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Chris Knipp
08-09-2016, 04:23 PM
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The Walter Reade Theater

For the General Film Forum Filmleaf thread click here (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4183-Nyff-2016)

Links to reviews:
13th, The (Ava DuVernay 2016) - Opening Night Film (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35031#post35031)
20th Century Women (Mike Mills 2016) - Centerpiece Film (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35223#post35223)
Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35022#post35022)
B-Side, The: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (Errol Morris 2016) - Documentary Series (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35041#post35041)
Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk (Ang Lee 2016) - Special Presentation (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35127#post35127)
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35064#post35064)
Death of Louis XIV, The/La mort de Louis XIV (Albert Serra 2016) - Explorations Series (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35102#post35102)
Elle (Paul Verhoeven 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35055#post35055)
Fire at Sea/Fuocoammare (Gianfranco Rosi 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35036#post35036)
Gimmie Danger (Jim Jarmusch 2016) - Special Event (http://www.chrisknipp.com/links/=9hjg.jpg
[URL="http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4229-NEW-YORK-MOVIE-JOURNAL-(Oct-Nov-2016)&p=35101#post35101)
Graduation/Bacalaureat (Cristian Mungiu 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35045#post35045)
Hermia and Helena (Matías Piñeiro 2016)
I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35082#post35082)
Jackie (Pablo Larrain 2016) - Special Premiere Presentation (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35160#post35160)
Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35226#post35226)
Lost City of Z, The (James Gray 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35553#post35553) - Closing Night Film
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35136#post35136)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35044#post35044)
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (Dash Shaw 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35537#post35537)
Neruda (Pablo Larraín 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35048#post35048)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35214#post35214)
Personal Shopper (Oliver Assayas 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35357#post35357)
Quiet Passion, A (Terence Davies 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35518#post35518)
Rehearsal, The (Alison Maclean 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35217#post35217)
Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4297-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2017&p=35416#post35416)
Son of Joseph, The/Le fils de Joseph (Eugène Green 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=36131#post36131)
Staying Vertical/Rester vertical Alain Guiraudie 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35050#post35050)
Things to Come/L’Avenir (Mia Hansen-Løve 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35054#post35054)
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35076#post35076)
Unknown Girl, The/La fille inconnue (Jean-Pierre, Luc Dardenne 2016) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35075#post35075)
Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo 2016)

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[Photo by CK]

Chris Knipp
10-01-2016, 10:11 AM
KLEBER MENDOÇA FILHO: AQUARIUS (2016)

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SÔNIA BRAGA IN AQUARIUS

Diva v Developer

This is a less stylistically radical film than Neighboring Sounds (ND/NF 2012 (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3246-New-Directors-New-Films-and-Film-Comment-Selects-2012&p=27538#post27538)), Kleber Mendoça Filho's debut, and differs in focus. But the two films, both firmly set in the director's native eastern seaside town of Recife and around a specific neighborhood, have in common a growing menace, an edge of evil, and keen awareness of class, race, color and habitat. In contrast to Neighboring Sounds' multi-voiced, crabwise narrative, Aquarius, though, focuses headlong on one person, a single apartment, and one issue. The imperious Clara (a magnificent Sônia Braga) has lived in the same flat much of her life, raising her three now grownup children, and though everyone else has left, she won't sell it to developers waiting to tear down the forties building and put up a big garish high rise. Braga is tremendous, and fills every scene with her subtly intuitive diva-hood. The movie isn't otherwise as intriguing or mysterious as its predecessor. But it has made waves at home, and looks like a potential sleeper hit for sophisticated mature Stateside audiences. In this more conventional format the movie yet has its own complexity, visiting Clara in other locations and times and establishing how the apartment has acquired through decades of human use the quality of baraka as Robert Graves defined it in his Oxford Addresses on Poetry. The movie's deeper theme is the pursuit of profit as an enemy of human value.

Her apartment isn't big, but its ocean views, lovely light, and elegant comforts make you want to move in. (The glorious widescreen images of Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu are bright and delicious.) At first they ask her nicely, and she just tears up their offers and refuses to talk to the developer, Bonfim (Fernando Teixeira), or his ingratiating but scarily large grandson (Humberto Carrão), fresh from US business school. So then they're not so nice. Notice the sly unity of Mendoça Filho's invention, which once again plays with the auditory. Clara is a retired music critic and public intellectual, Catholic in taste and adaptable to new technology, a user of MP3 in her smartphone, but protected by a wall of vinyl records, whose value over digital as time capsules she points out to a pair of young women come to interview her.

She will be assaulted by her own alien "neighboring sounds": a porno movie starts being made, and a crowd parties in the apartment overhead into which Bonfim has moved a slew of mattresses. She responds by pulling out a disc to blast back with "Fat Bottomed Girls." (At Cannes Mike D'Angelo wrote for AVClub (http://www.avclub.com/article/two-master-filmmakers-make-rare-misstep-day-7-cann-236957) he was the only one to laugh, recognizing the album cover and guess at once this would be the cut from the Queen album Jazz she would play.) It's touches like this moment that make Aquarius more specific, yet more universal, than the usual.

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Original "Jazz" album w/ "Fat Bottomed Girls"

What's a Brazilian movie without music? or a Mendoça Filho film without complex sound design? Alas, the English subtitles fail to explain for us some key Brazilian song lyrics at other points. Anyway, despite her vinyl riposte, the porn has a clear positive effect on Clara. It amuses her, and prompts this lonely, sensual woman to hire an escort for an evening of hot sex the film illustrates with a stylish mix of boldness and restraint.

The risk is that Mendoça Filho's slow burn (and similar two-hour-and-twenty-minute length) may work less hauntingly in this more straightforward story and just seem like dawdling. But the compensation is that the socio-economic and personal story lines are equally vivid and strong. An early scene celebrates Clara's Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) turning 70 in 1980, in the same building, and looking at a humble chest, flashes back to a man going down on her there long before: this is also a celebration of older women as boldly sexual beings. Clara is elegant and attractive, but she is a longtime cancer survivor with a mastectomy, and a man she charms at a dance club with girlfriends (they're lively too, but Clara radiates beauty as if under a spotlight), takes her home the minute he discovers the surgery. What is it like to be so admired and then so rejected? Clara's relations with family and friends are similar. They adore, but are peeved by her. She is sensual, she can charm, she can be a snob, she can throw her long black mane around grandly or menacingly or tie it up in a tight stylish bun.

As the battle between diva and developer climaxes the film rises to mythical, ex machina, levels, becoming a metaphor for corruption in the whole country that's at once too neat and at too pullulatingly creepy and maybe, as Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/17/aquarius-review-rich-and-mysterious-brazilian-story-of-societal-disintegration) at Cannes, not an ending at all. But Kleber Mendoça secures his position as one of today's most interesting and poignant directors.

Aquarius, 146 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2016; 18 other international festivals, including Toronto, New York (9 Oct.), London and finally Mill Valley, coinciding there with its limited US release 14 Oct. 2016 (Angelika Film Center, Paris Cinema NYC).

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Chris Knipp
10-07-2016, 04:33 PM
AVA DUVERNAY: THE 13TH (2016)

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ANGELA DAVIS IN THE 13TH

US prisons as an extension of slavery

Ava DuVernay's ringing and dramatic The 13th is the first documentary to grace a first night of the New York Film Festival; it's in theaters and also on Netflix, who produced it. Last year saw the release of the director's Selma, a historical film seeking to dramatize key events in Martin Luther King's struggle for equal voting rights, focused on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The effort was received with acclaim, though it unnecessarily slurs President Lyndon Johnson, a great champion of civil rights, and some of its characterizations were lackluster. The 13th is arguably a more forceful piece of work. Though much of the information it presents is not new, its scope is sweeping, its connecting of the dots so clear viewers may be shocked and enlightened.

Perhaps surprisingly for the NYFF's spotlight choice - but they've not always been strongest in doc choices - The 13th iis really not original investigative work as was Laura Poitras' Edward Snowden film that debuted at the festival last year, Citizenfour. It's simply a collection of talking heads (though well-chosen and sometimes nicely contrasting ones), statistics, and archival footage, with animated captioning and music to liven things up. Inclusion of DuVernay's film in the top NYFF spot seems mainly aimed at making a strong political statement in an election year (it contains clips stunningly exposing Donald Trump's retrograde racism), when the events addressed by the Black Lives Matter movement are in the forefront of minds.

In some ways though handsomely crafted, The 13th can also annoy with its jumpy multiple-angle shots of the talking heads and its ADHD-level cross-cutting between speakers and clips. It's an affectation of the film that speakers are rarely seen looking right into the camera, and onscreen IDs of speakers are withheld till they've appeared repeatedly. Some speakers are presented in grand settings, some not. It all takes some getting used to. But when you do, it contains much important information. Even if you may know a lot of it already, it's interrelated in a thought-provoking way.

Begin with some statistics: the US has 5% of the world population but houses 25% of the world's prisoners; 40% of them are black. One in three blacks will serve prison time; one in 17 white men will. And how did this come about? The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution - to which the title alludes - has a clause in it that clearly excepts prison. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." If you're in prison, it's okay for you to be treated as a slave. Rather astonishing, but that's what it seems to imply. Given this proviso, the logical purpose of DuVernay's exposition is to show that the lives of African Americans since the abolition of slavery, through various means, but increasingly over the last three decades through imprisonment, have involved slavery by another name.

It's all economics, the film points out. Slaves played a key role in the southern economy, and their removal left it in disarray. The result was to re-enslave them by other means. They were jailed for long times for trivial charges and the prisoners were farmed out as labor. The 2.2+ million incarcerated in the US today are a massive slave labor force, their maintenance itself a highly profitable industry.

D.W. Griffith's huge hit The Birth of a Nation fed a picture of blacks as dangerous criminals and marauders and rapists. In the wake of this mood, the KKK thrived. Jim Crow rules extended exclusion and humiliation. In this atmosphere the incarceration of blacks was looked on as inevitable. Revolt was difficult. Civil rights leaders during the Sixties were targeted by FBI chief J.Edgar Hoover, and were jailed, executed in their beds, and driven from the country.

Fast forward to Richard Nixon, then Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. "Law and Order" and the "War on Drugs" are explained as code words or pretexts for incarcerating blacks. The film points out the familiar fact that crack cocaine, which predominated in the ghetto, led to extreme punishments while involvement in the white suburban powdered version was treated much more lightly in US law. Here the film grows more relevant and contemporary, referring to Hilary Clinton's support of her husband's Draconian "three strikes" law and "mandatory sentencing" as a major factor behind the way since Reagan the US prison population has increased by 50% or even doubled every five years.

Returning to the economic factor which motivated slavery, the film describes the key role of the wide-ranging conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC), which has had a many-layered role in increasing the incarceration rate and profiting by it, including the privatization of prisons. Now that public awareness of the prison issue is heating up, the new move is toward home incarceration - spreading the prisons among us - using ankle bracelets and GPS to confine people outside the formal prison system. The film touches on how privatized "detainment centers" for undocumented immigrants are really just prisons too.

It's plain the film isn't enthusiastic about Hilary Clinton, given her links with her husband's Draconian policies vis-a-vis imprisonment and welfare and her use of the term "superpradator," but the vicious moments - clips of many of them - from Donald Trump at rallies that have a distinct racist flavor makes the message clear: the "least worst" by far is Hilary.

Given its thorough, forceful nature, The 13th certainly is a film worth seeing, and probably of special importance to young people. It's just a shame that it's more in the order of a summary of what's known than new investigation. The film doesn't steer us otherwise toward a way out, or provide a very positive message, except that "Black Lives Matter" (even without the great black political leaders of the past, including Angela Davis, whom we've directly seen and heard from) is a strong and viable movement for reform.

The 13th, 100 mins., debuted 30 Sept. 2016 at the New York Film Festival; also LFF. Limited release UK and UK and internet (Netflix) starting 7 Oct. 2016.

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Chris Knipp
10-08-2016, 02:39 PM
GIANFRANCO ROSI: FIRE AT SEA/FUOCOAMMARE (2016)

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SAMUELE PUCILLO TAKES AIM IN FIRE AT SEA

Rosi's crabwise look at Lampedusa's refugee crisis packs a gentle wallop

The star of this documentary, which is of the quietly "observational" kind, is a 12-yer-old oddball kid called Samuele Pucillo, who lives on Lampedusa, an island of fishermen. Samuele, however, considers himself a born hunter, not a fisherman, and therefore a misfit on the island. Samuele is small, with a lazy eye, as he finds out in a visit to the oculist, but nonetheless an ace with a slingshot. He has a droll manner, his replies well considered. The island's longtime principal doctor, Dott. Pietro Bartolo, calls him "il vechierello," the little old man. We patiently observe Samuele's amusements and hobbies and shaky attempts at being seaworthy to suit his fisherman father: he throws up just riding in a rowboat. Slurping spaghetti diligently, he promises he'll rack up time out on the pontoons, to gain sea legs.

We also visit Giuseppe Fragapane, known as Pippo, the local DJ who plays old Sicilian ballads as requests on his show, "Canzonissima." Samuele's grandma reminisces about sea battles during the war, "Fire at Sea," she calls it -- also the name of an old song ("Fuocoammare," tracked down by an Italian writer Valeria Brigida (http://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2016/02/28/fuocoammare-anche-la-canzone-e-un-gioiello-prezioso/2502484/)) whose words nobody remembers. It's all very quiet and quaint and traditionally Italian.

But Lampedusa, a mere eight square miles between Sicily and the coast of Libya, is also something else: the Italian territory boatloads of desperate refugees most often sail toward when they escape from Africa. It is Rosi's alternating coverage of Samuele & Co. with quietly searing observation of the arrivals of refugees on overcrowded boats that gives Fire at Sea the impact, at once direct and metaphorical, that led to Rosi's receiving the Golden Bear at Berlin this year for this film. The refugees are received out in the water, with care, efficiency and kindness, by the looks of it. But the inhabitants of Lampedusa barely see them. Where do they go?

Gianfraco Rosi is a documentary filmmaker who would not seem to seek the limelight. His last film, Sacro GRA (Open Roads 2014 (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3742-Open-Roads-New-Italian-Cinema-At-Lincoln-Center-2014)), loosely connected to Rome's ring road but mainly a gallery of oddball portraits, won a prize at Venice but was a snooze for some. Obviously he continues to come at his subject matter indirectly in Fire at Sea, but his crabwise and personal look at the urgent problem of mass immigration is bringing him controversy and a sense of relevance as well as a US distributor, Kino Lorber.

Though chatty and ebullient in person, and fluent in English from having studied at NYU Film School, Rosi is self-effacing and shy as a filmmaker. But he is also persistent, and perhaps braver than at first may appear. He also has a sense of humor and a sense of poetry. What impresses is how invisible he appears following Samuele's and his familiy's lives and yet how close he gets to the desperation and vibrant life of the mostly African immigrants he films arriving on boats, dead or alive. Dott. Bartolo, seen at one point attempting to detect the sex of an immigrant woman's unborn twins with ultrasound (he has no idea what her native language is), also recounts his experiences, looking off into space, as the doctor who must not only examine the sick and the healthy foreign arrivals but take samples of the bodies of the many who arrive dead.

The boatloads arriving from Syria, Chad, Niger and who knows where we come back to repeatedly, see them arrive, be patted down, the sick or dying (of dehydration and heat) from the holds of the boats removed as Dott. Bartolo describes. A group of young men play wild makeshift soccer. The dark faces coming off the boats looking into the camera. Another group from Niger chant a "hymn" while one yells a rhythmic voiceover description of their odyssey in English. Dott. Bartolo speaks of pregnant women or women who have just given birth arriving dead. Many, many die in the horrible conditions on board the overcrowded vessels. Or arrive covered with serious burns from the dangerous diesel oil permeating the hold. Once, briefly, we glimpse a hold that is a pile of dead bodies. An inferno. They are like slave ships. It's a relief to return to Samuele and his sliing shots. His life seems simple and fun. But be warned: he tells Dott. Bartolo he has trouble breathing, and the doctor thinks it is not cardiac disease, but anxiety, stress. That's odd, because he seems utterly self-possessed.

