2008 ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL : film-by-film reviews

Alice's House : [8/10] : A casa de Alice : Chico TEIXEIRA : Brazil 2007 : 90m : seen 30.1 Venster (press show)
IFFR : Sexual and emotional deceit undermine the marriage and family life of Alice, a simple nail stylist who gradually starts to lose her grip on an honest life. Without judging and with natural acting, Teixeiro allows tensions to grow slowly.       
NY : What starts as a quietly innocuous study of Sao Paulo family life builds and builds – so that, before halfway, we've become sucked into the rhythms and dynamics of Alice and her world. She's an unremarkable woman, and while some of the events that befall her have (deliberate) echoes of the telenovela soap-operas she loves to watch, the picture careful steers clear of contrivance and melodrama. How refreshing to find a director who knows what he wants to do and straightforwardly does it – without any unneccessary fanciness, distractions or overreach. This feels like a real family living in a real house – its atmospheres, jealousies and joys will be familiar to anyone, anywhere, who has experienced any kind of domesticity. Cinematography, editing and performances are all spot on – indeed, it's hard to put a finger on a single major flaw anywhere in this little marvel of a film.
                                                                         MORE ON ALICE'S HOUSE

Black Snow : [6/10] : Ben ming nian : XIE Fei : China 1989 : 99m (2.2 Cinerama – public)
Urban alienation and despair mark this dark, politically daring story of an ex-con (the great Chinese actor Jiang Wen) with no home to return to. Xie Fei's gritty tone and subject blaze the trail for the Sixth Generation's 'underground' provocations.
NY : A convincingly tough performance from pocket-battleship Jiang Wen anchors this urban tale of violence, remorse and fate's inescapability. It's essentially a character-study of ex-con Huiquan (Jiang), now trying to stick to the straight-and-narrow back in the densely-populated confines of his former neighbourhood. But it's also a snapshot of old-style hutong living swept away by China's recent rush to "development". Director Xie pungently evokes the atmosphere of a milieu that's already experiencing transition to a tougher, more market-based economy ("who has friends in these times?"). And while his focus stays on the travails and temptations of hard-bitten Huiquan, Black Snow exerts a steely fascination – a pity, then, that the plot takes melodramatic turns as he becomes infatuated with an unattainably classy (if sweetly demure) singer. It all ends in tears, of course – and blood – leaving a final impression of noir traditions being dutifully followed rather than imaginatively transcended. 

Cochochi : [4+/10] : Laura Amelia GUZMAN & Israel CARDENAS : Mexico (/UK/Can) 2007 : 87m (2.2 Cinerama – public)
Beautifully photographed fable about the issue of integrating or holding on to cultural identity. First steps in the adult world of two Mexican brothers who are Rarámuri Indians and have to take a package across the wilderness to a remote village. On the way they lose their horse.
NY : Can a film be too sensitive, too gently lyrical? Cochochi, the excessively quiet tale of two 11-year-olds in northern Mexico and their errant nag, suggests that it can. There's patient pacing, and then there's soporific slowness – a difference these two directors haven't yet mastered. One problem is the "naturalistic" performances elicited from the two leads – evidently non-professional actors whose actual lives, we surmise, parallel their characters'. The duo come across as mumblingly introverted, as if they're only reluctantly participating in proceedings or have been dosed with Ritalin. Some striking cinematography sugars the pill, but while there's nothing wrong with gazing at pretty landscapes, at some point we must become engaged on a narrative and/or character basis. The horse, absent from proceedings for much of the running-time, seems to have had the most sensible idea – maybe we should have followed his adventures rather than his masters' underwhelming peregrinations.

Dai Nipponjin : [6/10] : Big Man Japan : MATSUMOTO Hitoshi : Japan 2007 : 113m (31.1 Cinerama – public)
Some films can best be described by the word incomparable. 'The big Japanese', because that's what the title means, is a fake documentary about a typical Japanese underachiever who has to work hard to save Japan from monsters: live on television and with plummeting ratings… seeing is believing.
NY : The latest helping of ûber-outré weirdess from East Asia is an amibaly nonsensical mock-documentary – the latest addition to the flourishing "superhero in mufti" subgenre. An unseen director interviews a nondescript, fortyish bloke – who is gradually revealed to have a rather unusual profession. After being zapped with electricity at a power-station – a procedure carried out whenever circumstances dictate, under the auspices of the government and with the blessing of a (scene-stealing) priest – our hero becomes a 70-foot-high behemoth who must neutralise various colossal, human-faced monsters who threaten Japan. The picture deftly switches back and forward between two contrasting modes: near-Jarmuschian, quiet character comedy when 'Big Man Japan' is off duty, bizarro, ropey-CGI flights of fancy when he's at work. While the picture is rather too long, with an extended coda that strains much too hard for quirky effect, proceedings overall strike an agreeably genial and original note.

