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Thread: New York Film Festival 2018

  1. #16
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    MONROVIA, INDIANA (Frederick Wiseman 2018)

    FREDEICK WISEMAN: MONROVIA, INDIANA (2018)



    What is happening here?

    The 88-year-old master of meticulous observation turns his attention to a farming town of under 1,500 - and planning meetings show, they don't want it to grow much. There is an undercurrent of deep irony that for all Wiseman's traditional, sometimes thrilling dedication to the quotidian, let's you see this as, well, dullsville. But this may be over-reading. Mostly Wiseman simply shows life in this red state place to be low-keyed.

    If there is anything exciting going on here, it takes a while for it to appear. (That is always part of Wiseman's art, of course.) The film begins with a sequence of quick near-silent shots of houses, church, road, grass, field. All seems placid, which apparently is the dominant impression the filmmaker wants us to take away. It is almost dormant.There is o conflict. Thus begins one of the filmmaker's less interesting and less penetrating portraits of a place or an institution, a long way from his recent Ex Libris or At Berkeley, where the Boston native gradually built up a portrait of humanism and cutting edge thought. A thought that comes early here, from a local minister speaking to a group of weary middle-aged faces, is that God gives men a hard time, but makes things right in the end.

    Wiseman does not focus on what may be for some of us Monrovia's telling political characteristic - this area voted 76% for Trump. Trump's name never comes up. Instead we get discussions of whether houses or businesses ought to be favored, and where to place a new bench in front of the library. Things get more exciting when a board meeting discusses the lack of a water system that provides fire protection - a bar to development (which many don't want anyway).

    We see an eighty-year-old man honored in a long and tedious ceremony, in an unimpressive room and dressed in ordinary clothes, for serving as a Mason for half a century. An overweight man lectures a high school class on how outstanding Monrovia has been in basketball. The pizza place is called Dawg House. An Italian might not be best pleased by what is being turned out here.

    It doesn't require selectiveness to reveal that there are vey few people here who are anything but native white Americans (there are a couple of African Americans at a high school band concert, and that's about it). Nor is unfair but only factual to point out that many people here are overweight, at all age levels.

    Where things look more energetic is in agriculture. There are repeated glimpses of a hog farm that appears large scale. How large, we don't see, but the truck they are herded into at one point is ver long indeed. At an auction of used or nearly new agricultural equipment, a combine is sold for $110,000 - a bargain if you see what these things normally cost (up to $50,000).

    More dispiriting is a supermarket where the camera ruthlessly surveys the goods on display and shows it to be monotonous and unhealthy. Not that people don't enjoy eating here, or that there is no good food. But there is a woman customer, bulging and shapeless. An exercise class has people of all shapes, including some chubby woman and a couple of young in-shape men, which suggests it's the only game in town.

    Again the film returns to still shots of the town and its environs, silent and still. We don't even see cars driving around till half way through, though we do see cars sold second hand at a country fair where a trio plays country music. This is a quiet place, but Wiseman chooses to heighten the quiet rather than to seek out noise, or drama of even a mundane kind.

    It is hard under the circumstances to guess what A.O. Scott meant by his remarks about this film in a NYFF preview the New York Times, to begin with his call it "patient and sublime." He wrote that in watching it one is "feeling assumptions gently and insistently undermined and replaced by an understanding that is all the more powerful for being nearly impossible to articulate." "Every cliché and talking point I’ve absorbed about the American heartland since the last presidential election was challenged," he goes on, "by Mr. Wiseman’s observations of democracy at work in a rural Midwestern town, though the name of the man who won that election is never mentioned." The observations of democracy at work are inconclusive. Those scenes are like any mundane city council or planning meeting in any American town, just a little more mundane and not perceptibly significant.

    Yes, Wiseman is patient. "Sublime" seems a stretch.

