Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Still Young at 46

46th New York Film Festival
Zeigfeld Theater
141 West 54th Street
Avery Fisher Hall (Opening and Closing Nights)
Columbus Ave. and West 65th Street
Walter Reade Theater
151 West 65th Street
September 26–October 12, 2008

Born in 1963, the New York Film Festival is now well into a mellow middle age. This year’s films–many of which are based on real-life stories, led by the Opening Night film, Laurent Cantet’s The Class, and the Centerpiece selection, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling–are unafraid to ask questions that may be unanswerable and explore issues that are even more urgently important in our uncertain 21st century world.

Image(Opening Night) The Class – In the space of three features (Human Resources, Time Out, Heading South), Laurent Cantet has marked himself as an astute chronicler of socially relevant character studies. With The Class–top winner at Cannes last spring–Cantet enters a Parisian classroom to fashion a richly detailed, intelligent film about one teacher’s attempts to get through to his inner-city students. An actual teacher, Francois Bégaudeau–on whose book The Class is based–plays a fictionalized version of himself, as do other adults and students. Closely resembling a documentary, the film is an ultra-realistic exploration of the shifting of morals and mores in French culture. Regrettably missing is a personalizing of these people, since we only see them at school–if we had gotten into the personal life of this teacher (as we do in Bertrand Tavernier’s far superior It All Starts Today), The Class would be classic–instead, it’s merely another fine film from a first-rate director. (opens December 12 from Sony Pictures Classics)

24 City – Bouncing back from last year’s Useless—a deadly dull glimpse at the fashion industry that played the 2007 festival—Jia Zhangke returns with 24 City, exploring the dichotomies between Communist and Capitalist China, specifically targeting a small town factory that has given jobs and community pride for generations, and how the locals deal with the fact that new high-rise apartments are going up where the factory currently stands. Jia combines fiction and documentary techniques fluidly, showing those still working, the ongoing razing and construction, and emotional interviews with those most affected by what’s happening. Typically uninsistent, Jia has created an affecting document taking the pulse of a country we’re still learning about. (A Cinema Guild release)

Hunger – This devastating account of IRA prisoners in a Belfast prison–culminating in the hunger strike and death of Bobby Sands–is dragged down by director Steve McQueen’s insistence on fetishizing everything, from the brutality rained down on the prisoners by their guards to the mundane aspects of their existence. Making his feature debut, British artist McQueen has an undeniable visual sense, creating stunning shots and unique points of view. Yet he shows the guards’ deadly force with a bluntness that too often slides into simple crudeness, which blunts what he’s trying to say about how these men use their bodies as weapons of last resort (which is why the guards try destroying their bodies). He also overuses recurring shots (a guard smoking outside as snow flurries fall, or the same guard putting his bloody knuckles in water after beating a prisoner), failing to transform them into meaningful leitmotifs. Hunger is a well-meaning, well-acted, well-made film that, finally, overreaches. (An IFC Films release)

Wendy and Lucy – After her acclaimed debut feature Old Joy, Kelly Reichert returns with another minimalist melodrama about a young woman passing through small-town Oregon on her way to Alaska with her beloved dog. Through a series of implausible events, Wendy not only loses her pet Lucy but also her car and her self-respect. Although Reichert terrifically paints this milieu and shows, through precise camerawork and editing, nicely-observed details about her heroine’s travails, the director stumbles by manipulating the poor girl, starting with her own stupidity: why steal dog food when she has enough money to buy it? Again, when the cops take her away after she’s caught shoplifting, she only murmurs from the back seat of the police car that her dog is still in front of the store; at the station, she says nothing about the dog, and is the only one surprised that her pet’s gone when she returns later in the afternoon. Such shortcuts to drama stick out precisely because the entire film is predicated on behavior–but such irrationality makes us lose sympathy very quickly. Happily, Michelle Williams gives a wonderfully modulated performance, and Reichert’s own dog gives one of the finest canine portrayals ever committed to celluloid. (An Oscilloscope Films release)

