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NY Film Fest '14 Sidebar

As one of its sidebars this year, the New York Film Festival is presenting a near-complete retrospective of the features helmed by the great Hollywood writer-director, Joseph Mankiewicz. Unfortunately, many of the films are being presented in digital versions while some of the 35-millimeter films are being presented in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center where, to my knowledge, the projection is inadequate, and, to add insult to injury, it's impossible to see all the films anyway since some titles are being projected simultaneously on different screens.
contessaposterHappily, one film, the magnificent, moving The Barefoot Contessa, the tragic story of a beautiful dancer — played by screen-goddess, Ava Gardner — who becomes a Hollywood star, was screened at the excellent Walter Reade Theatre in 35-millimeter. This work boasts an impressive cast, including Humphrey Bogart, above all, supported by Edmond O'Brien, Marius Goring, Rossano Brazzi, Valentina Cortese and Franco Interlenghi. The print was a UCLA restoration although it was inadequate as a reproduction of the original Technicolor process which must have looked extraordinary in initial release, given that the film was photographed by the legendary Jack Cardiff.
A few premieres of new feature films by major directors are being screened outside of the main slate of the festival — one that is as beautiful as almost any work in the main slate is the unexpectedly affecting For Queen and Country by the masterly John Boorman. A sequel to his celebrated autobiographical film, Hope and Glory, this new work picks up the story a few years later with his protagonist conscripted into the army in the early 1950s. The visionary streak and exalted high romanticism of some of Boorman’s earlier features is absent here, with the filmmaker working in a more nostalgic, largely comic vein. If For Queen and Country does not quite reach the pinnacle of the director’s oeuvre —it is not of the eminence of, say, Point Blank, Deliverance, or Beyond Rangoon —it is nonetheless an entrancing film. The cast here is outstanding, including Caleb Landry Jones (in a bravura performance), David Thewlis, Richard E Grant, Brian F. O’Byrne, and Sinead Cusack, among others. Boorman’s handling of the digital format is beyond criticism.

