Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New York Film Festival Review Roundup #2

A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol)

With every film, each one more of a lazy trifle than the last, Chabrol makes it easy to forget that he was once the surviving member of the French New Wave with the most wickedly comical wit, his string of thrillers puncturing the duplicitous posturing of the bourgeoisie. His latest is a pale shadow of what his work once was. His portraits of upper-class Parisian society are as empty as the characters that inhabit his films. The titular “girl” (the title is explained in the film’s conclusion with a literal-mindedness which is jaw-dropping) is Gabrielle De Neige (Ludivine Sagnier), a TV weather woman divided, as per the films title, between the affection of the much older novelist Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand) and the foppish, arrogant pharmaceutical heir Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), the latter of whom pursues her with an obsessiveness that can only be called stalking. All the characters go through their mechanical motions with what passes as wit nowadays in Chabrol’s films. At the end, this concoction is far less than the sum of its parts.

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)

Bracketed by stunning, surreally beautiful shots of a sunrise and a sunset, Reygadas’ new film, set among the Mennonite community of Chihuahua, Mexico, contains passages of similar uncommon beauty to the opening and closing shots. Reygadas’ two previous films, Japón and Battle in Heaven, also proved his prodigious command of composition, but his gifts were married to much more provocative subject matter than can be found here. This is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because Reygadas finds exquisite visual poetry in a beam of light, shadow play on grass, and a man’s impromptu dance to a pop song; bad, because the material can seem so gossamer-thin as to nearly disintegrate. My first reaction to the film was disappointment that it seemed to lack the revelatory power of his previous films, but the more I think about the film, the more I suspect a second viewing may be in order. Filmed with an unsettling serenity, Silent Light sets a lulling mood that is violently broken a few times: for a central sex scene and two passages of copious weeping. Cast with Mennonite non-actors, some from the film’s northern Mexico setting, others from as far away as Canada and Kazakhstan, the story is exceedingly simple. Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) deeply loves his wife Esther (Miriam Toews), yet carries on an affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), which in this community is a nearly unthinkable transgression. However, the film focuses less on the taboo-breaking nature of this relationship than on the daily tasks of tending farm and other work which is often mesmerizing to watch. Appropriately for the religious community where this story is set, the film culminates in a miraculous event, which recalls Dreyer’s Ordet. The impact of this is lessened by the fact that the viewer is kept at such an arms-length, observatory distance that in the end one can greatly admire this film, but not quite love it.

Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara)

Opening to the exuberant strains of Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up,” Ferrara’s strip-club fantasia can be said to be a lighter version of Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as directed by Robert Altman. Taking place over a couple of nights, Ferrara’s film traffics in nostalgia for the seedier New York of the recent past. Adding to the fantasy feel is the patently inauthentic New York set, built on the Cinecitta Studios lot. The restless camera (courtesy of cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti, brilliantly capturing the shadowy blue neon and harsh spotlights of the interiors) becomes its own character, voyeuristically observing the frenetic activity. On this particular night poor Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe), proprietor of gentleman’s club Ray Ruby’s Paradise, can’t catch a break. He spends the night avoiding his landlady (Sylvia Miles, shrill and hilarious), who threatens to shut down the place and sell it to a Bed, Bath, and Beyond; his strippers are on the verge of striking because of his failure to pay them; and his foolproof scheme to beat the lottery is defeated when he loses his winning ticket. Despite all this he harbors grand dreams, and his fatherly generosity extends to his dancers, for whom he becomes for one night a week the Ed Sullivan of go-go joints, closing down the club to put on a showcase for the girls’ talents to help them achieve their own dreams to leave the stripper life. Willem Dafoe delivers one of his most charming and funny performances as the doggedly (and often foolishly) optimistic Ray Ruby. Ferrara is as generous a director as Ray Ruby’s character (who is also a director in a sense, and who can be read as a stand-in for his creator), investing his film with a lively improvisational air and giving us extremely colorful characters and incident. Well worth the price of admission (surely less than the funny money supplied by Ray Ruby’s club) is Asia Argento’s strip routine, co-starring a rottweiler.

