Monday, October 16, 2017

The 55th NY Film Festival: a look back


Was the New York Film Festival this year all it could have been?  It seems that the two weeks came and went, and the amazing films that leave a lasting impression and carry that sought-after Oscar buzz never showed up.  On paper the main slate of the festival promised an impressive and varied list of films, with a sizable number of entries from Europe and Asia.  It seemed a throwback to the days of Richard Peña, the former festival chef who one year answered a New York Times article by  assuring audiences that the festival was indeed elitist.  He might as well have announced that the Film Society of Lincoln Center was a humorless place where only the most esoteric and cryptic (read boring) films need apply.  But then again, most New Yorkers who grew up attending the festival from the 1980s on already knew that.

Maybe I missed the films that really mattered this year. I wasn’t there opening night, missed the centerpiece, and could not attend closing night.  I did finally catch up with The Meyerowitz family and their stories, but I had to log on to my Netflix account to catch Noah Baumbach's wonderful film.  I was glad I did.  It was one of the most enjoyable films that was shown at the festival.  The kind of film that exemplifies the new New York Film Festival under Kent Jones.  I wish there could have been more where that came from.

There was a stern quality to the festival that seemed out of place.  Zama, an Argentinian film from Lucrecia Martel was a long, monolithic story of barbarism and civilization that took itself way too serious. Ditto for BPM, a French film about the AIDS crisis and the militant work of ACT UP Paris.  Even Richard Serra’s official poster for the festival had an ultra-no nonsense look as it tried to be referential to a camera lens. Interesting, but oh, so serious.

The Opera House, which was shown at the Metropolitan Opera was a documentary of the company’s move to Lincoln Center in the 1960s, but in the end, it served to be no more than a two-hour infomercial highlighting Peter Gelb’s current Met Opera.  Showing it at the MET itself was the best aspect of the screening.

Call Me by Your Name was, more than likely, the most popular film in the festival, and rightly so.  The story of the coming of age of a teenager in 1980’s Northern Europe was bubbly, moving, and it featured amazing performances by a talented ensemble cast featuring newcomer Timothée Chalamet as a teenage boy falling in love with a thirty-year old man.

Perhaps my favorite films this year at the festival were the revivals, especially the restorations of The Old Dark House and Pandora's Box; the latter was shown with live musical accompaniment.  Watching these restorations was like watching new works being screened for the first time.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Helen Mirren to be the next Chaplin Award winner

This year's New York Film Festival might be history, but the Film Society of Lincoln Center continues to be in the news.  Yesterday, it was announced that Helen Mirren will be the recipient of the Chaplin Award, a prize bestowed yearly by the film society to a figure in the motion pictures arts for their lifetime achievement.  Here is an excerpt from their announcement:

"Academy Award–winning actor Helen Mirren will be honored at the 45th Chaplin Award Gala on Monday, April 30, 2018 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. A beloved figure of stage, screen, and television, Mirren has bestowed upon the world a series of iconic performances in a career spanning more than fifty years. The annual event will be attended by a host of notable guests and presenters and will include movie and interview clips, culminating in the presentation of the Chaplin Award."

NY FILM FESTIVAL: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitzes of the title in director/screenwriter Noah Baumbach's new comedy The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) are self-loathing Jews, void of much religious connection, until you see their faces if Annie Hall were to suddenly pop up in this new film and order pastrami on white bread with mayo.  In other words they are Jews raised on Alvy Singer: "Left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings..."  Indeed, the spirit of Woody Allen hovers very close above this wonderful Netflix release which has already graced the Cannes Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival before its theatrical and streaming release on October 13 of this year.

The story of half-siblings, Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and how their lives have been affected by their father (Dustin Hoffman) is a delight from beginning to end; with Mr. Hoffman creating a memorable character to add to his impressive cinematic catalogue.  His Harold Meyerowitz is a strong-willed, former Bard College art teacher and modern sculptor, who in the autumn of his life feels himself neglected by the New York art critics. How his children from numerous marriages have been affected by him is the crux of this enjoyable slice of New York life.

The film features strong performances from the cast already mentioned as well as from Emma Thompson (with an incredible right-on-target New York accent) as Maureen, Harold's current alcoholic wife and atrocious cook, Candice Bergen as Harold's third wife and Matthew's mother, and newcomer Grace Van Patten as Eliza, Danny's daughter, who wants to be a filmmaker, and whose first film "Pagina Man" verges on the pornographic. Judd Hirsch, Adam Driver, and Sigourney Weaver (playing herself) in minor and cameo roles round out the incredible cast.  It's really great to see so much talent in one film, and all of them hitting the mark in their various roles.

