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The Big 5-0: New York Film Festival celebrates five decades with a larger slate

Oct 16, 2012


Similar things were in the air in Olivier Assayas’ no-doubt semi-autobiographical Something in the Air (Après Mai), which Sundance Selects will release. The same era serves as backdrop for a handful of revolutionary-minded 18- to 19-year-old Parisians and a drifting American ex-pat smacked by the post-1968 rush of political and social change. It’s either the very late ’60s or 1971 (the fest’s program précis and the film’s introductory title don’t agree on this) after the Paris convulsions of 1968. The kids make a whole lotta love and bare breasts (this is France). Disruptions abound (graffiti, postering, pamphleteering, firebomb raids) and pot, tie-dye clothes, music, poetry, confusion, idealism and political discussions enter the mix, but too much is messy and arcane. While moving around from Paris to the countryside, Italy and even London’s Pinewood Studios (and often driven by the era’s music more familiar to Europeans than Americans), the film’s narrative drive is nonetheless mostly in neutral. But there are terrific performances (notably from newcomer Clément Mettaye as an idealist activist/aspiring artist), nice direction and savvy period look. It’s a pile-up of jolts of nostalgia for those in the know and those cool enough to know it’s an era worth knowing.

Continuing on large, foreign and now war fronts, the handsome Portuguese/French Lines of Wellington is an overly long, lavishly produced rendering of a little-known early 19th-century pre-Waterloo strategic Wellington triumph against roaring Napoleonic forces in Portugal, where the Portuguese and English fooled the French army with a Body of Lies-type deception at the eponymous defense lines on a Portuguese peninsula near Lisbon. Helmed by Valeria Sarmiento, editor and widow of Raul Ruiz (who was reportedly to direct the project), the film is an elaborate and sprawling costumer cross-cutting between too many characters, mostly on the good (Portuguese/English) side. Ammo here is an impressive cast in truncated roles, including Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Marisa Parades, Michel Piccoli, John Malkovich, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni and Isabelle Huppert.

Adopt Films’ Barbara is already Germany’s bid for a Best Foreign-Language Oscar nom and it’s a nice but plodding film about the eponymous Barbara, a doctor in 1980 East Germany, who longs to escape to the West but has already been punished for even trying. Capturing the bland ambiance and paranoia of the East, the film offers a nice performance from Nina Hoss and a twist, but it’s a slow-go getting there. Patience, also required of those fleeing West, is required.

Sundance Selects’ Beyond the Hills, the disappointing, fact-based follow-up to Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s wonderful 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is the story of two young women, both friends from their early lives in an orphanage. One lives in a monastery where she hopes to become a full-fledged nun and is content with the meager quarters and Spartan life serving God; the other, hoping to rekindle the relationship and persuade her friend to follow her back to their homeland, escapes from foster care to reconnect. Much time is given to the pervasive dreariness of the monastery and the rule of an imperious priest who thankfully falls short of Charles Manson. An episode involving an accusation of demonic possession adds a little gas to the fire.

But what really impresses about Mungiu’s film is the force of its final five or so minutes in a scene confined to a police van when the power and magic of cinema and signs of real, unpredictable life (evil, hope, fate) emerge more poignantly than in any of the film's previous two-and-a-half hours.

As if a nod to NYFF’s round number/half-century longevity, this 50th session included an unusually large number (a record number?) of films in its Main Slate dealing with old age or films from elderly filmmakers (including Cinema Guild’s Night Across the Street, a cerebral, time-defying romp through real and fantastical dimensions from festival favorite Raul Ruiz, who died in 2011).

One of the most powerful, if not happiest, amongst these is Sony Pictures Classics’ French gem Amour from the renowned French-based Austrian/German director Michael Haneke. With its tale of a long-married couple (French greats Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) in their 80s whose struggle becomes all the more daunting when one of them has a stroke, Amour isn’t easy to take, but again Haneke, as he did in the Oscar-nominated The White Ribbon, Caché and The Piano Teacher, applies a fearless and uncompromising approach to a painful subject that makes it all the more riveting.

Another winner is Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die, notable not just because it’s more evidence that the elderly fraternal directing team has moved gracefully into old age, but because their filmmaking skills and sensitivities have not diminished. The Adopt Films release is a documentary about some long-term Italian prisoners who, displaying impressive talent, partake in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and learn of the therapeutic and transformational power of creativity and art.

HBO has Alan Berliner’s doc First Cousin Once Removed, about the filmmaker’s elderly cousin’s journey into Alzheimer’s. Both fascinating and depressing, the film is an unflinching document of loss of memory and its slowly deteriorating effect on someone who had once been a distinguished man of letters and Brown University professor. What Berliner fails to do here is get any medical insight into whether the many traumas in his cousin’s life might have exacerbated his condition.

Old age can also have its rewards, as seen in Bwakaw, Jun Robles Lana’s sweet entry from the Philippines, in which an elderly, provincial curmudgeon finally finds love in a most unexpected place.

