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It feels absurd to call this day two. I’ve just sent in my stuff for day one, which probably isn’t yet on the site as I write this. And four hours sleep doesn’t really give today the right to call itself different from yesterday. So far, though, I don’t care at all. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that my first film today is one I’ve really been waiting for over the last few years.

I’ve already begun to see patterns in the films I’ve seen, all of which were chosen (as far as I can tell) at random. Before even getting to the thematic stuff, I’ve seen three films with prominent empty swimming pools, two in which action takes place on a darkened stage with only the roughest of scenery, but only one with a horse on fire. I’m hoping for more of those, not that I have anything against horses. I’ll get to the consistent themes later.

[Denmark; Lars von Trier]

Seems like I always see my favorite film of the festival in the first few days. This year, I predict the seventh film I watched will remain a favorite until the end. The new movie from Lars von Trier is the second part of his America trilogy, and it attacks the subjects of race and class with a ferocity and inquisitiveness only hinted at in Dogville. It’s great and memorable, in different ways from the film that leads into it.

As a sequel, Manderlay doesn’t entirely measure up to its predecessor. It’s less raw and intimate, and too many members of the broad cast go unused. Chloe Sevingy is little more than an extra. (For some, that’s a selling point.) Trier often keeps a curious distance from the cast, and though Danny Glover is remarkable, he doesn’t get the screen time given Isaach de Bankole, who at least is equally good.

But it’s also more funny than Dogville, and therefore easier to watch even when events turn particularly dire. The stark stage setting is less alien, which allows Trier to explore it differently and to more subtle effect. And while I felt like Dogville was nebulously addressing the personality of America, this film gets right to the point.

At first, that makes it seem incredibly naïve. The heroine Grace, having fled Colorado with her gangster family, arrives at an Alabama plantation called Manderlay. It’s 1933, but the inhabitants still keep slaves, and Grace takes it upon herself to set the situation right. What follows won’t surprise Dogville veterans, at least in theory. But Trier clearly comes to American race relations as a complete outsider, and he pokes and prods the subject in ways that few American storytellers would dare.

Some of the film’s innocence comes straight from Bryce Dallas Howard, who is a younger, fresher Grace than Nicole Kidman. She lacks Kidman’s frost and steely gaze, which at first makes her seem too soft. Howard’s performance doesn’t come close to matching Kidman’s, because little can. But she does make the character her own, and while the ensuing film doesn’t have the strong ensemble work of Dogville, it’s a far gutsier, more interesting movie.

James Caan has also been replaced, by Willem Dafoe. I admit I believe Caan is better suited to the part. But since this film paradoxically steps forward chronologically while shaving years off the relationship between Grace and her father, the less gruff Dafoe is well paired with Howard’s Grace.

I won’t reveal any more of the movie’s plot, but I’ll give this much away: the credits roll over a collection of photos representing slavery, racism and social oppression as Trier once again blares David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ – cultural imperialism in the form of blue-eyed soul — over the slideshow. The track seemed odd and almost precious at the end of Dogville, but here it’s like a bullet, and I loved it.

 The Shore
[USA; Dionysius Zervos]

I have a real affinity for films in the vein of Picnic at Hanging Rock, so The Shore, in which a family is shaken when their young granddaughter disappears into the sea, seemed like a solid bet. But whereas Manderlay is an early candidate for best in show, The Shore so far holds down the award for worst.

As the girl’s mother, Kaliope Harris, Izabelle Miko seems to be on board strictly for her looks. (Zervos seems to have cast many extras based solely on attractiveness.) Lesley Ann Warren is handed a difficult role as the grandmother in denial, and she never goes anywhere with it, at least not anywhere I was able to accept.

I think I was meant to long for the girl’s return, and to feel the void left within Kaliope and Mrs. Harris. But I didn’t. Everything seemed wrong to me, and not because the film suggested this is a mysterious and dangerous world.

There’s a strange tough-guy undercurrent courtesy of the grandfather, a similarly adrift Ben Gazarra, and far too many shots of the sea that look as if shot by a tourist. Instead of mystery we get trite. The directorial hand of Zervos is shaky and uncertain, and he doesn’t have the instinct to push into the scenario, instead willing the basic dread of losing a child to take over. It never does.

Apparently Zervos plans this debut feature as the first chapter of a trilogy, which is exceedingly ambitious. (Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy is invoked in the festival blurb.) I can’t say that I’ve got any interest in seeing where the next chapter goes.

 Winter Passing
[USA; Adam Rapp]

Lemme get this out of the way. It’s Elf 2: No More Toys!

OK, maybe not. But when I staggered out of The Shore looking for something, anything, I ended up here. Maybe it was just Zooey Deschanel’s character, a brittle and alienated New Yorker, but I kept thinking of Pieces of April. The difference being that, Clarkson and Platt aside I really disliked April, while I generally liked this dysfunctional family portrait.

Deschanel is Reese, an aspiring actress trying desperately to forget her parents, both literary superstars. She failed to attend her mother’s recent funeral, and has totally lost touch with her father, the reclusive Don Holden. Both Reese and Don are recluses; she hides in the East Village behind old mail polish and a drug habit while he’s moved into the family garage back in Michigan.

When Reese returns home after being prodded by an intrusive literary agent, she sees how far her father has slipped. She also finds that he’s accumulated a surrogate family. The house has been ceded to Corbit, a former Christian rocker, and Shelly, a former grad student of Don’s who has taken over care of the old man since his wife’s death.

