"'I don't want actors, I want people,' director Miguel Gomes tells an impatient producer in an early scene from his masterpiece Our Beloved Month of August, which itself lies somewhere uncomfortably between documentary and fiction." Andrew Schenker in the L Magazine: "Frustrated by Gomes's decision to jettison the project's massive script and simply start shooting around the Portuguese countryside, the burly producer challenges his recalcitrant charge: 'Find them.' And so Gomes does, as the film's lengthy first half serves not only as a casting call among the non-professional locals, but a portrait of a region, focusing both on individual lives, and the local music, ritual and legends that dot the north-central Portuguese landscape."
In a piece for the New York Times on the recent trend "to blur or thwart or simply ignore the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, staking out instead a productive liminal zone in between," Dennis Lim tells a bit of the back story, noting that Gomes's original intention was "to make a fictional film against the backdrop of the region's summer music festivals. When the shoot ran into trouble, he and his crew began to document the people and places around them, as well as their own difficulties. (Mr Gomes appears in the film, and his brick of a screenplay is deployed as a sight gag.) The finished film, which runs from Sept 3 through 11 at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan as part of a Gomes retrospective, is not just unclassifiable, but also unstable from moment to moment: a documentary about the creation of a fiction, which overtakes the proceedings at points only to recede again."
"Seemingly haphazard, Beloved Month winds up an artfully contrived Möbius Strip," writes J Hoberman in the Voice. "In the movie's emo climax, the lead actress seamlessly segues from apparent tears to hysterical laughter. Is she in or out of character? For all the plot turns and character shifts, that's the real twist. Gomes, too, has it both ways: It's impossible to decide whether life imposed itself upon his scenario, or vice versa."
More from Simon Abrams (New York Press), Richard Brody (New Yorker; more), David Fear (Time Out New York), Mike Hale (NYT), James Hansen and R Emmet Sweeney (TCM).
"Rarely in a documentary does every shot matter as a bearer of emotion and information," writes Amy Taubin for Artforum. "Lixin Fan's nonfiction debut, Last Train Home (2009), is just such an exceptional movie."
"On-screen titles inform that each Chinese New Year, 130 million migrant workers head home," notes Chris Barsanti at Filmcritic.com. "The largest such migration in the world, it's as though the entire populations of France and the United Kingdom headed for the local train or bus station at the same time."
Noel Murray at the AV Club: "Then Lixin narrows his focus to one married couple: Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin, who have to wait days and pay triple the regular fare to take a steamy, crowded, two-day train ride back to their village, where their teenage daughter Qin and pre-teen son Yang live with their grandmother. During the few days they have with their kids each year, Changhua and Suqin have to deliver as many life lessons as they can about the value of hard work and studying, and they have to leave behind enough money and material goods to remind their family why they always leave. But Yang and Qin are like growing children everywhere: they doubt their parents really know what they're doing."
"The changing social landscape of China — a change registered in drastic alterations of the physical and demographic environment — has proven to be fertile ground for that country's movie directors, not all of whom enjoy official favor," notes AO Scott in the NYT. "Last Train Home complements Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze (also produced by Mila Aung-Thwin), and also the work, both fictional and non-, of Jia Zhangke, the most prominent and protean of China's current generation of socially critical filmmakers. Like many of Mr Jia's films — The World, which deals with migrant workers, and 24 City, about the closing of a factory in Chengdu — Mr Fan's documentary is informed by a melancholy humanism, and finds unexpected beauty in almost unbearably harsh circumstances."
More from Mark Asch (L), Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), David Fear (TONY), J Hoberman (Voice), Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail) and James van Maanen. For Filmmaker, Damon Smith talks with Fan "about growing up in China, shooting amid crowds of desperate travelers, and the conceptual origin of his visual style." Ella Taylor profiles Fan for the NYT and he's also a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show. Last Train Home is opening this week at New York's IFC Center, but it will be making its way around the country; check Zeitgeist Films for the schedule.
Update, 9/5: "Last Train Home captures what few other films have," writes Andrew Chan for Film Comment: "[T]he suffocating density of China's population, the sheer weight of its many social and economic problems, and the unavoidable sense that a single human life here can hardly matter. The unsustainable system in which the PRC continues to function as the 'factory of the world' threatens to stretch the screen beyond its limits. But the film's best moments occur when it feels less like an Economist article and more like an old-fashioned story of adult responsibility and youthful rebellion. Not since Liu Jiayin's Oxhide has a Chinese film offered such a compassionate glimpse of domestic life straitjacketed by financial struggle."