Abbas Kiarostami, like the Tavianis and a number of others, was back at the NYFF this year with Sundance Selects’ Like Someone in Love, about an unpredictable encounter (and its aftermath) between an elderly Japanese professor and the young freelancing escort one of his former students sends his way.

Perhaps most treasured as a NYFF regular is 90-year-old French legend Alain Resnais, who was represented with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, another of his set-bound, challenging works boasting literary pedigree (here playwright Jean Anouilh) and a sterling cast (Mathieu Amalric, beloved oldster Michel Piccoli, and Resnais favorite Sabine Azéma).

In another twist this year, several NYFF films tried to bridge the gap between documentary and fiction. Most successful is Roadside Attractions’ eco-horror faux doc The Bay, from vet director Barry Levinson, who has a fun go with the found-footage gimmick in its tale (oops, reportage) that follows the death trail of a virulent organism spawned by polluted Chesapeake Bay waters. Hundreds of deaths ensue following a rousing July 4th community picnic and, no surprise, panic ensues. The CDC and FBI close in, but denial on the part of venal politicians has allowed the blight to grow. The doc approach initially convinces a little (or amuses with the attempt), but the shockumentary approach and premise do wear thin, especially in the aftermath of films like Blair Witch, 28 Days and Contagion.

With Kinshasa Kids, Belgian filmmaker Marc-Henri Wajnberg made clear to press that he was after a “trans-genre” feel for his film about some very poor street kids in the shabby titular Congolese capital that would fall somewhere between documentary and fiction. He grafted on a narrative about making music and sorcery to what was originally doc footage of roaming urchins in a terribly grim, impoverished city. Ultimately, only the massive deprivation and foraging ragamuffins hold interest.

With her feature debut Memories Look at Me, Belgian-educated Chinese filmmaker Song Fang goes doc/fiction mash-up with this exercise in minimalism. She aims her camera (usually stationary, through doorways and only capturing profiles) at her real-life mother and other members of her family in their apartments in Nanjing. Viewers who stay awake will take away memories of Memories as a haunting minimalist take on the importance of family, the stylistic rigidity of static shots, and a poetically flecked renunciation of close-ups, story, revelation and expectations.

Another doc/fiction hybrid and rightfully assigned to the fest’s Avant-Garde sidebar was the Portuguese The Last Time I Saw Macao. Filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues contrives a weird tale using film noir clichés, fascinating footage of the city of Macao, nods to Josef von Sternberg and a quarter-baked narrative about an unseen hero searching for his mysterious transvestite friend amid the dark or neon-flooded Macao streets. Packs of stray dogs are also memorable.

As the above suggests, the fest again had its share of “festival films,” those arty, oddball, aggressively original or just plain difficult offerings that, throughout certain fest eco-systems, now and forever have been given temporary shelter in line-ups but, always with a smattering of champions, usually won’t see the commercial light of day.

Among these were Javier Rebello’s The Dead Man and Being Happy, an inscrutable road pic that has a terminally ill hired killer who never kills traveling to little-known areas of central Argentina with a middle-aged woman who, escaping an unhappy relationship and comfortable family, jumps into his car at a gas station and goes the distance until a chocolate ice-cream cone figures in the story. Somehow, they never run out of gas or the morphine he needs.

Adopt Films will be releasing the also-challenging Portuguese film Tabu, a two-part black-and-white tale requiring patience that first takes place in contemporary Lisbon (after a mysterious jungle prelude involving a crocodile), where a woman’s elderly friend dies. The second half takes place years earlier in Africa. where the dead friend’s pampered youth comes to light. Disparate references to Catholicism, Fellini, Buñuel, Murnau and the rock classic “Be My Baby” in Portuguese don’t help matters.

There’s an indeterminate number of cinephiles who regard Brian De Palma as one of the more underrated American directors and they are welcome to Passion, a remake of Alain Corneau’s not very good sexy thriller Love Crime, about two ambitious and conniving female ad execs and the equally unappealing man who is a thorn in their lives. A member of the FSLC selection committee dubbed the film “superb,” sharing that this thumb’s-up is largely a reaction to the film’s perceived “modernist” style. Canadian-based Entertainment One picked the film up during the festival and should see some activity as, with Dragon Tattoo’s Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams starring, some want-to-see DNA lies within.

Camille Rewinds, a very French and upbeat vanity effort, is a time-travel romance. Its forty-something heroine, just separated from her husband, goes comatose after too much drinking at a New Year’s party and awakens from that state in a hospital as the teen she used to be when she first got involved with the husband. Her older body intact, she finds herself a high-schooler again, hanging with her old friends and living with her loving parents. The film has its sunny moments thanks to some rock classics (“Walking on Sunshine” rules) and also affords a wistful look at Jean-Pierre Léaud as a sympathetic jeweler.

Hitting ocean bottom was Leviathan, a dialogue-free doc that was possibly meant to give an insider’s look at commercial deep-sea fishing but assaults as a pretentious orgy of incomprehensible abstractions and noises recalling experimental animation. The visuals aside and overboard, the unbearably loud and repetitive audio of metal clanking also makes no sense. Nothing conveys what the fishing vessel, ocean or crew look like except for one long-held shot below deck in a dingy kitchen as a numbed fisherman (or a cook?) watches an off-screen TV. Shots of soaring birds above the ocean relieve as they hit a poetic chord that struggles to resonate amongst so much dead space and so many dead fish.

