ROTTERDAM Film Festival part SEVEN (4th Feb)  '13 Lakes, '  'The Devil 's Miner, ' etc.

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Simon [5/10]
The Devil's Miner [7/10]
13 Lakes [9/10]
Pin Boy [5?/10]
We Don't Live Here Anymore [6/10]
Hotel [5+/10]

SIMON : [5/10] : Netherlands 2004 : Eddy TERSTALL : 100 mins

Bittersweet comedy Simon was this year's Dutch entry for the Foreign Language category at the Oscars, and many reckon it's wthe strongest feature to come out of the Netherlands for several years. This says more about the Dutch film industry than about Simon itself, however, and makes Paul Verhoeven's return to his native country for the upcoming Black Book all the more timely. Set, like all of writer-director Terstall's films, in the bourgeois/bohemian  'Old South' section of Amsterdam, Simon is the story of a platonic relationship between gay dentist Camiel (Marcel Hensema) and charismatic dope-dealer Simon (Cees Geel).

Meeting by chance and becoming friends in the late eighties, they fall out and don't see each other for 14 years – by which time Simon has learned he only has months to live. Whereas most movies – certainly most American films – on this kind of theme would have Camiel succumbing to AIDS, Terstall performs a nimble switcheroo by making the alpha-male straight-bloke Simon take the  'Camille' part. Along the way he dramatises two major social issues of particular interest to Dutch viewers: voluntary euthanasia; and the rights of gay couples – the legal status of Camiel's marriage to his male partner becomes a factor in movie's final quarter.

These subjects do, of course, have a relevance far beyond the Netherlands' borders – but Simon seems unlikely to obtain the kind of international success achieved by, say, Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, which dealt with not-dissimilar themes. Terstall isn't as sharp a writer as Arcand, and he doesn't really go very deep into the hot-button topics he raises – his reliance on flashback (allowing the actors to model a wide range of hairstyles and fashions) makes this a more low-key cousin of Martin Koolhoven's similarly unexceptional Tim Krabbe adaptation The Cave. As with The Cave, and indeed, so many Dutch films – the direction is indisputably competent but decidedly uninspiring. Willem Nagtglas's bland cinematography and Paul de Munnik's slightly over-saccharine score do little to lift the solid but overlong Simon out of the ordinary, especially during the shamelessly tearjerking finale. Stick with it, though – the very last shot almost makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Neil Young
14th March, 2005 (seen at Cinerama cinema – public show)

THE DEVIL'S MINER : [7/10] : Germany/USA 2005 : Kief DAVIDSON & Richard LADKANI : 85 mins

The Devil's Miner exposes – in thoroughly absorbing fashion – the scandalous child-employment practices of the silver mines in Bolivia's high-altitude Potosi district. The focus is on 14-year-old Basilio Vargas who, following the death of his father, takes on the role of breadwinner for his mother and siblings by work. Basilio's even younger brother works alongside him in the dangerous old mine where temperatures are often stiflingly hot, and there is a high risk of silicosis and similar life-threatening conditions. Over the centuries we're told that eight million have died in this area alone, and not for nothing is Basilio's workplace known colloquially as  'The Mountain That Eats Men Alive.'

Directors Davidson and Ladkani have clearly put their own physical safety on the line by venturing so deep into the hazardous mines, but they employ a familiar form of anthropological detachment in their storytelling, eschewing narration and allowing the story to speak for itself – often in the form of re-staged conversations between Basilio and his brother. This technique can feel forced or artificial in the wrong hands, but not here – it's clear that the film-makers have obtained the trust of the Vargas family, and the dividend is this accessibly orthodox, urgently needed expose of a disgraceful state of affairs. The Devil's Miner should be compulsory viewing for all Bolivian ministers and officials – hopefully the wide exposure which the film will hopefully obtain might make life better for Basilio and all the Basilios of the future. As a savage indictment of brute, unfettered capitalism at its most murderous (the silvermines are a modern-day equivalent of the Victorian  'kids up chimneys' stereotype) it certainly puts the wishy-washy Motorcycle Diaries to shame.

