My NYFF 2018

October 15, 2018

The New York Film Festival is a major fest in historical importance if not ballyhoo. NYFF was crucial in introducing American audiences to revolutions in world filmmaking that were themselves often inspired by Hollywood history. NYFF has never bestowed any awards. For 56 years it has chosen no more than thirty films for its annual “Main Slate,” with other goodies scattered about. It doesn’t really compete with Cannes, Venice, Telluride or Toronto for world premieres, though each year there are a few. Nearly all screenings are held on the close-knit Lincoln Center campus; at most other festivals you have to factor travel into your daily plan. But here, if you have the time, you can theoretically see everything on the Main Slate. “North American Premiere” means the film probably played at Cannes or Venice. “U.S. Premiere” means it probably played in Toronto. Here are the ones I saw this year:

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THE FAVOURITE**** (Festival Opening Night) I expected something a little more bizarre from Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us DOGTOOTH, THE LOBSTER, and even THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. But as the film spooled, I realized the transgressive director was allowing 18th-century England to be its own dramatic geek. Courtly dances turn lewd and anachronistic. The foppish male fashion that BARRY LYNDON tut-tuts becomes leering, even menacing. And the three females who control the piece are each iconoclastic and riveting. There’s Rachel Weisz as the scheming Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as a former lady turned servant, each competing for the favor of the triumphant Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. Things are just a little “off” throughout, aided by the repeated use of an extreme wide-angle (“fisheye”) lens to make squared turns appear curved. This picture won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice this year, and Colman won a well-deserved Best Actress award. The relative restraint might be Lanthimos’s ticket to serious award consideration; he’s long been one of the most exciting directors on the planet, but here he plays nicer than usual.

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HER SMELL*** (U.S. Premiere) Elisabeth Moss abases herself a la Charlize Theron as the demon-battling 90s-era front for a female alt-rock band: Amy Winehouse? Courtney Love? She’s past her creative prime and so zonked out that she’s near insane. (That’s GLOW’s “She-Wolf,” Gayle Rankin, as her drummer.) We meet her band at a club date, and I actually thought I’d never make it through two whole hours: the segment is all short hand-held shots, as if Michael Bay had done a whole gram of cocaine before taking a camera into CBGB. But that’s only the first of Alex Ross Perry’s five acts, each shot in its own distinct cinematic style. Moss is the main reason to watch, and although it may be hard to believe while enduring the first gonzo hour, there is a narrative arc. Bad: I thought it was a tad too long — the lead character isn’t the only one guilty of self-indulgence. Good: the actors are actually performing the musical numbers; no fakery here. 

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MONROVIA, INDIANA**** (U.S. Premiere) Frederick Wiseman is one of the most influential film documentarians in history. He invented — ok, maybe just refined — the fly-on-the-wall style of cinema verite: no narration, nothing to guide you through the “truth” he stitches together in what he concedes is a subjective process, which is only realized in post-production. For this one, the TITICUT FOLLIES and EX LIBRIS maestro spent ten weeks in a small Indiana town. Tribal viewers might be expecting scorn or defense, but no. The most profound takeaway is that aside from references to local high schools and universities, this could have taken place most anywhere. We go to the barber shop, Lions Club, hog farm, combine auction, tattoo parlor, grain elevator, gun store, etc etc etc. The only politics we see are at the Monrovia Festival, sort of a mini-state fair where the county Republicans have a booth, but Wiseman himself strives to remain above it all. The 88-year-old director introduced the film and stayed for a q&a afterward. It was thrilling to be in the same room with him.

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WILDLIFE*** The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, who adapted the Richard Ford novel with his partner, actor-playwright Zoe Kazan. In Montana in the late Fifties, a peripatetic young family finds its life upended when the father loses his job and, after a desperate search, leaves home to join an ad-hoc group of men hired to fight fierce mountain wildfires for a dollar an hour. The mother grows restless before the son’s distraut eyes. Carey Mulligan (whose film this basically is) and Jake Gyllenhaal are superb as the parents, as is Bill Camp as a car dealer who gets into the mix, but the real find is a sensational 14-year-old Aussie named Ed Oxenbould, meaning two of the three family members are faking their Yank accents. Dano (and/or Kazan; it’s often hard to tell whether a movie’s directorial moment was already there on the page) make assured and interesting cinematic choices throughout. I’ll be in line for their next one.

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NON-FICTION**** Olivier Assayas’s new film is a dialogue-driven, actor-centered story in and about the world of book publishing, a realm of which I have some personally acquired knowledge. Turns out book people in Paris are talking about the same things we are here: the encroachment of the digital revolution on the printed word, e-books vs. physical books, the rise of the audiobook, and the very future of reading for pleasure. There’s an old-fashioned noble publisher, a tiresome author whose “auto-fiction” is a thinly veiled recital of his own life, a cyber-savvy publicist, a political operative, a cop-show actress — the movie is chiefly about how people deal with fundamental change, but since it’s also a French sex comedy, everybody’s sleeping with everybody else. A really fine cast is led by the radiant Juliette Binoche (who is name-checked in the fictional story for the movie’s biggest howling laugh). Tons of serious and vital conversation pass rat-a-tat, but the tone remains light and breezy enough to entertain without in-group pedantry.

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DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES*** In my book, Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes are modern America’s two biggest scoundrels: they are more responsible than anyone else for the sorry state of political discourse we suffer through today. (Before his “service” is done, Mitch McConnell will likely join this sleazy pantheon.) Alexis Bloom’s documentary has one advantage journalist Gabriel Sherman didn’t when he published his bio THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM in 2014: Roger Ailes’s world came tumbling down soon afterward, and his final ignominies are all here on screen. “I’m glad it happened while he was still alive,” muses one wronged woman. Using clips from Ailes’s storied history and strategic talking heads (including actor-director Austin Pendleton, an old friend from grade school in Ohio), Bloom pieces together the career of one of the most darkly influential media figures of our age. Not only did Ailes enable Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Donald Trump, he will forever be remembered as the creator and show runner of the Fox News Channel, an enterprise which utterly transformed America. He was first an entertainment tv producer, then a political media consultant, then he founded a cable channel — but it wasn’t Fox News. “America’s Talking” was his first love, a 24-hour all-talk network featuring many future Fox stars. Ailes even hosted a show himself; we see him awkwardly dancing with Cyndi Lauper. But when Bill Gates bought the channel and turned it into MSNBC, Ailes flew into a permanent rage and vowed revenge. Then he joined forces with Rupert Murdoch, and the rest is sordid history. This story has been told before, but it’s interesting to see it on a screen, Ailes’s lifelong medium. We also get the best look at his bullying takeover of a sleepy little community in Putnam County, New York; the locals’ relief when Fox News’s Playboy-Club atmosphere finally brought Ailes down is palpable, though they’re too nice to gloat on camera. Roger Ailes turned “firing up the crazies,” as one former Fox News employee puts it, into the billions in profit which insulated him from justice for nearly two decades. He’s gone now, but his creation is still serving red meat to red states, causing permanent high blood pressure in the body politic.

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HIGH LIFE*** (U.S. Premiere) Claire Denis’s first English-language feature (while Olivier Assayas goes back to French-speaking) is not a science fiction film, she told us after the screening, even though it’s set in deep space. (Why English? “Nobody speaks French in space.”) The cold dark reaches surround a metallic-blue environment (it looks, sounds and feels reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS) in which a group of criminals have been enlisted to head toward a black hole to harness its energy for use back on Earth. That’s it with the science fiction. We start with a man (Robert Pattinson) alone in the void with a baby. Through shock-cut flashbacks, placed out of sequence so as to be impenetrable at first, we piece together the history of this voyage and peek at the planet-bound lifetime that once was. Denis cuts through the ennui with startling bursts of passion and violence, while the spacefaring vessel attains its metaphorical purpose as sole bulwark against the vast uncaring void. As with SOLARIS, this will be far too slow and imprecise for some viewers to embrace, but there’s so much to think about, plus you have a great layered Pattinson performance — he’s really quite the actor — and some more Juliette Binoche, as a, um, spirited scientist.

