itself, the scenes of the brothers simply chanting, farming, and praying, are among the most compassionate in recent memory. The entire film thus slowly draws its tension from the oncoming turmoil that the monks must face. After a group of terrorists break into their monetary in Christmas Eve, the group faces a decision to stay or leave, which becomes more and more complex with each added element. The group, led by Lambert Wilson (you may remember him as that French guy in the Matrix sequels), prays and prays, while continuing to be assaulted from every side about what to do.
            Mr. Beauvois doesn’t let the decision made easy. The few violent moments he does show, he is not afraid to show the horror in true detail, but never assaults you with it, only letting it linger for a moment in the frame, or barely visible on the side. He skips music cues, save for an important Tchaikovsky number near the end, in order to let you sink into their contemplative world, and focus on the decisions as they tussle with what to do.
            Of Gods and Men has a politics agenda, but not one targeted toward the French government, and not one that attacks the Islamic political factions as well. Instead, it is simply about peace and communication. Mr. Beauvois, more than anything, is a humanist director. He enjoys the quiet moments and finds them transformative, which is why they end up on screen in their almost symmetrical compositions, like a series of paintings beautifully put together. In one harrowing scene, a helicopter, armed with machine guns, hovers just outside the church. The brothers hold onto each other, and chant louder and louder, until their sounds drown out the rumblings outside. If anything, Mr. Beauvois believes in the power of faith, and finds a true story that brings out the best in humanity, by calling for peace through our brotherhood.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

NYFF Review: The Social Network

The Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
United States

            During the day before I saw the premiere of David Fincher’s The Social Network, I ended up not having my phone. I was disconnected from the world: No Internet, no Twitter, no texting, and certainly not Facebook. And on the verge of sounding cliché, I did in fact start to notice the details around me: the sounds of the subway car, the subtle choices in architecture, and the smiles of the people around me. Being disconnected was a way of connecting, and although its become a trite argument against the nerds like myself that write on a computer and rarely make it out into the sun, it’s the driving force behind The Social Network, and the film brilliantly displays that.
            Yet before I jump into a long rant on the joys and wonders of the new David Fincher film, which has been written on earlier (and better) by many other critics, I’d rather focus on my stray observations on the film, which I find more illuminating that a particularly standard review. Yes, it’s a masterpiece—so let’s move on beyond that and find the real choices that make that happen.
            But to basics first: Mr. Fincher, known for films that are much more visually dynamic such as Se7en and Zodiac, directs this film written by West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin, who has one of the best constructed scripts, scene for scene, put together here. A lot of it isn’t probably true, but I don’t believe we are supposed to see it fact for fact, but as a story of a culture. It’s 2003, and young Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, outstanding), is a programming student at Harvard. He’s just broke up with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, soon to be sporting a Dragon Tattoo with Mr. Fincher), and decides to quickly create a scandalous Internet site in retaliation, which gets him some spite as well as attention. Soon enough, Zuckerberg is propositioned with an idea of connecting the students of Harvard together, but decides to take it further. With the help of his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) starts, and it’s an instant hit. But whose idea is it? The film flashes from location to location, as well as through temporal space to a pair of depositions, where people fight Mark not only for his money, but to strip him of his pride. Yet does Mark care about this fight? Or even the money that made him a billionaire?
            The Social Network has been compared to Citizen Kane, The Great Gatsby, and other titanic cultural works that display great obsessive men, yet there are some differences that define Zuckerberg, especially at the mile-a-minute speech Mr. Eisenberg gives him (Mr. Sorkin’s script stands at 160 pages, yet Mr. Fincher squeezes it into a two hour film). Early in the film, Mark discusses the idea of fashion and how it’s changing, always evolving, and thus always lucrative. Its interesting how the film approaches the subject that is under scrutiny, almost like an organism that has been genetically engineered, unsure of how to treat it. Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) tells Mark, “We don’t know what it is except we know its cool.” That statement rings out like a motto of the 2000s, not to have to throw the word “zeitgeist” on this film, as one inevitably must. In the age of the Internet, we don’t understand the objects we have, their meaning, their application, but simply their cultural worth, and understand that means something.             
           Visually, some have commented on Fincher’s restrained style here, yet in many ways, his compositions and editing structure have never been better. After that dire first scene, Mark runs along campus, and we get some of the very few exterior shots of the film—we get the world of Harvard as it stands. As the film continues, we are given no establishing shots and simply interior spaces, as if the universe is slowly folding over, and the disparate spaces that leave people so distant, are closed away. Mr. Fincher’s focus on windows and glass leave that idea hanging, the actual frames that separate us, and how transparent those have become. Instead of giving us space, Mr. Fincher simply cuts between spaces as if he were shooting them in the same room, using simple directorial cues to act as if these spaces blend together. The dark, dreary, and drab lighting scheme, as well as the often-frightening score by Trent Reznor, give this film its alienating atmosphere, in which what matters is not how we connect, but the fact that we connect, and that we’re able to do it as much as we want.
            A very few sequences don’t exactly work. In a strange joke, Mr. Fincher films a crew race in the United Kingdom in extreme high definition, in what reminds me of the classic work of Mr. Sorkin’s attempts at parody (the brutal Charlie Wilson’s War had one as well). Another one, a late sequence between Mr. Garfield and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, spells out the themes and ideas of the film a little too obvious, especially for a film that is so subtle.
            The final shot of The Social Network, showing Mark hitting refresh over and over, is one that grounds the film in its human emotion, which Mr. Eisenberg displays with such reserved audacity. It is quite brutal to see a man who just wants to be recognized by a few individuals, but does so by building an empire. Genius is often led by madness, and as Mr. Fincher and Mr. Sorkin see it, and it’s often an accident led by an emotion more than an idea. The film seems to comment that instead of confronting our issues, society has made it easy for us to instead run behind a veil and assert our fears and desires so passively, without any idea of consequence. Mr. Timberlake screams that “This is our time,” and that emotion reverberates throughout The Social Network, but I think it’s a message of fear for what we can become, more than what we’ve accomplished. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

