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Thread: New York Film Festival 2015

  1. #31
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    Michael moore: Where to invade next (2015)



    Michael Moore goes on a world tour, seeking better ways of doing things than America's

    For his first new film in six years Michael Moore, some think, has mellowed, and brought up his ever-present humorous side to greater prominence than previously. And this time he's not attacking the US, not exactly anyway. He's taking a more positive tack, going to other countries -- Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Tunisia, Norway and Iceland -- focusing on particular ways of doing things in each country that America might do well to emulate. The concept is simple. When you travel, haven't you found in other countries certain things that were clearly done better there than at home? What if these superior features or places could be "invaded" and "stolen" to be brought back for home use?

    Actually Moore does attack the US, right off, by describing an alleged meeting with top US military leaders and hearing them declare they've failed miserably. Later he points out the enormous percentage of our tax dollar that goes to "defense." But then, we go on a quirky world tour and see what Moor comes up with. This approach clearly goes back to the passages in Sicko where Moore discovered other nations -- most notably France --where health care is unmistakably more accessible and kinder than America's. This time, he frequently points out that the great situations abroad are recently achieved, and often hard-won.

    In Italy he finds such kindness granted to workers. He interviews a cheerful middle class couple, and the managers of several factories, including the Ducati motorcycle company's. The information they give shows Italians get much more time off, including seven weeks of paid vacation, lengthy paid maternity leave, and a couple hours every working day to go home and have a full sit-down lunch with their families. The company owners are fully in favor of these conditions and they lead to employee satisfaction and more productivity.

    In France Moore visits several (public) schools, showing how magnificently kids eat. They are served at table -- no plastic -- and the chef keeps dozens of different cheeses on hand. The menus are decided upon every month at a meeting of the chef and town officials. When Moore brings a can of Coca Cola to the table, the children decline to try it. The luncheon is looked upon as a class in nutrition and manners, and is not rushed. For older kids, Moore finds a humane and honest sex education program that means far fewer teenage pregnancies than Stateside.

    In Finland they have abolished homework and avoid standardized, multiple-choice tests, resulting recently in having the best educational system in the world. In Slovenia, there's no college tuition -- and, as in a number of other countries, therefore no school loan debts carried on into one's thirties or forties. In Germany, Moore focuses on how students are taught the truth about their nation's terrible Nazi past, and speculates what it might be like if we in America taught and openly memorialized our nation's foundation on genocide and slavery. Throughout the film Moore shows videos illustrating how recent cruel abuse of black people still is here.

    In subsequent country stops Moore finds far kinder prisons (a maximum sentence of 20 years even for the mass murderer) in Norway with a far lower recidivism rate; sentences to far-away jails for delinquent bankers in Iceland resulting in a quick recovery of the economy; and an awareness that women, lacking the selfishness caused by testosterone, may be more reliable leaders; legalization of drugs in Portugal avoiding the ravages of America's "war on drugs"; and a Tunisian woman who points out that there, and elsewhere, American cultural products are eagerly consumed, but Americans seem to have very little knowledge of other cultures.

    One of Moore's most arresting assertions is that, given how the heavy and selective criminalization of drugs in America has led to the huge black criminal population used as a factory work force (for such as Victoria's Secret), in effect America's former enslavement of black people has been recreated in the modern era.

    There is no overriding theme here, just a lot of enlightening details and the thesis that America needs to be able to adopt better ways that obviously work elsewhere. As with similar coverage in Sicko, Moore paints a simplistically positive picture of each country, eschewing contradictions and complexities. This is his way. And it works. Of course he is cherry-picking, but why not? Amid the frequent laughs, there is much that is moving and hopeful. We leave with the conviction that things can, indeed, get better.

    Where to Invade Next, 110 mins., debuted at Toronto, and it was screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival. Bought for distribution by a new label formed by two Weinstein defectors.

    Watch NYFF press conference with Michael Moore here.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-09-2015 at 07:55 PM.

