Film Festivals


By • Oct 10th, 2003 • Pages: 1 2

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“Chihwaseon” (South Korea/Kino International) is a handsome snooze of a flick by the venerable Korean director, Im Kwon-Taek, who gave us the even prettier fairy tale “Chunhyang” in NYFF 2000. This more recent work actually won the best director award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, shared with Paul Thomas Anderson for “Punch-Drunk Love,” about which I will say more later. (The Cannes panel of movie pros must have been selecting one from country A and one from country B, as both films are indifferently directed.)

“Chunhyang” was infuriating to Western ears by the nasal voice of a beloved folk singer rasping native pansouri. “Chihwaseon,” is a more earthy tale about the booze and babes of the celebrated 19th century Korean artist, Jang Seung-Up—played by the dumpy, middle- aged Choi Min-Sik, who, for all I know, is as beloved in Korea as Edward G. Robinson was here. But when you set off Min-Sik’s homely face with all the lovelies he beds (his favorite whore-with-a-heart-of-gold comes back to him in the end), his weathered face and form grow increasingly unappealing over two hours.

The famous Korean artist the film celebrates, popularly known as “Ohwon,” may well have been great, but nothing about this film biography is. The flick seems like a would-be “The Last Emperor” on a limited budget.

Remarkably, “The Magdalene Sisters” (Scotland, Ireland/Miramax) is only the second feature film by Scotch actor James Mullan, although it is, surprisingly, a highly accomplished and affecting study of a notorious Sisterhood’s exploitation of young, Irish, unwed mothers, as well as the sexually inclined and the sexually assaulted. (As of July 2003, Mr. Mullen has made two new films) “Sisters” snared Best Film at last year’s Venice Film Festival, which usually honors excellence accurately.

This “women’s prison picture” is drawn from the case histories of several young unfortunates judged to be “loose,” or for giving birth without benefit of wedlock, and then pressed into the slave labor camps of the Magdalene Sisters’ horrific laundries. In these odious scrubs, there was no talk, no pay, and no joy, which was the fate of some 30,000 wretched Irish women in their prime, oppressed by this sadistic Order of older nuns.

Although not mentioned in the film, the Magdalene Sisters Asylums stretched across Ireland, and, albeit under different names, to such former English colonies as Australia and America.

2002 has been an annus horribilis for the Church by revealing how both priests and nuns have scarred the young forever due to their own repressed sexuality. So much for vows of chastity.

The superb quartet of oppressed young women who are the protagonists of this film, are played by two experienced stage actresses (Anne-Marie Duff and Eileen Walsh) and two thespic novices (Dorothy Duffy and Nora-Jane Noone). This quartet gives such empathetic performances that they serve to make Mullan’s black and white case against their wicked elders in black and white clerical garb.

The picture is filled with memorable scenes and one remarkable extended sequence which begins with Anne-Marie Duff gathering something like poison sumac which she proceeds to use, rather than detergent, in a clothes washer, though we don’t know whom she’s getting even with. Subsequently, a young priest, at an outdoor service, begins to tug at his clothing until he tears all of it off and runs buck naked across a field displaying a fearful rash. As he does so, the simpleton played by Eileen Walsh (whom we now understand to be the sexually abused inmate we have glimpsed in a basement window which does not reveal the participants) continues to shout, “You are not a man of God!” at the top of her lungs. This is complex, surprising, and wonderfully economical filmmaking.

The saucy beauty, played by Nora-Jane Noone, gives a splendid performance as an unsuccessful runaway who has her gorgeous hair sheared bloody by the sadistic headmistress, played by English theater great, Geraldine McEwen. (McEwen was an eleventh-hour replacement for Vanessa Redgrave, who left the film to nurse her injured, elderly mother, but this proved no loss. As a stand-in, McEwen is a stand-out – a fiendishly wicked delight).

