Friday, February 20, 2009

Unnatural Selection

Film Comment Selects
February 20-March 5, 2009

Walter Reade Theater
151 West 65th Street

Smet in The Frontier of Dawn
In this age of instant gratification at the movies in the form of comic-strip blockbusters making mega-bucks at the box office, the Film Society of Lincoln Center continually presents programs that do what we should expect from cinema, but rarely get: to cajole, to anger, to provoke, and to make us think. Sometimes, we might think, “Why the hell are they showing this piece of crap?” But that comes with the territory.

One of the most polarizing of its Walter Reade Theater programs is Film Comment Selects, which this year offers 14 films (as yet unseen in New York) given the seal of approval by the editors and writers of the Film Society’s in-house magazine. As usual, it’s an uneven crop, but at least we can see and judge these films for ourselves, rather than rely on someone else’s say-so about whether they even get shown locally.

John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail, a blunt dissection of Ireland’s recent economic boom, updates The Prince and the Pauper with its story of a rich industrialist and his doppelganger, a crude drifter who fools his wife, co-workers and the police, making his life triply miserable. In the first, darkly comic half, Boorman wittily traces the not entirely legal arc of his beleaguered hero’s lifestyle; however, the second half goes off the rails, finishing with a giggle-inducing mano-a-mano fight between the two men. Brendan Gleeson gamely fights through the clich├ęs in both lead roles, while Kim Cattrall bravely battles a wavering Irish accent as his wife.

Nina Hoss’ towering portrayal of an ordinary German woman doing anything to survive the days following World War II amid raping, pillaging and occupying Soviet troops is the main draw of A Woman in Berlin, director Max Farberbock’s unflinching drama. (Hoss is also the best thing in Christian Petzold’s Jerichow, an intriguing riff on The Postman Always Rings Twice.) Austrian Gotz Spielmann made the slow-burning Ravanche, a character study of few words and many dangerous actions that touches on how the new Europe is usurping the old--at first, it seems meandering and unfocused, before snapping to attention for a powerful wrap-up.

A Week Alone, Celina Murga’s intimate portrait of the teenage offspring of wealthy parents unable to handle their freedom while alone during vacation, makes well-observed points early and often, then by the final reels is merely spinning its wheels. Duane Hopkins’ Better Things--a clinical look at a group of morose, drug taking deadbeats--never arouses much feeling for his stereotyped characters. Dully conceived and stolidly acted, the movie also contains the most incongruous classical music snippet I’ve heard in years--that sublime Schubert piano trio was used to far better effect in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

The two plodding French entries in the series have peripheral pleasures. A L’aventure is another piece of pretentious soft-core porn from Jean-Claude Brisseau, whose modus operandi is to coax nubile young women to take off their clothes and perform sex (alone or with women and men) in front of the camera. Carole Brana, lovely both clothed and naked, can’t really act--like earlier Brisseau “discoveries” in Exterminating Angels and Secret Things. It’s nice work if you can get it.

On the other hand, Philippe Garrel’s ghostly romantic tragedy, The Frontier of Dawn, is saved from utter ghastliness by William Lubtchansky’s luminous black and white photography and its leading lady, Laura Smet. A divine combination of talent and looks (her celebrity parents are actress Natalie Baye and singer-actor Johnny Holliday) who should be in more movies than we get to see, Smet is stunning as a troubled actress and, later, apparition; even during the inevitable--and risible--suicide sequence, her dignity remains intact. Not so the film.

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