Reviewing Last Train Home for Gay City News, Steve Erickson notes that the "political edge of the generation of Chinese filmmakers who began working in the 1980s, like Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang, has long since vanished, but the contemporary Chinese documentary scene has helped bring it back to the nation's cinema."
Which brings us to Zhang Yimou's latest. Take it away, Matt Connolly (Reverse Shot): "A perfect storm of misguided homage and curdled auteurist tics, Zhang Yimou's A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop manages the headache-inducing feat of both amplifying the Coen Brothers' worst directorial tendencies and mixing them with the Chinese director at his most bombastically hollow. That the film is an adaptation Blood Simple, one of the Coen's leanest and least mannered films, makes these accomplishments all the more dubious."
It's "certainly one of the stranger projects of the year," concedes Keith Uhlich in a 4-out-of-5-star review in Time Out New York. "Transposed from the 80s American West to the ancient Orient, that original suspenseful tale about a jealous husband (Ni Dahong) who hires a crooked lawman (Sun [Honglei]) to kill his cheating wife (Yan Ni) and her lover (Xiao [Shen-Yang]) is now more of a slamming-doors farce. The humor of Zhang's take is regional and not easily translated — this stateside version reportedly excises a wacky end-credits musical number — though Zhang impressively maintains a sense of spinning-plate momentum throughout."
More from Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Keith Phipps (AV Club), Nick Pinkerton (Voice), Nick Schager (Slant), AO Scott (NYT), Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times), Ben Walters and JM Tyree (3quarksdaily) and Armond White (NYP). Interviews with Zhang Yimou: Chris Lee (LAT), Bryce J Renninger (indieWIRE) and Diva Velez (Twitch). Viewing (3'05"). The NYT's AO Scott compares a scene from Noodle with the original scene in Blood Simple.
"Footloose young men being humanized by unexpected fatherhood is an occasional movie fantasy that (like the Dardenne brothers' gritty gem L'Enfant) requires great skill to avoid mushy sentimentality," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "That's why Sean Baker's Prince of Broadway is such a delight: like its subject, Lucky (Prince Adu), a silver-tongued street hustler, the movie is sharp, charismatic and so light on its feet we never know which way it will turn."
"Like director Sean Baker's 2004 feature Take Out, which tracked a Chinese delivery man trying to get out from under a considerable debt," writes IFC's Alison Willmore, "this film takes a tightly focused peek into lives and neighborhoods that are rarely represented on screen, portraying immigrant characters scrabbling for a toehold in America."
More from Michael Atkinson (Voice), Michael Lerman (Hammer to Nail) and Andrew Schenker (TONY). Interviews with Baker: Matt Dentler and Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail).
Last week saw the release of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first part of Jean-François Richet's sweeping gangster flick based on the life of the notorious Jacques Mesrine. This week, the second part, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 makes the rounds. Matt Prigge in the Philadelphia Weekly: "Mesrine's life was so clearly made for the movies — there's barely a dull moment in the two films' 246 minutes — that it almost doesn't matter this is a Wikipedia Movie: a formless blob that simply acts out his greatest hits with minimal commentary. It lacks the bold structure of Bronson and the strong perspective of Olivier Assayas's forthcoming (and even longer) Carlos the Jackal epic Carlos.... What Mesrine does have is a sexy portrait of 70s banditry, joining the ranks of The Baader-Meinhof Complex and (again) Carlos — films that summon a lost era when thievery, murder and terrorism could seem, at least in one sense, cool."
For the Chicago Reader's JR Jones, this epic beats Michael Mann's Public Enemies, hands down. "Director Jean-François Richet, who first came to notice with the 1996 thriller Ma 6-T Va Crack-er, may not have the sort of stylistic signature Mann brings to his movies after 30 years in the business. But both Killer Instinct and Public Enemy #1 are filled with daring bank jobs and heart-stopping escape sequences; they hurtle along at a pace that rivals the Dillinger movie while still managing to pick up enough emotional and cultural detail to feel novelistic.... Richet has told the Guardian that he wanted Mesrine's story to function as a 'micro-history. Not the history of France through Napoleon Bonaparte but through a man you might have passed in the street.' Though 'history' may be a bit of a stretch — like Public Enemies, Mesrine takes some liberties with the facts — Richet convincingly uses the twists and turns of Mesrine's unsettled life to chart the choppy social currents of the 60s and 70s."