  2. #32
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    STEVE JOBS (Danny Boyle 20150



    Jobs in pieces: a bold structure, but not the acid bath one had hoped for

    Sorkin’s script for Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs organizes all the action around three moments in the Apple mastermind's life. They are semi-realtime forty-minute segments before three of those big public presentations of products that were the arena in which Jobs honed his fame and, not always successfully, promoted products. They're at the Cupertino performing arts center, before the introduction of the Macintosh computer in 1984; at the San Francisco opera house before the introduction of the non-Apple NeXT black cube when Jobs had been expelled from Apple; and at Davies Symphony Hall in 1998 just before the launch of the iMac. Two non-successes, then the beginning of the Jobs triumphs when he returned to the company. Nothing is included about the later, greater triumphs or the the pancreatic cancer that took Jobs away at the height of his fame in his fifties.

    Those expecting Sorkin's script to be a worthy followup to the dazzling displays of verbal sparring he's produced elsewhere, notably in David Fincher’s The Social Network, will be a bit disappointed -- though Jobs makes just as steely, mean, and brilliant a subject as Mark Zuckerberg, if not more so. Do Sorkin, Boyle, and the lead Michael Fassbender really give Jobs the "brilliant, maddening, ingeniously designed and monstrously self-aggrandizing movie he deserves," as Justin Chang wrote in Variety at the film's Telluride debut? That's nice rhetoric from Chang, but not quite lived up to.

    We do get ample illustration of Jobs’ meanness toward his chief working partner and the original Apple presiding genius, Steve Wozniak (a warm and appealing Seth Rogan) and see how Jobs mistreated his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (a mousy Katherine Waterston) and long unacknowledged daughter, Lisa (played by two actresses, Mackenzie Moss and Perla Haney-Jardine). But the film chooses to end on an up note — a reconciliation between Jobs and his now nineteen-year-old daughter. It’s an awfully positive way to conclude the portrait of a cruel egomaniac. Oddly, it's the heartfelt emotional outbursts that dominate in Steve Jobs over the withering, mean putdowns.

    True, Sorkin does (to quote Chang again) "blow away traditional storytelling conventions" (thankfully, for those of us suffering from advanced biopic fatigue) in the highly schematic way he presents the man, his talents, and his failures as a human. The screenplay is broken down into a stark, highly theatrical (and Birdman- like) framework that mixes the public and private personas, the business “genius” and the deeply flawed and chilly private person. Sorkin has brilliantly composed the backstage interactions, often involving his trademark walk-and-talk dialogues — so as to pack in a great deal of Jobs and Apple history in highly dramatic form. This is Sorkin’s forte: his dialogue is lively, idiomatic, idiosyncratic, but never fails in its aim to function as detailed exposition.

    The way Jobs orders people around in the first segment amply shows off his imperiousness, and the fact that he was introducing the NeXT black Cube when it was not even yet functional shows his typical emphasis on façade over function. I was pleasantly surprised that Seth Rogan doesn't make his performance as Wozniak too jokey or cuddly. Rogen gets the most emotionally solid speeches, particularly one in which he points out Jobs could not even write code. How do you show an absent father? Apparently in enacting the rare times when he is present, because we see Jobs trying to show an interest in Lisa, saving her drawing on the Macintosh when she was six, and finally coming close to a hug, promising that he will certainly pay her Harvard tuition.

    As John Scully, the former Pepsi honcho who was Apple CEO and got pushed out later, Jeff Daniels may be playing a role written expressly for him (he dominated the recent Sorkin TV series “The Newsroom”), and he arguably makes a warmer, more interesting character than the dull real-life Scully. It’s a somewhat odd choice to cut off each segment before Jobs’ onstage launch appearances, since those were the iconic Steve Jobs moments.

    Things get pretty technical at times in the arguments about operating systems and computer adaptability: it’s likely older audience members may be lost at such times; but then, The Social Network didn't appeal to everybody either.

    Fassbender, a brilliant actor, ably dominates the proceedings, his lack of resemblance to the real Jobs soon forgotten; but he needs a constant foil, and that is provided in each segment by Kate Winslet (doing an understated Eastern European accent) as Jobs’ continual sidekick and head of marketing Joanna Hoffman. Almost unrecognizable, Winslet is impressively fluid.