NYFF Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives
Directed By Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thailand, France, United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain

            By the time a princess does some unspeakable things with a catfish about half way through the latest film by the acclaimed auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he’ll tell you just to call him “Joe”), you are firmly in his absurdist, but slightly calming ground. The Thai filmmaker, known for his striking films Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, has returned to a character who was referenced in Malady, and formed an entire story with monsters, ghosts, doubles, and other strange sights and dialogues. Yet Mr. Weerasethakul is not just putting the grotesque in our face to confound and play with us; there’s a philosophical and political stance behind every moment of his film, and even if it doesn’t work, he’s a fascinating filmmaker.
            The title gives a good explanation of what to expect: Uncle Boonmee, old, with a bady kidney and soon on his way out, starts having visions while out in his countryside home in the Northern part of Thailand. His sister-in-law and son can see them too, and instead of freaking out, they kind of welcome them into their home. This is typical of Mr. Weerasethakul, who acknowledges the absurdity of his film’s narratives. When Boonmee’s deceased son returns as a “Ghost Moneky,” a walking, talking ape with red glowing eyes, Boonmee’s sister-in-law tells him “you’ve let your hair grow out.”
            Those not used to Mr. Weerasethakul’s filmmaking style may find it jarring, or perhaps boring, but both couldn’t be further from the truth. At times he is riveting, such as a long descent into a cavern that feels like a journey through to the afterlife, surrounded in darkness instead of life. Or in a shocking moment, in which characters suddenly see themselves in their old positions, watching an alternate present, and perhaps a nod to Syndromes. Mr. Weerasethakul jumps through stories of immigrations, the troubles of monk life, and yes, the sometimes graphic connection between humans and nature, including the beasts that inhabit them.
            Yet Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives does not solidify anything in a straight interpretation, and finding the visual clues that link sequences together is a fascination as well, such as a moment near the end where bright red lights shine in a restaurant, matching those of the Ghost Monkeys starring from the forest. The film is a little more meandering than Mr. Weerasethakul’s previous films, and seems to jump through ideas and philosophies of death a little too quickly. In fact, if anything, the film is a little too stuffed. Tropical Malady kept everything centered on the relationship between the two men—even if one was a tiger for half of it. But in Uncle Boonmee, Mr. Weerasethakul has no problem diverging into issues of Laotian immigration, or simply showing us how sweet the honey from Thai bees are.
            Mr. Weerasethakul though is not one to waste any moment, except to immerse you in a culture. That culture may include water buffalo, soldiers hanging out with giant apes, and meditations on cinema itself, as all part of what it means to live in the Northern area of Thailand. Uncle Boonmee can bring back the culture through memory, and manifest itself on the screen, which is what Mr. Weerasethakul seems to find fascinating. As the film’s credits end, we hear the production turning off camera, and ending for the day, as someone leaves the camera’s sound recorder on. It’s not a self-reflexive moment for the sake of being clever; it’s a reminder than we too are always watching the past, finding the culture that we’ve left behind, and want to return to by the end, which for Mr. Weerasethakul, is best described as a circle. 

NYFF Review: Poetry

Directed By Lee Chang-Dong
South Korea

            As the narrative unfolds Poetry, the latest from South Korean auteur Lee Chang-Dong, it’s hard not to think of Mr. Lee’s contemporary from his native country, Bong Joon-Ho and his film mother. Both films focus on maternal parents (though Mija in Poetry is a grandmother) who are forced to take care of indolent sons, and cover their tracks in terrible crimes. However, while Mr. Bong, adapting from Hitchcock and other sources, spins his camera like a maestro into a wildly comic tale, Mr. Lee is a reserved storyteller, trying to reach something that the title aspires to: poetic cinema.
            And Poetry, in terms of the thematic details and stylistic approach, is very much its own film, and the narrative connections hardly register as this meandering, sometimes extremely poignant, story develops. Mija here is played by Yoon Jeong-hee with a delicate balance of sincerity and fear, as her life begins to crumble, and she searches for answers for truth. Early in the film, Mija learns she has Alzheimer’s, but decides to ignore the facts as she has no one to turn to (and the film only occasionally brings this up, one of its faults). Instead, she focuses on taking a beginning poetry class, hoping to be inspired to write just a single poem. However, when she is forced to collude to cover up a crime of her son, things take an interesting turn.
            When Mr. Lee focuses on the story following Mija’s dealings with these men, he hits on a number of very interesting ideas about both gender issues and class relations through his protagonist. With a reserved camera that prefers a still shot than constant motion, he refuses to let neither him nor Mija judge, only simply staring back in confusion. The poetry scenes, however, are simply not as compelling to watch, and Mija’s search for beauty comes off, as, unfortunately boring. I don’t think Mr. Lee planned it this way, and you can tell his heart is in that part more, as it’s the more transcendental part of the narrative. Yet the material, and Mija herself, aren’t as compelling to watch.
            As the narrative do collide toward the end of the film, things pick up, not in speed or tempo, but it Poetry’s moving beauty. Mr. Lee is a filmmaker who catches little details within his shots, more fascinated with the mundane than the grandiose. And so is Mija when search for her poetry. She cannot understand the cruelty and passivity around her, and is searching for something to put all the pieces together. During her first lesson, her instructor tells her that “poetry is about a search for beauty.” When Mija’s poem is revealed at the end, its beautiful, but its also devastating, and leaves us curious to how a film that began with a morose shot of death, can end with a stunning affirmation of life.