NY Film Fest '14 Filled With Gems

In Yann Demange's unexpectedly moving and atmospheric political thriller, '71, a British soldier in Belfast trapped in a Catholic district during the height of the Troubles fights to save his life and escape. Gregory Burke, author of the excellent and celebrated play, Death Watch, contributes a first-rate, deeply disenchanted screenplay while the director shows a confident command of the mechanics of suspense. The filmmaker favors an effectively expressionistic deployment of handheld shots, even if he may at times over-rely upon this technique. Demange is aided by a superb cast with the up-and-coming, hunky Jack O'Connell memorable as the protagonist; the members of the ensemble are adept at realizing the vivid characterizations of the screenwriter. The powerful, moody score is by Paul Holmes. By eschewing bright light entirely, the creators laudably employ the digital format with no deficiencies.
goodbyetolanguageWhat narrative elements there are in Jean-Luc Godard’s baffling but beautiful, Goodbye to Language, are nearly impossible to summarize upon a first viewing. The work as a whole appears to be a collage of many glorious fragments, an assemblage of gorgeous three-dimensional images, presumably unified by some hidden order, and bizarrely punctuated by scatological moments. On a purely formal level, though, this is another triumph for digital cinema.
In Martin Reijtman’s quizzical Two Shots Fired, a teenage boy shoots himself twice and survives; in the aftermath, his brother romances a girl that works at a fast food restaurant and his mother and music teacher take a trip to the beach together. The director favors an observational, quasi-minimalist style, with a consistent strain of deadpan humor — the film is engaging but also perplexing. Rejtman assembled an excellent cast and the control of lighting here is masterly — once again, the digital format is handled with unerring aplomb.
Not long after his extraordinary The Turning Gate, Hong Sang-soo seems to have abandoned his ambitions to be a major filmmaker, cultivating rather the distinction of an "exquisite minor", as exemplified by his charming new feature, Hill of Freedom, about a young, Japanese man that comes to Korea in search of young woman that is the object of his romantic interest. One pleasure of the film lies in its scrambled narrative structure, reflecting the letters the man his written to the woman, read by her out of order. The not un-Rohmerian, light comic tone of Hill of Freedom is of a piece with Hong's other recent features as its subtly distanced, long-take style — the filmmaker's use of zooms has become a trademark and enhance the humorous effect. Hong's direction of actors is characteristically good here and his employment of the digital format has finally attained real distinction.
Dominik Graf's The Beloved Sistershas the intrinsic interest of its subject: the story of the ménage à trois of Friedrich Schiller and the Lengefeld sisters. The film operates within classical norms without epitomizing the classical style. The director displays an admirable professionalism remarkably maintaining interest across the length of nearly three hours. Graf and his cinematographer achieve a reliably handsome image here and the digital format is exploited to laudable effect.
Alice Rohrwacher's haunting The Wonders is a naturalistic study of a family of beekeepers in Italy that enter a contest for local farmers. The director displays a remarkable sensitivity to her wonderful cast, including her sister, Alba Rohrwacher, and the incomparably beautiful, Monica Bellucci. Rohrwacher employs a poetic, verité style, and evidences a thoughtfulness about how to satisfactorily capture the bright sunlight of the Italian landscape in digital.
Eugène Green's enigmatic La Sapienza,about an architect and his wife that travel to Italy and meet a young pair of siblings, adheres to a rigorous formalism: the film is dominated by strictly symmetrical compositions — where it departs from this, the symmetry is frequently restored in countershot. Another eccentricity involves shooting actors head-on, particularly when speaking. The abstract dialogue is reminiscent of the work of Eric Rohmer but the director eschews realistic performances as well as non-diegetic music, barring a setting of the Magnificat by Claudio Monteverdi heard at the opening and close of the narrative. This is another work difficult to evaluate upon a first viewing. I should add, however, that the use of digital here is splendid.
Inspired by true events, Josh and Benny Safdie's powerful Heaven Knows What tells the story of a young junkie in contemporary Manhattan. Visually, the film is a study of the expressive power of the telephoto lens. The mesmerizing cinematography is by the widely admired Sean Price Williams and the directors cite the crucial collaboration of Ronald Bronstein as co-writer and co-editor. Once again, the filmmakers display a thorough appreciation of the limitations of shooting in a video format.
Maverick filmmaker Abel Ferrara's unconventional biographical of the great Italian writer and director, Pasolini, starring Willem Dafoe in the title role, demonstrates considerable intimacy with the artist's life and work although I found its total effect to be one of diffuseness. The legendary Adriana Asti plays Pasolini's mother but the finest pleasures here may be that of Maria de Medeiros as Laura Betti and the unexpected presence of Ninetto Davoli. Once again, the use of digital here is a marked improvement over Ferrara's previous feature at this festival, 4:44- Last Day on Earth, which had its local premiere at the New York Film Festival.
The choreographic couplings of Matias Piñeiro's mysteriously beguiling The Princess of Francerecall the work of Jacques Rivette. The director's mise-en-scene is elegant although this is another film that resists evaluation or even summary on a first viewing. Here too the employment of a digital format is well-executed. The intriguing films of Piñeiro are a valuable discovery of the Film Society, which has recently spotlighted his work.
pasolini-posterIn the final feature by Alain Resnais, Life of Riley, he for the third time in his career brings to the screen a work by the brilliant dramatist, Alan Ayckbourn — here the story concerns the sometimes comically vexed relationship of three couples to a man who is dying of cancer. The director eschews a realistic treatment, choosing to preserve and emphasize the theatricality of the original material, as he has done in several previous adaptations from the stage. If this is not one of the best of Resnais's late achievements, it exudes considerable charm on account of its stellar cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz, Caroline Silhol, along with two of the filmmaker’s regulars, the delightful Sabine Azema and André Dussollier. Handsomely photographed in widescreen, the fine use of digital here is an improvement on that of Resnais’s previous feature, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, which also had its local premiere at this festival.