For rabid cinephiliacs came Room 237, comprising a number of pummeling, indulgent analyses of alleged hidden symbols in Stanley Kubrick films. Rodney Ascher’s doc delivers lots of Kubrick clips and a handful of die-hard Kubrick fans and scholars who make largely preposterous, hilarious and only sometimes sober arguments for symbols that permeate his work. If the evidence doesn’t convince, the obsession of these Kubrick fans does. More accessible and actually fun is Hungarian super-film buff Gyorgy Palfi’s Final Cut—Ladies and Gentlemen, a roaring compilation of mainly very famous film stars and classic clips racing toward a coherent story built on this wealth of found footage. (Question: Were rights cleared for all this?)

Along with this slate of films, the fest and its many sidebars and special events (dialogues with directors, performing-arts and midnight films, a salute to French film insider Pierre Rissient and the movies he loves) offered other pleasures. There were Gala Tributes, including one to FSLC program director and Film Festival selection committee chair Richard Peña, who is retiring after 25 years in this key position. The Masterworks sidebar offered restorations and revivals from cinema past that, as stated, “deserve the big-screen treatment.” (Returning to things large, Michael Cimino’s mega-bomb Heaven’s Gate was, in a 219-minute restored version, one of these “masterworks.”) Reflecting the FSLC’s commitment to transmedia and the possibilities of new ways of telling stories, the fest launched its first NYFF Convergence, a two-day event of panels, workshops and “immersive experiences” for “creators, designers, thinkers and fans.”

Spanning from France’s remarkable ’60s to the new century, the fest showed 31 episodes of “Cineastes of Our Time” and “Cinema of Our Time,” interview shows with great directors including Fritz Lang, John Cassavetes, Jean Renoir and Shirley Clarke. With considerable work and organization, this remarkable trove of material could be edited into long forms perfect for art houses and home viewing, but Mathieu Gallet, chairman and CEO of the Institut National de L’Audiovisuel, which performs a preservation role for the series, said that rights issues added to the challenge of organizing so much footage.

Returning to our theme of “large,” a big trend emerged during the NYFF run—that of the growth of fall film fests in the New York area (and no doubt everywhere). Besides the NYFF, others events include those in the Hamptons, Woodstock, Port Washington (the new Gold Coast International Film Festival) and late fall’s prime documentary event DOC NYC at Greenwich Village’s IFC Center and added screens at Chelsea’s SVA Theatre.

Amid this fall festival frenzy, founders (including Tony Bennett’s daughter) of the new, competitive and strategically curated First Time Fest took the opportunity to announce their inaugural event for next March, which will offer films from debuting directors. Headquartered at Manhattan’s venerable Players Club, the fest’s submissions will be filtered by both industry professionals and voting audiences, with winners getting valuable prizes and runs for their films at downtown’s Loews Village VII. (The fact that the festival/theatre synergy is growing is an area of convergence worth exploring.)

As for this year’s very large and satisfying NYFF, the question arises about whether the expanded scale was just a special birthday celebration or will continue. Responded FSLC executive director Rose Kuo, “Since the opening of our Film Center, we have gradually learned how to best utilize the new space. We are comfortable with the scope and diversity of the expanded NYFF since last year and we will continue with the current scale, while further developing our outreach to young audiences, emerging filmmakers and families in the areas of education, artist development and new media.” This year’s session proved that this is very good news for the city’s cinephiles.


The Big 5-0: New York Film Festival celebrates five decades with a larger slate

Oct 16, 2012

-By Doris Toumarkine


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'Life of Pi'

Although maybe a lazy theme, “large” is often a good thing in the cinema world (think wide screens, later-career Welles, John Wayne, IMAX, the Toronto Film Fest, the most comfortable theatre seats, etc.). Now we can add the The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s vastly expanded 50th New York Film Festival (NYFF) and its, uh, largesse of so many films, new sidebars, special events, and new sprawl (the new Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center space) to that large list. The growth also resulted in the fest’s largest audiences to date during its Sept. 28-Oct. 14 run.

But such quantity did not impact quality. While many more films unspooled (what might be the more appropriate word in the NYFF’s mostly DCP environment?), the event remained true to its longtime reputation as a world-class showcase for upcoming, mostly specialized films culled from A-tier festivals (Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, etc.), quirky indie works that surprise when they don’t confound or numb, and a few new Hollywood features for that requisite sizzle.

Again, it's NYFF’s precious bouquet of the usual 20 to 30 Main Slate selections (33 this year) that provide a look ahead at those films likely to ring box-office bells or knock on Oscar’s door. But with so much more packed into the many sidebars, delights were everywhere.