    Monrovia, Indiana, 143 mins., debuted at Venice, showing at five other festivals including Toronto, London, and the New York Film Festival. Watched in an online screener 10 Oct., its US theatrical release starts 26 Oct. 2018. Metascore 82.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-10-2018 at 06:58 PM.

  2. #17
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    WILDLIF (Paul Dano 2018)

    PAUL DANO: WILDLIFE (2018)


    CAREY MULLIGAN AND JAKE GYLLENHAAL IN WILDLIFE

    Hard times in the West

    For his directorial debut, the distinguished actor Paul Dano has delivered class all the way. It's a sterling novel adaptation from Richard Ford coauthored with Zoe Kazan, with first-rate thespian skills, and locations and a period rendered so beautifully every other shot is as if it was taken by William Eggleston, vacationing in Montana.

    A little family seems forced into the role of losers by the dreamy Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has moved his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), now fourteen, more often than is comfortable. He gets fired from his job as a golf pro, really a glorified caddy, then when the club changes its mind, is too proud to go back. Fire is raging up over the hills somewhere, and after a time of desperation Jerry goes off with the fire-fighters for a dollar an hour till the fire is put out or snow comes. Joe and Jeannette are left to fend for themselves. The burden and focus are most on Joe, who watches his mother enter into a brief affair with a rich older man named Miller (Bill Camp), who was in theswimming class she's been teaching at the "Y." One of his businesses is a car dealership, and he sports a splendid new Cadillac in a pale color so subtle that, to paraphrase Fran Lebowitz, straight men would think it's white.

    Joe gets a job, like Larry Clark, as a photographer's apprentice, and soon is doing portraits with an ancient view camera, but is forced into the role of passive observer in more ways than one. When the girl who's interested in him at school passes him a note in class, "Let's hang out after school," he sends back the one word, "can't." Dinner at Mr. Miller's house with his mother forces him to watch her flirt, dance, drink, and finally kiss, and it goes further later. Joe didn't want his dad to go away for an unspecified time, but he's compelled to support even shaky decisions from above. Unprepossessing and small, like Dano, Oxenbould is a subtle actor who makes passivity interesting, always saying the right thing, never more than enough, often seething but controlled. Everything is subtle: Miller isn't rapacious or icky. He's philosophical and contained, plays classical music. As Jeannette, Mulligan is desperate but never melodramatically so. Her utterances just seem unexpected and embarrassing.

    When the snow comes and Jerry returns and finds out what's been going on, there's hell to pay, but that fire too is damped down before it becomes a dangerous conflagration. This would seem a stifled tale, were not the emotions so often on the edge of violence.

    The scenery and cinematography with their evocations of classic American art photography are a continual delight. Reviewers who allude to Dano's "static camera setups and uncluttered frames" (Grierson in Screen Daily) and his "eye for elegant spare compositions" (Gleiberman in Variety)) are only underlining the same visual delight I've referred to in mentioning William Eggleston, one of the great transformative photographers of ordinary America. A feeling for period isn't strong, since in this isolated Great Falls, Montana setting, despite the signals of Cadillac, clothes, and broken TV, the mood could almost be drifting back to the Forties or Fifties. Miligan's performance is splendid, even though she looks a bit the worse for wear. Jake shouts a little: his big argument with Carey is more theatrical than cinematic. The cinematic may be the element Dano needs to learn to play up more. But he has so much easefully under his control Wildlife shows Paul Dano was meant to direct movies, and we can't wait to see his next one. It's a breeze, a movie that's memorable without ever grabbing our attention.

    Wildlife, 105 mins., debuted at Sundance in Jan., then played in Critics Week at Cannes in May and in over two dozen festivals including Toronto, New York, and London. It opened in US theaters (limited) 19 Oct. after its NYFF play 30 Sept. It opens in France 19 Dec. under the title Une saison ardente. Metascore 80.
    Screened for this review at Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley 22 Nov. 2018.


    ED OXENBOULD IN WILDLIFE. NOTICE THE BLUES.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-23-2018 at 01:31 AM.

