The New York Film Festival is so convenient to me that I can get there on foot in less than an hour, so, often encouraged by the newly brisk but still mild fall weather at this time of year, I frequently do hoof it over. The stroll helps me enjoy the movies, I find. Breathe. Relax. I don’t feel the need to cram everything into a few days like I have to as a Sundance visitor and besides, there are fewer simultaneous screenings; you can theoretically see every single picture in the “Main Slate” if you have the dough and the time. There’s no fest competition, no awards, no secondary marketplace for distribution deals. It’s all about the performances. (Olde Flickspeak for “screenings.”)
I saw eight films during the two weeks of this year’s 52nd NYFF, seven Main Slaters and a “Spotlight on Documentary” piece that knocked my socks off. My screenings were spaced far enough apart that I was often able to post my knee-jerk thoughts, usually the same day, on Facebook (hey, it’s still more substantial than Twitter, the frickin Mines of Khazad-dûm of knee-jerk thoughts). Most of the following capsules began with those impromptu FB posts, which I expanded and cleaned up, first for me, then for you. Read me with confidence: I never spoil.
GONE GIRL**** (World Premiere, Festival Opening Night) I hadn’t read the source novel, Linda had, so I was even more rapt over the twisty turny plot and unending (though sometimes funny) sense of dread, courtesy of director David Fincher, author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. GONE GIRL will probably go down in cinema history as minor, maybe C+ Fincher — this one’s more about story than style — but the 2:30 r.t. flies by and there are lots of juicy parts (about fifteen actors, along with Fincher and Flynn, were introduced onstage in the pre-show). Rosamund Pike in the female lead is particularly stunning and not just from physical beauty; her ethereal look reminded me of Deborah Kara Unger of Fincher’s THE GAME and David Cronenberg’s CRASH. Your level of enjoyment of this missing-wife story may be affected by whether or not you know what’s coming — plot developments slam into and upend your expectations — so if you haven’t yet read the book, don’t do so until after you see the movie. (I used the novel later as my “second viewing.”) But even if you know the plot by heart, this is a crowd-pleasing, thoroughly assured bit of filmmaking.
MAPS TO THE STARS**** (U.S. Premiere) The blackest movie about Hollywood I’ve ever seen, a laser-bladed satire. The screenwriter is Bruce Wagner, who specializes in depicting Tinseltown vanity and vapidity (“the road to hell is paved with laughter,” Wagner told us before our screening), and the director is David Cronenberg, who specializes in disturbing an audience almost beyond the point of bearability (sometimes you can even strike the “almost”). Julianne Moore (Best Actress co-winner at Cannes) is sensational as a fading star who serves as the center of a Venn diagram uniting one of the most fucked-up families you will ever meet in the movies. It’s technically dazzling — Cronenberg is a master, and most of the key production posts are filled by longtime dependable cronies — but it’s enough of a downer to make barbiturates jealous, and when you leave, the only song in your heart will be a dirge. Fun fact: although it was largely shot in Canada as usual, this film represents the first time in his long career that Cronenberg has ever brought a crew to the US.
MR. TURNER*** Another sumptuous period piece by the skilled and discerning Mike Leigh: a Victorian study of J.M.W. Turner, the last of the great British Romantic painters. This gruff eccentric and misanthrope is fabulously realized by Timothy Spall (Best Actor winner at Cannes), dotting his performance with grunts and murmurs that communicate through context. A large supporting cast of British character actors are unerring in realizing Turner’s colleagues, patrons and partners both commercial and carnal, costumed spectacularly against a breathtaking, golden-hued background. Fair enough. The bad news is that here, 2:30 takes its sweet time to unspool, and once we “get” Turner, we’ve got him. It’s gorgeous, though, no question: the images are so lush and sensuous that one questioner asked d.p. Dick Pope after the screening, “What did you do to the [film] stock to get that beautiful tone?” Pope’s surprising response was that there was no stock; MR. TURNER was shot digitally. You could have fooled me too. (See also the next entry.) Pope added that for a softer feel, he’d used a classic set of lenses that were ground in the Forties; Leigh said he was told that among their many other missions, the lenses had been used by Stanley Kubrick to shoot SPARTACUS. The best thing about this picture is that the eminently dependable Mr. Spall, who has given us a mountain of superior character work, here acquits himself grandly in a well-deserved leading role. As Turner might say, hmrhm.
