Film Scouts Diaries

1996 New Directors/New Films Festival Diaries
New Directors, New Films

by Kathleen Carroll

March 25, 1996

Who are the bright young hopes of the international film world? Of the hundreds of eager first-time directors who shows the most promise? The answers to these questions are likely to be found at New Directors/New Films. For the annual film series, which is being presented at the Museum of Modern Art through April 7, is considered a prime showcase for budding talent.

The program, which is co-sponsored by The Film Society of Lincoln Center, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. In that time it has helped to launch the careers of such directors as Whit Stillman whose charming comedy of upper-class manners, METROPOLITAN, instantly captivated the audience at a New Directors screening.

It's true the selection committee, which is composed of the curatorial staffs of MOMA and the Film Society, does not always appear to choose wisely. This year committee members looked at over 300 films before whittling down their list to 21 presentations. Just why they chose certain films remains a mystery.

HEARTBREAK ISLAND, for example, tells in gloomy detail the story of a young political activist who, upon leaving prison, discovers that her fellow radical and former lover has become a married yuppie who's enjoying the economic prosperity of present day Taiwan. Unfortunately director Hsu Hsiao Ming lacks the verve of his fellow countryman director Ang Lee. His insistence upon filming nearly every move of his morose, single-minded heroine soon exhausts the audience's patience.

Then there's Christopher Munch's COLOR OF A BRISK AND LEAPING DAY. It's easy to see why it won the cinematography award at Sundance this year in that its black-and-white Ansel Adams-like shots of the Yosemite Valley are truly arresting. But the stilted dialogue and monotone acting leave one feeling totally detached from the story of a young Chinese American who attempts to revive an abandoned railroad.

By contrast Karim Dridi's BYE BYE is full of emotional intensity and it succeeds in capturing the volatile atmosphere of the French port city of Marseilles as it is experienced by two sons of North African immigrants. Ismael, the oldest boy, is continuously brooding over some tragic family accident which Dridi fails to fully explain.

Ireland's Gerard Stembridge shows obvious potential in GUILTRIP, a gripping study of marital abuse. Andrew Connelly displays chilling detachment as a smoldering Army corporal who issues daily marching orders to his browbeaten wife, played appealingly by Jasmine Russell. The husband, however, is such a one-note villain that the film turns into just a basic TV melodrama.

There were some outstanding selections. Argentine director Marceloi Pineyro displays both wit and originality in the exhilarating WILD HORSES. It's full of unexpected twists as a Buenos Aires yuppie and a world-weary ex-anarchist bolt for the wilds of Patagonia only to find themselves transformed into media folk heroes.

Written and directed by Fernando Perez MADAGASCAR uses magic-realism to reveal the stagnant atmosphere of Castro's Cuba. It poignantly examines the inner feelings of a successful college professor whose sense of contentment is shattered when her teenage daughter insists upon dropping out of school.

Nicole Holofcener's WALKING AND TALKING explores the reactions of two women whose friendship is threatened when one of them becomes engaged. The material may be sketchy but the dialogue is up-to-date and quite amusing. Leading ladies Catherine Keener and Anne Heche are also delightfully natural.

Actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott are the co-directors of a delicious treat- BIG NIGHT. Tucci and Tony Shalhoub both endear themselves as two brothers trying to introduce the more refined Northern Italian cuisine to spaghetti-and-meatball loving Americans in the '50's. The climatic parade of exquisitely prepared Italian dishes is as triumphant and mouth-watering as a similar celebration of the art of cooking in BABETTE'S FEAST.

WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE is a devilishly funny pitch-black comedy that gleefully exposes the extreme cruelty of adolescents. Played hilariously by Heather Matarazzo the bespectacled poker-face Dawn Wiener (or Wiener-dog as she's known around school) is subjected to the constant insults of her classmate. Worse still she's stuck with a pretty little sister whose compulsive ballet practicing only a mother could love.

Lili Taylor is totally compelling as the self-consumed Valerie Solanas, the increasingly paranoid heroine of Mary Harron's I SHOT ANDY WARHOL. As Solanas befriends the terminally vague Warhol Harron succeeds in recreating the giddy, druggy world of the late pop artist and his hangers-on. Stephen Dorff is especially effective as Candy Darling, one of Warhol's manufactured stars.

PARADISE LOST: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is easily the most fascinating and provocative film of the lot. This time the creators of BROTHERS KEEPER, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, examine in disturbing detail the savage Arkansas murder of three eight year old boys and the subsequent trials of their accused murderers. The result is an emotionally shattering depiction of small-town America. The film is deliberately ambiguous, forcing the viewer to decide whether the accused teenagers were simply the victims of a modern day Salem witch-hunt or whether they are truly guilty.

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