  3. #18
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    THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (Joel, Ethan Coeh 2018)

    JOEL, ETHAN COEN: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)


    JAMES FRANCO IN THE "NEAR ALGODONES" EPISODE OF THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

    The Coens' Western sextet is finely crafted and nihilistic

    In Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers' sequence of six short filmed Western tales made for Annapurna Television and then sold to Netflix, free of studio pressures, they have sculpted every segment with the precision and care of miniaturists. Though uneven and varied, they strike a balance, wielding oater clichés like hangings, saloons, nowhere towns, wagon trains and gunslingers in such an original and skillful way as to seem classic, justifying the film's inclusion in the 2018 New York Film Festival's elite Main Slate.

    The narratives are dark and nihilistic. The degree and nature of the violence varies, always lodged comfortably in a dryly pleasing world where we can be secure in the knowledge that there is no hope. At first, with the titular opening segment starring Tim Blake Nelson as s a singing traveller in the Wild West who polishes off any and every opponent with alarming dispatch and nonpareil skill as a gunslinger, the extreme lawlessness of the times is paramount. In "Near Algodones," an incompetent bank robber (James Franco) escapes from being hanged, but that turns out to be false fortune.

    Not everyone is dispatched with a bang. Witness "Meal Ticket," where an itinerant impresario (a grizzled Liam Neeson) finds that his novelty showpiece, an oratorical armless and legless Englishman (who recites poems by Shakespeare and Shelley and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address), now no longer a draw for rural audiences, has become like dead weight. A grim world indeed and a mutually dependent duo who alone would justify reviews hat compare this movie to Beckett.

    A lonely gold prospector's lucky find isn't so lucky after all in "All Gold Canyon," an episode for its subtly dazzling depiction of western natural beauty and the pleasure of seeing how well Tom Waits can fill up a screen, but the deer and the owl have the last laugh. The brothers seem to have crafted every leaf, every drop of water and white hair on Wait's face and every crater on the pockmarked mug of the parasitical young villain who comes after him (Sam Dillon). Because it's mostly nature, the calculated artistry doesn't seem fussy. This tale is like a succinct version of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

    A certain delicacy, and a feminine point of view, enter the scene with "The Gal Who Got Rattled." Miss Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) mounts a wagon train with her short-lived and incompetent brother, Gilbert (Jefferson Mays), where the issues of debt and marital status are paramount. A way out appears when the handsome wagon driver Billy Knapp (Bill Heck, a find) grows interested. But a tragic mistake occurs during an attack by Indians. Like the other episodes, this ends with bitter irony. But it contains soft and touching moments..

    People die aplenty in every episode of the Coens' collection, and any happy expectations of a positive outcome die with them. But no animals are harmed in the making. And, happily, no contractions are uttered, never an "isn't," "don't," or "wouldn't." A formality is maintained that simulates nineteenth-century speech. This quality is used effectively to convey Billy Knapp's and Miss Longabough's growing respect and affection for each other. The sequence of Arthur, Knapp's wagon leading partner, fighting attacking Indians as Miss Longabough looks helplessly on, is wonderful visually, closely resembling classic western paintings. The sweet sadness of this most admired of the segments lingers. This touching, complex episode counters any feeling that the Coens are merely indulging in tongue-in-cheek nihilism. This is also one of the triumphs of this first Coen brothers foray into digital imagery, and the production values, including the costumes and the wrangling of oxen in the wagon train, are very impressive, indicative of what a challenging film this was to make. The Coens have said "It wouldn't have hurt if we were younger" (they're 59 and 62).

    Most of these episodes are stories the Coens themselves wrote over many years, except that "All Gold Canyon" is based on a Jack London tale, and "The Gal Who Got Rattled" comes from one by Stewart Edward White (1873-1946). We see the tales at the outset and conclusion of each as the pages of an old book - you can read them if you're fast enough - prefaced by an illustrative plate in an old fashioned style like that of Andrew Wyeth's father, N.C. Wyeth. This contributes to a solemn, staid, period flavor, a cozy distancing effect that tempers the Western violence.