Happy-Go-Lucky – Mike Leigh has created his least believable character since the silly geese who were the focus of his worst film, the insufferable Career Girls. Our happy-go-lucky gal is the eternally optimistic Poppy Cross, who feels positive about everything and everybody, no matter how downward her life is spiraling. As played by the gifted Sally Hawkins, the preposterous Poppy seems to be a walking metaphor for our ability to reject the pessimism of such a dark world. But in her daily life, Poppy comes off as deranged, getting herself into situations from which she is extracted due to God’s will or good luck (or Leigh and Hawkins’ inability to make anything authentic, rather than forced). Individual scenes and supporting bits occasionally work, but much is merely obnoxious, including a strange subplot of Poppy being given driving lessons by a xenophobic, anti-social instructor who snaps at her long after most of us would have. (A Miramax Films release)

The Northern Land – In 1988 at the Toronto Film Festival, I squirmed through Hard Times, a dismal black and white adaptation of the Dickens novel by Portuguese director Joao Bothelo, which was also featured at the New York Film Festival. After 20 years, Bothelo is back with The Northern Land, his excruciatingly slow adaptation of a novel by Agustina Bessa Luis (the press notes tell—or warn—us that the novelist is also a great favorite of another Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira). Set among the imposing vistas of the island of Madeira, the story concerns a young woman’s search for facts about a scandalous female ancestor, which allows Bothelo to move back and forth among a few centuries’ worth of boring exposition and stiffly-acted melodramatics. In fact, the leading lady, Ana Moreira, who plays no fewer than five women, has a painfully limited range—why Bothelo saw fit to inflict her on us in so many different roles is unimaginable. Even visually, the film lacks punch—the impressive Madeiran landscapes and seascapes are rendered flatly and colorlessly by cinematographer Joao Ribeiro, and strained allusions to Caravaggio’s magnificent Judith Beheading Holofernes only underline the film’s emotional and dramatic emptiness. At least there’s the soundtrack, where Bothelo has included nicely-chosen chamber music by Schubert and Dvorak.

Summer Hours – Olivier Assayas has directed a superior soap opera about a trio of siblings who must decide whether to sell the family estate–famous paintings, antique furniture, and all–after their 75-year-old mother unexpectedly dies. Skillfully juggling these disparate characters (oldest brother, who’s most conservative; middle sister, a free spirit living in New York and engaged to an American; youngest brother, working with a shoe company in Shanghai, his wife and three kids in tow), Assayas gives us glimpses into their lives with a single line of dialogue or a brief shot of subtle body language or minute gestures. The director even daringly frames the film with sequences showing the next generation–these characters’ children and (at the end) their friends. The parallel doesn’t completely come off, because it’s feels tacked on, but it’s a valiant attempt, nonetheless. There’s seamless acting across the board from Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Jerémie Rénier as the siblings, and Edith Scob as the benevolent family matriarch. (An IFC Films release)

Four Nights with Anna – Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest film has been touted as his “comeback” to the heights of his highly-praised early films like Deep End. I for one never believed in Skolimowski’s earlier mastery, and I found Four Nights with Anna resolutely nonsensical and inscrutable. It mostly follows a middle-aged loner who once witnessed the rape of a young woman but was convicted of it; a few years later, he returns to her apartment nightly to do various loving things while she sleeps, including painting her toenails, giving her a ring for her finger, and repairing her cuckoo clock. When Skolimowski–whose own comments paint his film as a non-linear, metaphorical journey, deftly disposing of any criticism about its failed surrealism–is not busy recording the meanderings of this cipher (showing him getting buggered over a sink while he’s doing dishes for the cops, I guess to parallel the raping of Anna he witnessed), he concentrates on a house fly, a daddy-long legs, and a bloated, dead cow floating down the river. So when he decides to cease making films about the human species, the director may yet have a career in nature documentaries.

