Monday, October 11, 2010

2010 New York Film Festival

48th New York Film Festival
September 24-October 10, 2010

This year’s New York Film Festival again balanced many veterans of the fest (Assayas, Godard, Kiarostami, Leigh, Oliveira) with more recent directorial favorites (Kechiche, Puiu, Reichert). The result is the usual smorgasbord: delectably chewy meals and others that were quite indigestible. For what I think is the first time, three American directors were chosen for the fest’s main attractions—Opening Night, Centerpiece, Closing Night—but, considering the underwhelming slickness on display, it seems more a business decision than an artistic one.


The Social Network, the Opening Night film, is David Fincher’s entertaining dissection of the fraught relationships and ex-friendships that were littered like carcasses after Facebook became an internet sensation. The tight, talky script by Aaron Sorkin might be its most salient feature: the structure—crosscutting between the early days at Harvard when the website idea was born and the legal wrangling that came afterward—ingeniously puts suspense, excitement and even a sense of tragedy into a story that isn’t dramatically compelling. But this is Hollywood at its slickest, and Fincher’s eye and Sorkin’s ear combine for a diverting two-hour ride. There are weaknesses—Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails-ish score is unnecessary, and Justin Timberlake is too lightweight to pull off charismatic Napster founder Sean Parker—but the rest of the cast, led by a superb Jesse Eisenberg (pictured, above) as Mark Zuckerman, is top-notch.


The Centerpiece selection, The Tempest, Julie Taymor’s dismantling of Shakespeare’s most magical play, doesn’t leave much magic in, only partly due to casting Helen Mirren (pictured, above) as Prospera (sic). Although the play’s important father-daughter dynamic has been destroyed by the gender switch, it’s the least of Taymor’s problems. Her Tempest, though visually spectacular, is filled with curious directorial choices. The sprite Ariel whooshes through the air or divides into several selves too often; conversely, for an isle full of sounds and sweet airs, what we hear is anything but sweet, as Elliot Goldenthal’s music is easily his least interesting. The acting is similarly uneven: Mirren gives powerful readings of Shakespeare’s great poetry, but never makes Prospera real (of course, visions of Christopher Plummer’s masterly Prospero at Stratford are still in my head). Felicity Jones’ Miranda, Ben Whishaw’s Ariel, Djimon Honsou’s Caliban and Alfred Molina’s Stephano are acceptable, but David Straithairn, Chris Cooper, Tom Conti and Alan Cumming do little with the men from Milan; the nadir is Russell Brand, whose Trinculo minces annoyingly (and unfunnily). Most damagingly, Taymor omits Prospero(a)’s final soliloquy, among the most heartrending in all Shakespeare: instead, it’s warbled by singer Beth Gibbons over the end credits, underlining Taymor’s final ruination of the Bard.


The closing night pick was Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s latest, a sentimental snooze fest penned by Peter Morgan, of all people (who should stick to Queen Elizabeth, Tony Blair and David Frost). Hereafter concerns a trio touched by death: a 12-year-old Londoner whose twin brother is hit and killed by a car; a French newswoman who barely survives an Asian tsunami; and a “retired” American psychic who finds his “gift” more like a curse. Eastwood crosscuts among them until, an interminable two hours later, they meet in the unlikeliest way imaginable for a bittersweetly happy ending. What attracted Eastwood to this project? It’s so sappy, disingenuous and effects-laden—the tsunami and glimpses of the “hereafter” are egregious examples of the movie’s unimaginative visuals—and there’s nothing of interest underneath. Which is unfortunate, for the subject has possibilities; but aside from a brief sequence when the 12-year-old (well-played by twins George and Frankie McLaren) runs into fake psychics, the movie takes the easy road to feel-good redemption, in the process wasting Matt Damon (pictured, above) and Cecile de France.