Three years ago a boat nearing Lampedusa carrying 500 Eritrean men, women and children caught fire and capsized. Only 155 people survived, and 364 bodies have since been recovered. Dott. Bartolo alludes to this, but Rosi's film is not explicitly factual or informative. It may leave you with many questions. It makes the human details it shows real enough so the questions may linger; but an article in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/16/lampedusa-island-of-hope) will show that Rosi's film is an artificial construct, if one had not figured that out by oneself. For one thing, it leaves out all the details of what happens to the refugees after they're taken off the boats -- though it does seem that in humanitarian terms, Lampedusa has an unusually clean slate.

Fire at Sea/Fuocoammare, 104 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2016, winning the Golden Bear and three other awards there; some other nominations and awards. Nearly two dozen other festivals, including Telluride and Toronto, and the NYFF Main Slate, as part of which it was screened for this review. It is also Italy's entry for the 2016 Best Foreign Oscar competition. Limited US release 21 Oct.

Chris Knipp
10-09-2016, 09:14 PM
ERROL MORRIS: THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN'S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY (2016)

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ELSA DORFMAN SHOWS A 20X40 OF HERSELF WITH GINSBERG IN THE B-SIDE

A casual portrait

Elsa Dorfman is an old lady of 79 and also a friend of Mr. Morris. They both live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Of this film, an unpretentious gesture of a 25-year friendship, Morris said, in a NYFF Q&A, that with a subject like her "you just have to get out of the way," and for good or ill that is pretty much what he did. He lets Elsa ramble on, filming her in her garage-archive at a large drafting desk pulling out one photograph after another from ranks of flat files containing nearly fifty years of work, or decades anyway. Morris adds some illustrative material, but mostly his film is her talking and her work. So presented, it turns out to be thin material, and the 76 minutes feel like more than enough.

Two things are fascinating: a network of notables, artistic and intellectual, and a unique large view camera "instant" photographic format, doggedly pursued. Elsa, who married a civil rights lawyer, knew a lot of Beat era writers and poets as well as some rock stars and Harvard big shots,and was a good friend of Allen Ginsberg from his most creative period up to the end, and made many portraits of him, including huge nude ones. One of Morris' best ancillary moments is two phone messages from Ginsberg and a friend when he was about to die. The other thing is Elsa's long and faithful association with the big format Polaroid cameras, the 20x24 and the more rare 40x80, though she points out that to Polaroid she was no one special: other photographers got preferential access to the special cameras. It was only by persistence and renting a large space that she was able to have regular access to one of the cameras and use it to shoot paid portraits. Surely Richard Avedon's use of large format view camera portraits in his In the American West (http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/01/richard-avedon-richard-avedons-in.html) series blows Elsa's big Polaroid efforts away for artistry and drama, though he probably could never have achieved her funky down home charm either, and her work, though unpretentious, has a consistent positivity and warmth Avedon's attention-getting oddities lack. As she explains, she doesn't do unhappy people. Her arbitrary, thrown-together shots, however, despite their charm, don't set her with the great, penetrating artists of photographic portraiture.

Elsa's rambles provide a somewhat sketchy picture of her life, a job with Grove Press in the sixties, and other connections after she left New York that brought her in touch with Beats and other notables. Details, lacking here, are partly filled in by her Wikipedia bio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsa_Dorfman), which says she organized a "Paterson Society" that gathered Beats and kept up a correspondence with them afterwards "as they traveled the world." Maybe she met more of them through Ginsberg, or even her husband; who knows? She managed to photograph Bob Dylan at a concert when others were excluded. She also is shown selling her (smaller) photos on the street from a cart; apparently her husband's civil rights expertise helped her evoke her Second Amendment rights against police harassment when doing this.

As with all photography just as a record of people and their times it is interesting to see Elsa's photographs, even the "B-side" ones, which she explains are those out of two big Polaroids made that clients chose not to keep, and left with her. A more efficient presentation might have included a panorama of them, carefully photographed; seeing Elsa manhandle and pull them out randomly adds little but a sense that there are many and she has not seen them for a long time. Learning more of what she has to tell would have taken a lot more interviews, edited into the best moments, and including a more complete picture of her life and of her relationships with the notables.

At the New York Film Festival presentation of the film, a special surprise was an appearance of Dan Stern, President of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with one of the 20x40 Polaroid cameras he arranged the Society to buy, along with a stock of the necessary film and other supplies that Polaroid no longer makes. For some years now the FSLC has had several photographers do portraits of filmmakers and artists it has featured using the big camera. They are displayed in Film Society lobbies and hallways at the Walter Reade Theater and the new film center across the street. On this occasion the camera was set up for Elsa to shoot Errol, and the results were shown to the audience. But when all is said and done, as Walter Chaw (http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/ffc/2016/09/telluride-16-the-b-side-elsa-dorfmans-portrait-photography.html)also has commented from Telluride, Morris' portrait of Elsa Dorfman, while it has touching and exciting moments, is too careless an effort to rand with Morris' best work.

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, 76 mins., debuted at Telluride 4 Sept. 2016, also showed at Toronto, New York, Chicago. Screened for this review at the New York Film Festival.

Chris Knipp
10-10-2016, 09:27 PM
BARRY JENKINS: MOONLIGHT (2016)

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ASHTON SAUNDERS, ALLEX HIBBERT, TREVANTE RHODES (LITTLE, CHIRON, BLACK)

Blackness and gayness

In Moonlight, a movie set in south Florida, Barry Jenkins has made a humdinger of a sophomore feature eight years after his debut Medicine for Melancholy (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?2265-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2008/page2&s=&postid=20075#post20075). The latter, very ruminative, urban, and middle class black, was surprisingly original and intelligent, though I quoted Karina Longworth's comment: "Medicine for Melancholy offers a self-contained rebuttal to claims that precious, naturalistic dramas about the existential dilemmas of hipster singles are exclusively a white man’s game." It takes place in San Francisco, by the way. Well, forget all that. Moonlight is visceral and intense and very black. It shows a boy who grows up in the depths of the ghetto with a crack whore mamma and a drug dealer de facto foster daddy, and can still be gay. Maybe everybody knows this, but it's new to the screen, and with this film Barry Jenkins level of accomplishment has made a great leap forward. Moonlight is a deeply original and memorable black gay coming-of-age story.

But it's more complicated than that, because Moonlight focuses on three different intense periods of the young man's life, and he's three distinctly different people (and three different actors). First he's shy, silent ten-year-old "Little." At the next stage he's intense, angry high schooler Chiron. Finally after prison time he's a big muscular brute called Black. He had all these names as a boy but he grows into each of them and each stands for the different person he's become - while he's also all these and other people. He does not know who he is, but whatever he is, is intense.

It's hard to overstate the passion and accomplishment behind the scenes that unfold in this picture, which sometimes feel hurled at you, or hurled across the screen. The language makes no concessions to cliché or to what white people may expect to hear. Some dialogue at least in the third episode is hard to follow and may require repeated viewings.

The story of Moonlight takes place over the course of fifteen years or so, and is based on the playwright and fellow Miamian Tarell Alvin McCraney's short theater piece, "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue." There is a poetry and an unmistakably earnest epic quality in the film, with its classical music and James Laxton's elegant Steadicam cinematography which gives even violent, precipitous action a studied look. Rapid camera moves, rapturous moments, bright color, intense pop songs show a clear debt to Wong Kar-wai.* Jenkins and his crew do beautiful things with big old cars, the glint of metal, and water: a great scene is the one in which the boy takes a luxurious ghetto bath using dishwashing liquid and a big tub of boiled water. Camerawork is panoramic, adding sweep to the boy's confinement.

Each manifestation of Little-Chiron-Black also makes no concession to good looks or gay sensitivity, though the small runt of a boy (played by Alex Hibbert with silent composure) and the two other iterations each has an intense, palpable beauty in his blackness that mocks the conventions of commercials and TV casting. Right from the start other boys mark the boy as "soft" and he's chased into a crack house, rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the mentor-to-be who takes him back to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) to get him to talk and becomes his protector. The time will come when he asks Juan what "faggot" means; he gets a kindly, tolerant answer. What the boy has to contend with all the time besides the bullies is his mamma, who keeps descending into drug dependency and scrounging for money, so as a tall, skinny teenager played by Ashton Sanders he tells Juan he "hates" her.

The one he will love-hate is his continuing "friend" Kevin (Jaden Piner at 9; Jharrel Jerome at the crucial moment of 16; André Holland as the adult Black seeks out a decade or more later). These are the moments that are the emotional heart of the film and of Little-Chiron-Black's experience, and though it's not that kind of story or relationship there's the same kind of heartbreaking longing hovering over Kevin as in Brokeback Mountain. Moonlight is another gay tragic epic love story that has the possibility of making its way to a mainstream audience and perhaps even into their hearts, but this time with the addition of blackness. As embodied by Jharrel Jerome, the high school Kevin who is Chiron's only friend and only betrayer, is a weak young man; he will admit to that weakness, to only doing what other people wanted him to do, as a grown man and a cook. But he has one important thing: the ability to reach out and touch Chiron, which makes all the difference. Jerome's weakness is heartbreaking; when he returns as André Holland, he's an eager charmer. His weakness now impresses, and his chattiness may need Black's (like Chiron's, and LIttle's) silence, which may be wounded but is also strong. One of the beautiful moments is when Juan teaches Little to swim; this is a time when we can see his strength, also when the 9-year-old Kevin teaches him to fight back.

When Chiron has returned as Black, and is played by Trevante Rhodes, he's an astonishment. The audience has to accept the transformation isn't what you'd expect, as must Kevin. This final sequence makes sense if you conceive of it as growing from a Brokeback kind of longing and loneliness, and in those terms, it's beautiful, strengthened by the intense presence Trevante Rhodes provides. It's an intensity of blackness, which Jenkins revels in, and Moonlight yields its remarkable pleasures only if we revel in it too. In which case it becomes one of the year's best films.

Moonlight, 110 mins., debuted at Telluride, Sept. 2016; also at Toronto, Edmunton, New York, London, Vancouver, Hamptons, Mill Valley, Rome, Philadelphia, Chicago in close succession, US theatrical realese 21 Oct. 2016.

Chris Knipp
10-11-2016, 11:20 PM
CRISTIAN MUNGIU: GRADUATION/BACALAUREAT (2016)

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VLAD IVANOV, MARIA DRAGUS IN GRADUATION

Shit hits fan

The doctor protagonist, Romeo (Adrian Titieni) falls into a world of trouble in Cristian Mungiu's new film, Graduation, which centers on his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drǎgus), who's about to take her final exams when she's sexually assaulted by a stranger and breaks her wrist fighting him off. In typical style for Romanian cinema, the film is ferociously unfun, without an ounce of humor. But it enmeshes us in its troubles. The Romanians make films that are like police procedurals that want to be soaps, but are more intricate and patient. Mungiu has written and crafted this film with care, though intentionally paying little attention to arc. Resolution would be a cop-out and dampen down the multivalence of plot too much. So Eliza graduates from high school, but without our learning if she's aced her exams, which Romeo has cared so much about he was willing to throw away his moral reputation to fix the outcome. We don't know if she'll attend university in Cluj with her easygoing jock boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici) or go to England on a prestigious fellowship at Cambridge as Romeo's been preparing her for her entire life.

Artists aren't always the best judges of what their work is about but Mungiu has been definite that this film is about the age when your best years and your dreams are behind you. This is what Romeo's struggle is about. He's presumably a respected doctor, but there's nothing about his achievements or reputation. He's having an affair with a foreign coworker, Sandra (Mǎlina Manovici), his marriage is on the skids. He tries to belittle the attack on Eliza - tests show she was not technically raped, but when she gets a lower score on her Romanian exam when she needed a 9 or a 10 he persuades a corrupt official to arrange it to be altered. The point is Eliza has become his hope, the dream he lost by choosing to stay in the country, but she's slipping away.

Mungiu is a Cannes darling and hence a director with global cred, having won a Palme d'Or for his corrupt abortionist drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=891&p=903#p903) nine years ago, as well as lesser but respectable Cannes awards for his 2012 Beyond the Hills and for this new one. But writing from Cannes, Mike D'Angelo (who gave a much more detailed account of the film in his AVClub (http://www.avclub.com/article/romanian-drama-dolan-dud-and-more-jim-jarmusch-day-237030) review than I do here) suggested that this time Mungiu's thinking has lost its urgency. Mike wrote that if he'd seen Graduation a dozen years ago its story of a moral "slippery slope" would have "mightily impressed him" but less so now.

Watching Graduation I felt its source is in the Seventies, in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalg," the Polish master's series of studies of moral crises encountered in the nightmare of Eastern Europe. Mungiu's work here is serious and absorbing but hasn't Kieslowski's economy or elegance of construction. As I say, the Romanians almost seem to eschew construction altogether. What they excel at is providing endless poignant details of the long littleness of former Soviet Union life. Maybe my favorite Romanian film was really the first I saw, at the 2005 New York Film Festival, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=467&view=next). It's a film that just goes on and on and on, till it ends. But it is a dazzling as well as numbing illustration of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption with fatal results. The action is mundane, but urgent, and in the end, the title comes true.

But if Mungiu is playing with corruption, and yet it's not his main subject, that's confusing. And in his discussion of the film at a NYFF Q&A he suggested audiences have seemed confused about what it's about. Is Romania getting more honest? Is what Eliza tells her father at the end a sign of improved morals, or cheating in new, or even more old-fashioned ways? Graduation is heartfelt material that provides much food for thought, but it is neither as artistically satisfying nor as intellectually coherent as it might be.

Graduation/Bacalaureat, 128 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2016, showing at at least 15 international festivals, including the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. US theatrical release by Sundance Selects coming in NYC 7 April 2017, followed by a national rollout.

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Cristian Mungiu @ NYFF
Q&A 11 Oct. 2016

Chris Knipp
10-12-2016, 03:10 PM
PABLO LARRAÍN: NERUDA (2016)

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GARCÍA BERNAL IN NERUDA

Larraín's metafictional tale of the famous fugitive poet and his unknown usurper

The Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín built a career out of depicting his country's dark time in the Pinochet dictatorship, into which he was born and lived most of his teens. Allende was killed and Pinochet took over in 1973 and reigned till 1990; Larraín was born in 1976. Best are Tony Manero (2008), technically Larraín's second film, and Post Mortem (2010), both starring great Chilean actor and man of the theater Alfredo Castro. Castro made these two pictures, singlehandedly defining Larraín's picture of the slime and gloom of the regime. They're simple, low-keyed films. And they're great.

Something more positive and diffuse came next in the director's 2012 No, featuring Gael García Bernal as an ad man whose publicity campaign was instrumental in PInochet's losing a plebiscite and giving up power. With The Club (2015) Larraín returned to creepiness in a vaguely contemporary depiction of corruption and repression in the Catholic church.

Larraín is busy and productive. No and his latest film, Neruda, are more elaborate productions. But the truth is nothing he has done has the authority and originality of Tony Manero and Post Morten. Granted the energy of its surreal visuals and many tableaux, Neruda, a grand and glossy metafictional phantasmagoria about the famous Chilean communist poet on the run, is on the overblown and repetitious side. The same formulas and the same lines of poetry ring out over and over. Neruda's ambitious but ineffectual young police nemesis Óscar Peluchonneau is played by Garcia Bernal. His perhaps imaginary presence and his tiresomely insistent voice-overs take over the screen from Luis Gnecco as Neruda, a less interesting actor than Alfredo Castro, the poet coming off as a blowhard.