More from Simon Abrams (Slant), Ty Burr (Boston Globe), Cliff Doerksen (Time Out Chicago), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Robert Horton (Herald), Charles Mudede (Stranger), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Tasha Robinson (AV Club), Kenneth Turan (LAT). This week's interviews with Vincent Cassel: Todd Gilchrist (Cinematical) and Aaron Hillis (GreenCine Daily, audio).
"If you want proof that the American romantic comedy is in a dismal state, trapped halfway between apology and experiment, you need look no further than Going the Distance, which features real-life couple Drew Barrymore and Justin Long as a likable young recession-era duo separated by a continent, a lack of funds and a cloudy future." Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "I don't mean that this movie is strikingly good or strikingly bad, in cosmic terms — it's a solid but totally forgettable entertainment, redeemed somewhat by Barrymore's loud, horsey laugh and some agreeably racy comic situations."
"Director Nanette Burstein takes an admirably unglossified approach to her characters — they curse freely and believably, smoke marijuana out of large bongs without making a whole thing out of it, and crack the kind of dumb, silly, dirty jokes that real couples aren't too embarrassed to share." Lindy West in the Stranger: "If Going the Distance were a senior Republican senator from the state of Texas, it would be Just Okay Bailey Hutchison. If it were a character in H Rider Haggard's 1885 novel King Solomon's Mines, it would be Allan Adequatermain. If it were a state in southwestern Germany, it would be Really Not That Baden-Württemberg.... What I'm trying to say is that Going the Distance makes me wish I had food poisoning, or something comparable but with less vomiting, so that I could stay home sick and watch it on TV. It is not a classic, but it is not terrible. It is fine. It will do."
And so it goes, until, all of a sudden, the NYT's AO Scott pops this one: "Watching this movie try to balance honesty with the breezy comforts the audience supposedly craves, I could not help but think of Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's 2008 movie Nights and Weekends, in which the co-directors play a couple trying to keep a relationship going in Chicago and New York. That film, modest and improvisatory and diffidently (if not defiantly) noncommercial, is raw and ragged in a way that Ms Burstein's could never be. But they seem at least to belong in the same world, a tentative and confusing place where love conquers what it can."
More from Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle), Sean Burns (Philadelphia Weekly), David Fear (TONY), Robert Horton (Herald), Karina Longworth (Voice), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago), Peter Martin (Cinematical), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe), Michelle Orange (Movieline), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune), Mary Pols (Time), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), James Rocchi (MSN Movies), Nick Schager (Slant), Dana Stevens (Slate) and Scott Tobias (AV Club). James Rocchi talks with Barrymore and Long for MSN Movies. Andrea Gronvall interviews Burstein for Movie City News. And in the Voice, Eric Hynes reminds us that she's not the only documentary filmmaker (her previous film was the Sundance sensation American Teen (2008), you may remember) to make the transition to narratives.
"Pretentious profiles in post-9/11 grief and confusion, Clear Blue Tuesday manages the not-inconsiderable feat of insulting both the memory of the World Trade Center attacks and the musical genre," writes Nick Schager in the Voice. "Elizabeth Lucas's indie charts (symbolism alert!) 11 fictional New Yorkers on seven September Tuesdays over seven years as they grapple with the romantic, professional, and psychological fallout of the Towers' destruction — with some musical numbers thrown in." No, really. "In its own blinkered way, Clear Blue Tuesday is a full-on visionary auteur effort, shooting for an epic grandeur that only people like Tony Kushner or John Cameron Mitchell could have hoped to achieve in this context," writes Michael Sicinski. "It's an epic misfire, a clear blue... something." More from Mike Hale (NYT), Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant), S James Snyder (TONY) and John Sylva (L).
