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The Sweetness of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A lovely post-punk lark with one foot in ’80s ironic-indieland and the other in Iran, Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut could become a totem for a hipster world mad for jukebox funkiness, vampires, and gender-politics righteousness.

It’s got all the gumballs, from the shadowy-retro black-and-white HD to an all-Persian (or Persian American) soundtrack that travels from rockabilly to spaghetti western. That it’s set in an underpopulated comic-book “Iran” (shot in the San Joaquin Valley), where everybody speaks Farsi but seems lost in an old Aki Kaurismäki movie anyway, just peppers the stew.

Story propulsion takes a backseat to archness, but that won’t bother some of us, for whom a feminist-vampire diss of Shariah norms is long overdue. We’re in Bad City, a desolate metropolis thick with vice, pumping oil rigs, and hanging out. Amid a web of desperate lives, The Girl (Sheila Vand), a saucer-eyed waif in a bob and a black chador, preys on various dirtbag men and gets unexpectedly wooed by a good-hearted but clueless boy (Arash Marandi).

Drowsily paced, the film spins its wheels for sizable swatches but regularly blooms into poetic kitsch, especially once The Girl sheds her signature cloak in her disco-ball flat and rocks out. In the end, this morphing of ideas and styles is more deadpan romantic than sociocritical, and sweeter for it.

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Snowman’s Land

The real star of Snowman’s Land isn’t an actor. It’s the German forest, captured during a particularly cold winter. Most of the film takes place at a remote mansion surrounded by vast expanses of snow and trees. You can almost feel the theater’s temperature drop when the characters step outside. (Too bad the cinematography is DV rather than 35mm!) Unfortunately, the images are more inviting than the narrative. Snowman’s Land evokes recent Scandinavian thrillers like Headhunters, but Thomson seems to have a particular love for ’90s neo-noir. He also apes the deadpan-hip attitude of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki, but leaves out the implicit liberal politics. Even the title, a play on the phrase “no man’s land,” is secondhand. Hitman Walter (Jürgen Rißmann) heads to his boss Berger’s (Reiner Schöne) house, where his friend Micky (Thomas Wodianka) is already staying, after screwing up a job. Micky is attracted to Berger’s wife, Sybille (Eva-Katrin Hermann), but this puts both men in danger. Although Walter never gets stoned on camera, he seems more spaced-out than Tommy Chong, but he eventually comes to look smarter than anyone else. Sybille is defined entirely by her voracious appetite for sex and drugs—she synthesizes psychedelic aphrodisiacs in her spare time—and there’s a tinge of misogyny to the way she’s used as a disposable prop. If Snowman’s Land feels disturbingly cold, it’s not entirely due to its vistas of ice and snow.

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Leningrad Cowboys Go America

Dir. Aki Käurismaki (1989).
Played by the Finnish ensemble Sleepy Sleepers, the “worst rock n roll band in the world” tours the US. It’s pretty much a one-joke movie (two if you count the band’s alarming, pointed Woody Woodpecker pompadours), but the joke is a good one.

Fridays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Nov. 11. Continues through Nov. 13, 2011

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Dream Act: Town Rallies to Help an Immigrant in Utopian Le Havre

Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is something of a comeback for the Finnish filmmaker. His warmhearted comedy of underdog working-class solidarity, made with a mixed Finnish-French-Senegalese cast in the French port city Le Havre, was the most warmly received movie—at least by the press—shown last May in Cannes.

The French setting seems to have leavened Kaurismäki’s morose humor. Le Havre (which means “the haven” in French) envisions a new, post-communist international—it might have been made for the IWW, if not the occupants of Zuccotti Park. The movie’s pointedly named protagonist Marcel Marx (André Wilms) is a middle-aged shoe-shine boy with a weathered, noble profile, an upstanding wife Arletty (Kaurismäki favorite Kati Outinen), a faithful dog (named Laïka after the pioneering canine cosmonaut), a natural belief in fraternité, and a mystical sense of calling. Shining shoes, per Marcel, is the profession “closest to the people and the last to respect the Sermon on the Mount.” (This second claim seems as open to interpretation as the sermon itself.)

Marcel’s opportunity for comradely action comes when he meets a young Senegalese boy (Blondin Miguel), who was separated from his stowaway family en route to London and is being sought by the French authorities as an illegal alien. Despite the complication of Arletty’s terminal illness, the snooping of grim-faced inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), and the machinations of the neighborhood snitch (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Marcel is able rally the denizens of Le Havre’s old fishermen’s quarter to the boy’s aid, complete with a “trendy charity concert” (featuring the local Elvis, venerable French rock ’n’ roller Little Bob). Miracles may occur, and even the seemingly sinister Monet might turn out to be salt of the earth. Kaurismäki has dryly characterized Le Havre as “anyhow unrealistic.”

