Festival du Nouveau Cinema 2008

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Firmly established yet never more revolutionary, the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma continues the quality work it has pioneered since 1971.


Here are our quick reviews of this year’s films!
881 (dir. Royston Tan)
* *
Sometimes delivering on the language held in press materials isn’t actually a good thing. Described as a juxtaposition of Moulin Rouge and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, 881 works mostly as a showcase for some extravagant costume design and the occasional memorable tune. Taking place during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, in which the spirits of the dead are said to emerge in the streets, 881 works more efficiently as a window into Singaporean social mores than as a coherent statement. In a state infamous for its repression of free speech and creative _expression, the Getai singers (competitive groups who face off in singing contests in the seventh month), with their outlandish costumes and often suggestive dance moves, seem to stand in for the wilder elements of society the state won’t ultimately tolerate. After all, behind every flashy dance sequence there’s the lingering threat of seperation or death if either of the principal demale characters enjoys “the touch of a man,” and indeed, one of them is ultimately punished. Director Tan, previously a victim of the Singapore film board’s strict censorship laws, uses an expressive visual palette, but the happy-go-lucky nature of the performances – as well as the largely comic nature of most of the film’s dialogue – simply don’t mesh with its numerous attempts at pathos (largely through the belabored use of cancer-derived imagery).
Adoration (dir. Atom Egoyan)
* * * 1/2
After a string of critical flops, Atom Egoyan is back in a big way with the rich and vibrant Adoration, a complex portrait of teenhood, grief and simmering sociopolitical tension. Smart but oddball teen Simon (Devon Bostick) makes an unusual association while translating an article regarding Israeli airport security for an assignment from his French teacher Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian) – he envisions himself as the unborn baby kept in the womb of a woman carrying a bomb intended to obliterate a plane. In this new context, the woman is innocent, the explosive having been planted by the woman’s husband – the unborn “Simon”‘s father. As Simon works through the real-life family tragedy that informed the association, he also inadvertently stirs up a heated debate on the nature of victimhood and the wider ramifications of terrorism. Egoyan’s ear for dialogue is impeccable, the performances are first-rate (particularly Bostick and Scott Speedmann as Simon’s withdrawn but stalwart uncle) and, most importantly, the film is smart enough to evoke a potent mix of issues and emotional responses without pretending it holds the solutions to the complexities at hand.

Detroit Metal City

Based on the Japanese manga come the first time feature from director Toshiro Lee. DMC follows Negishi Soichi a small town farm boy who makes his way to Tokyo for the first time with dreams of becoming a trendy pop star. While attending University, he joins the songwriter’s club and practices his acoustical set, but fails to make any career within that genre. Flash forward a few years and Negishi finds musical success in the metal band DMC where he takes on the persona of Sir Krauser and is viewed upon as a Metal God. The only problem is Negishi secretly hates metal music and tries t break free from his monstrous identity.

Teen Icon Ken`Ichi Matsuyama plays double roles as the painfully nerdy Negishi and the outrageous and offensive Krauser. Watching his performance in juggling the two indemnities is worth the price of admission alone. However audiences will find themselves just as pleased with the soundtrack, supporting roles and physical comedy gags.

Entre les Murs [The Class] (dir. Laurence Cantet)

* * 1/2

Hey, have you seen the fourth season of The Wire? If you have, there’s nothing for you here. Laurence Cantet’s Palme D’Or winner is unfailingly realistic, yes, but seems reluctant to draw in the viewer as thoroughly as it should. It could pass as a documentary, certainly, but that wouldn’t have made it a better film. As it follows the life of a homeroom class in inner-city Paris over the course of a scholastic year, and we find ourselves engaging with the often distanced personalities of the students, there’s a nagging sensation that there should be an added layer of subtext to be found – yet there’s little to be derived from the old process of trying to turn “animals” into reasonable young people. The presentation is novel, but the content is too familiar by half.

The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)* * *

Who’d have thought that the director of surfing-action epic Point Break would be responsible for the most visceral and grounded piece of Iraq-related filmmaking to come out of America since the conflict began? The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s first feature in six years, follows a crack team of US soldiers whose specialty lies in dispatching IEDs – a job that routinely places them in unpredictable and precarious places, as we see in a remarkable opening sequence that depicts the minute effects of a deadly bomb blast. Bigelow makes a number of idiosyncratic choices to ramp the tensions – from counting down the number of days left in the squad’s tour of duty, to an almost complete lack of music in tense scenes. Most intriguingly, she casts relatively obscure players in the lead roles of the three soldiers while relegating A-listers to one-scene bit parts – a sign that on a battlefield this unforgiving and alien, there is no room for heroes. The characters stay focused on survival rather than on heavy-handed moralizing or speechmaking – as they should. The film’s attack-lull-attack-lull structure, while endearingly reminiscent of a modern horror film, does make the 130-minute running time a bit taxing – but then again, it’s nothing compared to a year on the battlefield.

