Tuesday, October 22, 2013

New York Film Festival 2013 Wrap-up

New York Film Festival
September 27-October 13, 2013
Film Society of Lincoln Center
New York, NY
filmlinc.com

The New York Film Festival begins its second half-century by invisibly morphing into two separate festivals: one a star-studded faux-Toronto in miniature (Tom Hanks for Opening Night, Ben Stiller for the Centerpiece, Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix for Closing Night, and Gala Tributes to Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett) and the other comprising the art-film programming that’s been New York’s bread and butter since 1963, including a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective and a revival of French director Alain Resnais’ restored 1977 film Providence. Herewith are my reviews of 15 films from this year’s edition, in alphabetical order.

12 Years a Slave 
(opened Oct. 18 in New York; opens Nov. 1 nationwide)
Solomon Northup’s story is incredible but true: a free black man living in Saratoga, NY, in 1841 he was kidnaped in Washington DC and sold into slavery until regaining his freedom in 1853. His book, published that year, is the basis for Steve McQueen’s latest exploration of physical and spiritual debasement, following a not-bad 2008 debut about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, Hunger, and a silly 2011 follow-up, Shame, about a sex addict. 12 Years, because of its source’s inherent power, is better, but a subtler director would further explore the story’s nuances and not merely visualize them and allow us to supply the guilt. This heavy-handed recreation of slavery, while unrelievedly brutal, is also picture-postcard pretty:  Sean Bobbitt’s photography makes the atrocities look like a demented Norman Rockwell painting.

It also doesn’t help that Northup is essentially a passive character in John Riley’s screenplay: although the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor plays him persuasively, he too often simply watches events occur (which makes the time his master forces him to whip another slave an obvious bit of dramatic irony). Michael Fassbender forcefully transcends stereotypes as the frighteningly harsh slave-owner Epps, and Lupita N’yongo makes the most out of Patsey, a female slave whose ugly beating underscores her role as a sacrificial Christ figure. This didactic and melodramatic exploration of slavery recalls Roots and even Mandingo—both of which were far more potent—but in its singlemindedness, it can be seen as a flawed but necessary corrective to the colossally irresponsible Django Unchained. 

About Time (opens November 1)
Why this flimsy romantic comedy is in the festival when new films by Bertrand Tavernier, Paolo Sorrentino and even Lars von Trier aren’t is a supreme mystery. Writer-director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually) is an old hand at such fluff, which he can turn out in his sleep, but here he has a twist: his hero can travel through time to clean up personal messes or misses, like how he meets and falls for Mary, the love of his life. There are amusing moments, and even some touching ones—such unabashed sappiness wears one down—but the entire effect is that of two hours in the company of a very aggressive sentimentalist. The cast comprises very fine British actors like Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan and newcomer Domhnall Gleeson, but it’s the irresistible Rachel McAdams as Mary who makes this palatable. Why she isn’t one of Hollywood’s biggest stars is another mystery: a combination of Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts at their most adorable, she also has a delectableness of her very own.

Huppert, Shen and director Breillat on set of Abuse of Weakness
Abuse of Weakness
Catherine Breillat, who suffered a stroke in 2004 at age 56, has made a bitterly self-recriminating—even self-pitying—drama about its aftermath, when she allowed herself to be bilked by a charismatic “bad boy.” In the hands of the fearless Isabelle Huppert, film director Maud Schoenberg (Breillat’s stand-in) is difficult to like and won’t allow a stroke to slow her down, despite leaving her limping and with a left hand curled into a claw. The opening stroke/hospital sequence is harrowing, but Breillat—who could easily have made a sentimental feel-good tale about a victim resurrecting herself triumphantly—opts for something tougher to watch: showing a talented artist giving herself up to a man she knows is her ruin. Portuguese rapper Kool Shen is magnetic as her sinister nemesis, but it’s Huppert from whom we can’t look away, especially in that final unyielding close-up that peers into the depths of Maud’s/Breillat’s soul.