Adam Sandler's Danny is a wonderfully crafted creation: a complex mensch with so much brewing anger inside of him that at times it boils over whether it be just trying to find a parking space in Manhattan or confronting his brother Matthew with a painful family memory.  The role allows Mr. Sandler to remind us just how talented he can be when he doesn't have shtick to fall back on.  And Mr. Hoffman?  Well, he is just simply a joy to watch from beginning to end, and I would not be surprised if this role adds another shelf of awards for this great actor.

With a wonderful script by the director, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a strong contender for Oscar gold this year.  Don't miss it!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

X-Squadron Podcast does Blade Runner 2049

I was the special guest star on Episode 38 of the X-Squadron podcast.  The main topic of the podcast was the new film Blade Runner 2049.  I had a ball doing this, and I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

NY FILM FESTIVAL: Pandora's Box

We will never know what G.W. Pabst’s great film Pandora’s Box must have looked like when it was first shown in the late years of the silent era.  This restoration, however, allows us a glimpse of the visual wonder it must have been. As we look at the detailed restored images, we are dazzled by the care it must have taken to get the film to this state, and at the same time we realize that we are watching a mere ghost of what the original nitrate negative must have yielded for those original Berlin audiences who were lucky enough to have seen the film upon its release. They would have experienced amazingly sharp contrasts and silvery images that a restoration working with many prints from all over the world, and lacking an original negative can only hint at. Tonight, at the screening of this film at the New York Film Festival we saw a ghostly glow of years past.

The ravages of time may have taken away much of the luster of this film, but the power of the narrative and the shock of the story still remain as fresh as ever.  This is enough for me to call this restoration a triumph. It may only be a mere shell of what Pabst intended, but it’s the closest we are ever going to get to the director’s original visual intention.

The film was shown with a live orchestra featuring a newly composed score composed and conducted by Jonathan Ragonese.  The composer opted for expressionistic sounds and dissonant outbursts that hinted at Alban Berg's twelve-tone opera Lulu, a 20th century masterpiece based on the same source material as this film.  I enjoyed the experience of watching it with live musicians, and the score was a successful match for the film.  My only complaint with Mr. Ragonese's composition came at the end of the film.  The final scene, taking place in an expressionistic-looking London, features the Salvation Army playing a Christmas carol, and the denizens of a pub rising to sing along.  It struck me as odd that the composer chose to appropriate the German carol "O du fröliche" for this scene instead of a British carol.  I'm sure he chose this tune because of its beautiful melody and for its ironic title (there is nothing "fröliche" (joyful) about the conclusion of Pandora's Box), but I can assure you that a German carol has never been sung at any pub where Jack the Ripper would have hung out.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Blade Runner 2049


Thirty-five years since Blade Runner opened to mixed reviews and disappointing box office receipts, a sequel to the sci-fi, dystopian neo-noir is now playing in the theaters, executive produced by Ridley Scott, the director of the original film.  Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve is the kind of film that tries to cash in on the gravitas of the original while paving new ground and building its own "universe."  In many ways, it's a losing battle.  The scenic design of the new film is firmly rooted in the look of the original film, with some key improvements.  The Los Angeles landscape, dominated by electric Asian-themed billboards are back, but this time upgraded to three-dimensional holograms.  It's a good visual development. Times Square has already caught up to Ridley Scott's vision of the future.  The smoky, rainy landscape is also present, perhaps even more beautifully recreated through the use of computer generated effects, something the original film did not have in the analogue Hollywood of the 80s.

Based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner has had a confusing history of different versions since its original 1982 opening.  There was the cut that featured narration that tried to mimic the golden age of Film Noir, and failed to catch its poetry and cadence.  Harrison Ford's otherwise impressive voice was all wrong in its quest to mimic the gumshoe pulp parlance. Unfortunately, this is how most people first met this film.  The so-called happy ending that version had also did not make too much sense given the downbeat look and feel of the rest of the film.  A 1992 director's cut that eliminated the narration and the happy ending started to make new disciples of some critics that had orginally panned the film.  A 2007 theatrical showing of what Mr. Scott calls "The Final Cut" finally brought this film into the realm of masterpiece. It only took two decades!
Now the sequel moves the timeline over forty years to the future where L.A. is even more noir than ever, and where the blade runners, such as our hero K, who at one point calls himself "Joe" (Ryan Gosling as a futuristic Kafkaesque Joseph K.) is himself an android, haunting down replicants and untangling a mystery I will not reveal here.