    Chang is not wrong when he speaks of this film as "Straining like mad to be the Citizen Kane (or at least the Birdman) of larger-than-life techno-prophet biopics." There are touches of Kane and of Birdman; but "straining" is the operative word. True, this is a more stylish and interesting movie than Joshua Michael Stern's conventional biopic Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher — though that film shows more vividly how nasty Jobs could be to Apple staff. A perusal of Jobs, Alex Gibney’s recent documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and the Walter Issacson biography will show you that, despite the somewhat chaotic collection of information Sorkin weaves into his script (and Boyle over-kinetically directs), a lot of the story is left out here. Most of all, after The Social Network -- and all the damning things I've recently learned about the man-- I was disappointed that Steve Jobs was not more of a portrait dipped in acid.

    Previous Danny Boyle films include Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 hours. Steve Jobs includes Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld. Writer Aaron Sorkin scripted the TV shows "The West Wing" and "The Newsroom" and the films A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson's War, The Social Network, and Moneyball. Steve Jobs is based on the official biography by Walter Isaacson, which presents negative aspects of the man without ever ceasing to assume him to be a god of modern times. Sorkin selects for some of the key negative aspects, but with his kind ending, still winds up, as A.O. Scott put it in his NY Times review, "burnishing the reputation" of the man. When will we get the truly clear-eyed portrait that will show Mr. Jobs was not only not a nice man, but also not a god, even of cyberworld? But as long as the films are based on Isaacson's official biography, that's not going to happen.

    Steve Jobs., 122 mins., debuted at Telluride; also at the London and New York Festivals. Reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival, where it was presented as the centerpiece film. Limited US theatrical release began 9 Oct. 2015.

    Watch the NYFF post-screening press conference here.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-10-2015 at 06:03 PM.

  3. #33
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    BRIDGE OF SPIES (Steven Spielberg 2015)



    Hanks shines as the stolid American Cold War hero of the Abel-Powers exchange

    Spielberg's foray into Cold War espionage lore is a showcase for Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Most of the other roles are just walk-ons -- a weakness in the Coen brothers-Matt Charman script; but otherwise Spielberg delivers. It's an interesting story, presented with superbly atmospheric, and old-fashioned, mise-en-scčne, handsomely lensed by dp Janusz Kamiński, that is both fun to follow and a joy to the eye. The film's complex back-and-forth in the second half has some of the excitement of a John Le Carré spy novel. Hanks dominates as Jim Donovan, the rather heroic New York insurance lawyer who negotiated the Rudolf Abel-Gary Powers exchange in East Germany in the cold February of 1962 (and went on to be a negotiator in Cuba for Kennedy). (Hanks doesn't do bad guys these days -- if he ever did; he's currently shooting Miracle on the Hudson, a biopic directed by Clint Eastwood where he plays the heroic pilot Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.)

    Bride of Spies is a richly achieved, well-written Cold War story but it departs sharply from Le Carré territory is the way it's dominated by a lineup of good guy-bad guy Americans. It also never delves into the gray-shaded, often seedy details of espionage, and lacks the betrayals and the pessimism the secret world involves. Early on when Abel is captured the film shows America to be a world of simplistic hate and "us" vs. "them" thinking. Abel remains mysterious, however. He was a Soviet spy (even if the Soviets never acknowledged it), but how he spent his time other than drawing and painting, we never learn. Gary Powers was only an unheroic drone in a new kind of techno-spying Le Carré might shake his head at. He got shot down on his first big aerial reconnaissance mission, a rookie in a small elite group of young pilots told to fly the U2 planes, work the cameras, and keep their mouths shut.

    Mark Rylance is swell as Abel, presented as a tough, dry, basically decent man doing his job. The movie comes down to a portrait of Hanks and we identify with his solid adherence to values like the Constitution against both mass extremism and cold-blooded, amoral CIA practicality -- particularly the willingness of the CIA mission boss (Jon Donahue) to forget about the recently detained Yale graduate student Frederic Pryer (Will Rogers) whom Donovan insists on getting freed along with Powers. The plot revives its faltering suspense in the last quarter by keeping it uncertain till the last minute whether Pryer will appear at Checkpoint Charlie as Powers and Abel are swapped at the Glienicke Bridge.

    Though he has worked at the Nuremberg trials, Donovan has long been a specialist in insurance, not criminal matters. He simply takes on the unglamorous but altruistic job of defending an arch enemy of the US, a Soviet spy, because he is asked to. He faces intense public prejudice, and stands strong against an unscrupulous judge (Dakin Matthews) and does everything he can to defend his client. Essential to Donovan's value to his country and the world, he is not just a forthright man of principle but also wily and pragmatic. Thus he foresees the value of not executing Abel so he can be available for a possible a spy exchange. He appeals Abel's case to the Supreme Court on civil rights and procedural grounds, but without success. The U2 missions are a thread that has been interwoven with the Donovan-Abel story. When we see a vivid depiction of Gary Powers being shot down and captured, we have the spy to to exchange for Abel.