But he is an audacious one, certainly, whose following among vast elements of the general public is made clear. This Neruda is many people, poet and senator, loving husband, "bigamist" (since he has a foreign first wife who's dredged up unsuccessfully by the government) and denizen of brothels. This links him with Peluchonneau, who is or imagines himself to be the illegitimate but ultimately acknowledged son of the founder of the police department, represented by a giant-sized statue, by a woman who worked in a brothel for thirty years. Peluchonneau keeps repeating that he is not a supporting player. (Vadim Repin (http://filmmakermagazine.com/99539-tiff-critics-notebook-1-neruda-toni-erdmann-julieta/#.V_6RXLwrInU) has suggested that Peluchenneau is in a love-hate relationship with his prey just as Larrín is with Pinochet, whose regime has been so fruitful for his work.) And this is another uncertainty of the film, an intriguing one: who is the protagonist, the pursuer or the pursued, the great poet fleeing over the Andes into lifetime exile, or the nonentity who narrates the film and seeks to become its protagonist? García Bernal is the internationally famous artist, of course, so for non-Chilean audiences his character attracts more attention.

The film has gotten raves in festival showings. Typical of those is the reaction of Justin Chang in a Toronto roundup for Variety (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-toronto-barry-quiet-passion-rework-biopic-formula-20160913-snap-story.html), calling it "the most inventive, freewheeling movie about an artist since Todd Haynes' 'I'm Not There.'" Critics like that it's not "an ordinary biopic" but instead (in Chang's words) "a richly inventive fantasia on the poet's themes." What are "the poet's themes," though? The phrase is troublingly vague. Departing from history and seeking a historical figure's "essence" is doubtless welcome; we're all tired of conventional biopics. But for all the cinematic flourishes, it doesn't work here. Maybe Neruda is a grand and epic failure, but it's a failure for sure - one that wears out its welcome early on. For all its fantasies and changes rung on the actual life of its subject, Neruda looks more like a conventional big budget picture than anything Larraín has done up till now.

The fundamental problem is an uncertainty of tone. From the start, a (typically) elaborate scene in which Neruda and the President of Chile trade insults, in a set that seems part seat of government, part urinal, proceedings seem the have more than an edge of satire, but to also be pretty serious. It looks like Neruda is about to get into bad trouble. This becomes more problematic for the gringo viewer whose knowledge of the history is limited. We can understand the Seventies. Dictatorship is an easy thing to grasp. But these are the Forties (signaled more by the cars than anything else), and we don't know what was going on in Chile then. Neruda boasts of being a communist - the thing that's going to lead to orders for his arrest (and the real or imaginary Óscar Peluchonneau's setting out to find him). But at the same time he doesn't seem to take being a communist seriously.

I do like the idea of this relationship between a noble victim and García Bernal's dapper little mustachioed martinet of a cop who keeps almost finding him, and ends falling down in the snows of the Andes. These scenes and many others are gorgeously photographed: snow has rarely looked prettier. The mock-serious, deadly dangerous yet laughable, setup is one that Nabokov used in a number of his novels, and I can best understand what Larraín was trying to do by seeing this as a Nabokovian tragicomedy. I also liked seeing pretty-boy García Bernal play a more mature, and less flattering, role. Peluchonneau's's lonely scenes are in stark contrast to the more cluttered sequences involving Neruda and entourage, as they must since the two men never come directly into contact.

Neruda, 107 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors Fortnight May 2016; at least 14 other international festivals including Telluride, Toronto, New York and Mill Valley. It is to be Chile's entry in the Best Foreign Oscar competition. US theatrical release to begin 16 Dec. 2016. In NYC at the Film Society at Lincoln Center and IFC Center.

Chris Knipp
10-12-2016, 10:22 PM
ALAIN GUIRAUDIE: STAYING VERTICAL/RESTER VERTICAL (2016)

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DAMIEN BONNARD AND INDIA HAIR IN STAYING VERTICAL

Country life

Gay-oriented French director Alain Guiraudie, whose Stranger by the Lake/L'inconnu du lac in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2013 won him a lot of prizes, made it for the first time into Cannes Competition with this year's Staying Vertical/Rester vertical. Having seen only his last two features (he's made eight) I can hardly generalize, but the New York Film Festival Q&A brought out that Guiraudie often makes a new film that contrasts with the last. Staying Vertical's changes of location and wild unpredictability are indeed in sharp contrast with Stranger by the Lake's tight police procedural structure and strict limitations of time and place. The last film could be seen as a grimly realistic critique of cold gay sex. The new film is notable for its comically free-flowing sexuality. It also has an element of the surreal and of fable, and a mythological beast, the wolf, which may have its parallels in the male cast members.

Vertical's narrative follows its strapping main character Leo (Damien Bonnard), a screenwriter wandering homeless around southern France in his Renault. He keeps asking his producer (Sébastien Novac) to wire him 3,000 euro advances, but he hasn't written a line. He meets a feisty young shepherdess called Marie (India Hair) and they have tender (and realistic) sex and a baby is born (fast forward, obviously, and also realistic). Guiraudie handles the impulsive and natural sex very casually. Marie has post-partum depression and runs off to town with her two young sons, leaving Leo with the baby. Leo also has to contend with Marie's ogreish father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry), who seems to be dangerous, and also predatory. And from the start he has kept coming back to an old man by the roadside, Marcel (Christian Bouillette), for whom age has never lessened his pleasure in Pink Floyd played at top volume, who slings homophobic abuse upon the pretty young man who lives with him, Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), whom Leo propositions, but who has no use for Leo. Leo goes repeatedly for some kind of plant therapy in a swamp, just as he keeps going back to Marcel and looking for Yoan. He takes care of the baby, but this becomes increasingly shaky as he runs out of money and is attacked by homeless people and left naked. He is fascinated by wolves, who are a real menace in France these days. At one point Jean-Louis uses the baby as a bait for them.

As D'Angelo writes in his Cannes report for AVClub (http://www.avclub.com/article/some-cannes-regulars-get-weird-only-one-their-curi-236732), Guiraudie makes all this outrageous stuff work through rhythmical repetition, and there is a tonic quality about the flow of freedom and responsibility. This film neatly skates the line between what could make you cry and what could make you laugh, though in the Q&A the director said he'd have liked to have achieved that to a greater extent and will strive to in future. One of the jokes is how Guiraudie reuses existing characters for new functions instead of introducing new ones. It's a process film and the process is Leo's gradual decline, but at the end in a stunning final scene it seems Leo has been transformed and elevated into a shepherd and saintly wolf whisperer. But apart from anything that happens the pleasure of the film is its continual sense of unpredictability, hovering between tragic and comic, and its country earthiness, the directness of its passions. Guiraudie grew up in a farming family, according to French Wikepedia, and in the Department of Aveyron where much of this film takes place. One might think of Bruno Dumont for the brutal bluntness of the sex, but this is sweeter. Not for everyone, but a great palate-cleanser for the cinephile who's been watching more conventional festival entries like Neruda and Graduation.

Staying Vertical/Rester vertical, 100 mins, debuted at Cannes May 2016 in Competition. Ten other festivals including London and New York in October. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival. US theatrical release by Strand Releasing coming in LA on 20 Jan. 2017 at Laemmle's Royal Theatre and in NYC 27 Jan. 2017 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center.

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Alain Guiraudie @ NYFF (CK photo)
Q&A 12 Oct. 2016.

Chris Knipp
10-14-2016, 05:54 PM
MIA HANSEN-LØVE: THINGS TO COME/L'AVENIR (2016)

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ISABELLE HUPPERT IN THINGS TO COME

Embracing life's hard knocks

In Hansen-Løve's Things to Come/L'Avenir, a film designed with Isabelle Huppert in mind, her character Nathalie, a fiftyish Paris professeur agrégée of philosophy, faces one challenge after another with the kind of aplomb only the seemingly indestructible Huppert can carry off. It's summer, and a lot of the action takes place in northeastern Paris around the sunny Buttes Chaumont. Braving political strikes against government rises in retirement age is the first, and mildest, of her worries. Her husband Heinz (André Marcon), also a prof of "philo," is leaving her for a mistress. Her publisher is dropping her. Her daughter is leaving the nest. Her favorite graduate, a dreamboat, and someone she's probably in love with, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), is moving to a remote leftist commune whose denizens mostly speak German, which she doesn't. Most urgently, her aging mother (iconic actress Édith Scob) is having daily panic attacks and threatening suicide; the firemen are called in every day. Nathalie is saddled with her mother's overweight cat, Pandora, and she's allergic.

This is, in Mia Hansen-Løve's distinctive manner, a realistic "comédie de moeurs" that takes some jumps through time, and hits upon life crises with naturalism, style, and a moral seriousness that yet manages a light touch. Nathalie declares to Fabien that losing her mother, her husband, her daughter, her publisher, she has never been so free, and it's wonderful. One admires her panache. But does one believe her? She collapses in tears more than once.

An awful lot happens in under an hour of this 102 minute film, delivered with such rigorous French elegance, so cooly acted by Huppert, that it's a little hard to take it all in. On the one hand this has been called "the richest" of Hansen-Løve's five features, maybe because the protagonist is going through a classic series of major post-midlife crises. Her other films are more limited in focus, the addict parent of Tout est pardonné , the tragic film benefactor whose suicide leaves his family in the lurch of The Father of My Children, the young couple who part before the girl would like of Goodbye First Love, the music impresario brother with drug issues of Eden. But these also arguably are more particular, less schematic, than the latest film.

Fans of the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis will note that here too, a protagonist adrift is saddled with a cat. It's her panic at Pandora's temporary disappearance when Nathalie lets her loose at Fabien's country place that shows the disquiet under her façade of outward calm and assurance. One is also reminded as the plot unfolds of the line spoken by Bodhi in Point Break: "Life sure has a sick sense of humor, doesn't it?"

I was not so moved by Things to Come as by the director's previous films (except for Eden, which seemed a little too spread out and panoramic), but a friend whose opinions I respect declared that she "loved, loved, loved" it, and it just may take more time to sink in; this was true for me of Tout est pardonné. An angle to reconsider is how well Nathalie's "philo" instruction works for her, whether there is an ironic disconnect between text and life (as Nathalie's text books are declared defunct), or au contraire her conduct - something Isabelle Huppert, past 60 but still beautiful, elegant, and girlish, can carry off - may truly reflect the heroism life requires of us on a daily basis.

Things to Come/L'Avenir, 104 mins., debuted at the Berlinale, winning the Silver Bear for Best Director and nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film. French theatrical release 6 Apr. 2016, to very strong reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.9/27 critics). Shown at nearly two dozen other international festivals including the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review 14 Oct. 2016.

US limited theatrical release begins 2 Dec. 2016.

Chris Knipp
10-14-2016, 07:44 PM
PAUL VERHOEVEN: ELLE (2016)

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ISABELLE HUPPERT IN ELLE

My rapist

It is a uniquely disorienting and confusing pleasure to watch Isabelle's two latest movies - Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come/L'Avenir and Paul Verhoeven's Elle - one after another, as I just did in New York. Both were playing in the city's premier annual cinematic event, the New York Film Festival. Some young journos who slogged through them with me joked that if neither one quite was a great film, a mashup of the two might be a zinger. Actually either one of them is a zinger by itself. Isabelle Huppert is simply an amazing actress, the most prolific and quite possibly the most brilliant in movies today.

In the first, Huppert plays Nathalie, a Paris university "philo" prof, who's more or less an ordinary human being, though exceptional in her aplomb in the face of hard knocks. She is dumped by her academic publisher and her longtime husband; left in the lurch by her handsome favorite student; faced with her mother's dramatic aging and death, her daughter's leaving the nest, becoming a grandmother, and rescuing a cat.

In the second, Verhoeven's Elle, Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, the owner-manager of a successful video game company with a very, very strange past and an equally weird present. She's not really remotely a normal human. She's an Isabelle Huppert superwoman-monster. This is a mystery, a comedy, and a horror movie. It also confusingly meshes with the previous film. Here too she becomes a grandmother, must contend with a trying aging mother. And in both there is a cat, and the Huppert protagonist weathers a series of literally very hard knocks with, well, this time, super-human aplomb.

Verhoeven hasn't made a movie for a decade and this is his first made in France. It happened because Huppert latched onto the project before Verhoeven did, and Hollywood rejected it, after American David Birke had adapted Philippe Djian's French novel for the screen. The rejection, Verhoeven has explained, was because in Hollywood, if a woman gets raped and pursues the rapist, there's got to be revenge. But there was no revenge in the book, or Birke's screenplay. Instead, the raped lady, a successful businesswoman of unsinkable froideur, gets involved in a tricky game of cat and mouse with the rapist. The "mystery" soon ends, though, as she discovers the rapist (Laurent Lafitte) close at hand - but does nothing to have him apprehended.

Michèle Leblanc gets raped in the first frames, by a tall masked man in black (we'll revisit this scene again, and again). They fight, violent blows are exchanged, a table full of china crashes onto the floor of Michèle's suburban mansion. Violent intercourse occurs, with panting and yelling. The masked man flees. Michèle then gets herself up, and sweeps away the mess. She tells her boyfriend the big bruise on her face is from a fall off her bike. She goes about her business. It's only later she tells friends and family she was assaulted. She does not tell the police. This is because she does not like police, for reasons we learn later.

Elle seems trashy, but Verhoeven's movies always do, even at their best, and this time it's trash with an elegant French gloss. The mixture of violence and blood and murder in a bourgeois French setting reminded me of Chabrol; and, of course, Huppert worked for Chabrol - six times. Even Chabrol would probably not have filmed a story with trappings as lurid as these. Michèle's mother (Judith Magre) is a disgusting old crone, her face a bumpy mélange of crude cosmetic surgeries and with the occasional "petit botox." She has a paid muscular young lover called Ralf (Raphaël Lenglet). Her father is in prison for life for a series of lurid murders when Michèle was a girl - and may have participated.

The video games Michèle's company makes are lurid, sexual, and violent too, and the company is mostly cocky young men, who mock her. There is a version of the latest game mocked up to amuse the team in which Michèle is sodomized by a tentacled digital monster. There are other subplots. Michèle has a lover (Christian Berkel), who is the husband of her best friend (Anne Consigny), and her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is still in the picture. She has a strapping young doofus of a son called Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who's expecting to have a baby with his girlfriend, Rebecca (Virginie Efira), who's crazy; the baby clearly is not his, and the father is black. Yet Michèle considers herself a grandmother. Her parents do not fare well. The protagonist masturbates watching her rapist, and a Christmas crèche; religion provides more than one form of conciliation. Some of this stuff would get in the way of a Chabrol plot, but it's all grist to Verhoeven's energetic gin mill.

Half the pleasure of Elle is seeing Huppert sail through the turbulent, convoluted action. Michèle Leblanc was a character she had to play. Elle has an excellent cast with plenty of depth, but it is Huppert who makes it work. She is indestructible. We don't really know who Michèle Leblanc is or what makes her tick, but with Huppert, it can happen. This movie is another expansion of the repertoire of the inexhaustible actress, and as noted in a NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/04/movies/elle-starring-isabelle-huppert-as-a-rape-victim-who-turns-the-tables-rivets-critics.html?_r=0) article, writer "have noted that Elle includes sly references to her formidable filmography, including Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2002); Christophe Honoré’s My Mother (2004), a story of incest; and Claude Chabrol’s Madame Bovary (1991)."

No doubt Huppert has been through many vicissitudes on film, but Elle reminded me of Catherine Breillat's bravely honest autobiographical film, Abuse of Weakness, in which Huppert also stared, and was brilliant and convincing. It depicts how Breillat had a stroke, and the disreputable man who became her "helper" took over her life, and her bank account, wiping her out financially. Here too, the Huppert character is Teflon-coated, knocked down, but unbowed. That was real life. Elle is ghastly fun.

