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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My NYFF 2015

October 11, 2015

Unknown-2Had to miss some second-week movies this year due to a temporary ailment, but I did manage eight, including all the ones I was really, really anticipating. The weather again cooperated, but not the Pope’s visit, for which FSLC had to postpone the fest opening by one day. It was the cusp of autumn, maybe a little warmer than usual. Some friends and I went inside for DE PALMA in almost mild-summery conditions, and when we came out two hours later, the temperature had dropped 20 degrees. My fest, on a five-point scale:

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MIA MADRE**** (U.S. Premiere) That rarest of avises: a heartfelt, human-sized, accessible drama made by and for intelligent adults. A film director in Rome (Marguerita Buy) tries to cope with both her latest shoot, featuring a comically imperious American actor (John Turturro, hilarious even in Italian), and the fading health of her beloved mother. Nanni Moretti’s beautiful film juggles these stresses and points of view in a non-linear fashion that gradually reveals itself to be impressionistic. Inspired by the passing of his own mother, Signor Moretti (who personally takes a crucial role) provokes moments of quiet recognition amongst many belly laughs, affirming that our lives are really more similar than they are different, each personal journey strange and beautiful in its own way.

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DE PALMA**** (U.S. Premiere) The complete career of one of our most fearless, most unpredictable directors, an illustrated monologue which takes us from Brian De Palma’s short student films (featuring a very young Robert De Niro) to his latest pictures, made in Europe to escape the studio system, with nothing omitted in between. Unlike most film retrospectives, there are no talking heads except De Palma’s: co-directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach are skilled and confident enough to get out of the way of a great storyteller while beautifully curating the clips and memorabilia that engage us visually. Because of this one-note format, DE PALMA is probably not for everybody — no aspect of the filmmaker’s wide-ranging career, including projects that went nowhere or were eventually made by somebody else, is left uncovered — but catnip for anyone with a deep interest in movies. It’s an ideal festival film. De Palma’s artistic breadth is remarkable: the same man has dipped into blade-wielding thrillers, space science fiction, searing war stories, L.A. noir, even a pioneering rock musical. My main takeaway was how capricious the American movie business really is: De Palma careers from project to project in a series of happy (or otherwise) accidents and keeps going from chump (THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES) to darling (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) and back again. You have to be devoted to your craft to withstand the many indignities wrought by a constantly shifting cultural landscape, and though his wild career has toughened De Palma, he remains gracious and warm (he charmingly expresses surprise as, “Holy mackerel!”). He has thus earned the love and respect of the next generation, exemplified by the two young Turks who honor him here.

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WHERE TO INVADE NEXT**** (U.S. Premiere) That populist provocateur Michael Moore is at it again, but his new film feels more playful, hopeful and uplifting than usual. Armed only with an American flag, Moore “invades” European countries and Tunisia to plant Old Glory on their soil and steal their best ideas. In France he discovers vacation/parental policies that would make the greediest American union member blush, yet companies are doing just fine and French workers are happier and more productive than we are. In Iceland, scene of the worst banking catastrophe of the 2008 financial crisis (every bank failed except the one run by women), all the big shots were prosecuted and are now in prison. He examines female empowerment, incarceration policies, health care and education, and finds real-life solutions demonstrated to be effective by others. And the thing is that all this progress is based on American ideas; even the banker prosecutions were aided by a veteran of the S&L scandal hired by the Icelandic government. (Y’know, he was available here too…he lives here.) Time and again, the interviewees demonstrate the natural state, a concern with the welfare of others alongside oneself, which is sorely lacking in the US. One Icelandic executive — where by law all corporate boards must have no less than 40% representation by the minority gender — says she wouldn’t live in America if they paid her, and our lack of devotion to our larger community is the reason why. These people are flabbergasted that there exist poverty-level Americans in the richest country on earth. After the screening, ushers handed out Faber-Castell pencils from a factory we’d just visited and a genuine application form from Slovenia that allows even non-nationals to study at the college level, in English, tuition free. Here’s a new aspect of Michael Moore: not sniping, just presenting time-tested solutions that work because labor and management — who have been at each others’ throats, to be sure — or the general citizenry which insists on proper education and health care want them to work. It’s constructive, not polemical, unless you stop for a moment to consider that solutions to many of our societal ills are right at hand, if only we could rouse ourselves to demand them of our elected leaders.

