View Full Version : New York Film Festival 2019

Chris Knipp
07-30-2019, 04:32 PM

New York Film Festival 2019 (Sept. 27-Oct. 13). Opening, Centerpiece, closing night films.

FILM FORUM THREAD (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4678-New-York-Film-Festival-2019-(forum)&p=37796#post37796)

Links to Reviews:
Atlantics/Atlantique (Mati Diop 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37930#post37930)
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37988#post37988)
Beanpole Дылда (Kantemir Balakov 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37926#post37926)
Fire Will Come (Oliver Laxe 2019)
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37917#post37917)
Girl Missing, A (Koji Fukada 2019)
I Was at Home, But. . . (Angela Schanelec 2019)
Irishman, The (Martin Scorsese 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37977#post37977) Opening Night Film
Liberté (Alberto Serra 2019)
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37928#post37928)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37920#post37920) Centerpiece Film
Moneychanger, The (Federico Veiroj2019)
Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37939#post37939) Closing Night Film
Oh Mercy!/Roubaix, une lumière (Arnaud Desplechin 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37915#post37915)
Pain and Glory/Dolor y gloria (Pedro Almodóvar 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37906#post37906)
Parasite 기생충 Gisaengchung)(Bong Joon-ho 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37938#post37938)
Portriat of a Lady on Fire/Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Céline Sciamma 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4762-PORTRAIT-OF-A-LADY-ON-FIRE-PORTRAIT-DE-LA-JEUNE-FILLE-EN-FEU-(C%E9line-Sciamma-j2019)&p=38112#post38112)
Saturday Fiction 兰心大剧院 (You Lee 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37929#post37929)
Sibyl (Justine Triet 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37922#post37922)
Synonyms/Synonymes (Nadav Lapid 20190 (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37913#post37913)
To the Ends of the Earth (Koyoshi Kurosawa 2019)
Traitor, The/Il traditore (Marco Bellocchio 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37925#post37925)
Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda 2019)
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4776-VITALINA-VARELA-(Pedro-Costa-2019)-at-Lincoln-Center-(on-line)&p=38184#post38184)
Wasp Network (Olivier Assayas 2019)
Whistlers, Tahe/Gomera (Corneliu Porumboiu 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37927#post37927)
Wild Goose Lake, The 南方车站的聚会 (Diao Yinan 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37907#post37907)
Young Ahmed/Le jeune Ahmed (Jean-Pierre, Luc Dardenne 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4763-YOUNG-AHMED-LE-JEUNE-AHMED-(Jean-Pierre-Dardenne-Luc-Dardenne-2019)&p=38113#post38113)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello 2019) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=38202#post38202)

Chris Knipp
09-30-2019, 06:46 AM
The 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate

(Officially announced August 6, 2019)

Opening Night
The Irishman
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Marriage Story
Dir. Noah Baumbach

Closing Night
Motherless Brooklyn
Dir. Edward Norton

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story/Atlantique
Dir. Mati Diop

Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles

Dir. Kantemir Balagov

Fire Will Come
Dir. Oliver Laxe

First Cow
Dir. Kelly Reichardt

A Girl Missing よこがお
Dir. Koji Fukada

I Was at Home, But…
Dir. Angela Schanelec

Dir. Albert Serra

Martin Eden
Dir. Pietro Marcello

The Moneychanger/Así habló el cambista
Dir. Federico Veiroj

Oh Mercy!//Roubaix, une lumière
Dir. Arnaud Desplechin

Pain and GloryDolor y gloria
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar

Parasite 기생충
Dir. Bong Joon-ho

Film Comment Presents
Portrait of a Lady on Fire/Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
Dir. Céline Sciamma

Saturday Fiction
Dir. Lou Ye

Dir. Justine Triet

Dir. Nadav Lapid

To the Ends of the Earth 旅のおわり世界のはじまり
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The Traitor/Traditore
Dir. Marco Bellocchio

Varda by Agnès
Dir. Agnès Varda

Vitalina Varela
Dir. Pedro Costa

Wasp Network
Dir. Olivier Assayas

The Whistlers/La Gomera
Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

The Wild Goose Lake 南方车站的聚会
Dir. Diao Yinan

Young Ahmed/Le jeune Ahmed
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Zombi Child
Dir. Bertrand Bonello

NYFF Special Events, Spotlight on Documentary, Convergence, Shorts, Retrospective, Revivals, and Projections sections, as well as filmmaker conversations and panels, will be announced in the coming weeks.

Tickets for the 57th New York Film Festival will go on sale to the general public on September 8. Festival and VIP passes are on sale now and offer one of the earliest opportunities to purchase tickets and secure seats at some of the festival’s biggest events, including Opening and Closing Night. Learn more at filmlinc.org/NYFF57Passes. Press and industry accreditation for NYFF57 is open now and closes August 16th; apply here.BEA


Chris Knipp
09-30-2019, 06:48 AM


Bright moments: Almodóvar's beautiful summing up

My sense of Almodóvar has always been overwhelmingly visual. Does anybody make more bright-colored movies? In content Pain and glory is darker and more self-absorbed than usual, more of a summing up. Yet the surface is as much cheerful eye candy as ever, its visual delight acquiring the special poignancy of the clown suicidal behind his ludic mask. The utensils on a kitchen counter are all bright red. When somebody pulls out a cell phone, it's red, or wrapped in red. Each shirt the protagonist wears is a different multicolored pattern, except for the robin's egg blue polo shirt he starts out with. But this is a man whose life has gone stale and who has run out of inspiration.

His name is Salvador, he is a illustrious filmmaker in a creative crisis. He's blocked, he's in all sorts of pain, and he's doing heroin to deal with his sufferings, physical and mental. He chokes all the time, and for that, nothing helps. This is caused by an unusual ailment, detected later, to do with his vertebrae.

Salvador is played by a deliberately worn and aged-looking Antonio Banderas, in a low-keyed performance that won the Best Actor award at Cannes. Alberto Iglesias won the Cannes soundtrack award. This is one of the director's most important films, even if it may truly please only his most ardent fans, and yet displease some of them because it's atypical.

Pain and Glory is the segmented picture of a complicated life. From the way Almodóvar started out in the provinces you'd never have known he'd become Spain's most famous movie director and the darling of the Madrid cultural scene. And here, it is hard to see the moody, blocked filmmaker in the small son of impoverished parents who wind up living in a cave house.

Hardship is downplayed in a masterful opening scene of little Salvador (Asier Flores) with his mother (Penelope Cruz) and other women singing as they do the wash by a stream, wishing they were men so they could swim naked. This luminous sequence is like a musical. Even the cave house the poor family moves into turns out to be flooded with sunlight - a part of it has no roof. The boy gets sunstroke - or is he just love-struck? - reading while he sneaks looks at Eduardo (César Vicente), his "first object of desire" - a ready-made Almodóvar movie title.

Eduardo is a handsome, strapping young workman who's illiterate, till little Salvador, who loves books and writing, is called in to give him lessons. The exchange is that Eduardo puts up tiles (bright colored) and whitewashes the cave. He gets so dirty doing that one day he asks Salvador, while his mother is away, to let him take a bath in a tub, and hence the boy gets treated to a spectacular display of beefcake. Eduardo probably knows what he's doing. Handsome young men are usually aware when they're being admired.

Creating what will become a kind of Rosebud, Eduardo, who's artistic, does a drawing of young Salvador reading that long gets lost but then turns up by chance many years later and is bought by the blocked, or perhaps now unblocking, filmmaker. Isn't he unblocking, since he's making this film? Pain and Glory eventually begins to reflect back on itself - another Almodóvar trademark being deft plot construction that, like psychedelic color, delights despite, or even because of, its artificiality.

A voiceover sequence very early in the film where the mature Salvador lists his multiple ailments, which include back trouble, tinnitus, and depression, to name only a few, is illustrated by a dazzling series of bright-colored diagrams and symbols. If he's sad, he doesn't let us see it in his choice of visuals. If only Power Points were like this, students would stagger out of lectures high on imagery. (Even the opening credits sequence of this film is memorably elegant, simple, and gorgeous.)

The movie's sketch of the family side concludes later with the grownup Salvador sweetly caring for his aged mother (Julieta Serrano), a sequence among the film's most mundane yet most poetic. There is no detailed, practical picture of the protagonist's creative life or his love life except in reference to his most famous film, Sabor, from thirty years ago, the lead actor he's been estranged from all those years, and a long lost lover who was a heroin addict. The grownup portion of the film is about Salvador's lingering unease, hypochondria, troubling physical ailments, and writer's block. Hope appears through reunions with the actor and the lover. Salvador finds the actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) and they collaborate on a new performance called "Addiction." By coincidence (Almodóvar's plots also have a fairy tale aspect) the former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), long a resident in Argentina but in town to collect an inheritance, sees "Addiction," realizes it's about him, and seeks out the author, even though it was presented anonymously.

Alberto, the actor, and Salvador seem two egocentric basket cases when a restored print of Sabor is shown and they can't manage to show up for the post-screening Q&A and only answer some questions for the emcee on the phone broadcast to the audience. It's an enthusiastic crowd, an ego boost to the director, and at the end he is about to have the choking problem solved. Somehow this ending seems hopeful, happy, sad, and scary all at once: it's overwhelmingly emotional, and satisfying if you want a good cry.

In his Hollywood Reporter review (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/pain-glory-review-1195284) Jonathan Holland complains repeatedly that Pain and Glory isn't funny enough, hardly funny at all. This is true. But the surface of the film is continually pleasing. And Banderas' low keyed performance gets to you. In my case I have always liked best when Almodóvar was quiet and magical, especially in Talk to Her. Perhaps the giddy comedy he developed so fluently in the Eighties was a mask to hide whatever was going on inside. Anyway after 36 films the director has a right to be serious. Yet at the same time, Pain and Glory has Almodóvar's distinctive look and structure. It may take repeated viewings to perceive that it's a triumph. But obviously there were inklings at Cannes.

Pain and Glory/Dolor y gloria 113 mins., it opened in Spain Mar. 22, 2019, then as mentioned debuted in Competition at Cannes in May, winning Best Actor and Best Soundtrack awards. Other festivals included Sydney, Melbourne, Taipei and Munich, Toronto. Showing today at the NYFF. US theatrical release from Oct. 4, 2019. Current Metascore 82%.

Chris Knipp
09-30-2019, 07:00 AM


Noise, color, romance and doom

With this new film, which was in Competition at Cannes, Diao Yinan establishes himself as some kind of Asian B-noir master, I suppose, yet while he touches all the bases, something feels missing, or he is just trying too hard. Nonetheless there are pleasures in The Wild Goose Lake (whose Chinese title means something different, South Station Gathering), pleasures of the senses above all, sight and sound.

In her Variety review (https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/the-wild-goose-lake-review-1203219296/)Jessica Kiang rightfully credits Dong Jinseng, the cinematographer, with visual beauties that are almost but not quite as gloriously artificial as Wong Kar-wai's films and Chris Doyle's work. She notes the "whole sequences in neon pinks and garish reflected blues." And the sound design and score are just as essential, making the images "throb with particular sleaze" behind "B6’s clanging, dramatic score." This score isn't crudely obtrusive, like a modern American comic book thriller, but selective - though there are clangs and bangs like a John Cage symphony that filled the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln center cranked up to the max, all the more to be appreciated from my front balcony seat. Sound design and set design are also top notch.

What the movie's all about logically comes second, though unlike Diao's Berlin prize-winning previous film Black Coal Thin Ice (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3937-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2015&p=33474#post33474), there is a well-worked-out and clear plot line. There's a - noisy, vivid - fracas at a gathering to train a gang of motorcycle thieves and assign them districts to work in. It's infiltrated by cops and one gets shot. This basis provides plenty of action and noise. The shooter becomes a police fugitive. His flight bookends the whole, and a soulful prostitute who comes to get, or rescue him. He plans to turn himself in so his wife can get the reward - though I never quite saw how that could work. The meeting of the wanted Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), to the with Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei, the Black Coal, Thin Ice star as well) in heavy rain, just one cluster of intense but renewed noir clichés, sets the tone of romantic doomed B-gangster movie artiness Diao strives for, and mostly achieves.

Some devices, or genre routines, are so enthusiastically worked as to be almost silly, perhaps intentionally so. The largely young and Chinese Alice Tully Hall audience laughed a lot, but not too much; they were having a good time, not scoffing. How often does somebody ask for a light so we can her the clack and click of the classic Zippo lighter? A unique running joke is the colorful T-shirts worn by the (often doomed) young men, which are pointed to when an undercover cop is called out and told to switch his designer T for something drabber. See Kiang's review (https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/the-wild-goose-lake-review-1203219296/) for a listing of all the other wonderful things that go on, including Zhou Zenong's twisty dance to bandage his wounded torso without help.

But this points to an artificiality and lack of what classic noirs have, emotion. It's impressive how Diao renders both intimate and (tackily) epic-scale sequences with equal panache, but the stars aren't quite charismatic (or even good looking) enough. This relationship can't match the doomed romance of Jia Zhang-ke's superb Ash Is Purest White, nor can Gwei Lun Mei quite match Jia Zhang'ke's wife and muse Zhao Tao in that and other films. Diao's well-developed plot leaves no room to breathe, to pause and savor the doom. Still, there is a lot for us to savor, and one walks out with pleasingly intense visions of glowing neon and clanging noises in one's head.

The Wild Goose Lake 南方车站的聚会, 113 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition, with seven other top festivals (some to come) listed on IMDb. Reviewed here as part of the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival (Sept. 29, 2019). Theatrical debut to be in France Nov. 27. Current Metascore 74%.

Chris Knipp
10-01-2019, 05:56 PM


Nationality malaise as a form of madness

Synonyms is a bracing, invigorating film with an explosive young star (found in acting school) and a series of astonishing high-energy, highly-verbal set pieces. They only begin to pall toward the end when things go on a bit too long and as you realize Lapid isn'g going anywhere, that the astonishment hides a certain emptiness. It's surprising to learn the movie's autobiographical because its protagonist is borderline crazy, maybe full-on crazy. But Lapid's treatment of his own experience is free and fanciful and riffs off the distinctive abilities of the lead who's little like him. He has reimagined himself as an idealistic superhero.

Yoav (Tom Mercier, a 26-year-old Israeli* whose actual father is French (http://frenchmania.fr/tom-mercier/)) arrives in Paris from Israel, enters a large unoccupied apartment and takes a shower. The movie revels in Mercier's well-built, well-hung young body throughout: he has a background as a judo champion and dancer. One of his main assets is his intense physicality and boldness (no apparent hesitation about frontal nudity), which in fact is the picture. Once out of the shower, he discovers that his clothes and his whole big sack of possessions are gone. He runs around frantically from one big empty room to the other naked, freezing. There seems to be no heat. Was there hot water? The movie is vague about details, including how the protagonist speaks French so well.

The movie will return to the fact that Yoav, though he goes out and bangs on other apartment doors, begging in French in vain for help, he never descends to the street and instead returns to the bath tub. Cut to a young (very) French couple who discover him lying there asleep or unconscious. Émile (Quentin Dolmaire of Desplechin's My Golden Days) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), partially revive him and carry him out to the big posh nearby apartment they share. The situation that develops may remind you of Bertolucci's The Dreamers, but without the period flavor and graceful ménage à trois interactions of Eva Green, Louis Garrel, and Michael Pitt. In its deliberate unreality, its young seekers, and its eccentric declarations Synonyms suggests Godard films like La Chinoise. The shock-value set pieces also somewhat resemble Ruben Östlund's 2017 The Square (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4375-New-York-Film-Festival-2017&p=36218#post36218).

The opening is shot with vigorous handheld photography whose deliberate brutality conveys a sense of Yoav's dislocation, and is marked by Mercier's sheer exhibitionism. He's a dazzlingly confident , go-for-broke actor whose skill is only undermined by a certain blankness. He's as much a performance artist as a dramatic actor. But is his whole nature perhaps symbolic of Israel itself, bold, brave, intense, but essentially rudderless and heedless? Underlying the whole film there is the implied sweeping, if superficial, critique of Israel. Yoav turns out to have come to France intending to abandon his native country though a decorated soldier. He has no other real plan but to cease being Israeli, stop speaking Hebrew, and become French. He calls Israel "nasty, obscene, ignorant, idiotic, crude and mean-spirited" (méchant, obscène, ignorant, hideux, vieux, sordide, grossier, abominable) and a string of other expressive derogatory adjectives he pronounces with pleasure in the poetic sound of the French words.

