Thursday, October 25, 2012

New York Film Festival 2012

New York Film Festival 2012
September 28-October 14, 2012
Film Society of Lincoln Center
New York, NY

For its 50th anniversary (the first festival was in 1963), the New York Film Festival crammed a lot of movies into 17 days. In addition to the two dozen local premieres that made up what’s now called the Main Slate, there were also categories ranging like Midnight Movies, Cinema Reflected and Masterworks, which comprised older films by Federico Fellini, David Lean. Laurence Olivier, Francesco Rosi and Manuel de Oliveira, an inexplicable festival favorite.

Of dozens of titles, I caught 15, most in the Main Slate but some in the Cinema Reflected and Midnight Movies sections. Here are capsule reviews of those films, in order of viewing:

Caesar Must Die (Main Slate)
The Taviani brothers, long missing on these shores after early successes like The Night of Shooting Stars and Kaos, return with a documentary-fiction hybrid shot in Rome's most notorious prison, where the men in maximum security, who regularly put on plays, tackle Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. On paper, insights and ironies abound in these hardened men tackling such complex roles, and the men themselves are “characters” in a very real sense. But at 76 minutes, the movie feels half-baked, as if the brothers decided that their idea was enough, even though the offstage parts bring drama and depth to the men’s lives. Native Italian speakers may find more to dig into as each man speaks with his own local accent, heightening the differences among them. (opens February 6, 2013)

Camille Rewinds (Main Slate)
In this charming but forgettable remake of Francis Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married—pretty small potatoes itself, Kathleen Turner's star turn notwithstanding—Noemie Lvovsky plays the middle-aged, about to be divorced, aging actress who returns to 1985 when she was in high school, where she attempts to stave off her mom’s untimely death and her husband-to-be’s advances and deal with her pregnancy and get proof she'd been back in time. Engaging comedienne Lvovsky’s movie has moments of emotional clarity, but too much is given over to the silliness that also marred Peggy Sue.

Berberian Sound Studio (Midnight Movies)
In this paean to bloody thrillers put out in droves by the Italian film industry—Giallo films were made by directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava in the ‘60s and ‘70s—director Peter Strickland cleverly dramatizes their absurdity without reducing his film to a mere slavish parody or imitation. A perfectly befuddled Toby Jones plays a veteran British sound man who starts working in Rome to create sickening sound effects that stand in for pulverizing innocent women onscreen; there’s a wickedly black sense of humor, and there’s also has a real find, Romanian actress Tonia Sotiropoulou, as a sexy but sinister secretary. 

Passion (Main Slate)
Brian DePalma returns to the stylishly empty thrillers with which he made his name in this unnecessary remake of Alain Corneau's Love Crime (2010). What was believable and elegant—thanks to superbly matched performances by Kristin Scott Thomas as a backstabbing boss and Ludivine Sagnier as a put-upon associate—becomes in DePalma's hands cheap and glitteringly shallow. DePalma includes “salacious” lesbianism, S&M and even a split-screen sequence paralleling Debussy's ballet Afternoon of a Faun—the only time genuine music is heard in a movie gummed up by Pino Donaggio's swelling score, more akin to a Cinemax late night soft-core flick—with a murder. Rachel McAdams is ravishing and gleefully evil (though I prefer her as a brunette) and Noomi Rapace can hold DePalma's merciless close-ups without embarrassment. But it’s all for naught: in the last minutes, DePalma plagiarizes himself with a series of increasingly ridiculous dream sequences that underline his desperation.