Mia Hansen-Løve's dazzling youth film, Eden, about the rise and fall of a professional DJ across a span of two decades, is a visual tour de force of brisk, camera movements and fluid editing, although the resemblance between her style here and that of her husband, Olivier Assayas, is uncanny. The attractive cast of unknowns is supplemented by the welcome presence of Arsinee Khanjian, Greta Gerwig, Brady Corbet, and the alluring Laura Smet. Shot largely in the dark of night, the digital look of the film is coolly evocative.
One of the fascinations of the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is its at times implicit dialogue with the masterpieces of Robert Bresson —Rosetta appears to remake Mouchette while L'Enfantappears to revise Pickpocket— in both cases, the Dardenne brothers purge the metaphysical dimension from Bresson and replace it with a version of historical materialism. In their gripping new film, Two Days, One Night, one of the strongest at this festival, about a young woman's attempt to convince her co-workers to vote for her to keep her job, the emphasis on sheer chance is once again reminiscent of Bresson. The lovely Marion Cotillard is outstanding in the lead role and Dardenne stalwart Olivier Gourmet has an excellent cameo. Shooting largely in bright sunlight, the filmmakers strain against the limitations of the range of contrast of the digital format, this film's one disappointment.
Comparable in stature to Two Days, One Night is David Cronenberg's dark satire of Hollywood, Maps to the Stars, from a scathing screenplay by Bruce Wagner. (The ingenious plot is better left a surprise.) The director's mise-en-scene and editing are characteristically mesmerizing but once again he has assembled a magnificent cast, including Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams and John Cusack. Cronenberg and his extraordinary director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, have succeeded in mastering the digital format — the image quality here is exceptional.
In the mystical Jauja, by the esteemed Lisandro Alonso — this year's Filmmaker-in-Residence at the Film Society of Lincoln Center — a Danish man, played by the terrific Viggo Mortensen, sets out alone in the Patagonian landscape of the 1870s to find his missing daughter who has eloped with a young, Argentine soldier. This strange work is not without its baffling dimensions as it astonishingly turns from an atmospheric naturalism to phantasmagoria. Alonso and his cinematographer created an unusual but arresting color palette to record the stunning landscapes of the film's setting, achieving a striking, hallucinatory effect, although the digital format's narrow range of contrast is not always completely adequate to photographing the scenes in bright sunlight.
Bertrand Bonello’s accomplished Saint Laurent, a biographical film about the marvelous fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, focuses on a ten-year period of his career, from 1967 to 1977. The director displays a sensitivity to framing, camera movement and editing, rendering this work several cuts above the tradition-of-quality film that this subject might have engendered. Over and above its formal virtues and its interesting screenplay, Saint Laurent is bejeweled by a superb cast, including Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel, the lovely Léa Seydoux, Brady Corbet, and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi — in an extraordinary scene, she is, as usual, extraordinary — as well as screen legends Helmut Berger and Dominique Sanda. The use of digital is here is well-handled on the whole although the film is marred by a few awkward zooms. The original music, composed by the director, is strong.
Abderrahmane Sissako's episodic, quasi-neorealist Timbuktu portrays the rise of radical Islamism in that historic city. The director's humanistic approach is touching —even if the ultimate effect is tragic and alarming — and he proceeds with considerable humor. Attractively photographed in widescreen, Timbuktu is notable insofar as even when shooting in daylight in the Sahara desert, the filmmakers attain a digital image that sustains the extremes of contrast rather well. I might add that the film is graced by a haunting soundtrack featuring African music.
Another work in a realist vein is Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, a biographical portrait of the sublime nineteenth-century painter, J. M. W. Turner, although the director's penchant for individuating performances by repetition of behavioral mannerisms runs against the grain of any naturalism. Still, this must be the filmmaker's most Renoirian opus, although Leigh's merits as a director have more to do with his screenplays and his actors than to the expressive mise-en-scène of his forbear. The acting is characteristically wonderful, featuring Timothy Spall in the lead role, supported by Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville and many others.
grim sleeperThe only documentary in the main slate this year is Nick Broomfield's verité film, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, about the Grim Sleeper serial murders in South Central Los Angeles. This is a characteristically scathing indictment of the police investigation but less absorbing than several of the director's previous investigative works. Cinematically, Tales of the Grim Sleeper is of minimal interest, holding one's attention mainly through the compelling nature of the film's content. (However, I should add that Broomfield's earlier, underrated narrative feature, Dark Obsession, was stylistically very accomplished.)
In Clouds of Sils Maria directed by Olivier Assayas, a long-term favorite of this Festival, an aging actress, played by the glamorous Juliette Binoche, discovers new complications in her relationship with her independent-minded, self-possessed personal assistant (Kristen Stewart), as she takes on a role in a play that she had performed in twenty years before. The puzzlement that this film elicits — because the note of inauthenticity that pervades the dialogue either represents a failure in the filmmakers’ intentions or is exactly what they sought to realize— softens its emotional impact. The director’s style is consistently controlled, but this work doesn’t have the hypnotic intensity of some of his best films — for example, Late August, Early September or Les Destinées sentimentales. The supporting cast is of interest, featuring Chloë Grace Moretz and the legends, Hans Zischler and Angela Winkler. The use of the digital format here is generally well-handled.
Alex Ross Perry's entertaining Listen Up, Philip, about the interpersonal entanglements of an up-and-coming, young writer in New York, is driven by clever dialogue and the exhilarating performance of the inimitable Jason Schwartzmann in the title role. Shot in Super-16 format by the talented cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, the film is dominated by close-ups and highly edited within scenes, achieving a jagged quality. The tone of the film strongly recalls the work of Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson and is an extended homage to the life and work of Philip Roth — going so far as to reproduce the specific font used for the covers of that author's books and featuring Jonathan Pryce as a Roth-surrogate. Elisabeth Moss is superb as one of protagonists girlfriends. The conversion to digital here is seamless.

