Monday, October 1, 2007

Entering Middle Age

45th New York Film Festival
September 28-October 14, 2007

The Flight of the Red Balloon

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first film in Paris, starring Juliette Binoche, is, for better or worse, a true Hou film. This loose remake of the classic children’s flick, The Red Balloon, begins with a young boy being followed by the title balloon–then meanders off into more familiar territory, as Hou’s relentlessly probing camera intently studies the boy’s mom’s difficulties as a single mom (Binoche). Once again, Hou’s visuals are stunning, from the shots of the balloon in flight over a Paris tourists rarely see to the cramped quarters of Binoche’s apartment, where the camera moves around with superb strategy. The movie never strays from its glacial pace, but Binoche is tremendously affecting–bad dye job and all–and Simon Iteanu is equally persuasive as her son.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Romanian filmmaking is enjoying a renaissance: after two mid-90's masterpieces by Lucian Pintilie–The Oak and An Unforgettable Summer–there’s been nothing until recently, when we’ve had Christi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest and now Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Shot by Oleg Mutu–who also photographed Puiu’s intense exploration of the lack of respect for life during the Ceaucescu’s Communist regime–4, 3, 2 treads much the same stylistic ground, although Mungiu goes even further, playing out the story for minutes at a time with no cutting; shot in ultra-widescreen, 4, 3, 2 attempts to encompass the entirety of the Iron Curtain’s inhumanity through a story about a woman helping a friend get an illegal abortion.The acting is spellbinding: Anamaria Marinca especially forces us to care for this woman, trapped between helping her friend in a time of need and spending time with her boyfriend (her minutely-detailed reactions and expressions during the long meal sequence with his family are worth the price of admission). But Mungiu stacks the deck dramatically to the extent that his ultra-realistic approach approaches parody, since his characters act far too implausibly. Would the man hired to perform the abortion–shown as a professional in every way–not notice when a knife is taken from his case and, later, leave his identity papers at the hotel desk? Would our heroine leave her friend alone during a most critical time to visit her boyfriend on his mother’s birthday, especially when she expressly told him earlier that she was busy and couldn’t come? Such weakly-rendered details nag mostly because Mungiu gets so much else in his powerful film right.

A Girl Cut in Two

Claude Chabrol, at age 77, is still going strong: his last film, Comedy of Power starring Isabelle Huppert, actually got U.S. distribution and was released on DVD. A Girl Cut in Two will surely follow, although it’s one of Chabrol’s weaker efforts: it tells of the romantic travails of a young Lyon weather girl who is having an affair with a much older, famous (and married for 25 years) author, and who is also being wooed by the unhinged–but oh so charming!–scion of a wealthy pharmaceutical family. As always in Chabrol, the events–both mundane and dramatic–are recounted with a stately elegance that threatens to lull the viewer to sleep at times; but since Chabrol is such a master director he keeps one on edge, hoping for the expected twist that will pull these characters out of their predestined paths. When it comes, the “revelation” is so unsurprising that it makes the entire two hours feel like a mere tease. Perhaps Chabrol himself senses this, since he ends the movie with a (pointless) visual reenactment of its title. Still, you could do worse than a trifle that’s this well-acted (Ludivine Seigner is especially effective as the far from beautiful but still sexy femme fatale) and well-photographed (by Eduardo Serra).

Go Go Tales
Dafoe (middle) in Go Go Tales
Why Abel Ferrara was invited back to the festival with this pointless, meandering look at a strip club and its derivative denizens remains a mystery. Go Go Tales wouldn’t pass muster as one of those late-night cable soft-porn flicks: indifferently acted, ludicrously scripted and atrociously directed, the movie doesn’t even have any eroticism–it’s about as unsexy as a movie about cloistered monks. Of course, with a phoning-it-in cast headed by Bob Hoskins, Sylvia Miles, Matthew Modine (who’s never been worse) and Willem Dafoe (who at least tries), how could it be otherwise?