American Promise  
(opened October 18 in New York; on PBS in Feb. 2014)
In this absorbing if overlong documentary, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson train their cameras on their son Idris and best friend Seun throughout their school careers, from entering kindergarten to getting into Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton school to applying at a number of prestigious colleges. Although the film show the difficulties for young black men in America (hence the ironic title), judicious cutting could have made what happens to the boys less schematic and uninvolving. Indeed, the movie is most compelling when life (and death) takes over and the families are blindsided by events far more important and lasting than whether or not two teenagers will get into the colleges of their choice. Still, this is an eye-opening look at a portion of society not often seen.

In the Dark Room
For its first half, Nadav Schirman’s documentary about Magdalena Kopp, girlfriend and confederate of infamous international terrorist Carlos the Jackal (immortalized in Olivier Assayas’ Carlos) is a gripping look behind the scenes at how a na├»ve young woman becomes a terrorist. But once Kopp’s daughter Rosa is introduced (she basically has grown up without knowing—or even seeing—her father Carlos, who was in prison), the movie becomes another animal entirely. Rosa’s journey to learn about, then finally visit, her absentee dad is fraught with sadness. Although we don’t see the meeting, when she describes it to her disbelieving mother (it turns out Carlos is a self-centered a-hole—no surprise), it becomes obvious that the innocent offspring of terrorists shouldn’t have to pay for mistakes made before they were born.

La Jalousie (Jealousy)
The posturing Philippe Garrel has always posed the question: why do his borderline inept films keep making the cut at the NY Film Festival? If his latest isn’t as ponderous as usual, it still lacks artistry and insight. The slight 75-minute trifle follows Garrel’s son, the tousle-haired amateurish actor Louis, who plays a father with a young daughter who leaves his wife for a volatile affair with an actress. This boring roundelay is constantly interrupted by pointless episodes of the hero not doing much of anything. Garrel fils is a cipher as always—why is he a leading French leading man?—while Anna Margolis is fiery as his girlfriend and Olga Milshtein is a revelation as the young daughter: her onscreen moments are the best of Garrel pere’s career.

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian
Arnaud Despleschin’s tantalizing film treats a Native American with no condescension in the immediate post-WWII era, when the “best and brightest” were as racist as everyone else. The bulk of the film comprises meetings between battle-scarred Jimmy P. (Benecio Del Toro in a towering but understated performance) and a sympathetic therapist (Mathieu Amalric, a little too over the top), and their scenes together are appealingly conversational. The rest of the film, unfortunately, is bland enough to nearly detail the strengths of Del Toro’s effortless portrayal of a deceptively difficult role.

Lanzmann and Murmelstein, The Last of the Unjust
The Last of the Unjust
Claude Lanzmann, who made the seminal Holocaust documentary Shoah, has spent his career illuminating man’s ultimate humanity to man. For nearly four hours, Lanzmann casts a penetrating gaze on the Czech concentration camp at Terezin, held up as a “show camp” by the Nazis for the Red Cross. Structured around a 1975 interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, last of the camp’s Jewish Elders, conducted by Lanzmann in Rome, the film finds endless shades of grey in what many see as just “good vs. evil.” Murmelstein, engaging and thoughtful, even demolishes Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” description of Adolph Eichmann, with whom he interacted. New footage of Lanzmann reciting—scads of papers in hand—from Murmelstein’s valuable book on Terezin is awkwardly inserted, but never detracts from the film’s cumulative power.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon
In Hong Sang-soo’s laidback chamber film, a young Korean woman becomes emotionally adrift after her mother leaves for Canada: she finds it difficult to deal with the men in her life, whether actual or in her dreams. I was never an Eric Rohmer fan—too much talk, but not enough pregnant or penetrating—and I have the same problem with Hong’s character studies. His heroine, basically a wet blanket whom it’s hard to get worked up over (or sympathize with), isn’t developed enough to carry even this flimsy 90-minute movie on her shoulders.