Drifter : [4/10] : Andilho : Cao GUIMARíƒES : Brazil 2007 : 80m (1.2 Cinerama – public)
Aristotle was already of the opinion that people thought best when walking. Director Guimarães and three lonely tramps do just that between Montes Claros and Pedra Azul in Brazil. Second part of a trilogy about loneliness. A feast for the eyes.
NY : Drifter is indeed a delight for the eyes – just a pity that it's such an ordeal for the ears. On this evidence Guimarães – director, editor and cinematographer – should concentrate on the latter task in future. Like hundreds before him, Guimarães blurs boundaries between fiction and documentary – and ends up with an unsatisfactory mish-mash of the two. When he's training his DV-camera on the backroads of Brazil, accompanied by an eerie score (from 'O Grives'), he approaches a kind of transcendent poetry. Guimarães is mainly concerned, however, with the figures who inhabit this landscape: wandering tramps, including one especially verbose, wild-haired, wild-eyed individual who Guimarães doesn't seem to be able to get enough of. And a little of his paranoid ranting on theological and philosophical themes ("God is the everlasting and the spirit is shit… My life is all about guessing…") goes a very long way indeed.

Dust : [7/10] : Staub : Hartmut BITOMSKY : Germany (/Swi) 2007 : 90m (31.1 Venster – press)
Detailed and both pragmatic and philosophical explanation of the smallest possible article in our cosmos that penetrates everything and everyone: dust. Bitomsky visits all kinds of people and organisations that either produce dust or combat it.
NY : As the the saying goes – dust we are, to dust returneth. And director/narrator Bitomsky returns to dust again and again, from dozens of different angles, as he crafts this quizzically engaging, insatiably curious analysis – part educational essay, part philosophical tract – of the universe's smallest visible component. It's rather like a charmingly extended Open University programme: we're taken into the high-tech lairs of various boffins, scientists, experts – and also the homes of various lay oddbods – all of whom either work with, or against, dust. Or sand, or fluff – there are several divagations (some of them "dustier" than others) as Bitomsky sardonically explores promising tangents, his gravelly voice marked by a steady-burning enthusiasm for his subject. Of course, it's really about the people on view – a chance to encounter the kinds of quotidian eccentrics one seldom finds in cinema, even in the realm of documentary.

Eat, For This is My Body : [5/10] : Mange, ceci est mon corps aka Eat, This is My Body : Michelange QUAY : France/Haiti 2007 : 105m (30.1 Pathe – public)
Elegant lyrical surrealism and restrained fury in a political pamphlet, all rolled into one: a director from Haiti shows us in breathtaking tableaux vivants the dramatic colonial heritage of his parents' birthplace. With Sylvie Testud and a great amateur cast.                                
NY : "I am abundance… I am this island and this island is me," – so speaks an elderly woman, bedbound in her colonial mansion. The film is her reverie – a fragmentary jumble of memories, images and sounds, symbols and allegories. Or is it? Who is the dreamer and who is the dreamed? Quay's heavy-handedly enigmatic/atmospheric cine-poem of Haiti won't be to all tastes, and his straining ambition and pretentious self-regard often threaten to overwhelm the enterprise altogether – it's unclear what he's trying to say about his Big Themes: exploitation, race, sex, class, history, etc. But the picture, even in its wilder flights of fancy, exerts an odd, hypnotic fascination – and several sequences achieve a beguiling kind of transcendence, notably an extended musical "number" in which the camera compulsively pans round and round a group of elderly women who appear to "mix" a trancey, percussive track as we watch.