Life or Something Like It

Grace of Monaco

Biographical films aren’t what they used to be, and thank goodness for that. Many of those inspirational, by-the-numbers celluloid (er, digital) resumes are thud-worthy. At Cannes there are a few biographies, and while not all are works of genius, many take a different approach to the genre.

The festival opened with Olivier Dahan’sGrace of Monaco,” starring Nicole Kidman as Princess Grace, nee Kelly. Alright, this is not the best example of a new style of biography. In fact in this version of her life, Princess Grace single-handedly saves a world on the brink of war, when she gets all the right people to attend a Red Cross benefit. On top of that, she discovers family traitors in the ranks in a story of palace intrigue. Who knew?

Mr. Turner” by Mike Leigh, stars Timothy Spall as the eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner. In addition to the apparently huge amount of research done by Leigh and Spall, the film itself has the look and feel of a Turner painting. Spall is magnificent as the solitary painter who had a genius way of painting but has the look and feel of a feral animal when it comes to most human contact. As with another great work by Leigh that deals with historical - and artistic - characters, “Topsy Turvy” (about Gilbert and Sullivan), the film doesn’t lay out the characters’ entire life. No flashback to childhood so we might understand why Turner is the way he is. Instead we are treated to a moment in his life; a sketch, perhaps, that give us a hint to the life of the man.

foxcatcher posterSaint Laurent,” Bertrand Bonello’s fantastical and exciting portrait of the designer, comes on the heels of a fairly standard bio of Yves Saint Laurent. That one uses a prosthetic nose so that we recognize the main character. Bonello does no such thing. His actors (two portray Saint Laurent at different stages) simply embody the man, and so we know him very well by his words, his movements. Bonello uses lavishness in the characters and the photography to represent an excessive era.

Speaking of prosthetics, Steve Carell does use one to inhabit the character of disturbed (to say the least) millionaire John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” And while his portrayal is intensely disturbing, this writer spent a great deal of time internally remarking that Steve Carell was hidden under that nose. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum used no such devises to play the Schultz brothers. Miller depends on these intense portraitures to evoke that strange happenings on the du Pont estate.

Jessica Hausner’s “Amour Fou” tells the story of 19th century poet Heinrich von Kleist, who committed suicide along with his lover, Henriette Vogel. The film comes off as a studied, wry comedy. By the way, that’s comedy in the Shakespearian sense; that is, Hausner does not view suicide as tragedy. Instead, she creates a period set piece that veers on the absurd.

With the exception of “Grace of Monaco,” each of these films gives a new look to biographical drama. Taken together they represent not just deeper looks at real life, but instead using true stories and characters to propel cinematic storytelling, a win for viewers, certainly – but also a win for the future of biographical storytelling.