    In Hanks' excellent performance, Donovan continually grows in our sympathy. When he is sent as the unofficial negotiator in East Germany, we sympathize and admire as he allows his overcoat to be stolen and battles a cold. And we savor the gemütlichkeit of his Nescafés with two sugars, his unfinished double breakfast at the Berlin Hilton, his frequent indulgence in whiskies and cordials.

    This is a film of impressive skill, Spielberg working near the top of his game, but in its somewhat retro, morally upright manner it lacks some of the complexity and cynicism its subject calls out for. Hanks' Donovan is as solid as a rock. The only trouble is that as with other good guys, he's not finally very interesting. Being good doesn't even seem hard for him; he never falters. There's something unquestioned and sweet about his friendship with his client, Rudolf Abel. There could be other ways of looking at Abel, whose history is along and complicated one. But for this movie, Abel has to be seen simply as a loyal servant of his country. As Donovan points out, there are Americans doing the same for their country too. There goes all the complexity of a good spy novel, where hiding and stealing secrets are things that are morally dubious and mess majorly with a person's head.

    Bridge of Spies, 135 mins., debuted 4 Oct. 2015 at the New York Film Festival, where is was screened for this review. US theatrical release begins 16 Oct. (Metacritic rating 81%); UK 27 Nov.; France 2 Dec.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-10-2016 at 07:05 PM.

  4. #34
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    SON OF SAUL/SAUL FIA (László Nemes 2015)



    Special Events - Film Comment Selects

    An obsessive Sonderkommando's view of Auschwitz

    It grew out of 38-year-old Hungarian director László Nemes's years of studying documents on the Sonderkommandos, the Nazi concentration camp prisoners forced to do most of the work of the killing. Son of Saul impresses but also troubles. To begin with it has been regarded as taboo to show the actual extermination process, which it does. It does it indirectly, showing all only dimly behind Saul (Géza Röhrig), the central character, a Sonderkommando at the Auschwitz-Birkenwald death camps who becomes obsessed with an effort to give a boy who has been murdered -- his illegitimate son, or one he designates thus -- a proper Jewish burial. That is the fanciful part; what's realistic is the planning and execution of the October 7, 1944 Sonderkommando uprising that simultaneously takes place around Saul, and eventually sweeps him up despite his efforts to ignore it.

    Nemes is a pupil of Béla Tarr and like Tarr uses long takes, though no scene lasts long. They're shot in richly textured handheld 35mm color in Academy ratio, the square format the better to focus on the head of Saul, with everything around him often distant or blurred. To fill in detail of the unseen periphery there is a terrifying, often mysterious but still realistic sound track, which took five months of editing to produce.

    Son of Saul has the kind of spectacular opening sequence that can overwhelm a picture. It depicts one full iteration of the chaotic but relentless process from arrival of a group of prisoners to their extermination to when the same Sonderkommandos (including Saul, always in the foreground) who have herded the prisoners to their deaths and dragged out the "pieces" to be cremated, scrub the gas chamber floor. (Later we see great piles of ashes being shoveled into the river).

    The glimpses we get of the boy's body show him to have been beautiful and healthy. Saul notices him because, almost uniquely, he has been found still alive after the gassing, gasping for breath. In the distance Saul sees the "doctor" go and finish off the boy.

    This opening is the last thing that's clearly sequential and organized. From then Saul seems to be wandering around on his own. Though they still were executed like the others, after about four months, the Sonderkommandos were given special treatment. They were fed and housed separately. They could move freely among units of the camp. Thus Auschwitz from the Soderkommando point of view is more frangible than we might expect. And also more confusing and chaotic. The prisoners speak among themselves in a koiné of primitive Yiddish so they could understand each other whether Hungarian, Polish, German, etc. The dialogue is laconic, monosyllabic. This too is confusing.