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ROMA***** (Festival Centerpiece) This year’s Golden Lion winner at Cannes is sensational. It’s a semi-autobiographical remembrance from Alfonso Cuarón, a year in the life of a Mexico City middle-class family circa 1970. A key figure helping to bind the family together is the beloved live-in nanny and housekeeper, played incandescently by Yalitza Aparicio. The story is confident, cadenced and unforced, calling forth a host of heart-tugging moments. You tend to forget that the director was a witness and participant (you cannot in RAY & LIZ, below), but with all the normal difficulties, this is still the kind of solidly nurtured childhood which produced a talented and observant artist. Interestingly, the main focus is not really on the children until the last act, when they become protagonists. It’s more of an eventful year for the adults, often beyond the youngsters’ knowledge. Cuarón’s black-and-white cinemascape is superb, as is an innovative sound design that focuses our hearing on what we can see: off-screen audio registers off-ear. Though there are many surprises, nothing feels artificial or out of place, despite the fact that the camerawork is executed with Kubrickian precision; as it should, the art overpowers the craft. Before the screening, the director brought out key crew and cast, then introduced the real-life person who inspired Aparicio’s character. From the balcony of Alice Tully Hall, we could still tell that this tiny woman onstage was a bundle of grit, spunk and heart, and the picture hadn’t even rolled yet. 

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ASAKO I AND II**** (U.S. Premiere) If I only had 15 seconds to oversimplify Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new one, I’d tell you it’s a love story that issues forth from a bent Japanese take on VERTIGO, only this time the identicals are the males. Cute earnest Asako falls for hip foxy DJ Baku in Osaka, but he vanishes abruptly, breaking her heart. Two years later, in Tokyo, she meets Ryohei, a dead ringer for Baku, a buttoned-down executive for a sake brewer who is Baku’s emotional opposite in warmth and devotion. At first she’s interested because of the resemblance (she understandably mistakes him for a cleaned-up Baku at first meeting), but gradually Ryohei wins her over. Still, how can she forget her bad-boy lover (who has gone on to become a famous supermodel) when she’s reminded of him at home every day? And then Baku returns. There are delicious unexpected emotional beats as this story works its way forward and the ensemble is delightful, but I must note the superb work of male lead Masahiro Higashide as both Baku and Ryohei. Talk about inhabiting your role(s): his work distinguishing the two men is so subtle that he actually makes you suspect the casting office found identical twins. Even when they “both” appear in the same scene, the effect is gorgeous.

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RAY & LIZ** (U.S. Premiere) A grueling 1:47 spent with some loathsome lower-class British yobbos whom I never want to meet again. However, I did meet one just after the screening, for this is photographer and first-time film director Richard Billingham’s dramatic memory of his own family, hyper-dysfunctional but not in an amusing way. I give the man huge props just for surviving. But that doesn’t make this film any easier to digest, opening as it does with a sadistic act of cruelty visited on a defenseless victim and giving us no room to breathe thereafter. The most heartbreaking line comes from the actor who represents Mr. Billingham himself: as his younger brother is mercifully taken away from their rank existence into the state’s care, he asks the case worker, “Can I go to a foster home too?” Anyone who doesn’t understand the searingly personal nature of this film — that is, most everyone — will find it an almost prohibitively tough watch.

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COLD WAR**** In 1949, a musician goes around to spots in rural Poland to find authentic ethnic songs and performers, Alan Lomax-style. He’s putting together a troupe that will bring Polish music and dance to popular audiences. It’s all smiles during the audition and training process, but then he falls for a talented blonde beauty ten years his junior, and life gets even more complicated when the Stalinist authorities badger him into featuring party-friendly content. We follow the maturation of this troupe, the girl, and the troubled but genuine love affair through the Fifties as they play the capitals of Europe and battle the political forces behind the Iron Curtain. The music is fantastic and actually becomes part of the story. Authentic Polish folk tunes, introduced at the top, reappear under different guises; one of the first ones we hear is skillfully morphed later into a sultry Julie London-type jazz piece. Writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski’s sure hand propels the narrative with a series of blackouts, so the passage of time is instantaneous, and he gets knockout work from stars Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (it seems b&w is the new color this year: besides, as the director noted, “Cold War Poland was not a colorful place”) is breathtaking. This is an Amazon Studios release; put it on your watch list.

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THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS**** (North American Premiere) If you liked the Coen brothers’ last one, HAIL, CAESAR!, then this is a similar romp, but it’ll help if you also liked FARGO, because in all its warped hilarity this movie is likewise suffused with sudden violent death. It’s an anthology of six short films, each set in the old West but each inhabiting its own milieu. The curtain-raiser is the wildest, with a perfect Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a fourth-wall-breaking, white-hatted singing cowboy who also happens to be one of the most vicious gunmen you’ve ever seen. We also watch James Franco hilariously botch a bank robbery, and there’s Liam Neeson as the impresario of a traveling-show oratorical wonder, Tom Waits as a preternaturally determined prospector, Zoe Kravitz as part of a wagon train to Oregon, and a stagecoach full of character actors headed to a spooky destination. The humor is barbed and the picture is stuffed with surprises. A couple of the endings are even heartbreaking, but you’ll never be able to see them coming. What this film is actually about is not the West itself, but Western movies. It deliberately plays with the Hollywood conventions that we’ve all become accustomed to. This movie is wildly entertaining, the writing and acting are superb, and it looks beautiful. It’s uneven by definition — remember, it’s six disparate 20-odd-minute films and I had distinct preferences — but the two hours fly by. It’s still weird to see the Netflix logo on something as A-listy as this, but filmmakers are getting adequate budgets and a wider day-and-date release than they could ever have otherwise. 

WISH I’D SEEN: AMERICAN DHARMA, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, CARMINE STREET GUITARS, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (on a big screen; I only know it from home video), THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (I trust I’ll get the chance somehow), WATERGATE (too long to fit in)

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Yankee Go

September 20, 2018

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Go is somewhat like cricket in that it’s played enthusiastically elsewhere in the world but it hasn’t really caught on in America. Some devotees are trying to change that, and they are the main subjects of Will Lockhart and Cole D. Pruitt’s wonderful documentary THE SURROUNDING GAME, now streaming on Netflix.

Go is deceptively simple in principle, maddeningly complex in practice. It uses a 19-by-19 grid, and the rules can be meaningfully described in just one sentence: “You may place your stone (playing piece) on any point (intersection) on the board, but if I surround that stone, I may remove it.” When it becomes mathematically impossible to alter the outcome, the player controlling the most stones is the winner. 

The game originated in China and has been played for at least 2500 years. In fact, it was considered one of the four essential arts of the Chinese scholar-gentleman: music, calligraphy, painting, and Go. There are millions of Go players, but almost all of them live in the far East, particularly in Japan, which formalized the version we use today. The highest skill level belongs to professionals, who learn to play as young children and devote their lives to the game. The main story arc of the movie is the attempt by top players to win a national tournament and become the first American Go professional. 

These guys — and nearly all of them are guys — are obsessed with and humbled by the game. Take a look at a board midway through and you’ll sense that Go is many, many times more complex than chess (on its wimpy 8-by-8 surface). The possibilities with every move are orders of magnitude greater. Go is a series of little neighborhood skirmishes, but they’re happening all over the board, everywhere you look. If you’re not thinking ten, twenty moves ahead, a competent player will clobber you, and it’ll come as a surprise as you watch him pocket your stones. 

