Wednesday, October 22, 2014

2014 New York Film Festival Wrap-up

New York Film Festival 
September 26-October 12, 2014
Film Society of Lincoln Center
New York, NY

The Wonders
Despite the big-name directors whose new films were unveiled at the 52nd New York Film Festival—David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Mike Leigh, John Boorman—I was most looking forward to seeing The Wonders (no distributor), the sophomore feature by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, whose stunning debut, Corpo Celeste, was a highlight of the 2011 Festival. 

However, Rohrwacher's explicitly autobiographical new film is almost inevitably a letdown after her enormously affecting first feature: Rohrwacher grew up in a bilingual household with a German father and Italian mother (played here by Alice's sister Alba Rohrwacher, last seen in Marco Bellochio's dazzling Dormant Beauty), and the eldest of film's four children, a 12-year-old daughter, is likely the director's self-portrait. But, despite its probing intelligence and haunting performances, too much of the film is given over to a bizarre reality TV show, which pits local families against one another for prizes, and a too obviously metaphoric subplot about a delinquent German boy who comes to live with the family. A near-constant, Felliniesque parade of freaks elbows its way into an otherwise lively and refreshing small town milieu, Satyricon uneasily grafted onto I Vitelloni.  

Mia Hanson-Love's first three films are intensely intimate studies of relationships, reaching their apogee with 2011's Goodbye, First Love; too bad she jettisoned her strengths to make Eden (opens Spring 2015), a shallow, monotonous exploration of the '90s garage rave scene, in which a fictional DJ duo rubs shoulders with Daft Punk, if you please. The movie's unflattering protagonist, Paul, treats every woman in his life—starting with his mother—abominably; Hanson-Love was obviously influenced by her brother Sven, who co-wrote the script but I hope is not the model for Paul. There are interesting recreations of the Paris and New York rave scenes, but Eden criminally wastes the usually terrific Laura Smet and allows Greta Gerwig to give a scandalous non-performance in a pivotal role.

In Two Days, One Night (opens Dec. 24), chameleon Marion Cotillard impressively plays a harried woman who keeps her dignity as she visits her coworkers' homes to ask that they vote to save her job instead of to selfishly get a bonus. Belgium's Dardenne brothers follow their usual strict moral code, but their premise is flawed, or at least how they dramatize it: if such a small company allows its workers to choose between a bonus and an employee, how exactly does it work? Is it a one-time-only bonus? (One worker's salary is a lot more than the 1000-euro bonus all the other employees would receive.) That aside, the narrative does have a sense of urgency, not just because Cotillard has only the title time frame in which to save her job, but because the actress once again lays bare unvarnished emotional truths in every gesture, however miniscule. 

The Blue Room
For his latest directorial effort, French actor Mathieu Amalric daringly adapts The Blue Room (now playing), a novel by the great Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon: his tense, nail-biting thriller is all the more remarkable for what's crammed into a 76-minute running time. Amalric plays a devoted father and husband having an affair with an old flame: when their spouses meet untimely ends, suspicion naturally falls on the adulterous couple. As in the book, Amalric avoids linear plot progression to enter his character's confused mindset: is he culpable or merely a dupe? The movie is a study in careful visual and narrative compression—the old Academy ratio of 1.33:1 greatly helps—rendering our anti-hero incapable of escaping the net he's in. There's sublime acting by Amalric, his real-life paramour (and cowriter) Stephanie Cleau as the fellow adulterer and Lea Drucker as his wife, and a brittle chamber orchestra score by Gregoire Hetzel, which adroitly gives way (at the chilling ending) to a perfectly chosen Bach-Busoni piano piece.

The New York Review of Books, one of our most venerable literary institutions, was born in 1963 when Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein decided that The New York Times book reviews were lacking. Over the next half-century, the journal has gone from primarily book reviews to rarely book reviews, but it has remained among the most intellectually rigorous literary journals. The 50-Year Argument (on HBO), directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi's paean to the Review, includes interviews with many of its contributors, along with editor Epstein (she died in 2006), but if this 90-minute documentary doesn't deeply analyze its intellectual arguments from Vietnam to the War on Terror, it is second to none as an historical glimpse at an important era in our country's intellectual history.