Redacted (Brian De Palma)

Or, Casualties of War II. Containing performances that rarely rise above the level of a high-school play, De Palma’s Iraq war film, despite its impeccably liberal credentials, manages to have nothing to say about the conflict, and is a collection of audience-baiting gimmicks rather than an actual film. Slightly better than the embarrassing mess that was his last film, The Black Dahlia, Redacted nevertheless is a histrionic creation as full of hot air as the apologists and war cheerleaders it is against. Inspired by the actual rape and murder of a 14 year old girl and the murder of her family by American soldiers in 2006, the film uses this potent material to pull off the sort of stunt one would expect from some young hotshot fresh out of film school, eager to show off his shiny, digital toys, rather than by someone who was once a great filmmaker. Constructed from fake found footage – a soldier’s video diary, You Tube-type footage of strident antiwar video bloggers and terrorist recordings, a French documentary – Redacted is little more than old wine in a not so new bottle. The film recently caused some minor controversy when De Palma publicly clashed with his film’s distributor, Magnolia Films, for “redacting” his photo montage of actual Iraq war casualties that concludes the film. Magnolia’s justification that this is to avoid potential lawsuits is admittedly weakly argued and an overreaction. But De Palma’s eagerness to puff his chest with self-important outrage and repeatedly state, clearly relishing the irony, “My film Redacted was redacted,” is to me equally distasteful. Exploiting dead and wounded Iraqis to lend your film a power and sense of tragedy that you have utterly failed to do on your own is hardly a principled stance. For true insight on what went wrong in Iraq and why, I suggest skipping this nonsense and instead seeing Charles Ferguson’s meticulous, brilliant documentary No End in Sight (out on DVD today).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Start at the End

The Lookout. 2007. Written and directed by Scott Frank. Produced by Walter Parkes, Laurence Mark, Roger Birnbaum, and Gary Barber. Cinematography by Alar Kivilo. Edited by Jill Savitt. Music by James Newton Howard. Production design by David Brisbin. Costume design by Abram Waterhouse. Released by Miramax Films.

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Chris Pratt), Jeff Daniels (Lewis), Matthew Goode (Gary Spargo), Isla Fisher (Luvlee Lemons), Carla Gugino (Janet), Bruce McGill (Robert Pratt), Alberta Watson (Barbara Pratt), Sergio Di Zio (Deputy Ted), Alex Borstein (Mrs. Lange), David Huband (Mr. Tuttle), Greg Dunham (Bone), Laura Vandervoort (Kelly).

The Lookout is the brilliant culmination of screenwriter and first-time director Scott Frank’s work on such superior crime films as Out of Sight and Get Shorty. His protagonist Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is wracked with guilt from his high-school car accident in which he suffered a brain injury and two of his friends died. A former hot-shot hockey star, he has now been reduced to working as a janitor in a local bank, hoping someday to be allowed to work as a teller. He lives with the blind, wise-cracking Lewis (Jeff Daniels), both caretaker and companion. He has a particularly strained relationship with his parents, especially his father (Bruce McGill), and he lives with a deep sense of shame at his impoverished circumstances to go along with his remorse.

One night while drinking at a bar, Chris is approached by high-school classmate Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), who brings along former stripper Luvlee (Isla Fisher), who turns out to be potent sexual bait for Chris. Gary and his set of shady characters, mostly with the use of Luvlee, draw Chris into their scheme of robbing the bank where Chris works. Gary justifies this with a pseudo-Marxist notion of redistributing the wealth taken from farmers. Chris at first is reluctant, but after a particularly embarrassing Thanksgiving dinner with his parents, he agrees to be the lookout for their robbery.

Scott Frank renders this concise tale with a total command of his craft and an unerring ear for revealing dialogue that is as close to perfect as such writing gets. Frank’s work is quite remarkable in going beyond the lazy film noir archetypes that are so misused by lesser hands. Each character, down to the briefest roles, gives the sense of a fully rounded human being. Chris’ daily routine, his scribbling in his notebook to keep things straight, and haunted anguish are quite vivid and memorable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt cements his position as one of the most interesting young actors working today, adding to the great body of work he began building in such films as Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin and Rian Johnson’s Brick. Jeff Daniels invests his role with an effortless authority that impresses all the more for not being overly showy. The Lookout is the sort of film that is becoming increasingly rare: an accessible, entertaining film that nevertheless is quite smart, elegant in its construction, and containing fascinating layers that reveal themselves with repeated viewings. (Frank even cleverly includes advice to writers on constructing a good story, one bit of which I’ve used for the title of this post.) This film, unfortunately, did not survive long in the marketplace, being neither self-important Oscar bait nor a vulgar CGI-laden spectacle. That fact says all that needs to be said about the current impoverishment of American film culture. Hopefully on DVD it will eventually find the audience it should have had theatrically.

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.