Sunday, October 16, 2011

Richard Peña to Step Down from the NY Film Festival

I received the following press release this evening from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced this evening that FSLC’s longtime Program Director and Head of the NYFF Selection Committee, Richard Peña, will step down from those posts at the conclusion of next year’s 50th New York Film Festival, and his 25th year with the Film Society. At that time, Peña will continue his involvement and has agreed to stay on to help design and organize a new educational initiative at the Film Society.

Dan Stern, President of FSLC’s Board of Directors made the announcement prior to the Closing Night Gala screening of THE DESCENDANTS, saying, “For the past 24 years Richard Peña has served as the Chairman of the Selection Committee for the Festival as well as the Program Director of the Film Society. Richard has informed the Board that at the end of 2012—after the Festival’s 50th anniversary, and his 25th at its helm—he will step down from both posts. Richard has been with the Film Society through the opening of the Walter Reade Theater as well as the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and we are pleased that he has accepted our invitation to stay on to help create a new educational initiative at the Film Society.”

Regarding the timing of the move, Peña said, “Heading into the fiftieth anniversary of the Festival, it seems a perfect time for a transition, both for me personally and for the organization. Working at the Film Society has been beyond a "dream come true," but in the years left me I would like to possibly explore other areas of interest, both within and beyond the cinema. I also feel that, like at any other cultural institution, change can be important, as it will bring in fresh ideas and approaches to lead the Film Society into its next fifty years.”

FSLC’s Executive Director, Rose Kuo said,Richard Pena has been a shining light for more than two decades at the Film Society, guiding us in the discovery of artists like Pedro Almodóvar, Mike Leigh, Lars Von Trier, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hong Sang Soo and many more. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with Richard and I am delighted that he will continue with us as he transitions to a new period in his career and life.”

Peña has been the Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Director of the New York Film Festival since 1988. At the Film Society, he has organized retrospectives of Michelangelo Antonioni, Sacha Guitry, Abbas Kiarostami, Robert Aldrich, Roberto Gavaldon, Ritwik Ghatak, Kira Muratova, Youssef Chahine, Yasujiro Ozu, Carlos Saura and Amitabh Bachchan, as well as major film series devoted to African, Israeli, Cuban, Polish, Hungarian, Arab, Korean, Swedish, Taiwanese and Argentine cinema. In addition, he is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema, and from 2006-2009 was a Visiting Professor in Spanish at Princeton University. He is also currently the co-host of WNET/Channel 13’s weekly Reel 13.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The 10 Best at this Year's NY Film Festival

I did not see all of the films that played at the 49th New York Film Festival, but I saw enough of them to be able to put together a top ten list. Here are the best films from this year's festival.

1. The Skin I Live In. Grand guignol horror and stylish melodrama from Pedro Almodóvar, with an outstanding debut by newcomer Elena Anaya and an amazing comeback performance by Antonio Banderas.

2. Shame. Director Steve McQueen's analysis of a 30 something's addiction to sex, with an unforgettably explosive performance by Michael Fassbender that goes from sexy beast to heartbreaking. In only his second film, McQueen has managed to capture the inner soul of sex.

3. Carnage. Roman Polanski's claustrophobic examination of four contemporary educated adults and how their seething anger rises to the surface when confronted with the problems caused by two of their children. Delicious performance by the quartet of stars: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and an amazing John C. Reilly.

4. Ben-Hur. An incredibly beautiful and pristine restoration of William Wyler's 1959 classic. The film has never looked so good, and the grander than life emotions of the story play beautifully on the big screen.

5. A Dangerous Method. The volatile relationship of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung via director David Cronenberg, who has left behind the world of horror in this film and decided to explore a truly scary terrain: the landscape of the mind. A memorable performance by Keira Knightly.

6. A Separation. The breakup of a married couple and the repercussions it has on the people surrounding their orbit. An acting and directorial gem from director Asghar Farhadi, and one of the best films to emerge from Iran in years. Despite our many cultural differences, the film shows the universality of a marriage on the rocks.