Of the rest of the festival features, I caught 14 out of 25. Carlos, Olivier Assayas’ five-hour mini-series made for French TV, was shown as three movies about the international terrorist whose life and career touched on dozens of countries, all of which seem to be represented in the film by their languages. Carlos was an undeniably magnetic individual, and we see him charming women, other terrorist leaders and his own colleagues to get his way while leading daring attacks that made him a simultaneous cause célèbre and most wanted criminal during the 1970s and ‘80s. In fact, much of the second film is taken up with his group’s successful kidnapping of the entire fleet of OPEC ministers in Vienna in 1975. The problem with Carlos is, almost unavoidably, a lack of omission: showing his personal life, frolicking in the surf with his young child and domesticity with his wife, Assayas romanticizes an evil man. But the director also does not shy away from the damage Carlos caused, showing in a series of excitingly-filmed sequences what terrorism is really like. In the title role, Edgar Ramirez is magnetic, speaking several languages fluently and making one believe that we are watching a documentary.

Another Year, Mike Leigh’s domestic comedy-drama, is filled with the usual warmth of his performers, who inhabit their roles fully. Although there’s much spinning of wheels in this portrait of quotidian British lives—scenes go on too long, in the false hope that Leigh and his actors break through to an insight of sorts—there’s much to admire, notably the performances of Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as husband and wife who are an oasis of serenity for the troubled souls who revolve around them. Too bad Lesley Manville, as their friend Mary, overacts mightily, nearly the odious equal of Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky. Luckily (and happily), everything else about Another Year—down to Gary Yershon’s evocative chamber music—works well enough, and the final shots of Manville silently facing her predicament work precisely because she stops hamming.

Le Quattro Volte, Michelangelo Frammartino’s astonishing documentary shot in the Calabrian hills of southern Italy, is a nearly wordless exploration of the life cycle of man and nature. With exquisite control, Frammartino shows the daily life of an elderly shepherd, his goats, herding dog and surrounding countryside (including a magnificent fir tree). Life and death are casually—and causally—interconnected, and there’s a jaw-dropping sequence starring the old man’s dog that’s so intricate in structure and timing that it seems staged like a Buster Keaton slapstick bit. That we are watching real life makes it more incredible. The final 15 minutes, which at first seem to meander aimlessly, climax with a forceful image of recycling in its truest sense.

Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has become a “golden boy” director, unfathomably won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the diffuse, lackadaisical (and lackluster) film about ghosts, reincarnation and nature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. An early sequence of a cow is glorious, but once the title character (dying of liver disease) sees his long-dead wife return as a ghost and his long-away son return as part of a group of forest monkeys with red lasers for eyes, the movie turns more nonsensical and less magical. The final scenes featuring a monk, Boonmee’s sister-in-law, a young girl and their doubles are truly inscrutable, and so is the entire movie—except for those who find profound meaning in the solace of benevolent ghosts.

Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami’s first fictional film in a decade, is a typically self-reflexive and ultimately self-serving story about a couple who may or may not have been married for 15 years and who may or may not meet in a small Tuscan town for an anniversary gone awry. Shot in ever-photogenic Tuscany, the movie has its incidental pleasures as a travelogue, but the English man and French woman are never believable as a married couple, so there’s no reason to care about their uninvolving troubles. Juliette Binoche (who won best Actress at Cannes) has a wonderfully expressive face, and speaks French, English and Italian equally marvelously, but she overacts while facing the camera nearly all the time: she’s showing off the primary colors of her art (sneering, crying, laughing, yelling, etc.) instead of creating a real character. Opera singer William Shimell does what he can as the “husband,“ but the fault is Kiarostami’s hamfistedly pounding into the ground an insignificant fact about relationships blown up to pseudo-profundity.

The subject of John Lennon has been exhaustively covered in so many books, movies and television programs that, even though LENNONNYC presents material we haven’t seen or heard before—recording outtakes, vintage photos/film footage and interviews with peripheral players in John’s story—there isn’t much here that’s revelatory or original. True, it remains an engrossing tale of a superstar reinventing himself when he moves to New York in the early ‘70s as a peace activist, which pissed off Nixon’s FBI (which tried for years to deport him), finally becoming a contented house husband and father before reemerging in 1980 with a new album before his murder. It’s always great to hear John himself speak (and sing) so uninhibitedly, so nakedly, so honestly—as he always did. We even hear Yoko discuss certain aspects of John’s life and death we hadn’t heard before, and it’s great that Jann Wenner is nowhere in sight. Even if LENNONNYC sheds little new light on the most complicated Beatle, it’s another ride back to an adventurous, scary but hopeful era, which was shattered by Mark David Chapman 30 years ago.