Elle, 130 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition May 2016 and was nominated for the Palme d'Or; 20 other festivals, including New York, where it was screened for this review 14 Oct. 2016. Released theatrically in France 25 May 2016, it received raves (AlloCiné 4.4/37 reviews). US theatrical release 11 Nov. (English-language reviews ecstatic: Metacritic score 90; UK release coming 24 Feb. 2017.

Chris Knipp
10-17-2016, 01:40 PM
KELLY REICHARDT: CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)

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MICHELLE WILLIAMS IN CERTAIN WOMEN

Lost women in Montana

This time Kelly Reichardt, the respected Amerindie director and chronicler of women (and sometimes men) in states of aimlessness, has combined stories by Maile Meloy about three women living in the same rural town in Montana and a fourth further flung, filmed with an eye for the poetry of the ordinary in handsome earth tones. The first two segments are connected by James Le Gros, who's the lover of small town lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) and husband of Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams). Three tales unfold, but though the first has crime drama elements and even a kidnapping and police stakeout (low keyed, of course), only the third, about a lost young lawyer, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), who attracts the hopeless affections of Jamie, a lonesome cowgirl (first-timer Lily Gladstone), is emotionally touching. Maybe Jared Harris, as Laura Dern's client and an injured carpenter who's lost a workman's compensation case, gets the prize for most pathetic, ranging from tears to threatening mass murder, winding up in prison abandoned by his wife for a convict in another state. But it is hard to care about him, or about Laura Dern's guilt at failing to save him. But as Jamie, Lily Gladstone is remarkably real.

In the middle segment, where James LeGros immediately reappears as the husband of Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), she is preoccupied with building a house out in the country, and we follow a singularly unfulfilling trip withRyan ( Le Gros) and their boyish, hostile daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) to persuade an old man to sell them his pile of sandstone blocks. The old man agrees - maybe; but Le Gros uses passive-agrressive comments to make sure the commitment isn't clear. Seeking to interpret the film, A.O. Scott wrote in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/movies/certain-women-review-kristen-stewart-michelle-williams-laura-dern.html?_r=0), "Those rocks are at once symbols of transience and of permanence." Okay. So what? Similarly Laura (Dern) spends time with the exploding (or imploding) Fuller (Jared Harris), but without really helping him. The episode when Fuller kidnaps a Samoan guard and Laura is sent up to reason with him wearing a bullet proof vest is the most excruciating of the lot. We submit to lengthy delays, Fuller forcing Laura to read passages from his case that confirm he was screwed, only to have Fuller taken away to jail. Her visit to him in prison later provides a dreary, inconclusive fullow-up.

On the other hand the third segment has the quality of an actual narrative. Beth Travis (Stewart) is a young lawyer who's taken a side job teaching the night course in "school law," about which she admits she knows nothing. The students are all local teachers whose real interest is just complaining about injustices or limitations in their jobs. A tentative, distant, but fraught relationship develops between Beth and Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who has just wandered in, and keeps coming for a few classes (while they last) to accompany Beth to the local diner and chat. Jamie learns something of Beth's background but Beth's main concern is she miscalculated how bad the drive was, four hours each way. When it's announced Beth isn't coming any more, Jamie makes the long drive to her town and stalks her, waits up all night. She can't declare her love and it wouldn't help if she could, but the long held shot of Jamie's face as she drives away empty handed is heartwrenching. The rest of the film, touching back on the two other stories, is anticlimactic. And we note that while Jamie remains in her Brokeback Mountain world of pretty horses and lonely pining, the third, more resonant, tale has become hers and not Beth's.

If Reichardt achieves authenticity and a sense of real time in these sad, dreary tales, there's also a lack of economy and a lack of verve, almost a stubborn clumsiness. And so this time it's tempting to side somewhat with Rex Reed in the Observer (http://observer.com/2016/10/certain-women-is-filled-with-interesting-performances-that-never-connect/), who commends the acting in this film but condemns Reichardt's style. "Nothing ever happens in her movies," Reed says, "but a handful of critics rave, they end up on the overstuffed programs at film festivals like Sundance and are never seen or heard from again." That isn't really true. But this is a failed movie with one powerful thread, and I wish Reichardt's 2013 Night Moves had gotten all the attention that her 2010 Meek's Cutoff did.

Certain Women, 107 mins, debuted at Sundance Jan. 2016, and was shown at 17 other international festivals, including London, Mill Valley, and New York. Screened for the review at IFC Center 16 Oct. 2016.

Chris Knipp
10-21-2016, 12:12 PM
LUC, JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: THE UNKNOWN GIRL/LA FILLE INCONNUE (2016)

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LOUKA MINNELLA AND ADÈLE HEENEL IN THE UNKNOWN GIRL

Another dogged pursuit, harder to care about

The Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are masters of about moral awakenings and obsessive pursuits of a task. Here is another one of those, if more of the latter than of the former.

In La promesse, which put them on the map, it was a teenage son (the start for the great Jérémie Renier) in defiance of his mean father (the equally great Olivier Gourmet) keeping a pledge to do right by an abused immigrant. In Rosetta, a teenage girl (Émilie Dequenne) is in desperate, tireless pursuit of a decent job to escape her alcoholic mother. In The Son/L'Enfant, a carpentry teacher (Gourmet again) pursues the boy who killed his son, with ambivalent motive but a final moving shift toward forgiveness. In The Child (Renier again) a young man seeks to sell his own baby, but comes to see the wrong of this desperate and ignorant act. Lorna's Silence is far more complicated, but involves the protagonist's desperate struggle to open her own business The Kid with the Bike, starring another young discovery, young firecracker Thomas Doret, with the luminous Cécile de France, follows a boy's desperate (and useless) effort to reunite with his father (Renier, grown up now), who has abandoned him.

The Dardennes used a big star, Marion Cotillard, for Two Days, One Night, typically about a desperate pursuit during the allotted time in the title to persuade a group of coworkers to vote against a bonus so she can be allowed back to work after a nervous breakdown. It's a dogged, exhausting story, but an actress as good and as appealing as Cotillard and a suspenseful plot, it holds our attention till the last.

The Unknown Girl/La fille inconnue is typical Dardennes material. But both because of the theme and the lead actress, despite attentive craftsmanship to every scene, the whole film feels less involving or moving. It's about young Liège general practitioner Jenny Davin Adèle Haenel), who attempts to uncover the identity of a would-be patient who has died after she has ignored her desperate effort to be admitted after hours. This is a task not involving moral development so much as perhaps an act of penance, and relief of a guilty conscience. Adèle Haenel has shone in dry, feisty roles, and that aspect is tamped down here, but she lives up to expectations: convincing as the businesslike young doctor, she is relatable, if not adorable, and Jenny achieves her goal. She has the necessary convincing dedication and tireless intensity. But as written, the character does not significantly change.

The story is neatly told; one scene rapidly follows another. And yet, since Jenny is juggling doctoring with crime investigating, the narrative proceeds unevenly. Sometimes it's hard to see if she is doing her job as a doctor, or pretending to as an excuse to contact various people and press them for details of the unidentified woman, showing her photo on her smart phone. The latter was African, a prostitute, connected with drug dealers, and so Jenny winds up sticking her nose into places where she isn't welcome. The film starts to seem like a police procedural conducted ay an amateur - without the suspense such tales normally involve. The cops even approach Jenny at one point to tell her she's marring their process by spooking potential sources. And then there is the case of Julien (newcomer Olivier Bonnaud), an intern working with Jenny whom she pursues with equal doggedness after a child having an epileptic fit apparently shocks him so much he decides to give up training in medicine. She even goes to see him out home in the country to have a heart-to-heart talk. It apparently succeeds, she learns from a phone call. However involving, this story seems tacked on. As has happened sometimes before, this is an unmistakable Dardennes film, but not one that shakes you to the core as the best ones do.

The Unknown Girl/La fille inconnue, 113 mins., debuted at Cannes in competition May 2016; 13 other festivals; French theatrical release 12 Oct. 2016, also included in the main slate of the New York Film Festival; US premiere that day. French critical response mild (AlloCiné press rating 3.2/30).

Chris Knipp
10-21-2016, 12:15 PM
MAREN ADE: TONI ERDMANN (2016)

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SANDRA MÜLLER AND PETER SIMONISCHEK IN TONI ERDMANN

Maren Ade's festive comedy

In Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann, which is more special and original than it may seem, a goofy, slightly over-the-hill father teaches his ultra-serious corporate daughter some lessons about life. In two words, he teaches her to lighten up. The film is rambling, and may seem overlong. It may indeed contain some unnecessary longeurs. But it needs to be this way. It's teaching viewers about the kind of patience and alertness in life's most boring times, leading to transcendence, that David Foster Wallace talks about in his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address (http://www.metastatic.org/text/This%20is%20Water.pdf) titled "This is Water." And the film builds and builds, slowly. There needs to be a moment when you think it's just tedious and pointless. Because Ade avoids making her "points" (except that it's a simplification to denote them so) in any obvious way.

Reports of this film came from Cannes, where it was the European critics' favorite and thought a contender for the top Competition prize, but it didn't get that. It's not a movie everyone will like. Mike D'Angelo, whose Cannes reports I've been following since his arresting "Open Letter to Lars von Trier" from the festival in 2009, loved Tony Erdmann and reported it had gotten unusual spontaneous applause (as had Holy Motors and a few others in his Cannes years) because it has a number of "glorious moments" that are "designed to blindside you," and are "in keeping with the first character we meet, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek)." Simonischek is a big, shambling man with a shaggy-dog mop of grey hair, which is important)." He's the father, a devotee of practical jokes (think Lord of Misrule). When his beloved dog Willy dies, he takes a long vacation from his job as a schoolteacher. We've seen him there leading a celebratory song where he and all the students are wearing fright mask makeup, with ugly fake teeth.

Winfried doesn't take off the makeup for a while. He decides to pay a surprise visit to his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller, wiry, tough, and fearless), in Bucharest, where she's currently working. At first he really annoys Ines. His jokes are invasive and out of place, though there's something touching and sweet about him, and them. Gradually his behavior gets through to Ines, in a good way. Ines has a key position - she lives in a large, glamorous apartment and is her boss's most important staff member, but she must also always struggle against male chauvinism in the business world, working twice as hard. A key aspect of Ade's film is that she, like Winfried, is viewed with kindness and understanding. She is heroic and tireless, going from dealings with staff to a big presentation, juggling shifts from English to German, supply always seeming to agree with criticisms to maintain the upper hand.

Ines' heroism shows particularly in how she handles her father, especially when she tells him he must go (not just a woman executive's reaction: anyone would be upset by a father like this) and he says goodbye - then reappears in a fright wing with the fake teeth calling himself "Toni Erdmann," and saying he's a "life coach." Indeed Ines has one, whom she consults with via Skype, but Toni Erdmann's sense of the title is broader than how to win at business; it's really how to live. So anyway Ines remains patient with him. His imposture is too outrageous to expose to associates and colleagues; it would be too embarrassing; but she also shows remarkable forbearance and discipline in managing to fit him in. And as she does this, gradually his touching excesses of humor (and they are excesses: he has little control over them) show her how much she's been destroyed by an excess of the seriousness and self-discipline she's marshaled to perform her demanding job; that it's not worth it. That she's become cold and unkind, soulless.

None of this is spelled out, though. It's embodied in a long succession of bizarre incidents interwoven with the fractured details of Ines' high-pressure, accomplished, unfun life, incidents in which her father shows her how good will and human kindness, the willingness to do good spontaneously, to act outside a plan, are missing from her life.

Partly the film is the story of the story of two dysfunctional personalities who bring out each other's rehabilitation by expressing the love they feel for each other. In fact, for a while as sometimes Ines out-crazies her father, D'Angelo notes father and daughter's "relationship grows ever more dysfunctional, even as it seems likely that 'Toni' is the only thing keeping Ines from throwing herself out the window of her high-rise apartment." We get a full view of Ines' life as it now is, but also a full view of its life-affirming disruption. The lesson the meandering, enlightening action teaches is like the rediscovery of the natural and the wild spirits in man embodied in ancient ritual and revived in what C.L. Barber desceribed as "Shakespeare's Festive Comedy." It's not a "magical cure" for all Winfried's "daughter's unhappiness," as D''Angelo notes. But it's a statement, through very particular events, off a general set of valences in the world, and how the spirit of play and ability to laugh are essential to us. It recognizes that the clowns are not the real lunatics.

The strength of Toni Erdmann lies in how it uses humble material, crude humor, and an almost real-time progression of incidents, to deliver something that could be corny in a subtle, natural way. This is even like an Adam Sandler movie, specifically his That's My Boy, D'Angelo notes "a few wags" saying. And yet it's nothing like. It's perhaps like a bizarre home video. The combination didn't win the big prizes at Cannes, but did win the FIPRESCI Prize there, and other awards elsewhere.

Tony Erdmann, in German and English, 162 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition (FIPRESCI Prize); over two dozen other international festivals including Telluride, Toronto, New York, London, and Mill Valley. Screened 20 Oct. 2016 at the Saint-André-des-Arts II cinema 12 rue Git le Coeur, Paris. It opened 17 Aug. in France; still showing at 8 cinemas in Paris. French critical response ecstatic (AlloCiné press rating 4.3 based on 32 reviews); the Anglophone critics' response this time is similar: Metacritic score 94%.

Chris Knipp
10-26-2016, 08:33 AM
KEN LOACH: I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016)

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Bureaucracy grinds down

Ken Loach's Cannes Golden Palm winner I, Daniel Blake packs a powerful emotional punch using a neorealist method close to De Sica. Loach's films have become more doctrinaire since he's taken on Paul Laverty as his writer. Their theme is, that in an increasingly money-based, conservative world, as Peter Bradshaw put it in his Cannes Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/20/i-daniel-blake-review-ken-loach-film-benefits-system) review, "the [British] benefits system has been repurposed as the 21st-century workhouse in our age of austerity: made deliberately grim, to deter or design out all but the most deserving poor." And Loach and Laverty are pretty fucking angry about this. It's not subtle material. But with this kind of economical and plangent filmmaking, you have to be hard-hearted to resist.

Daniel Blake, the everyman exemplar, is a 59-year-old carpenter - played by the disarmingly good and honest looking standup comic Dave Johns - struggling to get public assistance while the state welfare bureaucracy's minions toy with him and ignore who he is. He has had a major heart attack and is on doctor's orders not to work for some months at the craft he has practiced all his life. Some social services "decision maker" misreads a supernumerary questionnaire he oughtn't to have undergone. Or maybe she is getting revenge on him for showing her stupidity angered him. (The first governmental voice, in the opening credits, we never even see.) His status is reversed. He's declared qualified to work, apparently because he can touch his opposite shoulder and put on a hat. Disability payments are denied. He must reapply, and in the meantime to receive funds must inappropriately seek unemployment benefits. For them, he's supposed to spend 35 hours a week seeking jobs he can't take, and prove he has done it. Already it's a Sisyphean Catch-22 situation, and it goes on and on.

Besides this Dan is old-fashioned and computer illiterate and the new system requires many procedures to be performed online. The Internet is not a benefit; it only aids the deliverers of inhumanity to complicate things for decent, deserving folk. Dan has never handled a "mouse" and thinks the "cursor" well-named. Constantly threatened with "sanctions" for not fulfilling requirements, he has to attend a weekend workshop on making a CV whose main thrust is that job seeking is hopeless and employers indifferent. His resulting CV he hand-writes with a pencil. Nonetheless he gets a job offer with it, which of course he can't take.