As you may gather, writer-director Mullan has a flair for the melodramatic. Although the film is set in 1964, the last of the Magdalene Asylums only closed in 1996. The Church, of course, denies all of Mullan’s allegations of abuse and condemns the film as a complete misrepresentation.

“Ten” (Iran, France/Zeitgeist Films) is a claustrophobic aggravation by the famous Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who previously made “Through the Olive Trees” (1994) and “Taste of Cherry” (1997). It all takes place in the front and rear seats of a fashionable car driven by a chic Iranian housewife and her passengers. The lady, who is driving nowhere, engages in ten tiresome conversations with her riders. (You now understand the title, which took me a very long time to grasp. Unless there were actually ten passengers.)

I chiefly remember two arguments between the woman and her handsome, though accusatory, 10-year-old son as well as with her sister, dressed in a traditional chador. The other passengers include a prostitute, and a poor, old, religious woman to whom she gives a lift. These characters were so fascinating that I found it extremely difficult to keep my eyes open.

The film’s budget would appear to be less than a miniscule $100,000. We are trapped in the housewife’s car—her home away from home–whose exterior we are never shown—for the 94 minutes of this soporific endurance test, written, directed and edited by Kiarostami!

Kiarostami evidently has some fixation on driving-as-a-living-death. Only critic John Simon, seated in the middle of a row in front of me, had the nerve to disturb his colleagues by walking out after half an hour. We other, too-patient fools kept waiting for something to occur—like some significant dialogue. But no. This is mise-en-scene as nullity—using a remote-controlled, little video camera and some concealed, miniature spotlights. It’s all miniature, including the intellect of its creator on display.
Kiarostami is now so self-important that he feels he has the right to impose on us; and, indeed, the Village Voice critic had kind words for the film, as did the distinguished critic, Phillip Lopate, writing in Film Comment, the journal of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Festival’s sponsor. Lopate terms “Ten” “My favorite film at the festival.,” and contends “that the austere visuals leave us no exit from the situational tensions affecting the characters.” This opposition critic of Lopate and Hoberman cries foul. The festival’s truly inaccessible films are, inevitably, the delight of intellectuals like Lopate or The Village Voice’s J.Hoberman—i.e., those who go to the cinema to find enlightenment in the profoundly obscure, boring, or dreadful, in order to be superior in print to us mere entertainment-seekers.

Of course, the level of censored discourse in contemporary Tehran may be as dreary and prosaic as portrayed here, but from the old lady hitchhiker babbling about the efficacy of her blessed rosary to the complaints of the driver’s sister, we are talking about stock character whiners. The only variety in the film is that there are some night scenes outside the car’s window, but that is variety of the most minimal visual sort.

The impoverished state of contemporary Italian cinema is shown by “My Mother’s Smile” (Italy), a tedious, dark comedy by the once-promising Marco Bellochio, now 63, who made both the distinctive “Fists in the Pocket” and “China is Near” in the 1960s.
“Smile” concerns the hypocrisy of the Church for canonizing the murdered mother of Ernesto, a children’s book illustrator (Sergio Castelitto, who resembles a 40ish Al Pacino). The unfunny joke is that mamma accepted the murder (by another son) as her due. Apparently, her resignation qualified her with the Church as a martyr, although she was an otherwise despicable woman.

Ernesto, the illustrator, whose work is shown to us via frequent computer graphics, is a confirmed atheist and socialist. By the end of the film he is compelled to fight a saber duel with a 70-year-old Super Catholic. (Prior to this film, I had only known of Lenny Bruce’s Super Jew wearing cape and tights. Whether a Super Catholic is merely ardent or furiously orthodox is a mystery to me.) The dueling ground features a huge TV mast antenna opposite St. Peter’s dome, a shot which amused me more than almost anything else in the picture.

Bellochio throws in a Felliniesque sprite, a pretty and willing blonde (Ciara Conti). But the heavy handed Bellochio is in no way comparable to the blithe Fellini. The picture is groaningly ponderous. It would seem there is no one in the contemporary Italian cinema capable of doing a shrewd satire of the Church’s covering up their widespread molestation of the young. Of course, the influence of the Vatican in one’s own backyard must be inhibiting.