Tuesday after Christmas, Radu Muntean’s claustrophobic feature about an adulterous husband who decides, just before the holidays, to admit to his wife that he’s in love with another woman (their young daughter’s dentist!), is an extraordinarily harrowing look at ordinary lives rent asunder by one person’s decisions. The movie begins with a 10-minute take of Paul and his lover Raluca in bed, unashamed of their nudity and talking small talk like real people do. (That she has a tramp stamp and no pubic hair shows the pervasive influence of porn movies, even in Eastern Europe.) Muntean shows the slowly unraveling relationships through many bravura scenes of naked emotions in unblinking single takes, as the camera becomes a voyeur, making us complicit in what’s happening. It wouldn’t be so powerful if Muntean didn’t have such excellent actors to work with, especially the two brave actresses, Maria Popoistau as Raluca and, especially, Mirela Oprisor as the wife, Adriana, who gives a fearless portrayal of a successful, intelligent, lovely woman blindsided by her husband’s confession.

Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois’ compelling drama based on a true story about French monks in a remote Algerian village who were kidnapped by terrorists in 1996, is less a thriller than a meditative character study of men who have decided to live austerely and at the behest of their fellow man, helping the poor and sick and giving hope to the destitute. Much of the film’s two-hour running time is taken over by glimpses of the monks going about their everyday existence, planting seeds, selling honey at the local bazaar and running a free clinic for those who need medicine. When a terrorist threat becomes real, the men face a difficult choice: to abandon the people and their calling as God’s helpers or to run back to France and safety. There’s a brilliant sequence of the men, praying and singing hymns in the chapel, being drowned out by an army helicopter, machine gun sticking ominously out. Beauvois smartly refrains from soundtrack music (only once is music other than the monks’ a cappella singing heard: an obvious scene of Swan Lake playing while the men have their last supper) or cross-cutting that would heighten suspense or anxiety. Unlike Americans, this director trusts his material and his audience, and the result—though depressing—is spiritually exhilarating.

Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest cinematic essay, is typically dense, with images, sounds and onscreen text jostling another for primacy. The first part takes place on a cruise ship, the second section at an automotive shop/gas station, and an epilogue, reminiscent of Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema, follows. There’s the added bonus of Godard’s “Navajo subtitles,” three or four words, often nonsensical, that supposedly summarize what’s being said. What does it mean? Not much; Godard is mumbling something about the world sliding into an anti-socialist agenda, although why that’s bad (or good) is never discussed further. Instead, there are the usual alternating gorgeous or clichéd images, cacophonous music and sounds (including his now-abused piano-pounding) and onscreen puns that tell more about Godard’s playfulness than his art.

Manuel de Oliveira, age 101, has finally made a watchable but still far from satisfying film with his ghostly The Strange Case of Angelica. His story of a photographer haunted by a beautiful young woman whom he took pictures of after her sudden death is certainly serviceable but, true to form, Oliveira only presents it as a bizarre shaggy-dog story with extraneous bits that stretch the running time. The Portuguese locations are lovely, as is the Chopin music on the soundtrack, but with stiff, robotic actors and his own zombie-ish visual style, Oliveira has made another disposable picture that makes me wonder what it is about his “artistry” that keeps him getting raves from critics and slots in film festivals the world over. After 25 years of sitting through his amateurish films, I’ve given up trying to figure it out.

The Robber, Benjamin Heisenberg’s drama based on a real-life incident, studies a marathon runner who is also a bank robber. Although at times quite exciting in its view of the protagonist Johann’s singlemindedness while running and robbing, Heisenberg’s film suffers from a surfeit of incredibility, especially in relation to the police, who are shown as so inept that it becomes quite silly to watch an entire force full of apparent idiots. Johann keeps escaping even more improbably until a crippled old man provides his eventual comeuppance. It’s disheartening to see such a skilled director allow such implausibility to reign, whether true or not. If it is true, then all criminals should leave for Vienna right now, since it’s easy to get away with murder. If not, then Heisenberg should apologize to his superb lead actors Andreas Lust and Franziska Weisz.