Providence
Alain Resnais’ first English-language film, from 1977, is saddled with British playwright David Mercer’s pretentious script, but it’s easy to see why it appealed to a director who loves fragmented, time-scrambled narratives: it mainly visualizes the musings of an dying elderly writer (the inimitable John Gielgud), which play out with the people in his life (Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn and David Warner). Although there are dazzling sleights of hand as Resnais crosscuts among these characters, even replaying scenes in slightly different ways, crude dialogue and lack of empathy make Providence less immediately graspable than Resnais’ best work. Endless camera movements that pry among shrubbery and trees are an overused leitmotif and Miklos Rosza’s voluptuous orchestral score turns syrupy—and not entirely ironically. Still, it’s nice to see this lost Resnais film on the big screen restored: it looks fine, though the final shots look less impressive.

Real
In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first film in five years, sci-fi and monster movies meet La Jetee, although it does little interestingly or with commensurate artistry. In the festival’s second time-travel movie (the rom-com About Time is more organic dealing with its conceit), a grieving young man enters the consciousness of his comatose girlfriend after her suicide attempt because of her creative block—or does he? After 80 minutes of watching this morose young man, Kurosawa shifts gears for the last 45 minutes, creating a downright unhinged tragic romance featuring the arrival of an extinct—and malevolent—dinosaur. Some creepy, arresting images don’t add up to a satisfying whole.

Tim’s Vermeer (opens in 2014)
Penn & Teller’s good friend—and inventor—Tim Jenison is infatuated with Johannes Vermeer’s extraordinarily detailed paintings: and, using David Hockney’s book about Old Masters and optics as a jumping-off point, Tim invents a mirror with which he is able to create his own painting, thinking this might be what Vermeer used nearly four centuries earlier. The result is a fascinating if slightly daft journey into obsession and artistic genius that doubles as an enlightening Vermeer primer that shows how 21st century techniques can illuminate 17th century art. Teller directs cleverly and unobtrusively, Penn talks incessantly and hilariously, and Tim is our entertaining guide—what’s not to like?

Jia Zhang-Je's A Touch of Sin
A Touch of Sin (opened October 4 in New York)
NYFF veteran Jia Zhang-Je (whose Platform remains one of the best festival films in the past 20 years) focuses his laser-like lens on modern-day China, whose economy resembles America’s—the rich get richer, the poor get poorer—as the bottom is literally dropping out. Jia bases his film on four incidents of violence as a last resort for desperate people, which are linked narratively. The first section, about a persecuted miner who resorts to murder after insults threaten his manhood, is marvelously self-contained and filled with powerful imagery of a corrupt society rotting from within. But the three weak episodes that follow essentially repeat the first without its unsettling seriousness. This draining but frustrating experience would have been masterly if Jia had expanded his first segment instead of undercutting its insightful observations by including the others.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, last at the festival with his unbearably pretentious Police Adjective, which crept along for over two hours, proves he can also creep for a mere 89 minutes. Yet another look at a director making a film, Metabolism shows what happens off the set: when we finally get there, the movie ends. The opening scene of director and actress discussing “film vs. digital” is amusing; the rest, comprising one-take sequences lasting anywhere from one to eleven minutes (an unfunny in-joke), is merely irritating. That a director has (and even causes) problems while making a film is not automatic fodder for a masterpiece: Porumboiu’s stillborn feature is a far cry from Federico Fellini’s 8-1/2.

The Wind Rises (opens in 2014)
For his latest gem, Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki has made one of his most earthbound—but, paradoxically, thrillingly airborne—movies: a biography of engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Zero fighter jets that were infamous as kamikaze planes in WWII. While he doesn’t shy away from controversy—there is disgusted talk of Japan and Germany being annihilated by the Allies—Miyazaki is more interested in an impressionistic glimpse into the mind of a creative genius. Wondrous fantasy and dream sequences are among the director’s most luminous: at this stage in his career, Miyazaki has found real freedom in form. If there’s a melodramatic thread running through the film—particularly in the romance between Jiro and a sickly but supportive woman—it is mitigated by the beauty of Miyazaki’s and Horikoshi’s unleashed imaginations.

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