"It can't be all those at once," Émile says. "Choose." All this is in French, and Yoav refuses to speak Hebrew throughout except for one humiliating "artist's model" gig and declares his intention to become French. However he gains no other French friends besides Émile and Caroline, though he bonds with a tough, violent Israeli security guard called Yaron (Uria Hayik). He goes to live in a tiny chambre de bonne where he survives on ultra-cheap meals of pasta and canned tomato sauce, whose preparation is dwelt upon almost fetishistically. Eventually Caroline comes there and sleeps with him, overlapping Émile's decision that she should marry Yoav so he can become a French citizen. Godardian, absurdist scenes of a citizenship class follow, along with sequences of semiviolent macho Israeli encounters, some involving the Israeli embassy, and meetups by Skype and in person with Yoav's parents, whom he directs with polite firmness to leave him alone.

The movie presents one scene after another featuring Yoav, in no particular order. Émile, the son of a wealthy industrialist, and his girlfriend Caroline, who plays the oboe in a local arrondissement orchestra, adopt Yoav and want to protect him. One of the movie's most obvious weaknesses is the thinness and wanness of the two French characters. Émile is a would-be writer, who has written 40-odd pages of a novel, but lacks energy and invention. Caroline's main character trait is that she plays the oboe. Yoav begins spouting stories in his odd but curiously fluent French, to augment which he acquires a "good, but light" French dictionary at a bookstore. The film is dominated not only by Mercier's physical presence but by his harsh, confident male Israeli voice, spouting French. He often recites series of words he likes with similar sound, or similar meaning - hence the title. Sexy, graceful, strong, and somehow sensitive, Mercier is always attractive, though with his pointed nose and little mouth he's not handsome.

Instead of mal de pays, longing for homeland, Yoav has the opposite, a kind of nationality malaise. The specific details of why one might be discontented with his native land, its racism, its chauvinism, its militarism, its brutal repression of the Palestinian people, are things Yoav never goes into, though there is a telling scene in French citizenship class where the teacher proudly vaunts the "laïcité," the secularity of France. But this lack of detail reenforces Synonyms' Godadian, Brechtian fable quality. Yoav repeatedly tells Émile how his father told him as a boy the story of Hector and Troy, but refused to reveal to him how it ends. He tells other stories of his life, in an intense, fable-like style, and announces he "gives" these stories to the story-deficient would-be fabulist Émile, who accepts them gratefully.

Yoav becomes increasingly crazy as the oddball distinctiveness of Tom Mercier's personality and thespian skills is slowly but surely ramped up. When asked a profound question about Israel, redemption through nationality vs. inner change at a NYFF Q&A, Lapid answered "Sometimes I just have to say I am only a filmmaker." This movie is notable for its effective theatricality and gritty cinematic qualities - as well as the spot-on editing by the director's mother that's so breathtakingly flashy at times you don't know whether to cheer or jeer. It's not noted for its calm and thoughtful exploration of ideas, or for a meaningful plot line beyond the stunning initial premise.

I enjoyed this film - it's fresh, has an unforgettable opening, and holds your attention much of the way - but in the end I was left wanting more. It may be best discussed by Israelis: its theme is one worth their taking seriously. But it has reminded me that I found Lapid's first two films, both of which I reviewed as part of Lincoln Center film events, were similarly bold and striking yet crude, vague, and lacking structural coherence.

Synonyms/Synonymes, 123 mins., in French with some Hebrew and English, premiered at the Berlinale, winning the Golden Bear top feature prize. Opening a fortnight later in Israeli cinemas, it was slated for nearly two dozen other festivals, including Toronto, New York, and Mill Valley. Watched at a NYFF screening Oct. 1, 2019. It opened in France in March with a fair critical reception (AlloCiné press rating (http://www.allocine.fr/film/fichefilm-261649/critiques/presse/) 3.4, but top praise from Cahiers du Cinéma and Les Inrocks). Coming to US theaters Oct. 25, it has a current Metascore of 85%.
*See more about Mercier in Haaretz (https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-synonym-for-instant-movie-star-israeli-tom-mercier-1.7020353).


Chris Knipp
10-02-2019, 11:32 AM


A sumptuous but pointless detour for Desplechin

The director departs from bourgeois intellectual families and love affairs to focus on a slow police procedural focused on the death of an old woman, set n his poor, crime-ridden hometown of Roubaix near the Belgian border, and made in declared admiration of Hitchcock's The Wrong Man.

Everything here is beautifully done - yet misguided. The main focus is on the sordid murder of a helpless old woman by a lesbian couple, Marie (Sara Forestier) and Claude (Léa Saydoux), and the captain in charge of the investigation, Commissaire Yacoub Daoud, played by the estimable Roschdy Zem. There is the obligatory rookie detective on the case, Louis Cotterel (Antoine Reinartz). The first hour is spent on other things, a half drunk man caught out in a fake insurance claim, a house fire seen to be arson, cocky young men evading he police, Daoud's angry nephew in prison and his love of horse racing, which Cotterel turns out to be good at betting on.

And still the process of getting Marie and Claude to confess to their murder takes an hour that seems very long. We see the cops work in threes separately on each of the two suspects, a woman and a good cop-bad cop, with Daoud always playing the quiet, restrained good cop. Earlier he has confirmed to Cotterel the rumor that he always knows who is innocent and who is guilty. But such a sixth sense is hardly needed for Marie and Claude because there is so much evidence of murder and of their presence before they[re brought in for questioning. So there is no mystery and nothing interesting to discover. Then when they have separately and together both confessed, with the tougher Claude holding out longer, we have to watch them taken to the crime scene to act it out in more detail. I found this scene, which is gruesome yet trivial, a true banality of evil moment, particularly hard and unrewarding to watch.

This would seem to misunderstand what makes us interested in dramas that depict detailed police investigations. Who cares whether both women had their hands on the poor old lady's neck as she was strangled? This is indeed a detailed introduction to French police methods, but not in a way that holds our interest. It is true that Desplechin departs from the conventional, but only in minuscule ways. Jay Weissberg observed in his Variety review (https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/oh-mercy-review-1203223481/) that Daoud is the interesting character, not the women (both actresses rather wasted, especially Seydoux). There's a hint of more to come (as if this were a series pilot) in the news that all Daoud's family have all returned to the "bled", to North Africa, while he's chosen to stay here where he grew up. There could be more about Cotterel, perhaps an emotional trajectory of the relationship between rookie and oldtimer as in Xavier Beauvois' moving The Little Lieutenant (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=556&view=previous) .

At the same time the film excels in its rich cast details, nuanced depiction of Roubaix at and just after Christmstime (with a memorably drab shot of street decorations coming down). But somehow this doesn't read as any kind of portrait of Roubaix beyond what we're told at the outset of its former vigor and present poverty and decline.

Desplechin is one of the best and most distinctive contemporary French directors when he's got the right material. The 2015 My Golden Days (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4022-New-York-Film-Festival-2015&p=33973#post33973) was great; last time's Ismael's Ghosts (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4375-New-York-Film-Festival-2017&p=36273#post36273) was a misfire. This is another of the latter: so much good work, with the wrong material.

Oh Mercy!/Roubaix, une umière,/ 119 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes, released in France in Aug. 2019, with very good reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.7); apparently only in four other festivals, including New York and Vancouver. Screened for this review as part of the NYFF, Oct. 2, 2019. Metascore 51%.

Chris Knipp
10-03-2019, 06:39 AM


A particularly intense study in Reichardt's taut minimalism

Set in 1820, 25 years before the time of the director's Meeks Cutoff (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?2875-New-York-Film-Festival-2010&p=25170#post25170)(NYFF 2010), First Cow, about what would become Oregon and beavers and men on the frontier, is a dreamy, cramped, primitive, sad scene of hostile people scrambling... slowly... to survive. Two men cling to each other, the temporary trappers' cook Cookie Figowitz (John Megaro) to King Lu (Orion Lee), a well-traveled Chinese man fluent in English Cookie finds naked fleeing angry Russians.

He helps him and they part, but meet again later, which leads to their sharing a tiny cabin. Together they quietly enter into a business venture to sell tasty buttermilk biscuits laced with honey to the locals in the market. But this tasty, lucrative trade, a hot success in this wild uncivilized place where home cooking is so missed, depends on a supply of milk poached at night from the newly-arrived sole cow in the region, which belongs to the British trapping firm overseer known as the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). This theft is a dangerous game that poses a looming threat over the rest of the tale. The partnership and cohabitation, intensified by the risky venture that makes it feel delicate and doomed, makes us ponder the film's epigraph from William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell: The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship. Is it even more, a desperate, lonely love?

The scene is full of vague but intense class strictures: the shyness of Cookie, his secondary status to the macho trappers; the outlier Chinese man he feels safe with, the pompous Chief Factor, the local grandee.

One is continually struck with a sense of things missing, the intentional minimalism of Reichardt's style, the boxy 4:3 aspect ration, eschewing wide horizons, the many scenes in such low light you can barely make things out. The cakes Cookie bakes, using ingredients King Lu assembles, such a tiny thing to make their fortune, in small batches. This is Slow Food cinema too, a thing not for everyone, but a delight to the devotee.

I kept thinking of Jarmusch's Dead Man, for some reason: it must be set much later, but it evokes raw frontier primitivism too. . . differently, though, with lots of snappy dialogue, humor, and a richer narrative. Yet in the end First Cow wins out in this comparison in certain important categories: sincerity, genuine pathos. I also thought of Young Adult novels. Perhaps too tilted toward the tragic, but this has that quality of showing boys what the frontier life was like, how a man can cook, that it's wrong to steal.

It is in fact difficult to imagine the ideal audience for Kelly Reichardt, which may change from film to film. I respected the subtlety of her debut Old Joy, but seem to have most enjoyed her most conventional film, the 2014 almost-thriller about terrorists, Night Moves (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3761-NIGHT-MOVES-%28Kelly-Reichardt-2013%29&p=32468#post32468). Actually, she can appeal to any fan of uniquely crafted independent films. It's like enjoying being smothered, or at least that's the feeling this time. This is a particularly intense, intimate version of her style, though you know where it is going, and toward the end it moves toward conventional suspense - nicely ending in the air, with an unmistakable but hopefully not too neat visual rhyme with the opening.

First Cow is again freely adapted with the writer Jonathan (or Jon) Raymond, her collaborator for most of her features, this time from the first work of his she read and his debut, The Half-Life. But that book is composed of two stories 150 years apart, and this is just the earlier one, plus a contemporary opening of the finding of two old skeletons shallowly buried side by side, a foreshadowing. Besides, in the book the joint venture is extracting castoreum, a beaver musk highly prized in China. I have not read the book, but I think I would still prefer the simpler version of this film. The minimalism strains the patience at times, but through it Reichardt creates a mood here that haunts and lingers.

First Cow, 121 mins., debuted Aug. 30, 2019 at Telluride, showing also at the New York Film Festival (where Reichardt, Megaro, and Lee were present at Lincoln Center Oct. 3 for a Q&A - watch it HERE (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1SukKUVCYE) - with festival programming director Dennis Lim); it comes to US theaters, distributed by A24, Mar. 6, 2020. Current Metascore 76%.


Chris Knipp
10-04-2019, 05:43 PM


A dramedy for all seasons

This is not just a shift from looking at divorce from the kids' to the parents' point of view, but a dramatic example of how far Baumbach has come as a writer-director since fourteen years ago when his early feature The Squid and the Whale (http://www.filmleaf.net/articles/features/nyff05/squidandwhale.htm), also about divorce, debuted at the New York Film Festival. He seems so much more fluent, powerful, and at ease here. Squid was witty, snide, subtle, keenly observed. It also seemed a bit snobbish and parochial. It was content with being minor. It was also very "East Coast." Though the battle between the coasts is dramatized here, with the husband, Charlie (Adam Driver) struggling throughout to have his disintegrating nuclear family defined as New York-based, not only is this a battle that he is continually losing, but most of the movie action actually takes place in L.A.

Beyond that, this is a warmly accessible and insanely enjoyable as any American film this year. Quite possibly Baumbach's best work, certainly in some sense the stars', Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver's best. There is a double aria knockdown verbal yell-fest that's the mother of all marriage squabbles, also a stunning combined tour de force for Driver-Johannson , the director and the crew. The two and a quarter hours go by swiftly. Never before has Baumbach better melded humor and emotion.It's particularly exciting, not to say thrilling, to encounter a film that's at once so accessible and so well-made and specific. Hopefully this time Baumbach can be enjoyed by his widest audience yet, and this can be appreciated by many as one of the best movies of the year. It's the director's tenth feature, and it's a ten out of ten.

The structure is simple and forceful. It's bookended by two statements where Charlie, then Nicole (Johansson), describe what they like and admire about each other - an activity done at the directive of a mediation coach. Charlie is a successful New York theater director, Nicole is an actress. They are breaking up. Things are going to get heated, painful, maybe hostile. This list-making is to ground them in a sense of the good things, the reasons they got together in the first place. The film returns to these lists at the end in a neat and touching way. Throughout, neatness may overwhelm Baumbach's usual subtlety, but there is plenty of wit, and raw emotion trumps sentimentality - the rawness often reflected in the intimacy, sometimes calculated roughness, of the visual style, enhanced by shooting on 35mm.

Any sense of the generic is avoided by the specific focus on the bicoastal issue and the custody and divorce law questions tied to it, while the comedy and the pain are jointly grounded in the work, equally hilarious and cruel, of the divorce lawyers Nicole and Charlie eventually engage. When they're splitting (but still friendly) Nicole goes to Los Angeles to star in a TV series and takes their eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her.

The balance of sympathy seems to lean toward the male side here. Nicole's TV series remains sketchy. Charlie's theater group comes more to life, with Wallace Shawn highlighting colorful scenes. A play Charlie has developed, a version of Euripides' Electra, is about to go on Broadway. Charlie has to go back and forth to California. During this time he gets a MacaAthur "genius" award totaling $625,000 over five years in quarterly installments.

The divorce threatens to be disastrous for Charlie and his company. He may throw a lot of the grant money to the divorce lawyers, which he wants to use to pay credit card debut and expenses of the company. All the trips to California - and setting up additional residence there - he blames for the failure of the Broadway Electra.

The original plan was for just the two of them, Charlie and Nicole, to sit down and work things out. But Nicole's ditsy former actress mother (Julie Hagerty) talks her into seeing an ace divorce lawyer, Nora (a lean, mean Laura Dern). This means Charlie has to get one and he winds up with the very human but slightly over-the-hill Bert (Alan Alda), because he thinks the high powered lawyer he sees at first (a splendid Ray Liotta) is too expensive and too aggressive.

Public and private, monetary and emotional: the sparring of the lawyers, finally seen in the dreaded divorce court, is a simultaneously hilarious and frightening objective correlative of the squabbling of the couple whose love has turned to hostility or indifference. If the hotshot lawyers miraculously don't finally quite prevail, we see how destructive the mechanism they represent can be.

There is raw emotion and raw language here, but it's wonderful how often Marriage Story evokes some updated version of a screwball comedy. While there's an illusion to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage that implies Charlie's company may have put on some version of that, this movie plainly isn't directly about the agonizing emotional breakdown of a relationship - except in the moments when it is. It shows the emotional pain more subtly, perhaps more touchingly, mostly by indirection, or by proxy.

This is specifically about American divorce. The title might have been "Divorce Story"; it might even better have been simply "Custody." Because a lot of the focus is on whether the family is defined as California- or New York-based, and what visitation rights Charlie gets with Henry. The Squid and the Whale focuses on teenage boys beginning to see through their pretentious intellectual father played by Jeff Daniels. Here sympathy is with the father. But the spotlight is often on little Henry, who quickly starts liking his California school and classmates, which were supposed (Charlie thought anyway) to be temporary. But while Henry leans toward the new location, it's balanced: he still loves his dad too.