The Honeymoon Killers : [9/10] : Leonard KASTLE : USA 1969 : 115m (2.2 de Unie – public)
In a reaction to Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Kastle wanted to craft a crime movie that avoided all Hollywood glamour. His fans have included Michelangelo Antonioni and François Truffaut.
NY : A ferociously uncompromising trash masterpiece that's lost none of its impact nearly four decades on, The Honeymoon Killers was famously the movie from which Martin Scorsese was sacked shortly after production started. It's most unlikely, however, that Scorsese – then, now, or at any stage in his career – could have done a better job that Kastle, a shadowy figure who hasn't made another movie since. That's not through want of trying, however, and it's a pretty savage indictment of cinema that a practitioner as talented as this should have been allowed to fall through the cracks. He brings a heightened sensibility to bear on the lurid true-crime tale of Martha (Shirley Stoler) and Ray (Tony LoBianco), who embezzled and murdered their way across American in the early fifties. By turns hilarious and horrifying – and certain remarkable sequences somehow manage to be both at the same time – The Honeymoon Killers is a textbook example of how bold, original talent (who else would have dreamt of using Mahler to score this story?) can transcend budgetary limitations. It's also surprisingly mordant in its portrayal of suburban, lower-middle-class America – a nightmarish zone of repression, depression and desperation. The literally larger-than-life Stoler, meanwhile, is astonishing in a performance that pays only the merest lip-service to realism and seems to have had a particular influence on Divine in her subsequent work with John Waters (who would, it's safe to say, kill to have this particular picture on his resume.)

In the Wild Mountains : [5/10] : Yeshan : YAN Xueshu : China 1985 : 105m (1.2 Cinerama – public)
Two mismatched farming couples experience both sexual and social change in 1980s China. Husband-swapping and entrepreneurial zeal fuse in this superbly shot, wittily realised take on a country where rambunctious capitalism and desiring bodies are two sides of the same coin.
NY : 'Hard life in country' indeed – the country being rural China, the time being some unspecified point in the mid-70s. Plausible in both details and atmosphere, the film is more concerned with character-development than plot – and topical/political references, though scattered throughout ("the government wants us to make money now"… "Not the police has changed, it's a good chance for us all"), aren't delivered in too heavy-handed a fashion. As a historical record of a pivotal change in Chinese economic culture – away from old-style, by-hand agrarian practices to more modern, automated methods (the climax features the arrival of a new-fangled milking-machine) – the film is clearly important. As a drama, however, it's somewhat lacking, gradually bogging down as it concentrates on the messy, soapy/melodramatic interactions between two mismatched couples – the women grasping the chance for some kind of independence ("I'm not his chattel!") as their material circumstances improve.

The Killer : [5/10] : Le tueur : Cedric ANGER : France 2007 : 96m (
In a mixer of mystery, fear and paranoia, a gentleman's agreement between a hit man and his victim develops in a barren suburb of Paris. Impersonal architecture forms the perfect background to an original, melancholy thriller that is basically about waiting.                      
NY : 'The Hitman and Him'… but who will turn out to be "The Killer"?! Frankly, who cares? This is a middling Gallic quasi-thriller that examines the odd relationship that develops a lank-haired professional assassin (Gregoire Colin) and his businessman target (Gilbert Melki) – the kind of thing that Patricia Highsmith might well have turned into a psychologically-intricate novel. Writer-director Anger, unfortunately, is largely lacking in inspiration – and although his film is unusually "dark", that's more to do with dingy lighting (surprisingly, the cinematographer is respected veteran Caroline Champetier) than anything to do with plot, mood or atmosphere. Like so many French movies of recent years, The Killer is – despite the noirish trappings – yet another analysis of work and workplaces. As such, it's not without interest – but the director's self-indulgent pursuit of stylishness cries out for crisper editing. He clearly has some talent, but misses the cible here.