A chief attraction of Winter Passing is Ed Harris, who as Don wears a wispy, yellowing wig and staggers around the house. But those aspects of physical performance are wholly integrated into his characterization of Don, who quickly becomes the emotional center of the movie. Will Ferrell is funny, but not too intrusive as Corbit, even in the character’s most outrageous moments. Corbit’s low-key lunacy still doesn’t pull the film too far into new territory, but thanks to Harris and Deschanel, I was willing to let the familiar have it’s way.

 I Am The Angel of Death: Pusher III
[Denmark; Nicolas Winding Refn]

The first Pusher film appeared in Denmark in the late ’90s. Episodes two and three are dated 2004 and 2005, and the festival is running the entire trilogy. Actually, I’d planned to christen today Depressing Danish Movie Day, as I figured I’d begin with Manderlay and then move through the entire Pusher series in order. But Lars ran long, so I missed the first half hour of the opening feature, only to return later for the third episode.

The trilogy tells the interlocked stories of several characters connected within the Copenhagen drug trade. This film is certainly a linguist’s dream, with dialogue in Danish, Serbian, Macedonian, Algerian, Polish and English. The focus lies on Milo, an aging dealer trying to kick his narcotic addictions. My introduction to him was through an episode in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, though that scene seems designed to get a laugh from people who know Milo through earlier films.

Between kicking dope, dealing, running a club and cooking for the 50 guests at his daughter’s 25th birthday, Milo is a little distracted. Any other day he might be on top of his game, but this one isn’t so rosy. So a bad dope deal leads to a dodgy ecstasy sale, which creates…well, you get the point. He makes it all the way to sexual slavery and dismemberment before the night is out. The film draws tighter and tighter around Milo as his actions, which always seem like the best choice at the time, slowly back him into a corner.

I’ve been told that this is the least of the three, as it dwells more on the surface than the previous two films. (Supposedly the second is tops. I caught the last five minutes, and the ending dedication to Hubert Selby, Jr. was enough to spark my interest.) If nothing else, Pusher III is at least a competent and ultimately gruesome crime flick, a sort of Dogme Criminal. It’s also darkly funny, with great material mined from the conversations of drug lords who can’t speak the same language.

It does suffer, however, from an over-attention to superficial detail. We’re treated to a numbing account of Milo’s party preparations, but precious little of his strained status as patriarch. We know that he might be getting old, losing it a bit, but the true ramifications aren’t explored. Instead, in the one day described within, Pusher III is satisfied satisfies most desires of the crime fan. Even better, I’m now primed to see the other two films, which might cover many other bases as well.

 The President’s Last Bang
[South Korea; Im Sang-soo]

Dave Davis must see this movie, if only because the first shot will live in his dreams for the rest of the year. But this is an important movie, so after that statement no more indulgence of Davis’s predilections will be allowed. No, really.

In 1979, President Park Chung-hee of South Korea was assassinated. This film recreates the event in lavish detail. Beginning as the chief agent of the KCIA recruits girls from a brothel for presidential entertainment, the film traces the discord among cabinet members and advisors that led to a massacre within the presidential retreat. The political situation is complex, but The President’s Last Bang navigates the landscape with fluid ease, smartly introducing each character and ensuring that the audience is able to follow along.

The events may be gravely important, but the film is crafted with liberal splashes of comedy. At times it resembles a heist flick as the procedural elements of assassinating a head of state take over. Touches of romantic comedy even intrude as the girls hired to entertain the president are given a few featured moments. And when the violence comes around, Im Sang-soo doesn’t shrink from it as blood soaks the floors under fallen bodies. These disparate elements combine to create a violent political satire, and a strange look back at a galvanizing event.

 Banlieue 13
[France; Pierre Morel]

What do you get when you mix Ong Bak, Luc Besson and some mad John Carpenter love? This is the answer, a fast and hyper-kinetic French action flick co-written and produced by Besson.

The Carpenter influence is pretty obvious: Paris of the near future has been overrun by crime, so the city has walled in the most decrepit neighborhoods. The worst area is Banlieue 13, in which Taha (Bibi Naceri), a powerful crime lord, is opposed by an idealistic badass called Leito (David Belle). After one conflict between the two ends with Leito imprisoned, the police recruit him to recover a bomb stolen by Taha which could wipe out the entire district.

David Belle began his career as a street performer, and is credited with creating parkour, a violently fluid sport in which leaping, climbing and running through obstacles is done with inhuman agility. Belle is incredible to watch, and that’s where the Ong Bak elements creep in; he bounces off walls and leaps through windows as if inhabited by the spirit of Tony Jaa. But without Thai kickboxing abilities to rely on in a fight, he pursues unusual and improvised resolutions to the most dangerous battles.

Paired with Belle is Cyril Raffaelli, who as undercover cop Damien provides a load of serious martial arts. Raffaelli is a powerhouse, and there are plenty of wide shots of him flying through the air before landing on an opponent’s head.

The overall tone is more like the Transporter films than Besson’s other action output, which works perfectly well. Once you get beyond the overt social moralizing that frequently crops up, the action is original and heavy enough to make 85 minutes fly. Ultimately, I had a good time with B13, but would have loved more crazy acrobatics. Despite some proclamations, it just isn’t Ong Bak. But then, what is?

And now I sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a little lighter, I think. After Manderlay, I sorta wanted to take several hours off to think about it, and that’s likely what I’ll do after I see A History Of Violence at 8:30AM. (If only I’d been able to hit that Atlanta screening!) Since I my half-hearted attempt to get into the Tideland premiere today was unsuccessful (I really wanted to see The President’s Last Bang, anyway) I’ll see that a few hours after Cronenberg and then maybe catch Revolver or something I know nothing about, depending upon how perverse I’m feeling. And feeling perverse would drive me to the Guy Ritchie movie, not away from it, for those keeping score.

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