Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The week's most adventurous films

Neither "$9.99" nor "Tulpan" likely will cause major explosions in the marketplace this weekend. But both films -- "9.99" at the Esquire and "Tulpan" at the Starz FilmCenteer'' -- are daring, albeit in entirely different ways.

Of the two films, I'd say that "Tulpan" is both more significant and more interesting. While "9.99" -- a stop-action animated film -- does some philosophical naval gazing, "Tulpan" takes us onto the steppes of Kazakhstan, where sheep herders endure harsh, isolated conditions.

On top of that, "Tulpan" -- the story of a young man who aspires to tend his own flock -- portrays life as it's actually lived by incredibly tough nomadic people who occupy the flat, uninviting terrain of the steppes. Put it this way: I doubt you'll be planning your next vacation on the steppes, assuming you can afford to plan a next vacation to anywhere.

In "Tulpan," director Sergey Dvortsevoy focuses on Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), a young man who recently has been discharged from the Navy. Upon arriving back on the steppes, Asa moves in with his sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova) and her husband Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov). Asa aspires to raise a family and tend sheep, but he has a problem. The only available woman on the steppes -- Tulpan of the title -- refuses to marry him. She's evidently eager to pursue a better life in the city. As if to signify the elusive nature of Asa's dream, Dvortsevoy never shows us Tulpan, who remains out of view when Ondas tries to negotiate a dowry with her parents.

If you've ever wanted to see a difficult lamb birth -- and who hasn't? -- Dvortsevoy is ready to oblige with an unforgettable sequence.

I don't know what opera director Peter Sellars, a champion of new voices in world cinema, would think of "Tulpan," but I'm betting he'd find it riveting and significant. The events that unfold in "Tulpan" are part of a new wave in cinema, not in terms of style, but in terms of lives that previously haven't made it into cinematic view.

Feelings of neglect and shattered dreams pervade Israeli director Tatia Rosenthal's "9.99," a stop-action feature that stars animated figures made of clay and includes voice work from a variety of Australian actors, notably Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia. "9.99" stands as another attempt to give animation an adult flavor. If you've ever wondered what a penis looks like when made from clay, you'll know after watching Rosenthal's attempt to mix the real and the surreal. I leave it to you to decide whether the penis belongs on real or surreal side of the movie's ledger. The title stems from money spent by one of the characters to obtain a book that purports to reveal the meaning of life. As skillfully executed as it is, this adaptation of stories from Israeli writer Etgar Keret left me a little cold: The movie's palpable world of clay seemed more real than most of its philosophical musings.


I'm not sure O'Horten, which opens Friday in Denver as well, qualifies as adventurous, although a case could be made for putting the movie in such a category -- if only because it focuses on a 67-year-old Norwegian man who's retiring from a carefully regulated life as a railway engineer. Baard Owe portrays Odd Horten, a man who founders after being released from years of routine. O'Horten. a bachelor who has worked for the railroad for 40 years, suddenly faces the challenge of living without a schedule. As he adjusts, O'Horten discovers life off the beaten track. Don't look for major revelations: "O'Horten" is a narrow-gauged movie that director Bent Hamer serves up with an unerring sense of refinement.

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