However downbeat, Kaurismäki’s films have always shown a strong sentimental streak, and Le Havre’s ending is contrived to give the audience exactly what it wants, without irony—and, providing minds are engaged along with feelings, they’ll know it. “The loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion,” Theodor Adorno wrote of Kafka’s Amerika—an immigrant saga that Kaurismäki pointedly cites in the movie. So too this evocation of Europe’s refugee problem; Le Havre is utopian precisely because it shows everything as it is not.

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Ariel

Dir. Aki Kaurismäki (1988).
A laid-off Lapland miner drives to Helsinki in his white Cadillac convertible, teams up with a hard cookie and falls into a life of crime. Although not without sentimentality, Kaurismaki’s deadpan visual humor, ballad-like compression, and ravishingly shot derelict landscapes give the film a lyricism as touching as it is bleak.

Fridays-Sundays. Starts: Oct. 14. Continues through Oct. 16, 2011

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Le Havre

Dir. Aki Kaurismäki (2011).
Aki Kaurismäki’s warmhearted comedy of international working-class solidarity made in the French port city Le Havre with a mixed Finnish-French-Senegalese cast is a utopian evocation of Europe’s refugee problem that brilliantly expresses the director’s pessimism by showing everything as it is not.

Sun., Oct. 2, 7 p.m.; Mon., Oct. 3, 9 p.m., 2011

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Lingering Pauses of Lake Tahoe Must Be 10 Months Pregnant

Coming down from the Saturday sugar rush of his 2006 comedy Duck Season, Mexican auteur Fernando Eimbcke’s lovely, Yucatán-set dramedy drifts by on a similar deadpan wave of static vignettes and lingering pauses that must be 10 months pregnant. Eimbcke’s droll rhythms are reminiscent of early Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki—here stylistically appropriate for a film about social and emotional inertia. After downcast teen Juan (Diego Cataño) crashes the family Nissan into a telephone pole—the accident heard but not seen until after impact—he somberly ambles across the expansive, solitary desert in search of a needed auto part. He seeks help from a mistrustful old mechanic who shares behavior with his oddly anthropomorphic dog, a too-young mother with punk-rock ambitions, and a martial arts obsessive more interested in Shaolin badasses than in fixing cars. Through Juan’s encounters with such eccentrics, and eventually his own family, the reasons for his melancholy emerge—waves of heartbreak in what appear to be calm waters.

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Knocking Down the Tower of Babel

In Martín Boulocq’s The Most Beautiful of My Very Best Years, Victor (Roberto Guilhon) tries to force Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels onto a Cochabamba video store’s clientele. “Dude, who’s gonna buy a Chinese flick unless it has fights and kung fu?” one man winces. Maybe Aki Kaurismäki? “Dude, what do we know about Finland here in Bolivia?” says the same guy, before his ears perk up at the promise of Devastating Penetration Due to the Caliber of the Beast. The clerk’s struggle to enlighten his customers is flippant, but it’s also the struggle of this year’s Latinbeat festival, and of the filmmakers trying to break through—or defy—what’s considered fashionable in Latin-American filmmaking: the Amores Perros Model (otherwise known as “Mi Casa Looks Like Tarantino’s
Casa”).

The notion that no films worth seeing came out of Mexico between the time of Buñuel’s return to Europe and the release of Amores Perros is the same casual racism that inspired the popular media to dub Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón “the Three Amigos” and put Gael García Bernal’s unconventional Mexican mug on the cover of fashion glossies. Food for corrective thought, this year’s Latinbeat sidebar—a tribute to four breakthroughs from Mexico’s New Cinema—is one part reality check and three parts wish fulfillment, recognizing as it does the popular impact of Amores Perros but also fancying an alternate universe where the comparably less chic cultural visions of Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Season), Carlos Reygadas (Japón), and Maryse Sistach (Violet Perfume) command similar attention and wield the same influence.

Though the Film Society of Lincoln Center prides itself on giving a home to distinctly un-Babel-ish portraits of Latin- American crisis and endurance, this year’s program is not without its populist pandering. Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon stars Kate del Castillo as a Mexican illegal doing Crash--style cleaning duty in the home of a ghoulish Angeleno. Back in Mexico, her young son Carlitos (Eugenio Derbez) hitches a ride into the States under the backseat of a tuition-starved America Ferrara’s van, soothing the savage heart of the Mexican illegal who accompanies him on the preposterous road trip from Texas to California and trivializing immigrant dreams.

More grueling is García Bernal’s Deficit, the sort of indulgent lark we might expect from an actor with time and money to burn, but not from one of González Iñárritu’s and Walter Salles’s disciples. Beware, McCarren hipsters: This travesty of Soderberghian proportions may forever turn you off to pool parties.