The best parts of the movie involve distractions from this grim struggle. A touching complication is added when, early on at the social services office, Dan meets and comforts Katie (Hayley Squires), a hard-up single mum with two little kids recently arrived from London, who become a surrogate family for the recent widower Dan. He also has human moments with his young black neighbor, an energetic footballer attempting to make a living under-selling expensive trainers he gets direct from China. Katie's situation and her kids are sad and touching. The story verges on Defoe - Moll Flanders, perhaps.

The bottom line is the solid decency and fight to maintain dignity. We are watching working class people ground down by the state into dire poverty when, with a little help, they could be making a constructive contribution to society. I did not feel here the breathtaking authenticity of Ken Loach's debut film Kes. This hasn't the complexity of the related French film, Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man/La loi du marché (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4022-New-York-Film-Festival-2015&p=33972#post33972)(NYFF 2015). But this gets you more in the gut, and of Loach's late phase work (he is now eighty). I, Daniel Blake may be his best. Did it deserve the Palme D'Or? Cannes top awards are often debatable. But Loach deserves recognition for his devotion to rock-bottom social concern and his classic craftsmanship.

I, Daniel Blake, 100 mins., debuted at Cannes 2016 in Competition, receiving the Palme d'Or; also shown at 14 other international festivals, including Locarno, Toronto, New York and Vancouver. Theatrical release in many countries 21 Oct. In France 26 Oct. Screened for this review at UGC Danton, Paris 26 Oct.

US theatrical release begins 23 Dec. 2016 at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Chris Knipp
11-08-2016, 10:42 AM
ALBERT SERRA: LA MORT DE LOUIS XIV/THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (2016)

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JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD IN LA MORT DE LOUIS XIV

Léaud dies for us, with authoritative inertia

Serra is working in a similar style to his Casanova film (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3686-New-Directors-New-Films-and-Film-Comment-Selects-2014&p=31897#post31897) (too much so!) but this time has something concentrated and at times grand - and he has Jean-Pierre Léaud, who if not the "only" person to play the dying king as he's claimed, is a hard choice to better. Being, if not quite near death, still rather worn down myself from lengthy visits to the Centre Pompidou Renée Magritte show, "The Color Line" at the Musée Branly, and the breathtaking but exhausting and mobbed Icônes de l'art moderne show of the Shchukin Collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Frank Gehry's airy bubble palace, I'll refer my readers to the Critics Roundup (https://criticsroundup.com/film/the-death-of-louis-xiv/) for Serra's film for a mosaic of salient comments and just add a few of my own.

There, you will see excerpts from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who only hints at why he finds this "gripping" and calls Léaud's performance "exquisite" and "minimalist." "Hell man," Errol Flynn's last words are said to have been, "dyin's easy." And indeed it does not require much motion to die. The quintessentially cinematic Léaud knows to underplay it.

Josh Timmermann of Vancouver is also right: the film is largely about "wrong-headed doctors" and "syncophantic courtiers" - and, I might add, we have seen noble death sequences that emphasized these aspects in historical movies before. This is among other things a reminder of how far medicine has come since 1715. Maybe Leo Goldsmith is right, that Serra was disingenuous in denying the significance of casting Léaud: that his own physical decline is a part of what's moving. Cinephiles know him as the boy in The 400 Blows and the frisky Antoine Doinel. Here he is fat and degenerate-looking. Showing up is 80 percent of life, and Léaud is showing up as Léaud as well as donning the apparel of a dying king, arguably the greatest in history.

Note the comment of Daniel Fairfax in Senses of Cinema: "Very few actors are capable of holding our attention for 100 minutes of screen time while essentially remaining supine throughout the film. Léaud, one of the most captivating figures in the history of film, achieves this feat with ease. His very being is cinematic." Léaud indeed was always completely at home in front of a camera: he knows how just to "be." And dying's "easy" (in Flynn's dying words) because it's passive. This is what makes the experience of the film both grand and tragicomic. The king's accoutrements are noble - the cloths, the gilt, the big fuzzy wig, Léaud's now imposing schnazz, the team of doctors, courtiers, and servants; but his passivity and his predicament are sometimes humiliating, or even comic.

Technically, and economically, Serra makes the film intensely claustrophobic. Though he shows us the plotting, conniving entourage, he builds a series of relentless closeups and immobile shots echoing the king's own inability for most of the film to get out of bed.

Several writers refer to Roberto Rossellini's historical neorealist film for French TV The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, that bright and energetic, this dark and gloomy (and, like the Casanova film, seems embalmed in molasses, which makes this, despite what some critics say, not a film of mainstream as well as festival/cinephile appeal). But they have a kinship too, because Serra's approach verges on neorealism, a cinematic approach to history deep into physicality and uninterested in narrative or making "points." The accoutrements are nice, but the history you'll have to read up on for yourself. He also spares us many disgusting details, however, that a more conventional modern film might have included.

Whatever adjectives we apply to Serra's film, grand, strange, melancholy, elegant, it is a dark, moody, highly crafted yet experimental memento mori, a reminder that death is the great leveler. It is also, as the eternally hard-to-please Cahiers du Cinéma observes, "vaguely beautiful, but above all very boring"! Le Figaro calls Léaud's performance "fascinating and monotonous." It's a waxworks tour de force: for very long takes, in the final dying phase he just barely moves, then does not move at all. Watching kings die is thought-provoking, but it's also, at times, like the proverbial watching paint dry.

La mort de Louis XIV, 115 mins., debuted at Cannes. It won the Prix Jean Vigo 2016 (feature film) and at Cannes Jean-Pierre Léaud was given a Palme d'or d'honneur, a fitting recognition of the legendary actor whose performance here signals twilight years (he seems older than his actual 72); 14 other international festivals including Toronto, New York, Vancouver and London. French theatrical release 2 Nov. 2016 to extremely favorable reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.9/5 based on 22 reviews), but note the negative comments I've cited. Screened for this review at MK2 Hautefeuille AKA Côté St-Michel, Paris, 3 Nov. 2016.

Chris Knipp
11-22-2016, 07:40 PM
ANG LEE: BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016)

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Acid trip at 120 frames?

Ang Lee's film adapted from the bestseller Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was one of those later inspirations of the New York Film Festival, chosen after the Main Slate had been selected to be featured as a glitzy festival premiere. Lee's Life of Pi (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3341-New-York-Film-Festival-2012&p=28536#post28536) four years ago, a similar NYFF collaboration, was, similarly, technically innovative and a glitzy premiere. But that one was more successful, and made more sense in the first place.

Motion capture CGI of animals enabled Lee to film Yann Martel's unfilmable sea odyssey - that zoo-full of escaped animals, that saga on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger could never have been visualized before this technology. Maybe Ang Lee's Life of Pi isn't deep, but it's a glorious adventure. This time Lee wanted to try out a different innovation, shooting at a zillion frames a minute (actually 120 fps) to achieve a hyperreal visual effect augmented with 4K and 3D. The trouble is that most movie theaters haven't the technology to project the film as it was made and shown at Lincoln Center. So it just looks like any other film, which may be for the best. Was this technical experiment necessary?

I like this film, mainly because I like the star, young English actor Joe Alwyn, who plays Billy. He tremendously holds the screen. I can also see what's going on in Ben Fountain's novel as adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli, even though at the end, you go, "Is that all?" Something is missing - the deeper ironies, postmodern media savvy, and emotional complexities of the book. This lack remains, despite higher resolution and filming everything, the heroic Bravo squad's and Billy's long day as patriotic mascots at a big Texas Thanksgiving football game, as he, especially, flashes back to the war in Iraq they've just come from, and are soon going back to. All that can't make up for what doesn't get to the screen from the book.

Billy's heroic exploit, as it's seen (he says he's not a hero, just a soldier) where he tried to save his beloved guru and mentor 'Shroom (a sweet, philosophical Vin Diesel) in a fire fight, was filmed and the nation saw it, so Billy, who got a Silver Star, is famous. The Bravo group has been on a boozy, tacky victory tour for two weeks, and have just now come to Billy's home state of Texas, where his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart, excellent and totally unglamorous), only now recovering from a terrible car accident, who loves Billy and hates the war, wants him to use his special status to claim PTSD and get out of combat. And he considers this. He's also a virgin, and he falls for a classy, Christian cheerleader, Faison (Makenzie Leigh), who wants him. Meanwhile the squad is surrounded by handlers and the oily football team owner, Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin), and a movie deal is spoken of. All this is going on, and then comes the halftime show where the squad is on display with Billy in front.

Joe Alwyn is a physically impressive young man, and his big, boyish, almost babyish face, big blue eyes and big smile are riveting. The conceit of the story is that the halftime show, with its fireworks and explosions and loud drum rolls and being within two feet of a prancing singing Beyoncé, brings back that day of combat to Billy, not for the first time, but at higher intensity and greater length, down to his hand-to-hand killing of an Iraqi and him and his sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund) falling into each other's arms when they know 'Shroom is dead for sure.

The logic of the hyperreal imagery Lee worked for seems this. The boys wake up with a hangover that morning, particularly Billy, who asks for Advil all through, but gets it only after everything is over. They do some drinking, and they smoke some dope. Just civilian life, which now seems more chaotic than the front, but above all this overblown crazy outpouring of American kitsch, must seem to the squad, and to Billy, like an acid trip. The amped-up clarity of images was a way of expressing that - though unlike the motion capture CGI for the Bengal tiger, it wasn't really necessary, and reliance on the images, and recreation of the chaotic stadium scene and of scenes from the squad's Iraq experiences, down to the face of a boy when they take away his father in a night raid of a house - though all this is impressive and memorable, just may not have been quite what Ben Fountain was getting at in his book.

I haven't read the book, but I want to. It's been called "the Catch-22 of the Iraq war," and that's good enough for me. It's obviously a hard look at modern combat, the intimacy among soldiers, the morality of the "war on terror," heroism vs. doing your job, and the way America looks at war and at its soldiers. The latter, though central, is largely only implied in the movie. Tellingly, Billy says he can't understand why he is being celebrated for "the worst day of my life." Once again as so often happens with a film adaptation of a complex book, one feels deprived. I'm also not convinced the normally gentle and peaceful (and must I point out, Taiwanese, not American?) Ang Lee was the man to direct such a movie.

Yet many of the cast members are fine, starting with Alwyn, whose power to express Billy's gentle dignity goes beyond words, continuing with Garrett Hedlund in one of his best performances as the brisk, ironic but moral Dime; Kristen Stewart, so caring, yet so bitter, as Billy's sister; and each of the squad members, Arturo Castro as Mango, Mason Lee as Foo, Brian 'Astro' Bradley as Lodis, Beau Knapp as Crack, Ismael Cruz Cordova as Holiday, and Barney Harris as Sykes, strikes the right note, and their ensemble work evokes military camaraderie perfectly. Steve Martin seems a bit out of his depth, but it's Joe's movie. That face, and that smile, you swim into. His Billy is confused, at a loss - here - but always gives the right answer. You can believe this rude boy in his Texas youth has become a brave leader in combat. But again, I think Ben Fountain was saying more than that, and so this movie, for all its visual glamour, is a little shallow. Obviously Alwyn will be back, and I look forward to his two films being completed for release in 2017. (I've relied on Theo Tait's description of the book in his July 2012 Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/06/billy-lynn-ben-fountain-review) review. I note that Todd VanDerWerff describes (http://www.vox.com/culture/2016/11/18/13660394/billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-review-120-fps) the original 120 fps 4K 3D version as a "gorgeous calamity." He suggests that maybe the one time where the hyperreal visuals he saw at Lincoln Center really click in the film is when, during the halftime show, Billy's perceptions suddenly morph back and forth from fireworks to firefight - when the acid trip effect shows us his PTSD in effect. And that could be. But most viewers will never see it.)

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, 113 mins., debuted 14 Oct at the NYFF. Screened for this review in regular 2D format at small cineplex auditorium in Emeryville, California 22 Nov. US release 11 Nov.; UK, 10 Jan. 2017.

Chris Knipp
11-25-2016, 03:27 AM
KENNETH LONERGAN: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

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CASEY AFFLECK AND LUCAS HEDGES IN MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Harrowing fun in New England winter

There is a lot of raw emotion in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea that makes it real and, by fits and starts, original. The material isn't new at all - a depressed ne'er-do-well given to barroom brawling, a teen who loses his dad, a couple split by tragedy - but the handling of it shows Lonergan's touch, and the acting is sometimes splendid, nearly always on the part of Casey Affleck, as the ne'er-do-well, and Lucas Hedges, as the bereaved teen, and theirs is the central relationship. There is a lot going on, but it all revolves around them. This is a complex and enjoyable film, despite its grimness; it's both flawed, and brilliant. It's a little too long, and some of the music is annoying. But it's splendid stuff, full of wonderful scenes and memorable small touches you want to watch again. Its high praise is deserved.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is a janitor in a suburb of Boston. It is winter, and Massachusetts in winter is the setting for events. The film has a love affair with Essex County, the northeast corner of the state, boats and fishing, dry New England mindsets, and the accompanying snowy landscapes, which dp Jody Lee Lipes captures with a cool beauty in panoramic shots that punctuate the action. The film has a very keen sense of place, which always helps make emotion feel authentic.

The early part of the film is a grim, somewhat humorless comedy, Lee dealing with crabby tenants and their little problems. That is mere prologue, and he's soon back in his hometown (named in the title) dealing with the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) from a premature case of congestive heart failure - then with being, without prior warning, made responsible for Patrick, Joe's now 16-year-old son (Lucas Hedges, who offhandedly nails his every line, and has some zingers).

As Lee's told this by the lawyer, the scene is intercut with an elaborate flashback exposition, a little over an hour into the film, of a tragedy that in a sense kills all suspense and lays out the facts too bluntly: when Lee says he can't move back here to care for Patrick, we may know why better than he could articulate.

The film is at once very funny and very sad. For the time being, though Lee fights the idea of being Patrick's custodian and of moving back, he is in charge of the boy, and it soon emerges that Patrick has more of a life than Uncle Lee. He's on the hockey team and another team (he's playing hockey, violently, when he gets the news of the death), he has two girlfriends, he's in a band. He is a darling of the ladies. He wants to keep his father's fishing boat, though the engine is giving out. He wants to finish high school with his friends; he has a lot of them. Lee is a maintenance man. Why should Patrick move to Boston? He also hates the idea that because it's a cold winter, his father's body is to be kept under refrigeration in Beverly, where the funeral home is, till spring when the ground is thawed and he can be buried in the cemetery in Manchester.

This is a story of responsibility thrust upon one unsuited to it, not unlike the subject of Lonergan's memorable debut film You Can Count on Me. Casey Afffleck shines as he embodies a terrible loser who yet has a lot of heart, whose aspiration to do the right thing takes on a quietly tragic dimension. Skirting on the edge are other memorably flawed individuals. Michelle Williams delivers a searing performance as Randi Chandler, Lee's ex-wife. There is a random encounter between Randi and Lee near the end that Mike D'Angelo says is so "emotionally harrowing and in such a radically unconventional way" that the prospect of "enduring" it a second time frightens him, even though he wants to watch the film again in hopes that the flashbacks, particularly of the tragedy, will make sense as more than mere exposition. These flashbacks in fact, though powerful, don't seem inserted with commanding logic. The late Joe Chandler's wife (Gretchen Mol) is a recovering alcoholic with a very Christian new husband (Matthew Broderick) and a shaky hold on normalcy and sobriety. She tries to come back into Patrick's life and he hopes this could be his safe haven.

Patrick uses pizza, his pals, and his two girlfriends innocent of each other's existence, whom he's trying to bed, with uneven success, to numb the pain of losing his exemplary father. He only breaks down once, memorably. That is one of many scenes where Lonergan wonderfully skirts the edge between raw and funny that characterizes some of life's most difficult moments. There is originality and intelligence in the focus on this edge, which makes us watch each scene with fresh eyes. Casey Affleck is from Massachusetts, and he has the quintessentially New England voice - dry but with a little break in it - that conveys depths of hurt under a tough facade with almost every line.

