Sunday, October 14, 2012

New York Film Festival: Flight

In Robert Zemeckis's excellent new film Flight, Denzel Washington portrays Captain Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot whose experienced skills at the helm of an airliner are only second to his ability to party hard the night before, and then sit in the pilot's seat, high as a kite on liquor and cocaine, and get himself ready to roll.  On a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta, he steers his plane through a hellish storm and into clear skies in a way that only a zonked-out buckaroo could.  Near their destination, the aircraft inexplicably malfunctions and enters into an out of control tailspin. In a feat of unprecedented skill, and in one of the film's inspired images, Captain Whitaker succeeds in turning the jet upside down, thus averting a crash, and lands the plane in a patch of country field, thus saving himself and all but six of the souls on board. Although the media hails him as a hero, the NTSB has questions about the crash, and as an investigation begins Captain Whitaker's alcoholism and drug dependency surfaces as he confronts his private demons.  The title of Zemeckis's film refers to the plane trip as well as the examination of how the crash sends Captain Whitaker into a personal journey -- a flight that ultimately makes him discover his true grace.

Along the way, Kelly Reilly as a down-on-her-luck substance abuser enters Whip's crowded orbit.  Already there are John Goodman as Whip's whimsical rock-androll dealer, Don Cheadle as his defense lawyer, and Bruce Greenwood as Whip's best friend and fellow pilot.

The screenplay by John Gatins is excellent when it comes to going places we least expect.  This was a script that took the writer twelve years to complete, and after such a long gestation process it is surprising that it has turned out so good.

The entire film revolves around Denzel Washington's character, and the actor gives a truly superb performance, one that I suspect has been carefully crafted by Mr. Zemeckis with a Best Actor Oscar very much in mind. But awards aside, Mr. Washington is really impressive in this role, adding yet another memorable character to his long list of superb characterizations. 

New York Film Festival: Fellini-Satyricon

I've begun to dread the words "a brilliant new restoration," or "a brilliant new 35 millimeter print," when it comes as part of the presentation from Richard Peña, the outgoing head of the selection committee at the New York Film Festival.  Usually, the results are dreadful.  It happened a few years ago when with these usual accolades he introduced a dreadful print of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld, and last night was another disappointment as the N.Y. Film Festival chef himself announced another Peña special: a "brilliant new restoration" of the 1971 classic Fellini-Satyricon, Federico Fellini's imaginative, daring, surprising and exasperating adaption of the ancient Roman classic by Petronius.  I imagine that next to the crumbling negative from which the Italian restorers worked, this presentation is indeed brilliant.  But comparing it to other results that are being achieved around the world in an effort to save our film history, this restoration leaves a lot to be desired.

Overall, as with this year's 8K Lawrence of Arabia restoration, the film looked dark in many key places.  The first reel, in particular, that introduces the Encolpio, Ascilto, Gitone love triangle, and takes place at night, looked dreary, as did the scene with the clown Vernacchio.  In addition, very little restoration was done on the sound.  It would have been helpful if the restorers would have expanded the audio spectrum.  Instead, the film sounded monaural, with the voices sounding particularly flat.  Nino Rota's moonscape music, which is a mixture of modern and ancient sounds, suffers the most as a result of the inadequate soundtrack.

Petronius's book survives only in fragments, and Fellini's episodic approach, one of the director's trademarks, echoes this brilliantly.  Ultimately, the greatest aspect of this work is the director's uncanny ability to create an ancient world that never quite existed the way he shows it to us.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia: New Blu-Ray Disc

I'm watching the UK release of the latest restoration of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-Ray, and I have to report that I'm seeing the same surprising results as I saw last week at the New York Film Festival presentation. This restoration presents a reduced color spectrum, much more limited than the one I remember from the 1988 restoration and DVD release. This has to be the palest, most anemic restoration of Lawrence yet. The scene above, for example, struck me as needlessly monochromatic.  Although the film looks stunningly sharp and incredibly clean, the colors are very muted, and several of the night and dusk scenes look so dark that the viewer is unable to discern any facial features. I don't believe that this is what Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young intended when the film premiered back in 1962.

The previous restoration was done with the participation and assistance of David Lean. Now that he is gone, something tells me that he would not be pleased with the results achieved here.   It's almost as if the colorist had decided that the film needs a more contemporary look.  Lawrence is anything but a contemporary film: it is a gigantic production the likes of which, proverbially, they don't make anymore, and it belongs to a group of epic films (Ben-Hur, El Cid, The Vikings) whose color spectrum was designed to dazzle and impress audiences.

I certainly hope that in a future release the color is corrected, taking the lead from the results achieved back in 1988.  Lawrence of Arabia is a great film, and it deserves better treatment.

