Ordinarily the New York Film Festival arrives along with the first crisp autumn weather, and this year it started out as usual. But too many hurricanes, etc., and NYC turned unseasonably warm, around 80F highs, for the rest of the fest. Nevertheless, we persisted. I should remind you that NYFF is the only major film festival which does not present awards. Its purpose is to celebrate cinema in general, so anybody on the “Main Slate” (still 25 films long after more than half a century) is automatically a “winner.” But there are many others, spread all over the fest’s Lincoln Center campus. Most of the flicks I see are Main Slaters, but one of my favorites this year was an outlier that reminded me of Stanley Kubrick. Literally.
This year a single movie studio attained each of the three most coveted slots on the NYFF schedule: Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night. It wasn’t Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, Universal or Sony. The trifecta was scored by…Amazon Studios.
MADAME HYDE*** (North American Premiere) Isabelle Huppert is one of the most luminous actors in the world. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. She was the centerpiece of the provocative ELLE from last year, but here she gets to have a little more fun. This is a very loose adaptation of the Jekyll & Hyde story, with Huppert as a slightly less nutty professor. That is, mousy Mrs. Gequil (get it?) is a physics teacher in a tough Parisian high school, ragged on by everybody — students, staff — except her doting househusband. But one stormy night she is struck by lightning and transformed. There’s a new swagger and energy, and oh yeah, super powers. Serge Bozon combines screwball comedy with thriller elements, and the mashup doesn’t always fold together neatly. But Huppert is transfixing as usual, calling forth the subtlest facial gestures and deftly walking the line between funny and unsettling. Romain Duris is hysterical as her principal, managing to steal every scene he’s in — even those with Huppert.
WESTERN*** (U.S. Premiere) A tale of the frontier, meaning a lonely spot in Middle of Nowhere, Bulgaria, where a German construction team arrives to build a water facility. They’re construction-gang chummy except toward a tall quiet new guy (Gary Cooper — I mean Meinhard Neumann). They consider themselves superior to the Bulgarian rubes and don’t think much of Meinhard’s natural inclination to get to know the locals, in more than one sense of the word. A beautiful snow-white horse complicates the plot and completes the Western metaphor. Most of the actors are non-professionals, which gives the movie a verite sheen. German director Valeska Grisebach really makes you feel the grime of their physical labor and the low heat of their inevitable testosterone battles.
ZAMA*** (U.S. Premiere) 18th century South America — maybe Paraguay but we don’t know for sure — is a strange place. Not just the period costumes and customs, but in Lucrecia Martel’s visually striking production, landscapes and even sounds are strange too. Don Diego de Zama is an Americas-born functionary of the Spanish crown who wants to be transferred to a more prominent post, preferably in the old country. But in his way are the hurdles of an imperious lumbering bureaucracy and the shadow of a notorious outlaw as slippery as the Scarlet Pimpernel. His lurching, then crawling quest occasionally passes like a dream, aided by the striking metamusical sonic design by Guido Berenblum. The story comes from a classic 1956 Argentinean novel and it sometimes took effort for this non-reader to hang on, but the atmosphere is rich, musky, and exotic. Is that enough? Dunno.
VISAGES VILLAGES***** (FACES PLACES in America, but I think the rhyme is more clever in French.) Most of us have blind spots in our cinematic lexicon, and Agnes Varda was once one of mine. I vaguely knew her as the “grandmother of the French New Wave” (why grandmother?), she was married to Demy and knew all the others, but I’d never seen her work until a friend of mine rhapsodized about her in a book. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, but at 88 she’s still ahead of me: I’ve never seen a better Varda film than this one, my favorite flick of the whole festival. Her collaborative partner is the photographic artist JR, who specializes in black-and-white portraits blown up to gargantuan proportions which his crew then pastes onto large surfaces, usually but not always the sides of buildings. Varda and JR tool around rural France to meet villagers and leave them one of JR’s titanic souvenirs. In Varda style, the duo thus celebrate the culture and tradition of the undercelebrated: miners, a farmer, a postman, factory workers, a waitress in a cafe, the wives of dockworkers, a soon-to-be-abandoned village, and so forth. Some of the images are so spectacular that they take your breath away — the wives in particular form a miraculous high point at the unveiling of their installation. While all this is going on, Varga and JR constitute a winsome comedy team: he’s quick and glib, she’s pixielike and game. Toward the end, Varga herself is captured in a heart-tugging verite moment that nobody expected, but it only serves to make the project feel more truthful. It’s a love letter to cinema, the power of art, and the people who make up the backbone of society, all of them fascinating even before they’re turned into colossi. There’s a goofy smile on your face as the credits roll. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT**** (U.S. Premiere) Another strange place, this one much closer to home. It’s a rundown weekly-rate motel in the literal shadow of Disney World (“the Florida project” was what Walt called the park in the earliest stage), where three six-year-olds shriek and romp in glorious abandon while the adults in their lives doggedly scrounge to pay the rent. The notion that Americans next to the poverty line can possibly be living so close to affluent vacationers — near enough to lie back on the grass and watch the Disney fireworks every night — is maddening because there’s no easy solution. The kids, led by spitfire pheenom Brooklynn Prince, are heartbreaking and exhilarating in their ability to adapt, but this is definitely not for kids to watch: it’s gritty and profane. Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Prince’s 20-year-old mom, who up-sells wholesale perfumes to the well-heeled worthies at nicer hotels just down the street. The wrenching balance between kids’-eye euphoria and adult desperation is what makes Sean Baker’s film special. Willem Dafoe, in a subtly effective turn as the motel manager, keeps us anchored, as much as his character can.