Consider, then, the documentaries Soy Andina and My Grandmother Has a Video Camera as necessary palate cleansers—the former a quaint portrait of two women reclaiming their ethnic Peruvian heritage (see Tania Hermida’s How Much Further for its fictional analogue), the latter an insightful chronicle of a family’s cross-cultural disillusionment, told through the moving images that a Brazilian filmmaker and her avó photographed during their many years in America.

You can see Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan drollery in both Duck Season and Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella’s Whisky, but the latter’s portrait of middle-class Uruguayan disaffection exudes a homegrown personality and humane tenderness that are uniquely its own. Marta (Mirella Pascual), a woman whose repeated invocations of God’s will points to a deep-rooted sense of emotional resignation, accepts her employer’s request to play house when his more charming brother comes to town in order to tend to their mother’s tombstone. Suggesting a generation’s death throe, the storyculminates in a bittersweet act of rebellion made all the more wrenching in light of Rebella’s suicide last year.

Argentina continues to bogart the Latinbeat lineup this year with a series of alternately cerebral and flashy sociopolitical and gender studies. But it is Brazil that reigns supreme. Sandra Kogut’s Mutum tips its campesino hat to Cinema Novo legend Nelson Pereira dos Santos, fixing lucid light on the brutal distress that the poverty of Brazil’s Sertão region inflicts on a young boy and his family. Elegiac and playful in equal measure, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Fish Dreams is a more immaculate immersion in Latin-American experience, casually enthralled with a young man’s daily grind—fishing, drinking, cocooning from the world in love-struck melancholy. In his poignant vision of a village’s fragile subsistence, Mikhanovsky expresses unease at the global forces that threaten such unspoiled land (the film builds to the disposal of a ginormous television set that lulls everyone into submission). This is, after all, the kind of paradise gringos go crazy for.

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Lights in the Dusk

Lights in the Dusk derives scant excitement from its melodramatic plot, which satisfies a dismal, ineluctable formula with stultifying efficiency. Nor is it enlivened by the airless performances, which have been shorn of gesture, deprived of expressive language, and flattened against an overall flatness of affect. No, this stunted little parable generates a glimmer of interest, in its oppressive way, from the tragicomic struggle of any expressive impulse to assert itself against the tyrannical mannerisms of Aki Kaurismäki. In other words, Finland’s reigning poet of deadpan minimalism has found no reason to alter the style of laconic, low-rent, beatnik miserablism he perfected in the 1990s. Delectation of cinematography aside—the picture carefully realizes the visual idea of its title—Kaurismäki has given us no special reason to revisit his coy, claustrophobic universe. Completing a trilogy on “loneliness” that includes Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002), Lights maneuvers a taciturn security guard (Janne Hyytiäinen) into a cruel geometry of betrayal arranged by a Russian moll (Maria Järvenhelmi). Sadder yet, Kaurismäki has invited all of his pets (vintage cars, thrift-store production design, retro rock bands, glum proletariat eateries), all of which ought to be put down.

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Bored and Fjord: Series Looks at Finnish Doldrums

The title “Filmland” suggests a low-output day at the punning factory, but this would-be witticism carries a polemical edge. Overshadowed by its neighbors both east (Russia) and west (Sweden), Finland is mainly known to American filmgoers for the deadpan stylings of Aki Kaurismäki. BAM’s series aims to showcase the country as a more diverse cinematic resource. Perhaps to emphasize this movieland’s marginalization, “Filmland” opens with Screaming Men (2003), a minor, half-Danish documentary produced by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa company. Men follows an all-male choir whose members bellow and shriek instead of singing. Membership is so swollen that auditions now resemble hazing rituals. Why join? In the industrial city of Oulu, there’s little else to do.

If the selection has a recurring theme, it’s that of chronic boredom interrupted. A plodding shaggy-dog tale mislabeled as Hitchcockian, My Friend Henry (2004) tells a story of a mischievous girl and her possibly imaginary friend that pivots on unacknowledged middle-class ennui. In the hopeful agitprop Eila (2003), an apathetic cleaning woman half-thinkingly breaks a picket line, then develops a political conscience after losing her job. The mawkish Pearls and Pigs (2003) plunges four brothers into a world of adult responsibility, pressing them to care for (and exploit?) their angel-voiced half-sister when their father is thrown in jail. Social awakening of a different sort occurs in Seven Songs From the Tundra (2000), a sensationally shot anthology about the Nenet of northern Russia. In its patient ethnographic observation, the picture begs comparison with The Fast Runner, but it departs from the Inuit film by portraying an ancient culture colliding with modernity; in a particularly bleak sequence, a Nenet man doesn’t comprehend why he’s obliged to donate his reindeer to traveling Leninists. It’s a powerful incident that implies an inevitability of cross-cultural connections.