Watching the Go players in the movie, I was struck by certain similarities to backgammon, an even older game. I’ve played enough backgammon now that I don’t think of numbers on the board any more, but shapes. That’s one level of sophistication, and the big Go players are using this same kind of cognition; a play just “looks right.” But people who play backgammon for money have to think another step ahead because the game relies on chance, the rolling of dice. (Bobby Fischer hated backgammon for this reason: he couldn’t control the outcome simply with sound play.) So they have internalized the mathematical likelihood of each possible die roll. They are playing the odds. The worst backgammon player in the world can beat the best one in a single game with lucky rolls, but over time, any money will migrate to the wallet of the pro.

Top Go players seem to be regarding visual patterns as well, but of course there’s no luck involved, and they’re thinking far ahead, as a chess player does. Toward the end of the film, a group visits the elderly master Go Seigen in Japan. The fragile expert visibly brightens when the board is set before him. He sees an early move and calls it “strong” — and there’s nothing anywhere near the stone. He points out other “strong” spots on a virtually empty board. Fueled by hard-won experience, his mind is already many moves down the line.

The American players are a rich mix of obsessives — one of them even moved to Korea to study the game full-time (“it’s the one thing I don’t suck at”). But I received a slightly different vibe from them than from their Japanese counterparts. To most of the Americans, Go is more like a sport: it’s about winning, rankings, battle. To the great Japanese players — who are also proud of public acknowledgment of their skill levels — part of their mission is to communicate the beauty of Go to the rest of us. It’s bigger than they are, and that heartfelt humility in turn elevates them even further.

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It’s Lynchtime

August 28, 2018

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I’ve been living inside the mind of David Lynch. Strange place to be. Sometimes the offbeat can induce euphoria; other times, only puzzlement. But for Lynch, that’s the whole idea.

I saw ERASERHEAD, Lynch’s first feature film, not all that long after it came out in 1977. It was definitely projected onto a screen but I was long gone from film school by then, and Jackson, Mississippi didn’t have any art houses. So who knows how or where. ERASERHEAD is a black-and-white dreamscape of outre and disturbing images — it was billed, doubtless in exasperation, as a “horror film” — but I distinctly remember the creepiest thing about it was the grim and foreboding sound design, an aspect of filmmaking which Lynch would continue to emphasize throughout his career.

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Jack Nance in ERASERHEAD.

I remember regarding ERASERHEAD as the stereotypical Very Good Student Film: avant garde and crammed with bold visual provocations. Many students begin this way (they are hilariously satirized in They Might Be Giants’ song “Experimental Film”), and Lynch was indeed ensconced at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles during the five years he scrambled through production in fits and starts. He was just one of many at the time, and ERASERHEAD was no less baffling to me than the out-there pioneers like Brakhage, Emshwiller and Mekas. What I didn’t realize was that discerning people in the film industry were really responding to it, even more than the hipsters who showed up at midnight screenings. 

One of them was Mel Brooks, who hired Lynch to direct THE ELEPHANT MAN (also in b&w), a big movie that looked great but at first glance had little to do with ERASERHEAD. Now suddenly an A-lister, Lynch nearly lost that status on his next film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling science fiction epic DUNE, for which he still regrets bring seduced by a comfortable budget. In Lynch’s view, by surrendering final cut and thus his own vision, he failed twice: once by not finding an audience, and once by not believing in the finished product anyway. But despite the flop, he maintained a good relationship with impresario Dino De Laurentiis on DUNE, and that led to the film that put him back on track. 

I had not been paying close attention all this time. I recognized Lynch’s name but I hadn’t grasped a throughline in his work, as I could easily see in, say, Stanley Kubrick. I didn’t care for DUNE, although despite what I saw as frequent ludicrousness there’s still lots to like, and it does grow on you (as with nearly everything Lynch has ever touched). But then came a screening I’ll never, ever forget.

I was a Jackson-area “secret shopper” for a movie theater chain. Twice a month or so, I’d go in, buy some concessions, watch a movie, then go out and back in again for a late show. (They’d reimburse me and pay me to boot. Sweet!) I’d be filling out a checklist later — Did the ticket-taker smile? Did they tear the ticket? etc. — and one of my duties was to go to the front and physically count the house just as the studio logo appeared at the beginning of the feature. If I didn’t feel like sticking around for the second feature, tallying the late-show house was my last chore. But one night something made me stay. I counted fifteen people in the auditorium, most of them middle-aged, and they’d been summoned by a dark display ad with a skin-filled clinch and the words “Blue Velvet” in innocent romantic script. I plunked down as audience member #16. Like the others, I had no idea what to expect.

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Dennis Hopper as one of the all-time greatest movie villains, with Isabella Rossellini in BLUE VELVET.

In case you haven’t seen BLUE VELVET, I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but it takes place in a romanticized Anytown U.S.A. that looks like it belongs in a Fifties sitcom: perhaps ironically, perhaps not. Yet there is a deep noir undercurrent of sexuality and violence that reveals itself first gradually and then explosively with the arrival of Dennis Hopper, who plays a dervish of pure malevolence. His first scene, maybe twenty minutes in, is so jaw-droppingly off the scale that it cleared the house that night. There was only one person remaining by the time Hopper exited: me. And as the credits rolled past your shaken servant an hour and a half later, I had one basic question: what kind of mind could possibly dream up something like this? David Lynch was now officially on my radar. And next up was his single most famous creation, TWIN PEAKS: of all things, this guy got a television series.

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“Lynch’s work resides in the complicated zone where the beautiful and the damned collide,” writes Kristine McKenna in a wonderful new “biography,” ROOM TO DREAM. It’s also an “autobiography” because McKenna and Lynch trade chapters: she’ll objectively discuss one phase of his career and then he’ll go over the same timeframe in first person, sometimes even disagreeing with his co-author’s sources. He is “sensitive to the entropy that instantly begins eating away at every new thing.” Like Tim Burton, perhaps a creative cousin, Lynch is first and foremost an artist, in the drawing sense. But where Burton typically wraps an eccentric and enjoyable sensibility around an established pattern or genre, Lynch’s dream-logic becomes its own art form, in any medium which can contain it. Once you sync in, you must succumb, but the lushness and brassiness of Lynch’s images make it easy.

Judging from this book, Lynch had a happy, stable childhood, though he says he was “longing for something out of the ordinary to happen.” He was born in Montana and spent significant years in Boise, Idaho (as did another artistic anomaly, Matthew Barney). He was a popular, charming kid and had many good friends of both genders. David was fourteen when his father, a research scientist, was transferred from their beloved Boise to Alexandria, Virginia, and the culture shock was challenging. But here he met his lifelong best friend, Jack Fisk, and his first mentor in “the art life,” Bushnell Keeler. Since then, Lynch has been creating visual art in nearly every waking moment. His journey into film began in an art studio, when he imagined ”a little wind” in his own painting of lush green foliage. 

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Lynch often sets bucolic images against phantasmic, almost hallucinatory counterpoints. TWIN PEAKS is set in a little Pacific Northwest logging town, postcard-perfect like BLUE VELVET’s, which is immediately rent by the discovery of a homecoming queen’s corpse in the series’s first moments. It’s a slightly askew attitude that surprised and fascinated the audience: in the TWIN PEAKS universe, the banal is remarkable (at one point a man silently sweeps the floor of a barroom for two and a half long minutes, but there’s method to the madness) and the remarkable is banal (a woman carries a small log around everywhere she goes and claims it communicates to her, yet nobody thinks anything of it). 

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Catherine E. Coulson as the Log Lady.

TWIN PEAKS wraps the soap opera form around a murder mystery, but its out-there viewpoint made it a water-cooler sensation when the first nine episodes aired in 1990. It pervaded the culture. If you saw something a little strange, you might toot out the show’s Duane-Eddyish twangy-guitar theme; it became synonymous with that dee-dee-dee-dee TWILIGHT ZONE figure. I was way hooked and I wasn’t alone. But entropy started devouring the show almost immediately. As a flabbergasted ABC found a hit on its hands and ordered a second 22-episode season, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost were becoming overwhelmed by the petty demands of series tv, such as handing off writing and directing duties. Lynch himself was losing interest in the project as control slipped away, and worst of all, midway through the season they identified the murderer, a plot denouement from which the show never really recovered. It began hemorrhaging its audience. The TWIN PEAKS pop-cultural moment was over. Only diehards remained.

