By Stephen Holden
New Directors/New Films Festival Reviews
Published: March 24, 2006
The designation "new" in the New Directors/New Films series suggests not only emerging talent but also fresh perspectives on the social and political pressures of the modern world. One of the best films, "Quinceañera," examines Mexican-American assimilation in a Los Angeles neighborhood during a real estate boom. A much bleaker view of cultural dislocation is presented in "Man Push Cart," a portrait of a Pakistani immigrant in New York. The fact that three movies having their first New Directors screenings this weekend — "Quinceañera," "A Soap" and "Eleven Men Out" — have gay and transgender themes suggests that these issues are not about to lose their currency. STEPHEN HOLDEN
Directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy
6 p.m. today, Walter Reade Theater; 3 p.m. tomorrow, Museum of Modern Art
"Mime" may have become the most dreaded word in the English language, but in France and Francophone Belgium, where this film is set, the tradition of stylized physical comedy remains, if not roaringly robust, at least vital enough to produce a few chuckles.
"L'Iceberg" is the work of the Canadian-born Fiona Gordon — a tall, rawboned redhead — and her Belgian partner, the slight, self-contained Dominique Abel. Collaborating with a French maker of short films, Bruno Romy, they have directed themselves in this little fable of love lost and regained, played out with minimal dialogue and in elaborate long takes.
Ms. Gordon is the manager of a burger franchise that seems to be called simply Fast Food. By accident, she locks herself in the freezer overnight and is horrified to discover, after her workers find her and she returns home, that neither her husband (Mr. Abel) nor her children have noticed her absence. Seeking the solace of cold temperatures, she runs away to a small village on the Atlantic shore, where she tries to convince a local lobster harvester (Philippe Martz) to take her away in his boat ("Le Titanique") so she can commune with an iceberg in the North Sea. Her husband follows, turning up at comically inopportune moments as the film drifts along with amiable abandon. DAVE KEHR
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
6 p.m. tonight, Museum of Modern Art; 9 p.m. tomorrow, Walter Reade Theater
A serious comedy set in Echo Park, Los Angeles, a largely Mexican-American neighborhood in the throes of gentrification, "Quinceañera" exhibits such stalwart faith that its troubled characters will prevail that its underlying bleakness is largely camouflaged.
It follows Magdalena (Emily Rios), an attractive teenager anticipating her quinceañera, the traditional 15th-birthday celebration marking a Hispanic girl's passage into womanhood. When Magdalena, a virgin, becomes pregnant by her boyfriend in a rare instance of nonpenetrative sex, she is thrown out of the house by her father and goes to live with her great-uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzáles), a life-loving 80-something street vendor of champurrado (a popular Mexican hot drink). Already staying with him is Magdalena's hotheaded cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia). A scrappy semi-thug also exiled by his family, Carlos, who is gay, has a dead-end job at a carwash but fantasizes about working in television production.
The filmmakers have described "Quinceañera" (this year's grand prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival) as kitchen-sink realism in the tradition of British working-class dramas of the late 1950's and 60's. And it is, except that the suffocating atmosphere of despair and social stagnation of classic kitchen-sink dramas like "A Taste of Honey" (which the directors cite as an inspiration) is replaced by a spirit of hope and the optimistic portrayal of ethnic assimilation in the land of opportunity. STEPHEN HOLDEN
Directed by Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana
8:30 p.m. tonight, Museum of Modern Art; 3 p.m. Sunday, Walter Reade Theater
Made on a microscopic budget by a pair of Filipino-Americans, Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana, "Cavite" ingeniously turns a Hollywood action movie premise into a report on the Philippines and the social and religious divisions that continue to roil the country.
Mr. Gamazon plays the central character, Adam — a slightly chubby, passive young man who works as a security guard in San Diego. Cut to Aquino International Airport in Manila, where Adam is expecting to be picked up by his mother and sister. Instead, he receives a cellphone call from a mysterious stranger, who claims to be holding Adam's family and orders the young man on a forced tour of Manila's slums (Cavite is one of the city's most desperate suburbs) and squatters' camps. As Adam hustles from checkpoint to checkpoint in a sweaty panic, the caller reveals himself as a member of the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf, and orders the soft, Americanized Adam to perform an act of appalling violence.