    So, Hell barely seems organized, though the killing machine that is the camp's purpose moves on relentlessly. Nemes maintains the intensity, even if the chaos becomes overwhelming. He includes key details from his research, such as the use of flamethrowers and open fires to execute and cremate prisoners when the crematoria became overloaded with incoming victims. This we see in the distance, like the stacked naked bodies, and other horrors. Always there are shots, screams, and shouts of abuse in the air.

    Saul's frantic, obsessive quest to give the boy a proper burial is also, of course, an effort to save his own soul in a world God seems to have abandoned. Though Saul and the other Sonderkommandos, he knows, are dead, he seeks moral survival. The artificiality of this certainly is no worse than the jarringly lighthearted treatment of death camps in Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. But in time I began to find the chaos disorienting, Saul's mission to respect one corpse a little hard to care abut when more important things, like the deaths of thousands, were happening around him. Mike D'Angelo made a similar observation. Nonetheless Nemes has made a "terrifyingly accomplished" film and "a masterful exercise in narrative deprivation and sensory overload," as Justin Chang wrote in his admiring and detailed Variety review. The Cannes jury clearly also thought so. Also true what Boyd van Hoeij said in Hollywood Reporter, that this is "a powerful aural and visual experience that doesn’t quite manage to sustain itself over the course of its running time, but is a remarkable — and remarkably intense — experience nonetheless." At the New York Film Festival press and industry screening Q&A, Géza Röhrig, the star, who identifies more as a poet than as an actor, was as articulate in his answers as the filmmaker, if not more so. Nemes consciously eschewed prettiness, unlike Koltai whose 2005 Fateless sought it.

    Son of Saul/Saul fia, 107 mins., co-written by László Nemes and Clara Royer, debuted at Cannes in Competition in May 2015 and won the Grand Prix. Screened for this review as part of "Film Comment Selects" presented as a Special Event sidebar of the New York Film Festival. Included in a dozen festivals, with theatrical release in France (to raves, AlloCiné press rating 4.2) 4 Nov. 2015; US 18 Dec. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Metacritic rating 87%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-16-2015 at 03:38 PM.

  5. #35
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    BROOKLYN (John Crowley 2015)



    An Irish lass pulled back and forth

    On the one hand Brooklyn is a beautiful and touching film. But at least in the way Nick Hornby has adapted Colm Tóibín's novel, the outlines of the story are so clear and in such well-set grooves it seems artificial, its heroine's path made unusually easy so her emotional transformations can be the more clearly outlined.

    Along with this, the film, despite a fine cast and a production that makes best use of a limited budget with shooting mostly in Montreal, seems somehow generic. The events are set in the early Fifties but might have occurred a century earlier (and indeed Ireland in the Fifties was in many respects more like elsewhere in the Thirties). Well, the subject is a pretty universal one: adapting to a new place and then being troublingly drawn back to an easier life at home. But the universal needs to be communicated through the particular.

    Everything is so low-keyed it makes John Crowley's film almost radical. Here is a film where nobody raises his or her voice. To go with this, as seen here Saoirse Ronan is a very understated actress, allowing the big moments to speak for themselves, relying often on a small smile or a twinkle in the eye, the rare flow of tears. Eilis is an unexciting character, a drab, mousy wallflower in County Wexford forced to work part time at the small grocery shop of an annoying woman. He sister Rose has the good position -- doing the accounting for a business. But a deus ex machina in the form of one Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), an Irish priest in Brooklyn, arranges a more productive life for Eilis in America. She will not have it easy, because she must go alone, leaving her sister and widowed mother behind. But she won't have it hard, because the essentials have been set up for her.

    The sea voyage over is routine but with some telling details. As Eilis descends into the ship the loud hum of the engine vividly conveys how strange and frightening everything is to her. She must contend with locked-off shared bathrooms and learning to fast to cope with seasickness. The scenes that follow oscillate between the two settings Father Flood has arranged for Eilis' life -- the Irish rooming house for young ladies presided over by bossy, acerbic landlady Mrs. Kehoe (the excellent Julie Waters), and the posh department store where it's arranged for her to work, again with a presiding spirit, the firm but helpful supervisor Miss Fortini ("Mad Men's" Jessica Paré). And Eilis continues drab and wall-flowery, outshone by her livelier housemates.