Thing is, though, I missed the comedown. Just before the second season I became a book editor (one who also had lots of catching up to do) and my tv watching time evaporated. I did not see a moment of the second season or a “prequel” feature which Lynch shot immediately after, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. Fade out, at least for me, on TWIN PEAKS.

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The Red Room, the most bizarre place on television.

Fade in, 25 years later. Showtime (meaning CBS) announces that Lynch and Frost are going to revive the series without the strictures of sponsored tv — no censors, no interruption, no commercials. Lynch and Frost personally wrote and Lynch personally directed all eighteen hours (in which a fictional 25 years have also passed for all the characters) and I had plenty of time to watch them last year. The frisson was back. I was blown away, even though some of it was lost on me. I know this because I deliberately worked on my ignorance by embarking on a TWIN PEAKS odyssey.

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A typically Lynchian image. Whaaaa?

Once the new series came to its time-twisting conclusion, I decided to go back and fill in the blanks in strict narrative order. So I watched the prequel movie (set during the week just before the series begins), then the first tv season from 1990, then the second season I’d missed in 1991, and finally I re-screened Showtime’s 2017 third season. It took me a couple weeks shy of a year to make my way through it all. (I didn’t rush myself, sensing that binging on TWIN PEAKS might be injurious.) 

My first takeaway, once I caught my breath, was the hyper-normality that infuses life in Twin Peaks. That’s descended from soap operas, to be sure, but here it’s frequently hard to tell whether “real life” is being celebrated or lampooned. Lynch, who earnestly uses phrases like “peachy keen” in conversation, is no help. Neither is the series’s lead character, “FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper,” played to square perfection by Kyle MacLachlan, also the star of Lynch’s DUNE and BLUE VELVET. Agent Cooper has been sent to town to investigate the murder, and everything delights him: he’s forever rhapsodizing about the coffee, the pie, the smell of douglas firs.

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Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper.

However, look more closely at this Ward & June Cleaver world and you’ll notice strange things lurking in the shadows, even sinister things. The surreal lives next door to the ordinary. Sometimes the weirdness is funny and sometimes it’s terrifying. The atmosphere remains truly unique to Lynch, even when the intensity noticeably drops during Season Two. That’s when the murderer is revealed and the program flails in search of a compelling storyline. Those quirky eccentricities among the main characters begin to be the show rather than feed the show. But judging from the final few episodes, the creators had no intention of tying things up in a neat package. In fact, the last shot of Season Two gave us a terrific plot twist…

…which remained unexplored until 25 years had gone by, both on the show and for real. (True fans must have been livid to have been left with such a cliffhanger, but that’s how the cookie crumbled.) 

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On my first viewing of Season Three last year, I could tell I was missing little bits of significance because I’d left the story midway through. But it was amazing how well “TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN” worked for me even out of context. First, there were the amazing hi-def images. I saw INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch’s most recent feature, at the 2006 New York Film Festival, where he told us he didn’t think he’d ever shoot on film again. The freedom and spontaneity of digital photography really paid off on what must have been a massive and grueling shoot: Season Three looks spectacular. And because I was more accustomed to Lynch’s sensibility, I was able to ignore any blind spots and just float down the river with him. About halfway through, I knew I just had to get a deeper perspective by screening the entire epic.

Season Three felt so comfortable because, as much as possible, Lynch and Frost basically got the band back together: key actors and crew members, the eerie atmospherics and hypnotic “dream-pop” of composer Angelo Badalamenti, and a fabulous narrative that plays off the startling premise that fans had been denied for a quarter century. I was of course unschooled, so my second screening of Season Three turned out to be even more fun: in almost every episode there are callbacks to the original series, but lots of them were over my head the first time through. Lynch and Frost did a beautiful job of connecting loose strands from Season Two, the one in which they were largely absent caretakers, and giving them real retroactive significance.

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The beginning of an extended passage in S3E8 that gobsmacked everybody.

The eighth episode broadcast by Showtime is a particular amazement. The producers chose it to submit for Emmys (TP earned nine nominations, including for writing, directing and sound design). I’ve never seen anything like it on television. Most of this hour passes without dialogue. After some plot cleanup and a song from Nine Inch Nails at the Twin Peaks “roadhouse,” the rest of the episode depicts the arrival of pure malignant evil on Earth with the “Trinity event,” the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. When it was over, I started telling people it was like watching outtakes from ERASERHEAD (most of this image-rich section is shown in black and white, for a retro as well as gonzo feel). So, immediately after seeing it, I went back and screened ERASERHEAD again after an even longer span of time had passed. I discovered there was a direct line to TWIN PEAKS — meaning Lynch does indeed have a Kubrickian artistic signature. 

Lynch’s sets are populated by people who have worked with him forever and it’s a tight-knit clan. The star of ERASERHEAD is Jack Nance (he’s appeared in every Lynch film except for the atypical pair THE ELEPHANT MAN and THE STRAIGHT STORY). Nance’s then-wife was Catherine E. Coulson, who was the assistant director and Lynch’s right hand on the film; she went on to play the Log Lady in TWIN PEAKS, which uses other crew members who’ve also been with Lynch since ERASERHEAD. There’s the famous Red Room zigzag carpet design (a bit of TWIN PEAKS iconography) in Lynch’s very first feature. It’s the same mind.

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The zigzag carpet, long before TWIN PEAKS.

That’s why TWIN PEAKS, in particular that gorgeous third season, is so exciting. Season Three is nothing less than an eighteen-hour David Lynch film, divined so freely that Showtime execs had no idea how many episodes there would be when they agreed to the project. Something like this will probably never happen again, because it’s already been established that when Frost and Lynch take their hands off the wheel, the work suffers. Lynch has earned the right to relax a little (he won’t) and suck on some of his beloved Lynch-Bages. (I’d probably love Dupree-Bages if such a thing existed.) But judging from ROOM TO DREAM, he hasn’t stopped moving yet.

David Lynch just makes me feel better. Following his career, I’m gratified that a man can assume “the art life” and continue on that personal path no matter what. No matter the public reception, the strictures of his chosen industry, the lack of resources, or any of the other gremlins which get in the way of most people and stand between them and their vision. This guy makes works of art that are all his own — and they’re nothing if not peachy keen.

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Lynch in his hilarious TP role as Agent Cooper’s boss, the near-deaf Deputy Director Gordon Cole.


Fifty Years Ago, The Future

May 31, 2018

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If you like movies, you’ll periodically be delighted, surprised, tickled, thrilled, even amazed at the talent of the people who put them together. But only twice in my life have I walked out of a screening absolutely gobsmacked — emotionally flattened, finding it difficult to fully process what I’d just seen. The first happened just about this time of year exactly half a century ago, when some friends and I first saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

A carload of college chums drove from Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans — a three-hourish trip — to the Martin Cinerama, for 2001’s original 70mm “road show” engagement. We saw the movie and then we drove three more hours back (we collegians hadn’t enough dough for anything else). But that return trip was almost completely devoted to awed conversation which is most accurately rendered as: “Holy shit!” In other words: minds blown, it was frickin worth it.

2001 was now the best movie I’d ever seen by leaps and bounds, a position challenged only once, about four years later, by a 16mm print of CITIZEN KANE in a grad-school film history class. Nothing else since has even come close. I’ve probably seen the flick twenty times by now and I feel like I know it pretty well. I’ve read every snippet I could find about it. So imagine my surprise when a new book for 2001’s fiftieth anniversary managed to take me to school dozens of times with endlessly fascinating arcane details. Michael Benson’s SPACE ODYSSEY is the only book on the subject you’ll ever need. 