INHERENT VICE*** (World Premiere, Festival Centerpiece) I’m sad to say that for me, this hilarious, inventive Thomas Pynchon novel doesn’t really work as a movie. Sad because I’m such an admirer of the source novel and of the other films of Paul Thomas Anderson, who bragged before the screening that the festival slogan, “Film Lives Here,” was especially apt tonight because he was about to roll a 35mm celluloid print. Weird thing: just as our ears have been trained over time to accept digital audio playback in music over much warmer analog-needle-vibration sound, our eyes are also becoming accustomed to digital projection, so the periodic schmutz and reel-change dots made the print look dirty to us. A laudatory review in Variety — a NYFF sponsor — suggested this effect was deliberate, but if so it’s far subtler than, say, GRINDHOUSE’s, and trust me, it went over the audience’s heads. (I’ve since seen the “distressed” effect again in a ten-second production-company logo, but I still say it entertains few beyond the folks at the animation studio and maybe their parents.) Much worse was a terrible overgained sound mix, at least in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall: the colorful performances in VICE are swell (in particular, Josh Brolin and Jefferson Mays kill), but this story is very quick and verbal, and various sound fx drowned out critical bits of dialogue throughout, for a frankly embarrassing Centerpiece performance. I hope you get a cleaner mix at your theater, because I don’t think I could have followed the deliberately convoluted plot at Alice Tully if I hadn’t already known it, which is death to Pynchon newbies, which is nearly everybody. Setting a classic L.A. detective noir in the late hippie era is intrinsically great ironic fun, but this movie could have been way beyond fun, and it simply wasn’t. Rumor has it that the notoriously camera-shy Pynchon has a cameo, and I noticed a couple of extras whom I might nominate, but I shouldn’t have had time to do that. A noble effort, but alas, despite Variety’s kudos.
MERCHANTS OF DOUBT***** A powerful documentary based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, on the for-hire PR pros who are trying to deceive you into doubting the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change. Their tactics are identical to and inspired by the smoking-doesn’t-cause-cancer and fire-retardants-retard-fire-and-are-safe long cons of the past, and in several instances use the same talking-head “experts” from the same bullshit “think tanks,” mostly funded by Big Fossil and Big Chemical now that Big Tobacco has at last surrendered. (“If you can do tobacco, you can do anything,” observes one flack.) Their marketing skills depend on misdirection, but as a real sleight-of-hand artist puts it in the film, “once revealed, never concealed.” One particularly garrulous interviewee brags about bombarding opposing journalists with phony, barely lucid emails threatening their lives; he thinks it’s funny, like Nixon’s nauseating little “ratfucker” Donald Segretti. There is a picnic-table-sized handful (not 31,000, as the thoroughly debunked “Oregon petition” hoax falsely claims) of (mostly former) scientists who support the deniers, usually for money but sometimes in genuine opposition to government regulation of any kind, which they are able to parse only as creeping socialism; one knee-slapping, oft-repeated neologism casts environmentalists as “watermelons” — that is, green on the outside, Commie-red on the inside. But the most poignant interview is with six-term Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, America’s reddest state, who scored in the 90s on most conservative report cards but had an epiphany on the climate issue and found the courage to speak out. He was targeted by the Merchants of Doubt and promptly swatted away by a 70-30 margin in the next election. To prevail, these amoral cynics don’t have to convince anybody of anything, only introduce enough gunk to slow the process down. “Gridlock is the climate denier’s best friend,” one of the mouths-for-money opines. Public outrage eventually prevailed over the tobacco barons (who knew their product was lethal all along), but it took fifty years. We might not have that long this time. Another great one from Robert Kenner, who also made FOOD INC. It opens commercially in February.