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STEVE JOBS*** (Festival Centerpiece) A dedicated and assured effort by all concerned, but considering the pedigree, I felt a little deflated. You have red-hot Danny Boyle directing a script by rock-star screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, a stellar cast led by Michael Fassbender, and most of all, the mercurial personality of the subject, a zen visionary who still had to learn to care about other people. Though it’s assembled from Walter Isaacson’s biography, the creative point of view seems one-dimensional. I blame the screenplay. Yes, it’s boldly distilled into three long scenes, each taking place backstage just before a Jobs product launch: for the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT workstation in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. It’s nifty the way Sorkin makes us infer outward each time at all the inspiration and bullying that brought us to this place, while Jobs does the patented Sorkin “walk-and-talk” from one crisis to the next. But the throughline of the movie is Jobs’s relationship with his daughter Lisa (he originally denies paternity and that he named an Apple computer after her), not his effect on the broader culture. Furthermore, although a mellowing in Jobs is treated as a denouement at the iMac launch, we don’t get to see the achievements of his happier and more peaceful third act, including more traditional fatherhood: the coming iPod (though he briefly alludes to it and to the concept of a touchscreen), iPhone and iPad, which have arguably changed the world without any parallel competition from Bill Gates. Some of Jobs’s younger devotees may be disappointed, even puzzled, by the early stopping point. The acting is uniformly top-notch, although Ashton Kutcher put up a better physical impression than Fassbender does here. Jeff Daniels as John Sculley stands out among many good players; of contemporary actors he is probably Sorkin’s best motormouthpiece. But the summed-up whole was far from what I expected, which was a great movie. This is merely a good one.

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MICROBE & GASOLINE**** (U.S. Premiere) A wonderful laugh-out-loud coming-of-age/road picture/fantasia by the inventive Michel Gondry. It’s based on his childhood memories, but only up to a point. Two loners who are too hip for the classroom become friends, tax the system a bit, and then decide they’re going to split their oppressive school and family scene by building a car (actually not much more than a go-kart powered by a barely heavier engine) and sputtering through the French countryside; they solve all lodging issues by attaching a garden shed to the contraption. Here Gondry vaults into fantasy, for the movie boys go beyond his real-life dreams: they actually build their vehicle and head out into a picaresque series of adventures. The goading, teasing relationship between young actors Ange Dargent and Theophile Baquet is delightful, and Audrey Tatou as Dargent’s long-suffering exasperated mother is particularly fine. There is an undercurrent of sadness and danger, but Gondry means this as a loving toast to boyhood passions of several different kinds. You feel better just for watching it.

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BRIDGE OF SPIES**** (World Premiere) A tense, period-rich story about the famous 1962 swap that returned U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers to the West at the jittery nuclear-terror height of the Cold War, the first time the U.S. had been caught red-handed spying on the Reds. In exchange, the Soviets got Rudolph Abel, who had spent twelve years in America (though he was never actually proven to be a spy, key to what takes place after his kangaroo-court trial). Mark Rylance as Abel is the real discovery: he’s a quirky stage actor who hasn’t been seen much on screen, and here he creates the most hated man in America with an oddball humanity that radiates in every scene. His public defender is Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks, today’s Jimmy Stewart) who thus becomes the second most hated man: these are serious Commie-fearing, rule-of-law-ignoring days. He resists the nearly unanimous calls for execution by pointing out that some day Abel might be useful in a trade for our own spy. Soon that very situation arises and Donovan himself is tapped as the negotiator in Berlin, since the governments can’t be officially involved (that would require officially admitting that Powers and Abel were in fact spying). Donovan and Abel develop a real respect for each other, for each man serves with honor in his way. All this is tossed together by Steven Spielberg, who displays his natural affinity for storytelling and for the joys of moviemaking. To some directors, the set is a workplace; to Spielberg, it’s a playground. For example, after one volatile press scrum the floor is littered with flash bulbs, and the photographers scrunch them with their shoes as they fly to the next opportunity — a great way to show frenzy. We learned in the q&a that this shot was unplanned, caught on the fly. Period detail in Brooklyn and Berlin is perfect: everybody smokes, everybody wears a hat. The script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen (!) is very sharp and manages to nail the era of paranoia without tiresome exposition: Donovan’s own children have learned atomic-war drills in school, and they come in handy when a vigilante takes aim at their home. Only time will tell how many viewers will want to relive this remarkable period, but they will find lush detail and a propulsive story: it’s another adult-oriented feather in Spielberg’s fedora.