Stanley Kubrick was on my radar for making the hilarious and transgressive DR. STRANGELOVE, but that’s all I knew about him. Only that this big-time director had teamed with science fiction titan Arthur C. Clarke to come up with a serious outer-space movie. My card-carrying, propeller-beanie-wearing sf fan’s heart fluttered. Plus, the normally secretive Kubrick had really clamped the lid shut on this production (Mr. Benson explains why). So we knew nothing, and we were dying. Of course we’d drive 200 miles, watch a movie, and drive right back!

The “road show” was how big extravaganzas were introduced back then: BEN-HUR, DR. ZHIVAGO, CLEOPATRA, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, etc. The initial engagement was restricted to larger cities. Reserved seats. An intermission. Printed programs. But this one had the added attraction of Cinerama, large-format film projected onto a giant curved screen to suggest peripheral vision, with audio speakers everywhere for the first surround sound I’d ever heard. We bought our tickets by mail, positioning ourselves in the Cinerama sweet spot, a third back in the dead middle. As we were filing in, this strange spacey “music” (which I now know to be Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”) softly caressed the auditorium because the film was already rolling. It was perfect. You can hear the Ligeti “overture,” just as we did, on the 2007 Warner Bros. Blu-Ray edition, which attempts to replicate the 1968 roadshow experience. Christopher Nolan — an excellent choice — is working on a 4K release for October of this anniversary year, but if you don’t have the gear, then the 2007 Blu-Ray is still your must-own version. We may not have Cinerama to play with any more, but after years of watching 2001 on tiny cathode-ray tubes, we’re finally arriving at large-screen hi-def home-theater tech that better deserves this film.

What we saw and heard was another kind of science fiction, another kind of art itself. 2001 is largely a nonverbal experience. Dialogue is heard for barely a fourth of its 142 minutes; the first spoken words (“Here you are, sir”) occur a full 22 minutes in. The pace is languid (more impatient viewers consider that a bug; I think it’s a feature) and deliberate. The story begins four million years ago and ends — well, that was the biggest topic on the way back home. And before your eyes is the most authentic-looking (eventually Oscar-winning) simulation of outer space ever put on film. I’ve never seen more convincing space effects in the ensuing half century, not with computerized motion control, not with CGI.

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Dan Richter as “Moonwatcher.”

By now 2001 feels so — inevitable, that it’s remarkable to learn from Mr. Benson how many decisions were actually made on the fly. Stanley Kubrick was an intensely driven, naturally curious polymath on whom the term “genius” was not squandered, as we frequently tend to do. His personal aim went beyond excellence and approached perfection, and he demanded the same fierce focus from his colleagues. The book is full of examples of artists and craftsmen striving to please Stanley, when what he really wanted was for them to surpass their presumed capabilities: he was a tyrant who still engendered devotion and even love. Many of 2001’s physical requirements were “impossible” given the technology of the day, so the production had to inquire, improvise and even invent. The many innovations developed for the film could fill a book, and now they have.

Mr. Benson is the ideal guide. Not only has he done voluminous research, but he is also a visual artist and filmmaker as well as a writer — and though he treats 2001 with a true fan’s respect, he’s not above having a little fun with his subject. As Kubrick and Clarke struggled for an ending, in one screenplay draft an “unbelievably graceful and beautiful humanoid” was supposed to approach the lead character and lead him into “infinite darkness.” As Mr. Benson writes, “how to achieve such grace and beauty had been left indeterminate. In any case, it wasn’t just inadequate, it flirted with risibility. Kubrick didn’t do risible.” He compares the creation of the trippy 17-minute “Star Gate” sequence to jazz improvisation among 2001’s “image instrumentalists”: “Like John Coltrane leaning into the mike after Miles Davis was done, [visual effects supervisor Douglas] Trumbull figured he’d take his turn.”

SPACE ODYSSEY is also a bagful of surprises. For example, I already knew that Canadian actor Douglas Rain provided the voice for 2001’s HAL 9000 supercomputer in two days without seeing a foot of film or any lines besides his own. But I didn’t know that Rain was the second actor to play HAL. The first was Martin Balsam, but later the director decided that Balsam had added too much personality and instead chose to go deadpan. Another thing I didn’t realize was that the “breathing” sounds heard when main characters are in their spacesuits were “acted” by the director personally, who recorded about a half-hour’s worth of “respiratory soundscape” wearing one of 2001’s prop helmets. Thus, as Mr. Benson notes in a lovely bit of writing, “as an example of his own handiwork, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY bears evidence of his own life within it, a small segment of his human soundtrack.” 

The book is stuffed with little mini-dramas. There is mime Dan Richter’s laborious research and choreography for the “Dawn of Man” sequence (he plays “Moonwatcher,” the lead ape). The physical struggle to get daredevil flyover footage for inverted, solarized Star Gate shots, or Namibian landscapes for front-projection plates. The tug of war over Clarke’s companion novel, which Kubrick kept delaying along with the general production. Kubrick’s campaign to keep MGM at bay as the production slid egregiously over budget and behind schedule. The fate of a narration to help “explain,” which Clarke slaved over for years. The agony of would-be composers facing Kubrick’s determination to use the Strauss and Ligeti “temp tracks” he’d already dropped in (in hindsight they’re as right as can be, but the first time Kubrick saw the space-station footage against “The Blue Danube,” he asked, “Do you think it would be an act of genius or the height of folly to have that?”). 

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Kubrick (l.) and Clarke on set.

A bit of unexpected lagniappe came my way whenever the book located the production’s New York phases. (2001 was Kubrick’s last project not fully restricted to England.) The first film exposed for 2001 was high-speed footage of drops of colored paint in a tank of black ink and thinner, used in the finale. Kubrick himself operated the camera in an abandoned brassiere factory on upper Broadway, just a few blocks from where I lived when I first moved here 23 years later. Kubrick’s Lexington Avenue penthouse apartment, where lots of 2001 was hatched, was just three streets down from where I’m sitting right now. And years later, following a disastrous first screening, Kubrick trimmed the finished film in the basement of the MGM building on Sixth Avenue: I worked there when I was with the Hearst Book Group. 

Kubrick is the boss, but he’s not always the hero. It took VFX master Doug Trumbull — who learned his craft on this show — decades to forgive the director for including an end-credits card reading “Special Photographic Effects Designed and Directed by Stanley Kubrick.” There was actually a plausible reason for this: Academy rules prohibited more than three people from being considered for a VFX Oscar (same deal with Best Picture producers today), but 2001 had four credited special effects supervisors. So the solo credit probably kept 2001 under consideration, but Kubrick might have petitioned the Academy to bend the rules for such a quantum-leap production. Kubrick personally realized the oil-and-paint “galaxy” effects back on Upper Broadway, and he knew more about teasing results from photographic equipment than most DPs. But the space effects were definitely a collaborative effort, as this book richly illustrates, and he didn’t nail the “Purple Hearts” solarization technique discovered by Bryan Loftus, or Trumbull’s own “slit-scan” machine, both of which provided indelible images for the Star Gate sequence. What Kubrick did get was the only Academy Award he ever won. My impression is that what really stuck in Trumbull’s craw was the word “Designed.”

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Doug Trumbull’s “slit-scan” effect.

The most important thing Mr. Benson does for me personally is to finally scratch an itch that has persisted for fifty years. As all true fans know, 2001 was reviled upon its premiere but gradually caught on later. Well, no. That’s not what happened at all. The version which premiered in Washington, D.C. on April 2, 1968 and in New York the next day — crucially, the one that was shown to the nation’s film critics — was 161 minutes long. The dismal reaction (although he wisely kept his mouth shut, even Clarke hated it) traumatized Kubrick and forced him to call for intensive surgery in the basement OR at good old 1350 Avenue of the Americas, where he delicately excised nineteen minutes. For half a century, I have been dying to see that nineteen minutes. If 2001 is this good, wouldn’t that make it nineteen minutes better?