The movie doesn't end very satisfactorily. It takes us through a lot of very good stuff, and then offers a resolution that's almost an afterthought . But there is just a wealth of fine material here.

Manchester by the Sea, 137 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2016; 17 other festivals, including Telluride, Toronto, New York, Vancouver and London. Theatrical release 18 Nov 2016. Screened on West Coast release 25 Nov. France 14 Dec., UK 13 Jan. 2017. An Amazon Studios Release. Ranking very high in ratings, Matacritc 96%, second only to Moonlight (99%).

Chris Knipp
12-11-2016, 06:37 PM
PABLO LARRAÍN: JACKIE (2016)

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NATALIE PORTMAN IN JACKIE

A glitzy simulacrum of great events

By bringing out two movies in one year, one in English with Hollywood stars, Chilean director Pablo Larraín shows his ambition - and he's overreaching. His Neruda (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=3473) is a surreal fantasy about his country's most famous literary figure, with Gael García Bernal, left over from his earlier No (where he first started to lose inspiration), running around as a dapper little detective. Jackie is a project that's equally ambitious - perhaps in global terms, more so. It 's about a major, shocking event in American history. It's also another Oscar bid for its star, Natalie Portman, who does an impersonation of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the look, the manner, the voice.

And yet nothing Larraín has done since has equaled the dark, creepy performances of the great Chilean actor Alfredo Castro and the director's admirably pessimistic second and third films, Tony Manero and Post Mortem. As the filmmaker's reputation has soared, the originality of his work has diminished. Jackie is a flashy effort, as audacious as it is accomplished. And yet, if you look closely, it is contains no revelations. Like many movies, it's essentially a play, with unusually beautiful and realistic visuals that do not add to the meaning.

It's a bold move on Larraín's part to switch to English with filming the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath from the point of view of Jacqueline Kennedy, and the look of the whole film glitters through the brilliant work of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, who worked with Jacques Audiard, with Matt Ross on Captain Fantastic, and recently on Verhoeven's Elle. In a sense the ghoulish, Madame Tussaud attention to detail fits will with Larraín's early films. The waxworks realism alternates with moments that are sometimes surreal, weaving together diverse scenes. Editing juggles back and forth between a flashback simulation - but all of this is simulation - of Mrs. Kennedy's hour-long black-and-white TV tour of the White House, seen as stilted and almost comically nervous; the moment of the shooting in the motorcade in Dallas, the blood-spattered pink Chanel suit that she refused to take off for the photographers ("I want them to see what they've done"); the hours between the autopsy and the funeral; a later meeting with an Irish Catholic priest (John Hurt); and, in an understandable but still probably pretty unwise (and awkwardly executed) frame tale of historian Theodore H. White's lengthy interview with the widow at Hyannis Port for Life magazine a week later. The bloody, explosive moment of the killing and the interment at Arlington National Cemetery are saved for the last minutes. If you consult White's notes (http://www.jfklancer.com/pdf/Camelot.pdf) of the actual interview, Mrs. Kennedy actually launced into gruesomely vivid detail of spattered blood in its first moments, but not in the film version.

But the revelation - that "Jackie" paid a lot of attention to how history would view her husband and the style of his departure, such as the Lincoln-style horse-drawn bier and the funeral procession on foot behind it, and the dramatic location of JFK's grave on an Arlington hill apart; and overall her desire that the Kennedy administration be seen as a kind of "Camelot" - just isn't a revelation at all, even though details of the White interview weren't revealed till a year after the death of Mrs. Onassis. It's just what everyone knows who has the slightest knowledge of the events. The movie saves for last "news" that lands with a thud.

What the movie does extraordinarily well is the trappings. The furniture, above all the upholstery, and all the decor of the White House and Hyannis Port look just right. The early-Sixties clothes of both the men and the women seem flawless, except for White's inappropriate loose tie for the interview (that would never have been). Larraín also recreates photographs of the Johnsons and Kennedys and the whole funeral, down to Caroline and John-John walking down the stairs with their mother.

Portman will be congratulated for her recreation of the First Lady's voice and accent. Unfortunately such efforts are doomed to failure. She can't get the lady's beauty, elegance, and inner calm, or the subtly concealed insecurity behind that facade.

The film justifies its focus by reflecting, as again we know who have followed these events, that Jacqueline Kennedy behaved with courage and authority under stress. The most impressive note is her anger. It's hard to know what the family will think of the montage in which she wanders the White House in a string of fancy outfits drunk and stoned on pills and listening to the "Camelot" record, or how much the real Jacqueline cried or didn't cry. It's impossible not to link this performance by Natalie Portman with her Oscar-winning turn in Darren Aronofsky's over-the-top psychological thriller Black Swan. The connectioin explains why Portman seems to be trying too hard at many points. She was not, like her subject, to the manner born. She does a plucky job. She's literally not big enough for the role.

Jackie is a glitzy cinematic bauble. It gets right so many of the things a movie can get right about a time and place. But its revelations are empty. And whether or not Natalie Portman pulls it off, other actors are at best approximate. Peter Sarsgaard isn't right at all as Bobby Kennedy. Greta Gerwig is so well disguised it hardly matters, though she's an odd choce for social secretary Nancy Tuckerman. John Carroll Lynch looks more like a thug than Lyndon Johnson, Beth Grant is barely close Lady Bird Johnson. Billy Crudup isn't even billed as Theodore H. White, only "The Journalist," but his character is too bold and aggressive. So it goes. This is a simulacrum whose accuracies only show up how far off it is from the real thing. Maybe next time Larraín will do something lower key and more authentic. He has our attention.

Jackie, 99 mins., debuted at Venice 7 Sept. 2016; 14 other festivals including Toronto and New York. US Theatrical release beginning 2 Dec. UK 20 Jan. 2017. Metacritic rating 80%.

Chris Knipp
01-07-2017, 11:57 PM
JIM JARMUSCH: PATERSON (2016)

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ADAM DRIVER AND GOLDSHIFTEH FARAHANI IN PATERSON

Magic of the quotidian

Paterson both is and isn't a typical Jim Jarmusch film. It has little touches that are distinctively his. His hermetic onscreen world, infuriating to some, is present here, notable in the controlled environment and repetitive structure. But this isn't a wry comedy with a hipster angle. It has its little running jokes, but on the whole it's deadpan. It's more like a little study in the nature of everyday life. It's humble. It's rather zen. It's organized into chapters, each one a day, chronicling a week or so in its characters' lives. It's a quiet tale of life and art, and also most certainly of love. Like most movies where nothing happens, it's hard to describe. It has hardly any big incidents (maybe two medium ones, one of which is, admittedly, a shocker), but there is a multiplicity of small ones. What they add up to is revelation and quiet pleasure.

Its protagonist is a modest man, a humble working-class guy. But he's a quiet giant. He may have the answers, but he would not boast of that. And he's a poet, of sorts. Every day he adds to the little fund of free verses he has penned into "secret notebook" he takes with him to work. He is a bus driver (played by Adam Driver). His name is Paterson. To make it simpler (and more hermetic, more like a poem) he also lives in Paterson (New Jersey), the home of the notable American poet, William Carlos Williams, who wrote a long poem, published over time in five volumes, called Paterson. (Allen Ginsberg also came from Paterson.) On the front of the bus he drives the destination reads simply, "Paterson."

Paterson has a live-in girlfriend, Laura. Laura and Paterson are in love. When he wakes up beside her every work day at a little past six he looks at her lovingly, kisses her, and they exchange sweet words. Laura is played by the beautiful, multi-lingual actress, Golshifteh Farahani (who's already delivered impeccable performances in Farsi-, French-, and English-language films). As Laura discovers, the Italian poet Petrarch, who perfected the sonnet, wrote a famous poem sequence dedicated to a beloved named "Laura." She thinks Paterson is a fine poet, and she wants him at least to copy the poems, which exist now only in his notebook.

Paterson's Laura is a creative homebody, in the house most days with Marvin, their English bulldog. When he comes home from work Paterson takes Marvin for a walk, in the course of which he tethers Marvin and stops at a bar whose black owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) is named Doc. At the bar he drinks a beer and talks of this and that with Doc and the occasional customer. We learn, for instance, that the most famous citizen of Paterson was the comic Lou Costello (of Abbot and), and there's a park named after him there. Paterson also has a waterfall, and Paterson and Laura have a little picture of it on their wall.

Every day at work Paterson sees Donny (Rizwan Manji), an Indian-born colleague who has lots of complaints. When he asks Paterson how he is, Adam invariably answers, "I'm okay." On the bus, he overhears conversations among passengers, including a young couple who consider themselves the only anarchists in the town. When Paterson gets home, carrying his lunch pail, he pulls the mail out of the mailbox. It's always tilted askew on its pike, and he straightens it. One of the best visual jokes is connected with this.

Laura loves black and white, and has painted and decorated the house with circular designs in those colors. She has two big (for her) projects that develop during the week. One is baking cupcakes for a farmers market on Saturday. They are decorated in different circular patterns of black on white. The other is to become a country singer. This requires her to send away for a guitar and DVDs of guitar lessons. The guitar is called the Harlequin. It's decorated in black and white. When they go to a movie, it's black and white - The Island of Doctor Moreau, with Charles Laughton. (Jarmusch's classic early films were also, of course, black and white.)

But all these details are banalities - except perhaps Paterson's poems: but they too tend to the banal. They're in flat, ordinary language, and they chronicle the quotidian. But they are written by a real poet, Ron Padgett, 74, a poet of the New York school, referred to in the movie (they also resemble those of William Carlos Williams). As Paterson composes them in his mind and writes them down in his notebook, the text appears across the screen.

Toward the end, Paterson suffers a setback, but he moves forward.

Essential to the success of this film is the performance of Adam Driver in the lead. Recently Driver has emerged as an actor of note: The NYFF devoted "An Evening With. . ." to him, as to Kristen Stewart, also much noted of late (she was in three 2016 NYFF films). Driver was in the Lena Dunham series "Girls" from 2012 and has been in films by the Coens, Noah Baumbach, and Jeff Nichols. Currently he is also in Scorsese's Silence beside Andrew Garfield, and he's in "Star Wars." His odd gawky face, tall, broad-shouldered body, deep voice help underline an openness and appeal that have never been better displayed before Paterson where he achieves an understated purity that is most appealing and, one might say, instructive.

The effect of Paterson is, and is intended to be, to celebrate the poetry of everyday life, focused in Paterson and Laura's love for each other, and their happiness with their ordinary days. Its repetition of days is like a series of stanzas and refrains. The film itself is a poem, and in its repetitiousness and bold simplicity Jarmusch has achieved something beautiful. At the time of its Cannes Competition showing, the Nouvelle Observateur (http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/cinema/festival-de-cannes/20160519.OBS0880/paterson-une-merveille-absolue-signee-jim-jarmusch.html) critic Pascal Merigeau called it "an absolute marvel."

Paterson, 118 mins., debuted at Cannes 2016, to acclaim, and shown at at least 26 other international festivals including Toronto, New York, Mill Valley and London. US theatrical release began 28 Dec. 2016. Its current Metacritic rating is 90%. Screened for this review on its opening day in San Francisco at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinemas, 6 Jan. 2017.

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ADAM DRIVER IN PATERSON

Chris Knipp
01-10-2017, 01:36 AM
ALISON MACLEAN: THE REHEARSAL (2016)

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KERRY FOX, JAMES ROLLESTON IN THE REHEARSAL

Playacting too close to real

The Rehearsal is Alison Maclean's long-delayed sequel to her 1999 debut Jesus' Son. While that adapted Denis Johnson's linked story collection, this one is a free screen version of Mann Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s technically playful debut novel. The story about an Aukland acting "Institute" and its untoward interactions with a neighborhood scandal is a slow-burning ensemble piece. It has an admirably fresh and unpredictable quality.

Students at the Institute most work through the year to create and stage a joint end-of-term production that can not only blow away their demanding lead teacher Hannah (Kerry Fox of Shallow Grave, Bright Star) as drama but impress her and visiting talent scouts with participant students' individual skills. Likewise this ensemble movie impresses as a study of local society and a school, but highlights a few main characters, chiefly Hannah, with her Method brainwashing and tough love, and one student she likes, soft, coffee-colored eye candy Stanley (James Rolleston, who's already starred in three films, Boy, The Dark Horse, and The Dead Lands). Stanley is a handsome (or more accurately pretty) young Maori-heritage (in the story would-be) actor.

The Rehearsal is an intriguing mix of emotional and cool, like an actor who can engage an audience without personally losing it - perhaps like Stanley. It resembles a classier version of "Fame," but is unusual not only in its clear-headed look into how acting works but in being a New Zealand film whose offhand complexity has found it a place in some of the biggest international film festivals.

During early class exercises Stanlay comes off as hopelessly bland and without feeling, unable to access emotion or theatrical effects. But he turns out to be quite otherwise. It's a growing surprise when Stanley does show talent and access emotion - initially through channeling his macho dad in a class improvisation where he tells a dirty joke and comes on to Hannah. She likes.

In contrast when his mercurial housemate and pal William (Kieran Charnock) just tells a jokey family story to the class about a spoiled lamb roast that avoids real emotional revelation, Hannah creams him and he's devastated. Basic lesson: if you can't access deep feeling or aren't strong enough to be vulnerable, maybe you can't be an actor at all. Or maybe arts schools profs should be more careful about crushing young artistic spirits.

So that's one of a number of angles. Another, a key focus, is the term-end project. For it. Stanley gets the idea early on of depicting a tennis instructor who seduces his 15-year-old student Victoria (Rachel Roberts), a new local scandal. What he holds off revealing to the class or to her, is that he knows the story first hand, because he's dating Isolde (Ella Edward) Victoria's slightly older sister whom he met on a bus when coming to town. And come to think of it, Isolde is underage to Stanley, so he may be no better than the tennis coach. The story plays with a lot of these angles, delving into group sexual and teen personal issues and jumping around in a somewhat experimental way. And, if it seems too scattered it does end up with a great final musical segment.

The Rehearsal, 102 mins., debuted July (NZIFF), Aug. Sept., and Oct. in subsequent festivals including Toronto, New York, and London.

Chris Knipp
01-14-2017, 10:08 PM
MIKE MILLS: 20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

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ANNETTE BENNING AND LUCAS JADE ZUMANN IN 20TH CENTURY WOMEN

"Now it's 1979 and nothing means anything"

With time off in 2007 for a documentary about depression in Japan, Mike Mills has now made three coming-of-age films. First came Thumbsucker (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318761/reviews-25) (2005), adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn. Beginners (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=1806) (2010) focused on his father; the son is 38. 20th Century Women turns to his mother, and takes place a good twenty years earlier in the main character's life.

It may be that my favorite is Thumbsucker, but 20th Century Women goes down easier than its predecessor. Beginners had a depressed, aimless 38-year-old main character who was constantly upstaged by flashbacks to the short happy gay life of his father, who came out as a homosexual late in life, had a ball for a few years, then died of cancer. This time it's Mom - Dorothea, who's the center of the boy's world. He's called Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and he's only 15. Dorothea, played by the wonderful Annette Benning, is 55. It's 1979. She's going to kick off in 20 years from cancer, from all the smoking she does. The movie keeps priming us with dates, ages and age-spans. They take the place of an aggressive sense of period and dramatize the filmmaker's sense of his own relationship to the times he's describing. It also may help make up for the lack of a story line. The protagonist in both movies is a slow developer - maybe because he doesn't do much of anything.