The Man from London
Bela Tarr is best-known for his seven-plus-hour opus, Satantango, which was screened at the 1994 New York Film Festival. His new film is the kind of picture that would be laughed out of the theatre if it didn’t have the cache of Tarr’s name attached. He began his career with warts-and-all portraits of the Hungarian proletariat, which reached their apogee with Satantango” Tarr’s visual sense is borrowed from compatriot Miklos Jancso, although the earlier director used the elaborate choreography of the camera to much better and more dynamic dramatic and psychological effect. Tarr’s last feature, Werckmeister Harmonies, was a quite intriguing—if ultimately failed—experiment whose rhythms and structures were based on the musical theories of its title character. However, The Man from London—based on a Georges Simenon mystery!—plays like an ersatz Tarr parody: Mihaly Vig’s ominous music repeats itself ad nauseum, the actors flatfootedly spit out the minimal dialogue (including Tilda Swinton, dubbed into Hungarian), and those oh-so-slow camera moves that are simply an exercise in lugubriousness. Even Jancso, the master, has moved on: his recent films are carefree and playful.

Married Life
Cooper in Married Life
Ira Sachs’ soap opera about a failing marriage may be set in 1949, but it’s another those films (Far from Heaven is the most famous) that lays on the trowel of irony so thickly even the most lunkheaded in the audience can “get” it. What’s to get? It’s a straightforward story of a man cheating on his wife with a young woman and his attempts to get out of the marriage; the man’s best friend falls for the girl himself and starts wooing her. Sachs, however, feels it’s not enough to just tell an interesting tale and get good actors to play the roles, which he’s done: kudos to Chris Cooper (husband), Patricia Clarkson (wife), Rachel McAdams (girlfriend) and Pierce Brosnan (best friend). Sachs must also overdo everything, from the period detail to the syrupy music to the leaden irony with which almost every scene is painted. Characters talk in italics and react in underlined ways, all so there’s no doubt of missing the point that these people are just like us, no matter what era they live in. Based on a British novel and exported to this country (the program notes say the Pacific Northwest, but there’s never any identification of the location), Married Life is perfectly well-made and performed with gusto, but it remains hollow to its core.

The Orphanage

This ludicrously contrived thriller from first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez is as overstuffed with “cute” children finding another world away from adults as Pan’s Labyrinth. That’s no coincidence, since The Orphanage was produced by Pan’s director, Guillermo del Toro. Although this isn’t as bad as that overrated fable, The Orphanage comes close, especially in its many climaxes–actually, anticlimaxes–that leave us feeling nothing for these characters who act as dopily as people always do in crappy horror movies. I felt particularly bad for the actors, especially Belén Rueda as the mother, Laura, whose graceful, sophisticated presence is wasted, and Geraldine Chaplin, who enlivens the proceedings briefly as a medium.

Paranoid Park
For his latest portrait of disaffected youth, Gus Van Sant went to MySpace to find actors: since none of the teens (or adults) he has put onscreen is in the least capable of registering an authentic emotion or believable line reading, perhaps Van Sant should stay away from websites as a way to cast movies. Even at 85 minutes, Paranoid Park feels interminable, because nothing we see seems the least bit plausible, compelling or truthful. Ostensibly a story about a kid whose accidental killing of an innocent man late one night haunts him, the movie is really about aimlessness and alienation: that would be fine, if Van Sant weren’t so insistent at pushing his arty fantasies at us, including endless shots of skateboarders doing their thing (partially shot by Christopher Doyle, who also contributes a mercifully short bit of acting as the teen’s uncle) and a unintentionally funny glimpse at the man’s death, when the victim (cut in half at the torso) still crawls and eyes his youthful killer with sad eyes. If Paranoid Park was in any way a credible psychological portrait, such deliberate strangeness wouldn’t much matter: but the movie strains credulity to the breaking point.

