Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Jeanne Balibar in AT ELLEN'S AGE (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)

New Directors/New Films 2011
Presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center
March 23 – April 3, 2011

Overall, the slate for the 40th edition of New Directors/New Films is wildly spotty. The program should take a lesson from the Tribeca Film Festival: less is more. A handful of films could easily be shed for a tighter focus so that the series really becomes a showcase and not just a literal realization of its name. As usual, the selections with the best buzz have already garnered top awards around the world: Incendies was nominated for an Oscar last month, Happy, Happy won a grand jury prize at Sundance, as did Octubre at Cannes. However, there are a few diamonds in the rough.  Since some of the finest films from last year’s editionTehourn, Northless, The Evening Dress—have yet to be screened at your nearby Landmark Theatre, here’s a road map from three perspectives as the films below make their way around the country.

For a film with an original voice, it’s tough to beat Pia Marais’s droll At Ellen’s Age. Sounds like a coming of ager for an adolescent or a teenager, right? It is, kind of—but for a dazed 40-something flight attendant, Ellen (the bird-like Jeanne Balibar), who has left her part-time boyfriend, may have a life threatening illness, and has just been fired. The film’s a bumper-car of a ride, the flip side to an Eat Pray Love-type of manifesto. The film takes Ellen around the world, but nowhere near an idyllic resort; she squats with kids half her age instead. She fumbles about, anchorless, not knowing what she wants; and when she does, she still takes her cue from others. At least she’s somewhat self-aware, admitting to a new boyfriend that’s he’s just a bridge for her, and “nothing more.” Hand-held realism alternates with an otherworldly, alternative world of airport hotels—filled with the lonely and rock-star level of debauchery—and, later, nude street theater. Ellen’s ex-boyfriend is right, she’s sleepwalking through life, but with eyes wide, wide open.

In a scathing and crazily convoluted look at a pop culture footnote, Australian director Matthew Bate goes back to the recent past, before the reign of YouTube, in his twisting and absorbing self-described auto vérité, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure. In 1987, two college grads from Wisconsin, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D., moved to San Francisco and lived in a dumpy apartment with paper-thin walls next to two raging-all-through-the-night alcoholic neighbors, one a redneck, the other a snippy queen. After the former threatens to kill Eddie for complaining about the noise, the Midwesterners take a passive form of revenge, sticking a microphone out of their window and recording the nocturnal and monotonous rants. (The title comes from one of the oft-repeated put downs. Most of the retorts can’t be posted on a family website.) Eventually Eddie and Mitch collected 10 hours of tapes over two years (all without a copyright—at first) and passed them around. Their popularity reached the point of the material inspiring a play and three competing film projects. One producer envisioned Brando and Nicholson as the stars. What started out as a goof is a jaw-dropping and tangled case of copyright infringement beyond what any music sampler could imagine, and that’s not forgetting invasion of privacy issues.

Egypt has pride of place this year with two films that are very much of the moment. Part documentary and let’s-put-on-a-show hip-hop celebration, Ahmad Abdalla’s angry and rowdy Microphone heeds few narrative conventions. There’s a germ of a plot about underground Alexandrian hip-hop and metal bands striving for artistic autonomy, but the film is mainly free form. The hip-hop hipsters, looking for a grant from the government, face a lot of resistance: no obscenities or English lyrics. An all-girl band appears on camera with their faces obscured, in case of retaliation, and there’s always the threat of the cops shutting down a concert, if the neighborhood mosque doesn’t complain first. Time will tell if Microphone, padded with protest songs, is a snapshot of pre-2011 Egypt or a momentary stand for the freedom of expression. And where else are you going to see the seven-year-old T, the youngest MC in Egypt?

For those who like their storylines streamlined, Mohamed Diab takes on sexual harassment and internalized misogyny in the crowd pleasing and polemical 678, inspired by real events. Storylines involving three women from different social/economic strata weave in and out of each other—some coincidences click, some clunk. A full-fledged two hander, 678 at times verges on turning into a boo-hiss melodrama, but it’s the rare film that will elicit cheers within the usually sedate Museum of Modern Art. Maybe now, thanks to current events, the equally didactic but more diverting and ambitious Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story will finally receive the attention it deserves. (A couple in Microphone even discusses this 2009 homegrown hit.)