In fact balance describes Marriage Story throughout and is what's so remarkable about it. Baumbach isn't always the most economical of writers. There are details of Henry, or of Nicole's family, that seem unnecessary. But what stands out is how painful, real emotion and hilarious satire coexist in the writing - and the always enjoyable and honest acting. This seems unusual, till you realize it's the mark of classic comedy. It's almost Shakespearean. Can one bestow a higher complement than that? And there are even musical elements, with both principals performing from Sondheim's Company. It's a dramedy for all seasons.

Marriage Story, 136 mins., debuted at Venice 29 Aug. 2019, featured in 8 or 10 other festivals including Telluride and Toronto; showing as the Centerpiece Film at the NYFF Fri., Oct. 4, 2019. Theatrical release Nov. 6, 2019, followed by digital streaming by Netflix Dec. 6. Metascore currently 95%.

Chris Knipp
10-05-2019, 02:48 PM


An embarrassment of riches

Sibyl is a disappointment after Victoria, Triet's highly amusing previous film with the same star, Virginie Efira. I was surprised to find people consider Sibyl a comedy. It's more like an account of how a woman in recovery from alcoholism returns to drinking, and why: is that a funny subject?

Too much is going on here, and it's hard to know how to take it. There's a good basic topic (if this can be said to have one): a psychiatrist who steals from a patient's life to turn it into successful fiction. A simpler, more conventional treatment of this could have been interesting enough. But Triet and cowriter Arthur Harari pile on the complexity and obscure this theme. On top of that there's a surreal back-and-forth-flashback-montage editing technique of very short clips (a bad new fad) that's pretentious and adds confusion.

Sibyl (Efira) was a bestselling author but a painful breakup with her former boyfriend Gabriel (Niels Schneider), with whom she has a child, led her to quit writing and turn to psychotherapy (go figure). She is happy now (it would seem) with a new man, Etienne (Paul Hamy) by whom she has had another child, a little girl. She is going to meetings to conrol her alcoholism and isn't drinking. (Just wait.) Of course she goes on seeing her own shrink too.

She has a younger sister, Laure Calamy (from the Netflix French TV hit Call My Agent), who appears several times, most notably to give the little girl a quick lesson in emotional manipulation: she tells her mother she "lacks the tools to deal with life." An amusing, but gratuitous, moment.

As the film begins - but it is full of flashbacks to the affair with Gabriel, including a gratuitous full-on sex scene (eschewed in Victoria) - Sibyl can no longer resist the temptation to go back to writing and to that end is dismissing her patients. There is a crudely comic scene of a patient royally pissed off at this. Tellingly, he says he has given her his whole life. Soon we will learn that she's quite likely to use it.

At least she does when she takes on a new patient who forces herself upon her for an emergency. She is Margot Vasilis (Adèle Exarchopoulos, in full hysteria mode), an actress on contract for a film to be made on and around the island of Stromboli (evidently a homage to the 1950 Bergman-Rossilini film). She is pregnant by her costar, Igor Moleski (Gaspard Ulliel), but he's involved with the film's German director, Mika Saunders (Sandra Hüller of Toni Edrmann). The emergency is that she can't decide whether to have the baby or not, and she can't bear to tell Igor she's pregnant.

Sibyl is never any discernible help in this matter, and Margot goes back and forth. Meanwhile Sibyl - who has none of the qualities of the wisdom of that name, or even any moral compass - is furiously writing a manuscript based on Margot's sessions, and presumably other stuff cribbed from people's lives. As time goes on, publishers turn out to be very pleased with the results. She's also having play-therapy sessions with a little boy grieving for his dead mother. (These seem gratuitous, and not that interesting, but that goes for much of the material that crowds this over-stuffed film.) Flashbacks frantically depict intense encounters between Sibyl and the handsome Niels Schneider.

Soon - and here is when we enter into farcical territory, though it seemed heavy-handed to me - Sibyl winds up with the film crew on Stromboli, because Margot is even more confused and desperate, but the filmmaking must go on, so she, Sibyl, is called in to hep Margot function. But due to the emotional complications with Igor, Margot, and Mika, Mika also is nearing a meltdown, her directing becoming ever more neurotic and extreme. (I couldn't help wondering if the way Mika's directing is handled might make future actors hesitate to take on Triet as a director.)

In a series of heavy-handed filmmaking sequences, Sibyl emerges for a while as the only competent person around, except perhaps for Igor, who mostly holds his temper. (This is a long-suffering and selfless role for Gaspard Ulliel and one of his most unflattering.)

In a way Victoria was a wild, disorderly mess too, with Efira in a ditsy but sexy role. A hilariously absurd courtroom sequence toward the end, the charm and suavity of the great Melvil Poupaud, and the sweetness of Vincent Lacoste as a babysitter enamored of Efira, make that movie charming and fun. That doesn't happen here.

Eventually the responsibility - or the succession of inappropriate roles, not to mention the inappropriate behavior in assuming them, all the while breaking all the rules of medical ethics - causes Sibyl to meltdown, and her return to alcoholism is spectacular. It's also embarrassing, clumsily staged, and profoundly unfunny. While I sided with French critics on Victoria against the Anglo ones who trashed it, this time I have to agree with the Anglos, and hope that Triet will have more success with her material in her next feature.

Sibyl, 100 mins., debuted in Belgium and France May 24 and the same day at at Cannes, Justine Triet's first film in Competition there. It played in four other festivals including Toronto and New York, screened at the latter for this review, Oct. 5, 2019. AlloCiné press rating 3.7 (butI Victoria was 3.8, La bataille de Solférino 4.0), Metascore (same as for Victoria) 57%.

http://www.chrisknipp.com/images/J9T.jpg http://www.chrisknipp.com/images/j5t.jpg

Chris Knipp
10-05-2019, 09:32 PM


For the Italians, a national epic; for us, a sprawling gangster movie with a weird trial sequence

Marco Belloccio's The Traitor seeks to depict the real life of Sicilian gangster Tommaso Buscetta, the so-called "boss of the two worlds." He is important because he was the first major mafia informant in Italy in the 1980's. The movie dramatizes with mind-blowing accuracy Bruscetta's trial as "il primo grade pentito di Mafia," the first high ranking Mafioso "penitent one" or state's witness, or traditore, ("traitor") in the eyes of the Cosa Nostra. This film is very highly regarded in Italy (see Paolo Casella in MyMovies (https://www.mymovies.it/film/2019/il-traditore/) or Federico Girone in ComingSoon (https://www.comingsoon.it/film/il-traditore/55760/recensione/), two big Italian movie sites) and was in Competition at Cannes. Anglophone critics have found it impressive in scope, but in some ways underwhelming. To us it seems somewhat bogged down from the start by an over-abundance of detail, such as a long initial sequence of horrific, loud, violent moments showing assassinations, accompanied by a roll call of flowery Italian names.

Because this is different, more "documentary," though not in the least lacking in the elements of gangster grand opera, The Traitor may seem, to Anglos, ultimately lacking in the flair of the director's other works, such as his muted, haunting 2003 Aldo Moro kidnapping drama Good Morning, Night or his energetic and beautiful fascist biopic Vincere (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?2644-New-York-Film-Festival-2009&s=&postid=22961#post22961) (NYFF 2009). And this is not to mention possible overshadowing by the famous early career-making Belloccio films of the Sixties, Fists in the Pocket and China Is Near, the latter celebrated by Pauline Kael as "one of the most astonishing directorial debuts in the history of movies."

The Traitor covers twenty years, skipping most of Bruscetta's early career as a Mafia princeling. It falls into sections, dominated by its make-or-break testimony and trail segment. After the assassinations sequence shows off Cosa Nostra violence, we see Bruscetta move to Brazil, to get away from that and to run crime operations in Rio with his family and Brazilian wife. He leaves behind his two adult sons, one of whom is a heroin addict; it's a decision he regrets after they are both killed by his enemies. But in Brazil he is arrested and tortured. A flashy scene shows him in one helicopter and his wife dangling from another as the cops try to loosen him up by threatening to drop her.

He goes back to Italy and reluctantly, more to save his family than out of any "repentance" (and he rejects all titles for what he's doing), he begins testifying to Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi). This happens in a series of private sessions and is the film's key relationship. Pierfrancesco Favino, the longtime character actor who plays Bruscetta with enigmatic grandeur, made a point in the NYFF Q&A of repeatedly insisting (in his excellent English) that Falcone is the hero of this story, not Bruscetta; that the men of the Cosa Nostra are evil, stupid fellows. Bruscetta himself hereafter cherishes his relationship with Falcone - whose courage in pursuing this case will lead later to his death in an explosion in a car (duly depicted). In time Bruscetta is given a roommate in his spacious prison accommodations, Totuccio Contorno (an excellent, low-keyed Luigi Lo Cascio), another high-ranking mafioso joining the ranks of pentiti.

Next, after Bruscetta is provided with his choice of tailored suits (with a chance meeting at the tailor's with the soon-to-be-tried "Il Divo" Giulio Andreotti), comes the trial. This is what makes The Traitor special. It seems to a non-Italian operatic, chaotic, absurd: but it not only follows transcripts and extensive films of the events, but was able to be shot in the actual huge courtroom where the trial took place. The "cross-examinations" where mafiosi abuse and accuse each other are wild, crazy macho stuff. Bruscetta, this first time (he will return from witness protection later for a repeat performance), is in a glass cage in the middle, while lesser prisoners are in metal cages along the side.

After this, which results in the sentencing of hundreds of mafiosi, Bruscetta joins his family in the US, in witness protection in various locations from Florida to New England to Colorado. This is interesting too, for its detail, the taste of danger he always felt, though, we learn, he died in his bed as he had wanted, at 71 - but this is also anti-climactic, the stuff of documentary, not of drama.

For Italians we have to remember the story of Tommaso Bruscetta is a great national epic, some kind of partial rite of purification from a long, dark past. For us the movie is more of a mixed bag, with too many digressions to make well-structured drama. The craft and the acting are impeccable, though, and often impressive.

Another important point noted by Bellocchio in his NYFF Q&A (speaking in crystal-clear Italian) but lost to anglophone-only viewers, is that much of the dialogue of the film is in Sicilian dialect that is subtitled in Italian when the film is shown in Italy. He can't understand Sicilian himself. Most Italians can't. This important alienation effect is lost for the US audience, since the Sicilian dialogue simply gets the same English subtitles as the Italian. Bruscetta tries to elevate himself by speaking a mixture of Sicilian and Italian (with some Portuguese, which he speaks always with his wife), but Contorno repeatedly points out that he cannot speak Italian. Awareness of this might help us understand a little better that Cosa Nostra is an alien empire, a strange and powerful cancer on the Italian state.

The Traitor/Il traditore, 145 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes with simultaneous Italian release; nine other festivals listed including Toronto and New York, screened at the latter for this review. Bought by Sony it's scheduled for US release Jan. 31, 2020. Current Metascore based on eight reviews: 57%. Highly regarded in Italy. Released in France Oct. 30, with an AlloCiné press rating of 4.3, equivalent to 86%.

Chris Knipp
10-05-2019, 10:02 PM


Vibrant grimness

Kantemir Balagov is only 27 years old and this is his second feature; Jessica Kiang calls him in her Variety review (https://variety.com/2019/film/markets-festivals/beanpole-review-1203215728/) a "blazing" talent. This is a long, agonizing study of two battle-scarred young woman working in a hospital in Leningrad, and those around them, just after the end of the War, showing how Russia and its people were ravaged then. The titular figure is Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), whose height, pallor, and strange nervous and muscular condition got her that nickname.

The glowing look and the closeup intensity reminded me at first of Hungarian Laszlo Nemes' amazing debut feature Son of Saul (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4022-New-York-Film-Festival-2015&p=33994#post33994) (FCS/NYFF 2015). Balagov fools you, showing you a gallery of hopeless cases but then seeming to focus on cheer and life with Beanpolel's relationship to a cute little boy, then he delivers a rude shock. The plot is a tangled web of associations, manipulations, and disappointments. But if I understood Balagov correctly, the movie grows wholly out of his fascination with a book he discovered about PTSD among Russian woman after WWII, The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.

From early on, the action is almost too much to bear and too hard to watch. Yet all the characters, played by non-actors, are vivid, and the images glow with yellows and ochres. The cinematography by Ksenia Sereda is great. As ugly and depressing as the events are, they look beautiful, and the director's youthful enthusiasm makes this contradiction seem not cynical but right. This is a film about youth - youth sabotaged. The rickety, minimal trappings - long trolley cars, ornate but ancient automobiles - still seem very alive, if, like the people, likely to collapse and die at any moment. One old but elegant vehicle is driven by Sasha (Igor Shirokov), who comes one night looking for fun, and his hilariously clumsy frolic with Iya's friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) leads to a tenacious connection. He is homely but he turns out to be rich. He can woo Masha with fruit, salt, and other goodies she shares with Beanpole.

I didn't altogether buy into the action, even though I remained open to being astonished. It's all too much, and the main characters are too fluid. When Shasha takes Masha to meet his mother in a grand house, it's a typically jaw-dropping sequence, an opening up of the action that typically soon closes down. Like everything, it all feels improvised, but in some ways all the more real for that. I salute this wunderkind's remarkable talent and invention.

Balagov hit the Russia film scene by surprise only two years ago with his debut feature, Closeness, which also unexpectedly made it into Un Certain Regard at Cannes, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. At the time even Russians hadn’t heard of the young director, a disciple of the great Alexander Sokurov, whom he gave a nod to in his NYFF introduction of the film as "my teacher." A great deal may be understood by exploring this connection, but obviously Galagov has made what he learned from Sokurov his own as any master pupil does. It seems beyond the point to say this is one to watch. This is a brilliant, unforgettable film.

Beanpole/Дылда (Dylda), 130 mins., debuted in Un Certain Regard at Cannes May 2019, winning its Best Director award. Seven other festivals followed, including Toronto and New York, screened at the latter for this review. US theatrical release is planned for Jan. 29, 2020. Current Metascore 81%.

[Some of my information is drawn from this site: Russian Beyond (https://www.rbth.com/arts/330436-beanpole-movie-balagov).]

Chris Knipp
10-06-2019, 10:45 AM


The trappings of a crime caper don't make for much entertainment

Corneliu Porumboiu is one of the most admired of the new generation of Romanian directors, whose Police, Adjective (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?2644-New-York-Film-Festival-2009/page2&s=&postid=23034#post23034) I reviewed in the 2009 NYFF, and his The Treasure (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4022-New-York-Film-Festival-2015&p=33970#post33970) in the 2015 one. He has his admirers, no doubt. I am not particularly one of them, and even less so after this latest effort.

Porumboiu provides the trappings of a unique crime story here with an unusual Canary Islands setting, but it's all tongue in cheek, and kind of by-the-numbers, so it's not fun and ultimately makes little sense. If conceptual genre flicks are your thing, go for it. Otherwise, stay away from The Whistlers.

"Corneliu Porumboiu's deadpan, daffy noir has a cop caught in a labyrinthine plot involving women, whistling and a mattress full of money" says Jessica Kiang, in her Variety (https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/the-whistlers-review-1203219289/) review. Reviewing this film for the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/20/the-whistlers-la-gomera-review-corneliu-porumboiu) at Cannes, Peter Bradshaw calls it a "elegant and stylishly crafted piece of entertainment," with "a nifty plot" that is "quite involved" but "hangs together well."

There are however essential things missing from the start in this film and they are never supplied: what is this all about, and what are these different players' parts in it? There are mattresses full of cash, yes: where did the cash come from? Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), the stolid, corrupt cop who's the main focus throughout is involved in this business. But what is the business? How did he get involved in it?

Instead of providing details of the crime or personal touches about the characters, Porumooiu gets involved in motifs and peculiar local color. There is a hotel called "Opera" where the proprietor, who's in on the crime, constantly plays opera, on vinyl, loud in the reception area. He has a particular penchant for the Barcarolle from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman. (This gets old after a while.) Most of all, Porumboiu has discovered Gomera, in the Canary Islands, where a code language to communicate with whistles is part of the local culture, and actually taught. Cristi gets lessons and eventually he is able to communicate this way across a considerable distance to the lovely Gilda (Catrinel Marlon). (Why if this is the local culture it's claimed that police would think the whistling was bird calls is unclear. I guess not on Gomera.)