The Bay (Midnight Movies)
This environmental thriller was directed by Diner’s Barry Levinson, believe it or not; its message that humans are out of control polluting their environment and that nature will get revenge is dramatized clunkily but creepily. This is another “found-footage” film—which began with The Blair Witch Project and has gone crazy with Paranormal Activity sequels—even if much footage looks impossible due to lack of source. But plausibility isn’t the strong suit of such movies, and Levinson controls the horror decently, with enough gross-out moments to keep its core audience happy. (opens November 2)

Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out (Cinema Reflected)
To follow up her 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired—which might be why Polanski was arrested in Switzerland and threatened with extradition to the U.S. in 2009 for skipping out on his 1978 sentencing for unlawful sex with a teen—director Marina Zenovich returns to the scene(s) of the crime: Los Angeles, where the D.A. and Polanski's legal team battle it out; Hawaii, where Samantha Geimer, whom Polanski slept with at 13 but forgave him and wants to move on; and Switzerland, where Polanski is that country’s oldest prisoner. Zenovich explores theories that could have led to the arrest, including Swiss bank UBS’s troubles with our government. Although sympathetic to the 76-year-old Polanski and his family’s plight, Zenovich is no pro-Roman zealot: she allows all sides to speak their peace, even a moron at the Zurich Film Festival (where Polanski was headed when nabbed at the airport) who says he hopes Polanski meets Charles Manson in prison.

Hyde Park on Hudson (Main Slate)
Buzz surrounds Bill Murray's portrayal of FDR in Roger Michell’s conventionally entertaining biopic about the president at his Hudson River home with wife Eleanor, mother Roosevelt, secretary Missy and cousin-lover Daisy, along with visitors from England: King George and Queen Elizabeth (yes, The King’s Speech monarch). Although his impersonation is accurate, there’s never a moment where you forget Bill Murray’s imitating FDR. Much more to the point are Laura Linney, an actress who astounds with every revelatory portrayal, as Daisy, and Olivia Williams as a hilariously dead-on Eleanor. Richard Nelson's script has moments of insight and humor, but is more often tethered to Hollywood’s usual award-season biopics: the movie screams, “nominate me, please!” (opens December 7)

Liv & Ingmar (Cinema Reflected)
The collaboration between director Ingmar Bergman and actress Liv Ullmann was one of cinema’s most fruitful: this documentary, structured around an emotional Ullmann interview, personalizes their relationship through the intimacies Bergman boldly put onscreen and Ullmann baring her soul for her art. There are excerpts from Bergman's often painful letters to Ullmann, along with many clips from films they did together, from Persona to Autumn Sonata; too bad director Dheeraj Akolkar edits them to look like they commented on the couple’s volatile off-screen relationship. But Ullmann's on-camera directness and honesty, at age 73, saves the film from mawkishness.

Amour (Main Slate)
In Michael Haneke’s hard-hitting exploration of a long-time loving relationship, an elderly Parisian couple deals with the wife’s incapacitating stroke. Their culturedness—former music teachers, they attend her former student’s Schubert recital the night before she starts her downhill spiral—provides Haneke's stance that they suffer more since they are not part of the 99 percent. Despite such cynicism (is it his or mine?), Amour works forcefully due to utterly persuasive acting by Jean-Louis Trintignant as the husband and especially Emmanuelle Riva, who gives the kind of devastating portrayal as the wife that not only wins awards but sidesteps Haneke’s churlish methods. Haneke is incapable of sentiment or warmth—both provided by his couple—which his ending with a side trip to surreality proves. (opens December 19)

Beyond the Hills (Main Slate)
Director Christian Mungiu methodically chronicles how nuns in a Romanian monastery deal with an outsider (one young nun’s friend from an orphanage) who arrives and disrupts everything with her anti-religious fervor. For 150 minutes, Mungiu films with the same dispassionate interest, and there are powerful scenes, especially an exorcism is performed on the pitiable young woman after they cannot handle her outbursts. But Mungiu—whose 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days was a strong if flawed work— gets tripped  up at the end, unfortunately following in the pretentious footsteps of other Romanian directors for whom length equals depth (Christi Puiu’s Aurora, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police Adjective). (opens 2013)

Frances Ha (Main Slate)
Director Noah Baumbach and indie it-girl of the moment Greta Gerwig join forces for this insufferably smug chronicle of a whiny 20-something dancer and her friends living in New York. These people, endlessly clever wisecrackers (is there no one who can’t toss off improbable one-liners at any time any more?), are annoying to the nth degree, and Gerwig's Frances takes the cake. The pair’s script is disjointed and unfunny, the characters are hipster caricatures (is that redundant?), and Baumbach's direction comprises thievery from Manhattan (the digital B&W photography looks awful), Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays as Frances runs down the street) and Truffaut films (Georges Delerue’s misappropriated music). But their ending, in which the film’s title is visualized, is the most obnoxious form of visual “humor” that for some reason escapes me.