PBS’s dean of documentaries, Frederick Wiseman, has a lot to answer for in setting a bad example. Wiseman’s documentaries now are uniformly long and taxing. They have made it the norm to spend three or more hours with subjects you would not usually want to grant five minutes.

Obviously, choosing the right subject(s) is the sine qua non of the documentarian, in this case, Jennifer Dworkin, in “Love and Diane” (USA,France/Zeitgeist Films), who found a black mother (Diane, 42) and daughter (Love, 18), with suitably fraught histories crying out for documentation.

Love and her five siblings were abandoned as children because of Diane’s crack addiction, from which she has recovered by the beginning of the film. She is now ready to make a home for her kids and to underwrite it by entering the job market, for which she is singularly ill-equipped, having lived off welfare for her entire adult life.

Desertion has condemned Love to a succession of traumatic foster homes and to young motherhood. Like Diane’s brood of kids, Love’s love child is meant to substitute for the void of her absent parents. As a souvenir of her tough life in the streets, Love’s baby (whom she loses and regains in the course of the three-year period the film covers) is infected with HIV.
Obviously, the picture is a reduction of the three years it takes Love to recover her baby and to find a docile man to play house with her. While this documentary only lasts 155 minutes, it seems like a Wiseman endurance contest of far more than three hours.

Oddly, the infant’s infection is medically corrected in the course of the film, while the status of Love’s presumed HIV infection goes unmentioned. Although feisty Diane successfully graduates a job-training program, it is evident that both mother and daughter have been crippled by the social welfare system.

Despite its liberal intentions, this impassioned if protracted film confirms rather than refutes the right wing prejudice against welfare mothers.

And, in spite of Diane’s recovery and joie de vivre as well as Love’s devotion to her infant, these are both women who, I (not FIR, but I) believe, should have been denied the right to bear children—a right, which should be largely restricted to the financially and emotionally stable single parent, if that is not a contradiction.

Inevitably, the pro-life Republicans, who privately abhor blacks, may come to appreciate that their perceived good in multiplying the black population is contradicted by the statistic that nearly one-third of this country’s young, African-American men are incarcerated in the nation’s swelling prison system. The towering budgetary costs of our prisons and the danger to themselves and their property at the hands of jobless blacks may, in time, give even the pro-lifers pause. Their reproductive advocacy and their racial prejudice fundamentally contradict one another.

Diane and Love are both haunted by the suicide of Charles, the collegiate son who supported the family with his earnings (in Diane’s absence) and then blew his brains out prior to the start of the film, and one year shy of his graduation from college. For me, Charles is, potentially, the most interesting character in the film, but, given his suicide, there is no footage of him.
Jennifer Dworkin may have learned filmmaking in the course of the three years she spent with this indigent family (talk about on-the-job training), but I resent the experience of having to endure the filmmaker’s bonding with them. Were “Love and Diane” on PBS, where it most likely will be shown, I would have watched only a fraction of it, as I do of the Wiseman epics. But as the New York film critics greatly admired “Love And Diane,” Jennifer Dworkin has been launched as a documentary maker.

“About Schmidt” (USA-New Line Cinema) opened the 40th New York Film Festival and deserved its top slot. It confirms that Alexander Payne, its director and co-author, has a unique talent for quirky social satire, maturing steadily from “Citizen Ruth” (1996) about abortion politics, to “Election” (1999) about high school politics, to “About Schmidt.” All are exceedingly droll and memorable films of conflicts waged on both social and familial battlegrounds.

Significantly, all three pictures have been set in Payne’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. During the Festival press conference for “Schmidt,” Payne spoke about rediscovering his city while scouting new parts of it for location filming. He also talked about Omaha’s heritage in spawning major film talent (Astaire, Fonda, Brando). To these film immortals of Omaha, we must now add the name of Payne.