That said, Davidson and Ladkani raise many more questions than they answer: who is responsible for this? Why is it allowed to continue? Who benefits? No representative from the mining company is interviewed – the closest we get to a local authority figure comes in the form of the infuriatingly ineffectual priest, whose primary concern is not for the children's physical welfare but for their spiritual wellbeing. This is because the miners' lives involve quasi-pagan devotion to man-sized statues of a devil-like being (known as  'The Tio') placed in each mine, which supposedly  'protect' them from harm. The irony is that Basilio knows the full history of these statues (they were installed as a crude form of mind-control by the mine's original owners centuries before) but still finds himself succumbing to the exploitational superstitions they represent.

This is far from the only aspect of The Devil's Miner guaranteed to rouse the anger of viewers wherever it is shown: there's a remarkable sequence at Basilio's school where, in a class entitled  'Contemplating our Reality,' the teacher asks the pupils to think about how they can "live in dignity." But instead of addressing the very real indignities suffered by the likes of Basilio, the teacher clearly expects only one answer: "To continue to study about God, and to be myself", which is duly parrotted by the only two students from whom we hear. There's a classic illustration of the  'bread and circuses' concept, meanwhile, on festival day when the workers – adults and children – parade through the village brandishing their tools, dancing in time alongside the infants who will so very soon join them in the silver mines, the tots kitted-out in miniature versions of miners' clothing. It's one of many stomach-churning moments in what is a piercingly necessary, heart-breaking tale.

Neil Young
14th March, 2005 (seen at Pathe cinema – public show)
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13 LAKES : [9/10] : James BENNING : USA 2004 : 135 mins

Sobriety, alertness and a clear head are most definitely required before you attend a screening of James Benning's latest, 13 Lakes – this is the antithesis of  'easy watching,' and requires considerable levels of concentration and engagement from its viewers. But every ounce of effort will be rewarded tenfold – you're in the hands of a master, and one right back on top form after the perplexing misfire of his last feature Sogobi. Though walkouts will be sadly inevitable wherever the film is shown, (programmers would be well-advised to precede any screening with a showing of the recent documentary James Benning – Circling the Image), for many viewers 13 Lakes will be less a film, and more a life-changing cinematic event.

Most of Benning's works are structured along strict mathematical principles, and 13 Lakes is a fine example of his bracingly rigorous, uncompromising technique: it comprises 13 shots of lakes in North America, ten minutes each, during which the camera does not move. There is no dialogue, no voiceover, and the only  'explanation' comes at the end when – in a kind of  'roll-call' – the names and locations of each lake is baldly stated in a white-on-black caption.

A recipe for tedium? Well, boredom is indeed something that you may well experience during 13 Lakes – along with mystification, annoyance, exasperation and frustration. But over the course of these two-and-a-quarter hours you'll also feel joy, surprise, wonderment, exhilaration, and intellectual stimulation. It's hard to think of the last film which worked on so many different levels, and on so many different states of mind, as 13 Lakes, and it certainly can't be compared to anything else you'll see on a cinema screen this year. You may also find that it hurts your eyes after a while – unless you take advantage of the black-screen interludes with which Benning punctuates each lake-shot: to get the most out of the film, tightly close your eyes for ten to fifteen seconds at such points.

We're forced to examine the selected vistas in such close detail that even the  'smallest' event on screen becomes a major development – and even the act of watching itself alters what we see: in the brilliant  'Lake Pontchartrain' section our eye slowly adjusts to the grain of the projected celluloid, so that eventually it's possible to make out the tiny specks that are cars and lorries making their way across the long causeway that spans the water.

Even better is  'Crater Lake,' in which a multi-coloured range of mountainous hills is reflected in the limpid water, the results resembling a weirdly organic totem-pole stretching across the whole of the screen from right to left. Over the course of the ten minutes we can – and should – tilt our head to examine this breathtaking image from all possible angles, while we hear the distant reports of hunters' rifles echoing across the vastness. This measly text description does little justice, however, to what is quite simply one of the greatest sequences in motion-picture history – proving that anyone who doesn't rate James Benning as the most brilliant and important American director currently working just isn't paying enough attention.