    Transformation begins after Eilis goes to a dance and meets Tony (Emory Cohen of The Place Beyond the Pines), a young Italian-American plumber who likes Irish girls. Tony falls for Eilis at once. After all she is pretty; she just needs some sprucing up, a touch of rouge, lipstick, a bit of eyeliner. Most of all, she needs a boyfriend; boyfriends have been a major topic of conversation ever since her arrival at the boarding house.

    Thanks to Tony, who starts taking Eilis to movies every midweek and soon invites her to meet his family and to Coney Island (two big sequences) she finally begins to bloom, becomes confident and relaxed at work, passes the accounting course at Brooklyn College Father Flood arranges for her (and pays for), and goes from like to love with Tony. Ronan and Cohen both deserve credit for making their little love scenes delicate and magical.

    Then comes deus ex machina number two: the sudden, inexplicable death of Rose. Eilis must go home to comfort her devastated mother, already a widow, now all alone. Pressured by Tony, but not unwilling -- she may have bloomed, but she's still a passive heroine all the way -- Eilis secretly marries Tony in the city hall, thus committing herself morally and legally to return, if she wasn't emotionally.

    It may seem somewhat gratuitous ad sudden that back in Ireland, Eilis is immediately, before she can put away the groceries, packed off to take Rose's place at the firm, where holiday bonuses have to be figured out; and quite routinely, starts being escorted around by slick-haired blazer-wearing rugby-clubber Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), who's not as young and attractive as Tony, but has security and a big house to offer. The main thing is, the beach isn't crowded like at Coney Island, and Eilis falls too easily into the security of the old country and its gentle, quiet ways. She's so conflicted, she puts Tony's letters, painstakingly scribed with the help of his obnoxious but more grammatically informed eight-year-old brother, in a drawer unopened. Only the fact that her marriage is secret makes Eilis's hesitation plausible and not reprehensible.

    Point of view triumphs here, because despite her limp-rag lack of appeal, Eilis, from whom the story rarely departs, gradually grows on us as she blooms; and our sympathy peaks with her dilemma back in Ireland. Her push-pull of conflicting attractions between a dynamic new world painstakingly adjusted to and an easy, familiar and safe home is one familiar to many. But real life lacks this kind of schematic, fairytale simplicity. For some, perhaps more those of the female gender, Crowley's film may be experienced as magical. For others like myself it seems too artificial to commit to fully. The scenes with the engaging Emory Cohen are the only ones that have real emotional traction. (Irishman John Crowley, primarily a theatrical director, helmed Andrew Garfield's award-winning 2007 feature-film debut Boy A.)

    Brooklyn, 112 mins., shot in 35mm., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2015; scheduled at nine other festivals including Toronto and London. Reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival Oct. 2015. Theatrical release by Fox Seachlight in the US 4 Nov., UK release 6 Nov.; France 9 Mar. 2016.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-07-2015 at 11:49 PM.

  6. #36
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    THE ASSASSIN (Hou Hsiao-hsien 2015)



    Hou's exquisitely leaden refinement of a truncated martial arts epic

    You may not grasp the plot in watching (nothing new in a fancy wu xia film, though Hou Hsi-hsien is seeking to redefine it). It's the end of the Tang Dynasty and provincial lords challenge the royal court. An exile, Nie Yinning (Shi Qi), has grown up into an invincible female assassin charged with destroying her former fianceé (Chang Chen). Some of our time is spent watching Yinning at work tearing people up. More of it is spent in royal interiors watching palace denizens talk about her and other matters. Sit tight. It's a slow ride. In between, there are some really nice landscape shots.

    When D'Angelo says in his Cannes bulletin for The Dissolve about Hou Hsio-hsien's exquisite but leaden version of a wu xia movie, The Assassin, that his favorite Hou so far "is the first segment of Three Times, mostly because it feels more like Wong Kar-wai than like Hou," I absolutely know what he means. I have tried hard to appreciate if not like Hou, even though it was completely no-go at first. What he has now done with the most vigorous and popular Chinese movie genre with this seven-year project can't be liked, only appreciated, along with the uneasy feeling that in watching it one may have become permanently molded to one's cinema seat -- even though The Assassin is actually less than two hours long. This film is gorgeous and sui generis, but it's a stinker.