I enjoyed the tightly organized edit of the film, the flashy cars, the pretty if repetitious music, and the beautiful Catrinel Marion. There is a dazzling music-and-lights show at an Asian entertainment park that's used for the final sequence. It's pretty. But it was impossible to enjoy or even understand the rest of the film.

The Whistlers/Gomera, 97 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition and was scheduled for 13 other festivals including New York, where it was screened for this review Oct. 7, 2019. Metascore 74%.


Chris Knipp
10-06-2019, 10:55 AM


Jack London translated into Italian

This is director Pietro Marcello's half-terrific, half-off-putting Italian adaptation, with previous collaborator Maruizio Braucci, of the 1909 American novel by Jack London about a proletarian intellectual who decides to become a writer despite lack of education and is troubled by an upperclass girlfriend, becoming too successful too soon, then despairing. Though there was a 1942 film (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034431/?ref_=tt_urv) with Glenn Ford in the lead, the book is well known in Europe but now largely forgotten at home. In America London's dwindling fame rests on his north woods tales and he seems like a YA writer; I had no idea he had this philosophical side.

Pietro Marcello's movie is intermittently engaging, and grabs you from the start, thanks to the charisma and intensity of the rangy Italian star, Luca Marinelli, who proclaims his lines and stares out at us with his big blue eyes. Because Eden is a seaman the protagonist's home base has been shifted to Naples, and despite some lingering American names, Marcello has thoroughly Italianized this material.

Some of Marcello's avant-garde methods can be a bit distracting as we go along. Chief among these is indifference to what era of the twentieth century the action is taking place in, a freedom with period detail he doesn't handle with the same convincing panache as Derek Jarman. An initially intriguing use of edited archival footage also comes to seem distracting and arbitrary, though it's nice that he prefers film and worked with 16mm., and the use of archival footage is something he is particularly wedded too.

It's also true that the character of Martin Eden becomes increasingly shrill and unsympathetic, but that is intended and part of the Jack London novel. This is not meant as a stirring intellectual bildingsroman so much as a disturbing cautionary tale, though that isn't clear until later. It's astonishing when Martin, pushed by his provocative older friend Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), addresses a socialist rally and attacks their ideology with nihilistic declarations, declaring socialism a "slave mentality." Later at an author lecture he simply sounds crazy. He gets out of control and starts to turn ugly.

As Lee Marshall writes in a Screen Daily review (https://www.screendaily.com/reviews/martin-eden-venice-review/5142449.article), Marcello is best known for his "unclassifiable arthouse documentaries" that "hover" between "reality" and "a cinematic fugue state." I found this a bit hard to take in the one previous film of his I'd seen, his 2015 Lost and Beautiful/Bella e perduta (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4120-New-Directors-New-Films-2016-Film-Comments-Selects&p=34485#post34485) (ND/NF 2016). He has gone much more mainstream here, and with a bigger budget, though he ultimately makes no concessions to conventionality. Martin Eden is innately a strong, accessible story. We're grabbed by the protagonist's naive passion, his discovery of poetry and books through Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), the upperclass girl he mets by rescuing her little brother from a bully. The sympathy will dwindle rapidly later on.

It turns out that in the terms of Italian education, Martin is so lacking in general information that he needs to go back to primary school, which he's too poor to do, even if he could face the humiliation. Conventional education just isn't what he wants. He simply reads and reads and writes and writes and sends his stories and poems to magazines, which all come back marked "return to sender" - until one doesn't, he's paid an enormous 200,000 lire, and the tide turns toward wealth and fame.

The relationship with Elena is ambiguous. It stands for Eden's ambiguous relationship toward class, conventionality, maybe even toward life. She pledges her undying love, but wants Martin to let her father set him up in some kind of office job. Instead when he needs money he goes to the sea, or takes brutal work on a foundry, and he gets into fights. When he gets known, and turns into an ideologue, expounding the brutal Darwinian theories of Herbert Spenser, Elena rejects him. Eventually he seems also to reject himself - and when she comes back, he rejects her too.

There is something grand but flawed about Eden as played by Marinelli, grand and flawed also about this film. Pietro Marcello's boldness and freedom engage at first, even with the random found footage and the mixing of 1900's clothes and modern cars. Something grand and revolutionary seems afoot, as with Martin Eden himself: one can see how this filmmaker, with his glut of ideas and penchant for breaking genre barriers would like this class-hopping anti-hero who breaks all the rules and succeeds - till he crashes. Eden's half-cracked plunge into ideology seems cool for a while. It's something so rare in American movies.

Eden's transformation into a rich, spoiled, self-absorbed superstar author happens too fast, especially given how well the film has depicted some of the proletarian settings, Eden's naivete, his affection for the little family he lives with in the suburbs, his speaking of Neapolitan dialect whenever required. (As with Bellocchio's The Traitor, English subtitles fail to reveal the constant shifts from Italian to dialect to the Anglophone audience.) Suddenly Marinelli has bleached hair combed differently, he lives in a grand house, and he wears fussy collars and neckties. It doesn't really compute. Pietro Marcello's plunge into more conventional storytelling is promising but he might do better to pare down some of his avant-garde methods. This is a memorable if flawed experiment.

Martin Eden, 129 mins., debuted at Venice, where Marinelli won the Best Actor prize. It's in seven other listed festivals, including Toronto, New York, and London, and it was screened for this review as part of the NYFF (Oct. 7, 2019). Metascore 51% (which seems extreme; it's better than that).

A Toronto Q&A with the director HERE (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNxOu4a2Gak).


Chris Knipp
10-06-2019, 11:13 AM


Exploded atmosphere

Lou Ye's elaborate new black-and-white spy film, a showcase for the still glamorous and beautiful Gong LI set in Shanghai in the week before the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, is glamorous and atmospheric. One revels in the rainy streets, the big heavy black cars, the men and women dressed to the nines, the public rooms and suites of the elegant "Cathay Hotel" and a puzzling theater stage that seems like a dance hall perpetually in motion.

If I told you that I never quite understood exactly what was going on, that might not differentiate this movie from Casablanca or The Big Sleep. But something is lacking in the characterizations and the dialogue that those classics have. When it is all over and more than two hours have passed, there has been a lot of mystery and finally a lot of noise and blood, but there is not much satisfaction.

The action takes place in the cosmopolitan "French Concession," a place apart in the "solitary island" that the city of Shanghai has been since it was occupied by Japan in 1937 and a privileged neutral zone. Here, Jean Yu (Gong Li, as a famous actress, not a stretch) has come to join Tan Na (Mark Chao), the lead actor and director, in a play, to be staged at Shanghai's Lyceum Theatre, and they are former lovers. This much is clear.

But the scene in which they first meet here blurs the line between reality and theater, and it keeps getting repeated. I never quite understood why. (It almost seems the director of the film has mistakenly left in alternate takes, an effect that's intriguing, but also distracting.) The action begins in murkiness. And while there are continually moments in the light as various characters, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese, come and go, that murkiness continues and floods our perception of the proceedings. We are trapped in ongoing rehearsals, interrupted by double-crosses, surprised by furtive sendings of encrypted messages, and stunned by fatal shootouts. And yet the murkiness triumphs.

Toward the end, the on screen audience assembles for the play, entitled, yes, Saturday Fiction. But Jean Yu cannot perform because she is in too much danger. Her role is taken, temporarily, by Bai (Huang Xiangli), a reporter, spy operative, and acting hopeful who has infiltrated herself early on into Jean Yu's life. Switcheroos and multiple roles are the essence of this piece.

Jean Yu, who's been in Hong Kong a while, is ceremonially greeted as she arrives in the French Concession by the Cathay Hotel's manager Saul Speyer (Tom Wlaschiha of "Game of Thrones"). He turns out to be spying for the Allies, and will report also on all her activities. She has come not only for the play but to locate her ex-husband, and get him out of the hands of the Japanese, who have captured him. She has been a spy operative herself, hence Saul Speyer's special interest. But she's here also for a third reason. She's been summoned by Frédéric Hubert (Pascal Greggory), a French book dealer who reveals his possession of a rare copy of Sorrows of Young Werther signed not only by the author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but by Friedrich Nietzsche. M. Hubert walks with a cane, but it's just an elegant accoutrement. He's quietly natty dresser who's also a spymaster who has looked over Jean Yu over the years while running her espionage missions for some years.

This is a movie that goes a little too slow for quite a while, until it goes too fast. It steeps itself in rich period atmosphere (though with a few touches that are plainly anachronistic), and lingers over Jean Yu's meetings with various men, and has to take time to introduce us to the puzzling play, the Cathay Hotel's labyrinthine passages, and the cast of characters. The latter include Mo Zhiyin (Wang Chuanjun), the Lyceum's untrustworthy and malicious producer, and importantly, Captain Saburo (Joe Odagiri), a Japanese military intelligence officer who has come to Shanghai to distribute to his operatives the updated Japanese operational codes. These M. Hubert is extremely keen on learning. It so happens that Jean Yu may be able to help him pry them out of Saburo, because she closely resembles his dead wife. (Several people get slipped a sleeping potion that helps unlock their secrets.)

Once all this gets set up, the Japanese come in, violence breaks out, and Jean Yu, in the semi-darkness, becomes a nearly indestructible superhero on the Chinese side, capable of wielding a pistol and an automatic weapon with equal pinpoint accuracy. After the long scenes of dreamy dialogue, I confess I found this sudden turn to violence bewildering. After all, it's Gong Li. All that lovely, if somewhat draggy, atmosphere, exploded, thrown away in a prolonged shootout? It seems modern directors love doing period but lack insight into the genres that go with it. Watch, though, to see what happens to The Sorrows of Young Werther, in a memorable sequence when M. Hubert slips away.

Saturday Fiction 兰心大剧院 (Lyceum Theatre), 125 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2019, also in five other festivals including Toronto and New York, screened at the NYFF for this review. Slated for US release by Kino Lorber. Metascore: 51%.


Chris Knipp
10-06-2019, 11:17 AM


Economic desperation, drowned African refugees, a love story and a ghost story

Atlantics is a refugee drama, transformed into magic and mystery and revenge by possession, that focuses on the women left behind by a group of men suddenly lost at sea when desperation in their work leads them to try to sail to Spain in an open boat. It focuses on a popular suburb of Dakar, poor but vibrant with youth, where workers on a construction site with a futuristic (CGI) tower have striven for months without pay. Among them is Souleiman (Traore), the tall, handsome young lover of Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who is to marry the well-off Omar (Babacar Sylla) in ten days. A French reviewer called this film "an emotional, visual, and sonorous poem." As the action plays out, the real gives way to dream: the young women take back their power through being possessed by the spirit of their men. The busy trailer for the film uses the tag line DF Wallace's biographer DT Max links to him, "Every love story is a ghost story."

Despite its grand prize, a few French critics found the 36-year-old Diop's film mix of genres lacked mastery; resorted too often to shots of the sea or the full moon. Mike D'Angelo was bothered by the fact that Soleiman possesses the notably fit and young police inspector Issa (Amadou Mbow) instead of Ada and can't agree with Jay Weissberg's interpretation that in his Variety review (https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/atlantics-review-1203217085/) that this switch is to "avoid any same-sex 'awkwardness' towards the end." Maybe what both writers really object to is resorting to the supernatural to resolve socioeconomic issues in the first place. That is what bothers me - while nonetheless Diap's choice to focus on the bereaved women, partly a practical one, seems justified as a way of examining the tragedy of drowned African refugees.

The main force of the action is that grief is transformed into righteous anger when a group of the women turn milky-eyed at night and go several times to haunt the crooked building project boss, Mr. N’Diaye (Diankou Sembene) and eventually force him to pay them all the lost men's back wages. But there is also the brief return of Soleiman in the body of the fit Issa to make love once with the bereaved Ada. Soleiman's entering the body of Issa is emotional logic, the only kind that prevails here.

This is a film that makes great sense overall but has shortcomings in the details. You can find fault with various plot elements. Another is that though Ada has the conservative friend, Mariama (Mariama Gassama), who berates her for not being nice to her new rich husband she doesn't love, Omar, it would have been better to include severe hijab-wearing friends, and not just fun-loving ones. D'Angelo certainly has a point that Inspector Issa's investigation of the fire of the marriage bed and persecution of Ada is repetitious and inexplicable. The repeated shots of the sea are indeed repetitious, though they do serve as a reminder of its devouring maw and the loss of all the fine young men.

But all this is beside the point in a way because what is enchanting and strong is the way Mati Diap captures the vivacity and physical beauty of the Senegalese people here. This is Africa, and the film shows us what that means. Soleiman is a gorgeous young man, tall, pretty, with the long, loose, forward stride they all have, which conveys a sense of optimism, strength, confidence: you can imagine how they'd think they could sail to Spain in a little open boat. Ada is equally beautiful, slim, supple, forward-striding, charming, coquettish. In their brief afternoon scene when they kiss and long for more, and there is never a goodbye and Soleiman (like all the men) never tells his beloved he is going to sail away, is yet a bright and memorable moment full of sensuality and lost promise.

Likewise all the scenes of the women afterwards glow with color and energy. The action sparkles. The whole film flashes and pops, underlined by Fatima Al Qadiri's music and Claire Mathon's cinematography that is somehow vivid and rough, in-your-face yet pleasing, a palette that's "muted," as Weissberg says, emphasizing the people, and the (bright and often hazy) light. Even the repetitious full moon and sea horizon shots underline the sensual simplicity of the style. The vigor of the young men is so well conveyed in the opening scenes that their temporary survival after death in the night-possessed women feels possible. This is about the beauty of African youth and an energy and strength that can live on after death. Even if Diap's story choices seem alien to you, you can feel that they come from somewhere profound. This is a film bold in its ambition and imagination, so much so it skips over certain details of logic or consistency.

Atlantics/Atlantique, 104 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 16, 2019, and subsequently was awarded the Grand Prix. Mati Diop is the first woman of African descent to have a film showing in Competition at the festival or win an award in its 72 years. The film opened theatrically in Dakar in Aug. Eight other festivals are listed including London, the Hamptons, Chicago and New York. It was screened at the NYFF for this review Oct. 9, 2019. AlloCiné press rating 3.4 from 28 review (though many admired it, a good number of French critics also found it seriously flawed), while the Anglophone critics response was apparently much more glowing, given a Metascore of 81% (based on 14 reviews).

Chris Knipp
10-09-2019, 04:42 PM
BONG JOON-HO: PARASITE 기생충 (Gisaengchung) (2019)


Crime thriller as social commentary? Maybe not.

I've reviewed Bong's 2006 The Host (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1851-Ny-Film-Festival-2006&p=16019#post16019) ("a monster movie with a populist heart and political overtones that's great fun to watch") and his 2009 Mother (https://www.imdb.com/review/rw2135898/?ref_=tt_urv) which I commented had "too many surprises." (I also reviewed his 2013 Snowpiercer (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3775-SNOWPIERCER-%28Bong-Joon-ho-2013%29&p=32507#post32507).) Nothing is different here except this seems to be being taken more seriously as social commentary, though it's primarily an elaborately plotted and cunningly realized violent triller, as well a monster movie where the monsters are human. It's also marred by being over long and over-plotted, making its high praise seem a bit excessive.

This new film, Bong's first in a while made at home and playing with national social issues, is about a deceitful poor family that infiltrates a rich one. It won the top award at Cannes in May 2019, just a year after the Japanese Koreeda's (more subtle and more humanistic) Palm winner about the related theme of a crooked poor family. Parasite has led to different comparisons, such as Losey's The Servant and Pasolini's Theorem. In accepting the prize, Bong himself gave a nod to Hitchcock and Chabrol. Parasite has met with nearly universal acclaim, though some critics feel it is longer and more complicated than necessary and crude in its social commentary, if its contrasting families really adds up to that. The film is brilliantly done and exquisitely entertaining half the way. Then it runs on too long and acquires an unwieldiness that makes it surprisingly flawed for a film so heaped with praise.

