Thursday, October 15, 2009

47th New York Film Festival, Part 2

47th New York Film Festival
September 25-October 11, 2009

This year’s New York Film Festival was dominated by names any long-time festgoer knows (Von Trier, Solondz, Wajda, along with Opening Night’s Resnais and Closing Night’s Almodovar); but it was the newcomers that, for the most part, made it memorable.

Here are a handful of films I saw at the festival, listed alphabetically:

I approached Lars von Trier’s Antichrist with trepidation, and it didn’t disappoint: the film is a ludicrous piece of shallow psychoanalysis and sledgehammer symbolism. The plot concerns the disintegrating marriage between a therapist (Willem Dafoe, “He”) and a former scholar (Charlotte Gainsbourg, “She”) after their young son’s death. He fell out of a window while they were making love, and Von Trier actually shoots this prologue sequence in slow-motion, digital B&W to a mournful Handel aria. To cement his obviousness, Von Trier intercuts shots of the couple in the throes of orgasm with the angelic face of the child as he falls. Antichrist plays out in four chapters and an epilogue, each more dramatically garbled than the last, with talking foxes, deer with fawns protruding from their hindquarters, and two acts of brutality by She (first on He, then on herself) that must be seen to be disbelieved. Whether Von Trier is a misanthrope or a mere misogynist is hard to distinguish; it must be said that Dafoe and Gainsbourg avoid looking totally ridiculous, for what it’s worth.

The Art of the Steal—Don Argott’s documentary about how the Barnes Foundation which owns arguably the world’s greatest collection of post-Impressionist and modern-art paintings has been torn down systematically since the death of its founder, Albert Barnes, in 1951—is an impressive cultural detective yarn with heroes and villains galore. What could have been a dry, academic exercise about art experts and politicians fighting over a collection worth billions becomes in Argott’s sensitive hands a riveting, intelligent exploration of the complex clashes between art and commerce, politicians and their constituents, foundations and trusts, and the law and what’s right. Argott crams a wealth of information, insight and analysis into 105 minutes—it’s obvious that he sides with those trying to preserve Barnes’ wishes and legacy, but allows the other side its story, however selfishly (but profitably) motivated.

Manuel de Oliviera is still going at age 100, and more power to him; I only wish that one frame from one of his films spoke to me as much as to the festival selection committee, which keeps programming his works year after year. His latest, Indiscretions of a Blonde Girl, though only 64 minutes long, is as arid and inept as the other films of his I’ve been able to sit through. Am I the only one who notices the stiff, self-conscious performances of his unusually untalented cast? Doesn’t anyone else see the excruciatingly static shots and inability to create the most basic kind of rhythms, whether dramatic, comedic or cinematic? Even the beauties of Lisbon are made to look lackluster in Oliveira’s hands, which takes some doing.

Samuel Maoz served in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon war, and his observations form the locus of Lebanon, his spellbinding debut about war as it is lived by the men who fight it. For 90 minutes, Maoz drops us inside a tank, and we become as terrified and claustrophobic as the four men operating it. It’s a stunt that works because we intimately feel the safety of being inside while not knowing the dangers outside. Maoz only breaks his self-imposed rule for nearly identical but vastly different opening and closing shots that show how far into the belly of the beast we have traveled. Lebanon makes these soldiers into individuals: when someone dies or is gravely wounded, we are affected as deeply as if he was one of our comrades. Like Waltz with Bashir, Maoz’s film doesn’t preach or editorialize, instead presenting the war’s insanity as a given.

In Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz puts his dysfunctional characters through the motions with maximum shock effects to demonstrate how probing and fearless an artist he really is. But no less than in his 1998 film Happiness—which this is a supposed sequel to (I don’t remember it, so it may well be)—the writer-director cheats by stacking the deck in obvious ways. A flaky white woman’s troubled black husband can’t control his sexual violence toward women, so she leaves him for awhile in a final attempt to save their marriage: but when she calls him, the phone rings as (gasp!) he lies on the floor, suicide handgun next to him. A boy about to make his bar mitzvah worries about pedophiles and homosexual rape because his father was jailed for it; when he questions his mom, she says that if a man ever touches him, he should scream—so (of course!)—when her new beau innocently does just that, the boy’s scream ends her budding relationship. The dialogue is not very funny or incisive, and derivative effects like baroque arias are used better by, of all people, Lars von Trier. For all its topicality, Life During Wartime rarely approaches an episode of Oprah.

Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu has fashioned Police, Adjective as a police procedural that plays out like an extended parody...but of what? The movie’s first half comprises an absurd stakeout by a cop who dislikes his job—he’s stuck watching a teenager who may be dealing drugs. When not complaining to superiors or colleagues about the unfairness of arresting the kid for something minor, he’s seen at home either alone or with his new wife, who plays the same awful song over and over on YouTube. The movie’s second half comprises a protracted meeting among cop, partner and boss, as our hero reads definitions of the words “law,” “police” and “conscience” as his boss parses their meanings. Porumboiu’s direction has wit and style—shots of the cop tailing someone for minutes at a time are held long enough to make us think something might actually happen—but the payoff is that there’s no payoff. Dramatizing repetitiveness is certainly an authentic virtue, but two hours of it eclipses all else.

This year’s Festival Centerpiece was Precious, Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, about a heavyset, illiterate, pregnant 16-year-old with a Down’s Syndrome baby (both fathered by her dad) living with her angry, lazy mother in Harlem. The movie throws every melodramatic roadblock possible in front of the poor girl, and then some. Too bad that novice director Lee Daniels is unable to transcend these trappings and elevate Precious above a Lifetime movie with the foul language and adult situations left in. Daniels intercuts flat-footed fantasy sequences into the movie whenever Precious is facing something traumatic, and his lack of rhythmic sense keeps holding back the story’s primitive power. Precious is worth seeing for Gabourey Sidibe’s authentic performance in the title role. Another surprise is Mariah Carey’s strong portrayal of a sympathetic social worker, while Paula Patton is touching as the first teacher who cares about Precious. But Mo’Nique (as Precious’ mom) will undoubtedly sweep all awards for scenery chewing: her final scene, when she admits to her man’s sexual abuse of her daughter, will clinch the Oscar for her. With Oprah and Tyler Perry’s producing power behind it, the mostly hokey Precious is this year’s Slumdog Millionaire.

At age 83, Andrzej Wajda has entered a vigorous period of deeply felt, intensely personal filmmaking. Last year’s Katyn recreated the horrific murders of thousands of innocent Poles—including his father—by Communists during WWII, and now Sweet Rush ties the death of Wajda’s close friend and frequent cinematographer Edward Klosinski to the film the director was planning with Klosinski’s wife Krystyna Janda. The boldly experimental Wajda juggles three strands: an adaptation of the novella Sweet Rush, about a terminally ill middle-aged doctor’s wife who befriends a 20-year-old man as a replacement for the sons she lost in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; brief snippets of Wajda and Janda collaborating on the set; and Janda’s heartrending monologue describing her beloved husband’s illness and death. Like Everything for Sale, his 1969 tribute to deceased actor Zbigniew Cybulski, Sweet Rush is Wajda at his most emotionally naked and uncompromising: it’s an autumnal film from a master, with the sweetness of life with bittersweetness of death permeating every frame. It’s hard not to be moved by this brief but brilliant elegy on aging and fleeting existence.

The amazing footage in the documentary Sweetgrass of Montana sheep herding over a period of three years makes any quibbles about what might have been considered a “mundane” subject moot. Directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have artists’ keen eyes for both the details and the big picture: they follow the herders from the fields in this beautiful expanse of Big Sky country to the barns where sheep are sheared. There are astonishing moments recorded of sheep being born and fed milk, while the men who have done this work for generations are shown without condescension. If you get to see this on a big screen, by all means do so.
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