Friday, October 21, 2011

2011 New York Film Festival

49th New York Film Festival
September 30-October 16, 2011
For its 49th annual edition, the New York Film Festival became bigger than ever, literally: in addition to the usual two dozen main-slate films, its showcase screenings (Opening Night, Centerpiece, Closing Night) expanded by two Galas. Will the Festival soon go the way of Toronto and have a Gala screening every night?

There were also sidebars like a Pauline Kael panel discussion and related screening of James Toback’s awful Fingers; special events including several documentaries; and a 37-film retrospective of classic Japanese films from the Nikkatsu studio. And in anticipation of next year’s 50th anniversary Fest, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is screening one film from each previous festival every month, beginning with the first Opening Night feature in 1962: Luis Bunuel’s classic The Exterminating Angel.

Whether greater quantity equals greater quality is questionable: of the dozen films I saw in this year’s main slate, only Alice Rohrwacher’s smashing debut, Corpo Celeste, was a happy discovery. Films by supposed major talents (Almodovar, Kaurismaki, Polanski, Payne, the Dardennes, von Trier, Cronenberg) ranged from OK to disappointing to disastrous. The documentaries, however, were intriguing, as were the Nikkatsu entries, especially Shohei Imamura’s masterworks Pigs and Battleships and Intentions of Murder.

The Opening Night film was Roman Polanski’s Carnage (opening December 16). Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage isn’t very deep, but it’s a rip-roaringly nasty entertainment about two civilized New York City couples who meet to hash out their fighting sons’ differences and end up at each other’s throats…like their boys. Broadway’s superlative cast--James Gandolfini, Marsha Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis--made Reza’s one-note comedy explode. That’s missing from Roman Polanski’s rote reenactment: a deeply committed Jodie Foster outclasses a miscast John C. Reilly, a shrill Kate Winslet and a weirdly out-of-place Christoph Waltz. Polanski’s other misstep is showing the boys’ battle, erasing any ambiguity (it’s only discussed in the play). Polanski moves his camera shrewdly around the tight spaces of a Brooklyn apartment, but zeroing in on unfocused performances in close-up reveals the material’s essential shallowness.

I didn’t see the Centerpiece film, Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn (opening November 23), due to a strange decision to have the lone press screening on the Sunday morning of Columbus Day weekend. However, I did catch the two other Galas. At a slim 99 minutes, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (above, opening November 23), a study of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud--based on Christopher Hampton’s talky if literate play--comes across as Psychoanalysis 101. Still, with terrific acting by Michael Fassbinder (Jung), an unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen (Freud) and a no-holds-barred Kiera Knightley (Jung’s patient-turned-lover Sabine), Method is Cronenberg’s most entertaining movie in ages, even with moments (a close-up of Sabine’s post-sex blood on the sheets) where it’s obvious that one of cinema’s least subtle directors is at the helm. No matter: these people’s sexuality is on the surface anyway.

In The Skin I Live In (opened October 14), Pedro Almodovar has made a stylish but stupid thriller about a crazed doctor who rebuilds his dead wife with the body of the young man whose rape of the doc’s teenage daughter caused her suicide. Got that? To hide the implausibilities and inconsistencies, Almodovar has cleverly structured the film by scrambling chronology so that the big plot twist/revelation doesn’t occur until near the end, which gives viewers fewer chances to think about how ridiculous it all is. Antonio Banderas suffers nobly, while a fabulous-looking Elena Anaya is put through any number of demeaning acts. The movie’s as sleek and slickly-made as all latter-day Almodovar. But I’d never thought I’d miss his earlier ramshackle comedies.

The Closing Night film, The Descendants (opening November 23), is the latest by Alexander Payne, maker of Election, Citizen Ruth and Sideways. Payne’s movies aren’t as substantial as they want to be, and the new film is no different. A superbly befuddled George Clooney (above, with the equally good Shailene Woodley) plays a rich Honolulu lawyer who discovers, after she’s is in a coma, that his wife cheated on him, so he gathers his daughters to track down the guy. The first half is a nicely observed adult comedy about dealing with everyday disasters, but when the movie switches gears to find the adulterer, it spins its wheels. Although Payne rights himself for a satisfyingly melancholic ending, he too often looks for easy laughs by descending into sitcom territory, a la James Brooks.