7. My Week With Marilyn. A sunny tale of showbiz legends Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, via director Simon Curtis. Fluffy entertainment featuring great performances from Eddie Redmayne, Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh.

8. Melancholia. An examination of the mental breakdown of a recent bride as the world is threaten by total annihilation. An enigmatic story from Lars von Trier with tour-de-force cinematography, memorable Richard Wagner music, and a knockout performance by Kirsten Dunst.

9. Tahrir: Liberation Square. A cinéma vérité documentary about the recent revolution in Egypt. Stefano Savona's work puts you right in the middle of the action, his camera uncannily acts as a magnet that draws forth the events right to you, and you right to the middle of history.

10. The Artist. A loving Valentine to classic Hollywood movies. French director Michel Hazanavicius's silent film is a lot of fun to watch and an audience crowd-pleaser. It features many fine performances by a French and American cast, and one canine actor that almost steals the whole show.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In at the NY Film Festival

When Mikhail Bakhtin writes about the polymorphously perverse and carnavalesque nature of the novel, the great Russian literary theorist could have been referring to The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), Pedro Almodóvar's latest, and most fascinating film. Also his most disturbing. Here we find the director in top form, juggling Felliniesque imagery, Hitchcockian suspense and throwing in a good dose of the grotesque via Tod Browning, as well as a good amount of Douglas Sirk melodrama. He tops it all off with lots of film noir darkness and Spanish baroque pessimism together with fetishism worthy of Luis Buñuel. The result under lesser hands would be a stylistic mush, but Almodóvar has been at it for a long time, and he knows how to toss all the ingredients of his cinematic paella into one kaleidoscopic ride that is certain to entertain and surprise you, as well as creep you out.

It's hard to discuss this movie without giving away its juicy secrets. Let's just say that it is always chilling to watch any story where a doctor disregards his Hippocratic oath. It is a premise that takes us straight into the horror genre and the world of mad scientists breaking the laws of nature. In this film, Antonio Banderas, back working with Almodóvar after a hiatus of twenty some odd years, plays Doctor Robert Ledgard, a brilliant but obsessed scientist who early in the film, in the middle of an academic presentation, announces to the medical community that he has invented a type of synthetic skin more resilient to damage. His invention could very well revolutionize plastic surgery. What his colleagues don't know is that this seemingly altruistic doctor is obsessed with a mysterious woman whom he has locked up in his house (The beautifully radiant Elena Anaya), and whose perfect skin is a result of the experiments that he has performed on her. There is more here than meets the eye, and as The Skin I Live In starts shedding its layers the film goes deep beyond the outer epidermis. Almodóvar manages to pull off this feat with the mastery of a skilled surgeon digging his scalpel as far in as it can go.

Lately, Almodóvar's scripts have examined how events in the past color our present existence. With this film, the director weaves a Freudian tale (based on a French novel by Thierry Jonquet) that descends into the darkest side of sex. We flashback in the story in order to reveal past events that are key to understanding the narrative. In this respect, this film owes much to Hitchcock's Vertigo. Even Alberto Iglesias's startling music reminds us very much of Bernard Herrmann's memorable score to that film. Throughout his career, but especially in his last few films, Almodóvar, like Hitchcock, has examined and re-examined the psychological aspects of sexuality, and this film might just be the pinnacle of that deep obsession. His films have always been obsessed with flesh, and now this one takes this subject to a new level.

Stylistically, Almodóvar has never been afraid of showing his characters running the gamut of emotions. In an Almodóvar film one can expect raw nerves and usually one gets a fair share of them. At times, though, this style does not translate well outside of the Spanish-speaking world and oftentimes Almodóvar is accused of allowing his actors to overact, and his stories to go out of control in a passionate avalanche of excess. Spanish language and culture can, indeed, be more baroque and likely to relish in excess than American audiences are accustomed to. As a result Almodóvar and kitsch are words that often and sometimes unfairly go together in the minds of many film goers. Without a doubt, The Skin I Live In is the most over-the-top that Almodóvar has been in a long time, but somehow, the director makes it work because he believes in the logic of this crazy world that he has created.