Mr. Benson has disabused me of that desire. 

We know and love the sequence in which Gary Lockwood jogs and shadowboxes in a 360-degree antigravitational loop — a mind-blowing illusion performed on what was then the largest kinetic set ever constructed. Some people think the scene goes on too long. Well, how about another 360-degree sequence featuring co-star Keir Dullea? The premiere audience saw it. Also, Dullea meticulously prepares for an EVA at the computer’s suggestion. Again, even today some viewers (not me) find the sequence fat. How about doing it yet again with the other astronaut? The filmcrits saw that too. 2001 is so hypnotic that a rapt audience member could even acquiesce to all this. But most others, nuh-uh. Kubrick didn’t know this because he’d never tested the super-secret film with real warm bodies: nobody had seen the virgin reactions of completely objective viewers. Whether MGM forced the cuts or not is unclear, but even Kubrick had to concede they were necessary.

At a trimmer 142 minutes, not only did 2001 immediately roar for MGM at the box office — it was 1968’s highest-grossing film, the only time Kubrick ever achieved #1 — but critics also began changing their minds upon subsequent viewings. Jeez, this is nowhere near as turgid as I remember! The funniest opinion morph, reprinted in Jerome Agel’s 1970 pop-arty THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, was Time magazine’s weekly 25-word capsule movie review section from preem to dominance: it was as if different people had written each of eight or ten entries. Ash heap to masterpiece. 

Let’s leave it at masterpiece, for that’s where 2001 sits in my home. Therefore I’m not capable of judging this book objectively. Would it be as compelling to someone who has never seen 2001? Dunno. But only a couple of sentences on physical engineering were beyond me (kudos to the author, who keeps the rest of it earthbound), and I would imagine the fraught journey toward a lasting work of art could interest a seeker from any medium. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, my strong advice would be to see the movie before you dig any deeper. Get as close to our college-boy innocence as you can. Slow down. Lights off. Breathe. Exhale. Quiet. Still. Now hit play and dig some Ligeti.

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The best damn space effects in film history.


My Sundance 2018

February 10, 2018

sundance18.pngNice weather this year for Sundance filmgoers, not so much for skiiers: a light dusting to make things pretty, but ice-free roads and sidewalks. Everything at the fest — including all 17 films below — is a premiere except for its “Spotlight” series, which screens a few notables previously shown elsewhere on the festival circuit (I saw one of them in New York last fall). But not everything is “in competition” and thus eligible for an award. You just have to get used to it.

futile.jpegA FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE**** Doug Kenney, co-founder of National Lampoon and co-writer of ANIMAL HOUSE, is a humor-writing idol of mine, much as Brando or James Dean might be to an actor — Doug’s natural blazing talent was off the scale. So don’t expect any objectivity here: the fact that this movie even exists is worth a great deal to me. Director David Wain & co. obviously intended to create the type of biopic Doug himself might have written: arch, irreverent, self-aware. (Doug himself would have probably turned in something about teenage Venusians invading Chagrin Falls, Ohio, but never mind.) One feature he might have admired is the narrator, “Modern Doug,” played by the seventyish Martin Mull. The character itself is a metafiction since the real Doug didn’t last half that long, but he makes possible a current-day take on what is essentially a period piece, that period being the cultural adolescence of the Me Generation. We pick up our hero at Harvard and watch him co-claw the National Lampoon to prominence, then “graduate” to Hollywood excess. All the people around him, some of whom you’ll recognize from real life, are played by actors and comics and improv people who must have agitated to be in this picture. (There are some human Easter eggs too: for example, one of the magazine publishers pitched by the Lampoon is played by Mark Metcalf, better known to ANIMAL HOUSE fans as “Neidermeyer.”) Modern Doug pauses at one point to note that all these actors may not resemble the people they’re playing, but face it, does Will Forte (as movie Doug) really look like he’s in his twenties? He says this as a long list of factual inaccuracies crawls by on the screen too quickly to read. That’s the tone. Everybody, including Forte, is wearing era-appropriate wigs, so it’s a little like attending some perverse NatLamp-themed Halloween party: the only guy who physically falls into his role is Thomas Lennon as the acerbic Michael O’Donoghue. But even so bewigged, Domhnail Gleeson is superb as Henry Beard, Doug’s writing partner on both Lampoons, Harvard and National: he’s the best thing in the movie, nailing his American accent and providing desperately needed human emotion. If you don’t remember these days with fondness, you might not prevail over an hour and half of unrelenting sound and fury. But you can test a small dose right now, because it’s streaming on Netflix.

nancy.jpegNANCY** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Christina Choe) Now that we’ve survived a bout of misogny and infantilism, let’s move on to the main event: chick flicks!!! (Sorry, I promise to shake off all the remaining Doug Kenney dust. There.) A serious subtext this year was, many more films about and/or by women. One day we shall attain that pinnacle at which even Oscar voters renounce their historic snubbing of…fantasy films. (Go, Guillermo!) But until then, this is a notable and welcome wave. I didn’t like this one as much as I liked that it was here, which is only a baby step. Death mercifully frees a mousy, repressed, miserable 35-year-old temp (Andrea Riseborough, whom we will see later at a slightly more flattering angle) from her shrewish adopted mother. Meanwhile, a grieving couple (played with skill and taste by Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) hasn’t given up on their 5-year-old daughter, gone missing 30 years ago. A digital construct that shows what the daughter might look like now matches our Nancy perfectly, so she presents herself to the couple. Does she really believe herself the kidnapped lost soul? Might she actually be? Ambiguity abounds, any tension is psychological only, and that vacant look on Nancy’s face is pasted on for the entire running time. After many Sundance screenings over the years, I’m well prepared for grey skies and plot bleakness, but this one failed to move either me or the antiheroine.

kinder.jpegTHE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER*** (U.S. Dramatic Award for Directing: Sara Colangelo) Again with the antiheroine. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a mousy, repressed, miserable teacher and wannabe writer who discovers a poetic prodigy in her lower Manhattan classroom, a kid who periodically goes into a trance and spits out genius. Her interest inexorably ratchets down into obsession, which consumes her more and more powerfully and leads her to morally ambiguous (non-kid-threatening) acts that would basically make you punch out Teach if it were your family. It’s based on an Israeli film which I haven’t seen. The upside is that this is the type of character dissection that comes completely out of left field; Gyllenhaal owns the screen and really sweeps you up into her own madness as you flail for reasons to empathize with her. But by the time you finally throw up your hands and admit she’s just nuckin futs, the picture is basically over. A minor but hanging beef is that the kid’s poetry, which is supposed to be amazing enough to stun both a writing class and a public audience, was for me just meh, exceptional only because it came from a five-year-old. For this non-poet, it doesn’t work as well on its own, and that’s a critical plot point. A startling bit of MOS dialog is the last thing we hear; nice.

tully.jpegTULLY**** What working actress is braver than Charlize Theron? She shaves her head to race in the desert. She de-glams and gains weight (and gets an Oscar for it). I guess knowing you’re gorgeous must give your ego some room to tear the image down. But I’ve never seen her look more normally human on purpose than here as Marlo, a bloated ninth-month expectant mother. She already has young children, including an emotionally and physically exasperating ADD son, and as the picture opens she’s on the verge of clinical exhaustion and hasn’t even delivered yet. The idea of a “night nanny” to give Marlo some overnight sleep — the nanny will wake her whenever it’s time for feeding — sounds unusual at first, but soon after the baby’s born, young Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up at the door. I have to stop here, because screenwriter Diablo Cody is way ahead of us both, but let’s just say the engaging story kept us discussing it that night and into the next day, and will probably have the same effect on you. Both leads show us real chemistry; they are utterly believable and thoroughly charming. This one grows on you — you may well want to see it a second time.