Neil Young
14th March, 2005 (seen at Cinerama cinema – public show)

click here for other films in the Jigsaw Lounge Hall of Fame (rated 9/10 and 10/10)

PIN BOY : [5?/10] : Parapalos : Argentina 2004 : Ana POLIAK : 93 mins

Yet another picture about the plight of Argentina following its recent financial crisis – and a rather more highbrow variation than fellow Rotterdam '05 titles Lost Embrace and Bombon (el perro). We're closer to the detached, observational, low-key, downbeat territory of Pablo Trapero's El bonaerense, which chronicled how an unremarkable Joe from the sticks found himself a member of the Buenos Aires police.

This time our glum hero is Adrian (Adrian Suarez), who travels from the provinces to the capital and obtains work as a  'Pin Boy' at one of the world's last remaining non-automated bowling alleys. He's educated in the hazardous life of a parapalos by the old hands long accustomed to dodging the bowling-balls that come rocketing down the alleys as they scramble to replace the pins.

The manual alley is a terrific, photogenic gift for any film-maker – and on its own makes Pin Boy a natural for any bowling-themed movie-season (or DVD collection) alongside The Big Lebowski, King Pin etc. If nothing else, Poliak's third feature would provide an austere change of pace from those crowd-pleasing comedies: the presence of Santiago Loza among Poliak's co-writers (star Suarez also receives a screenplay credit) will give anyone who caught that his ruminative Extrano a good idea of what to expect from Pin Boy.

Extrano, for all its slowness, kept me engaged for its full duration. But I only lasted two reels (40mins) of Pin Boy before heading for the exit – I obviously hadn't expected anything as crowdpleasing as Bombon or even Lost Embrace, but the fact that the picture had won the top jury prize at the prestigious Buenos Aires independent-cinema festival BaFiCi led me to anticipate something out of the ordinary. What materialised was a protracted, underpowered, underlit, muddy-looking, DV-shot affair largely consisting of Adrian being lectured by his colleagues in the ways of the bowling-alley and the world in general – a little odd, since Adrian is clearly no kind of callow youth himself. The result, while nobody's idea of a  'gutterball,' is equally a long way from the devastating  'wipeout' such potentially strong material deserves.

Neil Young
14th March, 2005 (seen at de Doelen centre – public show – walkout)

WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE : [6/10] : USA 2004 : John CURRAN : 101 mins

The setting is leafy-American rural-suburban rather than concrete-and-glass British big-city; the characters are slightly older; the dialogue a bit less arch… But watching We Don't Live Here Anymore it's nevertheless hard not to think of Mike Nichols' recent Closer: both films concern two painfully over-articulate couples engaged in a passionate, closed-circuit roundelay that leaves no participant innocent or undamaged. The participants this time are Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Hank (Peter Krause), who both teach at a small New England college, and their wives Terry (Laura Dern) and Edith (Naomi Watts). Terry is too free-spirited to be much bothered with housework or her children; Edith is a more attentive mother, her placidly beautiful exterior hiding strong, dangerous passions…

With most of the  'action' confined to a couple of houses, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Anymore (the film's original, better title) was, like Closer, adapted from a stage-play. But the source of Larry Gross's script is in fact a pair of short stories – We Don't Live Here Anymore and Adultery by Andre Dubus. That's Andre Dubus II (1936-1999), also responsible for the tale which inspired In the Bedroom, not his son Andre Dubus III (1959-) who wrote the novel on which House of Sand and Fog was based.

Anymore thankfully eschews the melodrama and crude political subtext which marred Fog and Bedroom respectively, and concludes on an intriguingly ambiguous note – but it's still the kind of stuff we've seen covered countless times before in novels, plays, movies, etc. Writers like Dubus have for decades found adultery a subject of irresistible fascination – it's subject that's been so familiar for so long, however, that it takes an offbeat or especially penetrating approach (like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm or, going back a while, Patricia Highsmith's Deep Water or John Updike's Rabbit Run) to make it feel worthwhile.