From the get-go, the director finds humor even in Omaha’s lack of architectural distinction, by shooting progressive close-ups of a dowdy insurance tower. But it’s the “leggo log” archway over the thruway at Carney, Nebraska, towards the end of the film, which gives Payne his supreme sight gag. Tourist visitors, at this shrine to our Westward pioneers, ascend an escalator into a clouded Technicolor panorama, which forms an utterly surreal union of the present merging with the past.

Jack Nicholson gives a surprisingly reticent performance as a depressed, retired, and suddenly aimless actuary, Warren Schmidt. (Nicholson’s once handsome face, at 65, is now a suitably wrinkled ruin, used for the film’s ad campaign.) Schmidt is swiftly widowed from his domineering, henpecker of a wife (the perfect June Squibb), who has ruled his life so completely that he is no longer allowed to urinate standing up. The shot of a naked, humiliated Nicholson on the throne is an audacious bathroom hilarity—as is Schmidt’s hand-waving, look-ma-no-hands liberation at the toilet, after he is widowed. Only later do we realize that Schmidt’s wife, who has died in the act of shampooing the bedroom carpet, has fulfilled her “cleanliness is next to godliness” carping.

Schmidt’s toilet training submission gets howls from the audience as huge as those, throughout the film, for Schmidt’s five, extended, voice-over complaints, in the form of anguished letters, in which he pours out his heart to the off-screen, never-seen Ndugu, an illiterate 6-year old African orphan whom Schmidt subsidizes for $22-a-month, solicited by an imploring, charitable print ad. (Even Nicholson’s pronunciation of the name Ndugu is a scream.)

With a vast, unused Winnebago camper in back of his house—in which Schmidt had planned to spend his retirement years traveling—his sole, remaining mission is to, unsuccessfully, prevent his only child’s (Hope Davis) wedding, in Denver. Her despised choice is a conniving water bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney), who promotes obvious Ponzi schemes. Ironically, the awful Mulroney character holds Davis in thrall because he is, allegedly, great in bed.

Although Nicholson said at the press conference that his screen behavior is 85% the same from film to film, the eerie character of Schmidt contains none of his usual high spirits or raised eyebrow shtick.

It may be that Nicholson is one of the screen rarities who, like Sinatra, can traverse the bi-polar extremities from the extroverted obsessive-compulsive in “As Good As it Gets” (1997) to the bitter depressive of “Five Easy Pieces” (1970).

Nicholson’s Schmidt is a generic Common Man with a ravaged face and a senior’s shuffle, but we were privileged to see the old, boisterous Jack at the press conference following the screening. I had the temerity to ask him to outline “the considerable differences” he had mentioned between Louis Begley’s novel and the Payne-Jim Taylor screenplay of “About Schmidt.” Nicholson roared that a film contained only a fragment of any novel; that everything about “Schmidt” had been changed; and that if it were easy to convert a novel into a screenplay, he would have played “Henderson the Rain King” during the 30 years he had owned the book and still had the vigor to enact that Saul Bellow protagonist.

Mr. Payne specializes in sending up fraudulent American institutions. His set pieces in “About Schmidt” include the retirement banquet, which begins the picture; high-pressure casket salesmanship at a mortuary; and an elaborate, contemporary wedding with wretched Carpenters chestnuts and other dreadful golden oldies replacing the traditional hymns.

The film reaches comic heights when Schmidt goes to Denver and is crippled by spending the night in one of his sleazy son-in-law’s unfamiliar water beds. Dermot Mulroney, his good looks defaced for the role, is as richly contemptible as the certificates for two-week correspondence courses which the odious salesman has framed and hung in his bedroom.

Kathy Bates’ turn as the once-and-future Hippie mother of Mulroney, with whom he still lives, is sublime, improving on her tough but secretly tender spin meister in “Primary Colors.” (Ms. Bates won the 2002 Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review for her performance in “About Schmidt.”)