Monday, October 08, 2012

New York Film Festival: Lawrence of Arabia

Last year the New York Film Festival presented a stunning restoration of 1959's Ben Hur.  Watching it on the screen for the second time in my life, it made me remember how impressed I was when I first saw it as an 11 year old on a re-release in the early 70s.  This year, the Festival presented the new 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, and I'm afraid to report that I was not impressed.  Throughout the four hour run of the film scenes appeared to be dark, and the color somehow was not as I remembered it.  Of course, I'm basing myself on the 1988 restoration of the film which was a restoration hallmark, and to my eye visually faultless.  Robert A. Harris, who was responsible for that restoration, introduced this showing praising Grover Crisp, Sony's executive vice president of film restoration for not taking any short cuts on this project.

Harris said that the restoration presented in 1988 used a process called "wet-gate printing," which hides about 90 percent of the imperfections in the film. Harris went on to say that "When Grover started scanning this at 8K [resolution], he opened a Pandora's box and he's been dealing with that for over two years now. The film is scratched, it has nicks, it has tears. There is actually heat damage from the desert. He was able to bring in a software company to create a methodology to help with that."

After so much work on this digital restoration, the NY Film Festival showing might have just suffered from a projection problem.  I remember well the 50th anniversary showing of Gone with the Wind at Radio City Music Hall.  The entire film looked dark.  Therefore, the new Blue-Ray release of the film on November 13 will hopefully reveal the real results of the work that has been done on this classic film.

Below is a trailer that was made for this new restoration of Lawrence of Arabia.

New York Film Festival: Beyond the Hills

Beyond the Hills (După Dealuri), Christian Mungiu's outstanding new film dramatizes real life events that occurred less than a decade ago in a remote monastery in rural Romania. Alina (Cristina Flutur), a young girl who grew up in a loving, affectionate relationship in an orphanage with one of the novice nuns, comes to visit her friend in an effort to get her to leave the monastic life and go to live with her in Germany. The young novice, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), has found peace in her new life.  She has traded her love of Alina for the love of God, and is reticent to return to the real world.  Soon enough, this case of thwarted love turns ugly as Alina's temper explodes into a sacrilegious rage that turns her into an out of control violent jealous creature. The austere priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and the Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga), known as Papa and Mama to the nuns, become convinced that the girl is possessed by the Evil One and, together with the rest of the nuns, they conduct an ill-fated exorcism with dire catastrophic results for everyone involved.

Shot on film, with a stunning crisp luminosity which must have taken a long time in post-production, by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, the movie is composed of long sequence shots that according to director Mungiu better shows the natural flow of time and reduces the director to an almost invisible entity. At the risk of making it sound as if this is a current auteur fad, this is the third film that I see at this year's festival which employs this technique.  The other two are Michael Haneke's Amour and Antonio Méndez Esparza's Aquí y Allá. Although Beyond the Hills runs 150 minutes, the carefully choreographed long sequences not only echo the orderly life of the monastery, but surprisingly also anchor the chaotic sequences that make up the exorcism.  Thus, the film flows along and actually gives the appearance to be shorter.  As the director commented before Sunday's showing: "This is a long film where a lot of things happen, not a long film where nothing happens." It is really eye-opening to discover, though, how the directorial decision to shoot long takes works perfectly in all the various dramatic situations of this film.

Ms. Flutur and Ms. Stratan who play Alina and Voichita respectively, and who are both newcomers to film, give impressive outstanding performances that are well deserved of the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress prize that they shared earlier this year.  I was especially taken by Ms. Stratan who is able to convey brilliantly in her scenes with Ms. Flutur a mixture of pious belief and deep personal doubt.  In the trailer below you can see a scene between these two fine performers.

Ultimately, the finest accolades must go to Mr. Mungiu who has crafted a deeply entertaining, and thought provoking film, and who has managed to avoid taking sides in this thorny issue.  As he explained in the question and answer period following the film, he does not blame the members of this religious community for wanting to help Alina through the use of Christian Orthodox dogma.  They at least did something, even if that something ended up being the wrong decision.  Instead, the director adds that the people who are the most guilty: are not shown; they are those who abandon children in an orphanage in the first place.  At Cannes, the director called this "the sin of indifference" and in his mind it is the main theme of his film.

For more comments by the director, in the video below you can watch the New York Film Festival press conference that Mr. Mungiu gave via Skype one week ago.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

New York Film Festival: Amour

While Life of Pi takes pleasure in showing us the toll of the sea on a shipwrecked boy, Amour, the winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, allows us to explore the toll that life takes on us when we dare to love.  Michael Hanake's film is an austere and ascetic miniature, but the force of emotions displayed are nothing short than titanic.  This story of an elderly couple, whose wife suffers a stroke leaving the husband to take care of a partner who rapidly spirals into a miserable decline, is reminiscent of the work of Ingmar Bergman.  In fact, it is hard while watching the film not to think of the director's great Cries and Whispers, a film that also deals with death and despair inhabiting the great interior of a country mansion.  Amour haunts a big Parisian apartment, filled with books, bric-a-brac, and a warm lifetime of living.  The great Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji lights this impressive set with a fading light that oftentimes seems to turn the apartment itself into a character.  The movie is shot with long takes, languidly taking their time, allowing the viewer to enter inside the couple's endgame.