    It's easy to ooh and ah over its elaborate costumes in lovely color combinations, its stream of razor-sharp landscape images that evoke the aesthetics of antique scroll paintings. But there is nothing here to be enjoyed as an old-fashioned, wildly energetic, borderline nutty movie experience -- the very thing that wu xia has always reliably provided. The story is curiously truncated, robbed of both the logic and the climaxes of the usual wu xia film. Hou has taken a lot out, and put nothing else in. In a majority of scenes we are with a royal family that the female assassin is, or is not, out to get. Deliciously dressed Tang dynasty aristocrats, the ruling women with the most elaborate hairdos you've ver seen outside Louis XIV Versailles, they all talk very very slowly, and in very, very low Quaalude-calm voices to each other, or perhaps to nobody in particular. This is a kind of epic effect -- to slow things down -- but true epic requires excitement, heightened tone, a sense of grandeur, and that is lacking.

    What of the fights -- the core of the genre? In the abrupt stop-start of the film structure, they turn out to be barely a blip on one's mental screen. Hou himself (in the NYFF press screening Q&A) has explained that his female protagonist's choice of a short blade for her fighting, determined the speeded up nature of the battles. Her opponents have long blades so she has to get in very close, attack fast, get out very fast. So the fights must take place at breakneck speed. He eschews the flying-through-the-air stuff using wires and trampolines or CGI because, well, in real life things didn't happen that way. Wait a minute: "real life"? It's curious that Hou sees this film as in some way more "realistic." It is as elaborately artificial as any other examples of the genre, just more pared down, slowed down, and "tasteful." The speeded up combat bears an unfortunate resemblance to those current films of various kinds in which fighting is fudged, where you can't see the arms and the follow-throughs, and the whole value is lost.

    The fighting, done by non-pros, is a misfire; so is the playing around with format. Hou opens in black and white Academy ratio, switches to color in the same ratio, opens up wider, then shrinks back some. One expects there to be some meaningful resolution of these format-shifts, but none arrives.

    Justin Chang says in his reservedly admiring Cannes review for Variety that in The Assassin Hou "boldly merges stasis and kinesis." Yes, there are odd jumps back and forth between the two, for sure; but it's always the stasis that wins out.

    Hou has injected great gobs of good taste, but taste in a genre film a sort of oxymoron -- though at the same time beauty in popular Chinese cinema -- beauty of actors, costumes, landscapes, cinematography -- has become such a staple it's kitsch.

    In The Assassin Hou delivers something very pretty, very elegant, but drained of life. His film is seriously unfun -- but by the same token, perfect for his most adoring fans, the cultish festival cinephiles who want nothing more than to be shown a movie no mainstream audience member would understand or tolerate.

    If, as Justin Chang thinks, this will bring Hou a wider audience in the West, this is a hollow achievement,like, indeed, the perhaps wider audiences for Wong Kar-wai's last couple of films. Both have sunk deeper into decadence and drifted away from the impulses that first made their work personal and unique. The blurb calls The Assassin "gloriously beautiful in its candle-lit sumptuous red and gold decor as Hou’s 1998 masterpiece, Flowers of Shanghai. True, and with more refined technique. But due to the intervention of Hou's stilted effort to redefine a genre that is foreign to him, this decor no longer had the uniquely personal feel it had in the 1998 film. Needless to say, though, Hou's and Wong's ever-more-elaborate failures are still more interesting than most directors' successes, and must be experienced, however dispiriting that may be.

    The Assassin/刺客聶隱娘, 105 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2015, where it won Hou Hsio-hsien the Best Director award, and was included in 18 or so other international film festivals. It was screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival, Oct. 2015. Limited US release (Well Go) 16 Oct. (Metacritic rating 86%); France 9 Mar. 2016.


    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-16-2015 at 02:39 PM.

  7. #37
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    MILES AHEAD (Don Cheadle 2015)



    New twists

    Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead is fractured and crazy. There is no easy way of summarizing it. It leaves you dazed. Wait, did that happen? Or what part of it did happen? The best parts are the incomprehensible transitions. Miles exits an elevator and instantly enters another decade of his life. He is in some kind of gunfight, and at the same time we are following a boxing match. These confusions could be an intelligent outsider's version of the deranged mind of a genius in disarray. Because Miles, the great Picasso of modern jazz history, is in disarray: that much is clear. He is toward the end of a six-year period from 1975 to 1981 in which he dropped out, stayed in, did drugs, and stopped playing music. Cheadle, as Miles, directing himself, and writing the script with help from Steven Baigelman (who helped write Get on Up), has chosen to deliver his subject in the form of a loud, rude confusion. It's a bold venture and he pretty nearly carries it off. One walks out of the theater with much more the feeling of having entered into a life than having been delivered the story of one. If you don't mind a jazz great's biopic delivered in the form of an acid trip gangster picture, Miles Ahead is a pretty fun movie. If it doesn't totally avoid biopic conventions (drug problems, wife problems, the manipulative record company executives), at least for good stretches it seems to.