The Skin I Live In will haunt you for a long time after you've seen it. It is a totally satisfying well-made film, if at times too frank, too gruesome, and too self-absorbed in its own world. It is a chance to witness a modern master of the cinema at work in the territory that he knows best.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

My Week with Marilyn at the NY Film Festival

The Weinstein Company is back with another mid 20th century story set in England about a British royal and a commoner to rival last year's The King's Speech. The new film My Week with Marilyn tells the story of Sir Laurence Olivier, the greatest British actor of the first half of the twentieth century, and Marilyn Monroe, the most sought after actress-sex symbol of the time, and how their paths met when the classically trained, soon to be Lord Olivier invited the Stanislavsky Method American actress to come to England to be his co-star on the film The Prince and the Showgirl. The battle of wits between them, which led to one of the stormiest shoots in the history of the cinema, is told through the eyes of young, wide-eyed innocent Colin Clark who starts as third assistant director on the set, and ends up becoming Monroe's true friend and confidant.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it's because it's more or less the same territory covered in the 1982 hit comedy My Favorite Year. The locale has changed from the Sid Caesar show in New York City to Pinewood Studios in England, but the premise feels essentially the same. In My Favorite Year young intern Mark Linn-Baker is hired to make sure that his movie idol, the alcoholic devil-may-care Peter O'Toole, stays out of trouble for a week and shows up for a live TV broadcast. In My Week with Marilyn, Eddie Redmayne's Colin Clark, an underling who works for Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), ends up becoming the only person on the set who can reach out to pill-addicted Marilyn (Michelle Williams) and ends up becoming her one true friend.

Despite the fact that we've all seen this before, the casting is quite inspired making the movie a sheer pleasure to watch. Gathered here are the very best American and British actors, sometimes in tiny blink-and-you-miss them roles. There's the remarkable Dame Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil Thorndyke, as well as Simon Russell Beale, Toby Jones, Emma Watson, and Derek Jacobi in relatively miniscule roles. Zoë Wannamaker as Marilyn's acting coach/guru Paula Strasberg, and Dominic Cooper as Marilyn's photographer/Svengali Milton Greene have more screen time and are quite memorable in their roles.

But the film is all about Eddie Redmayne's Colin Clark in the middle of the Olivier/Monroe storm. Mr. Redmayne, who was wonderful in London and New York in the play Red playing Mark Rothko's assistant (and incidentally winning the Olivier Award for his performance), is totally believable as the ingenue who in a week matures into a man. His fresh, freckled face and full lips contrasts well with Mr. Branagh's airbrushed thin lipped near-caricature of Olivier. Branagh plays the great actor/director as a lion in winter who mistakenly thought that hiring Monroe would make him feel young again. Soon he realizes that her natural qualities sharply accentuate how much he is aging and how dated his technique can seem. This Olivier detests method acting but longs to be relevant to a young audience. Ms. Williams gives a memorable performance as the troubled and needy Marilyn Monroe. Beautifully photographed in vibrant 1950s style by Ben Smithard, she plays her as a child who might have grown up way too soon without having had a childhood at all. Now, caught up in the whirlwind of fame, photographers, fans, and the pills that her entourage keeps feeding her, she longs for somebody real, and that's where Mr. Redmayne's Colin comes in. The scenes where they both leave the set and visit the English countryside have an idyllic, warm quality. Forget about Marilyn the sex symbol, this is the Marilyn anyone would have loved to have hung around with -- vivacious, fun, naughty, but always with a complex center that was hard to reach.

Despite all the backstage and personal drama, director Simon Curtis manages to keep things sunny throughout. We are even reminded at the end of the film that following the Sturm und Drang of the Prince and the Showgirl, Olivier went on to score one of his biggest successes playing Archie Rice in John Osborne's angry young man play The Entertainer, and Marilyn went on to do Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot, one of the most beloved comedies of all time. Sir Larry got to be relevant with the young crowd, and Marilyn went back home to prove to everyone that she was a great actress. One leaves a showing of My Week with Marilyn with the feeling that everything is right with the world.