The Darjeeling Limited
Amazingly, this is Wes Anderson’s third film in the New York Film Festival, and if The Darjeeling Limited is marginally less bad than Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (not to mention the debacle of The Life Aquatic), it’s still a stretch to call this worthy of any Opening Night slot. A comic study of three estranged brothers on a spiritual train trip through India, the movie is weighed down by its remarkable unsubtlety (their many pieces of luggage equals the amount of emotional baggage they carry, natch) that it remains another fey, precious Wes Anderson movie–manna for some, a desert for me.
It’s typical of Anderson’s lack of imagination that, after nearly an hour of their sparring on the train, the brothers get booted off, only to see three kids drowning in a river: they dive in after them, but one dies, which gives the movie automatic—and definitely unearned—“tragic” heft. Later, when the movie goes slack again, Anderson desperately throws in a long, unfunny flashback to the brothers’ dad’s funeral. Of the brothers, only Adrien Brody scores, possibly because he’s new to Anderson’s annoying style and comes to the material fresh. Paradoxically, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are obnoxious from the outset.
The 13-minute short preceding the feature, Hotel Chevalier—also made by Anderson and starring Schwartzman—is notable only for Natalie Portman’s cute behind.

The Axe in the Attic
Jim Pincus and Lucia Small were mad as hell after witnessing the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, so the filmmakers decided to travel from the Northeast down to New Orleans, with many stops along the way to witness first-hand how those who were displaced by the storm and by the Bush administration’s ineptitude are handling the loss of their very existence (home, valuables, family and friends). When they arrived in New Orleans, they find very brave (and foolhardy) people trying to rebuild their wrecked lives.
To their credit, Pincus and Small don’t overplay the racist angle–several black families are chronicled, but so are affected whites, and the filmmakers never coddle to one or condescend to the other, since Katrina made them equally worthless to FEMA. The duo also daringly—and reluctantly—bring themselves into their film, not as Michael Moore-type grandstanding but as filmmakers used to documentary “objectivity” and “evenhandedness” now being drawn into these lost souls’ plight. There’s an amazing scene after Pincus hands one man $10 and Small simply walks away because she’s furious that he broke the silent code of documentary ethics– she earlier refused to loan another man bus fare when he asked.
That there are no revelations in The Axe in the Attic misses the point: it’s an account of the devastation wrought by Mother Nature and the Bush administration. Pincus and Small don’t hammer this over our heads either; a few people bring up Bush and his FEMA cronies, but it’s their will to survive that’s most fascinating about this movie: even after they’ve lost everything–which we hear described in ever more harrowing terms–people still thank God and Jesus that they pulled through. This almost derails the movie, since non-believing, philosophical Pincus is flabbergasted, but he soon realizes that this helps people soldier on in the face of unspeakable disaster.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Sidney Lumet may be 83, but his high New York energy remains in his new movie, a would-be tragic crime drama that begins splendidly before succumbing to blatant illogic in its last reels. Two brothers with varying financial difficulties who decide to rob a local jewelry store not only see it go spectacularly awry but also spin their–and their family’s–lives out of control. Screenwriter Kelly Masterson is good with the set-up, and shopworn devices like jumbled chronology and showing the same scene from different angles (literal and figurative) are used with stunning effectiveness.
Lumet and cinematographer Ron Fortunato also find new ways to shoot an overphotographed Manhattan, and the actors–Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris and Marisa Tomei–are excellent, both individually and collectively. (A special kudo to Tomei, who has never been sexier–or more naked.) Yet, halfway through the movie, the wheels start coming off, and by the incredible Oedipal ending (the twist is stupidly telegraphed, and the ending is shot hamhandedly by Lumet), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has jumped the proverbial shark. Still, Lumet’s gleeful diving into this story is infectious and, even with all its flaws, this is a first-rate Saturday night popcorn flick.