Image(Festival Centerpiece) Changeling – Angelina Jolie gives an accomplished, emotionally nuanced performance in this true story of Christine Collins, whose nine-year-old son disappeared from their Los Angeles home in 1928 and she spends years fighting police corruption to discover his whereabouts. Clint Eastwood’s leisurely-paced film recreates the Depression era unerringly, and he gets impressive acting from a cast filled with familiar faces but unfamiliar names (with the exception of John Malkovich as an ally of the grieving mother’s). A particular standout is young Eddie Alderson, who steals the movie’s best scene confessing to his role as the accomplice in a gruesome series of killings. The movie’s biggest problem is its Hollywood trappings—an absorbing true-life tale is turned into a manipulative, David vs. Goliath melodrama, as Christine is first spurned by the cops, then thrown into a psych ward that makes potboilers like The Snake Pit look like a Bed & Breakfast by comparison. It’s unfortunate that Eastwood sabotages his own material with minimal subtlety and maximum sledgehammering. (A Universal Pictures release)

The Headless Woman – This is Lucrecia Martel’s third film in the festival (following 2001’s The Swamp and 2004’s The Holy Girl), and it’s startling how she’s regressed since her first feature showed a bright, promising talent adept at projecting moodiness and alienation onscreen in an original way. The bottom has fallen out with the unfortunately titled The Headless Woman, which follows a middle-aged dentist for 87 minutes after she runs something over with her car. The incident (which is never explained—she doesn’t even bother to check and see what/whom she ran over) nags at her as she drifts through her job and relationships with her husband, colleagues, friends and family in a kind of somnambulant state. Martel deliberately obfuscates, refusing to shoot anything head-on (there’s always a needless off-kilter camera angle or set-up) and never facing her protagonist’s dilemma squarely. Instead, by clouding her story and style, she has made a film of Deep Meaning for some and Deep Meaninglessness for those who prefer that profundity be earned.

Afterschool – In Antonio Campos’s first feature, the teenage protagonist constantly watches: fights on a YouTube-type website, “reality porn” on another site, and most disturbingly, footage of popular twin sisters who literally die in his arms in the hallway of the prep school they attend. Structurally, Afterschool is very impressive, as Campos uses video footage to comment on these isolated, alienated, even clueless people. There’s a brief shock near the end when we see the girls dying yet again, but from a different angle—it’s not the grainy video we’ve seen throughout, but close-ups from the filmmaker’s POV. Too bad Campos doesn’t transcend the stereotypes he presents, particularly the adults: parents, teachers, counselors and schoolmaster are all equally culpable for these kids’ moral equivocating, but he doesn’t make it convincing. In the lead, however, Ezra Miller takes this blank teenage slate and invest him with a personality, however repellent. Just 24 years old, Campos will surely be heard from again.

Che – Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, 4-1/2 hour biopic of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara may not completely whitewash his brutal and sadistic legacy—I don’t know enough about the specifics to make that call—but it skirts perilously close to hagiography portraying Che during the overthrow of Batista in Cuba in 1958 and his own Waterloo in Bolivia in 1965, where he was captured and killed. It’s perfectly acceptable to show these events from Che’s point of view, and the first two hours are a very absorbing recreation of the revolution that overthrew Cuba’s government for what would become Castro’s Communist dictatorship. But the second half—with Che and his ragtag band of rebels being chased through mountainous ravines by the U.S.-backed Bolivian army—lavishes questionable sympathy on Guevara and his cohorts. In any case, Soderbergh directs with great assurance, handling the sundry chronological jumps of the first half in a masterly fashion; Benicio del Toro handles the juicy title role with his most forceful acting yet. (An IFC Films Release)

Tulpan - Sergei Dvortsevoy has made several documentaries, and it shows in his feature debut, as the director has created an astonishingly vivid portrait of Kazakh lives that gives us a invaluable glimpse into a world rarely shown onscreen: for 100 minutes, we inhabit this world, literally able to touch, hear and smell everything about this culture. The story about a sheepherder and his family is necessarily simple: the main reason to watch this exhilarating film is to marvel at Dvortsevoy’s extraordinary study of man’s relationship to nature. Much of his footage–from the funnel clouds that appear out of nowhere to the incredible animals (including two sheep giving birth and an amazingly funny camel, all impossible to forget)–is simply stunning.