Set in Ghana, American director Deron Albright’s The Destiny of Lesser Animals bears the telltale signs of a first film—uneven acting and simple camera blocking—but it has plenty of grit: stakeouts, a woman of mystery, and the on-location hustle and bustle of the capital city, Accra. A police inspector wants to return to the U.S., from where he was deported years earlier. After saving up, he buys an expertly made counterfeit passport—which is snatched from his hands immediately after purchase. He then concocts a lie that his gun was stolen in order to enlist the aid of a veteran cop to track down the culprit. Despite obvious plot developments, the film takes a clear-headed and moving turn in tone towards the end.  

More an impressionistic photo-essay than documentary, El Velador loosely follows the title’s night watchman, his dogs, and the assembly-line construction of an ever-growing cemetery in northwestern Mexico. From one angle, a row of mausoleums (some sleek, some traditional, one with an ornate chandelier) looks like a land-locked beach community, except for the crosses everywhere. (El velador lives in the shack in the background.) News snippets from radio and TV of the escalating drug-related violence provide the slenderest context about this boom town for the departed. As the press notes state, it’s a film about violence without violence. The film already has a date on PBS’s POV series for 2012. How it holds up on the home screen (and any nearby distractions) is another matter. On the wide screen, it’s easier to surrender to the slow pace and the contemplative and often peaceful ambiance. There the beautifully photographed film can be seen to its best advantage.

Evangelia Randou, left, & Ariane Labed in ATTENBERG (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)
Two young women, standing a foot apart, lean towards each other, tongues squirming out, touching, and then slithering into the other’s mouth: a hands-on tutorial between two friends. That’s the opening provocation in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg, whose title derives from the name of natural history filmmaker Sir David Attenborough. Like Attenborough, Marina (Ariane Labed) observes, taking an anthropological view of life, especially when it comes to men. Humans are the animals on display here. But like last year’s outsider entry, Dogtooth, also from Greece, Attenberg keeps the viewer at bay, deliberately trying to raise eyebrows—Marina asks her father if he has ever imagined her naked; some things should remain taboo, his reply. He’s dying of cancer and wants his 23-year-old daughter to live outside her odd, insular bubble, and Marina begins taking tentative steps, clinically approaching her first sexual experience. (In exasperation, her partner/specimen pleads, “I beg you, stop describing what you’re doing.”) Maybe after Dogtooth’s transgressions, it’s a little harder to surprise us with eccentric behavior. Kent Turner


Many of the films in the series look at young folks around the world dealing with strictures on their lives. Of films not yet slated for wider distribution, here are many that reveal young lives, from the most constricted to those with too much freedom.

Twelve-year-old Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau) is kept in protective isolation by her excessively fearful father, Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau). Surrounded by the limitless horizon of windswept snow in rural Québec, her personal landscape is so undifferentiated that it’s a surprise to both of them that she needs glasses. (They’re sympathetically portrayed by a real-life father and daughter.) Writer/director Denis Côté, in his fifth feature film, doles out some hints and shocking glimpses of why the father goes to such extreme and yet unsuccessful measures to keep her isolated. Through mostly silent experiences, Julyvonne, more than a bit bizarrely, adapts to his restrictions, such that joining with other families tobogganing becomes a celebration of liberation for both of them.

Winter Vacation
There’s no shortage of comedies about holidays, spring breaks, and summer vacations, but writer/director Hongqi Li’s third feature provides a kids’ view of the frustrating limits during a week off from school in China’s Inner Mongolia. The temporary break leaves nine bored teenagers, two restless children, and their extended families and neighbors at loose ends. They devolve into repetitive, and increasingly amusing, routines. The deadpan humor is as dry as the snowflakes that cover their bleak section of town dominated by drab, Soviet-era apartment blocks. No wonder the little kids think that running away to be orphans would be their best hope for the future than going as stir crazy like the grown-ups.

In his first feature, writer/director Seren Yüce doesn’t seem very optimistic about the young generation in Turkey raised with the material benefits of corrupt crony capitalism. Since childhood, pudgy 21-year-old college dropout Mertkan (Barta Kucukcaglayan) is bullied by his father, who looks and talks a lot like a Turkish Tony Soprano gone just barely legit in a booming construction business. Mertkan hangs out in Istanbul with his dissolute friends, who sponge off him. His secret, though oddly desultory, affair with Gül (Esme Madra), a Kurdish student/waitress from a distant village, sparks a rebellious interlude before he’ll fall into line in the army and the family firm. (In the English subtitles, Mertkan’s friends and relatives pejoratively call her a “gypsy.”) In an equally pessimistic view of women’s lot, Gül’s home life, which she’s escaping from, must be pretty bad that being with the insensitive Mertkan in the big city is an improvement.