It's strange to compare Parasite with Losey's The Servant, in which Dick Bogarde and James Fox deliver immensely rich performances. Losey's film is a thrillingly slow-burn, subtle depiction of class interpenetration, really a psychological study that works with class, not a pointed statement about class itself. It's impossible to speak of The Servant and Parasite in the same breath.

In Parasite one can't help but enjoy the ultra-rich family's museum-piece modernist house, the score, and the way the actors are handled, but one keeps coming back to the fact that as Steven Dalton simply puts it in his Cannes Hollywood Reporter review (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/parasite-review-1212755), Parasite is "cumbersomely plotted" and "heavy-handed in its social commentary." Yet I had to go to that extremist and contrarian Armond White in National Review (https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/10/movie-review-parasite-laughs-at-family-and-social-ruin/) for a real voice of dissent. I don't agree with White's politics or his belief that Stephen Chow is a master filmmaker, but I do sympathize with being out-of-tune, like him, with all the praise of Boon's new film.

The contrast between the poor and rich family is blunt indeed, but the posh Park family doesn't seem unsubtly depicted: they're absurdly overprivileged, but don't come off as bad people. Note the con-artist Kim family's acknowledgement of this, and the mother's claim that being rich allows you to be nice, that money is like an iron that smooths out the wrinkles. This doesn't seem to be about that, mainly. It's an ingeniously twisted story of a dangerous game, and a very wicked one. Planting panties in the car to mark the chauffeur as a sexual miscreant and get him fired: not nice. Stimulating the existing housekeeper's allergy and then claiming she has TB so she'll be asked to leave: dirty pool. Not to mention before that, bringing in the sister as somebody else's highly trained art therapist relative, when all the documents are forged and the "expertise" is cribbed off the internet: standard con artistry.

The point is that the whole Kim family makes its way into the Park family's employ and intimate lives, but it is essential that they conceal that they are in any way related to each other. What Bong and his co-writer Jin Won Han are after is the depiction of a dangerous con game, motivated by poverty and greed, that titillates us with the growing risk of exposure. The film's scene-setting of the house and family is exquisite. The extraordinary house is allowed to do most of the talking. The rich family and the housekeeper are sketched in with a few deft stokes. One's only problem is first, the notion that this embodies socioeconomic commentary, and second, the overreach of the way the situation is played out, with one unnecessary coda after another till every possibility is exhausted. This is watchable and entertaining (till it's not), but it's not the stuff of a top award.

Parasite 기생충 (Gisaengchung), 132 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes, winning the Palme d'Or best picture award. Twenty-eight other festivals followed as listed on IMDb, including New York, for which it was screened (at IFC Center Oct. 11, 2019) for the present review. Current Metascore 95%. It has opened in various countries including France, where the AlloCiné press rating soared to 4.8.


Chris Knipp
10-10-2019, 12:55 PM


Edward Norton's passion project complicates the Jonathan Lethem novel

The NYFF Closing Night film is the premiere of Edwards Norton's adaptation, a triumph over many creative obstacles through a nine-year development time, of Jonathan Lethem's 1999 eponymous novel. It concerns Lionel Essrog (played by Norton), a man with Tourette's Syndrome who gets entangled in a police investigation using the obsessive and retentive mind that comes with his condition to solve the mystery. Much of the film, especially the first half, is dominated by Lionel's jerky motions and odd repetitive outbursts, for which he continually apologizes. Strange hero, but Lethem's creation. To go with the novel's evocation of Maltese Falcon style noir flavor, Norton has recast it from modern times to the Fifties.

Leading cast members, besides Norton himself, are Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In his recasting of the novel, as Peter Debruge explains in his Variety review (https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/motherless-brooklyn-review-1203320042/), Norton makes as much use of Robert Caro's The Power Broker, about the manipulative city planner Robert Moses, a "visionary" insensitive to minorities and the poor, as of Lethem's book. Alec Baldwn's "Moses Randolph" role represents the film's Robert Moses character, who is added into the world of the original novel.

Some of the plot line may become obscure in the alternating sources of the film. But clearly Lionel Essrog, whose nervous sensibility hovers over things in Norton's voiceover, is a handicapped man with an extra ability who's one of four orphans from Saint Vincent's Orphanage in Brooklyn saved by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who runs a detective agency. When Minna is offed by the Mob in the opening minutes of the movie, Lionel goes chasing. Then he learns city bosses had a hand, and want to repress his efforts.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw's character, Laura Rose, who becomes a kind of love interest for Lionel Essrog, and likewise willem Dafoe's, Paul Randolph, Moses' brother and opponent, are additional key characters in the film not in the Johathan Lethem book. The cinematography is by the Mike Leigh regular (who produced the exquisite Turner), Dick Pope. He provides a lush, classic look.

Viewers will have to decide if this mixture of novel, non-fiction book and period recasting works for them or not. For many the problem is inherent in the Lethem novel, that it's a detective story where, as the original Times reviewer Albert Mobilio said (http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/99/10/17/reviews/991017.17mobilot.html), "solving the crime is beside the point." Certainly Norton has created a rich mixture, and this is a "labour of love," "as loving as it is laborious, maybe," is how the Guardian's (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/sep/12/motherless-brooklyn-film-review-edward-norton) Peter Bradshaw put it, writing (generally quite favorably) from Toronto. In her intro piece for the first part of the New York Film Festival for the Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/movies/new-york-film-festival.html) Manohla Dargis linked it with the difficult Albert Serra'S Liberté with a one-word reaction: "oof," though she complemented these two as "choices rather than just opportunistically checked boxes." Motherless Brooklyn has many reasons for wanting to be in the New York Film Festival, and for the honor of Closing Night Film, notably the personal passion, but also the persistent rootedness in New York itself through these permutations.

Motherless Brooklyn, 144 mins., debuted at Telluride Aug. 30, 2019, showing at eight other festivals including Toronto, Vancouver, Mill Valley, and New York, where it was screened at the NYFF OCT. 11, 2019 as the Closing Night film. It opens theatrically in the US Nov. 1, 2019. Current Metascore 62%.

Chris Knipp
11-23-2019, 02:35 PM
[Found also in Filmleaf's Festival Coverage section for the 2019 NYFF]



Old song

From Martin Scorsese, who is in his late seventies, comes a major feature that is an old man's film. It's told by an old man, about old men, with old actors digitized (indifferently) to look like and play their younger selves as well. It's logical that The Irishman, about Teamsters loyalist and mob hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who became the bodyguard and then (as he tells it) the assassin of Union kingpin Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) should have been chosen as Opening Night Film of the New York Film Festival. Scorsese is very New York, even if the film is set in Detroit. He is also a good friend of Film at Lincoln Center. And a great American director with an impressive body of work behind him.

To be honest, I am not a fan of Scorsese's feature films. I do not like them. They are unpleasant, humorless, laborious and cold. I admire his responsible passion for cinema and incestuous knowledge of it. I do like his documentaries. From Fran Lebowitz's talk about the one he made about her, I understand what a meticulous, obsessive craftsman he is in all his work. He also does have a sense of humor. See how he enjoys Fran's New York wit in Public Speaking. And there is much deadpan humor in The Irishman at the expense of the dimwitted, uncultured gangsters it depicts. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian's script based on Charles Brandt's book about Sheeran concocts numerous droll deadpan exchanges. It's a treat belatedly to see De Niro and Pacino acting together for the first time in extended scenes.

The Irishman is finely crafted and full of ideas and inspires many thoughts. But I found it monotonous and overlong - and frankly overrated. American film critics are loyal. Scorsese is an icon, and they feel obligated, I must assume, to worship it. He has made a big new film in his classic gangster vein, so it must be great. The Metascore, 94%, nonetheless is an astonishment. Review aggregating is not a science, but the makers of these scores seem to have tipped the scales. At least I hope more critics have found fault with The Irishman than that. They assign 80% ratings to some reviews that find serious fault, and supply only one negative one (Austin Chronicle, Richard Whittaker (https://www.austinchronicle.com/events/film/2019-11-08/the-irishman/)). Of course Armond White trashes the movie magnificently in National Review (https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/11/movie-review-the-irishman-martin-scorsese-cliched-gangster-tale/) ("Déjà Vu Gangsterism"), but that's outside the mainstream mediocre media pale.

Other Scorsese stars join De Niro and Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel. This is a movie of old, ugly men. Even in meticulously staged crowd scenes, there is not one young or handsome face. Women are not a factor, not remotely featured as in Jonathan Demme's delightful Married to the Mob. There are two wives often seen, in the middle distance, made up and coiffed to the kitsch nines, in expensive pants suits, taking a cigarette break on car trips - it's a thing. But they don't come forward as characters. Note also that out of loyalty to his regulars, Scorsese uses an Italo-American actor to play an Irish-American. There's a far-fetched explanation of Frank's knowledge of Italian, but his Irishness doesn't emerge - just another indication of how monochromatic this movie is.

It's a movie though, ready to serve a loyal audience with ritual storytelling and violence, providing pleasures in its $140 million worth of production values in period feel, costumes, and snazzy old cars (though I still long for a period movie whose vehicles aren't all intact and shiny). This is not just a remake. Its very relentlessness in showing Frank's steady increments of slow progress up the second-tier Teamsters and mafia outsider functionary ladders is something new. But it reflects Scorsese's old worship of toughs and wise guys and seeming admiration for their violence.

I balk at Scorsese's representing union goons and gangsters as somehow heroic and tragic. Metacritic's only critic of the film, Richard Whittiker of the Austen Chronicle (https://www.austinchronicle.com/events/film/2019-11-08/the-irishman/), seems alone in recognizing that this is not inevitable. He points out that while not "lionizing" mobsters, Scorsese still "romanticizes" them as "flawed yet still glamorous, undone by their own hubris." Whittiker - apparently alone in this - compares this indulgent touch with how the mafia is shown in "the Italian poliziotteschi," Italian Years of Lead gang films that showed them as "boors, bullies, and murderers, rather than genteel gentlemen who must occasionally get their hands dirty and do so oh-so-begrudgingly." Whittiker calls Scorsese's appeal to us to feel Sheeran's "angst" when he's being flown in to kill "his supposed friend" (Hoffa) "a demand too far."

All this reminded me of a richer 2019 New York Film Festival mafia experience, Marco Bellocchio's The Traitor/Il traditore (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4679-New-York-Film-Festival-2019&p=37925#post37925), the epic, multi-continent story of Tommaso Buscetta, the first big Italian mafia figure who chose to turn state's witness. This is a gangster tale that has perspective, both morally and historically. And I was impressed that Pierfrancesco Favino, the star of the film, who gives a career-best performance as Buscetta, strongly urged us both before and after the NYFF public screening to bear in mind that these mafiosi are small, evil, stupid men. Coppola doesn't see that, but he made a glorious American gangster epic with range and perspective. In another format, so did David Chase om the 2000-2007 HBO epic, "The Sopranos." Scprsese has not done so. Monotonously, and at overblown length, he has once again depicted Italo-Americans as gangsters, and (this time) unions as gangs of thugs.

The Irishman, 209 mins,. debuted at New York as Opening Night Film; 15 other international festivals, US theatrical release Nov. 1, wide release in many countries online by Netflix Nov. 27. Metascore 94%.

Chris Knipp
12-05-2019, 01:36 PM


Not just another Cannes mistake?

This is a bold film for an arthouse filmmaker to produce, and it has moments of rawness and unpredictability that are admirable. But it seems at first hand to be possibly a misstep both for the previously much subtler chronicler of social and political unease as seen in the 2011 Neighboring Sopunds (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3246-New-Directors-New-Films-and-Film-Comment-Selects-2012&p=27538#post27538) and 2016 Aquarius (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4198-New-York-Film-Festival-2016&p=35022#post35022), Kleber Mendonça Filho, and for Cannes, which may have awarded novelty rather than mastery in giving it half of the 2019 Jury Prize. It's a movie that excites and then delivers a series of scenes of growing disappointment and repugnance. But I'm not saying it won't surprise and awe you.

Let's begin with where we are, which is the Brazilian boonies. Bacurau was filmed in the village of Barra in the municipality of Parelhas and in the rural area of the municipality of Acari, at the Sertão do Seridó region, in Rio Grande do Norte. Mendonça Filho shares credit this time with his regular production designer Juliano Dornelles. (They both came originally from this general region, is one reason.) The Wikipedia article introduces it as a "Brazilian weird western film" and its rural shootout, its rush of horses, its showdowns, and its truckload of coffins may indeed befit that peculiar genre.

How are we to take the action? In his Hollywood Reporter (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/bacurau-review-1211067) review, Stephen Dalton surprises me by asserting that this third narrative feature "strikes a lighter tone" than the first two and combines "sunny small-town comedy with a fable-like plot" along with "a sprinkle of magic realism." This seems an absurdly watered down description, but the film is many things to many people because it embodies many things. In an interview (https://nofilmschool.com/bacurau-movie-interview) with Emily Buder, Mendoça Filho himself describes it as a mix of "spaghetti Western, '70's sci-fi, social realist drama, and political satire."

The film feels real enough to be horrifying, but it enters risky sci-fi horror territory with its futuristic human hunting game topic, which has been mostly an area for schlock. (See a list of ten (https://www.fandom.com/articles/10-great-humans-hunting-humans-movies), with the 1932 Most Dangerous Game given as the trailblazer.) However, we have to acknowledge that Mendonca Filho is smart enough to know all this and may want to use the schlock format for his own sophisticated purpose. But despite Mike D'Angelo's conclusion on Letterboxd (https://letterboxd.com/gemko/film/bacurau/) that the film may "require a second viewing following extensive reading" due to its rootedness in Brazilian politics, the focus on American imperialists and brutal outside exploiters from the extreme right isn't all that hard to grasp.

Bacurau starts off as if it means to be an entertainment, with conventional opening credits and a pleasant pop song celebrating Brazil, but that is surely ironic. A big water truck rides in rough, arriving with three bullet holes spewing agua that its driver hasn't noticed. (The road was bumpy.) There is a stupid, corrupt politician, mayor Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), who is complicit in robbing local areas of their water supply and who gets a final comeuppance. The focus is on Bacurau, a little semi-abandoned town in the north whose 94-year-old matriarch Carmelita dies and gets a funeral observation in which the whole town participates, though apart the ceremony's strange magic realist aspects Sonia Braga, as a local doctor called Domingas, stages a loud scene because she insists that the deceased woman was evil. Then, with some, including Carmelita's granddaughter Teresa (Barbara Colen), returned to town from elsewhere, along with the handsome Pacote (Tomaso Aquinas) and a useful psychotic local killer and protector of water rights called Lunga (Silvero Pereira), hostile outsiders arrive, though as yet unseen. Their forerunners are a colorfully costumed Brazilian couple in clownish spandex suits on dustrider motorcycles who come through the town. When they're gone, it's discovered seven people have been shot.

They were an advance crew for a gang of mostly American white people headed by Michael (Udo Kier), whose awkward, combative, and finally murderous conference we visit. This is a bad scene in more ways than one: it's not only sinister and racist, but clumsy, destroying the air of menace and unpredictability maintained in the depiction of Bacurau scenes. But we learn the cell phone coverage of the town has been blocked, it is somehow not included on maps, and communications between northern and southern Brazil are temporarily suspended, so the setting is perfect for this ugly group to do what they've come for, kill locals for sport using collectible automatic weapons. Overhead there is a flying-saucer-shaped drone rumbling in English. How it functions isn't quite clear, but symbolically it refers to American manipulation from higher up. The way the rural area is being choked off requires no mention of Brazil's new right wing strong man Jair Bolsonaro and the Amazonian rain forest.

"They're not going to kill a kid," I said as a group of local children gather, the most normal, best dressed Bacurauans on screen so far, and play a game of dare as night falls to tease us, one by one creeping as far as they can into the dark. But sure enough, a kid gets shot. At least even the bad guys agree this was foul play. And the bad guys get theirs, just as in a good Western. But after a while, the action seems almost too symbolically satisfying - though this is achieved with good staging and classic visual flair through zooms, split diopter effects, Cinemascope, and other old fashioned techniques.