Kelly Reichert, who made the superior Old Joy and the inferior Wendy and Lucy, returns with Meek’s Cutoff, a minimalist western about a group of lost settlers on the Oregon Trail in 1845 that turns to a captured Indian to lead them to desperately-needed water. Nicely shot (in academy ratio) by cinematographer Chris Blauvelt, Meek’s Cutoff puts its characters through predictable paces, played by a cast that’s partly authentic-looking (Michelle Williams, Will Patton and Bruce Greenwood), but with two disastrously contemporary performers, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan. Reichert’s razor-sharp editing keeps one hopeful about the outcome of what, disappointingly, turns out to be a shaggy-dog story doubling as a weak allegory about our last two presidents.

Charles Ferguson’s relentlessly probing documentary about the recent economic meltdown, Inside Job, plots out in an entertaining and clear way how we arrived at such a horribly dark place after so much unrivaled prosperity. The answer is complex, but Ferguson knows how to provide information and insight in chewable proportions, and the resulting film should be seen by any thinking, rational adult. Beginning with the radical experiment in unfettered capitalism in Iceland (which failed miserably), Ferguson methodically moves through our own dismantling of financial regulations from the Reagan through Bush II eras, until the bottom fell out in September 2008. Ferguson also paints Obama with the same brush, since his economic policies are business as usual, with no real reform on the horizon. With Matt Damon’s brisk narration and various talking heads shown as either wise or ridiculous (why some appear in the front of a camera to make fools of themselves can only be attributed to their hubris, which originally got us into the 2008 mess), Inside Job—beautifully shot in widescreen, by the way—gives food for thought, however tardily served.

Black Venus–the real-life story of the Hottentot Venus, paraded as a freak sideshow for years in Europe until she died after working as a prostitute to make ends meet in 1815—is meticulously recreated by director Abdellatif Kechiche, who made the equally absorbing The Secret of the Grain. Long films are Kechiche's métier: the problem is, as Black Venus shows, judicious trimming would help immensely, since at times during this powerful study of exploitation and degradation, the director crosses the line separating studying from, exploiting and degrading. Luckily, the cast of memorable, unknown actors (particularly the unforgettable Yahima Torres as Venus) gives the film an almost freakishly realistic documentary-like quality that reaches its apogee with the clinical and difficult to watch final 10 minutes.

Of the festival’s Special Programs, I caught two documentaries. Cameraman–a wonderful account of the career of cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who died last year at age 95)—is a blissful time machine that returns us to the golden age of cinema, when visuals were faked by artists, not computers. Cardiff spent virtually his entire life in movies, starting as an actor at age 4, and still directing and photographing until his death. Cameraman revolves around an interview with Cardiff, and includes footage from countless movies he was involved in (from Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes to Rambo: First Blood Part II, and everything in between) and admiring snippets from colleagues Kirk Douglas, Martin Scorsese (of course), Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall and Freddie Francis. Of all of the films at this year’s festival, this might be the most pleasurable to watch.

The Nuremberg trials were held in 1946, and Stuart Schulberg’s cameras were there to record the historic occasion. Amazingly, the footage making up Nuremberg has not been seen in America—why the powers that be thought it wasn’t worth showing is unfathomable—and Schulberg’s daughter Sandra and Josh Waletzy have restored the film and recorded new narration by Live Schreiber. This revealing chronicle of the laborious process by the Allies in setting forth multiple counts against Nazi defendants (crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, etc.) also displays the varied cases of denial and murmurs of innocence by the defendants, who included Herman Goring, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer. As expected, to a man, they announced their shock and surprise at the lengths the war machine went to exterminate Jews and other undesirables. Wholesale slaughters in the past six decades might say differently, but films like Nuremberg are needed as cautionary tales and warnings against history repeating itself.

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