The most impressive aspect of Ryan Gosling's character is the way he is able to make us believe that androids harbor feelings.  This android knows that he is merely a copy of us.  But in the recesses of the computer programs that make him tick, I'm sure that he suspects that humans might just be copies of them.  This is one of the central themes of Mr. Dick's novel, although the film does not enter fully or convincingly into this conundrum.  I'm sure that K understands his existential melancholia: his devoted girlfriend named Joi (played by Ana de Armas) is nothing more than a computer program.

Even more impressive is Roger Deakins brilliant cinematography which lights an equally brilliant set design by Dennis Gassner was for me the most memorable aspect of the film.  Mr. Deakins has been nominated thirteen times for the Academy Award and has lost each time.  Perhaps this is the one that brings him the gold.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

ORIGIN by Dan Brown

I'm looking forward to reading the new Robert Langdon adventure book by Dan Brown.  According to advance reviews, it promises to be as controversial as his best-selling The Da Vinci Code. Origin, his new novel, is a story that pits creationism against science as a futurist billionaire comes up with a theory so shocking that it might just change the course of the world.  As the story opens, Langdon is attending a lecture at the Guggenheim-Bilbao Museum by Edmond Kirsch, who just happens to be one of Robert Langdon's first students at Harvard a decade earlier.  The lecture throws into jeopardy the entire world's belief system, and this triggers an adventure that sends Langdon (and of course a pretty and ultra-intelligent female companion) all over the world.

Yes, it is formula!  But since The Da Vinci Code locked heads with the Vatican, Mr. Brown has used this formula to make millions.  His books become instant best-sellers; they are translated into hundreds of languages, and eventually are adapted into motion pictures, not always very successful, but it does give Tom Hanks a steady job these days.

The fact that a large part of the book takes place in Spain, and that Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia (one of my favorite churches) plays a large part in the narrative because of its relationship between religion and the nature (architect Antoni Gaudí based himself on natural forms in the concept of his temple) is enough reason for me to attempt to devour the book.  Which is actually the best way to approach Brown's literature.  Don't think about it, just get through it.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

NY FILM FESTIVAL: Call Me by Your Name

In Richard Wagner’s great work Tristan und Isolde, the lovers in the throes of the most heated passion exchange names. Isolde says she is Tristan, and he appropriates her name as they consummate their love and become one. In the film Call Me by Your Name the two lovers, 17 year old Elio and thirty-something Oliver imitate Wagner’s doomed lovers, passionately borrowing each other’s names in a night of love that climaxes their summertime romance.

The film, based on André Aciman's popular novel, tells the story of the sexual awakening of a teenage boy against the background of a languid summer in Northern Italy in 1983. Elio’s father is an American professor who has invited Oliver, a graduate student academician, to his summer home for a few weeks. Elio and his family are cultural Jews, but Oliver seems to be more in tune with his religion; he wears a gold Star of David on a gold chain around his neck. As Elio and Oliver's relationship grows, Elio finds his childhood Star of David he had discarded long ago, and begins wearing it. A sign that he and Oliver are becoming closer. And closer they do become, as their relationship grows from a summertime fling to a passionate love affair, with their love remaining secret to Elio’s parents, or so he thinks. In an extraordinary scene, Elio’s father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, tells his son to be proud of the time he had with Oliver, and to not be ashamed of it.  He also confesses that he came close to having a similar kind of experience, but life’s social mores held him back.

This has been the most popular film at this year's New York Film Festival thus far.  The end of the film was greeted with a standing ovation by a sold-out audience, a rare event at this venue.  It is a well-made film with many outstanding performances. Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothée Chalamet as Elio possess the right amount of chemistry to enable this story to feel believable. Young Mr. Chalamet is particularly effective at conveying a complex highly intelligent teenager who reads books, transcribes music, and plays the piano like a prodigy; all while being a horny sexually active teenager who juggles his affair with Oliver alongside a fling with a French girlfriend.  Director Luca Guadagnino handles James Ivory's screenplay with finesse.  A particularly fine moment in the film is when the lovers consummate their relationship, the camera pans away from them, coming to rest on a fertile tree outside the window of their bedroom.

There is early Oscar buzz about this film, especially when it comes to newcomer Chalamet, whose expressive face graces the screen during the long last shot of the film.  A memorable shot in a memorable film.