A Christmas Tale – Arnaud Despleschin’s films are rigorous, precisely calibrated, personal; they are as close to immersing oneself in a great novel as any filmmaker working today. His best film, My Sex Life, was also his longest; his others–La Sentinelle, Esther Kahn, Kings and Queen–are shorter but conversely seem stretched out, thinner, and padded. He needs a truly large canvas to work his wonders, which is why A Christmas Tale comes up short. This melodrama about several generations of a barely functioning French family runs nearly 2-1/2 hours, yet has so many phony, manipulative climaxes that it seems to drag on far longer. For the first time, Despleschin uses shortcut methods of explaining (or explaining away) these people: the many verbal–and physical–battles among these warring family members replace true character development and honest examination. The cast (led by the always remarkable Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Deneuve and Anne Consigny) is formidable, and each sequence is photographed and directed with utmost skill; yet the end result is an overstuffed holiday bird that’s not very filling. (An IFC Films Release)

Let It Rain - Already proving herself a talented triple-threat writer-director-actress with her earlier festival entries The Taste of Others (2000) and Talk to Me (2004 Opening Night selection), Agnes Jaoui returns to the well once too often with her latest effort, another brittle comedy of manners that feels half-baked, seemingly cursorily thought out before it went before the cameras. In 95 minutes, Jaoui and her usual co-writer/co-star Jean-Pierre Bacri line up an assortment of targets to lightly satirize–from female authors turned politicians and novice documentary makers to unhappy housewives and the mythical perfect Cote d’Azur weather–but do little more than scatter their shots, with the nadir a rain-soaked visit to a country farm that trades in unfunny stereotypes. It’s acted, written and directed with a fizzy joie de vivre, but ultimately Let It Rain is all wet. (An IFC Films Release)

It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks
- Daniel Leconte’s account of the 2007 trial of a satirical Parisian magazine after it was sued by Muslim organizations incensed over its publication of cartoons it deemed offensive to its religion is an important document that lays bare the current–and seemingly endless–religious wars. Leconte follows the dispute from the beginning, as his cameras record editorial meetings where the cartoons, columns and cover art are discussed, and he sits down with everyone involved–from the editor in chief and his cartoonists to Muslims from the defamed groups–to arrive at a thorough overview of a volatile subject; although his leanings are obvious from the start, he’s scrupulously evenhanded, allowing all sides to speak openly: the heated arguments we hear outside the courtroom are among the most intriguing, to say the least.

Image(Closing Night) The Wrestler – In Darren Aronofsky’s chronicle of an over-the-hill wrestler, Randy the “Ram,” who still fights to scrape by a meager living. Mickey Rourke gives an authentically lived-in portrayal (that must feel close to home) of a has-been who keeps plugging away since he knows nothing else. Rob Siegel’s mawkish script—which introduces Randy’s estranged daughter and a stripper with a heart of gold who knows that he’s a good guy underneath his scars and dyed hair plugs—gives the whole enterprise the feeling of a trashy “B” movie. That it is, but thanks to the performances of Rourke, Evan Rachel Wood (an actress incapable of a false moment as his daughter) and Marisa Tomei (in a sweetly genuine turn as stripper Pam), Aronofsky’s modest character study overcomes the melodramatic trappings, annoyingly in-your-face wrestling sequences and obnoxious ‘80s hair-metal music. (A Fox Searchlight Release)

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