Man Without a Cell Phone
Debut director/co-writer Sameh Zoabi returned to his home town of Iksal, an Arab-Israeli village near Nazareth, to find unusually gentle humor in the ironies and stresses of growing up modern in a traditional Palestinian society surrounded by politics. A handsome 20-something Muslim, Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh), is stuck making concrete with his cousin, unless he can pass the local university’s Hebrew exam. He would keep juggling several beautiful women via cell phone—one with disapproving Christian parents; another on the West Bank, inaccessible through roadblocks and phone taps; and a college student, whose honor is zealously guarded by her brother the policeman—if only Jawdat’s suspicious father would stop messing with the cell phone tower on the adjacent property. Entertainingly, Jawdat finds amusing ways to appeal to everyone’s self-interest in organizing a protest against the Israeli and local authorities to move the tower, and incidentally proves that a flirt turned non-violent leader looks like a fighter, at least in this breezy comedy.

Belle Epine
The good girl attracted to the guy racing motorcycles is a trope of adolescent rebellion going back to The Wild One (1953). Debut director/co-writer Rebecca Zlotowski delves unusually deep and sensitively into what drives one French 17 year old to hop on back. The family of Prudence Friedmann (Léa Seydoux) is reeling from the death of the mother, making Prudence feel abandoned and alone, despite relatives who take her into their observant Jewish home. She isn’t just led astray by the bad girl at school. She chooses the dark thrills and excitement of a late-night motorcycle hangout to mask her grief by experimenting with sex and drugs until she can finally, and touchingly, face her mother’s memory.

Kurt Cobain, Frances Cobain & Patty Schemel in HIT SO HARD (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)
Hit So Hard
is a cautionary story of youth with too much freedom, with some new angles to the usual Behind the Music arc of the rise, fall, and difficult recovery of a rock star. Subtitled “The Life and Near-Death Story of Drummer Patty Schemel,” director P. David Ebersole’s first feature-length documentary is noteworthy for the intimate excerpts from 40-plus hours of hi-8 video footage Schemel took while recording and touring with the Courtney Love-fronted band Hole in the 1990s, and (in heartbreakingly happier times) living with Love, her late husband Kurt Cobain, and their baby, Frances. In addition, Schemel’s brother—and co-dependent addict—Larry saved tapes of all of her TV appearances during the reign of Seattle rock. Highlighted by frank interviews with her bandmates and music colleagues (particularly a starkly fresh interview with the ever unapologetic Love), the film insightfully emphasizes the difficulties of being gay first in a small blue-collar town and then in a straight girl band, even while grunge adopted lesbians’ flannel shirt style. Nora Lee Mandel




Koji Fukada’s Hospitalité capitalizes on Japan’s insularity, social rigors, and cramped living spaces to orchestrate a nuanced and surprisingly insightful comedic gem. When a strange man weasels himself into the quiet lives of a family living above their small printing factory, he launches a campaign of charm and blackmail to turn their lives topsy-turvy. Before long, marriage bonds are shaken and a conga line of eclectic foreigners sends the xenophobic neighborhood into a tailspin. The film swiftly moves from a simple narrative into an absurdist, almost theatrical play, all in the confines of a small home in downtown Tokyo. Hospitalité is as unusual as it is enjoyable.

Another troubled voice from the Romanian New Wave follows a young woman on 24-hour leave from a long prison sentence. Her intentions to flee the country become clear after the first few scenes, but the rest of the setup—who she is, what she’s done—are slowly revealed over the next 90 minutes. The camera often lurks behind as she walks with stoic determination, visiting her estranged brother, her family home, her degenerate ex-boyfriend, all in a mysterious effort to set the stage for her escape. Bogdan George Apetri’s filmmaking is confident and straightforward—no touching music or tempting flashbacks luring the audience to commiserate. And though we may not grow to love her, her tragedy is invariably felt. 