    The last episode, "The Mortal Remains," shot, in contrast, entirely on a sound stage, may evoke Tarantino's recent The Hateful Eight, since it focuses on a group of people in a stagecoach. Four men and one woman are the riders, two of the men bounty hunters, and one of them is Brendan Gleeson, the other Northern Irish actor Jonjo O’Neil. The Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), the prim and superior lady (Tyne Daly), and the grizzled trapper(Chelcie Ross ) fall to squabbling, till they are brought short by a haunting song sung by Gleeson. The images turn to monotone, and the meanings grow to grimly symbolic. Fort Morgan, the coach's destination, seems to be the end of the line in more ways than one. "Mortal Remains" seems like an unusually well-crafted "Twilight Zone" episode.

    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, 133 mins., debuted at Venice, winning the Golden Osella prize for best screenplay; it was shown at half a dozen other international festivals including New York, Busan, and London, then released on the internet in eight countries 16 Nov. 2018, also having limited initial theatrical showings at Landmark Theaters while showing on Netflix. Showing locally (San Francisco) at the Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas. Metascore 78. (Only seven Coens films rank higher on Metacritic.)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-27-2018 at 10:56 PM.

  4. #19
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    AT ETERNITY'S GATE (Julian Schnabel 2018)

    JULIAN SCHNABEL: AT ETERNITY'S GATE (2019)


    WILLEM DAFOE IN AT ETERNITY'S GATE

    Once round the sunflowers again

    We didn't need another Van Gogh biopic, as Mike D'angelo points out in his recent review, despite Anthony Lane's lengthy answer to the question, "Why Do Filmmakers Love Van Gogh?" It's not that the last word has been said about this important artist. We just need to move on from the frozen romantic image of the doomed, tragic, starving, mad (male) artist who dies young - to learn about other, not so famous, not so stereotypical, but much more modern ones. This we get in Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's new film, Never Look Away, partly based on Gerhard Richter, an original and still highly contemporary artistic genius whose life spanned key moments of the twentieth century, rising out of Nazism and the Cold War and a proliferation of modern art styles to forge his own original one(s) - an artist who, though this isn't covered in the film, is still alive and productive in his eighties. And this also is not an imitation of Richter's life but, I think, simply a good story.

    But in his sympathy for Van Gogh we must acknowledge Julian Schnabel as an artist first and foremost himself and a notable one - something I don't think any of the previous "Vincent" biopic makers could lay claim to. The big paintings with plates stuck to them that made Schnabel famous in the Eighties were work that some scoffed at. Of course he sold plenty of him, unlike Van Gogh. But there is much emphasis on philistine scoffers here. And also much emphasis is put on the rave review Van Gogh received from Albert Aurier in Mercure de France, which is read at some length in voiceover by Louis Garrel.

    What distinguishes Schnabel's new film is his sympathy for Van Gogh's twin passions - the passion for making paintings and the Christlike suffering of his life. After all the lead is played by Willem Dafoe, who played Christ in Scorsese's film. This Van Gogh even talks about Christ with a philistine priest at the mental hospital who thinks himself a judge of art (Mads Mikkelsen), and out in the field, he adopts a Christlike pose at one point. At Eternity's Gate vividly depicts the compulsion to be doing the work, no matter what, even when he is confined as mad. There is something quite moving in that, even though this ins't a fully satisfactory film. (Having a complete unknown, Louise Kugelberg, and a venerable veteran screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, collaborate on the screenplay seems not to have helped.)

    Other major players in the action are Van Gogh's art dealer younger brother Theo (Rupert Friend) and his colleague and friend for a time, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), whose clash with Vincent begins a long decline. Schnabel's direction doesn't seem outstanding here: nobody emerges as particularly distinctive, other than Dafoe, though Isaac looks pretty cool.

