AFI Film Festival: Worldly Pleasures

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[Waltz with Bashir]

The AFI Film Festival is that rare chance to look at some of the early contenders for Best Foreign Film Oscar, as well as upcoming American fare. Among the most impressive—and most overrated—at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood recently:

Waltz with Bashir (France-Germany-Israel, Dir: Ari Folman) Director-screenwriter Ari Folman has created a one-of-a-kind film, with his animated, documentary-style feature. An Israeli soldier has blocked memories of his involvement in the 80s Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the Phalangist massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. Folman punctuates the search for truth with surreal, startling, dreamlike imagery, like a soldier swimming away from danger nestled into the body of a naked, giant woman or matter-of-fact war atrocities to the accompaniment of heavy metal guitar. The film has garnered fury in Israel among hawkish elements but Folman has courageously and ingeniously created a plea for conscience in the world’s most troubled region.

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O’Horten (France-Germany-Norway, Dir: Bent Hamer) Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer has a way of creating elegantly crafted and subtly offbeat character studies that stir the heart. Here, a shy, lonely train engineer (Espen Skjonberg) reaches retirement and in traipsing around Oslo, finds himself opening up to life possibilities that would never have occurred before. With sly humor and a willingness to embrace the loss of family and a newfound and wacky friend, the titular character pulls us into his expanding world and makes us delighted for the chances he finally is willing to take.

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Everlasting Moments (Sweden-Denmark, Dir: Jan Troell) Oscar nominated for his direction and adapted screenplay for The Emigrants, Jan Troell has returned with heartfelt story, inspired by his own family heritage. In the early 20th century in Malmo, Sweden, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) battles the pressures of a growing family, a philandering brute of a husband and the love of a man she cannot be with by exploring her creativity with a still camera. Troell captures the passage of time brilliantly, through the First World War and technological inventions, as the captivating Heiskanen anchors this lovely, aching tale.

Adam Resurrected (Germany-USA, Dir: Paul Schrader) Jeff Goldblum turns in the performance of his career in this powerful adaptation of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, directed by Paul Schrader (Autofocus). Goldblum shows a haunted, controlled desperation as German comedian Adam Steiner, who is taken to a concentration camp in WWII but kept alive by a commandant (Willem Dafoe) who makes him act like a dog. After the War, Steiner’s mental and physical states crumble at an Israeli institute where mentally unstable Holocaust survivors live together. Add a perverse, sexual relationship between Steiner and a nurse, bleakly humorous dialogue and an attempt to help a boy who thinks himself an animal and you have a film that will stay in the mind long after the final images fade onscreen.

The Brothers Bloom (USA, Dir: Rian Johnson) Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody portray two brothers who are inseparable, despite friction, and survive by pulling major cons. However, when Brody’s character falls for a daffy but brilliant, heiress (the marvelous Rachel Weisz) who is their next mark, allegiances are tested. Rian Johnson muddies the logic of some of the actual scams but what works best here is the camaraderie, the stunning locations and droll, visual jokes that make the scams take a back seat to the characters and dialogue.

The Class (France, Dir: Laurent Cantet) A winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, The Class is curiously overhyped. It is a competent though claustrophobic examination of a teacher (Francois Begaudeau) who grapples with tough, multicultural kids in Parisian public school. Director Cantet has smartly used an actual teacher and his students in recreating this world and their work on camera is never dull. But long scenes in classes and teacher conferences makes the work less than exciting and shaky camera work, to emulate the feel of a documentary, does not help.

Time Crimes (Spain, Dir: Nacho Vigalondo) A little mind-teaser of a film that works nicely, at least for a while. A man stumbles into a series of accidents that are, in fact, created by multiple versions of himself, having traveled back briefly in time. His effort to eliminate other versions of himself, with the reluctant help of a lab techinician who got the whole mess rolling in the first place, is more of a puzzle that’s missing pieces than it is a fully-fledged film. But it does bring up some intriguing possibilities in the genre of time travel stories and might well please die-hard science fiction fanatics.

The Higher Force (Iceland, Dir: Olaf de Fleur Johannesson) We begin with an amusing premise, an incompetent mob bagman in Iceland who pretends he knows a powerful mobster, in actuality, a man who years before accidentally killed his brother in an auto accident But The Higher Force runs out of steam and ends with an uncertain flourish. Along the way, there are a number of laughs, including ridiculous clothes, absurdly fractured pidgin English and a self-motivation tape that never really helps the incompents in the story. Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos fame makes an out-of-left-field appearance as—what else—a mobster. What’s criminal is that Johannesson and his two co-scripters couldn’t keep the fun and twists going for more than half of the film.