We Wuz Robbed! Winners and Losers at Cannes

After twelve days in the not-so-warm breezes of Cannes, the awards are finally given out, which always leads to much opinionating on the part of observers. Who is right? The jury, who have been wheeling and dealing (so to speak) behind closed doors? Or the rest of us, who have very strong opinions that don’t stay hidden. The competition jury president was filmmaker Jane Campion and her fellow jurors included actors Carole Bouquet, Leila Hatami, Jeon Do-Yeon, Willem DaFoe, Gael Garcia Bernal and writer/directors Sofia Coppola, Jia Zhangke and Nicolas Winding Refn.

The Camera d’Or is given out for the best first feature film and is selected from debuts in all the sections of the festival. It even has its own jury, made up of French actors, directors, cinematographers, critics and led by actor/director Nicole Garcia. This year the prize went to Party Girl,” a French film that opened the Un Certain Regard section and was directed by a triad of first timers: Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis. Refreshingly the main character is a 60-year-old woman – rare for young filmmakers – maybe that’s what intrigued the jury. While another first feature, The Tribe swept the Critics’ Week awards (the section that presented the film), I would have chosen Next to Her,” a wrenching drama of love and loyalty by Israeli director Asaf Korman.

party girlBack to the feature awards. The jury doesn’t always give out the same amount of prizes. For instance, awards have been given for cinematography but not so this year. If the jury doesn’t find something worthy of the award, it won’t be given out – although that only happens with the more technical awards. And you’re not likely to see one film sweep the prizes; there’s a lot of sharing going on, by unofficial decree, it would seem.

And share they did: Eight awards were given out to eight different films. Bennett Miller took the Best Director prize forFoxcatcher.” Not a bad choice, but I though Mike Leigh’s direction of “Mr. Turner” was perfection. I would have gone in that direction. But “Mr. Turner” wasn’t forgotten: Timothy Spall received Best Actor accolades and I cannot disagree. Spall’s turn as a feral-like creature who churned out beautiful works of art was one of the highlights of the festival.

Julianne Moore was given the Best Actress award for her work in Maps to the Stars.” She is always a pleasure to watch and her work in David Cronenberg’s film is by turns funny, sad and a bit creepy. But I would have been happy to see Anne Dorval singled out for her role as a mother at the end of her rope in Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.” Maybe Juliette Binoche – or Kristen Stewart – in the Olivier Assayas drama “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Just a thought.

Assayas himself most certainly was a contender for the Best Screenplay prize with his story of an actress of a certain age (Binoche) who is forced to see herself past present and future by way of two younger women (Stewart and Chole Grace Moretz), but that honor went to Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev for his incisive yet funny – and politically dangerous – script for Leviathan.” 

Jury prizes and the Grand Prix are usually seen as recognition for runners-up, and it’s not a terrible idea. I, for one, am not captivated by the idea that one film (or anything, for that matter) is the absolute best. However, the idea of a Cannes with no prizes is not exactly sweeping the nation (France or the U.S.) So spread the wealth. Just make sure it doesn’t approach kids’ sport teams, where every member of every team – win or lose – takes home a trophy!

Two jury prizes were given out. One to the oldest filmmaker in the competition: Jean-Luc Godard, for his extravagant 3D think piece “Goodbye to Language” and one to the youngest: Xavier Dolan for “Mommy,” wherein he continues to mine his own (I’m sure) mother issues, to great effect. Godard, naturally, was not on the premises, but Dolan gave a wonderfully heartfelt acceptance. Also grateful was Alice Rohrwacher, who won the Grand Prize for her second featureThe Wonders.” And she had to give her acceptance speech with Sophia Loren looming large onstage beside her!

Finally, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s three hour plus opus “Winter Sleep” won the Palme d’or, the top prize. In 2011 his film “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” won the jury grand prize, so he has worked his way to the top of the festival award food chain. I would submit that his previous film should have received the Palme d’or, but this film is worthy also.
However, a film that received no love at the awards and is, in my book, the best film of the festival, wasTimbuktu,” Abderrahmane Sissako’s stinging portrait of a community stuck in the grip of Islamic fundamentalists. Beautifully shot (there’s your cinematography prize) and acted (though I fear no one in this ensemble will win an acting prize as they are not well known at all), this film moved me as no film has in a very long time.

Was he “robbed” of a prize? Maybe. But prizes are just gifts – pretty certificates or trophies. What will count down the road is the impact any of these films make on screens around the world. Let’s hope they all make that journey.

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