JCVD (dir. Mabrouk El Mechri)
* * * 1/2
One of the year’s most bracing films, Mabrourk El Mechri dark comedy JCVD is likely to divide audiences and critics with its intensely post-modern approach and love-it-or-hate-it commentary on fame, self-worth and pectoral muscles. JCVD stands for the film’s star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the film follows a fictionalized version of Van Damme as he dredges his way through a dreary existence based loosely on the star’s real life. His finances are in ruins (Steven Seagal has cut off his ponytail to steal a role from under his nose), his young daughter provides damning testimony at a custody hearing, and his years as an action star are taking a toll on his dignity and health. When he needs an emergency influx of cash to pay his legal bills, he finds himself caught in a very Dog Day Afternoon-esque heist at a post office. (One goon’s similarity to John Cazale can’t be accidental.) Forget Pascal Laugier’s arty gore flick – Van Damme is the year’s true martyr, willfully and explicitly setting afire his scores of two-dimensional action films and delivering a vulnerable (though admittedly limited) performance as a man tired of playing hero when he feels like a failure. The litmus test for many viewers will be the dramatic moment in which Van Damme obliterates the fourth wall (and the ceiling) to discuss the nature of celebrity, his feelings of inadequacy as a human being, and the nature of the very film you’re watching. Some will feel used and preached to. I, for one, was touched, and when Van Damme’s eyes welled up, I must admit that mine did the same.
Reviews by Simon Howell

Man On Wire (dir. James Marsh)

* * * 1/2

Through an artful blend of staged reenactments and archival footage, James Marsh has assembled a compelling look at Philippe Petit, a mischievous high-wire artist who performed a series of breathtaking wire walks, culminating in his walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Much of the film is focused on the mechanics of pulling off the stunt – an act compared to an elaborate bank heist, complete with a motley crew of like-minded conspirators. The film gets a lot of deserving traction out of the idea that it is necessary to circumvent society to create true moments of beauty. Petit’s work is indeed beautiful – only a hardened cynic could look upon his midair grace and not be moved – but Marsh doesn’t idealize his subject, refusing to gloss over a key moment of betrayal that is at once tragically in-character and completely callous. As it turns out, however, Petit’s art is far larger than his hubris, and we can only delight in witnessing his accomplishments.

 

Martyrs (dir. Pascal Laugier)

*

Supposedly the latest and greatest in the new wave of French horror (see also: Ils, Haute Tension, Frontiers, A L’Intérieur), Martyrs is in fact more of a masturbatory art project for perpetual 16-year-olds than anything resembling a coherent thriller. Structured (intentionally or otherwise) like an especially dire three-act play, opening with a gratuitously gruesome act of revenge, followed by a suspense-free “horror” segment that relies on a character’s inner demons to attempt to procure scares (it doesn’t work), and capped off with a half-hour of repetitious torture and ultimately one of the shallowest excuses for social commentary this reviewer has witnessed in ages in the form of a particularly wretch-inducing act of mutilation. Laugier would like to address worthwhile themes – that of women as the greatest historical victims of religious opportunism and of the search for contemporary proof of divinity – but those themes aren’t really present in the film itself except as psychobabble to pad out the running length between bloody showcases. There might have been some legitimate thematic friction at work if Laugier had opted to make anything of his two female protagonists besides featureless victims – one abused since childhood, the other blandly compelled to follow – but instead they exist simply as objects to get kicked around. Laugier continues the trend inherent in Haute Tension of involving women’s issues – there, in the form of female desire, and here, in the form of religious exploitation – only to exploit them as a hollow plot machination.