Resnais (right) directs Azema and Arditi
You Ain't Seen Nothin’ Yet (Main Slate)
90-year-old director Alain Resnais demonstrates his continued vitality with another extraordinarily uncommercial and personal take on the cinematic illusion of reality vs. artifice. He collects a dozen of his favorite performers for a strangely compelling version of Jean Anouilh’s play Eurydice that includes three couples playing the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. At first, the triplings seem a sterile actors’ exercise, but Resnais’ peculiar rhythms soon find their footing and the movie becomes a showman’s grand finale—if indeed it is that, in the nonagenarian Resnais’ case—and a percolating display of the art of acting (in Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson’s case), underplaying (Michel Piccoli and Hippolyte Girardot) and overacting (Resnais’ wife Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi). As rugs are pulled out from under the viewer at the end, Resnais’ 60-year cinematic sleight of hand still astonishes, and wipes away the bad taste left by his last feature, 2009’s Wild Grass.

Barbara (Main Slate)
Christian Pezhold’s latest drama features his favorite actress, Nina Hoss, as a doctor who, after asking for an exit visa to leave East Germany is unceremoniously moved from an important Berlin hospital to a shabby provincial one. Barbara can’t trust anyone she comes into contact with, including her colleagues—a trio of Stasi members calls frequently to search her apartment and body cavities—although with patients she’s professional and caring. Pezhold works straightforwardly and effectively until his dramatic climax which is actually anticlimactic. That’s unfortunate, since the stifling atmosphere of 1980 East Germany is impeccably shown, a magisterial Hoss heads a magnificent cast and there’s no campy melodrama—until the end, when Pezhold loses control and nerve. (opens December 21)

Room 237 (Cinema Reflected)
In this riveting documentary, five people espouse their theories of Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining’s “meaning,” including the Holocaust, massacre of American Indians and even how Kubrick helped fake the first moon landing! The Shining is filled with mysterious and strange doings, even by Kubrickian standards, and what for other directors are gaffes or continuity errors are heavily fraught with “meaning” because Kubrick—unrelenting and exacting as he was—would never allow such things as a chair to go missing or a typewriter to change color, would he? Director Rodney Ascher has great fun with these outlandish theories, but since The Shining is equally outlandish—Jack Nicholson’s hamminess would ruin lesser films—it can withstand such visual and thematic hocus-pocus, like an amazing sequence of the film being shown backward and forward simultaneously, superimposed on the other. (opens in 2013)

Something in the Air (Main Slate)
In Olivier Assayas’ insightful chronicle of post-1968 French students (whose French title is, literally, After May), those who missed the first protests take their turn: they deface buildings with graffiti, toss Molotov cocktails at guards, and protest on the streets of Paris (in an exciting opening scene), only to be beaten down by violent cops. Assayas shows his protagonists—led by Clement Mettayer, obviously his stand-in as Gilles—as well-meaning, angry but ultimately politically na├»ve, and it’s no surprise that Gilles is the lone one who questions their cause’s usefulness (he reads Emperor Mao’s New Clothes, a devastating expose of Communists, batted down by a comrade as “CIA propaganda”). As a companion piece to his last film, the epic terrorist study Carlos, Assayas’ latest personalizes a volatile era—the early ‘70s—politically and culturally. But the wall-to-wall tunes on the soundtrack aren’t simply nostalgic; instead, they capture specific emotions and moods. (opens spring 2013)

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