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CAROL**** Todd Haynes’s lovely adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, in which a mousy salesgirl and would-be photographer (Rooney Mara) meets a wealthy, assured socialite (Cate Blanchett) and falls madly in love. Their chief problems include the fact that Blanchett is married with a daughter, and that they live in New York in the early Fifties, when so much as a stolen glance is suspicious. The picture belongs to the two leads: their erotic chemistry never wavers during storms of tribulation, even as their relationship mutates with changing fortunes. The design and photography are superb. Sets, costumes, coiffure and lighting utterly transport us to the days when the Forties reluctantly give way and Eisenhower ascends, but the look is muted, darker, a world away from the hyper melodramatic Fifties of Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN. Every buck is up there on the screen. Longtime Haynes watchers know to expect the unexpected (his previous film, I’M NOT THERE, is probably the wildest reach since his notorious Karen Carpenter short), but this intense yet gentle piece plays as the kind of surprise you’d been waiting for without even knowing it.

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MILES AHEAD*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Making a movie about Miles Davis is a tall order. Don Cheadle tries it as a quadruple threat — co-producer, co-writer, director and star — with mixed results. The film finds Davis in one of his hated interviews, swatting away questions with hipster grumbling and faux-zen pronouncements. He’s later revealed to be holed up in his Manhattan apartment, unsettlingly near madness, toward the late-Seventies end of his self-imposed five-year artistic silence. The MacGuffin is a reel of self-recorded audio tape that could reignite his career: everybody wants it, including a sleazeball from Davis’s label (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who was also great as put-upon engineer Andy Hertzfeld in STEVE JOBS). The historic information is presented in a series of flashbacks that are intentionally jarring: a downbeat on Miles’s trumpet shock-cuts to a car chase, the rear of an elevator magically opens like a doorway onto the next scene. There is a backstory — we see Davis’s early Village days, the wooing and winning of wife Frances (the ethereal Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the roots of a rage that both buoyed and tortured him — but too much of the movie is basically an unwelcome heist caper and chase, all for that golden tape reel. Cheadle’s acting interpretation is likewise jagged and uneven: his vocal performance is monochromatic whispered anger, but unlike most music biopics, he does look like he’s actually playing his instrument, even in the tightest shots. Some Miles fans may insist the staccato form does indeed mirror his life, and his estate certainly cooperated with this project. But I still felt underfed after spending two hours with this game-changing musician. However, Cheadle does manage to bring the music front and center — there’s plenty of tremendous Miles Davis trumpet throughout.

WISH I’D SEEN: EXPERIMENTER, MAGGIE’S PLAN, THE MARTIAN (a quickly added surprise screening), NO HOME MOVIE (sadly, director Chantal Akerman passed away on October 5, two days before her U.S. premiere), THE WALK

ALREADY SAW: BROOKLYN****, THE FORBIDDEN ROOM***

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My NYFF 2014

October 11, 2014

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The New York Film Festival is so convenient to me that I can get there on foot in less than an hour, so, often encouraged by the newly brisk but still mild fall weather at this time of year, I frequently do hoof it over. The stroll helps me enjoy the movies, I find. Breathe. Relax. I don’t feel the need to cram everything into a few days like I have to as a Sundance visitor and besides, there are fewer simultaneous screenings; you can theoretically see every single picture in the “Main Slate” if you have the dough and the time. There’s no fest competition, no awards, no secondary marketplace for distribution deals. It’s all about the performances. (Olde Flickspeak for “screenings.”)

