Saturday, February 27, 2010

Assorted Screenings in NYC: February-March 2010

1. I've gotten in the habit of looking at online trailers for upcoming screenings in NYC - admittedly an iffy way of deciding whether to see a film, but better for me than all the other iffy ways. In case you're interested in sharing the iffiness, here are trailers or clips that piqued my interest:

2. I caught the Larrieu Brothers' Les derniers jours du monde (Happy End) at Toronto 2009, and it seems even more audacious and appealing upon reflection than it did at the time. It's one of the lower-profile entries in this year's edition of Film Comment Selects at the Walter Reade: screenings are at Monday, March 1 at 3:30 pm and Tuesday, March 2 at 6:15 pm. Here's what I wrote in my Toronto 2009 wrap-up for Senses of Cinema:

"Presented in Locarno's Piazza Grande ten days before its French theatrical premiere, Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu's Les derniers jours du monde, which witnesses the destruction of Europe via virus, nuclear attack, and assorted other implements of destruction, was sensibly programmed on TIFF's last night. As usual in this genre, we are allocated an identification figure (Mathieu Amalric) - but this audience surrogate is not quite standard issue, in that he has lost an arm as a result of his adulterous sexual fixation on an androgynous sex worker (Omayrah Mota), who cannot be dislodged from the top of his priority list even as death rains down around him. The end of the world according the Larrieus is light on exciting violent spectacle, but full of beanballs thrown at our delicate psyches: sometimes via the wholesale abrogation of sexual barriers, sometimes by confronting us with unsettling evidence of the fragility of the body. For the characters as well as the filmmakers, the apocalypse is about freedom, about the falling away of social and psychological constraints - and if the Larrieus sometimes treat the apocalypse rather casually, they take sex very seriously. Among the film's many pleasures is the best role in years for the admirable Karin Viard, as the protagonist's abandoned but not forgotten wife."

3. Catherine Breillat's excellent Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard) has a preview screening on Wednesday, March 3 at 7:30 pm at Anthology Film Archives (as part of their Bluebeard on Film series) before its March 26 opening at the IFC Center. Once again Breillat dissolves the gap between a literary property (this time Perrault's fairy tale) and her own sensibility, effortlessly finding a paradoxical emotional angle on every primal event. A modern-day framing story, featuring two sisters reading the tale in their attic, provides a running comic commentary while simultaneously delving into life-and-death conflicts of its own. One can perhaps argue that the fairy tale's focus on the anxiety of disobedience, which requires creating a monster, is somewhat at odds with the sympathy that Breillat characteristically extends to all her sexual combatants. Still, it's fascinating to watch her erase distinctions between mundane and mythic subject matter.

4. Hilary Brougher's distinctly underappreciated 2006 drama Stephanie Daley returns for a one-off screening at 92Y Tribeca on Friday, March 5 at 7 pm, with the filmmaker in attendance. There is a faintly metaphorical aura to the film's story - a teenage girl (Amber Tamblyn), in denial about her belatedly terminated pregnancy, perplexes a forensic psychologist (Tilda Swinton), herself pregnant - that probably led to it being pigeonholed as a topical work. Easier to miss is the unusual density of Brougher's filmmaking: she seems determined to cut out all the ordinary moments in life and move briskly from one insight to another. And she seems to have a lot of detailed observations up her sleeve about both teenage anguish and pregnancy. It's rare to see an American film that adopts a familiar investigation/mystery format and yet comes across as a continuous stream of personal expression.

5. The surprise of last year's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Sylvie Verheyde's Stella, is screening at Symphony Space on Saturday, March 6 at 7 pm and Saturday, March 13 at 8:45 pm at as part of the New York International Children's Film Festival. The story of a tentative but self-sufficient young girl (Léora Barbara) trying to transcend the restrictions of her déclassé upbringing, Stella has few formal chops, doesn't look so great, overuses its effects - and I loved it anyway. Verheyde is a wizard at not letting fictional forms get in the way of facts about people, and she effortlessly generates compelling complexity while dodging every bullet of the coming-of-age genre. The film's scale is so modest and human-centered that one doesn't tote up its achievements immediately: nearly every scene is a standout, nearly every performance is incisive.