Isabelle Huppert in COPACABANA (Photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center)

In may be her most straight-laced role to date, Isabella Huppert plays Babou, a reckless, itinerant free spirit who has never grown up. Outfitted in brightly colored miniskirts, saris, and furs, Huppert stars opposite her real-life and on-screen daughter (Lolita Chammah) in Marc Fitoussi’s charming family study. Her daughter revolts against a lifetime of Babou’s unconventional ways by choosing to marry a safe marketing executive (and not extending a wedding invitation to her unpredictable and often embarrassing mother). In an attempt to change, Babou then takes a job selling timeshares in Ostend, Belgium—possibly the most depressing setting ever committed to screen. Despite the predictable plot of this gentle comedy, the effect of watching it is a pleasant one.

Memory Lane
Except for the occasional appearance of the Paris skyline, watch Mikhaël Hers’s Memory Lane on mute and it’s almost indistinguishable from a homegrown mumblecore indie. The sweet but sophomoric film is framed by nostalgic narration in the style of a poem unabashedly read aloud in high school French class. It’s the story of seven friends lingering somewhere in their 20s, who reunite in their suburban hometown one memorable August. Some come home under tragic circumstances, and others have never left. In either case, the underlying emotions are dulled by the fitting marriage of sexy French insouciance and indie cool—so much so that it takes the length of the film to become emotionally involved with even the fieriest of characters.

Some Days are Better Than Others
Carrie Brownstein should stick to promoting Portland in her own ingenious sketch comedy show Portlandia because this feature film take on the city (in which she stars) is a bland, uninspired flop. Joined by James Mercer (lead singer/songwriter of the Shins and Broken Bells, and a dead-ringer for a young Kevin Spacey), this uber-talented indie duo can’t save director Matt McCormick’s cookie-cutter exploration of awkward and aimless young adulthood. As so often happens, there is a bevy of painfully sincere characters desperately trying to communicate. Except for Mercer’s somewhat charming karaoke of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the film makes no overtures to the cast’s musical talents. (Brownstein is also the former guitarist/vocalist for the Portland band Sleater-Kinney). And except for some shout-outs to Stumptown, community gardens, and swaths of unemployed quasi-youths, Some Days are Better Than Others could have been set in any other city where, according to independent cinema, boredom and shyness reign supreme.

Summer of Goliath
Summer of Goliath is a desperately arty portrayal of a Mexican village composed of several disjointed character portraits. An odd combination of documentary and fiction, the film centers on a woman spiraling out of control after being abandoned by her husband, two teenage soldiers itching to be issued machine guns, and a spattering of peripheral town folk rounding out the narrative mess. The film’s yearning for artistic credibility is rewarded in some beautiful out-of-focus shots, but other excessively long and tedious scenes reek of self-indulgence. Director Nicolás Pereda touches on a torrent of issues—corruption, violence, poverty—and makes the audience dizzy with all of these unexplored scenarios, but the result is ultimately a failure.

This is the result of a strained and misguided attempt to add meaning and symbolism to the melodramatic filmmaking for which Russian filmmakers are known. This devastating (and not in a good way) story of three middle-aged men carving out a sad existence in a gloomy wintry Moscow is so ludicrously stuffed with sins and calamities it’s difficult to decide who we’re supposed to feel sorry for. As if unable to pick just one tragic twist from a screenwriting brainstorm, director Vladimir Kott eagerly delivers illness, prostitution, violence, and more than one marital breakdown to his supposedly tear-starved audience. What’s worse, potentially beautiful scenes staged to deliver optimal poetic meaning (an optometrist speaking to her estranged husband through her optical refractor) are delivered so often and so shamelessly, the entire film quickly begins to feel like a joke.

On a different note, here
s a film to look out for. Actor-turned-director Paddy Considine’s festival standout Tyrannosaur is a frightening depiction of socialized violence in an English backwater. Peter Mullan commands the screen as Joseph, a mean, lonely, old drunk whose violent temper constantly overflows into bloody altercations. His performance is as loud and turbulent as it is achingly tender. When Joseph’s life become intertwined with a local woman, whose lot may be more desperate than his own, he tries to see himself through her pious and forgiving eyes to decide whether or not he is, in fact, a monster. The violence on the screen is degenerate, believable, and deeply frightening. A heinous perpetrator one moment, Joseph becomes an innocent victim the next, an unexpected nuance in a film which, in less talented hands, could have been left the characters in black and white. It’s due for release this fall. Yana Litovsky
March 25, 2011



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us