puzzle1.jpgPUZZLE**** A mousy, repressed Connecticut housewife and mother (Kelly Macdonald) discovers that she is a savant at jigsaw puzzling, which quickly becomes her secret passion. This character is particularly interesting because her life is only humdrum, not miserable: it’s grounded in reality and keenly recognizable by the audience. She has a kindhearted if old-fashioned husband (David Denman of THE OFFICE) who owns a garage, and some fine sons, one of whom has his own secret passion. It has never occurred to her that there can be more to life. But when she begins practicing for a doubles competition with a Manhattan tech-fortune maven (a pitch-perfect Irrfan Khan), another dimension opens: her black-and-white world is now in full color. It would be impossible to explain to her family, so she sneaks train trips into the city — and, of course, something’s gotta give. Macdonald’s subtle, delicate performance reminded me of Isabelle Huppert: the movie’s on her shoulders and she carries it beautifully.

blaze.jpegBLAZE*** (Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Benjamin Dickey) Ethan Hawke’s adoring biopic of Blaze Foley, the “outlaw country” legend who was better known to fellow musicians than to the general public. Hawke weaves through three separate timelines: the young Foley’s love affair with (co-screenwriter) Sybil Rosen; a drunken but searing live set at Austin’s Outhouse bar; and a nostalgic radio interview with two close friends. The idea of this mashup is better than the result, and if every bit of Blaze’s story is new to you, it might feel somewhat like much ado. What saves the film is onscreen authenticity. Hawke went to the trouble of hiring genuine musicians who really play on camera. Folk singer Ben Dickey goes a great job in the harrowing title role, but for my money the real discovery is Charlie Sexton as Blaze’s friend Townes Van Zandt. (That’s him above.) Sexton is a longtime guitarist in Bob Dylan’s touring band, but you’d swear this natural raconteur was a veteran character actor. He has a great future in movies if anything ever happens to his pickin’ fingers.

eighth-grade-movie-image.jpgEIGHTH GRADE**** A surprise from Bo Burnham, the snarky standup who shined as part of the comic Greek chorus in THE BIG SICK. The surprise is that Burnham displays unabashed, unironic heart and emotion as he follows an eighth-grader through a time of maximum awkwardness. She’s more than a schoolgirl but not quite yet a woman, and thanks to social media she’s part of the first generation that constantly self-documents, probably living far too much of its life in public. Newcomer Elsie Fisher is tremendous in the lead: she makes you laugh and breaks your heart. How can a man write this stuff? Very carefully — but Fisher’s “Kayla Day” is clearly a projection of the director’s own adolescent social ineptitude. At the q&a Burnham noted that it was no problem directing newly teenaged actors: to them it was s.o.p., just another selfie lens. I can’t wait for his next film: he’s good.
hearts.jpegHEARTS BEAT LOUD*** (Festival Closing Night) This is a fairly standard story about a taut single father-daughter relationship, but with a big switcheroo. Stereotypically, with her prodigious musical talent she would want to cut the apron strings and blast off into show business. Here her dad is a onetime pro musician who now runs a failing Brooklyn record store, and she just wants to get into pre-med at UCLA. But that voice! As a way of staying connected, he keeps goading her into setting the books down for a regular “jam sesh,” and one day they noodle together the title song, which turns into a minor Spotify hit. The best thing about this picture is the musical numbers: Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are really playing live, and their joy is infectious. An impromptu “concert” in the cramped record store is about as good as it gets on film. Aside from the music this is only a trifle, but it really leaves you in a good place.

burden.jpgBURDEN**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) A tough, gritty dramatization of a true story of racism and redemption that happened in South Carolina in the Nineties. Garrett Hedlund is calmly sensational as Mike Burden, a stepped-on white-trash orphan who discovers a wider world: Hedlund has developed this shrugging, schlumpy gait that makes him look like a whipped dog. When Dixie shit disturber and Mike’s mentor Tom Wilkinson (very scary) opens a “Redneck Museum” celebrating Klan history in a downtown storefront, he’s basically daring the cowed black community to do something suicidal. But nuance is entering Mike’s life in the form of girlfriend and single mom Andrea Riseborough (from NANCY; she was in four movies showing at the fest) and, crucially, a black pastor (Forest Whitaker) who has more Christian values in his little finger than does an entire tv “ministry.” It’s tough to watch at times but it feels right; you get to see prejudice and, uh, clannishness on both sides of the racial divide.

dark.jpegDARK MONEY*** (Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Katy Chevingy & Marilyn Ness) “Dark money” describes unlimited, anonymous contributions to political parties and even individual campaigns, as long as there’s a pro forma arm’s length. The last shackles were taken off by the Supreme Court’s infamous “Citizens United” decision of 2010 in which unidentified donations were declared a form of free speech. Dark money influences elections everywhere — notably in furious negative postcards that flood mailboxes in the last few days before voting, opposing even conservatives if they don’t toe the corporate line — but it makes nobody madder than Montanans. They outlawed corporate contributions in 1912 after copper barons tried to take over the state using pure cash, and for a century they’ve had some of the strictest laws in the country. Now they are fighting back agains the likes of the Koch brothers as best they can. This documentary wisely concentrates on that one state to give this complex problem a human dimension, even against a constantly shifting opposition of blandly named shell companies which leave as few fingerprints as the law allows (i.e., nearly none). Too many election results are bought and paid for. Recognizing the problem is the first step in resistance.
three.jpegTHREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS**** (Special Jury Award for Storytelling) In 1980, three 19-year-old men discovered that they were identical triplets, separated at birth and adopted by three different families. They’d never met each other before but, remarkably, shared numerous personality traits. They became best friends, moved in together, did all the talk shows, ruled glittering Eighties New York nightlife, and opened a successful restaurant. The first half of this documentary takes you inside their joyful reunion, elaborated by talking heads including two of the boys themselves. But then author Lawrence Wright, researching a New Yorker piece on identical twins, makes a discovery that changes everything, and the movie takes an unexpected turn. Don’t read anything else about this before you see it, because the secret I’m dancing around is jaw-dropping. It unfolds like a piece of fiction, but it’s all true. Wonderful.

beirut_-_h_2017.jpgBEIRUT** This is a fairly standard spy thriller. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but there’s nothing special about it either. Jon Hamm is a U.S. diplomat in Lebanon in the Seventies. Something really bad happens, and he returns to the States and a whiskey bottle. Ten years pass, and the CIA desperately needs him to go back to Beirut, by now basically a combat zone, but he’s kind of a wreck, and is there anybody he can trust? It looks like a Bourne movie, all gray and kinetic. Everything about it is perfectly professional; Hamm can play anything straight or arch, and he does look like a standard-issue movie spy. But it never reached out to grab me, and the only thing that stuck in my mind was a character turn that we could see coming a mile away.

the-sentence.jpgTHE SENTENCE**** (U.S. Documentary Audience Award) Anybody who thinks mandatory minimum sentencing is a good idea — especially Jeff Sessions — should see this one. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez’s sister Cindy gets a mandatory 15 years for conspiracy, meaning she committed no crime personally but did not report the misdeeds of her ex-boyfriend (rueful lawyers call this “the girlfriend problem”). As Cindy is separated from her husband and young daughters over a span of years, Valdez films the family so she can watch them grow up. Then they begin a desperate campaign to seek clemency from the outgoing President Obama. It’s easy to sound tough on crime if you tell yourself that justice is being done, but this is not justice. While Cindy was indeed guilty of conspiracy charges, no judge would have ordered so draconian a sentence, and this heart-rending film shows why. It’s an achingly effective piece of proof that judges need to be free to be fair.

butter.jpegBUTTERFLIES*** (World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) A dramedy about three Turkish siblings, not particularly close, who are called by their father (not very close either) back to the small village where they grew up, a podunk place they’ve been trying their whole lives to forget. Part road movie, part bonding drama, part farce (exploding chickens, a ludicrous astronaut suit, don’t ask), this is a showcase for the three stars, each of whom gets plenty of room to draw a plausibly complex character, all irascible but sweet too. Delightful.