Dorothea was born in the twenties; she grew up in the Depression, when people helped each other, Jamie repeatedly says. They live in a large old house in Santa Barbara in need of many repairs. William (Billy Crudup), a hippie mechanic and handyman (as well as serial seducer), rents one of the rooms, and pays partly with carpentry. Another lodger is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punkish photographer. Also on hand, because it's the Seventies, and this is a loose, undefinable menage, is Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who frequently climbs in the window of Jamie's room, and sleeps - really sleeps - with him. Sex will spoil the friendship, she says. Later, he says he can fix that. But do they have sex?

There is, anyway, plenty of talk of sex, and also of music. Because somebody - I guess Abbie - likes The Talking Heads, outsiders paint "Art Fag" on one side of Dorothea's "new" VW Bug (replacing her ex-husband's Ford Galaxy, which caught fire in a parking lot) and "Black Flag" (a southern California punk band of the time) on the other. Home pregnancy tests are in their infancy, so to speak. Jamie helps Julie take one; she sleeps around. William just falls into sex, and does so with Abbie, for a while.

Since she grew up in the Depression, when people helped each other, Dorothea enlists Abbie and Julie (who's a couple years older and a lot wiser, maybe, than Jamie) to clue Jamie in to things, in lieu of "man" talk, which she thinks not necessary. For Abbie, this means cluing him in to feminism, and she gives him copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, and he does take to these, and seems to thrive on them. It's all this mood that leads to a discussion of clitoral orgasm at the dinner table when guests are present.

Being from another era Dorothea sometimes objects, but she's also firmly independent and tries to be open - while admitting at times that her life has turned out to be flatter than she wants Jamie's to be. He thinks she accepts being lonely.

These situations are much dwelt upon, and not unenjoyably. But not so very much happens. The movie is punctuated by little jokes, like the far-fetched excuses Jamie turns in for cutting school; working for the Sandinistas and being in a small plane accident are examples. Music happens. There's a record player. And everybody goes out to hear a punk band. Jamie runs off one time up the coast with Julie, taking the VW (it still has the graffiti on it), and then he disappears - temporarily. To deal with this crisis, Dorothea drives up with Jamie and Abbie, in Jamie's rebuilt 1949 Chevy. Jamie always has his skateboard. You rarely see him riding it. He's too busy talking to these ladies. Once he lectures another boy on clitoral orgasm. Bad idea. He gets beaten up.

There is fear of aimlessness or a life unfulfilled but this time there is no depression. And - this is pleasant - everyone is nice. There are no tantrums, there's no violence. Mills has kept the cuteness and tweeness down more than last time - less influence of his wife Miranda July, though he has admitted (http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/10/director-mike-mills-still-trying-to-impress-miranda-july.html) he's still trying to impress her. There are just the constant voiceover warnings and explanations of what's going on, and what's to come. Dorothea tells Abbie she will get to see Jamie out in the world; she never will. Is this because she will always be his mother? Some of Mills' wisdom is elusive. Why, one wonders in retrospect, is there no mention of Jamie's father - if he was somewhere around, and would become central in a decade or so?

The present action ends with Jimmy Carter's inexplicable "Crisis of Confidence" speech, listened to by a big group. That's the end of him, someone says. The greatest thing about the times distantly referenced is how little they impinge on the rambling, crumbling house in Santa Barbara, allowing Dorothea, Jamie, Abbie, William, and Julie to talk to each other, and to us.

The life lessons, voice-over, are frequently banal. "So Sweetie, I don't know if we ever figure our lives out. And. . the people who help you - they might not be who you thought . . . or wanted." More showing and less telling, please.

It's obvious to say this is Annette Benning's film, and it is. But she gets first rate support. Greta Gerwig avoids any of her former mannerisms, and with her cropped hair "dyed in blood" (as Lane put it in The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/12/19/20th-century-women-and-julieta)) looks different from before too. Elle Fanning and Billy Crudup are good. Young newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann makes it all look easy. He is fun to watch. But no more fun than Annette. Mills still jazzes things up too much here, again; Lane points out the unnecessary visuals, the jittery speeded-up footage, the cars on the Pacific Coast Highway processed into a chromatic blur. But not as much as before, and these people are easier to take than last time.

20th Century Women, 118 mins., debuted 8 Oct. at New York, half a dozen other festivals, mostly domestic, limited US release 28 Dec. 2016. Wider US release 20 Jan. 2017.

Chris Knipp
01-15-2017, 11:02 PM
PEDRO ALMODÓVAR: JULIETA (2016)

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MICHELLE JENNER AND EMMA SUÁREZ IN JULIETA

A sense of loss

This adaptation of three linked stories by Canadian author Alice Monro was to have been made in America; it began as one of Almodóvar's temptations to come to Hollywood. He was going to shift the action from Canada to Massachusetts. Juliet, the woman protagonist, was going to live in Boston, and when she moved in with her fisherman lover, Eric, it was going to be on the coast of Maine. Meryl Streep was going to play Juliet. Then he switched to New York; then he gave up all notion of a movie in English, and made an Almodóvar film. But we may ask if even with jazzed up, more Mediterranean, action, glorious red-dominant scenes, and a marginally more hopeful ending, Almodóvar has not wound up with something a little too phlegmatic for his sensibility. True, in this "fourth" phase, he has been moving - sometimes: not in his over-the-top last film I'm So Excited - toward flatter, more solemn and serious movies, without the gay abandon and giddy vulgarity of earlier work. Nonetheless Alice Munro seems a peculiar fit for him.

This is a frame tale with flashbacks. Everything is bright and clear - yet puzzles may remain. At the outset Julieta (in middle age played by an excellent Emma Suárez) meets Bea (Michelle Jenner), the erstwhile best friend of her daughter Antía (successively played by Ariadna Matin, Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Parés), who later we learn she hasn't seen since she was 18. Bea has run into her at Lake Como. Julieta was on the point of moving to Portugal with her partner, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). Now, since through Bea Antía knows she's still in Madrid, Julieta gives up that plan, lets Lorenzo move to Portugal on his own, and moves by herself into an apartment - with hideous wallpaper - in the building where she raised Antía originally. Julieta had given up a prolonged search for Antía , and in fact moved away from anything that reminded her of her lost daughter.

In the ugly flat, Julieta writes letters to her daughter, and we get flashbacks that sort of fill us in. There is the Hitchcockian meeting on the train with the hunky, sensitive fisherman from Galicia, Xoan (Daniel Grao). (We don't actually see him do anything so messy as catch fish.) A tragic event has happened on the train, but Julieta (played young by the strikingly pretty Adriana Ugarte) and Xoan make passionate love and Antía is conceived. (In the Munro story, Juliet was having her period and they only kiss.) Xoan is married, but his wife doesn't understand him, not surprisingly, since she's in a coma. Julieta comes to visit Xoan conveniently at the time of his wife's funeral. His housekeeper Marian (Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma with a fake milky eye and an ugly Afro wig) isn't very friendly; later she will be, though the relentless storytelling pace doesn't fit in an explanation. Also woven into the busy storytelling is Xoan's "friend" Ava (Inma Cuesta), an artist who makes the little heavy terra cotta covered bronzes with tubular penises (actually by Miquel Navarro) that Almodóvar himself likes to collect. Ava, like other characters, is somewhat inexplicably taken away from us, in her case by a debilitating illness.

In fact the tragedy that happens isn't very affecting either, but it's caused by a terrible storm. There is an interlude about Julieta's parents (Susi Sanchez and Joaquin Notario), and about teen girlfriends Antia and Bea. We see them flitting about, but their relationship, and personalities, aren't much developed. Why Antía disappears - chooses not to return from the three-month spiritual retreat she goes on, which perhaps is a brainwashing session, the work of a cult - remains a mystery until near the end, where there is a reference to Patricia Highsmith (whose first book Strangers on a Train was of course adapted superbly by Hitchcock) - and a theme out of Highsmith's book that became Haynes' Carol.

While diehard fans may indeed find this "fourth phase" Almodóvar too flat, the problem may be more that it's hard to get your head around the three interlocking stories; that Almodovar's adaptation hasn't given them enough harmony or enough subordination. The plot, with its diverging directions and sudden shocks, is both confusing and uninvolving.

Of course there is craft to enjoy. In the early scenes especially, the Almodóvar painterly visual style is much in evidence, and a delight to the eyes, Anton Gomez’s production design and delightfully gaudy color, with a predominance of red; and Jean Claude Larrieu's pleasingly bright and clear cinematography - though Almodóvar had to shoot in digital and not film this time, which he didn't like, as D.T. Max tells in his recent profile in The New Yorker (Almodóvar). Sometimes even in my favorite Almodóvar films, like Talk to Her, I just like to escape into the colors, and ignore the action. As others have noted, Almodóvar does something interesting here: he presents a melodrama as if it were a thriller - an effect especially augmented by the train sequence and by the girl's disappearance. (A character in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! comments it's hard to tell a love story from a horror story sometimes.) He also presents some striking images, such as Julieta's heart beating under a fabric, and the stag running alongside the train framed by the window, seen by Julieta and a man who is to commit suicide. But in the end this movie seems not so much a thriller as a soap opera - with glamorous settings and high production values.

Underdeveloped here, from Munro's stories, is the role of faith, which Juliet denies, and her daughter goes in search of. That may be the key to the whole thing. There's a lot here in Almodóvar's movie, but it's not enough. I walked out of Julieta feeling unfulfilled. Obviously one should read the three stories, "Chance," "Soon" and "Silence" by Alice Munro, to understand the film's ending, as other writers have suggested.

Julieta, 99 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2016; nearly two dozen other international festivals including Toronto, New York, London. Mill Valley, and Palm Springs. US theatrical release starting 21 Dec. 2016.

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DANIEL GRAO AND ADRIANA UGARTE IN JULIETA

Chris Knipp
03-02-2017, 10:45 PM
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016)

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Fashion and ghosts

Personal Shopper is an elegant ghost movie starring one of today's coolest actresses, Kristen Stewart. She played Juliette Binoche's assistant in Olivier Assayas' previous Clouds of Sils Maria ("http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2865). Assayas liked her so much he made this whole movie as a vehicle for her. She has a complicated double role that she wears like an old shoe. And while she dresses up in super-expensive finery at one point, she doesn't dress up for her part; it's an old T shirt and jacket and stylishly disheveled hair, a pout and a face full of care that never dents her severe beauty. Her character, Maureen Cartwright, is a personal shopper for a rich celebrity, too busy and too famous to buy her own clothes and accoutrements. But Maureen has another "job": she's also a medium seeking closure with the spirit of her recently deceased brother Lewis.

Maureen isn't having it easy. The encounters with the ectoplasm and signs of Lewis are disturbing and sad, of course. She also hates her job for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), her pouty celebrity boss, whom she never sees, and doesn't want to. But Stewart makes it look cool and fun, as much at ease on a motorcycle tooling around Paris as riding the EuroStar to and from London or picking up jewelry at Cartier or dresses and shoes from posh boutiques. This is a life that's vicariously fascinating, in the classic manner of the movies. You might not really want to be her and she doesn't want to be doing what she's doing now, but it's still fun to imagine being her for these few important, fraught moments.

Personal Shopper is a ghost movie, but its milieu is so knowing and chic it avoids any feel of genre. This will displease fans of the genre as much as it makes palatable a topic some of us aren't normally all that much interested in. It may be a tossup whether you prefer Maureen as a personal shopper or as a medium communicating uneasily with Lewis. There was a lot of talking on cell phones in Sils Maria, but this time it's all texting, and the movie's real tour-de-force and most enjoyable passage is a trip to and from London on the Eurostar during which Maureen is constantly in SMS communication with an Unknown Caller who knows all about her, and about Lewis, and who prods her to take on what she fears most. The Unknown Caller texting Maureen is ectoplasm on the line. What will it want to know next? Where will this conversation go? Stewart performs the trip as routine; she never drops a line. Nor does Assayas, whose fluid filmmaking is a pleasure to watch.

Ghosts inhabit places and central to the piece is an old elegant house that Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), Lewis' girlfriend, is now selling. Lara already has a new boyfriend - which is okay, Maureen is cool with moving forward, not into drawn-out grieving. And - another cool move by Assayas - the new boyfriend, Erwin, is played by Anders Danielsen Lie, the star of two of the best films of the last decade, Joachim Trier's Reprise and his Oslo, August 31st.

There is another kind of ectoplasm, Maureen's blurry Skype boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin), an IT expert setting up programs in Muscat. Again the movie is cool: we're always getting Dubai thrust down our throats but it's Oman that's the sweet, still human part of the Gulf. After a big shock, Maureen goes to see Gary, who's taking a break in a quiet spartan retreat some way by chauffeured car from the town of Muscat. As usual, Maureen doesn't see the person she's come for. Gary has left a note. But she sees something else. And then, white-out.

Obviously this movie enjoyably plays around with the fringes of chic. It's a fringe movie. But that's what makes it fresh and subtle. It may not please everyone; what does? But it was far more enjoyable than I'd been led to expect from reports since Cannes, where it got booed. It's fun. Enjoy it.

Personal Shopper, 105 mina., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2016; it was in many other festivals, including New York. French release 14 Dec. 2016: French reviews somewhat lukewarm (AlloCiné press rating 3.1); Metacritic rating 68%. US theatrical release 10 Mar. 2017.

Chris Knipp
04-14-2017, 09:19 AM
TERENCE DAVIES: A QUIET PASSION (2016)

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CYNTHIA NIXON IN A QUIE PASSION

A poet's life of drear

Emily Dickinson's "pithy haiku's," as a review (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/a-quiet-passion-berlin-review-865112) of this new film calls her poems, are not meant to be read quickly in voiceovers as one is distracted by images, but to be pondered and repeated, to look at phrases from them and turn them around. Terrence Davies' repeated use of the voiceovers shows an unawareness of their complexity. Nor is this film the way to get at her or her life. It is a stilted, stifling film, and after seeing Cynthia Nixon's remarkable performance as the dying mother in James Wright (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=3231&view=previous), one can't help suspecting she was half chosen here for her skill at suffering and dying. (The film seems to assume she suffered from painful kidney ailments, though that's now doubted as a cause of death; it's just what was on her birth certificate.) Nixon hasn't quite got the apartness and wisdom of the gnomic, extraordinary writer who was after her death discovered to be perhaps America's greatest nineteenth-century poet, along with Walt Whitman (they make such wonderful compliments, he loose and expansive, she reclusive and tight-lipped).

The trouble is, Emily Dickinson's life was lived in her letters, her stifled romances, and her dawn writing sessions. Anything else, and this movie gives us a lot else, is a distraction from the Emily Dickinson who really matters. Despite its poshness (the Dickinsons were well-off, important people in Western Massachusetts, Amherst and beyond), Emily had a shitty life on the outside. The real life was on the inside. The movie gives us so much more of the outside than the inside, Davies might have left off the inside altogether and just said, at the end, "Oh and by the way, she was also a great poet."

Davies takes pains (this is all nothing if not painstaking) to tell us about those dawn poetry writing sessions formally approved by her father, and one of the best scenes is when her new sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), her brother Austin's wife, comes upon her before dawn wrapped in a big shawl writing poetry, and they have a "quietly passionate" chat. They're going to be next door neighbors now, and weep with emotion over it. Emily calls herself "a no-hoper." She says all she has is "routine." But they smile and laugh thinking of how they'll share the Brontes, George Eliot,and "even Mrs. Gaskell." Here we glimpse the deprivations and also the consolations of Emily's life. The best scenes are the ones that do that, mixing glee and irony. Too much of the time Davies merely wallows in gloom, as the Reverend Wadsworth's chilly wife thinks the Bronte sisters do. What a great discovery antidepressants are! They'd have made nineteenth-century New England so different.