Blade Runner
Ridley Scott has released what he’s calling the “final cut” of his 1982 sci-fi drama, which will be part of a five-disc DVD boxed set this Christmas. Blade Runner is not the usual frivolous space opera: it’s actually got “ideas,” even a few intriguing ones. Harrison Ford plays a rogue cop assigned to kill rogue “replicants,” or robots designed to be nearly human. The year is 2019, and for no good (or explained) reason, L.A. is perpetually dark and rainy. The film has a gloriously unique set design, and even the effects hold up over the past quarter-century; the script, however, isn’t clever enough dealing with the themes of memory, human vs. android and fear of death. Scott has made a visually impeccable film–and with the tweaking he’s done, it looks amazing–but at bottom, Blade Runner lacks the heart it needs to be a true masterpiece.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Julian Schnabel’s piercing drama is based on the biography of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who at age 43 suffered a massive stroke and lost complete muscular control over his body–except for his left eye, which he used to blink “yes” or “no” answers. With the help of incredibly patient, thoughtful hospital workers and others, Bauby “wrote” a book about his experience, an international bestseller. Schnabel opens the film as Bauby awakes from his three-week long coma, and we see everything from his groggy POV: at first, it seems like the entire movie will be a visual stunt, of actors talking to the camera (to Bauby). But Schnabel has matured deeply as a director since his two interesting but failed bio-pics–Basquiat and Before Night Falls. Schnabel varies the pacing and rhythm throughout, juxtaposing brutally direct sequences of Bauby’s slow non-recovery with episodes from his pre-stroke life that almost play as dream sequences, including a wonderful scene with his grumpy father (played to grizzled perfection by Max von Sydow) and a stunningly-shot reenactment of his stroke, while Bauby was driving his son through the countryside.
As Bauby, Mathieu Amalric gives a miraculous performance: because of the actor’s excitable, natural energy, we see Bauby as literally begging to move, and the expressions Amalric coaxes from his eye are so perfectly controlled I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself. The literal parade of women in Bauby’s life–mother of his three children, current squeeze, therapists in the hospital–is beautifully embodied by Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny and Olatz Lopez Garmendia (the director’s wife).
Schnabel’s film—which is, finally, a fitting testament to artistic achievement, no matter how laboriously or unusually realized—has a fittingly eclectic soundtrack, including music by Bach, U2, and Tom Waits.

Master filmmaker Carlos Saura, who has made a career out of his wondrous and unique hybrid of dance and film, beginning with his 1980s “Flamenco” trilogy, travels to Portugal to record various practitioners of a folk music called “fado,” often called the Portuguese blues. As he has done in recent music films like Iberia, Saura simply films the performers playing the music, but his innate feeling for the choreography of the camera and the rhythm of the editing makes Fados more exciting and satisfying than merely listening to each song. Saura utilizes two master cameramen: Jose Luis Lopez-Linares, who filmed the main sequences; and Eduardo Serra, who shot the infrequent inserts of a bustling Lisbon. If you don’t believe that watching a singer belting out in Portuguese could be enthralling, Saura will change your mind–each sequence has a singular “look,” whether it’s the use of dancers alongside or large video screens behind some performers, which presents double or triple images of their playing. At a tidy 90 minutes, Fados will not only win converts to this music, but also underscore the brilliance of its director, the greatest living Spanish filmmaker.

I’m Not There
For his latest film, Todd Haynes has made one of the most bizarre movie train wrecks ever—it’s about Bob Dylan, and contains many of his songs in their original recordings, but Haynes has transferred the singer’s life and personality to an array of fictional characters, each of whom apparently represents one strand of “The Larger Than Life Persona That Is Bob Dylan.” It’s possible that Dylan only let his songs be included if Haynes didn’t make a straightforward biography, and if that’s so, the director has responded by making a fatuous and endlessly cartoonish view of both Dylan and his era. There’s a lot here for those who want to hash through so-called deep meanings, philosophical undertones and psychological study; for those not under the spell of the overrated Haynes, there are a few good performances, notably from Christian Bale as the folkie-turned-Christian; Cate Blanchett has been getting raves for her performance, but it’s really just a stunt—more a Saturday Night Live impression than a real interpretation.
Haynes has checked off all the Big Events in Dylan’s life—the electric-guitar set that turned off the folkies, the near-fatal motorcycle crash, the conversion to Christianity, the pot-smoking tryst with the Beatles—all to no avail. He even rather desperately drags in an homage to Fellini’s 8-1/2, complete with Nino Rota’s music, along with some Godard allusions. At the press screening, I’m Not There was greeted with hosannas, if that means anything to anyone any more.