FOXCATCHER*** Bennett Miller’s dramatization of the lurid John E. du Pont case, in which a filthy-rich chemicals heir decided to become a “wrestling coach” and had the immense financial resources to actually assemble a “national team” at his Pennsylvania estate, using some genuinely credible athletes. Steve Carell joins Will Forte (NEBRASKA) and Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (THE SKELETON TWINS) in the current comics-get-serious minitrend: he is impressively pitiful and spooky as the clearly unhinged du Pont, his features hidden under a ton of facial prosthetics and filthy dentures. Channing Tatum as gold-medal Olympian Mark Schultz (the real-life Schultz is an associate producer on the picture) glowers for two hours, but Mark Ruffalo is superb as David, Mark’s brother, mentor, and genuine coach (as opposed to the schizophrenic play-acting dilettante). There is a homoerotic subtext to Carell’s understated, subtly menacing performance, but it’s not depicted overtly; everybody suspected this was du Pont’s attraction to wrestlers but it’s not made literal here. The film is technically very fine and properly creepy, but it could be a hard ticket to sell because the viewer really has to let herself be drawn into the world of competitive wrestling, so good luck with that. (Miller’s MONEYBALL managed that tricky feat, but then it had Brad Pitt in its arsenal. This is Channing Tatum.)
LIFE OF RILEY (AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER)**** (U.S. Premiere) The legendary Alain Resnais’ final film, adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s play RELATIVELY SPEAKING. M. Resnais was not only a director in the grand theatrical tradition, but also a devotee of the stage. The luminous star Caroline Sihol (above) told us before the screening that Resnais used live theater as a casting method; you’d receive a phone call later if the maestro liked what he saw during his unannounced visit. This film, though French, retains Ayckbourn’s English countryside setting, and employs stylized theatrical set design. Action and characters that exist only beyond camera range — in other words, out there with us — help dismantle that fourth wall in fascinating fashion. It’s a little like DOGVILLE in that respect, but it’s much, much better. The plot swirls around and through three couples who seem to be separate bits in Brownian motion, and a key character can only be perceived on our side of that former fourth wall. At first they are rehearsing a play (they are seen to be holding scripts of RELATIVELY SPEAKING and the first bits of dialogue in the film are “fictional”), but then the show and their larger offstage lives become harder and harder to tell apart. M. Resnais must have loved the way Ayckbourn experiments with time and place, because producer Jean-Louis Livi told us his next film would have been Sir Alan’s latest play, ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES, which we were lucky enough to see in its U.S. premiere engagement earlier this year. A great man of the cinema has passed, but he left us this one final gift.
BIRDMAN OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF INNOCENCE***** (Festival Closing Night) In a word, wow. This very clever bit of magic realism — or is it? — is a triumph for director Alejandro G. Inarritu and everyone in the splendid cast. A fading movie star famous for playing an avian superhero long ago (Michael Keaton in a career-reviving and career-reminding performance — he was the cover boy on the current ish of Entertainment Weekly when we saw this) makes a last-ditch attempt at rejuvenation by writing, directing and performing in a Raymond Carver adaptation at Broadway’s St. James Theater (actually used as a location). Support includes a brilliant Edward Norton as an arrogant but gifted stage actor, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. The result is a love letter to Broadway itself, to actors, to the theater, to New York, to thoughtful filmmaking and maybe even to constructive schizophrenia. Some of the scene transitions and smoothly gliding rides through the backstage areas of the St. James are so spectacular that they reminded me of GRAVITY‘s “impossible” shots. About two-thirds through, you will see the ultimate anxiety nightmare depicted before your very eyes to howling effect. Keaton’s award-worthy reemergence is probably the big story here, but this is such a fine collaborative effort that he had plenty of top-notch help. (It’s made to appear to be one continuous take, with locked-down positions to indicate longer scene changes like “the next morning.”) Before the screening, Keaton told us he felt he’d “lucked into a masterpiece.” Time will tell, but my thumbs are both way up.
WISH I’D SEEN: CITIZENFOUR, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, MISUNDERSTOOD, PASOLINI, THIS IS SPINAL TAP (30th Anniversary Screening with Chris Guest Q&A: it conflicted with MERCHANTS OF DOUBT and I chose a bird in the bush, but the notion of seeing TAP on the big screen did indeed tempt, and so say we all!)
ALREADY SAW: WHIPLASH****
Other NYFF Reports