With the world premiere of Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis’ Denzel Washington starrer Flight, the Main Slate delivered surefire Oscar bait. Helming the best adult drama to come out of Hollywood in a long time, Zemeckis moves from a period of motion capture into impressive emotion capture with this Paramount release.

The film isn’t for all ages, as it deals unflinchingly with an alcoholic airline pilot (Washington) who boards his flight near-drunk, secretly downs a few shots on board, maneuvers takeoff and extreme turbulence in an unforgiving storm, and manages to skillfully save much of the plane and passengers when a catastrophic mechanical failure disables the plane. First labeled a hero, the pilot’s sins and weaknesses catch up with him. Zemeckis masterfully leverages a superb script, exceptional performances all around (where five possible Oscar noms lurk), and the expertise of a top-of-their-craft tech team to deliver an experience as emotionally powerful as it is chillingly suspenseful and downright terrifying. (Fearful flyers should bring seat belts to the theatre).

Another Main Slate world premiere gem was 20th Century Fox’s 3D sea adventure Life of Pi, which doesn’t make water travel any less comforting. With dazzling photography of India (those best exotic colors again) and Oceania, this Ang Lee triumph becomes, after a slightly tentative start, a terrific tale (based on Yann Martel’s best-seller) of spiritual quest, courage and survival. First and foremost, it provides vivid proof that nothing compares to experiencing the right kind of film on the big screen. Loaded with jaw-dropping special effects, the movie offers the winning hero Pi (played by Suraj Sharma as a young man) and Irrfan Khan as the older seafaring Pi, who is smacked by a terrible storm at sea and ends up sharing quarters on a lifeboat with a vicious Bengal tiger. Also an emotional trip, the film is a unique exploration of faith, religion, family and the power of hope. Many will welcome so original a blend of spirituality meshed with Perfect Storm and Titanic-caliber sea adventure and effects, but box office will require the tailwinds of strong reviews and word of mouth.

Already out in theatres and losing steam, Millennium Entertainment’s The Paperboy delivers as Body Heat gone trailer-trash and showcases terrific work by Nicole Kidman as a lusty death-row groupie and Zac Efron as a spoiled Florida backwater layabout loser. John Cusack is a hoot as the sleazebag sprung from death row, and Matthew McConaughey again shows up as a drawling, swaggering mess of manhood. Lee Daniels’ schizo effort, also bearing an ardent civil-rights message amongst so much noir-ish posturing, entertains—but apparently not enough.

Sony Pictures Classics (with significant financial and production help from Participant Media) provided one of the best Main Slate discoveries by way of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s thoroughly entertaining and informative political drama No, about Chile’s historic 1988 referendum that finally brought an end to the dictatorship of President/General Pinochet. Gael Garcia Bernal, in a must-see performance, stars as a hotshot adman and devoted father cool enough to tool around on a skateboard. As Chile gets ready to vote “yes” or “no” to the continued Pinochet rule, the whiz at campaigns for soft drinks and soap operas reluctantly takes on the democratic opposition’s anti-Pinochet “No” campaign before learning that his boss has become a consultant to the dictator’s “Yes” forces. Larrain, filming in the now obsolete U-matic video format with special cameras, manages a film—amusingly packed with ad clips, political and otherwise—that seamlessly blends archival material with narrative. A treat for both the politically inclined and all media watchers.

Another gem of a foreign import was the Belgian Our Children, based on a true story about the strange three-way bond between a successful, charismatic doctor (Niels Arestrup in another riveting performance) and a married couple (the doctor’s handsome Moroccan immigrant protégé and his Belgian teacher wife). The three live together, with the doctor footing most of the expenses even when the couple’s growing family requires larger quarters. What doesn’t grow is the wife’s tolerance for this unusual living situation, and the extreme outcome is as shocking as it is believable, thanks to terrific direction and performances all around. Émilie Dequenne (Rosetta) and Tahar Rahim, who co-starred with Arestrup in the Oscar-nominated A Prophet, are a nice couple until... What doesn’t come across is what was behind the doctor’s generosity and willingness to relinquish his own life for a family of six not even his own.

Documentaries were again strong this year. A standout is Sony Pictures Classics’ smart, polished, astonishing The Gatekeepers, in which filmmaker Dror Moreh gives viewers six former chiefs of Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. The men, who were charged with matters of security, fighting terrorism and engaging in coercive interrogations, share their views, experiences and, most notably, their frustrations with the so-called “peace process” that has never materialized. Woven amongst these fascinating and mostly candid talking heads are realistic re-enactments (most CGI-generated) and archival material reminding of Israel’s history, beginning with the history-changing 1967 defeat of Palestine, and including too many acts of violence from both sides. (The tragic assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli is just one incident among many.) Aside from the Shin Bet testimonies, perhaps the most shocking sequences are those from the archives showing how Palestinians are forced to live under this tragic occupation. As one former Shin Bet head puts it, “We’ve won battles but we lost the war.” And, again, politicians seem only to muck things up.