I'm not the only one finding Bacurau intriguing yet fearing that it winds up being confused and all over the place. It would work much better if it were dramatically tighter. Peter DeBruge in Variety (https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/bacarau-review-1203215347/) notes that the filmakers "haven’t figured out how to create that hair-bristling anticipation of imminent violence that comes so naturally to someone like Quentin Tarantino." Mere vague unexpectedness isn't scary, and all the danger and killing aren't wielded as effectively as they should be to hold our attention and manipulate our emotions.

Bacurau, 131 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes, where it tied for the Jury Prize with the French film, Ladj Ly's Les misérables. Many other awards and at least 31 other festivals including the NYFF. Metascore 74%. AlloCiné press rating 3.8, with a rare rave from Cahiers du Cinéma. US theatrical distribution by Kino Lorber began Mar. 13, 2020, but due to general theater closings caused by the coronavirus pandemic the company launched (https://www.cinematropical.com/cinema-tropical/brazilian-hit-bacurau-is-now-available-in-a-virtual-theatrical-streaming) a "virtual theatrical exhibition initiative," Kino Marquee, with this film from Mar. 19.

Chris Knipp
04-06-2020, 05:04 PM


Voodoo comes to Paris

If you said Betrand Bonello's films are beautiful, sexy, and provocative you would not be wrong. This new, officially fifth feature (I've still not seen his first one, the 2008 On War), has those elements. Its imagery, full of deep contrasts, can only be described as lush. Its intertwined narrative is puzzling as well.

We're taken right away to Haiti and plunged into the world of voodoo and zombies. Ground powder from the cut-up body of a blowfish is dropped, unbeknownst to him, into a man's shoes. Walking in them, he soon falters and falls. Later, he's aroused from death to the half-alive state of a zombie - and pushed into a numb, helpless labor in the hell of a a sugar cane field with other victims of the same cruel enchantment. In time however something arouses him to enough life to escape.

Some of the Haitian sequences center around a moonlit cemetery whose large tombs seem airy and haunted and astonishingly grand for what we know as the poorest country in the hemisphere.

From the thumping, vibrant ceremonies of Haitian voodoo (Bonello's command of music is always fresh and astonishing as his images are lush and beautiful) we're rushed to the grandest private boarding school you've ever seen, housed in vast stone government buildings. This noble domaine was established by Napoleon Bonaparte on the edge of Paris, in Saint Denis, for the education of children of recipients of the Legion of Honor. It really exists, and attendance there is still on an honorary basis.

Zombi Child oscillates between girls in this very posh Parisian school and people in Haiti. But these are not wholly separate places. A story about a Haitian grandfather (the zombie victim, granted a second life) and his descendants links the two strains. It turns out one of those descendants, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), is a new student at the school. A white schoolgirl, Fanny (the dreamy Louise Labeque), who's Mélissa's friend and sponsors her for membership in a sorority, while increasingly possessed by a perhaps imaginary love, also bridges the gap. For the sorority admission Mélissa confesses the family secret of a zombi and voodoo knowledge in her background.

Thierry Méranger of Cahiers du Cinéma calls this screenplay "eminently Bonellian in its double orientation," its "interplay of echoes" between "radically different" worlds designed to "stimulate the spectator's reflection." Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times (https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-02-19/zombi-child-review-bertrand-bonello) bluntly declares that it's meant to "interrogate the bitter legacy of French colonialism."

But how so? And if so, this could be a tricky proposition. On NPR (https://www.npr.org/2020/01/23/798864658/zombi-child-when-the-real-horror-is-colonialism) Andrew Lapin was partly admiring of how "cerebral and slippery" the film is, but suggests that since voodoo and zombies are all most white people "already know" about Haitian culture, a director coming from Haiti's former colonizing nation (France) must do "a lot of legwork to use these elements successfully in a "fable" where "the real horror is colonialism." The posh school comes from Napoleon, who coopted the French revolution, and class scenes include a history professor lecturing on this and how "liberalism obscures liberty."

I'm more inclined to agree with Glenn Kenny's more delicately worded praise in his short New York Times review (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/23/movies/zombi-child-review.html) of the film where he asserts that the movie’s inconclusiveness is the source of its appeal. Zombi Child, he says, is fueled by insinuation and fascination. The fascination, the potent power, of the occult, that's what Haiti has that the first wold lacks.

One moment made me authentically jump, but Bonello isn't offering a conventional horror movie. He's more interested in making his hints of voodoo's power and attraction, even for the white lovelorn schoolgirl, seem as convincing as his voodoo ceremonies, both abroad and back in Haiti, feel thoroughly attractive, or scary, and real. These are some of the best voodoo scenes in a movie. This still may seem like a concoction to you. Its enchantments were more those of the luxuriant imagery, the flowing camerawork, the delicious use of moon- and candle-light, the beautiful people, of whatever color. This is world-class filmmaking even if it's not Bonello's best work.

Bonello stages things, gets his actors to live them completely, then steps back and lets it happen. Glenn Kenny says his "hallmark" is his "dreamy detachment." My first look at that was the 2011 House of Tolerence (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?3165-Paris-movie-report-%28oct-2011%29&p=26924#post26924) (L'Apollonide - mémoires de la maison close), which I saw in Paris, a languorous immersion in a turn-of-the-century Parisian brothel, intoxicating, sexy, slightly repugnant. Next came his most ambitious project, Saint Laurent(2014), focused on a very druggy period in the designer's career and a final moment of decline. He has said this became a kind of matching panel for Apollonide. (You'll find that in an excellent long Q&A (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsfj9vOZ0HY) after the NYFF screening.) Saint Laurent's "forbidden" (unsanctioned) picture of the fashion house is as intoxicating, vibrant, and cloying as the maison close, with its opium, champagne, disfigurement and syphilis. No one can say Gaspard Ulliel wasn't totally immersed in his performance. Nocturama (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?4282-Rendez-Vouz-with-French-Cinema-2017&p=35290#post35290) (2016) takes a group of wild young people who stage a terrorist act in Paris, who seem to run aground in a posh department store at the end, Bonello again getting intense action going and then seeming to leave it to its own devices, foundering. Those who saw the result as "shallow cynicism" (like A.O. Scott) missed how exciting and powerful it was. (Mike D'Angelo didn't (https://letterboxd.com/gemko/film/nocturama/2/).)

Zombi Child is exciting at times too. But despite its gorgeous imagery and sound, its back and forth dialectic seems more artificial and calculating than Bonello's previous films.

Zombi Child, mins., debuted at Cannes Directors Fortnight May 2019, included in 13 other international festivals, including Toronto and New York. It released theatrically in France Jun. 12, 2020 (AlloCiné press rating 3.7m 75%) and in the US Jan. 24, 2020 (Metascore 75%). Now available in "virtual theater" through Film Movement (Mar. 23-May 1, 2020), which benefits the theater of your choice. https://www.filmmovement.com/zombi-child

Chris Knipp
05-01-2020, 06:37 PM


The boy who saw too much

Czech director Václav Marhoul's remarkable adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's controversial Sixties work The Painted Bird is a devastating WWII version of a picaresque novel. It follows a boy from 1939 to 1945, ages six to twelve in an "inter-slavic" invented language to avoid saddling any one Eastern European country with the horrors that occur - too horrible to be taken literally, but how can they be taken otherwise? Through it all the mostly mute boy (Petr Kotlar) is impassive, while seeing eyes gauged out, being beaten, buried up to the neck to be pecked at by crows, be the object of rural sex perverts and a sadistic pedophile, dumped in a manure pit, taught revenge by an ace sniper, and after numerous other awful events placed in an orphanage. Then, at last, he is retrieved by his father, whom he may not want to forgive.

In fact the last scene is redeeming. But can the source from which Marhoul has adapted the film be redeemed? When I originally read the Kozinski paperback, it seemed like a kind of pornography. In fact it had overt sexual passages for a young boy to read with urgent shame, but mostly it's a stream of violence porn - or, alternately, Holocaust porn: in fact, Norman Soloman includes The Painted Bird in his "Holocaust industry" list and points out that by the time the novel appeared, the author was already a well-known fraudster. If Kosinski (whose real name was Józef Lewinkopf) claimed the book was autobiographical, that was preposterous. The incidents are too spectacular to happen to a single person. It seems they may not only be cribbed from other experiences but from other authors. But still, Václav Marhoul has made his own movie.

Since we see the experiences not only through the boy but looking at the boy, often peering into his vividly impassive face, seeing a healthy glow return despite ordeals, we get a feel for a single experience, anyway. The non-stop stream of incidents conveys a sense, typical of the picaresque narrative, of a malleable, passive ego. Typical also, he has little to say and the trauma of events is signaled by his becoming mute.

The boy gets different surroundings, which he manages to cast off, as the action jumps to a new locale. There is a lot of wood and straw. If this is Holocaust porn, it is so only distantly. It's more often village and rural porn, delivering an impressionistic, Eastern European art movie sense of what rural life is, crude, monstrous, yet somehow vital and indestructible.

We have to admit that even here, a picaresque tale is fun. The hero - or heroine, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders being a key example - undergoes a diverting series of ordeals and transformations we are able to enjoy because we don't have to undergo them. They slip by too fast to get deep into. It's always on to the next one. A lot of this would be fun for a slightly kinky 12-year-old boy, the kind I was, who likes to fantasize about torture, lacking any real sense yet of what it is.

A key moment comes with the "Mirta" segment. This is after the boy finally enters a city, is "rescued" by Harvey Keitel's priest, turned over by him to Garvos, Julian Sands' sadistic pedophile, then. after crossing a snowy waste and falling into a frozen lake, falls into the hands of a busty blonde peasant woman who makes him her sex toy. When bestiality and incest crop up, he bolts. This leads into the savage rape and siege of a village by Kalmuks - a sequence as lively as anything by Takashi Miike. The Soviet soldiers who come to clean things up are the first positive force the boy has encountered. Gavrila (Aleksey Kravchenko) is an ardent communist and his friend Mirta (Barry Pepper) is a skilled sniper. They take the boy in hand and put him in a soviet uniform. They protect him and make him one of them. A memorable sequence shows Mirta sniping the village in revenge while the boy watches through his binoculars, and he will use the pistol Mirta gives him for his own revenge later.

This sequence suggests a kind of WWII survival that has truth in it, however fanciful is the sequence of adventures and tests. The logical final chapter is the boy's resettlement in an orphanage, which he escapes from and finds to be as violent and brutal as anywhere else.

And yet after all this, the concept of wrong has not perished. Hence the boy's anger when his father comes to the orphanage to reclaim him. His parents had sent him to a remote part of the country at the story's outset to be "safe." Instead they have abandoned him to the worst of horrors. Yet when, sitting in the bus next to his father, the boy writes his name, Joska, on the humid window glass, it's a hint that he will return, somehow, to speech and to life. In its muted way, it's a moving affirmation.

The gorgeous 35mm. black and white cinematography of Vladimír Smutný helps distance us from the ugliness of all that happens in this visually remarkable, challenging film, and also gives it a memorable unity. The source may have been plagiarized, but Marhoul has made it his own. With Udo Kier as "the Miller," who gouges out the eyes; Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Barry Popper, and ‧Stellan Skarsgård as a German officer who is kind; and many others.

The Painted Bird, 169 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2019, when reportedly 14 people stumbled out in shock and protest. It was included in 14 other international festivals including Toronto, Vancouver, Warsaw, and Chicago.

It was to be released in the UK in March 2020. It was scheduled to be distributed in the US by IFC Films starting (in NYC and LA) April 17, 2020. That has now been changed to July 17. The Painted Bird will also become available On Demand and Digital Streaming the same day, July 17, 2020. Metascore 75%.

Chris Knipp
05-01-2020, 06:38 PM


Virtuoso film about a bad bromance

A triumphant American toxic bromance comedy, The Climb is studded with chuckles and wows. It understandably won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year. The French should have liked it - besides being so good reviewers keep calling it "brilliant," it's dotted throughout with references to France and French culture. It's made up of intricate long takes to delight the cinephile. It revels in the complicated game of making a movie. At 94 minutes, it's admirably succinct. No wonder it was included in other big international festivals. It's fun, but also tailor-made for lovingly close study in film classes. It heralds the start of a distinguished career for Covino and maybe his chief collaborator here, real-life BFF Kyle Marvin, who co-wrote and costars as Kyle, Covino playing Kyle's toxic BFF, beloved yet a sort of unshakable parasite in his up-and-down life.

Notably, at the beginning and near the end are sequences where Mike announces he's slept with the woman Kyle is about to marry. The first signal and symbolic long sequence (lensed as they all are by deft dp Zach Kuperstein), titled 1 I'M SORRY, unreels in summer on a hilly winding road in the south of France. Mike is leading Kyle on a long bike ride, mostly uphill, while they talk. Indeed, this relationship is an uphill battle. Mike, a cycling enthusiast, is fit. Kyle is overweight and wheezing behind. Kyle is at a disadvantage in other ways. He is about to marry a French woman named Ava (Judith Godrèche), but at a certain moment Mike confesses he has slept with Ava, has been sleeping with her all along. The whole bike ride has been to tell Kyle this, going uphill so Mike is in control, and can coach Kyle on his "cadence." Kyle says "I'll kill you!" but he can't.

The next long take is at a French hospital: Mike was beaten up by some Frenchmen he insulted during the cycle ride. Ava, now present, beautiful and svelte, talks to Mike, with Kyle wandering around in the background. The sequence is a hint of ones to come, skillfully juggling rooms and people. Ava tells Mike their relationship never mattered, yet when he moves to kiss her, she responds. Kyle sees, and is furious.

Jump to 2 LET GO and a hilarious cemetery sequence whose humor makes I'M SORRY grow funnier in retrospect. Mike, it appears, has been married to Ava for a while - her wedding to Kyle didn't happen - but she has suddenly died. This time it's the bereaved Mike who loses it, to comic effect; Kyle intervenes to prevent a total fracas. This is the first example of a Covino thing: complicated scenes full of people who the principals ignore, while having a shout-fest or knockdown fight as if the others weren't even there. Transition: cue close harmony a cappella rendition by cemetery workers of "I shall not be moved."

Maybe Michael-Kyle are a vaudevillian duo à la Beckett, two dominant-submission losers who switch roles while stumbling on. By the next sequence 3 THANKS anyway, role reversal has definitely taken place. Kyle has lost weight and is fit and happy and Michael has become a potbellied alcoholic mess. THANKS announces a full-on Thanksgiving sequence, with a hop forward to Christmas. Both offer excellent opportunities, confidently seized, for virtuoso companion-piece collective scenes. What's come before has been great and satisfyingly accomplished and fun, but is bettered by these Thanksgiving and Christmas scenes, both, again, in long single takes.

Wouldn't we begin Thanksgiving Day in the basement? Of course we would! Down there, the new winner-Kyle is with his high school girlfriend Marissa (Gayle Rankin) whom his mom Suzi (Talia Balsam), upstairs, doesn't seem to like. Marissa gives Kyle an intensive in saying "NO!" tailored for rejecting mom's control. This goes for dad Jim (George Wendt) too. The "yes" is that Kyle announces he and Marissa are getting married, after the "No" lesson has turned them both on and led to making out. Upstairs, meanwhile ("Is something wrong down there?" asks mom), the movie delights in weaving in an out of holiday disasters, to the turkey here, shortly after to the Christmas tree. In between the camera flows out of the house over into a car where the now alcoholic and overweight Michael sits, in darkness, seamlessly linking the two episodes.

All that, from bike ride to holiday drunk, happens in the first 30 minutes, perhaps the compactness related to The Climb's development out of a collaborative Marvin-Covino short film. While sometimes the feel of this material is like Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, it's more economical.

Thus the whole new Mike situation is described in seconds as, in the dark car, he rapidly guzzles a bottle of booze and burps, undresses down to his wife-beater, cleans up with a shapeless pullover and goes to the house for the Christmas party. He's sent for an armful of firewood, which he drops in the basement, pouring, drunk, over faded mementos of his own history as a high school football star with no real family other than Kyle's. Pathetically, he dons an old helmet, then crashes into the upstairs under the Christmas tree, as family and guests gather round.

