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Thread: New York Film Festival 2019

  1. #1
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    New York Film Festival 2019

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-01-2022 at 08:35 PM.

  2. #2
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    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 Press and industry accreditation for NYFF57 is open now and closes August 16th; apply here.BEA

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-12-2019 at 02:55 PM.

  3. #3
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    PAIN AND GLORY/DOLOR Y GLORIA (Pedro Almodóvar 2019)



    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 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%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-03-2019 at 06:40 AM.

  4. #4
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    WILD GOOSE LAKE, THE 南方车站的聚会 (Diao Yinan 2019)

    DIAO YINAN: THE WILD GOOSE LAKE 南方车站的聚会 (2019)


    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 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, 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 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%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-12-2020 at 02:48 PM.

  5. #5
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    SYNONYMS/SYNONYMES (Nadav Lapid 2019)



    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) 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.

    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 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.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-21-2019 at 10:45 PM.

  6. #6
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    OH MERCY!/ROUBAIX, UNE LUIÈRE (Arnaud Desplechin 2019)



    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 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 .

    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 was great; last time's Ismael's Ghosts 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%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-03-2019 at 02:33 PM.

  7. #7
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    FIRST COW (Kelly Reichardt 2019)



    A particularly intense study in Reichardt's taut minimalism

    Set in 1820, 25 years before the time of the director's Meeks Cutoff (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 ratio, 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. 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 - with festival programming director Dennis Lim); it comes to US theaters, distributed by A24, Mar. 6, 2020. Metascore went from 76% at the time of this review to 89% since its US theatrical release.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-15-2020 at 11:43 PM.

  8. #8
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    MARRIAGE STORY (Noah Baumbach 2019)



    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, 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%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-12-2019 at 10:27 PM.

  9. #9
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    SIBYL (Justine Triet 2019)



    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%.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-09-2020 at 05:34 PM.

  10. #10
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    THE TRAITOR/IL TRADITORE (Marco Bellocchio 2019)



    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 or Federico Girone in ComingSoon, 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 (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%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-21-2020 at 08:33 PM.

  11. #11
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    BEANPOLE (Kantemir Balagov 2019)



    Vibrant grimness

    Kantemir Balagov is only 27 years old and this is his second feature; Jessica Kiang calls him in her Variety review 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 (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.]
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-21-2019 at 01:37 AM.

  12. #12
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    THE WHISTLERS/GOMERA (Corneliu Porumboiu 2019)



    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 I reviewed in the 2009 NYFF, and his The Treasure 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 review. Reviewing this film for the Guardian 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%.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-14-2019 at 11:10 AM.

  13. #13
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    MARTIN EDEN (Pietro Marcello 2019)



    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 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, 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 (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 meets through 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 becomes 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). The film received many wards and nominations at Rome. Metascore 57% (when this review was written, which seemed extreme; it's better than that; now at US release time, Oct. 2020, it's grown to 73%). US release date: Oct. 16, 2020.

    A Toronto Q&A with the director HERE.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-01-2021 at 07:08 PM.

  14. #14
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    SATURDAY FICTION 兰心大剧院 (Lou Ye 2019)

    LOU YE: SATURDAY FICTION 兰心大剧院 (2019)


    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%.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-09-2019 at 09:57 AM.

  15. #15
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area




    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 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).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-10-2019 at 11:46 AM.

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