The monster mom retains her drug habits, her sexual voracity (for Schmidt), and the evidence of every popular hobby, from crocheting to the harp, at which she has ever tried her hand. When Bates doffs her mu-mu and reveals her nude, twelve-hourglass figure, in the course of sharing her hot tub with the injured Schmidt, the audience cheered as if it were at a ball game. It takes supreme sang froid to strip naked when you appear to weigh over 300 pounds.

Many people disliked “Schmidt” because all of its characters are faintly horrid or downright loathsome, in an amusing way. However I look forward to seeing it again [and I certainly did], which is more than I can say for many of the more self-serious Festival offerings.

For the Times’ Stephen Holden to proclaim “Russian Ark” (Russia, Germany/Wellspring) “a magnificent conjuring act” rather than the somewhat tedious, though sometimes impressive whimsy that it is, required a set of detailed production notes he received at the Festival, but which I lacked. (I attended the picture’s New York premiere in late December, three months after its Festival press screening. It opened at the narrow Cinema Village, where it ran for an unprecedented six months, which could be achieved only by favorable word-of-mouth.)

From the program notes, Mr. Holden was convinced that thanks to the use of a High-Definition Video camera, Russian director Alexander Sokurov and his German cinematographer Tilman Buttner (“Run, Lola, Run”) had achieved a 96-minute film in a single take. (A single take implies only one, continuous shot.) The film’s finale alone involves hundreds of costumed dancers gliding to a Tchaikovsky mazurka, conducted by the Met’s Vladimir Gergiev leading his Marinsky (Kirov) Symphony Orchestra. Such an ending could only have been captured perfectly in one take, after any number of misfires—although at the close, the departing, formally dressed dancers appear to be walking with extreme caution as they make their stately, “one-take” exit.

An anonymous critic writing in the January 20003 Film Comment, the publication of the Festival’s host, has wittily termed “Russian Ark,“ “ the first home movie ever to employ a steadicam.”

I believe the one-take claim is “mere propaganda,” as Russian Premier Putin dismissed English Prime Minister Blair’s gung-ho enthusiasm for the forged, MI6 intelligence allegation of Iraq’s instant, nuclear arsenal.

“Russian Ark” is spiced with historical episodes from the court of Catherine and Peter The Great, and is anti-climaxed by the pageantry of Czar Nicholas’ imperial guard massed in formation (for a too-perfect, tracking shot), as well as the monumental ballroom scene mentioned before. (Does the extended tracking shot qualify as part of the alleged single take or is it “mere propaganda”?) I should guess Buttner turned the video camera on and off for the better part of a month, without leaving a single, digital splice mark. But in any case, shooting an elaborate hour-and-a-half film in a single take is just a Guinness-Record-Book stunt of no more significance then Hitchcock’s gimmick, demanding that the cast of “Rope” (1948) perform without stopping until his ten-minute reels of film ran out. This only achieved numbed, walking-on-eggs performances from veterans James Stewart and Sir Cedric Hardwick as well as the pretty-boy killers Farley Granger and (the dull) John Dall. Hitchcock never again repeated such a foolish experiment.

The specific historic vignettes in “Russian Ark” are, occasionally, as piquant as Catherine The Great desperately seeking a chamber pot to relieve herself during the rehearsals of her play, which she interrupts by her quest. (One only appreciates that it’s Catherine’s own play with the aid of the production notes,)

Such historic anecdotes are interspersed with the film’s central argument between a snobbish visitor (in 18th century dress), who has lost his way in the present-day Hermitage, debating with the voice of an off-screen ghost the merits of the vast museum’s holdings. This debate between the incorporeal interlocutor and the antiquated snob defies my comprehension, except as a tedious and increasingly irritating device for showing off many of the museum’s many different rooms and dazzling art works. As the Russian film’s subtitles of this talkative “opera” were insufficient for me, I felt I needed the full libretto.