FILMWORKER**** Stanley Kubrick is my favorite film director, so any documentary with some insight into his process has automatically sold at least one ticket. Leon Vitali had a thriving acting career in England when Kubrick cast him as “Lord Bullingdon” in BARRY LYNDON. Leon still has an actor’s sonorous tone and cadence: compare his furious music-recital speech in BARRY LYNDON with the calmly menacing “Red Cloak” in EYES WIDE SHUT; that’s what he sounds like today. He had been profoundly moved by Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and was walking on air when his hero hired him. So just after BARRY LYNDON wrapped, Leon began to school himself on film editing and other below-the-line tasks, expressly to offer his production services to Kubrick as he was prepping THE SHINING. They went on to work together for the rest of the director’s’s life. To call Leon an “assistant” was to diminish his vital role: no mere “assistant” could color-correct Kubrick’s final film or supervise digital transfers of the entire library. Leon became lieutenant, right-hand man, factotum on 24-hour call to a mercurial obsessive, all at great physical and psychological cost. This film documents that unique relationship using archival footage and new interviews. It strives to help us understand why a talented and successful actor would forsake a fine potential career to become an anonymous “filmworker” (that’s the term he used on application forms requiring his profession). Besides Leon himself, we hear from Kubrick performers including Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, the all-grown-up Danny Lloyd of THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET’s drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey. These actors rhapsodize not about Stanley, but about Leon. Kubrick made him responsible for prepping a real-life Marine D.I. for the shoot, and Ermey tells us that he might have done only a third as well if not for Leon. Lloyd took to him instantly and Leon became the tyke’s best friend on set, crucially easing for Kubrick the burden of directing a child. On and on, Leon was utterly devoted to the maestro, who was so intensely focused that he could omit niceties and coldly command one’s life. We also hear from Leon’s siblings, friends, three somewhat rueful children, and a few talking heads from longtime studio partner Warner Bros., who were regularly tormented by Stanley and Leon’s fanatical insistence on perfection. I hope this overdue report — heartwarming in its own rugged way — will help set the record straight and rescue one filmworker from undeserved obscurity. Before the screening Mr. Vitali was greeting friends in the lobby, so I walked up and thanked him for what he’d done all those years. In shaking his hand I felt, however obliquely, connected to Kubrick. But as the film then rolled, I found out I’d only had a tiny inkling. After seeing this earnest, revelatory movie, I realized that the real honor had been meeting Leon Vitali.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN*** (North American Premiere) Like Huppert, Julliette Binoche has matured so gracefully that she still commands rapt attention. Her prodigious onscreen charisma is essential to this small story of a middle-aged woman’s search for romantic love. She careers almost randomly from man to man, and the audience becomes so bought in that we start auditioning prospects in our heads: get rid of the bum, this guy looks promising. Each relationship is fraught with its own limitations, but somehow the film retains a sly sense of humor. A famous actor shows up in the final moments as an inscrutable fortune-teller and gets laughs with an amusingly transparent monologue.
WONDERSTRUCK***** (Festival Centerpiece) The second adaptation of a Brian Selznick illustrated book (after Martin Scorsese’s HUGO), this is a wonderfully imaginative story that alternates between two timelines to achieve a satisfying dramatic unity. In 1977 a lightning strike renders a preteen Minnesota boy deaf, and he makes his way to New York in search of the father he’s never known. Meanwhile — or, to be precise, fifty years earlier — a deaf little girl in Hoboken goes to the city to meet a celebrated actress. Director Todd Haynes’s meticulous replication of 1950s New York was a highlight of his previous CAROL, and here he vividly depicts not one but two other historical periods, allowing us to ponder how much of the city’s culture endured over that half century. The two story strands eventually merge, brought together by Julianne Moore’s lovely dual role. Much if not most of the movie is free of dialogue, reflecting the experience of the two young leads. Our screening included subtitles for the hearing-impaired, who were so well represented that an ASL signer was on stage for the pre-show introductions. I don’t know whether that was just for us or for general release, but not only didn’t the titles distract, they forced each of us to imagine living in a world without sound. This one is for all ages, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s smart, it’s pretty, it’s original, it doesn’t pander or condescend, and Haynes gets your approbation the old-fashioned way: he earns it.