As The King's Speech proved last year, this is the kind of film that Hollywood adores. American audiences love British drama, and in this one you have one of the best loved American icons in the center of it all. I expect that My Week with Marilyn will do very well at the box office, and especially well come Oscar time.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Melancholia by Lars von Trier at the NY Film Festival

Little remains of DOGME95 in the current films issuing from the mind of Danish film director Lars von Trier. In his latest, Melancholia, a trace of the Danish manifesto manages to surface in the quirky hand held camera ever-present in the majority of the film, and in the jagged jump cut editing style that, in reality, owes more to the French New Wave than to the ten commandments of the rigid film manifesto with which Mr. von Trier came to prominence. The most impressive sequences in the film break every rule of the manifesto of von Trier's youth by presenting us with a series of visually stunning, slow-motion scenes of a bride on the brink of a deep depression as a rogue planet heads towards a collision course with Earth. We are a long way from Dogma here. There's even lots of computer generated images and the name of the director is emblazoned above the film's title.

This inevitable interplanetary crash can now be seen as a metaphor for Mr. von Trier's recent escapades. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, Melancholia took center stage as a result of Mr. Von Trier's wrecking ball behavior and his comments about Nazism. At the screening of the film this week at the New York Film Festival, the absent von Trier sent an e-mail to the Film Society of Lincoln Center stating that in the future he will no longer be giving any press conferences. If he keeps his promise, this is a good decision. Many times he fails to recognize that his films speak for themselves, and that no show-biz shenanigans are needed to supplement what to this moment has been a uniquely successful career. Artistically and stylistically he is one of the great talents in world cinema, and many feel that with Melancholia he might have reached the zenith of his career.

Melancholia begins with an amazing tour-de-force prologue featuring scenes reminiscent of Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad to Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. While the soundtrack plays Richard Wagner's prelude to Tristan und Isolde we see images of irrepressible beauty, and surreal splendor that introduce us to Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, who gets married while in the throes of a deep depression as we see a planet called Melancholia approaching and ultimately colliding with planet Earth. In essence, the prelude offers us a complete film in the same way that Wagner's prelude is a musical encapsulation of his entire opera, or how the "News on the March" documentary that begins Orson Welles's Citizen Kane offers a miniature version of the story that will follow. But it takes Richard Wagner many hours to resolve the harmonic conflict that he sets up with the famous "Tristan chord" in the third measure of his score. It is not until many hours later that his music resolves itself into a crescendo of tonality, very much the process of Mr. von Trier's film which ends with an apocalyptic crescendo reminding us of Wagner's other work, the end of the world opus, Götterdämmerung.

The nucleus of Melancholia is structured in two acts. The first, labeled "Justine," is devoted to a disastrous wedding reception, the length of which makes the interminable wedding scenes of The Deer Hunter appear the length of a freeze frame, but which feature incredible performances by the likes of John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and Charlotte Rampling, who play the most salient characters of Justine highly dysfunctional family. The second half, called "Claire," named after Justine's sister played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, develops the mental landscape of several of the main characters while focusing on Justine's descent into the kind of madness where we realize that the impending interplanetary cataclysm might just all be in her mind.

Melancholia is a long and tedious film filled with sumptuous imagery that harbors an empty nihilistic core at its center. And although most of the performances are memorable (especially Ms. Dunst and Ms. Gainsbourg) we fail to connect with very few of its characters at any level.

Ultimately, I recommend the film because of its deliriously beautiful imagery coupled with a very impressive use of music. In addition, Lars von Trier is a serious artist, and any new work of his ought to be experienced. Here is an artist who has never sold out to popular tastes or become commonplace. You may not understand all of Melancholia (I don't think anyone, including von Trier does) but it will make you think beyond the proverbial box where Hollywood persists on trapping us.