I saw eight films during the two weeks of this year’s 52nd NYFF, seven Main Slaters and a “Spotlight on Documentary” piece that knocked my socks off. My screenings were spaced far enough apart that I was often able to post my knee-jerk thoughts, usually the same day, on Facebook (hey, it’s still more substantial than Twitter, the frickin Mines of Khazad-dûm of knee-jerk thoughts). Most of the following capsules began with those impromptu FB posts, which I expanded and cleaned up, first for me, then for you. Read me with confidence: I never spoil.

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GONE GIRL**** (World Premiere, Festival Opening Night) I hadn’t read the source novel, Linda had, so I was even more rapt over the twisty turny plot and unending (though sometimes funny) sense of dread, courtesy of director David Fincher, author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. GONE GIRL will probably go down in cinema history as minor, maybe C+ Fincher — this one’s more about story than style — but the 2:30 r.t. flies by and there are lots of juicy parts (about fifteen actors, along with Fincher and Flynn, were introduced onstage in the pre-show). Rosamund Pike in the female lead is particularly stunning and not just from physical beauty; her ethereal look reminded me of Deborah Kara Unger of Fincher’s THE GAME and David Cronenberg’s CRASH. Your level of enjoyment of this missing-wife story may be affected by whether or not you know what’s coming — plot developments slam into and upend your expectations — so if you haven’t yet read the book, don’t do so until after you see the movie. (I used the novel later as my “second viewing.”) But even if you know the plot by heart, this is a crowd-pleasing, thoroughly assured bit of filmmaking.

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MAPS TO THE STARS**** (U.S. Premiere) The blackest movie about Hollywood I’ve ever seen, a laser-bladed satire. The screenwriter is Bruce Wagner, who specializes in depicting Tinseltown vanity and vapidity (“the road to hell is paved with laughter,” Wagner told us before our screening), and the director is David Cronenberg, who specializes in disturbing an audience almost beyond the point of bearability (sometimes you can even strike the “almost”). Julianne Moore (Best Actress co-winner at Cannes) is sensational as a fading star who serves as the center of a Venn diagram uniting one of the most fucked-up families you will ever meet in the movies. It’s technically dazzling — Cronenberg is a master, and most of the key production posts are filled by longtime dependable cronies — but it’s enough of a downer to make barbiturates jealous, and when you leave, the only song in your heart will be a dirge. Fun fact: although it was largely shot in Canada as usual, this film represents the first time in his long career that Cronenberg has ever brought a crew to the US.

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MR. TURNER*** Another sumptuous period piece by the skilled and discerning Mike Leigh: a Victorian study of J.M.W. Turner, the last of the great British Romantic painters. This gruff eccentric and misanthrope is fabulously realized by Timothy Spall (Best Actor winner at Cannes), dotting his performance with grunts and murmurs that communicate through context. A large supporting cast of British character actors are unerring in realizing Turner’s colleagues, patrons and partners both commercial and carnal, costumed spectacularly against a breathtaking, golden-hued background. Fair enough. The bad news is that here, 2:30 takes its sweet time to unspool, and once we “get” Turner, we’ve got him. It’s gorgeous, though, no question: the images are so lush and sensuous that one questioner asked d.p. Dick Pope after the screening, “What did you do to the [film] stock to get that beautiful tone?” Pope’s surprising response was that there was no stock; MR. TURNER was shot digitally. You could have fooled me too. (See also the next entry.) Pope added that for a softer feel, he’d used a classic set of lenses that were ground in the Forties; Leigh said he was told that among their many other missions, the lenses had been used by Stanley Kubrick to shoot SPARTACUS. The best thing about this picture is that the eminently dependable Mr. Spall, who has given us a mountain of superior character work, here acquits himself grandly in a well-deserved leading role. As Turner might say, hmrhm.