There are moments, but the complexity of Emily's life is hard to grasp in Davies' routine scenes of the family life - rolled out in succession like theatrical vignettes: her "rescue" by the family from the future Mount Holyoke College after only one year; her lively woman friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who shares girls-against-the-world stands, then takes a conventional husband; the cataclysm of the Civil War, which Emily's father Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) would not let her brother Austin (the odd-looking Duncan Duff) go off to fight i; her growing reclusiveness and unwillingness even to face people. These are just outward trappings of the inner life that was central and continually rich, as we know from the poems. We haven't seen any movies about the life of Jane Austin. There's a reason. If there were any, one would hope they'd be made in Hampshire, where she lived. A quiet Passion was mostly filmed in Belgium and a lot of the cast is British.

Davies has had a recent spurt of creativity, four films in eight years, with nothing in the previous eight. It's been uneven. Of Time and the City was a rambling but touching memoir of his birthplace, Liverpool. The Deep Blue Sea (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2075) was a lovely sad swoon. Sunset Song was an epic bore. It made no sense and even the dialect was incomprehensible. Now comes this curious, misguided effort, a relentlessly unfun movie in which Davies is out of his element and takes Emily Dickinson out of hers. She was succinct; he goes on for over two hours rubbing in the drear, devoting the last half hour to the final illness (https://emilydickinsonmuseum.org/death) that was only two and a half of her 55 years, seven months in bed. As noted, Cynthia Nixon is an actress expert at dying. But see her in James Wright: she dies more quickly, and it's a better movie: instead of besmirching the reputation of a great poet, it gives hope for the redemption of a dissolute young man.

A Qiuiet Passion, 125 mins., debuted at the Berlinale FEb. 2016; 19 other international festivals including Toronto, New York, and London. UK theatrical release 7 Apr. 2017, US, 14 Apr. 2017.

Chris Knipp
04-18-2017, 12:21 AM
DASH SHAW: MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA (2016)

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"If 'Freaks and Geeks' met 'The Poseidon Adventure'" (blurb)

This is the first animated feature to be included in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival since 2008's Waltz With Bashir (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?2339-New-York-Film-Festival-2008/page2&s=&postid=20811#post20811), Israeli Ari Folman's striking-looking and troubling recollection of a Lebanese massacre. So, why? Cute title - but it turns out to be disappointingly literal, instead of the wish-fulfillment fantasy it suggests. Some funny lines - but hey wind up just being needless riffs on the conventional action. Colorful, handmade animation - always a welcome contrast to cookie-cutter Disney or Pixar stuff. But they trouble is, there are a lot better DIY animations out there.

No, it looks like My Entire High School largely got selected for a quaint air of hipness - and all the hip, well-connected people who made it, with New York connections, starting with the Brooklyn-based Dash Shaw. "Dash Shaw" is also the main character, voiced by the cultish and appealing Jason Schwartzman. The student leader and gynmast, Mary, is voiced by Manhattan born-and-raised Lena Dunham of Tiny Furniture, the producer of "Girls." Dash's best friend Assaf is voiced by "Late Show" musician Reggie Watts. Another core figure is Verti, the boys' editor, voiced by Maya Rudolph. The "ruler" - pretty literally - of the seniors after the disaster, Brent Daniels, is voiced by John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. Alex Karpovsky (Inside LLelyn Davis, "Girls") is also heard from. Wink, nudge.

Though it's sometimes hard to make sense of the actual physical details of the escape and rescue, this film describes a coastal California high school whose code violations, due to evil, but finally redeemed, Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan) lead to its literally crashing into the sea due to an only mild earthquake. Most of the thousand-person student body winds up smashed or drowned. Not many tears are shed for that. They'd best not be, since a mood of levity is attempted - despite being hung on too stiff a structure. It's never either as funny or as exciting as one feels it ought to be. Some have said it feels more like a sketch for a film than an actual film. But that in itself is another value for the NYFF Main Slate: My Entire High School is so unpretentious it makes a good palate-cleanser between the likes of Sieranevada, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea. And it's only 75 minutes - Sieranevada is nearly three hours.

Dash Shaw's drawing style is unremarkable (in some of his other work, it's set off more elegantly - at times). The students appear in dark outline like conventional comic strip figures. It gets a bit better and more colorful as time goes on and the disaster gets going, which is pretty early on, maybe because the characters, a cook, Lunchroom Lorraine (voiced by Susan Sarandon), a student council president (Durham), and a team of school newspaper writers, aren't so interesting. The splashy backgrounds, which are almost abstract and free-form at times, help offset the plain figure drawing. It's done somewhat in the manner of watercolorists like Raoul Dufy. But it has to be said that in the world of independent animated film, there are many more interesting looking ones. The images, despite the escape from Pixar/Disney, which I welcome, are not wonderful.

The film has good lines of dialogue, due to the self-consciousness of the newspaper team, who are constantly thinking of how they will describe this event afterward in a book that will make them famous and get back and their mockers who think they're just nerds. In fact frequently a sense of danger and suspense is lost as the action stops for a childhood reminiscence or a debate about how best to describe all this later. Glenn Kenny describes High School in The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/movies/my-entire-high-school-sinking-into-the-sea-review.html?_r=0) as "strained, half-curdled, self-regarding millennial whimsy."

So Dash (the main character) characterizes a girl gymnast trying to escape from the water-submerged building as scaling a bridge "like an especially able tree-climbing sloth." (The intentional ineptness has a certain charm.) He tries out that phrase several times. "I thought senior boys were supposed to be mature," one of the protagonists later remarks - now that Dash, Assaf, and company are up on the senior, top, floor on their way to escape. "They never mature," is the jaded answer of a girl who knows. Another clique floats by and one guy says, "Later, gator, masterbator." "Doesn't even make any sense." "Means you jerk off crocodiles, idiot!" the wag replies.

I also liked one of the intrepid team's wail, "I don't want to die on the senior floor!" Well, you had to be there. It was funny at the time; but when you think of it, that's an enormously resonant line. If "Freaks and Geeks" met "The Poseidon Adventure" any big studio would ask for a rewrite. But Michael Sragow, who calls it "Pop outsider art," wrote most appreciatively of High School in Film Comment (https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/deep-focus-entire-high-school-sinking-sea/); and Andrew Lapin caught many pop references on NPR (http://www.npr.org/2017/04/13/523323830/in-my-entire-high-school-sinking-into-the-sea-the-strifes-aquatic).

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, 75 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2016, also Fantastic Fest and the New York Film Festival and 7 other festivals. US theatrical release begins 14 Apr. 2017 (limited).

Chris Knipp
04-21-2017, 07:47 PM
JAMES GRAY: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016)

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CHARLIE HUNNAM AS PERCY FAWCETT

Intrepid

For fans of James Gray and of Charlie Hunnam, of which I am both, The Lost City of Z - pronounced "zed," because the characters are British - is a thrill and a treat. It's something wholly new for Gray; you'd hardly expect it, though he went into costume-land for his last film, The Immigrant. British explorer Percy Fawcett may be Charlie Hunnam's most challenging role. This is a throwback to the good old adventure movies. It's about pursuing a dream, and entering the unknown. It's a story of a man seeking to redeem himself (his posh father was a gambler and a drunk). He explores the Amazonian river forests, 1906-1925, with a noble performance as an officer in trench warfare in Flanders in WWI, in the middle. Perhaps most importantly, he and his eldest son Jack (in grownup form played by the new "Spider Man" Tom Holland), who was then 22 (his father 56), disappeared, never to be found, lost in the forest, when all eyes were upon them, at a time of great excitement about explorations.

Let's set aside right away the issue of whether this is "true" or not. It should be obvious Percy Fawcett is an impossibly idealized figure, and a little embarrassing that John Hemming (who's now 82), a more recent and no doubt more extensive and successful Amazonian explorer and chronicler of Brazilian natives, should go out of his way to attack and debunk the man. His article in The Spectator (https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/04/the-lost-city-of-z-is-a-very-long-way-from-a-true-story-and-i-should-know/) is called "The Lost City of Z is a very long way from a true story — and I should know." Hemming, director of the Royal Geographical Society (a key player in the film) for over twenty years, has written eleven books on the Amazon, and probably had some pretty hairy adventures. But he has the misfortune not to have been lost when many thousand newspaper readers were following his reports. Hemming's attack sounds mean spirited and is clueless.

When Hemming in the article calls the real Percy Fawcett "a surveyor who never discovered anything, a nutter, a racist," and "incompetent," it makes him sound as angry and jealous as the movie's only real villain (but a big one), James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), an aging, overweight Shackleton expedition member who comes along with Fawcett with his regular teammates Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Edward Ashley (Arthur Manley) and sabotages the venture through his incompetence and makes a lot of trouble for Fawcett when they return to London.

James Gray's version of Percy Fawcett, embodied by the handsome, charismatic, soft-spoken Hunnam, and based by Gray on a book by the journalist David Gramm (differences between the book, facts, and film are outlined in a Time (http://time.com/4735505/the-lost-city-of-z-true-story/) summary by Eliza Bermann), is an ideal from another era. His effort to restore the family name is noble, though then his obsession with finding a lost civilization leaves that behind and also wipes out his own limited finances already squandered by his father. He is a dreamer (and follower of the occultist Madame Blavatsky). He is much away from family, but duty and passion are the reasons. His relations with his strong wife Nina (a terrific Sienna Miller) never deteriorate because their love is strong. There's conflict with his older son Jack, but that's warmly resolved as they become collaborators. This is a story about moral values.

Percy Fawcett is intrepid and brave. He may have had some racist ideas (rampant at the time of course), downplayed here. The idealized portrait is old-fashioned too. But the protagonist is complex enough so that doesn't seem false.

The strength of Gray's screenplay is in its portrait of a life that was met with failure and yet was exemplary, the way it makes the public and private life, the family passions and the life-threatening experiences in the jungle and on the battlefield, always equally important and equally interesting. There is so much balance that it can make this somewhat long movie seem perhaps a bit blah. But one must stop and think. Obviously Percy Fawcett is a figure to be admired for who he is, not what he accomplishes. That's the beauty of the movie. Old fashioned it is, but not in providing conventional payoffs. Gray does not compromise here to do something more "mainstream" - already in earlier films like The Yards and We Own the Night Gray belied the distinction between mainstream and auteur. He never does things in the expected way. This is helped by the cinematography of Darius Khondji, shot on film, of course (Gray is a passionate advocate). Scenes are rich and dark but not conventionally beautiful. Nothing is ever too brightly lit. Framing of river and jungle is often surprising, unexpected. The last hours of Jack and Percy - or the last moments when we, the viewers, get to see them - are the most adventurous staging and filming, dreamlike and beautiful. The tribal elder says (in subtitles) "This white Christian is not one of us. But he is not one of them either. We must find his spirit a home."

The Lost City of Z, 141 mins., debuted at the New York Film Festival 15 Oct. 2016; also at Berlin, Wisconsin, Cleveland, RiverRun and San Francisco. US theatrical release 14 Apr. 2017; wider 21 Apr.



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CHARLIE HUNNAM AND TOM HOLLAND IN THE LOST CITY OF Z

Chris Knipp
08-28-2017, 11:35 AM
EUGÈNE GREEN: THE SON OF JOSEPH/LE FILS DE JOSEPH (2016)

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FABRIZIO RONGIONE, VICTOR EZENFIS IN THE SON OF JOSEPH


A warm fable about birth and parenthood

This newer film by Eugène Green, while still in his signature stilted, artificial style, works much, much better for me than his previous one, La Sapienza (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3800-New-York-Film-Festival-2014&p=32769#post32769) (NYFF 2014) perhaps because it is about a boy. It's officially about "Nativity," and ends with a Mary, a Joseph, and an ass, followed by the son, Vincent, the teenager whose search and pursuit the story's all about. The lectures about failed marriage and baroque architecture in La Sapienza failed to engage me despite its beautiful accompanying images and Lake Maggiore scenery. This time we're not in the Italian lake country, but right in Paris, in the 3rd arrondissement: that's an advantage, too. These are home places and home feelings and basic things, and the formalized, slightly static action (spoken with respect for every vowel sound and all the liaisons) is serious and intense, dangerous too, though also frivolous and light and jokey.

Vincent, 17 (Victor Ezenfis, an appealing newcomer, who can do raw anger and puckish humor equally well), is a sullen lycée student, mean to his kind and loving mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), a nurse, hating everyone, rejecting the cruel and exploitative plans of several classmates early on. He no longer accepts her assertions that he has no father and breaks into her desk and finds a name. This leads him to Oscar Pormenor (Matthieu Alalric), an absolute heel, and a highly successful publisher in the center of a snobbish, absurd literary world Vincent glimpses at a cocktail party, and at Pormenor's offices at the Hotel Cluny, spying on his misbehavior with a secretary from under a divan and later menacing him and running away.

In his flight he immediately runs into the hotel bar and finds Oscar's no-account brother, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione, also in La Sapienza)), who's just appealed unsuccessfully to Oscar for funds to raise cows in their native Normandy. Joseph and Vincent strike up an instant bond. As well as a love of corny puns mocking the bourgeoisie, it's also clear that Vincent has an instinctive sense of good and evil, which he can detect equally well in animals or in humans. And Green can mock modern things, as with the two cell-phone users who run into each other on the street early on. How retro is Green? In person would he be a meany and a scold? It seems not, given the benevolent good humor he projects with his fuzzy hair and brush mustache in his cameo as the hotel's receptionist.

The film is structured via Christian myth into five chapters, The Sacrifice of Abraham, The Golden Calf, The Sacrifice of Isaac (Vincent has a large reproduction of Caravaggio's painting of that event on his bedroom wall), The Carpenter, and The Flight to Egypt - which as Richard Brody puts it in his admiring and informative review (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/eugene-greens-the-son-of-joseph-a-grand-and-comedic-drama-of-father-and-son), "distill Biblical mythology into a grand and overarching drama of fathers and sons." There is also forgiveness, if not repentance. But what Vincent is doing in this movie, if too serious and risky to call it a lark, still is an adventure, and there's a continual element of play. As usual there is baroque music, here both recitation and singing in a church.

Eugène Green left New York at 23, rejecting America as a barbarian place, studied arts and letters extensively in Paris, became a French citizen at 29, and at 30, the same year he was an extra on Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably, started the Théâtre de la Sapience, promoting baroque theater and baroque diction. After 20 years of this he switched to film, though he has still put on performances of Racine and Bossuet in churches. His orientation is Christian and moral. His films, which early on drew the favor of Jean-Luc Godard, show an influence of Bresson in the way characters are framed in closeup, centered, addressing the camera directly, to which Mike D'Angelo (https://letterboxd.com/gemko/film/the-son-of-joseph/) has attributed an effect of "pure, unconditional compassion" as powerful as the lethal one of "Madame Psychosis" in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. But D'Angelo held back from making this one of his year's favorites for its "implicitly reactionary viewpoint on single motherhood" and Vincent's "asshole" behavior toward his mother. Aren't these just aspects of the film's rigor and its Christianity? It may be not single motherhood that's worried about but loneliness. Vincent's fixing his mom up with his new best friend and mentor is a heavenly gesture.

This film, Eugène Green's most appealing and accessible by all accounts (I've seen only the two), affirms fatherhood and family and moral responsibility in Christian-inspired terms in a light hearted fable with a touching finale that evokes the manners and outlooks of Bresson, Wes Anderson, Manoel de Oliveira, and above all Green, his sometimes stiff, aesthetic style this time turned warm and humorous. Let's not forget that the ultra-humanistic Dardenne brothers were also influenced by Bresson, and they are coproducers of this film.

The Son of Joseph/Le fils de Joseph, 113 mins., debuted 12 Feb. 2016 at Berlin; at least a dozen other international festivals including the NYFF (Oct. 2016), London, Torino, Karlovy and Melbourne. French release 20 Apr. 2016 to rave reviews (AlloCinee press rating 3.9). US limited theatrical release 13 Jan. 2017. Viewed on Netflix Streaming USA 27 Aug. 2017.

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Hiding under the sofa