6. Just in case you need recommendations for Film Forum's Victor Fleming series: 1935's The Farmer Takes a Wife (on Tuesday, March 9 at 1, 4:45 and 8:30 pm) and 1938's rather Hawksian Test Pilot (on Wednesday, March 10 at 1, 5:30 and 10 pm and Thursday, March 11 at 1 pm) are both pretty good. Also Red Dust (on Friday, March 5 at 1, 4:30 and 8 pm, and Saturday, March 6 at 2:50 and 8 pm), but you probably know that one already. (Too bad Film Forum couldn't get 1935's Reckless, which is probably my favorite.) Fleming isn't always able to show his talents, but he's a smart director, with distinctive visual habits: he likes short lenses, slightly depressed angles, and characters approaching and leaving the foreground on diagonals. He favors exaggerated acting and action, has an interesting taste for violence and iconoclasm, and likes visual overcrowding and excess.

7. I haven't seen anything in this year's Rendez-Vous series, but I'm very much looking forward to Alain Guiraudie's Le roi de l'évasion (The King of Escape): playing Saturday, March 13 at 9 pm at the Walter Reade; Monday, March 15 at 3:45 pm at the Walter Reade; and Tuesday, March 16 at 9:30 pm at the IFC Center. On the basis of 2001's Ce vieux rêve qui bouge (That Old Dream That Moves) and 2003's Pas de repos pour les braves (No Rest for the Brave), Guiraudie seems one of the most inspired filmmakers on today's scene. He's not exactly unknown, but none of his films have gotten US theatrical distribution as far as I know. The new film sounds like light comedy (a gay middle-aged salesman has an opportunity with Hafsia Herzi, and decides to go for it), but Guiraudie can blend light and heavy tones in the oddest ways. I'm also interested in Philippe Lioret's Welcome, which got some attention on the festival circuit: Lioret's Je vais bien, ne t'en fais pas (Don't Worry, I'm Fine) marked him as a talent to watch. It plays Friday, March 12 at 1:15 pm at the Walter Reade; Saturday, March 13 at 6:30 pm at the IFC Center; and Sunday, March 14 at 3:30 pm at the Walter Reade.

8. Gianni Di Gregorio's wonderful Pranzo di ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch), which I wrote about when it played New Directors/New Films last year, gets a theatrical premiere at Film Forum on March 17. The film presents itself as one of those life-affirming films with lovable eccentrics and lots of cooking scenes, and I guess that's true enough. But it's also pure personal filmmaking.

9. MoMA's Canadian Front series is looking pretty hotsy-totsy this year. The most exciting title is Bernard Émond's sublime La Donation (The Legacy), which plays Thursday, March 18 at 4 pm and Saturday, March 20 at 8 pm. Here's what I said in my Senses of Cinema Toronto 2009 wrap-up:

"Though a notch lower in prestige than Venice, Cannes and Berlin, the Locarno Film Festival, which takes place a month before TIFF, provided a disproportionate number of my favourite films this year. At the top of the list is La Donation, the high point to date of Quebecois filmmaker Bernard Émond’s career. Set in the small town of Normétal in the Abitibi-Ouest region of Quebec, and haunted by the clear gray skies and dark wooded areas that seem ready to reclaim the settlement at a moment’s notice, La Donation is the continuing story of Jeanne Dion (Elise Guilbault), the embattled doctor of Émond’s La Neuvaine, whose search for meaning leads her to a trial period as the impoverished region’s only physician. Casting a number of residents of the area, and directing his professional actors to match the quiet stoicism of the amateurs, Émond arrives at an uncanny evocation of the mood of Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1950), in which the performers are less documented for their reality than enlisted as principles of existence. As a follower of Émond since his first feature La femme qui boit (2001, also starring Guilbault), I had begun to fear in recent years that he was settling into a reflex solemnity that was yielding diminishing returns. To my delight, La Donation recasts Émond’s art in new terms, not so much dispelling his heaviness as offering it to us, contextualising it with brisk pacing and a strong narrative hook, exposing it to the skies and cold winds. Now would be the perfect time for programmers worldwide to give Émond greater exposure."

A tougher sell is Sherry White's Crackie, about which I wrote in the same article:

"Labrador-based director Sherry White premiered her film Crackie at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in July before bringing it home to TIFF and a subsequent Canadian theatrical run. Set in a rural part of Newfoundland that seems dominated by scrap yards and garbage dumps, Crackie is the story of 17-year-old Mitzy (Meagan Greeley), suspended between her tough, practical grandmother/caretaker (Mary Walsh) and the worthless mother she idealises (Cheryl Wells). The film is a bit broad and schematic around the edges, but subtle and affecting at its centre: Greeley’s wonderfully simple performance scales the girl’s reactions down so that both her vulnerability and her inner strength seem in harmony with her hardscrabble environment. White portrays Mitzy’s first sexual experiments frankly and without sentiment, and gets emotional mileage out of her turbulent relationship with the eponymous dog who figures in her transition to adulthood."