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INHERENT VICE*** (World Premiere, Festival Centerpiece) I’m sad to say that for me, this hilarious, inventive Thomas Pynchon novel doesn’t really work as a movie. Sad because I’m such an admirer of the source novel and of the other films of Paul Thomas Anderson, who bragged before the screening that the festival slogan, “Film Lives Here,” was especially apt tonight because he was about to roll a 35mm celluloid print. Weird thing: just as our ears have been trained over time to accept digital audio playback in music over much warmer analog-needle-vibration sound, our eyes are also becoming accustomed to digital projection, so the periodic schmutz and reel-change dots made the print look dirty to us. A laudatory review in Variety — a NYFF sponsor — suggested this effect was deliberate, but if so it’s far subtler than, say, GRINDHOUSE’s, and trust me, it went over the audience’s heads. (I’ve since seen the “distressed” effect again in a ten-second production-company logo, but I still say it entertains few beyond the folks at the animation studio and maybe their parents.) Much worse was a terrible overgained sound mix, at least in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall: the colorful performances in VICE are swell (in particular, Josh Brolin and Jefferson Mays kill), but this story is very quick and verbal, and various sound fx drowned out critical bits of dialogue throughout, for a frankly embarrassing Centerpiece performance. I hope you get a cleaner mix at your theater, because I don’t think I could have followed the deliberately convoluted plot at Alice Tully if I hadn’t already known it, which is death to Pynchon newbies, which is nearly everybody. Setting a classic L.A. detective noir in the late hippie era is intrinsically great ironic fun, but this movie could have been way beyond fun, and it simply wasn’t. Rumor has it that the notoriously camera-shy Pynchon has a cameo, and I noticed a couple of extras whom I might nominate, but I shouldn’t have had time to do that. A noble effort, but alas, despite Variety’s kudos.

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MERCHANTS OF DOUBT***** A powerful documentary based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, on the for-hire PR pros who are trying to deceive you into doubting the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change. Their tactics are identical to and inspired by the smoking-doesn’t-cause-cancer and fire-retardants-retard-fire-and-are-safe long cons of the past, and in several instances use the same talking-head “experts” from the same bullshit “think tanks,” mostly funded by Big Fossil and Big Chemical now that Big Tobacco has at last surrendered. (“If you can do tobacco, you can do anything,” observes one flack.) Their marketing skills depend on misdirection, but as a real sleight-of-hand artist puts it in the film, “once revealed, never concealed.” One particularly garrulous interviewee brags about bombarding opposing journalists with phony, barely lucid emails threatening their lives; he thinks it’s funny, like Nixon’s nauseating little “ratfucker” Donald Segretti. There is a picnic-table-sized handful (not 31,000, as the thoroughly debunked “Oregon petition” hoax falsely claims) of (mostly former) scientists who support the deniers, usually for money but sometimes in genuine opposition to government regulation of any kind, which they are able to parse only as creeping socialism; one knee-slapping, oft-repeated neologism casts environmentalists as “watermelons” — that is, green on the outside, Commie-red on the inside. But the most poignant interview is with six-term Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, America’s reddest state, who scored in the 90s on most conservative report cards but had an epiphany on the climate issue and found the courage to speak out. He was targeted by the Merchants of Doubt and promptly swatted away by a 70-30 margin in the next election. To prevail, these amoral cynics don’t have to convince anybody of anything, only introduce enough gunk to slow the process down. “Gridlock is the climate denier’s best friend,” one of the mouths-for-money opines. Public outrage eventually prevailed over the tobacco barons (who knew their product was lethal all along), but it took fifty years. We might not have that long this time. Another great one from Robert Kenner, who also made FOOD INC. It opens commercially in February.

