Last Life In the Universe- Pen-Ek Ratenaruang: More interested in texture then logic, Ratenaruang’s film belongs to the stunning cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the man who has given so much to Wong Kar-Wai’s films over the last decade and is, quite simply, the greatest cameraman working today in film. Impeccably framed and rich in color, each shot swoons with Doyle’s ability to endow the films characters with subtle gradations. Ratenaruang allows for stillness and space- there’s a languorous quality at work and it burrows into you. Imagination repeatedly and unobtrusively intrudes on logic as characters are replaced by figments with such subtlety that you know better then to question the disparity. It’s supremely elegant (the soundtrack, provided by Hualampong Riddim and Small Room and sadly unavailable, is particularly fine, providing just the right undertow of melancholy), and refined: if it’s about anything, it involves two characters suffering from loss and isolation attempting to connect. There are three different endings, a montage that feels surprising unfractured and whole.
Since Otar Left- Julie Bertucelli: Led by an astounding trio of Georgian (the country, no the state) actresses representing three generations, Esther Gorintin, Nino Khomassouridze and Dinara Droukavora are a joy to watch together. Portraying a family living and struggling under the same roof in the city of Tbilisi, each actress gracefully supports the other. You’re aware of just how detailed and skillfully this ensemble of actresses works together- how perceptive they are, for example, of their characters' body language and the rich details subtle movements of intimacy can reveal. Bertucelli has a keen grasp of domestic atmosphere and the film’s interiors, the props and other personal accruements that add all those unconscious shadings to the characters, are a marvel of harmonious specificity. I’ve really been getting into set design of late, in particular how good set design can assist in fleshing out character and story. One of the cool extra features included with this DVD are the accompanying video’s and photographs Bertucelli took while on location scouts in Tbilisi before she began shooting where you get a behind the scenes look at the work that goes into creating a quality mis-en-scene. The last third of the film takes place in Paris. It shares almost an identical ending to Maria Full of Grace. It’s about women crossing boarders, seeking new identities in countries that call to them and promise something more. It’s about the threshold, the moment of decision: to return to their old life or to begin anew. This ending, with the youngest of the three actresses, the daughter Ada (Droukavora), waving through the airport glass to her grandmother, Eka (Gorintin) who returns an empathetic wave and nod of the head that validates her grand-daughters decision, is one of the most tender and pitch perfect endings I’ve seen since Linklater’s Before Sunset. The mother, Marina (Khomassouridze), turns to her daughter and bursts into tears of wrenching realization. A stewardess arrives to briskly usher them onto the plane and Ada turns, begins walking and the screen goes to black. The second great film I’ve seen this year after Nobody Knows.
Maria Full of Grace- Joshua Marston: Marston tries a little too hard in the beginning to make sure we’re aware that the title character, the wonderful Catalina Sandino Moreno, has dreams and ambitions larger and feistier then anything her little Columbian village can provide. That aside, this is a powerful, nicely made film that offers a compelling, almost documentary like look behind the scenes of the drug war and especially those, like Maria, who are exploited by it. Watching Maria swallowing the latex covered cocaine capsules she’ll later smuggle into the US is especially harrowing, her impulsive decision to become a mule suddenly, gravely, taking on an almost unbearable gravity. As already mentioned, the ending is nearly identical to that of Since Otar Left, with Maria in the airport about to return to Columbia but instead stepping back from the threshold, waving goodbye to her friend and turning to walk away. Like Since Otar left, this could easily soften into bathos, but it pulls back on the reigns: we know the consequences of her act- and Marston maintains the film’s overall integrity until the final fade.
Napoleon Dynamite- Jared Hess: With its Idaho embalmed deadpan delivery perhaps a bit too peculiarly mannered and its plotless meanderings perhaps a bit too casual and its 80’s penchant perhaps a bit too willfully quirky, I still found it hard not to be totally charmed by this one. Much has been made of its similarities to Todd Solondz’s Welcome To The Dollhouse (cheap laughs at the expense of nerds followed by violent consequences that add a discomforting veneer of shame to our previous laughter) and Wes Andersons now thoroughly entrenched brand of quirkiness (with, for example, The Life Aquatic, Anderson’s films have become a set of whimsical poses, so much eccentric façade as to find depth in its oddball idiosyncrasies) while adding its own layer of dry monotone daffiness. Special mention goes to Jon Heder, who as the film’s title character gives us a performance both hilarious and comatose at the same time: like a nerd both shell-shocked and dulled by his very outlandishness.
Rustling Landscapes- Janez Lapajne (Slovenia): Part of the current European Union Film Festival at the Siskel Film Center, this debut by the Slovenian filmmaker, Janez Lapajne was shot in 14 days in July of 2001 on digital video before being transferred over to 35mm. A couple on a summer vacation in rural Slovenia (which sure looks nice), 7 years together, slowly self-destruct after miscommunications, lack of support and emotional exhaustion lead to an abortion that both may or may not have wanted. The first third, a brutally in your face assessment of their relationship and an oftentimes powerful examination of the pettiness that creeps into the arguments and assessments of longtime partners, gives way to a film that becomes surprisingly light, pastoral and warmly funny. In need of distance, the couple (played by Barbara Cerar, who is wonderful and Rok Vihar who is miscast) goes their separate ways. Katarina (Cerar) meets a soldier named Primoz (Gregor Zork) who she spends a sun-dappled day with while Luka (Vihar) spends the day and evening talking about relationships with a woman he befriends at a nearby campsite. Each is made to question what they want: to remain in their relationship or stray. Owing a whole lot to Eric Rohmer, this one comes close to replicating his lovely, chatty films about lovers in flux.
The Motorcycle Diaries- Walter Salles: It’s nice, this one, when the two leads are on their road-trip through South America. It’s not so good when it wears its schematics on its sleeve and knocks you over the head with, should you forget, the fact that we’re watching the pre-revolutionary Che coming face to face with injustice and his conscience for the first time. Cool! Oh, what wrestling he’ll do. And how noble! There is a horribly silly scene of Che, played by the always enjoyable Gael Garcia Bernal, swimming the Amazon to spend his birthday with those in a leper colony. This spontaneous act of solidarity is swollen with all sorts of unnecessary grandeur and it wears, like so many films that come out of the Sundance camp, its schematics on its sleeve: attention viewers, this is a metaphor, our hero is going to a place from which he’ll never return, the beginning of his revolutionary fervor- look, behold how much he cares for those less fortunate! At the same time, we’re given little political or philosophical context; this film wants to give us the Che we can all agree on- heroic, noble and ultimately vapid.