"Initially annoying, ultimately endearing, Etienne! hits enough of the right notes to overcome its half-baked brand of indie sentimentality," writes Rob Humanick in Slant. "This tale of a cancer-stricken hamster and its dedicated owner can't quite muster the ambition of Kelly Reichardt's recent Wendy and Lucy (to which it bears a passing resemblance), but as a production of clearly limited resources, Jeff Mizushima's film is wise to play things modestly and find poetry in imperfection — the randomness of life, as one character might describe it." More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT) and Michelle Orange (Voice). At Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater.
"Riffing on everything from The Bad News Bears to Hoosiers, writer-director James C Strouse (Grace Is Gone) milks mild comedy and moderate pathos out of a down-on-his-luck retread named Bill ([Sam] Rockwell), who's recruited to whip Indiana high-school misfits into a respectable girls' basketball team," writes Eric Hynes, reviewing The Winning Season for Time Out New York. "Excepting unique fits like last year's Moon, Rockwell is the sort of actor who seems better suited to stealing movies from the periphery rather than slouching or erupting at the center.... The girls are worth rooting for, but their pursuit is secondary to one sorry-ass dude's redemption. That's a win?" More from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Stephen Holden (NYT) and Nick Schager (Slant).
"Jann Turner's White Wedding, a South African version of The Hangover, reconsiders the vile ideology behind that American film as much as spray-painting a Barbie doll black would change any of her politics," writes Diego Costa in Slant. "Whether this is Vegas or Cape Town, the girl stays home moping while the boys go out and play." Notes Nathan Rabin at the AV Club: "White Wedding was South Africa's official Academy Awards submission for 2009's Best Foreign Language Film, which betrays a fatal lack of confidence on South Africa's part." More from Neil Genzlinger (NYT) and Gary Goldstein (LAT). IndieWIRE interviews Turner.
"Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg give the lying-in-state biopic salute to Max Manus, an adventurer who was one of the most intrepid and celebrated figures in the Norwegian resistance," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. In Slant, Joseph Jon Lanthier notes that "Max Manus has bookends of last-man-standing angst to differentiate itself from countless other similarly themed historical action flicks (the muddily paced Flame & Citron and meticulously detailed Black Book among them)." In the NYT, Jeannette Catsoulis finds that this "solidly acted biopic of World War II derring-do... has an old-fashioned sincerity that entertains without engaging."
Rachel Saltz in the NYT: "One of the odder movies to come down the Bollywood pike recently, Nagesh Kukunoor's genre-defying Aashayein (Wishes) looks at dying in a comic-cosmic way that embraces both magical thinking and fatalism."
IN THE UK
"The Iranian directors who found international recognition in the late 1980s and 1990s brought with them a striking innovation," begins Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman. "Films such as Abbas Kiarostami's And Life Goes On and Close-Up, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence and Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple cast non-professionals as themselves in reconstructions of their lives, inviting our speculation about where documentary ended and fiction began.... Although Kiarostami's Certified Copy is not a docudrama, it does raise concerns about fabrication and fraudulence that have been pertinent to Iranian cinema.... The film pairs a first-timer, the English operatic baritone William Shimell, with Juliette Binoche in a kind of pro-am acting tournament. Some of the movie's fascination arises from the clash between the newcomer's awkwardness and his co-star's ability to switch from goofy to brittle to rapacious with the breeziness of a Williams sister reaching for the umpteenth variation on a devastating backhand." And then there's a character "played by Jean-Claude Carrière, the legendary screenwriter who collaborated with Buñuel on that director's late-period masterpieces (from The Diary of a Chambermaid onwards) and has become something of a talisman of art-house cinema, bringing his pared-down mischief-making to films including The Tin Drum, Birth and The White Ribbon. Carrière's presence here, in a picture that is as short on explanation as the work with which he made his name, is symbolically correct. But it also reminds you that intellectual film-making doesn't need to be as bloodless and theoretical as Certified Copy, in which ideas are aired, exchanged but never quite animated."
More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian), David Jenkins (Time Out London), Jasper Rees (Arts Desk) and Sukhdev Sandhu (Telegraph). Geoff Andrew interviews Kiarostami for Sight & Sound. Viewing (2'52"): the Guardian's interview with Binoche. And then, in the Independent, John Lichfield reports on this bizarre feud Gérard Depardieu has struck up out of the blue with Binoche.
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