The intermittent, off-beat, historical cameos enliven the script’s deadly construct of an 18th-century Marquis continually trashing the museum’s famous art works and the décor of the three palaces (which comprise St Petersburg’s magnificent Hermitage). The detractor’s opponent in debate–an unseen spook–is as rotten a device as that of our theatre’s falsely economical one-character plays in which the audience is addressed by a celebrated dead party arbitrarily talking to a theater audience as a collective auditor. It dawns on us, eventually, that the Hermitage itself is the titular ‘Russian Ark’ repository of the nation’s history and culture.

Of course, it helps to know that the great formal ball at the end of the film was the last ever held at the court of Czar Nicholas in the Winter Palace, but that information is only in the production notes’ crib sheets. One requires those notes or the Holden review to know that this lavish display, in 1913, so antagonized the populace that it lead to the Czar’s overthrow in 1917.
The magnificence of the refurbished Hermitage and the film which celebrates it suggest that worship of the Czar and his luxurious residences remains the fervent fantasy of the Russian imagination while the contemptible socialist art and architecture of the long Communist winter is a thing of the past.

As a new, Jewish employee of CBS, in 1965, I was utterly appalled by its new sit-com, ‘Hogan’s Heroes,” about the shenanigans of a German POW camp with a silly Nazi commandant, stupid guards, and a wisecracking American prisoner, Capt. Hogan (Bob Crane), who outwitted the Germans every single week. That the pompous commandant was played by the cultured Werner Klemperer, the son of Otto, the famous Jewish conductor driven from Germany by the Fascists, was more appalling to me than amusing. That the American public, who evidently lacked my knowledge of POW camps, devoured it, just 20 years after World War II, but only 12 after Billy Wilder’s grim POW film, “Stalag 17” was an astonishment. (Except for “60 Minutes,” the public only came to love reality shows 37 years later.)

Paul Schrader’s latest, and one of his best, films, “Auto Focus,” follows the downfall of Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) from a genial L. A. radio show host to the star of “Hogan’s Heroes” and his subsequent descent into sexual obsession. (I understand that Mr. Schrader’s repressive Lutheran background makes him leech all of the joy from human sexuality in his pictures, although it’s comforting to learn, from the Times’ “At The Movies,” that Schrader, in private life, enjoyed such personal, fleshly pursuits as Nastassia Kinski, the star of his remake of “Cat People” in 1982.)

It was dismaying for me to learn that, just 13 years after the start of his series hit, Bob Crane had been bludgeoned to death, in 1978, at the age of 50, in an Arizona condo surrounded by the home videos of himself with the images of hundreds of naked women he had compulsively video-taped.

Greg Kinnear is perfectly cast as the innocent opportunist, Crane, who successively destroys his marriages, family and career, as he becomes an insatiable satyr.

In charting the ignominious disintegration of Crane, Schrader has made a film about an unappeasable sexual appetite as fascinating as Billy Wilder’s movie about a degenerate alcoholic, “The Lost Weekend” (1945).

As Crane’s satanic, yet dependent companion and instructor, John Carpenter – training Crane, his grateful acolyte, in the 60’s novelty of video-taping naked women and then bedding them – Willem Dafoe gives one of his memorably creepy though needy performances.

What is most fascinating about the Crane-Carpenter symbiosis is its latent homoerotic element, which is entirely subliminal. But, if Carpenter was Crane’s assassin, as seems likely, the murder was, clearly, the outgrowth of Crane giving his fellow-swinger the gate. (Carpenter was twice tried for the murder and twice exonerated, so Schrader only shows an anonymous hand on the phone receiver bashing in Kinnear’s head, as opposed to the gruesome death scene photos of Crane impaled, by his murderer, on his video camera’s tripod–which would have been too lurid for this soft-focus film.

Ron Leibman, who has been well over the top as an actor ever since “Where’s Papa,” gives an unusually restrained performance as “Lenny,” Crane’s kindly agent who remains open to his client and friend even after he has become an unemployable disgrace. At the press conference, Leibman said his role was a departure from the way that actors’ agents are usually depicted: as crass and venal by the very actors and directors for whom they have done so much.