The Lost One : [6/10] : Der Verlorene : Peter LORRE : West Germany 1951 : 98m (1.2 Lantaren – public)
A scientist murders his fiancée during World War II. He soon finds himself unable to resist killing again and again after the war. Debts must be paid… The only German film that looked the moral truth in the eye.
NY : Lorre's sole directorial outing, a flawed, little-seen but seminal film in the immediate post-war German cinema, remains distinctive in its dour, ultra-fatalistic gloominess. The weight of the past hangs very heavily upon the main characters – all struggling with the question of why they should have survived WWII when so many others perished. So many others who were, they realise, so much more deserving of life. Doctor Rothe (Lorre) feels this guilt with particular intensity – he was Hamburg's notorious "strangle killer". But Rothe is a long way from the desperate child-murderer of M: Rothe is largely able to control his homicidal impulses, but, perhaps sickened by the atrocities unfolding around him, often elects not to do so. The film, over-complicatedly constructed as a series of flashbacks and scored to thunderous, orchestral excess, becomes a study of this rueful, quietly tormented individual, his suffering evident in Lorre's famously huge orbs.

Momma's Man
: [5/10] : Azazel JACOBS : USA 2008 : 98m (1.2 Cinerama – public)

When thirty-something Mikey is overcome by a fierce personal crisis, he returns to his parental home in Tribeca, New York, and moves into his old room. Less is more in this intriguing mix of feature film story and personal revelations.
NY : Though a quantum leap beyond Jacobs' Nobody Needs to Know, Momma's Man is still no more than middling indie-schmindie fare. It's further evidence that, despite his being the son of renowned avant-gardist Ken Jacobs, Jacobs Jr is clearly no chip off the old block. His instincts veer much closer to the mainstream – here we're not so far from many commercial Hollywood comedies of social embarrassment. This despite a lo-fi feel to proceedings, the "action" unfolding in the ultra-cluttered Manhattan apartment which is K.Jacobs' actual home-cum-studio. A.Jacobs even casts his own mother and father as protagonist Mikey's (Matt Boren) patrician-bohemian parents – our "hero" being a schlubbily solipsistic thirtysomething enduring a premature mid-life crisis during a supposedly quick visit home. What follows awkwardly combines elements of disturbing psychological study and cutesy family-comedy – and it's unfortunate that Mikey, the least interesting/sympathetic individual on view, obtains by far the most screen-time.

The Prisoner / Terrorist : [3?/10 – walkout after 70m] : Yuheisha / Terorisuto : ADACHI
Masao : Japan 2007 : 113m (29.1 Venster – press)

It's no secret that film maker Masao Adachi was a terrorist. As a member of the Japanese Red Army, he joined the Palestinian cause. He was locked up for several years and knows what he's talking about when he lets his protagonist go crazy in jail.                              
NY : Unbearably ramshackle nonsense – a crashing disappointment considering the director's reputation and his "unique" off-camera experiences. To call this topical but stilted and leaden film "sophomoric" is flattery indeed: it looks like the kind of thing a bunch of moderately-talented schoolkids might knock together over their summer holidays. As the titular "prisoner/terrorist" goes off the rails, so does the movie – via clunky, stagey histrionics and increasingly nebulous dialogue ("We will be the three stars of Orion through a suicide operation.") Adachi's (admirable) intention is clearly to put us into his brutally tormented protagonist's nightmare-plagued mind - and he succeeds all too well: the cinema-auditorium quickly ends up feeling like a constricting cell. Just when things couldn't seem to get any worse, the apparitions of various intellectuals show up in our hero's cell and Adachi's verbiage takes a philosophical/pretentious turn. "Everything is actually nothing." Yes, in this instance, it is.