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FOXCATCHER*** Bennett Miller’s dramatization of the lurid John E. du Pont case, in which a filthy-rich chemicals heir decided to become a “wrestling coach” and had the immense financial resources to actually assemble a “national team” at his Pennsylvania estate, using some genuinely credible athletes. Steve Carell joins Will Forte (NEBRASKA) and Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (THE SKELETON TWINS) in the current comics-get-serious minitrend: he is impressively pitiful and spooky as the clearly unhinged du Pont, his features hidden under a ton of facial prosthetics and filthy dentures. Channing Tatum as gold-medal Olympian Mark Schultz (the real-life Schultz is an associate producer on the picture) glowers for two hours, but Mark Ruffalo is superb as David, Mark’s brother, mentor, and genuine coach (as opposed to the schizophrenic play-acting dilettante). There is a homoerotic subtext to Carell’s understated, subtly menacing performance, but it’s not depicted overtly; everybody suspected this was du Pont’s attraction to wrestlers but it’s not made literal here. The film is technically very fine and properly creepy, but it could be a hard ticket to sell because the viewer really has to let herself be drawn into the world of competitive wrestling, so good luck with that. (Miller’s MONEYBALL managed that tricky feat, but then it had Brad Pitt in its arsenal. This is Channing Tatum.)

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LIFE OF RILEY (AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER)**** (U.S. Premiere) The legendary Alain Resnais’ final film, adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s play RELATIVELY SPEAKING. M. Resnais was not only a director in the grand theatrical tradition, but also a devotee of the stage. The luminous star Caroline Sihol (above) told us before the screening that Resnais used live theater as a casting method; you’d receive a phone call later if the maestro liked what he saw during his unannounced visit. This film, though French, retains Ayckbourn’s English countryside setting, and employs stylized theatrical set design. Action and characters that exist only beyond camera range — in other words, out there with us — help dismantle that fourth wall in fascinating fashion. It’s a little like DOGVILLE in that respect, but it’s much, much better. The plot swirls around and through three couples who seem to be separate bits in Brownian motion, and a key character can only be perceived on our side of that former fourth wall. At first they are rehearsing a play (they are seen to be holding scripts of RELATIVELY SPEAKING and the first bits of dialogue in the film are “fictional”), but then the show and their larger offstage lives become harder and harder to tell apart. M. Resnais must have loved the way Ayckbourn experiments with time and place, because producer Jean-Louis Livi told us his next film would have been Sir Alan’s latest play, ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES, which we were lucky enough to see in its U.S. premiere engagement earlier this year. A great man of the cinema has passed, but he left us this one final gift.

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BIRDMAN OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF INNOCENCE***** (Festival Closing Night) In a word, wow. This very clever bit of magic realism — or is it? — is a triumph for director Alejandro G. Inarritu and everyone in the splendid cast. A fading movie star famous for playing an avian superhero long ago (Michael Keaton in a career-reviving and career-reminding performance — he was the cover boy on the current ish of Entertainment Weekly when we saw this) makes a last-ditch attempt at rejuvenation by writing, directing and performing in a Raymond Carver adaptation at Broadway’s St. James Theater (actually used as a location). Support includes a brilliant Edward Norton as an arrogant but gifted stage actor, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. The result is a love letter to Broadway itself, to actors, to the theater, to New York, to thoughtful filmmaking and maybe even to constructive schizophrenia. Some of the scene transitions and smoothly gliding rides through the backstage areas of the St. James are so spectacular that they reminded me of GRAVITY‘s “impossible” shots. About two-thirds through, you will see the ultimate anxiety nightmare depicted before your very eyes to howling effect. Keaton’s award-worthy reemergence is probably the big story here, but this is such a fine collaborative effort that he had plenty of top-notch help. (It’s made to appear to be one continuous take, with locked-down positions to indicate longer scene changes like “the next morning.”) Before the screening, Keaton told us he felt he’d “lucked into a masterpiece.” Time will tell, but my thumbs are both way up.