Turning to the rest of the main slate, an important theme--illegal immigration--is turned by Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre (opening November 4) into something as topical as last year’s almanac. Kaurismaki’s familiar deadpan style has worn thin and his expressionless actors turn a potentially powerful premise into molasses. The city of Le Havre is no jewel of France, but it surely deserves better than Kaurismaki’s latest minor effort; aside from a few ‘90s gems (La Vie de Boheme, Juha, Drifting Clouds), Kaurismaki’s uninspired films have been providing ever more meager returns.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (currently on HBO), Martin Scorsese’s sprawling 3-½ hour biography, mimics Harrison’s first solo album All Things Must Pass in its attempt to encompass every facet of an artist whose musical talent was hidden behind the formidable Lennon and McCartney. Structured chronologically and including vintage Harrison interviews and archival footage of him with and without the Beatles, Material World doesn’t unearth any revelations for those familiar with George’s career, but genuinely heartfelt and touching words from colleagues (Ringo, Paul, Clapton, Petty, Yoko) and family (ex-wife Patti Boyd, widow Olivia, son Dhani) refer to his selfless spirituality that was also evident in his music.

Belgium’s Dardenne brothers ask viewers to suspend disbelief in their latest, The Kid with a Bike (opening in 2012), which follows a young boy, orphaned by a deadbeat dad, who wants to get his bike back. An uncommonly selfless woman takes an interest in him, buys back his bike and becomes his mother-cum-guardian angel figure; more damagingly, a medical miracle occurs at the end of a movie that, aside from its fairy-tale female lead, had been intently realistic. Aside from these huge implausibilities, there’s much to admire, notably the performances of newcomer Thomas Dorset, raw and natural in the title role, and Cecile de France, winningly believable as the too-good-to-be-true heroine (both in photo above).

Corpo Celeste (opening in 2012), the startling debut film of writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, is a deeply insightful chronicle of an adolescent girl’s difficulties at home, at school, with her friends, and life in general. The film, properly set in southern Italy, is shot through with the kind of religious guilt that could smother anybody: as Marta prepares for her confirmation, a big deal for teenage Catholics, she cannot get a handle on the hypocrisies she finds among adults and her peers. Rohrwacher savvily and humorously presents Marta’s troubles without condescension and, coupled with (above) Yle Vianello’s marvelously unaffected performance, has created a serious comedy that truthfully explores the life of a teenager in ways far removed from the sentimentality and cheap laughs of American movie and TV screens.

Ham-fisted, obvious, relentlessly clumsy in its narrative, characterization and metaphorical baggage, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (opening November 11) begins with an overwrought wedding sequence that chews up so much time it ends up a slack-eyed parody of The Deer Hunter. Trier’s leaden dramatics are on display for a mind-boggling 135 minutes: he actually has poor John Hurt (who has never looked more embarrassed) repeat jokes about wedding guests named Betty and hide forks to fool a waiter. Kirsten Dunst has gotten raves and Oscar talk, but she’s fatally hamstrung by her character’s essential shallowness: this depressive heroine’s troubles are small potatoes compared to the title planet (who named it?) coming too close to earth. Trier even repeats his trite effects: Antichrist’s slo-mo Handel opening returns, only this time Armageddon is scored to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Delusions of grandeur, anyone?

Shame (opening December 2), Steve McQueen’s studied, stylized follow-up to his studied, stylized Bobby Sands biopic, Hunger, turns a solid subject--sex addiction--into soap opera. A successful Wall Street dude jerks off at work/home, hires hookers, picks up/screws women at bars, and even hooks up for anonymous gay sex! But at least he’s a cultured pervert who listens to Bach’s Goldberg Variations while watching porn. Shame is hysterically unconvincing about one man’s predilections, even burdening him with a needy sister who stays at his apartment and walks in on him in the bathroom while he’s masturbating. (For shame!) The real shame is a shoehorned, dramatically suspect climax involving a suicide attempt. Michael Fassbender is excellent in the lead, Carey Mulligan is equally good as his sister, and McQueen cannily uses New York locations, but his movie thinks it’s more controversial and hard-hitting than it is.