Brian DePalma has entered the still-minuscule fray of filmmakers commenting on the current Iraq debacle with this harrowing re-enactment of an incident when U.S. soldiers raped and murdered an Iraqi teenage girl, then burned her body. Shooting in hi-def video, DePalma uses as a skeleton the videocam footage of a soldier–who fancies himself a future director–while intercutting all sorts of other footage, from news reports and security cameras to internet bloggers’ rantings and even a terrorist video of an IED blowing up one of our men. It’s cleverly, even artfully, put together, and even though DePalma has no new insights to bring to this war that’s been swallowing our country whole, his visceral, immediately impacting drama is a valuable document of most confused, confusing era.

The Romance of Astree and Celadon
At age 87, Eric Rohmer has made his newest (and supposedly last) movie, another talky snoozefest with an undeniable visual splendor that may be due more to the lovely region of France in which Rohmer shot. Still, give him credit for that.
Based on a massive 17th century novel by Honore d’Urfe about a romance set in the 5th century, Astree and Celadon is a fable about two young lovers separated by jealousy and death until they are reunited with the help of nymphs and a druid priest. It’s silly stuff, at times risibly so, but it’s possible that the novel’s treatment and descriptions paint an entirely different picture in readers’ minds than the ones Rohmer parade in front of his camera. And there’s no arguing that Rohmer’s actors are a paltry bunch, and when they spout poetry or break into earnest song, the effect has a certain initial charm, but it’s mostly labored.
I know Shakespeare always gets away with cross-dressing characters that easily fool others, but Rohmer is no Shakespeare: at least Shakespeare’s characters also get to speak sparkling dialogue; and in this film, Rohmer’s hero when dressed as a girl wouldn’t even fool a blind man, let alone the supposed love of his life. Finally, it’s nice that Rohmer spends so much time showing paintings in Astree and Celadon, giving the audience something beautiful to gaze at among the surrounding cinematic aridness.

Persepolis For the first time, the festival's Closing Night presentation is an animated film—based on Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel about growing up in repressed Iran, Persepolis was made by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. In 95 minutes, it succinctly if a bit one-dimensionally lays out the case against repressive, theocratic regimes: the animation is often crude (some faces reminded me of the characters from the mid-‘90s sitcom The Critic, surely unintentional), but it has satiric bite and even wit, notably when the young heroine sees a dead body amid rubble from a missile attack and her face briefly morphs into Munch's "The Scream." At other times, the level of political discourse and humor is on par with that of a typical "Saturday Night Live" skit. Still, the longing for freedom that Americans hear about but can't appreciate is well-articulated, and the voice talent—Chiara Mastroianni as the girl, her mother Catherine Deneuve as the mother, and Danielle Darrieux as the grandmother—is top-notch.

Actresses Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi has done valuable work acting in films by directors ranging from Ermanno Olmi and Marco Bellocchio to Steven Spielberg. As a filmmaker, however, she does herself no favors by allowing the "actress" in her to ham it up ever more obnoxiously in what should be an affectionate, melancholic portrait of a middle-aged actress whose screwed-up personal life ruins her on-stage performing. The script by Bruni-Tedeschi and writing partner Noémie Lvovsky —who also acts (badly) as another messed-up 40ish woman—allows the two actresses to indulge in cutesy, insufferable behavior that fails to make them sympathetic. That terrific actor Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) can't transcend the cardboard role of a pretentious director adapting Tergenev's A Month in the Country, which itself casts a shadow over the characters in Actresses—but Bruni-Tedeschi and Lvovsky never make such a distinctively Russian intrusion on their script in any way plausible.