WISH I’D SEEN: CITIZENFOUR, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, MISUNDERSTOOD, PASOLINI, THIS IS SPINAL TAP (30th Anniversary Screening with Chris Guest Q&A: it conflicted with MERCHANTS OF DOUBT and I chose a bird in the bush, but the notion of seeing TAP on the big screen did indeed tempt, and so say we all!)

ALREADY SAW: WHIPLASH****

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A Jump On The Holidays, In 3-D

October 11, 2011

We were surprised when they handed us 3-D glasses for last night’s “Work in Progress” screening at the New York Film Festival, only the second time in its 49-year history that the Fest has sneaked a still-being-completed movie like this. (For the record, the other one was twenty years ago, for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.)

Out walked Martin Scorsese to introduce his fall picture, HUGO.

Mr. Scorsese explained that our screening was indeed of something unfinished. The sound mix and score by Howard Shore were both temp tracks: Mr. Shore is recording the full orchestration in London right now. Some green screens were visible. The first long swooping, panning shot isn’t done yet; we saw a pre-viz. The press was warned: no reviews, this is just for your enjoyment. But I know exactly why NYFF and Scorsese went to all this trouble: (1) it delivers the goods, and (2) there could be no more appropriate venue for this movie than a film festival. So, not a review, but a report; you can judge for yourselves around Thanksgiving. (My first amazement was how little time before release — a date that may have been staked out long ago — they have to complete all this stuff on such an effects-heavy picture.)

It’s based on an illustrated novel for young readers by Brian Selznick (a relative of the moviemaking Selznick family) which I haven’t yet read, and I’m going to assume you haven’t either, so I’ll be careful not to spoil. A boy lives in the walls and the clock tower of a Paris train station in the early Thirties. His late dad, a clockmaker, taught him lots of secrets and the kid is a natural, but he makes do by stealing. A series of incidents turns the story into a love letter to the early days of movies.

It’s the best example of live-action 3-D I’ve ever seen, and that includes AVATAR: at last, even softly lit scenes are bright enough to discern. Certain setups are just breathtaking in the extra dimension: the light from a movie projector bursting toward us, a closeup on a staring Doberman (it’s just funny!), a security guard intimidating a boy by leaning closer, closer… The film is stuffed with British character actors, none of whom attempts a French accent: Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, on and on.

This one is for the whole family and will probably get a PG rating, maybe even an inappropriate -13 if the MPAA drops the ball (there are a couple of intense scenes, but any thoughtful kid will love this, trust me). Mr. Scorsese is justifiably proud, and I’m so glad I got to see it with enough film fans to fill up Alice Tully Hall. I’m gonna suggest it when a niece and nephew visit us around opening day.

11/1/11: Now I’ve read — and seen; the many illustrations work like a movie storyboard — the source novel, and what a wonderful job all concerned did to bring it to the screen, every fillip and tear with very few exceptions. (That light from the projector bursting toward us? It’s in the book.) Here’s one film to which the author can point proudly and say, “Yep, that’s my book up there, all right.”

11/11/11: It got the PG.

1/8/12: I saw the completed film, again in 3-D, at AMPAS’s New York screening room, to which they let a few FSLC folks in. Now the full bravura opening shot, realized at ILM at the last minute, was here, along with the full score, end credits, etc. Afterward, Mr. Scorsese and Sir Ben Kingsley did a beautiful q&a — both are extremely well-spoken gentlemen. I felt the event was an Oscar-voter attempt at keeping this picture top-of-mind, especially since Weekly Variety’s list of top 16 Best Pic contenders shamefully did not include HUGO! The film itself was just as spectacular on second viewing, and my wife, who missed the NYFF “work-in-progress” screening noted in the main post, was happily flabbergasted. Too bad for those AMPAS voters who have to depend on “screeners”: I’ve seen my share of them, and this picture will lose much of its well-designed ability to overpower. Still, the cast and crew have every right to say to themselves, job well done.


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