Among several gems in NYFF sidebars was Marina Zenovich’s Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, which manages an equally fascinating and well-sourced follow-up to her Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, this time covering the filmmaker’s 2009 arrest at the Zurich Film Festival as a fugitive from U.S. justice. Also documenting Polanski’s subsequent but belated release from Swiss confinement, the film digs into Polanski’s legal mess in California (testimony that cannot be made public, etc.) that for decades has prevented resolution of the charges of rape and sexual exploitation of a minor. Zenovich gets plenty of footage and commentary from Polanski, his and the opposing lawyers, alleged victim Samantha Geimer and others and offers a fascinating hypothesis that the reason the Swiss government refused to hand Polanski over to the U.S. was due to American pressure on Swiss bank UBS to expose secret accounts. Also looking bad (again) are this country’s often creaky wheels of justice, a dilemma that rekindles moral considerations of Polanski’s crime and his unending punishment.

Another excellent sidebar doc was the enthrallingly intimate Liv and Ingmar, an up-close and personal look at the successful professional collaboration and less-than-perfect personal one between actress Liv Ullmann and her older director/muse/lover Ingmar Bergman. Ullman is generously forthcoming in her commentary and with so much memorabilia of a relationship that comprised 42 years and 12 films together. The doc, beautifully put together by Indian filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar, also affords a revealing look inside Bergman’s house (with furniture and belongings left intact), which the couple shared for many years on Faro Island before their break-up. Also on view are many Bergman film clips, including Scenes From a Marriage, which reflects aspects of the doomed Liv and Ingmar liaison. Ullmann, whom Bergman called his “Stradivarius,” gets her own moments by way of footage of her triumphant post-Bergman leap into Hollywood stardom, writing and the theatre.

Also on the doc front lines was the sidebar offering The Savoy King, which traces the brilliant career and short, improbable life of disfigured Baltimore-born drummer/bandleader Chick Webb, who rose from poverty, a broken home and terrible accident to conquer the swing world and lead the house band for the legendary Savoy Ballroom Band of the 1930s. It was at the Savoy where the Harlem-born Lindy Hop dance craze became a nationwide sensation and blacks and whites were equals. The public screening was packed to the gills and the audience had a rousing time beholding so much wonderful archival material, hearing Webb’s music, and watching great singers like Ella Fitzgerald, whom Webb discovered. Other jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Louis Armstrong and Buddy Rich acknowledged Webb’s influence. Well-researched and assembled by Jeff Kaufman, the doc is an emotional audio and visual feast for lovers of jazz, the big-band sound and beating the odds.

IFC Films is releasing Frances Ha, a sometimes droll and charming light amusement about a kooky post-Vassar misfit fumbling for footing in the New York worlds of experimental dance and the young, hipster scene of arty, financially challenged wannabes. If Woody Allen’s films suggested a sub-genre of The New York Film in the realm of specialized fare, this latest from Noah Baumbach, like some other films kicking around, nudges a notion of The Brooklyn Film, designating more a sensibility and demographic than actual location. Indie (and Baumbach) favorite Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script, stars comfortably in the role of the undatable but relatable Frances, whose friendships and stabs at independent living and career are as awkward as her dance steps.

Focus Features’ Hyde Park on Hudson provides a brief chapter in the later years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray, making a bold stretch) just before the war at his famous New York country spread. Not quite fueling the plot enough is FDR’s close but not entirely clear relationship with distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), who relates this story. What is clear is that FDR loved the company of women and collecting stamps and could be a grand host. (The King and Queen of England drop by.) Recalling “Masterpiece Theatre” period shows, Hyde Park has a gorgeous look but, shot in the U.K., it’s not a look at the Hudson River as seen from the Hyde Park estate. A treat is having veteran actors Elizabeth Wilson, as Mrs. Roosevelt, and the U.K.’s Eleanor Bron, as Daisy’s aunt, back on screen. Period detail and attention to character mannerisms trump story, although watching King George/Bertie (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) deal with hot dogs at FDR’s picnic amuses. Mustard, anyone?

During the festival, Sony Pictures Classics announced their acquisition of Rama Burshtein’s first dramatic feature, Fill the Void. Proving that access isn’t just gold in the doc world, Burshtein, an Orthodox Jew, was able to go inside Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox world to capture a marvelous drama involving a beautiful 18-year-old (a wonderful Hadas Yaron) who, having lost her older sister, is pressured into marrying the widower left with their baby. It’s men in black of a different kind—highly conservative, humorless, anti-feminist. And their babes go along with this. The harsh milieu may be distasteful to many (including secular Jews), but is sometimes perversely fascinating. Performances are terrific (the filmmaker told press that the main actors were not from the Orthodox community), the sets are intriguingly severe, but the emotions ring as universal. It’s possible to appreciate this Orthodox community as a foreign land within a foreign land, a place even reality TV can’t infiltrate. So there’s no denying that this carefully guarded corner of Jewish life will have a lot of filmgoers curious.