    One can't help noticing that Schnabel has taken a very different tack here than in his second film, Basquiat, the treatment of an artist that was sympathetic, collegial, yet pleasingly, dry and comic. There Schnabel was dealing with a lot of people he actually had known firsthand himself. It was the art craze of the Eighties he was partly talking about. True, Jean-Michel qualifies as a tragic genius too, having died of an overdose at twenty-seven. But unfortunately for the romantic cliché, he had also become famous and rich, and the wonderful Jeffrey Wright plays him with a cool detachment that's quite the opposite of Willem Dafoe's appealing but unironic and over-explanatory version of Van Gogh.

    There is so much wrong with At Eternity's Gate,, starting with D'Angelo's valid enough point: it's not necessary. After all there was a very engaging and original Van Gogh film just last year, Loving Vincent (La passion Van Gogh in the excellent French-language version). For all Schnabel's efforts - sometimes misguided - to evoke Van Gogh's eye, with shaky-cam, yellow filters, and luminous landscapes, last year's film, with its motion capture painted animation of paintings, is more remarkable and visually memorable, and it creates a quivering world that draws us in. Schnabel, the painter, works in a nice visual focus on Van Gogh's sculptural, impasto painting technique, objected to by Gauguin, who keeps telling him he should work slowly, work indoors, invent from his head, and lay the paint flatly, all things that were anathema to Vincent. But all this winds up feeling pretty familiar, despite its sincerity.

    Appealingly, At Eternity's Gate feels somehow at times rather like a Sixties aventgardist film: the choppy structure, the piano score, the earnestness, even the big simple opening and closing titles show Schnabel maintaining contact with his original amateurist roots as a filmmaker. But At Eternity's Gate never merges into a real movie with fully alive scenes and richly interacting characters we can get lost into, like Pialat's 1991 film, my favorite, and the least corny of the Van Gogh biopic lot. Schnabel's film is just a series of vignettes, or stages of the Cross. One watches, ponders, and moves on to the next stage. (Some have suggested the film frequently stalls and has no rhythm.) Schnabel is more interested in odes to the beauty of light and philosophizing about art-making than recreating a world, telling a story, or building momentum.

    The film's inappropriate, inaccurate treatment of language is a big wrong element that's damningly silly for this day and age. It consists of the unconvincing compromise of having villagers occasionally speak French, but Van Gogh nearly always speaking English, either with native speakers like Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin, or French guys speaking squeaky, weird English, like the great Niels Arestrop, wasted in a brief cameo as an insane ex soldier, or Matthieu Amalric, also wasted, seen for a minute as Van Gogh's friend Dr. Paul Gachet. This retro use of language is the more surprising since Schnabel boldly plunged into an all-French world for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly/Le scafandre et le papillon (NYFF 2007), probably his finest film, where he also plunges the viewer, with rude shock, into the nightmarish experience of locked-in syndrome.

    Schnabel is trying much more wanly to lock us in, with the yellow-tinted images, blurred at the bottom, the wandering, jittery lens, the overlapping repeat dialogue to take us into Van Gogh's derangement. But this is part of an inconsistent conception of the man (just as, D'Angelo notes, the POV is inconsistent), because when Dafoe talks, he nearly always, even toward the end, sounds totally sensible and just damned nice. Dafoe is immensely appealing, and always watchable. He is a wonderful actor. But lacking is that necessary hard core otherness. He never ceases to seem like anything but Willem Dafoe, a guy who looks a lot like Van Gogh, playing Van Gogh.

    At Eternity's Gate, 105 mins., debuted at Venice, where Dafoe received the acting award. Seven other international festivals, including the New York Film Festival where it was the Closing Night Film. Limited US release began 16 Nov. 2018. Screened for this review at Albany Twin, 7 Dec. 2018. Metascore 78.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-08-2018 at 02:14 AM.

  5. #20
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    The official poster for the New York Film Festival, 2018

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