Shooting with a lightweight video camera, Mr. Dela Llana and Mr. Gamazon get into some locations that haven't been seen in the West since Lino Brocka's provocative, politicized Philippine melodramas of the 70's and 80's. DAVE KEHR
Directed by Amat Escalante
5:45 p.m. tomorrow, Museum of Modern Art; 8:15 p.m. Sunday, Walter Reade Theater
A film that puts the lump in lumpen proletariat, "Sangre" seeks to take the measure of the world and its modern discontents, mostly by blotting out its characters' humanity with self-conscious technique.
Diego (Cirilo Recio) works as a guard in a government building in Mexico City and lives with his abusive wife, Blanca (Laura Saldaña), a fast-food hireling. Quiet as stunned cows, the two spend most of their off-hours watching telenovelas, occasionally engaging in coitus bleak enough to serve the cause of high-school abstinence. One day something (bad) happens and it all leads to a massive dump on which actual cows gaze into the camera, an image that the writer and director Amat Escalante probably hopes holds an accusatory mirror up to the rest of us cud chewers.
Like Carlos Reygadas's far superior, somewhat similar "Battle in Heaven" (on which Mr. Escalante worked as an assistant director), this aesthetically ambitious attempt to get under the skin of ordinary people could not be more radically disengaged from its subject. Mr. Escalante arranges his lumps nicely on his wide-screen canvas but without kindness. "Sangre" is playing with a short film called, rather fittingly, "The Last Farm." MANOHLA DARGIS
Man Push Cart
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
6:30 p.m. tomorrow, Walter Reade Theater; 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Museum of Modern Art
The murky neorealist film "Man Push Cart" follows the grueling routine of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani immigrant who rises before dawn to stock his metal pushcart with coffee, bagels and doughnuts, which he tows by hand to a Midtown Manhattan street corner overlooked by the imperial spire of the Chrysler Building. As a sideline he deals in bootleg pornographic DVD's. A former pop star in his homeland, Ahmad recently lost his wife and now lives in Brooklyn. Exactly why he immigrated to America is never clearly spelled out, but he occupies a tiny Brooklyn apartment too small to house his young son who lives with his hostile in-laws.
Some financial relief appears when Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a slippery Pakistani businessman, offers Ahmad work fixing up his new apartment, along with empty promises to help him resurrect his musical career. A casual relationship with Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a Spanish woman temporarily working at her family's newsstand, develops into a tentative romance. But opportunities are only straws in the wind.
In its hard, gritty vision of New York life at street level, the movie aspires to be an American-South Asian "Bicycle Thief"; it's two-thirds successful. STEPHEN HOLDEN
Directed by Pernille Fischer Christensen
8:30 p.m. tomorrow, the Museum of Modern Art; 6 p.m. Monday, Walter Reade Theater
The director of "A Soap," an obvious admirer of the Danish renegade filmmaker Lars von Trier, recycles the same device Mr. von Trier employs in "Dogville" and "Manderlay" by using a narrator's supercilious commentary as emotional armor against accusations of mawkishness. Well acted, "A Soap" follows the developing friendship between Charlotte (Trine Dyrholm), an angry 32-year-old who has walked out on her abusive boyfriend to live by herself, and her drippy upstairs neighbor, Veronica (David Dencik), a preoperative transsexual. Supporting himself as a prostitute while awaiting approval for his surgery, Veronica is addicted to a trashy American soap opera. The persuasive performances almost make you believe the tentative sexual attraction between these two floundering souls: almost but not quite. STEPHEN HOLDEN
Eleven Men Out
Directed by Robert I. Douglas
6 p.m. Sunday, Museum of Modern Art; 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Walter Reade Theater
The ramshackle, hysterically pitched comedy "Eleven Men Out" observes the chaos that follows when Ottar (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), a handsome Icelandic soccer star, impulsively announces to a reporter that he is gay. The news makes the owner of his team apoplectic and Ottar's teammates nervous in his presence. His parents, his alcoholic ex-wife (a former Miss Iceland) and his adolescent son erupt with embarrassment and disbelief, thinking only of themselves.
Once out of the closet, Ottar declines an offer to join a gay amateur soccer team. When tempers cool, he is invited back by his old team, but agrees to return only if it will play a match with the gay team. The not-very-funny movie covers some very well-trod turf.