The Film Festival’s Centerpiece, “Punch-Drunk Love,” (USA, Columbia Pictures) Paul Thomas Anderson’s much anticipated romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler–seasoned with Anderson’s usual, scatter-shot bursts of violence)– is a total dud (for me, at any rate).

Sandler, one of the most successful alumnae of “Saturday Night Live,” evidently satisfies less sophisticated comedic tastes than mine. The similarly featured David Schwimmer, of “Friends,” makes Sandler look amiable by comparison. (Both men have their limitations—only one facial expression—blank. Of course, Schwimmer has charm and likeability. I imagine Sandler’s appeal must be to grubby, clumsy boys. His ability to snare the attractive girl at the end, despite his maladroitness (although it costs him a pile to schmear his conquest by expensive dinners and gifts) reassures these ill-favored chaps that there is hope for them too.

The current stinker could well equal the pathetic grosses of Sandler’s recent “Little Nicky” (2000), which ended Sandler’s run of high grossing comedies in which he plays the sweetly inept schmuck. My forecast was right on target, though I’ve never perceived what kids find so endearing about Adam Sandler except that he is witless in a non-witty culture.

Sandler and the English rose Emily Watson “failed to connect” or to make an interesting pairing as her character (Lana Leonard) is refined (Watson is, after all, drama schooled), while Sandler, as Barry Egan, plays his usual uncouth Neanderthal. It is difficult to see what Watson sees in the Sandler character (he’s uncouth but passionate, I suppose) and it’s equally hard to accept Sandler as a sweet guy who, just occasionally, goes into such berserk, violent rages that he destroys a picture window and an entire men’s room. Sandler’s screen anger, of course, is all trumped up grimacing.

Sandler’s character has seven identical sisters (this is the level of Anderson’s invention) and the team of vicious hitters, who comes after Barry, are played by four, actual, blond brothers. Mr. Anderson finds some irony in multiple siblings, but fails to show us the seven sisters, which should now be easy to create by computer graphics.

The film’s logo, a remarkable shot of black foreground figures (in a dance clinch) silhouetted against a pastel-colored, sun-drenched, Hawaiian passing parade is a truly superb image–but one great shot hardly makes for an entire feature film.

Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman contributes another notable performance as a raging bully, but he’s only in a couple of scenes.

One of the film’s ultra-whimsical plot strands involves Sandler (who has a large, San Fernando Valley warehouse of unamusing toilet novelties) buying shelves full of Healthy Choice pudding mix in order to get a million free miles from an unnamed airline. The Sandler character is taking advantage of a loophole in the pudding-airline tie-in, although he has never flown previous to his pursuing Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard to Hawaii.

The pudding packages are piled in Egan’s warehouse but there is no pay-off to this limp sight gag, nor to the mystical, symbolic harmonium, which falls off a truck early in the film, and which Sandler takes in without ever playing (though we see and hear it late in the film).

The film does feature the greatest imaginable cautionary to having phone sex via a credit card – a situation which may been based on a real-life experience of Anderson’s but which is turned, by him, to typically unfunny account. In short, the much-heralded, young Mr. Anderson, who shared best director honors at Cannes with Im Kwon-Taek, the venerable Korean filmmaker, has no gift for romantic comedy or whimsy. In fact, except for the first half of “Boogie Nights,” I’m not sure that Anderson has any ability. The award from the Cannes jury is the kiss of death, and “Punch-Drunk Love” vanished soon after its commercial run coincided with its Festival premiere.

I think Anderson should bring back the plague of falling frogs in the San Fernando Valley from the 3-hour “Magnolia” (1999)–they were ludicrously funny (The Valley is Anderson’s pet location, as Omaha is Alexander Payne’s.)

