Saturday, October 09, 2021

PARALLEL MOTHERS at the NY Film Festival

With his latest film, Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas) Pedro Almodóvar comes back to the world of feminine relations, a landscape he's been exploring throughout his career, which encompasses fifteen films at the New York Film Festival. Last night he presented his latest creation as the closing selection of the annual film gathering at Alice Tully Hall

Before it has even opened to the public, the movie has already gathered a controversial pre-release vibe in the United States when a kind of furor arose a few weeks ago over the film's advertising poster which shows a nipple dripping mother's milk. America's puritanical ways play right into Almodóvar's penchant for shocking the public; this time around with a maternal image. But then again, he's been stirring the pot since the early days of the "Movida" movement in Spain, the post-Francisco Franco years when moral restrictions were lessened and liberty came back to Spain. This is the period when he came to prominence with such early amateurish "shockers" as Pepi, Lucy, Bom until he hit his stride with 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, one of the many great films in his oeuvre.

At last night's screening, Dennis Lim, director of Programming at Film at Lincoln Center, introduced the film by saying that there is a new political urgency in this film not seen before. Although this film does focus on the unresolved murders that occurred during the Spanish Civil War which led to a Fascist government in Spain that lasted into the 1970s, nearly all of Almodóvar's films shed a light on Spain's troubled past. Their sense of liberation, sexually and sociological, are a reaction to the forty-some-odd years that Spain endured under Franco's regime. 

 In 1997, Almodóvar released Live Flesh (Carne trémula) in which a young, pregnant prostitute during Franco's Spain (Penélope Cruz's first performance under his direction) gives birth to an illegitimate child in a Madrid bus. The film then goes forward in time to the present post-Franco Spain as we follow the child now an adult. Parallel Mothers once again casts Ms. Cruz as a pregnant photographer this time sharing her modern Madrid hospital room with a pregnant teen, newcomer Milena Smit, who is the director's latest muse, and who gives an amazing performance. It is only her second film.

The film also features some familiar faces from Almodóvar's past. Rossy De Palma, a stalwart in the director's list of films, received applause when she first appeared. Likewise, the audience also recognized the likes of Julieta Serrano, who is also an Almodóvar favorite going back to the days of Women/Breakdown.

The film was shot in the expected vivid, colorful palette of José Luis Alcaine, the director's longtime working cinematographer.

 The film will be released by Sony Pictures Classics, who have been by Almodóvar's side since the beginning.  In his post talk, the director urged any Academy member in the audience to vote for this film, and if nominated, to vote for Milena Smit, who has clearly become Trilby to his Svengali. Something tells me that Ms. Smit is already a permanent member of the roster of Almodóvar's women, and that we are going to see a lot of her in the future. A star is born!

Sunday, October 03, 2021

"The French Dispatch" at the NY Film Festival

With his familiar tongue-in-cheek deadpan that makes Buster Keaton appear like a loquacious lady at a garden party, Wes Anderson brings us his latest film, The French Dispatch, an anthology picture about an American expatriate magazine in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. 

The movie is a loving Valentine to The New Yorker magazine as well as being filled with all kinds of homages to French cinema. The movie presents stories that go back to some famous articles that originally appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. For example, Mavis Gallant's article "The Events in May: A Paris Notebook" about the student riots in 1968 serves as a vehicle for Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand and Lyna Khoudri to engage in a love triangle in the protest-filled streets of Paris, while Anderson channels the look and gritty black-and-white of Jean-Luc Godard and other members of the Nouvelle Vague.

In another tangential vignette, Jeffrey Wright gives us an impersonation of a fictitious writer that mixes James Baldwin with a dash of food critic AJ Liebling as he recounts a story to TV host Liev Schreiver of a bizarre kidnapping that ends up turning into an animated sequence during the concluding minutes.

In perhaps the most enjoyable section of the film, Benicio Del Toro is an incarcerated artist in love with a female prison guard, beautifully played by Léa Seydoux, while art dealer Adrien Brody lays some schemes to make money off the prisoner's art work. As he tells Del Toro's character “All artists sell their work. That’s what makes them artists.” The segment, also shot in black-and-white, brings to mind Jean Renoir's film Boudou Saved from Drowning, and it is based on a 1951 New Yorker article by SN Behrman about shady art dealer Lord Duveen.

All the different segments always come back to the offices of the French Dispatch, whose editor-in-chief, played by Bill Murray, bears a more than slight resemblance to Harold Ross, The New Yorker's co-founder and fabled first editor.