Pina (opening December 21), Wim Wenders’ affecting elegy for modern-dance choreographer Pina Bausch, alternates between reenactments of her signature pieces--including a scintillating Rite of Spring--and touching reminiscences and valentines from her colleagues and dancers, which are a truly international group: German, French, British, Spanish, Russian, Japanese. Wenders intercuts among Bausch’s many dances, staged both in Bausch’s usual locale and in outdoor places ranging from Berlin street corners, public transit and even a picturesque hillside. Shot in 3-D--well-used but far from essential--Pina is a lasting memorial from one artist to another.

First-time writer-director Nadav Lapid begins his drama Policeman (no distributor) with an extended episode about Israeli special forces’ travails on and off the job: an upcoming trial over collateral killing during the assassination of an Arab terrorist; one man’s hugely pregnant wife; another’s upcoming operation on a possibly malignant tumor. After introducing these everyday lives, Lapid switches gears to show a group of nearly laughably idealistic young anarchists who decide to kidnap billionaires attending a wedding (no bodyguards for just such a possibility?). The two strands come together organically but ineptly. This well-made, documentary-like drama is filled with stick-figure caricatures that weaken its polemical persuasiveness.

Michel Hazanavicus’ The Artist (opening November 23) is a slight but delightful foray into the magic of the movies. This black and white, silent movie is not a spoof, like Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, but rather a hokily entertaining story of silents giving way to the sound era. The movie is impressive visually and sonically thanks to Guillaume Schiffman’s photography and Ludovic Bourse’s score (with an assist from Bernard Herrmann's music for Vertigo). I don’t want to overrate what’s simply a diverting concoction--like a tasty ice cream sundae--but there are compensations: the dog is the best movie dog ever, a Jack Russell terrier of terrifying talent; the leading man, Jean Dujardin, is a handsome throwback to the superstars of yesteryear; and leading lady Berenice Bejo (above, center), a French actress from Argentina, is not only gorgeous but also endearing and adorably approachable. It's a one-trick movie, but it does that trick well enough.

I also caught a quartet of the “special events” documentaries. Vito (on HBO in January 2012), Jeffrey Schwartz’s impressive, loving portrait of Vito Russo, icon of the gay activist movement during the 70s and 80s fighting for gay rights during the specter of the AIDS epidemic, which finally killed him in 1990. Russo, who worked at the Museum of Modern Art, was also a pioneering film scholar who wrote The Celluloid Closet, a great book about gay subtexts in films. This honest bio, a fascinating overview of the history of gay activism, has poignant recollections from people whom Russo touched in his brief life--friends, colleagues and family members.

Patience (After Sebald) (no distributor), Grant Gee’s compelling visual essay, is based on the novel The Rings of Saturn by German author W.G. Sebald, who spent the last decades of his life in England and whose books are filled with the geography of that area. Gee takes a journey through Sebald’s writing, showing the places which gave him inspiration. There are also the usual talking heads discussing Sebald’s work and these places’ importance. Sometimes it plays like a Peter Greenaway-like spoof--I thought of Vertical Features Remake more than once--with beautiful photography and locations, coupled with the elegance of Sebald’s writing (Jonathan Pryce narrates).

Italian director Stefano Savona went to Cairo when anti-Mubarak crowds started forming in Tahrir Square last January to make Tahrir (no distributor), a first-hand look at the first Islamic revolution. This emotionally and politically overwhelming event is captured with Savona’s hand-held camera, which records engaged, intelligent and orderly men and women who risked their lives for a new government. In addition to glimpses of the crowds chanting what we saw on the news, there are though-provoking conversations among a group of people embarking on a dangerous voyage into uncharted territory. Thankfully, filmmakers like Savona were there to record these important first baby steps.

A remarkable study of human culpability, stupidity and, ultimately, redemption, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3 (on HBO in January 2012) follows the West Memphis 3 from their trumped-up trial for killing three young boys to their recent prison release despite proclaiming guilt in exchange for time served. The film ties together narrative strands from the previous two films, creating a landmark study of American justice and religious obsession. The film also raises a troubling question: if these men (who were mere teens when jailed) are innocent, then who is the real killer? Tantalizingly, the filmmakers point to a dead boy’s stepfather, but it doesn’t reach The Thin Blue Line chillingness. So who is the prime suspect now? Does anyone care?

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