I longed to ask Anderson and Sandler where the idea for the confiscatory phone sex/credit card rip-off came from, at their dismaying press conference, but they were too busy cavorting as dorks –a character the seemingly brain-dead but pompous Sandler plays authentically in real life.

The suspenseful plot device of the new film, “The Son” by the Belgian Brothers Dardenne (Belgium, France/ New Yorker Films) is that a vocational school carpentry teacher, Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), who is highly selective of the young men he will train, unwittingly, takes in a diffident youth, just out of reform school. He lavishes his care and attention on this skittish young man (Morgan Marinne) in order to compensate for his profound grief over his recently murdered young son.

Before long, we grasp that his favorite new pupil is, ironically, his son’s inadvertent strangler. By the time the teacher’s ex-wife grasps who he is, she thinks her ex is demented to have any contact with the youth whose deed has devastated their marriage.
It is our anticipation that when Olivier learns what his pupil has done, he will justifiably slay him, except that the Dardennes make their religious parables in grubby, working class milieus and this one is a variant of the Old Testament tale of father Abraham sparing his son Isaac’s life through the mediation of divine mercy. The picture’s title implies that if you endow any youth through the power of paternal love you have made the young man your “son.”

“The Son” is a splendid film, as fine as the Dardennes’ previous “La Promesse” (1996) and “Rosetta” (1999). All three films concern the life and death interactions of perfidy and fidelity of children and parental figures in squalid settings. The father/teacher, played by the Dardennes’ regular, Olivier Gourmet, is familiarly called Olivier in the film. (M. Gourmet beat out Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt” (the heavy favorite) for the best actor award at Cannes 2002.)

The spying teacher (who is always running into his shop room intending to catch his students at some forbidden frivolity) is most often photographed from the rear in a close-up of the back of his thick neck and head. The shot is vaguely amateurish, like the Dardennes masterful “home movies”.

Most commercial directors would have artificially hyped the suspense of the sequence where the aggrieved father and the guilty boy are alone together in a lumber warehouse. But by being so non-Hitchcockian, the no-hiding-place situation becomes almost unbearably intense and our dread increases while the pair play cat and mouse among the stacks of freshly-cut lumber.

The Times’ Elvis Mitchell calls the Irish documentary “Bloody Sunday” (U.K, Ireland/ Paramount Classics) “magnetic and impassioned melodrama.” In fact, all of the New York critics that I read were impressed with this rousing recreation of a fatal Catholic activist march against trigger-happy British troops in Derry, Northern Ireland, on January 30, 1972.

One major problem with the picture is that it is usually spoken in the thick Irish accents of the region, which made most of the film incomprehensible to me and my companion. Paramount Classics, aware of American audiences antipathy to reading sub-titles, failed to title this “foreign language” film because it is, after all , in English. (The recently issued [4/22/03] Paramount DVD features English sub-titles. Using this feature would be the ideal way, for American audiences, to view this worthy film.) (“Bloody Sunday” won the 2002 Berlin Festival best picture where it was sub-titled in German.)

By the critics’ unearned comparison of “Bloody Sunday” to the brilliantly suspenseful “ The Battle Of Algiers” (1965), to date the foremost documentary-style feature on Colonial oppression, we are reminded that American audiences know the Gillo Pontecorvo’s great “Algiers” from its sub-titles.

The film’s commercial run in New York, (coinciding with its Festival premiere), proved short-lived despite the good reviews. New York audiences are evidently bored by now with the endless Irish “troubles” and didn’t want to see a black-and-white account of a film they intuited, despite the Times’ rave, would be hard to understand, about an incident famous in Irish history but little-known here.

The film dramatizes, in annoyingly choppy black-outs which make the eyes eventually close, a recreation of the Londonderry massacre in which 27 unarmed civil rights marchers were shot (13 were killed) by British militia. The film was given a context for the Festival audience by the writer-director Paul Greengrass telling the audience that the shooting occasioned decades of armed reprisal by the IRA against the British military occupation.

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