LADY BIRD*** The directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who says her script was inspired by incidents in her own life. Saoirse Ronan plays a free-spirited, Gerwigian high-schooler who longs to escape the one-horse town (to her) that is Sacramento. She’s even invented a sullen bohemian persona for herself and insists that everybody call her not Christine, but “Lady Bird.” Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are the long-suffering parents who contribute to her long suffering. There are a few tropes too familiar to the coming-of-age genre, or maybe just to late adolescence in real life. But the screenplay bounces along from humor to pathos and back again, Ronan kills as the daffy/heartful heroine, and Gerwig displays quite the steady hand behind the camera. I’ll definitely be there for her next one. Nothing more than a trifle, but a charming one indeed.
BPM (Beats Per Minute)**** (U.S. Premiere) One reason I enjoy film festivals is the blank screen: I usually have no idea what to expect as the lights go down. To preserve my blissful ignorance I read as little as possible beforehand, only speed-skim what’s necessary to make choices. So when I sat down I presumed this to be a documentary about ACT UP Paris at the height of the AIDS crisis, and that’s exactly what it plays like. But gradually I caught on. There were impossibly too many cameras in the ACT UP war room, right into too many members’ snoots as they made comments. Moments that might be too intimate even for a doc were focused and framed just right. These are actors, an ensemble which stuns in its evocation of life with HIV — most ACT UP members were and are “pos” — as the rest of the world seems blasé if not downright oblivious. Director/writer Robin Campillo does a magnificent job of bringing us ever closer to the individual radical activists, especially the sad-eyed Nahuel Perez Biscayart as Sean, pulled through the disease’s grim stages as we watch helplessly. The film is not without scenes of joy, but its meat is the courage and inventiveness of a group that will not be silenced, for as their motto attests, that equals death. Some people talk a good game, especially many Americans these days, but this is what real resistance looks like. France’s submission for the foreign language Academy Award.
THE RIDER**** Here’s another one which feels utterly real, but for a different reason. It’s about a South Dakota horse trainer and bronc rider on the rural rodeo circuit who suffers a head injury that threatens the career in which he excels. He is played by Brady Jandreau and the film’s story is inspired by his own life (the actual incident is shown: there’s no way a stunt player could have pulled it off). Brady has never acted before, and neither have the other principals, but they’re playing characters very close to themselves, so we get to see what hand-to-mouth rodeoing is really like. You utterly trust everybody, because they’re the real thing. In one scene, Brady becomes the first human being ever to get on the back of one particularly unruly horse. We witness his patience and respect as he takes incremental steps to earn the wild horse’s trust before our very eyes. You can’t fake that. The director is Chloe Zhao, a Beijing native who went to Mount Holyoke and NYU; in other words, she ain’t exactly from big-sky country. But she displays the strength and heart to present this lifestyle as naturally as a movie can — never do we detect anyone in the amateur but authentic cast “reciting lines.” It’s an amazement, an emotional visit into a foreign land most of us have never seen before.
WONDER WHEEL*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) The timing of Woody Allen’s latest premiere probably wasn’t super-terrific, what with Harvey Weinstein and all. But this has nothing to do with sexual predation and everything to do with New York — specifically, bustling Coney Island in the Fifties, its heyday beautifully recreated by what must have been an army of CGI artists. There’s a love triangle (studly lifeguard and fourth-wall-busting narrator Justin Timberlake, frustrated middle-ager Kate Winslet, and her nubile stepdaughter Juno Temple) along with Winslet’s carousel-operator husband (Jim Belushi, in a role that James Gandolfini might have played in a parallel universe). The ingenue has come back to Coney and her estranged father after an unauthorized escape from her mobster husband, who has sent out two goombahs as a search party (both actors are SOPRANOS veterans, just so you’ll understand). Thus there are many narrative shoes which threaten to drop, and several do. Some folks don’t know what to make of the Woodman’s work these days. He’s back in New York after a multi-year sojourn in Europe, but he’s not making comedies any more — I mean, there’s definitely laughter here, but that’s no longer the point. He’s always flattered his female actors, and true to form, this movie absolutely belongs to Winslet. You can enjoy visiting a bygone era, as with WONDERSTRUCK (hey, what’s with all the “Wonder” this year? Maybe it’s that there Woman’s fault), and the other three leads really work hard, but in the end there’s not much that sticks to the ribs. By now the Woody Allen film has become a genre unto itself. So this is a pleasantly made picture which doesn’t rise above its genre.
WISH I’D SEEN: LAST FLAG FLYING, PANDORA’S BOX (on the big screen; check it out for the most knowingly seductive silent siren ever filmed), THE SQUARE, TROUBLE NO MORE, THELMA
ALREADY SAW: MUDBOUND***
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