She’s a Boy I Knew (dir. Gwen Haworth)

* * *

After a shaky start, She’s a Boy I Knew emerges as a keenly felt doc on the consequences of replacing one person with another. Director Haworth charts her progress from her life as a handsome young man named Steve to her new life as Gwen by interviewing those closest to her at length. The first twenty minutes are messy, with Haworth’s narration feeling overly present, suffocating the opinions of her external subjects. Over time, however, her grip loosens, and the film explores tricky emotional ground, particularly when we spend time with Malgosia, Gwen’s beguiling ex-wife, who admits both her initial anger towards Gwen (then Stephen) for her decision, and later confesses her diminishing sexual interest, finding herself unable to convince herself of the “superficiality” of Gwen’s changing body in the face of the still-present “essence” of the person she loves. There’s also a lingering sense of heartbreak in scenes with Gwen’s tight-lipped Mountie father, who looks for clues in his parentage as to how his son may have gone “astray” – yet simultaneously recognizes something in Gwen that he himself withheld in his youth. Through it all, Haworth exhibits a sense of inclusiveness, fleshing out their histories as well as her own, always seeking to empathize even when there is a lack of mutual understanding. I could have done without the animated segments, but they’re brief, and are made up for with the inclusion of some surprisingly frank images of Gwen’s post-op transformations – an important inclusion, reminding us that the ignominy that may come with her emerged gender awareness is hardly the only trial she faces.

Surveillance (dir. Jennifer Chambers Lynch)

* * *

Reviled by critics expecting something a little more, well, Lynchian, Surveillance has more in common with Verhoeven or Cronenberg than with her father’s considerably more obtuse output. Instead, it’s a darkly comic thriller with an erotic bent where every killing is a punchline and every characterization is over-the-top. Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond star as a pair of eccentric detectives looking into a series of murders by separately interviewing the people who crossed paths with the killers – including a family of four, two crooked cops, and a coked-out couple. Lynch has her eye on pure pulp entertainment here, and she delivers in spades – even when depicting scenes of intense brutality, there’s a detached sense of levity to much of the film. The “twist” that seems to be required in such films is hardly a surprise, and doesn’t feel meant to be. If you’re looking for Lost Highway you’ll find yourself disappointed, but fans of colorful, entertaining thrillers should find themselves right at home.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Director Kim Jo-Woon (Tale of Two Sisters) brings the biggest and most expensive Korean film to date. This isn’t surprising considering its ingenious special effects, massive chase sequences and non stop acting from start to finish. Unapologetic, over the top, absorb and it never give you more than a minute to breathe without hammering in enough violence and action to have you grinning from ear to ear. Kim Jo- Woon brings a mash up of Spaghetti Westerns, Mad Max with the touch of John Woo direction. If you’re a fan of classic western stand offs, Kung Fu wire work, and some great comedy, this is for you.


 

The Tiger`s Tail (dir. John Boorman)

* 1/2

A hybrid made up of so many constituent parts as to render the whole ineffectual. Stalwart Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson stars as a contented, wealthy real estate developer keen to give Ireland its first proper football stadium. There is lingering opposition to the project, given the increasingly desperate plight of the poor in Ireland and the lack of affordable housing. Gleeson’s life gets derailed when his “doppelganger” arrives, a man of his exact likeness who follows him around and taunts him relentlessly. After some intriguing early scenes, the film loses steam quickly when it becomes apparent that this figure is not, in fact, a hallucination, but instead that most treasured of soap opera conventions, the long-lost twin. Nevermind that the underlying facts we must accept about the manner in which the “evil” twin was cast aside are contrived at best. There are bigger problems to deal with, anyway – mostly involving the hamfisted attempts at political commentary that are intermittently – and inappropriately – shoehorned into what amounts to something very nearly approaching a shaggy dog story. Meant to be an elaborate parable about the scocio-economic divide in Ireland, it might have worked as satire, but takes its ludicrous plot machinations far too seriously. And it must be said – Kim Cattrall as trophy wife we can believe, but as Irishwoman?

Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

* * *

A girl and her dog find themselves stranded on their way to a better life Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her warmly received Old Joy. Michelle Williams stars as Wendy, a luckless drifter looking to find work in Alaska, and Lucy (the director’s dog, which also appeared in Old Joy) is her faithful canine companion. when Wendy’s car breaks down, she finds herself stranded in a nowhere town in Oregon. Reichardt favors simple, unadorned storytelling, and here she chronicles Wendy’s mounting troubles in an unhurried and level-headed way – there’s no room for Von Trier-ian histronics, just the plain fact of a life lived on the ever-furthering margins. Williams keeps things close to the hilt, only letting us in at key moments – a confrontation with a stranger, and an act of touching sacrifice. As we hear a predictable new round of hyperbole about the coming of new New Deal in American society, cinematic representations of such bleak struggles become increasingly relevant. Modest, and a success.

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