Another surprise (and this one in NYFF’s Midnight Movies sidebar) was the IFC Midnight release Berberian Sound Studio, a hugely original, funny and scary oddity from Peter Strickland. Set in an industrially cold and concrete Italian post-production facility sometime in the ’70s, the film follows an initially dutiful, self-effacing expert British film sound engineer (Toby Jones), who, as a mixing genius with a gift for creating sound effects, works with a distasteful producer and director who specialize in tacky B-films of extreme violence and misogyny. Eerily, the engineer seems to become part of the gory witchcraft flick he’s been hired to work on. Strickland’s evocation of period Italian horror junk at its most gruesome (young women at a riding academy are the victims) is spot-on and Jones’ nature-loving mama’s boy from the quaint English countryside is the perfect foil to so much sleazy Italo grotesqueness.

Paramount Vantage’s Not Fade Away, the feature directing debut of “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, bowed as a world premiere as the fest’s Centerpiece. A tad tired and clichéd (characters, story, resolution), the film follows some college-bound North Jersey suburban kids forming their own rock band while dealing with the era’s convulsions of change (war, the Civil Rights movement, drugs, free love) and offers newcomer John Magaro as its young hero “centerpiece.” He’s a gifted musician but is the metaphorical punching bag for a philistine father (James Gandolfini) who makes fun of his moppy hair and ’60s attire and is in the crosshairs of his clearly miserable wife. Offering heaps of nostalgia, the film holds the middle of the road as the hero takes off on a familiar journey to college and social awareness. The band does what most bands did and the soundtrack, stuffed with original material from The Stones, The Beatles and others, stirs both nostalgia and curiosity regarding what must have been eye-popping costs to license.



Similar things were in the air in Olivier Assayas’ no-doubt semi-autobiographical Something in the Air (Après Mai), which Sundance Selects will release. The same era serves as backdrop for a handful of revolutionary-minded 18- to 19-year-old Parisians and a drifting American ex-pat smacked by the post-1968 rush of political and social change. It’s either the very late ’60s or 1971 (the fest’s program précis and the film’s introductory title don’t agree on this) after the Paris convulsions of 1968. The kids make a whole lotta love and bare breasts (this is France). Disruptions abound (graffiti, postering, pamphleteering, firebomb raids) and pot, tie-dye clothes, music, poetry, confusion, idealism and political discussions enter the mix, but too much is messy and arcane. While moving around from Paris to the countryside, Italy and even London’s Pinewood Studios (and often driven by the era’s music more familiar to Europeans than Americans), the film’s narrative drive is nonetheless mostly in neutral. But there are terrific performances (notably from newcomer Clément Mettaye as an idealist activist/aspiring artist), nice direction and savvy period look. It’s a pile-up of jolts of nostalgia for those in the know and those cool enough to know it’s an era worth knowing.

Continuing on large, foreign and now war fronts, the handsome Portuguese/French Lines of Wellington is an overly long, lavishly produced rendering of a little-known early 19th-century pre-Waterloo strategic Wellington triumph against roaring Napoleonic forces in Portugal, where the Portuguese and English fooled the French army with a Body of Lies-type deception at the eponymous defense lines on a Portuguese peninsula near Lisbon. Helmed by Valeria Sarmiento, editor and widow of Raul Ruiz (who was reportedly to direct the project), the film is an elaborate and sprawling costumer cross-cutting between too many characters, mostly on the good (Portuguese/English) side. Ammo here is an impressive cast in truncated roles, including Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Marisa Parades, Michel Piccoli, John Malkovich, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni and Isabelle Huppert.

Adopt Films’ Barbara is already Germany’s bid for a Best Foreign-Language Oscar nom and it’s a nice but plodding film about the eponymous Barbara, a doctor in 1980 East Germany, who longs to escape to the West but has already been punished for even trying. Capturing the bland ambiance and paranoia of the East, the film offers a nice performance from Nina Hoss and a twist, but it’s a slow-go getting there. Patience, also required of those fleeing West, is required.

Sundance Selects’ Beyond the Hills, the disappointing, fact-based follow-up to Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s wonderful 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is the story of two young women, both friends from their early lives in an orphanage. One lives in a monastery where she hopes to become a full-fledged nun and is content with the meager quarters and Spartan life serving God; the other, hoping to rekindle the relationship and persuade her friend to follow her back to their homeland, escapes from foster care to reconnect. Much time is given to the pervasive dreariness of the monastery and the rule of an imperious priest who thankfully falls short of Charles Manson. An episode involving an accusation of demonic possession adds a little gas to the fire.

But what really impresses about Mungiu’s film is the force of its final five or so minutes in a scene confined to a police van when the power and magic of cinema and signs of real, unpredictable life (evil, hope, fate) emerge more poignantly than in any of the film's previous two-and-a-half hours.

As if a nod to NYFF’s round number/half-century longevity, this 50th session included an unusually large number (a record number?) of films in its Main Slate dealing with old age or films from elderly filmmakers (including Cinema Guild’s Night Across the Street, a cerebral, time-defying romp through real and fantastical dimensions from festival favorite Raul Ruiz, who died in 2011).