For his first foray into comedy, L'il Quinquin (opens Jan. 2), French director Bruno Dumont retains his usual milieu of a seaside town in Northern France to explore tough-minded characters in a brutal, heartless world. The blackness of his previous work remains, but it's pitched toward bitter humor instead of bitterly humorless drama. Dumont's borderline inept sheriff (played by a game Bernard Bruvost) has so many facial tics and twitches that the character goes beyond parody, while the eponymous title kid busies himself by chasing foreign kids with his equally blockheaded friends, yelling racist epithets at them as they do so: young Alane Delhaye—who, with his hearing aid, looks like an old bald man—makes an utterly persuasive and charismatic Quinquin. Originally a four-part mini-series for French TV, the 200-minute film has its lulls, but its bizarrely humorous moments—centered around the story's mysterious murders which, for all the time they take up, are essentially MacGuffins—hint at a new direction for the usually dour director.

Considering its prestigious Opening Night slot, I hoped that David Fincher could elevate Gillian Flynn's trashy novel Gone Girl (now playing), but working from her equally trashy screenplay gets the best of him: this glossy but uninvolving  2-1/2 hour adaptation of one of the least deserving bestsellers in recent years is as close to a hack job as Fincher has ever made. There's a choppiness and lack of rhythm that's shocking coming from Fincher, whose Zodiac is a textbook example of how to pace a slow-moving story. Flynn's satirical targets are obvious—blueblood New Yorkers, moronic Midwesterners, white trailer trash, the media, fatuous TV hosts, ambulance-chasing lawyers—and Fincher indulges her so much that the movie quickly becomes tiresome. There's a lone moment of effective, substantive filmmaking in a brief shot of the accused husband's bar overrun with patrons now that he's a notorious possible wife-murderer. But the very casting is ineffectual: Ben Affleck's chiseled jaw and Rosamund Pike's ice-queen look don't make their acting any better; only Carrie Coon gives a fully realized performance as Ben's twin sister. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's hackneyed music sounds at times like Penderecki outtakes from The Shining. But that's as close as Fincher comes to Kubrick the master, who would have made a far more potent film than this. 

With Tales of the Grim Sleeper (on HBO in 2015), his first film in the New York Film Festival since 1993's Aileen Wuornos documentary, intrepid director Nick Broomfield canvases the streets of south central L.A. to probe the strange case of the "grim sleeper" who was arrested by the LAPD in 2010 for the serial killings of 10 women since the mid-80s—but there may have been dozens, or even hundreds, more. Broomfield keeps his well-earned goofball persona on ice for the most part, but his outsider status in South Central allows him to talk to those who knew the accused—friends, women who survived encounters with him, even his own son—none of whom spoke with (or were even approached by) the police. Guiding Broomfield and his son, cinematographer Barney Broomfield, through a never-ending maze is former hooker/crack addict/"Grim Sleeper" survivor Pam Brooks, an amazing character in her own right. Brooks is another example of how Broomfield's methodology works: diving headfirst into a story, he often surfaces miles from where he entered, which is what makes his documentaries unique—they often go off on tangents that end up as important as his ostensible main subject. 

In The Clouds of Sils Maria (opens Spring 2015), Olivier Assayas' least memorable film since 2007's Boarding Gate, the usually luminous Juliette Binoche is self-consciously mannered as an actress returning to the stage play with which she made her mark two decades earlier, playing the older woman opposite a volatile young superstar actress (the always intriguing Chloe Grace Moretz). Kristen Stewart looks lost in a thankless role as Binoche's assistant; her appearance is, sadly, solely a study in the vintage T-shirts her character wears. Assayas moves his camera with characteristic fluidity, although the endless shots of the Alps (where the film was shot, beautifully, by Lorick Le Saux) do little but provide an unnecessary metaphor for the movie, its morose leading lady and the pretentious play she's stuck in.

Life of Riley
For his final film, Life of Riley (opens Oct. 24), Alain Resnais—who died in March at 91—unveils another puckishly illuminating adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play (after Smoking; No Smoking; and Coeurs): it's amazing how well the sensibilities of the French filmmaker and the British playwright mesh. In his version of Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy of manners about three couples and their adulterous travails, Resnais utilizes comic-strip backdrops, stylized sets and exaggerated performances from his cast (including regulars like his wife Sabine Azema and old friend Andre Dussolier, both too old for the characters they're playing) for this lovely valentine to art and humanity from a master at the top of his game. Fifty-five years after its premiere, the power of Resnais' debut feature Hiroshima Mon Amour (now playing) has not diminished; instead it remains a psychologically penetrating portrait of not only a couple but of a world scarred by and scared of the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Brilliantly acted by Emmanuelle Riva, magnificently shot by Sacha Vierny and Mochio Takahashi and exquisitely scored by Georges Deleure and Giocanni Fusco, Resnais' classic has never looked sharper nor more modern than in its new restoration, coming soon to Blu-ray players everywhere.

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