REC : [7/10] : aka [Rec] : Jaume BALAGUERó & Paco PLAZA : Spain 2007 : 85m (2.2 Pathe – public)
Enormous horror hit back home in Spain excels in its breathtaking tempo. An enthusiastic TV reporter and her cameraman prepare for a nocturnal glimpse behind the scenes of the fire brigade. The viewer also soon doesn't have any time to think.
NY : Just as we're recovering from one rock-the-house, shaky-cam, "found-footage" horror/thriller – Cloverfield – along comes the Spanish equivalent. Much smaller in scale than its Hollywood counterpart – the vast majority of the action being set inside a single city-centre apartment-building – REC is necessarily a more intimate, claustrophobic, and, therefore, nightmarish affair. Nightmares can often be extremely amusing, of course, and that's certainly the case here, the two directors displaying their fondness for genre conventions and shamelessly opting for BOO! shocks at every opportunity. What we see is supposedly recorded by a TV crew – and perky presenter Angela (Manuela Velasco) – filming a programme about night-workers, this episode being dedicated to the Barcelona fire brigade. Their first call-out: an elderly woman who's acting "strangely" in her top-floor flat – the first sign of what rapidly escalates into a full-blown siege situation (allowing the film to make some niftily satirical subtext points about how individuals' rights are quickly overridden by "security" concerns.) A straightforward thrill-ride ensues, snarling up only with the garbled final-reel "explanations", which take some following (and swallowing) – but overall REC knows and works within its limitations, and delivers plenty of bloody good fun along the way.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon : [6/10] : Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon : Eric ROHMER : France (/Ity/Spn) 2007 : 109m (31.1 Pathe – public)
According to rumours, the last but as-ever charming film by Rohmer is a bucolic 'moral tale' situated in the fifth century in Gall. The young shepherd Céladon is rejected by his betrothed Astrée. He doesn't want to live any more and throws himself in the river, but is saved by nymphs. With sheep.
NY : "Wild poetry and bucolic charm" are promised – and, to some extent delivered – by this exceedingly quaint tale of old-fashioned courtship, middle-ages style. The story is refracted through various historical lenses: it's ostensibly set in the 5th century, but is based on a 17th-century recounting of the tale and presented, in the 21st century, in the way the director imagines the 17th-century reader might have envisioned it. Though somewhat over-complicated, this process of refraction adds much-needed ambiguity to what's otherwise a decidedly quaint sort of chaste 'romance' – performed pretty much entirely straight, and seemingly made entirely without irony or cleverness. As such, it's a deceptively radical kind of picture to make in 2007/8 – endearingly unadorned, straightforward in its artlessness. It's rather refreshing to watch these well-scrubbed rustics going about their business among such sun-dappled paysage, accompanied by near-incessant birdsong: an evanescent reverie of an impossible, imagined past.

Rush Hour : [7+/10] : L'ora di punta : Vincenzo MARRA : Italy 2007 : 95m (1.2 Doelen – public)
Tightly directed drama about the temptation of amoral manipulation. Italian tax official Filippo makes himself guilty of fraud and bribery to join the nouveau riche of Rome. Then his past starts playing up. With Fanny Ardant.
NY : As incarnated by glossily-handsome newcomer Michele Lastella, Rome-based tax-policeman Filippo Costa joins the fictional ranks of fascinatingly amoral, ruthlessly rapacious schemers including Tom Ripley, Patrick Bateman, Damien Thorn, Nick Beal and Stephen Rojack. As we watch him progress through – and beyond – civil society, picking up a rich, older paramour (top-billed Fanny Ardant) en route, it soon becomes clear that Filippo's charms are only skin deep – and audiences who want to have sympathy for their protagonists may find the picture's steely gravity off-putting. But, as with Land Wind (another instance of his fondness for 'oblique' titles), Marra's ambitions are wider than his intimate style would seem to suggest. Here he's laying bare the corruption and moral vacuum which, his final shot indicates, has always been crucial to Rome's (and, by extension, Italy's) splendour and affluence. Familiar material, of course – but handled in an absorbingly crisp, mature manner.

Sacrificed Youth : [6/10] : Qinchun ji : ZHANG Nuanxin : China 1985 : 92m (2.2 Cinerama – public)
This lyrical, gently eroticised coming-of-age drama of a young Chinese woman 'sent down' to live in an ethnic minority village in remote southwestern China was the favourite movie of Chinese filmgoers in the 1980s. Romantic realism with Chinese characteristics.
NY : A sensitively poetic memoir of a troubled period in recent Chinese history. You don't need to know the background, but some awareness of the Cultural Revolution, which dispatched educated city-folk to far-flung rural spots, helps. A sophisticated member of the elite 'Han' ethnicity, narrator/protagonist Li Chun (Li Fengxu) she finds the 'Dai' people among whom she lives odd and quaint – and it isn't until she conforms in her clothing and behaviour that she's welcomed. The narrator comes to view the Dai as "warm and gentle", and both sides clearly benefit from this particular "cultural exchange" – although Chun (frustratingly) refrains from reflecting on the wider issues relating to her situation. Indeed, it's possible to interpret the film as an endorsement of government policy. An episodic, ethnographic exercise, Sacrificed Youth is alluringly shot, scored and performed, although – as so often with true-life tales – a little torpid as drama.   