One of the most powerful, if not happiest, amongst these is Sony Pictures Classics’ French gem Amour from the renowned French-based Austrian/German director Michael Haneke. With its tale of a long-married couple (French greats Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) in their 80s whose struggle becomes all the more daunting when one of them has a stroke, Amour isn’t easy to take, but again Haneke, as he did in the Oscar-nominated The White Ribbon, Caché and The Piano Teacher, applies a fearless and uncompromising approach to a painful subject that makes it all the more riveting.

Another winner is Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die, notable not just because it’s more evidence that the elderly fraternal directing team has moved gracefully into old age, but because their filmmaking skills and sensitivities have not diminished. The Adopt Films release is a documentary about some long-term Italian prisoners who, displaying impressive talent, partake in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and learn of the therapeutic and transformational power of creativity and art.

HBO has Alan Berliner’s doc First Cousin Once Removed, about the filmmaker’s elderly cousin’s journey into Alzheimer’s. Both fascinating and depressing, the film is an unflinching document of loss of memory and its slowly deteriorating effect on someone who had once been a distinguished man of letters and Brown University professor. What Berliner fails to do here is get any medical insight into whether the many traumas in his cousin’s life might have exacerbated his condition.

Old age can also have its rewards, as seen in Bwakaw, Jun Robles Lana’s sweet entry from the Philippines, in which an elderly, provincial curmudgeon finally finds love in a most unexpected place.

Abbas Kiarostami, like the Tavianis and a number of others, was back at the NYFF this year with Sundance Selects’ Like Someone in Love, about an unpredictable encounter (and its aftermath) between an elderly Japanese professor and the young freelancing escort one of his former students sends his way.

Perhaps most treasured as a NYFF regular is 90-year-old French legend Alain Resnais, who was represented with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, another of his set-bound, challenging works boasting literary pedigree (here playwright Jean Anouilh) and a sterling cast (Mathieu Amalric, beloved oldster Michel Piccoli, and Resnais favorite Sabine Azéma).

In another twist this year, several NYFF films tried to bridge the gap between documentary and fiction. Most successful is Roadside Attractions’ eco-horror faux doc The Bay, from vet director Barry Levinson, who has a fun go with the found-footage gimmick in its tale (oops, reportage) that follows the death trail of a virulent organism spawned by polluted Chesapeake Bay waters. Hundreds of deaths ensue following a rousing July 4th community picnic and, no surprise, panic ensues. The CDC and FBI close in, but denial on the part of venal politicians has allowed the blight to grow. The doc approach initially convinces a little (or amuses with the attempt), but the shockumentary approach and premise do wear thin, especially in the aftermath of films like Blair Witch, 28 Days and Contagion.

With Kinshasa Kids, Belgian filmmaker Marc-Henri Wajnberg made clear to press that he was after a “trans-genre” feel for his film about some very poor street kids in the shabby titular Congolese capital that would fall somewhere between documentary and fiction. He grafted on a narrative about making music and sorcery to what was originally doc footage of roaming urchins in a terribly grim, impoverished city. Ultimately, only the massive deprivation and foraging ragamuffins hold interest.

With her feature debut Memories Look at Me, Belgian-educated Chinese filmmaker Song Fang goes doc/fiction mash-up with this exercise in minimalism. She aims her camera (usually stationary, through doorways and only capturing profiles) at her real-life mother and other members of her family in their apartments in Nanjing. Viewers who stay awake will take away memories of Memories as a haunting minimalist take on the importance of family, the stylistic rigidity of static shots, and a poetically flecked renunciation of close-ups, story, revelation and expectations.

Another doc/fiction hybrid and rightfully assigned to the fest’s Avant-Garde sidebar was the Portuguese The Last Time I Saw Macao. Filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues contrives a weird tale using film noir clichés, fascinating footage of the city of Macao, nods to Josef von Sternberg and a quarter-baked narrative about an unseen hero searching for his mysterious transvestite friend amid the dark or neon-flooded Macao streets. Packs of stray dogs are also memorable.

As the above suggests, the fest again had its share of “festival films,” those arty, oddball, aggressively original or just plain difficult offerings that, throughout certain fest eco-systems, now and forever have been given temporary shelter in line-ups but, always with a smattering of champions, usually won’t see the commercial light of day.

Among these were Javier Rebello’s The Dead Man and Being Happy, an inscrutable road pic that has a terminally ill hired killer who never kills traveling to little-known areas of central Argentina with a middle-aged woman who, escaping an unhappy relationship and comfortable family, jumps into his car at a gas station and goes the distance until a chocolate ice-cream cone figures in the story. Somehow, they never run out of gas or the morphine he needs.

Adopt Films will be releasing the also-challenging Portuguese film Tabu, a two-part black-and-white tale requiring patience that first takes place in contemporary Lisbon (after a mysterious jungle prelude involving a crocodile), where a woman’s elderly friend dies. The second half takes place years earlier in Africa. where the dead friend’s pampered youth comes to light. Disparate references to Catholicism, Fellini, Buñuel, Murnau and the rock classic “Be My Baby” in Portuguese don’t help matters.