Alexandra Aleksandr Sokurov has made an oblique but beautifully modulated film about living with war that touches on current events in Chechnya and Iraq without referring to them directly. The great soprano Galina Vishnevskaya–widow of cellist Mtislav Rostropovich–plays a grandmother who goes to the front to visit her grandson, a young officer. Once you get past the absurdity of the premise–would even the Russian army allow such a dangerous visit?–Sokurov's drama is very affecting, his usual pace of slow stateliness much in evidence but tempered by a warmth prodded along by Vishnevskaya's exquisite presence. Wonderful scenes of humanity and generosity–particularly those between Alexandra and a Chechen mother and her son–paint an indelible portrait of a world that might be less fractured than our leaders might believe. Also notable are the bleached-out colors of Aleksandr Burov's photography, which are stunningly rendered.

I Just Didn't Do It It's been over a decade since Masayuki Suo's last film, the delightfully subversive comedy Shall We Dance? But the wait was worth it: I Just Didn't Do It is an engrossing, complicated police procedural that hinges on a young man's insisting his innocence throughout his ordeal of being arrested and charged with molesting a teenage girl on a crowded subway train. With methodical slowness (the movie runs nearly 2-1/2 hours), Suo shows not only how off-base and borderline corrupt the Japanese police and legal system is but also the extraordinary difficulties for a young man to deal with his sudden loss of freedom and inability to defend himself without compromising his principles by admitting to a crime he didn't commit. The outstanding cast is led by Ryo Kase (Letters from Iwo Jima) as the defendant, along with Kôji Yakusho (the exceptionally charming hero of Shall We Dance?) and Asaka Seto as his lawyers. Suo's introduction of the accused's mother and best friend is given unnecessarily short shrift—why not show more of their relationship, considering the huge stakes involved?—but I Just Didn't Do It is a serious film for serious cinephiles. (Apparently there aren't many of them left—the Festival screening I attended was far from full, and the movie has yet to find an American distributor.)

Mr. Warmth–The Don Rickles Project John Landis' documentary portrait of all-around insulter Don Rickles starts off on the wrong foot, with the never-subtle Landis inserting himself into his movie for no good reason. Luckily, after that initial show of ego, the director backs away, letting Rickles himself—through his candid interview and uproarious performance onstage—and many of his show business acquaintances and close friends tell the 81-year-old comedian's fantastic story. Landis deserves credit for securing classic footage of Rickles on vintage television shows and in movies, along with getting Rickles' wife to touchingly discuss her husband. Other comedians and celebrities of all stripes comment on why Rickles the provocateur is also a valuable social satirist. (The funniest—and most pointed—is Sarah Silverman.) But the main reason to see Mr. Warmth is Rickles himself, who's never far from either an insulting or self-deprecating remark and whose comic intelligence and wit still burn brightly into his ninth decade.

Runnin' Down a Dream–Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers For nearly 30 years, Tom Petty has been one of America's best-selling and acclaimed rock stars, and director Peter Bogdanovich decided that he's worthy of a four-plus-hour documentary about his life and career. I don't think any rock artist outside the Beatles and Dylan deserves such a long film about them (and Martin Scorsese did Dylan proud with his four-hour No Direction Home), and there are many longueurs in Runnin' Down a Dream, including far too many video clips and performance footage. Still, Petty's an engaging guy when speaking about his life and career, and there is some great, rarely-seen material here, including studio footage while such classics as Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises were being recorded; other interviewees include the Heartbreakers, with keyboardist Belmont Tench coming off as an erudite speaker compared to the humble Petty. Bogdanovich could be accused of hagiography—even if Petty did a lot of stirring up that no one else wanted to (i.e., he sued the record companies to win back his song publishing rights and fought them when they wanted to raise record prices)—as the director often delves into the mundane, like showing the band's cross-country trips before hitting it big. However, when the director can shoot such a sublime concert rendition of "Southern Accents" (which beautifully wraps up the first part of the film), a lot can be forgiven. Overall, Runnin' Down a Dream will work best on DVD—where one can watch it at leisure and can savor the bonus concert DVD and rare song CD.

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