The Sky, the Earth and the Rain : [4/10] : El cielo, la tierra y la lluvia : José Luis TORRES LEIVA : Chile (/Fr/Ger) 2008 : 110m (30.1 Pathe – public)
Pure cinema, apparently casual in its story, image and sound, about ordinary, lonely people who live on a remote Chilean island. Who are we to contradict the film maker: 'I would dare say that it is a film of "strolls": mental, virtual, on foot, in automobiles, aboard ferries…'
NY : Torres Leiva's documentaries (including No Place Nowhere) augured well for his transition to the fictional format – but on the evidence of this feature-film debut, the sooner he crosses back, the better. It's is the kind of thing that gives arthouse cinema a bad name in certain circles: plot is largely dispensed with in favour of simply watching the characters in their environment. We can discern certain elements which may or may be assembled into a narrative, but Torres Leiva seems to go out of his way to dissuade us from doing so. Trouble is, he doesn't really provide anything to take the place of plot: and this kind of dead-slow sub-Dardennes, sub-Tarr anomie has sadly become the default mode of expression for the world's young pseudo-auteurs. This variation is just a damp, numb exercise in self-consciously poetic/enigmatic ominousness – one that makes us work very hard for meagre reward.

Wadley : [5/10] : Matias MEYER : Mexico 2008 : 60m (2.2 Cinerama – public)
A young man with a backpack walks all on his own into the endless Mexican cactus desert. He takes some peyote. How does he get out again? Pure cinema in the long-take tradition of Lisandro Alonso or Gus Van Sant.
NY: A figure walks: twentyish youth, student-scruffy, perhaps a student, wandering through rural northern Mexico, backpack on his back, white plastic sunglasses on his head, red scarf around his neck. Over the course of (nearly) an hour we watch his progress. Scripted? Spontaneous? Is he an actor, or merely another element in the natural world? Eventually he reaches his destination, finds what he is looking for: a desert plant which yields a hallucinogenic. Previously restrained and observational, the film-making style becomes looser, more impressionistic, showing us the world as our protagonist – sees it. Altered states! Though shot with via modern DV, Wadley has an old-school, Jodorowsky-ish feel – refracted through a Bela-Tarr-ish, anti-narrative prism (via Lisandro Alonso?). Intriguing sound-design (natural? manipulated?) keeps us interested, and the short running-time is a definite plus. But the overall feel is of a graduation project, cobbled together as a bit of an arty lark.

Wanda : [8/10] : Barbara LODEN : USA 1971 (copyright-dated 1970) : 102m (1.2 Lantaren – public)
This unhappy anti-Bonnie & Clyde road movie (with the director in the lead role), is the most overlooked example of independent feminist cinema. A moving portrait of a damaged, alienated woman.
NY : A landmark American independent film which fully lives up to its reputation – why on earth isn't it more widely shown? In a grim, coal-mining, back-of-beyond Pennsylvania, fading beauty Wanda Goronski (writer-director Loden) impulsively walks away from her unsatisfactory life in search of — what, exactly? Adventure?  Fulfilment? A change of scene? It's unlikely that even Wanda – inarticulate, petulant, child-like – could articulate what it is she seeks. She hooks up with a jittery, sweaty weirdo (Michael Higgins) – who turns out to be a misanthropic career-criminal. The ensuing 'bank-job' sequences seem to have been spliced in from another picture entirely – elsewhere Loden achieves a rare kind of freewheeling, gritty lyricism, her palette's bold, saturated colours (the film was shot and edited by Nicholas T Proferes – another inexplicably unsung talent) echoing the photographs of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, and anticipating the 16mm experimentations of James Benning.

– – – – –
Anémic cinéma
: [***/5] : 'Rrose Sélavy' (i.e. Marcel DUCHAMP) : France 1926 : 7m
The Beekeeper's Son : [***/5] : Jamie HANNIGAN : Ireland 2007 : 10m
L'imitation du cinéma : [***/5] : Marcel MARIí‹N : Belgium 1959 : 36m
Samuel Beckett's FILM : [*****/5] : Alan SCHNEIDER : USA 1965 : 24m

Neil Young
February 2008

Roundup article for Tribune magazine 

International Film Festival Rotterdam — official site