In a stroke (absolutely no pun intended) of casting genius, playing the elderly couple Anne and Georges, two aging music teachers, are Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, the stars of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the 1959 breakthrough film by Alain Resnais.  Their performances in this new film are nothing short of stunning, and the chemistry that they had back in the days of the fledgling French New Wave is readily visible here.  It is heartbreaking to experience the decline of Anne as portrayed by Ms. Riva.  The way she twists her face, seemingly sucking the very life out of it, together with her cries of pain and unintelligent attempts at speech, embodies a performance of Academy Award caliber.  Likewise, Mr. Trintignant is very impressive as her patient husband.  During the course of the film Anne calls him a "monster," but Georges is almost never given to hysterics during his wife's long ordeal, although, just underneath the surface, anyone can see that he is ready to explode with unspeakable violence.

Michael Haneke has crafted a film that reminds us that the way of all flesh is at times unbearable and unjust.  In his previous film The White Ribbon (2009), he dared to show the genesis of evil -- the beginning of Nazi ideology as seen from the point of view of a small northern German village.  Now, the Austrian director, working in French, attempts to come to terms with life and its ultimate end, a landscape perhaps more complex, even more mysterious, and arguably richer than that of the birth of political ideologies.  The success of Amour lies in the fact that Mr. Haneke does not hold back.  As with his previous film it is a work that is often hard to look at, but never strikes a false note.

Friday, October 05, 2012

New York Film Festival: Life of Pi

The 50th New York Film Festival began with Ang Lee's new film Life of Pi, based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martel.  The film, shot in 3D begins by showing scenes from a zoo that's owned by the main character's father. This title sequence has a childhood charm as the animals mug for the 3D camera.  Selected letters from the various names of the movie's titles swing freely, as if hanging off an invisible branch of an unseen tree.  Even before the film proper begins a sense of fantasy and make believe has been injected into the narrative, a subtle foreshadowing of the incredible story that the director has prepared for us.

Life of Pi, essentially a film about the art of storytelling, reveals its narrative like concentric circles.  The older Pi Patel, played by Irrfan Khan reveals to a writer, played by Rafe Spall, the chapters of his unusual life.  We learn that as a young Indian boy Pi's inquisitive mind and restless imagination lead him, as he grew up, to adopt Christianity and Islam together with the Hindu tradition into which he was born.  The ever inquisitive, Pi, whose name is short for piscine (he was named for a pool in Paris) also wants to manually feed the zoo's most dangerous animal: a Bengal tiger curiously named Richard Parker.

When Pi's father decides to close the zoo, sell the animals and move to Canada, the family packs their belongings and all their animals, and board a Japanese freighter.  During a tremendous storm the ship sinks, and the only survivors on a small lifeboat are Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and the Bengal tiger.  In the aftermath of the furious storm a bloody Darwinian struggle of the species occurs in the lifeboat leaving alive only the tiger and Pi to fight for mastery of the small vessel.  Soon enough Pi realizes that in order to avoid being eaten by the ferocious cat, he must learn to feed Richard Parker as well as himself.  As the story progresses, Pi also realizes that he must maintain the tiger alive if only to fend off the horror of the interminable loneliness of being stranded in the middle of the sea.  The two characters enter into a codependent relationship as their strengths begin to fail after two hundred days adrift. Eventually Pi is rescued on the coasts of Mexico, but the tiger is nowhere to be found.  When two officials of the Japanese Maritime Department question Pi as to why the ship sank they fail to believe Pi's story of his survival with the animals.  When pushed further, Pi offers a totally different account of the shipwreck and his rescue -- a realistic and brutal tale devoid of any of the magical-realist events that we have seen.

Late in the structure of the film, the narrative suddenly veers into this unexpected Rashomon territory.  Is the story we have seen a fantasy?  Is the new story that Pi tells the Japanese officials the real way that the events occurred?  How accurately can the older Pi remember events that happened so long ago?  Is he lying?  Is he telling the truth?  What is truth?

Even though this is the most interesting aspect of the entire narrative, it seems that Ang Lee wants to avoid the whole Rashomon comparison.  He does not dramatize the alternate story, deciding to stage it as a monologue for Suraj Sharma, the fine actor who plays the teenage Pi.  What takes one third of the novel to be revealed is compressed into mere minutes that are clumsily tagged on to the end of the film.  The result is that we are made to believe the magical story that we have seen, and like the two Japanese officials we reject the more realistic account of the events.  The magic of truth at 24 frames-per-second wins again. 

At the film's premiere last weekend director Ang Lee revealed that he is still tweaking the film, which currently runs 120 minutes.  It would be interesting to compare the film when it opens in November of this year to this work in progress that the New York Film Festival presented as its opening night selection.