Dialogue can be epigrammatic, but scene atmosphere sometimes has the vernacular feel of HBO's "High Maintenance," like the moment where guests admire a TV ad Kyle penned for female Viagra. Kyle was against his mom's inviting Mike. Someone gives Mike a cigarette and lights it for him. No words are spoken, an eloquent declaration of Mike's dubious status here. An exchange between Mike and Suzi: "How are things?" "Great," says Mike. "What's great?" "Peeky Blinders." "what else?" "That's about it."

Scene shifts are aided by music, like Gary Stewart's honky-tonk dirge "I've got this drinkin' thing/to keep from thinkin' things" over Mike's booze-guzzling in the car, and a dance-like ski-park sequence introducing 4 IT'S BROKE where Mike is back in Kyle's life, causing him to drink more. He's upstairs bouncing naked on the bed, but before he can have great sex with Marissa, he passes out. This is the third big holiday, New Year's Eve. Mike ruins it further downstairs by himself banging on pots and pans to announce midnight. Of course Mike tries to make it with Marissa next day and she eggs him on, saying this won't alienate Kyle from her, but from Michael, and get rid of him.

5 STOP IT: Now comes a well conceived sequence of Kyle's bachelor party prior to his wedding to Marissa, with a kidnapping, ice fishing, and a near-drowning. Mike is more toxic than ever, yet the BFF relation indelibly survives. This ends with three exotic musicians on the ice, violin, accordion, and guitarist-singer doing a hearty Russian song - transplanted to upstate New York. Another musical transition, this, to a new chapter, 6 GROW UP. This is a francophile cinematic homage and portrait of Mike's loneliness. On the street of a small town, Mike leaves a wistful phone message inviting Kyle to a movie to celebrate his birthday. He enters Quirino's Crandell Cinema, in Chatham, New York, where "a French Film Retrospective" is going on. Outside is a poster for César et Rosalie, a Claude Sautet film about two men competing for the same woman. Mike talks his way in, unable to prove it's his birthday for the free entree because he has no photo ID. There he sits pensive, the camera and light angle showing his face gaunt, pock marks visible. The film isn't César et Rosalie - that was a teaser - but Le grand amour by the more obscure Pierre Étaix.

This leads to a virtuoso transition when the camera goes up to the screen, seemingly to show the film switched to technicolor: but it is Kyle at the altar with Marissa, for their wedding. Sisters Bianca (Eden Malyn) and Dani (Daniella Covino) come up for readings. (Scholars may comment on their content!) It's a large, modern church with spectacular high stained glass windows. The camera backs up and exits, slipping out the church door showing its name, "Our Lady of Life." Behind, as yet unseen, a car roars up, the brakes screeching. It's Mike, in wedding attire, late. The music playing now is Isabelle Pierre's "Les enfants de l'avenir se feront l'amour à l'infini."

MIke rushes into the church, down the isle to "object." He has already claimed Marissa isn't good enough for Kyle. As at the cemetery, a violent encounter takes place followed by an intense dialogue with the wedding guests around, a tableau of spectators. After Mike's disturbance of the ceremony, despite Marissa and Kyle's declaring their desire to wed, and Marissa's dramatic, "I'm pregnant! I'm getting married!", the minister refuses to complete the ceremony, saying they must think it over - and come back, after the child is born.

The next scene shows Mike doing better: he's running a bike shop called Vélo Domestique, which also has an espresso bar. He serves Marissa, but her aim is to get Mike to come in to retrieve her credit card, a pretext to reunite Mike with Kyle. She has reversed now, and wants them together again. This time the camera pan to a car leads to Kyle - playing with his and Marissa's happy baby boy.

Is this just like life, the back and forth and up and down? But the unique tragicomic twist is how Kyle, the weak, good guy, self destructively cleaves to Mike, the tough admitted asshole. And there is more: a final section with the ambiguous moniker, 7 FINE. I recommend you watch it, and all this remarkable movie.

Not every minute of The Climb works. The two men's voices are too alike. The contrivances are delightful but so self-conscious they shrivel the emotional impact to a slither of ornamental touches. But it's a special and continual pleasure to savor the glissando takes, the ingenious scene liaisons, the funny-awful twists and turns of Kyle-Mike, the varied musical linking interludes. And the loving French touches, which declare this to be not only raucous nuttiness, highly wrought technique, but no mere Sundance indie special. There are two more French songs to come before it's all over: one Sinatra sang to signal a breakup originally by Gilbert Bécaud and Pierre Delaroe, with a background of Ravel's "Bolero," then, as an envoi, Bécaud with Mac David, "With your eyes you smile hello, gracias addios." Much to think about, much to rewatch and rethink here, much to admire and much to enjoy.

The Climb, 94 mins., debuted at Cannes in Un Certain Regard May 2019 and won the Jury Prize. It subsequently showed in 15 international festivals including Munich, Telluride, Toronto, Deauville and Vienna. It was scheduled for release March 20, 2020 but due to the coronavirus outbreak release was delayed to July 17, 2020. Its Metascore is 82%.

Chris Knipp
06-21-2020, 07:55 PM


From chronic fatigue to visions of the cosmos

Howard Bloom is not to be confused withHarold Bloom, the venerable Yale professor of English and literary critic, who has written such luminous and inspiring works as The Visionary Company, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life and The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible. Howard Bloom is someone we've never heard of, and even after watching this little documentary he remains a mystery, part of which is why this short documentary came to be made about him. True, he is a pundit, a sage, and an amateur scientist with lifelong interests in cosmology and microbiology, who talks about sweeping aspects of nature and the cosmos. But this film doesn't prove that what he says is necessary.

This Bloom's books, of which there are seven, include The Lucifer Principle (the first), Genius of the Beast, and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. His last two books show a shift to more popular subjects but no increase in modesty. They are How I Accidentally Started The Sixties (2017) and Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me (2020).

But a title that jumps out at me is The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Brought You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram. According to the Wikipedia bio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Bloom), an article he published in Omni magazine focused on "The importance of hugging", suggested that "Islamic cultures treat their children harshly, they despise open displays of affection ... the result is violent adults", and as a consequence, "An entire people may have turned barbaric for the simple lack of a hug." This led the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to stage a sit-in at Omni's New York main office. It's reported that Blioom expressed similarly racist and Islamophobic prejudices in his first book, The Lucifer Principle. Charlie Hoxie's short documentary doesn't allude to this troubling aspect of Boom's thinking.

This is a life of contrasts. After a youth that showed serious scientific interests, Bloom was led astray by disco music and pop and this led him became a publicist for a raft of highly successful performers, including Michael Jackson, Prince and others including Run DMC and Aerosmith (he shows framed awards) who all had No. 1 hit songs while he was doing their PR. Joan Jet, Kyle McLaughlin and Jeff Bridges address the camera.

In 1988 Bloom contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He had to give up his PR work and the punditry gradually began. Several scientific persons speak, acknowledging Bloom's being "ahead of the curve" in his first book and being scientifically knowledgeable and well read though "totally an outsider." But some years were spent housebound and helpless, and it wasn't till 1995 that The Lucifer Principle was published, by the Atlantic Monthly Press. By his report Bloom still combats the disease. He takes upwards of thirty pills at moments in the day, and an injection of something he self-administers. He credits exercising with enabling him to get out of bed, though his idea of what a push-up is, jiggling up and down a bit with arms outstretched, seems at best peculiar. At any rate, we see him up and about and walking around in New York, outside his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he owns the building, and smooching with randomly encountered dogs on the sidewalk and in the park. Later we follow him to Indiana to give a lecture at the arrangement of a tall young man, a student, who says he immediately thought of Bloom when the topic of "paradign shifts" arose.

The film disappoints by its failure to probe, question, or identify. It has silly, pretentious (or playful) divisions with titles like "Chapter 2,384. Attention is the Oxygen of the Soul." What that means is we need attention. Bloom, who reports he had a lonely childhood, acknowledges that he has found his best source of positive feedback in hugging dogs. He is divorced, and still friendly with the lawyer, who comes to his 74th birthday party. He keeps saying he is "looking for a new girlfriend," and has found a "wonderful, astonishing" online relationship with a lady in South Africa. He hugs and nuzzles every dog he comes across, if its owner allows.

An example of Bloomo's oddity, if more were needed, is his (unexplained) relationship with a burly, bearded giant of a personal trainer called Amir Siddiqui, who runs Symmetry, the self-declared most expensive personal training gymn in Dubai. When we first hear of Siddiqui the two have never met, yet Bloom plans to leave his building to this gentleman so the latter can establish a foundation to carry on his, Bloom's, ideas. These we could get a better idea of. We know that he is a space travel advocate, connected with several related international organizations. We know he thinks nature means to shock us. Comments he makes elsewhere indicate he may not consider global warming a problem, or not our problem. At the Indiana lecture, Bloom reads a lot of his talk, which may be why, by his report, he isn't invited to lecture very often. On arriving in town he is surprised by an Indie 400 vehicle on display, then declares it to be worthless because it's sport.

We get a glimpse of the 74th birthday party at Bloom's cluttered apartment, with a table appearing to bear at least a dozen mismatched bottles of peanut butter. There are a dozen people who don't know each other seated around, and Bloom introduces them one by one. It might be a scene from a "High Maintenance" episode, though sadly lacking a visit from "The Guy." In the background is Bloom's African American secretary-manager, who wishes he would give up using AOL and adopt gmail. After five years, she plans on quitting.

After the lecture on "paradigm shifts," there arrives another big event in Howard Bloom's life: Amir Siddiqui comes to New York to "sign the deposition for his remains." And so at last they meet. They hug. They sign the papers. Some more dog hugging follows as Bloom sits alone on a bench. When last glimpsed, he's disappearing down a tunnel in the park.

The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom, 67 mins., debuted at DOC NYC Nov. 10, 2019. It will be released on digital and on-demand Jul. 21, 2020.

Chris Knipp
06-25-2020, 10:43 PM


A tasty meltdown, slowly savored

"Nose to Tail Is a fascinating portrait of toxic masculinity," notes Now Toronto (https://nowtoronto.com/movies/reviews/nose-to-tail-aaron-abrams/). Writing of the film, now newly available online in the US, Stephen Farber in Hollywood Reporter review (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/nose-tail-review-1186146) supplies that "One of the hottest fantasy jobs for millennials is to become a high-end chef, and a number of movies have expressed that fantasy, with actors like Jon Favreau (Chef), Bradley Cooper (Burnt) and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart (No Reservations) portraying temperamental cooks." This Canadian version features Aaron Abrams (Hannibal, Blindspot) as Daniel, the chef of a fancy Toronto restaurant in trouble, and Salvatore Antonio as Steven, his beleaguered sommelier. Both received awards or nominations for their thespian efforts. The film additionally highlights Lara Jean Chorostecki (also of Hannibal) as Chloe, Daniel's uncomfortable maître d' and sometime bedmate, who stands up to his sexual harassment and general boorishness, but remains loyal to the restaurant. Good people play lesser roles in a movie whose unique strength is that that it maintains one powerful note of disfunction continually to the end.

Daniel, the chef, is in arrears in every area. Back debts are numerous. Suppliers and landlord (Robert B. Kennedy) alike are not taking promises anymore and want cash up front pronto. Tonight Mark (Ennis Esmer), a special VIP customer, is coming, an old classmate now a wealthy financier who if he's pleased, may invest significant money and pull the restaurant out of the hole. But much is going wrong today, bad news Daniel only makes worse by his extreme abrasiveness. Daniel's French ex-wife (Carolina Bartczak) comes by and tells him she's going back to live in Paris with their young son to be with family. Early in the day he self-destructively kicks out his talented and charismatic second in command, Keith (Brandon McKnight), whom he's trained for years, when he's angry to discover from a food blogger (Lauren Collins) that Keith is moving to a new job as chef of another restaurant and will be paid a lavish salary by a wealthy corporation. Daniel is forced reluctantly to follow Chloe's advice and replace Keith with the next in line, Angela (Genevieve Kang), whose disciplined but obsequious constant "Yes, Chefs" annoy him. (But what doesn't?)

A high pressure restaurant kitchen is a place that pushes easily into extremes - of exhaustion, tension, indulgence. Daniel is quaffing coffee, smoking, drinking, and popping pills from when he first wakes up - and most dangerously, indulging in that most dangerous and intoxicating stimulant, rage. He is, moment to moment, clearly an asshole. But maybe he is very good at what he does. Maybe he'd have to be to get away even for a minute with behaving this way. And somehow - this is the beauty of this high-pitched but carefully modulated film - he pushes the edge from minute to minute without the walls crashing down on him. There a teasing pleasure in watching this balancing act constantly performed.

Tensions go up a notch an hour into this eighty-minute film as dinnertime approaches and the restaurant goes into action. Daniel releases his menu, with its rigorous simplicity and mystery, and Chloe writes it large on a blackboard. In his severe personal instructions to the servers, Daniel strictly forbids them to embellish its minimal details with any further explanations for inquisitive diners. These customers come in, the restaurant is soon full, and dinner begins.

But what a shock that amid all the bad news, not only is Mark seated upstairs with his party in a private room, but prominently downstairs ordering the full seven-course dégustation menu, is the infamous food blogger who has infuriated Daniel by reporting bad things about him. Daniel goes over for some intense verbal sparring with this young lady. For hours a big gourmet food truck has been parked across the street with a line of customers, symbolizing younger generations of foodies, different ways of enjoying fine cuisine, and there are voices, echoed by Beth (the food blogger) , that say Daniel has been passed by and no longer has "buzz." He ferociously rebukes her for using this word. But when she compares him to the dinosaurs, he, for once, is left speechless. Beth is a tough cookie. Her resilience again defers meltdown. But what next?

This film works in part because the harsh flavors of the combative dialogue are mellowed out and pulled together by the butter sauce of a surprising, yet successful, warm, energetic musical score, which calms us down with a firm hand. Abrams, as Daniel, who stirs his simmering temper tantrums with a steady hand, is consistently believable, steering a delicate but fim line between desperation and mad courage. The meltdown is kept at bay. The annoying blogger, who's quoted other chefs saying he's lost his "buzz," and who shows up that over-packed night, seems a kind of snobbish upstart and devotee of faux trendiness who adds to Daniel's credibility and our faith in him. We ordinary diners don't buy trendiness as the desideratum in good food.

What's further unique here is that this is a rigorously unsympathetic protagonist without any redeeming features - except the single one - that he doesn't deserve to go down in flames. Moreover, somehow the whole setting and situation, though heightened theatrically with every disaster focused into a single day, seems authentic. The kitchen staff action, the food preparation glimpsed, feel and look like those of a top restaurant. If it's one whose chef is terrifying and dangerous, that's hardly unusual. Readers of Kitchen Confidential will even find this a slightly sanitized environment - except for tension so thick, it makes you want to throw up. Aaron Abrams' performance is bracing without ever seeming strained. There are intense, distinctive flavors, but nothing over-seasoned or overcooked - until everything goes stale.

Bon appetit!

Nose to Tail, 82 mins., debuted at the Whistler Film Festival (British Columbia) Nov. 30, 2018, then Feb. 2, 2019 at Santa Barbara (reviewed there in Hollywood Reporter (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/nose-tail-review-1186146) by Stephen Farber) and played in 11 mostly food film festivals in late 2019, winning a number of nominations and awards, with subsequent Canadian theatrical and internet releases Feb. 14 and Apr. 28 2020, respectively. It is scheduled for US internet release Jul. 29, 2020.

Chris Knipp
06-27-2020, 04:06 PM


"Your mileage may vary on the visual barrage of Facebook and emoji jokes and the use of words like 'obvi' in dialogue, but the aggressive Generation Z trappings don’t make the writer-director Emily Cohn’s college raunch-com any less winning or sweet," wrote BEn Konigsberg in his 2019 New York Times Tribeca blurb. But what may lower the viewer excitement is the utter familiarity of the story line here: girl sets out to get laid at big semester shindig, distracting things happen. Izzy (Isabelle Barbier), the ditsy, putatively adorable college freshman (I found her pretty douchey at first, for a girl), sets aside her prep for the astro exam tomorrow to attend a "crush party" in which guests must all be invited anonymously by someone who has a"crush" on them. Definitions may be loose. What's firm, is the filmmaker's reliance on digitalized visuals using emojis, social media lingo, and other current figments of the smartphone world, what the Times writer calls "agressive Generation-Z trappings."

