Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Here are the films I've seen since Sunday, ranked from best to worst:

"The Woodmans" (9) was so intriguing that, if it plays at Full Frame this year, I am likely to see it again, especially if the filmmaker is in attendance. It's a restrained and skillful examination of a family of artists--parents Betty (a ceramicist) and George (a painter and photographer) and their children Charlie (a video artist) and Francesca (a photographer). Francesca committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, and since her death her haunting black-and-white photos, many nude self-portraits, have been hailed as among the best photo art of the 20th century. Although the film includes interviews with Francesca's friends, most of it consists of her parents talking. The filmmaker makes no judgment of them, and lets them--and Francesca's photos, which are heavily featured in the film, along with excerpts from her journals--speak for themselves. It's possible to appreciate the film as a fascinating exploration of the world of artists--but I walked out of the film absolutely amazed at how little affection her parents express for their ridiculously talented and also tormented daughter, and how prominent is their envy of her posthumous success. In a post-film discussion with a friend who saw it with me, both of us became quite convinced that the parents were classic "people of the lie" (a term coined by M. Scott Peck in his book of the same title)--that is, extreme narcissists who are shockingly unable to see anything but the view of themselves they want to hold and will sacrifice anything to get. See it and draw your own conclusion--but I was struck by how little genuine sadness they showed, except for themselves, and how little genuine concern for Francesca. It seemed to me they were aptly named.

"Certified Copy" (7.5), too, is quite intriguing. The work of a celebrated Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, and set in Tuscany, it explores the themes of art and authenticity by means, mostly, of a conversation between a British author and a French antiques dealer played the luminous Juliette Binoche, who won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. He has come to Italy to promote a book about the value of copied art, and then spends a day driving and walking and talking with the French woman. In format, the film is much like "Before Sunset"--but it actually is a bit more challenging; as the film progresses, you are never sure in which part of the conversation you had the right impression about the nature of their relationship. Are they strangers playing the part of a couple, or are they a couple playing the part of strangers? Would the literal answer be authentic or just a convincing copy of the truth? Binoche especially (as usual) is a marvel to watch, and the film beguiles by leaving you with the questions rather than answering them. (In French, Italian, and English.)

"Poetry" (7) really made me work, but is a thoughtful and interesting film if you're up for it. Its director, Lee Chang-dong, seems to be interested in themes involving intractable oppression and people whose experience is ignored in dominant Korean culture, including the disabled. (His film "Oasis," a very challenging love story about two disabled people, made it onto my top-ten list the year it came out.) Here his subject is Mija, a chatty woman in her sixties who seems to be floating through her life--until she learns, to her horror, that the grandson who she is parenting has been serially raping a classmate with a group of his friends, leading the classmate to commit suicide. As the fathers of the others boys rush to protect them from the consequences of their behavior, they do not really give Mija a choice about participating, one of many examples in the film of the intractability of male privilege. Experiencing the early stages of dementia herself, Mija walks through much of the film in a sort of stupor, apparently reeling from all the unthinkable things she is experiencing and can't seem to impact. Her impulse to take a poetry class seems random--but over time, it gives her a way to make sense of her experience, to find a new language for it, and to find the means of self-determination. The film was a bit of a slog, perhaps due to cultural characteristics that were new to me, but ultimately I could see how it garnered the prize for Best Screenplay at Cannes. (In Korean; playing on 2/19 and 2/21.)

The audience was obviously enthralled with "The First Grader" (5), so much so that I won't be surprised if it wins an audience award. It left me somewhat unsatisfied, however. It is based on the true story of an 84-year-old farmer, Maruge, who sought to take the Kenyan government up on its offer of free education for all, in the face of fierce opposition from locals who didn't like the idea of resources being wasted on such an old man. He is well-played here by Oliver Litondo, and the film also features a good performance from Naomie Harris (who you may recognize from the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies) as the head of the local school who alienates the locals and her own husband when she fights for Maruge's right to stay in school. The problem is that the film really doesn't do a good job of illuminating why the opposition was so fierce. There are allusions to tribal divisions and to baseless local suspicions that Maruge, who became a media darling, was getting some kind of pay-off that he should have been sharing with the community. And there are some flashbacks to brutality that Maruge suffered at the hands of the British, including the murder of his wife and children. But the film seems satisfied to settled for stock villains whose motives don't seem to go beyond inexplicable meanness, and the British history seems to serve to make only the rather rudimentary point that the locals should have been more grateful to Maruge because they owed their freedom to him. It was frustrating to me to see evidence of so many more interesting stories, and to have the filmmakers (and the audience) settle for such a simplistic one. (In English and unnamed African languages.)

"If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" (5) really had me going for awhile. It starts out to be a terrific exercise in Romanian realistic cinema, with a charismatic young man at its center. Eighteen-year-old Silviu (George Pistereanu) has spent the last four years in a decrepit juvenile detention center, and is two weeks away from his release. His younger brother Marius (who looks like he is maybe 11 or 12) comes to visit, and tells him that their no-account mother, who apparently abandoned the boys years before, has returned and wants to take Marius with her to Italy. This sends Silviu into an at-first believable tailspin--he begins to break prison rules and take big risks, jeopardizing his release, out of anger and a desperate need to prevent the break-up of his family. Pistereanu is riveting as Silviu; his intensity and rage, and his affection for his brother, are moving to see. Even without a lot of detail (this film is planted firmly in the present), Silviu's anger at his mother seems to spring from a real place. The incompetence and randomness of prison discipline (favorite themes in Romanian cinema) are also well-portrayed. Unfortunately, the whole thing unravels into an ill-conceived hostage drama in the last half, squandering the film's gritty immediacy and realism. (In Romanian.)

Finally, "Steam of Life" (4) failed to move me, though the premise sounded tailor-made for an authenticity junkie like myself. It's a documentary that takes as its simple premise that stoic Finnish men are strangely willing to open up when naked in a sauna. Apparently saunas are so popular in Finland that men create them inside even old campers and phone booths--and once the sweat is pouring, they share their sad tales with each other with abandon. The problem here is that the stories themselves, mostly sad tales of loss and heartache, aren't told in a very engaging or illuminating way. No one is more sympathetic to heartache than I am--but I'd hope that a film with this premise would do something more interesting with it, either by mining the stories for more interesting truths, or by perhaps filming the stories in a more interesting way. It felt to me like the filmmakers didn't know how to find the potential in their concept. (In Finnish.)

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