There’s an indeterminate number of cinephiles who regard Brian De Palma as one of the more underrated American directors and they are welcome to Passion, a remake of Alain Corneau’s not very good sexy thriller Love Crime, about two ambitious and conniving female ad execs and the equally unappealing man who is a thorn in their lives. A member of the FSLC selection committee dubbed the film “superb,” sharing that this thumb’s-up is largely a reaction to the film’s perceived “modernist” style. Canadian-based Entertainment One picked the film up during the festival and should see some activity as, with Dragon Tattoo’s Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams starring, some want-to-see DNA lies within.

Camille Rewinds, a very French and upbeat vanity effort, is a time-travel romance. Its forty-something heroine, just separated from her husband, goes comatose after too much drinking at a New Year’s party and awakens from that state in a hospital as the teen she used to be when she first got involved with the husband. Her older body intact, she finds herself a high-schooler again, hanging with her old friends and living with her loving parents. The film has its sunny moments thanks to some rock classics (“Walking on Sunshine” rules) and also affords a wistful look at Jean-Pierre Léaud as a sympathetic jeweler.

Hitting ocean bottom was Leviathan, a dialogue-free doc that was possibly meant to give an insider’s look at commercial deep-sea fishing but assaults as a pretentious orgy of incomprehensible abstractions and noises recalling experimental animation. The visuals aside and overboard, the unbearably loud and repetitive audio of metal clanking also makes no sense. Nothing conveys what the fishing vessel, ocean or crew look like except for one long-held shot below deck in a dingy kitchen as a numbed fisherman (or a cook?) watches an off-screen TV. Shots of soaring birds above the ocean relieve as they hit a poetic chord that struggles to resonate amongst so much dead space and so many dead fish.

For rabid cinephiliacs came Room 237, comprising a number of pummeling, indulgent analyses of alleged hidden symbols in Stanley Kubrick films. Rodney Ascher’s doc delivers lots of Kubrick clips and a handful of die-hard Kubrick fans and scholars who make largely preposterous, hilarious and only sometimes sober arguments for symbols that permeate his work. If the evidence doesn’t convince, the obsession of these Kubrick fans does. More accessible and actually fun is Hungarian super-film buff Gyorgy Palfi’s Final Cut—Ladies and Gentlemen, a roaring compilation of mainly very famous film stars and classic clips racing toward a coherent story built on this wealth of found footage. (Question: Were rights cleared for all this?)

Along with this slate of films, the fest and its many sidebars and special events (dialogues with directors, performing-arts and midnight films, a salute to French film insider Pierre Rissient and the movies he loves) offered other pleasures. There were Gala Tributes, including one to FSLC program director and Film Festival selection committee chair Richard Peña, who is retiring after 25 years in this key position. The Masterworks sidebar offered restorations and revivals from cinema past that, as stated, “deserve the big-screen treatment.” (Returning to things large, Michael Cimino’s mega-bomb Heaven’s Gate was, in a 219-minute restored version, one of these “masterworks.”) Reflecting the FSLC’s commitment to transmedia and the possibilities of new ways of telling stories, the fest launched its first NYFF Convergence, a two-day event of panels, workshops and “immersive experiences” for “creators, designers, thinkers and fans.”

Spanning from France’s remarkable ’60s to the new century, the fest showed 31 episodes of “Cineastes of Our Time” and “Cinema of Our Time,” interview shows with great directors including Fritz Lang, John Cassavetes, Jean Renoir and Shirley Clarke. With considerable work and organization, this remarkable trove of material could be edited into long forms perfect for art houses and home viewing, but Mathieu Gallet, chairman and CEO of the Institut National de L’Audiovisuel, which performs a preservation role for the series, said that rights issues added to the challenge of organizing so much footage.

Returning to our theme of “large,” a big trend emerged during the NYFF run—that of the growth of fall film fests in the New York area (and no doubt everywhere). Besides the NYFF, others events include those in the Hamptons, Woodstock, Port Washington (the new Gold Coast International Film Festival) and late fall’s prime documentary event DOC NYC at Greenwich Village’s IFC Center and added screens at Chelsea’s SVA Theatre.

Amid this fall festival frenzy, founders (including Tony Bennett’s daughter) of the new, competitive and strategically curated First Time Fest took the opportunity to announce their inaugural event for next March, which will offer films from debuting directors. Headquartered at Manhattan’s venerable Players Club, the fest’s submissions will be filtered by both industry professionals and voting audiences, with winners getting valuable prizes and runs for their films at downtown’s Loews Village VII. (The fact that the festival/theatre synergy is growing is an area of convergence worth exploring.)

As for this year’s very large and satisfying NYFF, the question arises about whether the expanded scale was just a special birthday celebration or will continue. Responded FSLC executive director Rose Kuo, “Since the opening of our Film Center, we have gradually learned how to best utilize the new space. We are comfortable with the scope and diversity of the expanded NYFF since last year and we will continue with the current scale, while further developing our outreach to young audiences, emerging filmmakers and families in the areas of education, artist development and new media.” This year’s session proved that this is very good news for the city’s cinephiles.
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