Chris Knipp
07-02-2020, 11:25 PM


The work of the attorneys of the ACLU

The ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, the country's most important independent organization protecting people's rights, has boomed since Trump became President. His swearing in opens this film. It has more to do, and it received more donor funds. It has taken over the whole building it occupies that has a view of the Statue of Liberty. They love their work, and we see why. I also love their work and consider it the most important charity I support. If you care about civil liberties, these dedicated people are your heroes. Without rights, nothing else much matters. This documentary isn't for the benefit of those who, for some perverse reason, oppose the ACLU. (It does support the rights of Nazis and white supremacists.) Despres and Kriegman simply aim to present a primer on what the ACLU does, its main issues, and the lawyers who do the work.

They have specialties. We meet Dale Ho: his focus is voting rights. Lee Gelert's is immigrant rights. Josh Block focuses on LGBT rights. Chase Strangio, a young ACLU lawyer who's a trans man, focuses on trans rights working with Joshua Block. Briditte Amiri is the Deputy Director of the ACLU's reproductive rights project.

Trump has revealed himself to be a white supremacist. He hates immigrants and wants to oust them and punish them. He hates abortion. Though this isn't the focus of this film, he also does all he can to promote his own reelection.

He hates trans people. The issue Chase and Josh are focused on now is the push to ban trans people from the military. The case they're focused on is "Stone v. Trump," in which the litigant is Brock Stone, a Petty Officer First Class in the United States Navy who has served over twelve years. On this and related cases rest the project of outlawing the Trump attempt to ban trans people from the military. Those opposint Bock in the military want to "erase trans people from public life," an ACLU lawyer says.

Dale Ho's concern in the film is the Department of Commerce. Trump's Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross, an old multi-millionaire known as "the King of Bankruptcy," heads a Trump Administration effort to introduce a key question - the "citizenship question" - into the census questionnaire. We see Ross harshly questioned at a Congressional hearing by, among others, the distinguished longtime Baltimore representative , the late Elijah Cummings. This would be a major Republican electoral victory because non-US citizens would be afraid to participate for fear of being persecuted, and the rights and needs of districts with a large undocumented population - 6.5 million is the number mentioned - would be unrepresented. Six states stand the risk of losing representatives in Congress. "Is another more important?" asks Dale Ho. Trump says in speeches that only citizens vote, but this is clearly not the issue. The census is not just for citizens. It's for the US population, which includes many non-citizens. The film points the census was used in WWII to intern thousands of Japanese.

An extremely poignant issue concerning Lee Gelert is "Ms L v. ICE," about separation of non-citizens from their children on arrival. Ms L and her daughter were fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and upon arrival here, were held for five months 2,000 miles apart from each other. Even small children have been systematically taken from their parents and sent into detention elsewhere, causing permanent psychological damage. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC breaks down talking abut this. Such cruelty has given rise to a movement. Incidentally the film points out many issues are "cyclical" - voting rights, racial equality, and other issues championed and won decades ago are back in the news, issues that must be fought for again. A demonstrator's sigh reads: "No Ban No Wall No Separations No detentions No Raids No ICE NO HATE NO FEAR." 1,995 minors are separated from 1,940 adults, at this point in the film. Gelert is also concerned with Trump's various efforts from his first days in office to ban whole countries and religions - Muslims - from entry into the US.

The "Zero Tolerance" policy of Trump's administration with its Draconian separation of parents and their children, such an evidently cruel action, has sparked a backlash.

From time to time we see Trump speaking to his base, spewing hate for foreigners, for immigrants, and speaking about the "very fine people" on both sides in the Charlottesville demonstrations and riot. The ACLU took the case of "Unite the Right" when they were denied the right to demonstrate by the Charlottesville city council. We see David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan leader, saying: "We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump." Since there were many serious injuries and one death resulting from this provocative demonstration and its liberal opponents, this has been a difficult moment for the ACLU.

Current ACLU Legal Director David Cole (2016- ) points out that the organization doesn't just defend people they like. The far right provocateur Milo Yannopoulis is a client. So is Westboro Baptist Church, which marches with signs saying "God Hates Fags." So is Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric. And so were the Nazis at Skokie, Illinois.

The ACLU gets a lot of hate mail, cards, letters, calls, and other messages accusing the lawyers individually of being - lots of nasty things. They're shown listening and reading: they think they need to know about their opposition and not live in "a bubble." The ACLU is dealing with bigots. Fear and hate and bigotry are often behind the issues ACLU lawyers fight for. It just happens that currently there is a blatant bigot in the White House.

All this, and we have not heard anything about the US Supreme Court. We see (indirectly) Brigitte Amiri and others arguing with three judges in a court about the "Garza v. Hagan" with success; they learn that "Jane Doe" has been given freedom to seek an abortion, and they drink "train wine" while riding on the train to celebrate. But this is only only one case, of many pregnant women ICE is seeking to prevent from having abortions. The ACLU must, and it does, pursue a class action suit in the matter.

Thus a big issue covered in this film is the makeup of the Supreme Court. The crisis comes with Judge Anthony Kennedy's June 2018 announcement of his retirement. Brigitte Amiri tells her daughter what it means: "This just made mommie's work much harder." Judge Kennedy is the pivotal liberal vote on the Court. He is replaced by Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Later, this film follows the various ACLU lawyers as they conduct "moot" practice pleading and argue the big actual cases and see them set fourth to argue key issues, including Dale Hio's embarking on his first appearance before the Supreme Court on the Census Question issue; Lee Gelert in San Diego to argue on "child separation, Josh Bock in Baltimore to argue the new anti-trans policy in the military; Brigitte Amiri in Washington, DC to argue for the right to an abortion for women held by ICE. The interwoven scenes show their loneliness, their nervousness, and their passion. Lee Gelert must address MSNBC just at the moment when he learns the court has uphold Trump's Muslim ban. Later, he looks much happier when he learns, despite a battery-depleted phone, that a federal judge has ruled strongly on his side in the "Family Separation" case. The class action for abortion rights in custody wins, and the district court blocks the Transgender Military ban. Hugs and smiles all around, above all of little kids reunited with their parents: we see a lot of them captured on camera. But the battle goes on. The Trump Administration issues a new order that transgender people may continue to serve in the military, but no new ones may enlist.

These issues are tremendously important and seeing these lawyers fight their cases and win them is an amazing feeling; it gives one hope. The film takes too long making its way from bland to exciting. It ought to have delved deeper into history beyond the Nazis in Skokie and the Japanese internment camps during the War. The presentation of lawyers and cases also shifts around a lot from project to project, from lawyer to lawyer, and sometimes it's hard to follow as it does so. There might also have been deeper focus on one case and lawyer at a time. The film follows the lawyers in key moments of their work, but it could have delved more into their lives and who they are. Bit despite these quibbles, this is nonetheless a most welcome and essential film.

These fights go on. The battle to defend democracy never ends. Noting is sure, nothing is sacred. In 2019 (after most of this film was made) the Trump administration argued in the Supreme Court that anti-discrimination laws should not apply to LGBT people. At least 1.300 children remain separated from their parents by ICE. The persecution of trans people goes on. All of these fights must be pursued in the streets, as well as in the courts. In fact we see Chase Strangio speaking before a cheering crowd in Washington Square.

The Fight, 96 mins., produced by Kerry Washington, debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, and showed in the fests at Miami and Wisconsin. Its pandemic online-only release by Magnolia is July 31, 2020. Metascore 67%.


Chris Knipp
07-05-2020, 09:57 PM


A personal film about the death and life of New York's South Bronx

In the blighted South Bronx borough of New York City in the 1970's, empty and partly occupied apartment buildings were destroyed by fire on a weekly basis, rendering an estimated quarter of a million residents homeless and leaving the area looking like WWII fire-bombed Dresden. The fires, this personal account says, were not set by residents; "we are the ones who saved" the neighborhood, she says. Racist and dismissive outsiders like Nixon advisor Sen. Pat Moynahan, the prophet of "benign neglect," blamed it on locals and called it a sign of "social pathology."

This doc, Joshua Minsoo Kim of Slant wrote (https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review-decade-of-fire-is-a-testament-to-the-resistance-of-the-oppressed/), "feels like a film fit for classrooms" (John DeFore of Hollywood Reportersays (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/decade-fire-1206934) rather "the technically polished result of a college research project") because indeed it was originally made "for ninth graders at a social justice-focused high school" aimed to show links between the Bronx fires, "cultural resistance" by means of graffiti and hop-hop, and community organizing that "saved the borough." This is the corrective provided by Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who narrates, drawing on her experiences growing up in the Longwood section of the South Bronx with her Puerto Rican immigrant family and witnessing the destruction.She also did plenty of research, and collected much vivid visual documentation. Those descriptions, while superficially true, are misleading, because if you're interested in urban decay and urban revival, this is a little gem.

The fires were often set by local youths but paid by absentee landlords to collect insurance money, it's reported. Destruction of the borough was furthered by Draconian city planner Robert Moses’s partitioning of the Bronx with the Cross Bronx Expressway or and "redlining" of which Irizarry's father was a victim: he was denied loans that would have permitted the family to move to the suburbs. We also learn NYC Mayor John Lindsay (1966-73) followed a computer analysis by the Rand Corporation and pulled fire departments out of the blighted borough, when they should have been augmented. Joe Flood, author of The Fires (https://www.amazon.com/Fires-Computer-Intentions-City-Determined/dp/1594485062), talks about this. "Urban renewal," James Baldwin is seen saying, really meant "Negro removal." In the devastation of the abandoned neighborhood, the youth gangs became protectors who helped start a girls softball team.

This film is a strong, personal vehicle for Irizarry's experiences and opinions, not a detached, scientific account, and some points aren't backed up by fact. But the strength of her story, enlivened by vibrant archival film footage, is how she depicts the warm, uniquely multicultural Bronx population's efforts to fight back and survive in the face of institutional racism from the outside, forming small volunteer groups that learned building trades. Further ravages came - crack in the eighties, mass incarceration in the nineties - as well as misguided government policy and rampant exploitation of real estate. The new threat is an influx of "luxury" apartments for those escaping the cost of life in Manhattan. Irizarry appears at the end as a busy current community activist. The fight goes on and people stay in a revived and still multicultural Bronx.

As Manuel Betencourt wrote in Remezela (https://remezcla.com/features/film/review-decade-of-fire-documentary-pbs/), Decade of Fire is "a call to arms, a family memoir, and a history lesson," ad even more importantly, "a love letter to the Bronx and its inhabitants." This is a lively and inspiring little film.

Decade of Fire, 76 mins., debuted at Full Frame (Durham), Apr. 2019, with limited theatrical release and broadcast on PBS Independent Lens in May 2019. Screened for this review as part of a pandemic VOD virtual theater release coming July 14, 2020.


Chris Knipp
07-10-2020, 09:54 PM


Elegant visual provocations

Something may be needed to make us look more closely at the photographs of Helmut Newton, and this may be just the right time (he died in 2004, at 84). Those photographs look provocative in an almost stereotypical way. But he may have invented the stereotype, and transcended it. And the stereotypes and the provocation may have kept us from noticing how exceptionally beautiful and also original these photographs are. They are mostly of women, very often naked, photographed with great elegance, always with a frisson of kink. This documentary is worthy of the work.

Newton hated working in the studio. He liked location shots. Those women are walking down the street, in a policeman's jacket with nothing on below the waist, or in a glamorous old world hotel, or overlooking a vast city. The black and white is contrasty, brilliant, immaculate. (The other photographer whose "look" but not subject matter this work most resembles is Ralph Gibson. Both photographers are surrealists.) Sometimes the photographs are done for a fashion magazine. He was already so famous when young Anna Wintour was asked to work with him in England she was afraid, and called in sick. He is such a stylist that though his work is highly commercial, it never bows to fashion or commerce. When we look more closely, the images are works of art full of fantasy, mystery and humor, and above all celebrations of the art of photography. He would have been a master, whatever "look" or subject he had chosen.

This documentary is worthy because it's good looking, even chic. It's a celebration that's never ponderous, - important, because, we learn, the man, though obsessed, always kept his sense of humor. And it's populated by glamorous, handsomely photographed women (clothed, however) who talk about Newton: Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, Anna Wintour, Marianne Faithful, Grace Jones, Claudia Schiffer. Anna Wintour worked with Newton, when she gathered the courage to do so, for Vogue. The other ladies posed for him. June Newton, whom we hear from but don't see, is his Australian wife, married to him for 56 years. To her we're indebted for some of the films of him at work, and speaking of his early life, as we are to actress Hanna Schygulla, who know him well. "A world without men," almost - his ideal. Schiffer says to him "Men are accessories - like shoes or hats."

Even Susan Sontag, who calls Helmut Newton a "misogynist", arguing with him in French on Barnard Pivot's famous TV show, is stylish and beautiful as she does so. Newton replies that he "adores women," and Sontag ripostes that misogynists often say that. Indirectly the film makes the point: Helmut Newton's work is confusing - provocative, but also chic, beautiful, but perhaps a debasement. Is Susan Sontag being humorless or is she right? Is he a misogynist? Don't his photographs use women as toys, dolls, slaves? Or are his images slyly calling attention to the fact that other men do this, to mock and critique men's ambivalent treatment of women, their way of wavering between worship and condescension, protection and abuse? This film sells to us, quite successfully, the idea that Helmut indeed loved women.

He was born in 1920 Berlin, which he always loved, and Marianne Faithful says he was always truly a creature of the free, brilliant Weimar Berlin of Bertolt Brecht and Georg Grosz, the expressionists (and the kinky cabaret gaiety). But his father, who owned a button factory, was Jewish. Their name was Neustädter. And in the Thirties they had to flee Germany, when he by himself went to Singapore and then Australia. Helmut grew up in comfort, fond of his parents, and went to private schools, including an American school he was kicked out of at 12 because his grades were so poor. He went to work for the photographer Yva for two years. "I worshipped the ground she tread on," he says. She died in concentration camp, but he was much influenced. After the war he came back and changed is name to Newton. The rest is history.

He liked high heels, the higher the better, and he liked chickens, so the day came when he photographed a cooking chicken torn open, legs in the air, in high heels.(He signed a fax thanking Anna Wintour for publishing the image in Vogue "Your favorite old naughty boy.") He once photographed Grace Jones nude with chains on her ankles for the cover of a major German magazine. There was an uproar. Grace Jones is unalarmed. Claudia Schiffer too, who posed a lot for him when very young, describes his intentions as honorable and his manner as gentle. Important model Arja Toyrla says "I felt good. I felt safe." Charlotte Rampling insists that his themes are explorations of a style and not a reflection of his personality.

What we don't get so much from this film is technical and artistic notes like those found in an article about an assistant mentored by Newton, Mark Arbeit, who tells us (https://theunseasonal.com/story/helmut-newton-and-mark-arbeit/)this: "Helmut mostly worked with one assistant at a time so everything was on you. He was extremely serious on set. Helmut had this beautiful Louis Vuitton hard suitcase he used as his camera case. The majority of the time he shot with a Nikon 35mm camera. For film, he would mainly shoot Tri-X 400 Black & White film and Kodak Ektachrome color transparency film. In the studio, Helmut also used a Hasselblad and Rolleiflex with electronic flash." Arbeit also worked for Irving Penn who liked to stay in the studio with highly controlled lighting, while Helmut worked on location and more freely; both, he says "sculpted" their models for a shot. One sould like to know how he developed his TriX! This film is not exactly for photographers. Be inspired by it anyway, than go look at his work.

Helmet Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, 93 mins., was to be in Tribeca Apr. 2020, cancelled due to the coronavirus. It will be released by Kino Marquee Jul. 24 in Virtual Cinemas for New York with Film Forum, LA with Laemmle Theatres & Lumiere. Additional cities include Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, and more will come. Gero von Boehm is a cosmopolitan German journalist and documentary filmmaker for TV and film.