In his second feature, the US-born, Australia-based Curran delivers a watchably "well-made" picture, with effective contributions on the score, cinematography and editing fronts. But, commendable as his patient restraint may be, he doesn't quite do enough to make Anymore especially distinctive or memorable – we feel like we're just eavesdropping on the intriguing but ultimately unengaging travails of bedhopping bourgeois, so locked into their own frame of reference that, as in Closer, they never seem to interact with anyone outside their quartet of infidelity.

It's very much an actor's piece, with Six Feet Under alumnus Krause – looking like a cross between Peter Weller and Jim Carrey, and bravely unafraid of emphasising his character's less admirable or sympathetic aspects – making at least as much impact as his more movie-seasoned co-stars. All four get plenty of meat to chew on, and it's no surprise to find Watts and Ruffalo listed among the producers – their enthusiasm for the project clearly blinding them to the fact that (unlike veteran Der) they're both about a decade younger than the characters as written. Or do many US academic in their early thirties really have such (relatively) grown-up children these days?

Neil Young
14th March, 2005 (seen at Pathe cinema – public show)

HOTEL : [5+/10] : Austria (Aus/Ger) 2004 : Jessica HAUSNER : 78 mins

Hausner's follow-up to her bold debut Lovely Rita is a disappointingly turgid affair. Or is it? After fighting heavy eyelids to stay awake through the late-night public screening in Rotterdam, I scribbled down some punning notes which reckoned Hausner might struggle to obtain "future reservations" for her work, this sophomore "two-star" effort causing so many viewers to "check out." "Well appointed, but what's the use when the service is so glacially, punishingly slow?"

I also jotted down the antecedents from whom Hausner had so blatantly and snobbily  'borrowed' her horror-movie concomitants – David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Lost Highway), Roman Polanski (Repulsion, The Tenant), Stanley Kubrick (The Shining). It didn't help that my seat in the Pathe multiplex was easily the squeakiest I have ever had to sit on – Hotel is a quiet film, and every time I tried to move and get a more comfortable position, the resulting noise was embarrasingly loud. Also, this was my seventh straight day of film-watching and festival-fatigue had set in – it's ironic that a "challenging" film like Hotel is really rather unsuited to the film-festival environment, but is so inaccessible that festivals are really the only place where it can be seen.

Over the following days, however, Hotel did actually linger in my memory much more strongly than many of the more ostensibly skilled efforts I saw at Rotterdam '05 – and, for all its soporific dullness, I did manage to stay in my seat when previously in the festival if I'd been bored by the first two reels (40 minutes) I thought nothing of making an early escape. The story, such as it is – the picture does feel a bit like an extended short – follows Irene (Franziska Weisz) in her first days working at the secluded Hotel Waldhaus. Her predecessor in the job of receptionist has disappeared in mysterious circumstances which the strait-laced staff seem very keen not to discuss. Irene makes some tentative attempts at detective work, which…

Well, best not to go into what happens. Because it's far from clear what, if anything, does happen. Is it all in Irene's mind? Is there some vast conspiracy at work? Supernatural forces? Aliens? These are, however, the wrong questions: Hotel is a minimalist mood-piece which plays with the conventions of horror and psychological suspense - incorporating some unexpected flecks of the darkest, most deadpan humour: the opening credits provide one genuine laugh-out-loud moment, and are sufficiently virtuouso in their use of music that you're inclined to give the whole picture the benefit of the doubt. Hausner is clearly a talented film-maker – but Hotel suggests she may be rather too over-confident of her skills at this early stage in her career. That said, I will check back in when I next get the chance to sample the picture – ideally earlyish in the morning, when festival-fatigue hasn't yet started to exact its grim toll.

Neil Young
14th March, 2005 (seen at Pathe cinema – public show)

click here for reviews of Rotterdam films seen on the next day (5th February)

click here for full alphabetical list of features seen at Rotterdam  '05

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