kailash---still-1_38688674281_o-h_2018.jpgKAILASH*** (U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize) A portrait of a very brave man: Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who has made it his life’s work to rescue children trafficked as slave labor for clandestine factories around the world. Hidden cameras show us the squalor, and Kailash and his team pose as buyers to reveal the monstrous, cynical trade in the most vulnerable of human beings. It’s equal parts horrifying and hopeful, anchored by the search for a young boy missing in Delhi for eight months. Kailash’s rescue raids are daring and dangerous; the bad guys here are extremely bad. But his courage is contagious, and he’s not content just to shine a light on this horrifying practice: he’s determined to do something about it.

search_cropped.0.jpgSEARCH**** (NEXT Audience Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Sev Ohanian) A terribly clever thriller that takes place entirely on a computer screen: messages, FaceTime chats, tv news links, and other ephemera that will be instantly recognizable to both Windows and IOS users. John Cho plays a single dad whose high-school daughter goes missing, and the plot of the film is his increasingly frenzied search for her, using all the capabilities of the Internet. It’s amazing how major characters enter the computer-bound story organically, like Debra Messing as a detective who takes the disappearance personally. More than once I had the odd sensation that the big movie screen was actually before me on my desktop: I was concentrating so hard that my sense of scale was way off. The movie is marred toward the end by a dreaded “info dump,” in which mystery elements are explained away without having given us a fair chance to hypothesize. But here form trumps content. This gag has been tried before, notably in the horror film UNFRIENDED, but frankly there it felt like a gimmick. Here the effect is seductively plausible, essential to the story, and lots of fun.

i-think-were-alone-now.jpgI THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW**** (Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking: Reed Morano) Something apocalyptic happened, we’re not sure what. In a quiet little village somewhere in the Northeast, buildings are still standing but they’re atrophied. A lone grim survivor scavenges for gear and sustenance, compulsively cleans the houses, and lugs decomposed bodies into a field where he uses a backhoe to dig their graves. He lives in the public library, where he hangs onto a semblance of order by preserving and cataloging the books he finds on his rounds. He seems to be the last man on earth. Then one day he isn’t. The mesmerizing Peter Dinklage carries Act I all by himself with his trademark burning intensity, but suddenly Elle Fanning is there to disturb his reclusive, neurotic routine. This film settles into a quiet, somber rhythm and then upends itself. It’s supremely confident, taking its time to unfold, yet it stays one step ahead of the viewer, who will have no idea what is to come. I remember being impressed by Dinklage in THE STATION AGENT at my first Sundance in 2003; now GAME OF THRONES has made him a genuine movie star, but he’s retained his indie cred. You just can’t take your eyes off him.

WISH I’D SEEN: GENESIS 2.0, THE GUILTY, MONSTER, MONSTERS AND MEN, OUR NEW PRESIDENT, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

ALREADY SAW: THE RIDER****

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The King Of The Cinema

November 6, 2017

images-5.jpegSteven Spielberg is the Stephen King of movies. He’s one of the best pure storytellers in his medium, but his immense success has earned him a raft of detractors. Constantly challenged by his inner need for achievement, he escapes a creative pigeonhole again and again and continues to produce unexpected work that comes from an unfamiliar place. His legion of fans connect to him on a visceral basis, which makes others in his field envious. His first name is Steve.

images.jpegI hope they never make a 2:30 documentary about the career of Stephen King, because a writer’s life ain’t too visual, and on most of the occasions King’s made it to the big screen, the results have been varying shades of regrettable. But HBO has done just that for Spielberg, and the entertaining career retrospective is not only fun but also eye-opening.

MV5BMTMwNzk2ODEyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzQ4MzczMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1495,1000_AL_.jpgSpielberg has been around since before the dawn of the summer blockbuster (as has King), which is generally thought to have commenced with the release of his picture JAWS in 1975. He was just a kid but he already had lots of experience shooting tv for Universal under the tutelage of executive Sidney Sheinberg. Legend has it that young master Spielberg sneaked onto the lot and commandeered an empty office for months. I don’t believe that, and neither does David Geffen, who refers us to the famous LIBERTY VALANCE line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I do believe Spielberg himself when he says he ducked off the studio-tour tram at a bathroom break and stuck around for the rest of the day, maybe even more than once. Spielberg had been shooting his own 8mm movies since adolescence, learning by doing. He saw the world during his awkward years through the lens of a movie camera. His short film AMBLIN’ was good enough to impress Sheinberg, and that’s how he really got on the lot. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school, so Universal became his film school. He soaked it all up like a sponge.

images-1.jpegSpielberg was part of that Seventies group of young turks who threatened to take over the movie business, then wound up doing exactly that. Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma – each of them is among the talking heads in the HBO doc. Think about the mind-blowing movies that came from that group alone, yet Spielberg towers over them all. He could always out-nerd every single movie nerd in the whole posse. In the fullness of time he’s become the world’s most famous working film director. His name on a picture alone makes you perk up and pay attention.

images-4.jpegHow do you follow a sensation like JAWS? For this whiz kid, with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. He didn’t really have to deal with abject failure until he made 1941, a low comedy which I find underrated but which was widely reviled — and, more important to Hollywood, lost money after blowing a huge budget. It was hubris that did Spielberg in: he says at that point he thought he could do anything.

images-2.jpegHe licked his wounds for a year or so until his old friend George Lucas “came to the rescue,” as Spielberg puts it. Every studio wanted the proposed Lucasfilm archaeologist character, but nobody wanted Spielberg to direct because he was already notorious for trashing schedules and budgets. Now he had something to prove — and a compadre to prove it to. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a delight from beginning to end, largely because its audience didn’t grow up with Republic serials — “every reel was a cliffhanger,” says Spielberg of the first Indiana Jones movie — so everything old was again a surprise.

images-3.jpegAfter achieving great success, Stephen King seemed to need to self-test his creative chops. He had demonstrated that he could do sprawling epics like THE STAND. How about telescoping down to two characters? MISERY. One? GERALD’S GAME. Similarly, Spielberg ventured out from his fantasy wheelhouse into significant forays like THE COLOR PURPLE and SCHINDLER’S LIST. By the time of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, he was able to employ both sides of his brain at once. The opening and closing scenes are probably the best cinematic depiction of WWII-era battle you can find on the screen, but in Spielbergian fashion they’re hyper-realistic, more real than reality. Then MUNICH, LINCOLN, BRIDGE OF SPIES: “serious” films by Steven Spielberg. Now people don’t bat an eye whenever he veers from the fantastic.

spielberg-lucas-cropped.jpgHe tells us in the doc that he only has a vague idea of what’s going to happen when he arrives on set every morning. He’s the anti-Hitchcock. He thinks that frisson of everyday terror keeps him sharp (although one of the best pieces of advice he ever got was, never let the crew think you’re not in control: they’ll lose all respect for you). This sounds true to me: nearly every writer I’ve ever had the privilege of editing suffers to one degree or another from impostor syndrome.

images.jpegI think Spielberg may have to wait for posterity to receive his proper due, like John Ford or Howard Hawks. But if you don’t already think you’re living through the career of one pure-dee historically significant filmmaker, watch this doc and think again.

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12/19/17: THE POST is one of those great bits of drama where you know how it’s going to turn out but you still want to watch everybody sweat. All filmmaking elements are superb. Spielberg led the whole production while he was waiting for the VFX guys to finish their work on READY PLAYER ONE.


My NYFF 2017

October 27, 2017

NYFF55.jpgOrdinarily 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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, Varda and JR constitute a winsome comedy team: he’s quick and glib, she’s pixielike and game. Toward the end, Varda 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.

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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.

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Leon Vitali in BARRY LYNDON…

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…and today.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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