Thursday, October 25, 2007

New York Film Festival Review Round-up

The 45th New York Film Festival recently wrapped at Lincoln Center. Below are brief reviews of some of this year's selections.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)

Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood adapt Jean-Dominque Bauby’s memoir of his life before and after the massive stroke that rendered his body completely paralyzed except for his lift eyelid. Bauby composed his book through a laborious process in which the French alphabet (arranged by frequency of use) was read to him, and he would indicate the correct letter with a blink. Schnabel, as in his previous films Basquiat and Before Night Falls, creates a portrait of an artist that is as much about Schnabel himself as it is about its ostensible subject. The first half of the film puts the viewer inside Bauby’s head and behind his one eye as he realizes that he cannot move or speak. This extreme POV lends the film a bracing sense of visual experimentalism that is quite striking. Once Schnabel abandons this approach, the film becomes much more conventional. Mathieu Amalric, as Bauby, gives a typically wry and riveting performance. Brief flashback scenes show him in his glamorous jet-setting life as the editor of French Elle, and cavorting with his mistress. This is contrasted with his post-stroke appearance as a silent, twisted hulk in a wheelchair. Emmanuel Seigner, as Bauby’s wife, and Marie-Josée Croze, as his primary caretaker, both impress as two of the women who nurture him.

Fados (Carlos Saura)

Basically a feature-length music video, Saura’s film is an intermittently lively tribute to the fados, songs brought over by Africans to Portugal. Shot on soundstages with back projection and varied backgrounds, this is undeniably moving music. However, Saura’s presentation often doesn’t do this music justice, since it is often inert and doesn’t match the intensity of the many moving performances captured within its frame.

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)

With his fifth feature, Anderson has finally reached creative and aesthetic exhaustion. Anderson once again revisits the same themes he has explored umpteen times before: families with parental-abandonment issues, protagonists at an acute stage of arrested development, an array of odd, quirky characters and incidents, all set to vintage-jukebox soundtracks. However, the brilliant promise of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore has degenerated into a twee artistic repetition and irrelevance that yields ever diminishing returns. Anderson makes a desperate attempt to add some new wrinkles to his familiar scenarios by setting his film in India, where three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) try to repair their differences in the midst of exotic landscapes. The shallowness of the proceedings is perfectly encapsulated in the fact that the brothers’ suitcases (designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton), are given equal billing with the human actors. But we’ve seen it all before: the slow-mo shots set to hipster-friendly music (semi-obscure Kinks tracks, etc.), the lateral camera moves, the quick whip-pans, Bill Murray. When a tragic incident occurs, it does little to disturb the carefully art-directed jokiness. The inclusion of music from the films of Satyajit Ray, who in terms of humanity and artistic achievement is the polar opposite of Wes Anderson’s cliquish navel gazing, is the film’s final insult, and the ultimate expression of the film’s utter contempt for genuine human emotion.

The Romance of Astrée and Celadon (Eric Rohmer)

Rohmer has reached an advanced enough age as to be utterly impervious to cinematic trends or fashion. This is mostly to the good, as evidenced by his latest film, an adaptation of a classic work of French literature that is as exquisitely beautiful as anything in the Rohmer canon. A seemingly minor romantic misunderstanding between the two attractive protagonists engenders a long period of separation when Celadon (Andy Gillet), after attempting suicide, is saved by some nymphs, and is kept prisoner by one of them until he is helped to escape. He refuses to return to Astrée (Stéphanie Crayencour), who is devastated by his apparent death. Celadon takes Astree’s wish to never see her again as an iron-clad command. Instead he builds a shrine to her, and disguises himself as a woman in order to gaze upon his beloved incognito. Rohmer’s landscapes recall pastoral French painting, and everything is permeated with a simmering eroticism that erupts at the film’s conclusion in a startling way. This octogenarian filmmaker has given us an exquisite ode to youth, love and joie de vivre that resonates long in the memory.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet)

The most bracingly entertaining of this year’s fest offerings, 83-year old Lumet continues to offer excellent primers in no-nonsense, unpretentious filmmaking (are you listening, Wes Anderson?) A classic noir in the tradition of Kubrick’s The Killing, the film features a clan for which the term dysfunctional would be a gross understatement. Two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke), having foolishly gotten themselves in inextricable financial messes, come up with a seemingly foolproof plan to rob their own parents’ jewelry store. As things go hopelessly awry, and circumstances form a vicious steel trap around them, the film’s overlapping structure reveals the familial hornets’ nest that brought them to this state. Working from Kelly Masterston’s taut, ruthless script, Lumet keeps things going as a brisk clip that nevertheless gives us a sense of the Greek tragedy at the heart of this tale. Lumet proves himself to be just as vital and surprising even at this late stage in his career. Lumet’s actors rise to the challenge of this twist-filled scenario with nicely shaded performances. Albert Finney is especially impressive as the family’s cruel patriarch. Marisa Tomei delivers her best role in years, despite being topless in nearly every scene she appears in. Not that I’m complaining.

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