What binds all of this together is Anderson's love of the magazine and his love of France. From the point of view of cinema, the glue in this film is his, by now, familiar geometric mise-en-scène, which in this film he exploits to the nth degree. Arguably, this is the most Andersonian of all his films. Everything is neatly arranged within a frame whose aspect ratio, for reasons that remain unclear to me, keeps changing from academy ratio to widescreen. He used the same technique in his earlier film The Grand Budapest Hotel. If you dig his symmetrical, structural compositions you are in for a treat. However, after a while, the constant reliance on tableaux and strict visual order cries out for some good old fashion visual chaos. And although at times Anderson allows his brilliant cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman to hand-hold the camera, the Andersonian world must adhere to unity and order all the time.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Tragedy of Macbeth at the NY Film Festival

 After a long time not posting on this blog, I am glad to say that I am back. Many things happened during that time. There were deaths in the family as well as COVID, which changed all our lives, and whose specter still has us in its grip. But last night, I saw a film that was so riveting that I feel compelled to come back to these old pages and share some of my ideas about it with all of you.

William Shakespeare's Macbeth, by my count, is the fourth time a major filmmaker attempts to adapt Shakespeare's arguably bloodiest, and also shortest of all his tragedies. This time around Joel Cohen, going solo after his brother Ethan Coen announced recently that he may be through with show business, has given us his interpretation of the Scottish play, and what an amazing visual feast it is.

The Coen brothers have always been very particular about the powerful images that grace their canvases. This time, Joel Cohen has decided to shoot the film in black and white and present it in Academy Ratio. This choice gives the film a timeless look. It makes us think of Orson Welles's moody, shadow-filled film interpretation of this play. Or perhaps, Akira Kurosawa's brilliant Throne of Blood, where the setting shifted to feudal Japan. Thanks to the brilliant cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel the images transport us to another time. The whole production was shot in sound stages making even exterior shots seem oppressive and lacking any true daylight. The sun never shines in this production (does it ever really shine in Scotland?), and this is another aspect of this production that works well.

Comparing it to other genres, this film brings to mind the brooding atmosphere of Laurence Olivier's Hamlet as well as the look of a Val Lewton horror film. Actually, to be more precise, and fitting, this movie looks like a medieval Film Noir. And given the Bard's plot involving a woman urging her husband to commit murder, as Joel Cohen noted in the Q&A that followed yesterday's showing of the film at the New York Film Festival, this comparison is quite apt. The Double Indemnity, black widow, pulp vibe of Shakespeare's play was one of the things that drew Mr. Coen to this project.

Our childhood reading of this play constantly brings us back to the Bard. Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play. It is also a favorite of Frances McDormand who plays Lady Macbeth in this film. I read this work in junior year of high school, Ms. McDormand revealed last night that she was asked to recite the sleepwalking scene during her early school days. For Denzel Washington, who plays the title role, his introduction to Shakespeare happened while he was a pre-med major at Fordham University at Lincoln Center. At the urging of his teacher and mentor Robert Stone (who was also my teacher) he played the title role in Othello on the Fordham stage. The rest is history.

Personally, I always love to see what directors do with the roles of the witches. In the groundbreaking stage production of the 1930's, which moved the setting to Haiti, director Orson Welles and producer  John Houseman hired Haitian Voodoo witch doctors to play these parts. In this film, Kathryn Hunter assumes all three roles, and all I can tell you is that you will not soon forget her. She is a subtle, weird presence on the screen, and thus really terrifying: the stuff of nightmares.

The leading roles are masterfully handled. Mr. Washington is a capable Shakespearean as he has proven many times in the past, and Ms. McDormand, who has played her role on stage, is really a wonder to behold in this film. I was a severe critic of her performance in Nomadland, which was filled with way too many of her own personal mannerisms and thus never allowed me to fully enter into the story. Here, by contrast, she assumes the role of Lady Macbeth  and magic happens: Frances McDormand, the producer and Oscar-winning actress disappears. 

But ultimately, it is the directorial work of Joel Cohen, going solo for the first time, which is the big winner here. The entire movie is filled with images you will not soon forget. There is one shot in particular during Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene that is as brilliant as anything that cinematographer Gregg Toland achieved for Welles in Citizen Kane.

Last night, while Mr. Coen was presenting his work, he noted a longstanding superstition connected to the play. “You probably know it. You’re not supposed to speak the name lest some horrible catastrophe befall you or the production. This is a superstition that all of us making the movie blithely ignored until Friday the 13th of March, 2020. Then we all got religion and after months passed and the show finally got back on its feet we started referring to it simply as ‘the tragedy,’” he said,

He ended his remarks by saying “I’d like to point out that just because it’s a tragedy doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. So enjoy the tragedy.”

You too will be able to enjoy this Apple Original Films and A24 terrific production when the film officially opens at the end of the year.