    One convention, much relied on here, is the biographer or journalist who comes along and ferrets out the life story and the rambling musings of the star. This comes in the form of an aggressive, dissolute Rolling Stone writer (so he says) called Dave Brill who forces his way into Miles' spacious, disordered Manhattan hideaway to do, he claims, a comeback story for Columbia Records, and winds up being for a while the musician's factotum, companion, and chauffeur of his Jaguar sedan. Fears that blandness would wash over events through Ewan McGregor's taking on the mantle of the journalist prove unwarranted. This McGregor is a wild, rude fellow in a floppy wig, looking like he's already been short of a decent meal for a few days and gotten in a fight even before Davis punches him in the face.

    Then there is the MacGuffin. This comes in the form of a reel-to-reel tape supposedly of long awaited new Miles Davis music, that gets considerable mileage and leads to gunplay, even though there may be little actually on it. Unless you are on drugs. And then there are the drugs. Much of the foreground action is devoted to a drug run to feed Miles' cocaine habit. But there's a young saxophone player too, also an addict, called Junior. Is he a loser or a brilliant new talent? It wasn't clear. This is one trouble with the original, acid-trip style of presentation -- it's not ideal for presenting information.

    Very fractured snapshot-like depictions of their wedding; his demands that she curtail her dancing career; his adultery, her departure; do not keep the story of Miles Davis' relations with his first wife (1958-68), Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), from being the thread of the film closest to the stuff of conventional biopics. So, to a degree, is the confrontation with the record company executives. But the fact that Miles is high on coke and pointing a loaded pistol at them adds a novel touch. Miles' behavior throughout is provocative, dangerous, and rather funny. Only a little of Miles' sense of humor comes through, though, and it might have sent the tone out of whack if it had. But Miles' direct, profane language delivered in his famous whispery voice by Cheadle is a constant reality check that tells us that the man may be high, drunk, mean, dangerous, and in the middle of a long period of throwing his life away but is in fact not crazy in the least. Miles Davis' laconic way of expressing himself always had a kind of brilliant clarity about it, a feature the film captures nicely. Cheadle's performance is finely tuned: it's energetic, yet has a sly, restrained side, as if we're looking at Miles looking at himself doing these things, both in present time and in flashback.

    If the movie provides an explanation of what led Miles back to making music, I missed it. But the answer is as easy as when Brill asks Miles if he plays the piano and he says "No, I just woke up black." There's the humor, by the way.

    There are many stories about how badly, in the depths of his addictions, Miles Davis behaved, his domestic violence, his shortchanging of fellow musicians. We may choose to forgive because he was so clearly a great and endlessly self-regenerating musical talent (the latter an aspect Cheadle's film repeatedly honors). But the bad behavior remains and the car chase and fights and pistol shooting don't really reveal that truthfully. Perhaps this is because of Cheadle's alliance with Miles Davis' family in the form of his musician nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr.? But I'm reluctant to criticize Cheadle for leaving things out: that he leaves a lot out is one of the film's best features. It's good to see a movie about an artist where he is crazy, drug-addled, wracked with pain and lying fallow, but not depressed, suicidal, or doomed. It sounds funny to say that's an improvement, but it is. And in the contrived scene of Miles playing again, it's lovely to see and hear two of his greatest living former band members playing live on screen, Herbie Hancock, whose assistance with the score provides a tremendous imprimatur, and Wayne Shorter.

    Miles Ahead, 100 mins, debuted at the New York Film Festival as the Closing Night film, 10 Oct. 2015, when it was screened for this review. Sony Pictures will release it; no release dates yet.

    Feb. 3: now to open in US theaters April 1, 2016.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-03-2016 at 05:17 PM.

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