Friday, October 19, 2012

More From NYFF

Noted chronicler of the human experience 50 Cent once made an observation regarding “Scarface,” claiming the hip hop world adores the excess-friendly De Palma film, but shut the picture off right before the end. To them, it’s a “Rise” film, not a “Rise & Fall” narrative, where they can celebrate the bad behavior of Tony Montana without acknowledging the immorality of it (and one can argue De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone barely do as well). In the hearts of the film’s biggest fans, Tony Montana is still snorting mountains of cocaine, still shooting up his enemies and still mangling that charming Cuban accent.

I thought of “Scarface” during Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight,” particularly when remembering the first sequence. After years of working on motion-capture animation, the first shot of a human in “Flight” is the sight of an out-of-focus bare breast contrasted with a buzzing alarm clock. As the camera stays fixed for what amounts to two or three minutes, we see two bodies in motion. The first is a nude figure of a mostly faceless woman, walking in and out of the shot in full frame, a sex object before she’s a person. The other is more familiar -- handsome movie star Denzel Washington, groggily on the phone as his female partner moves in and out of frame searching for various articles of clothing. We learn that he’s a pilot, and about to get into the cockpit two hours from now, despite clearly being hung over, chasing his morning sickness with more alcohol and a line of coke.

Let’s not be innocents here -- Denzel looks and sounds great in these scenes. The camera takes great pains to documenting the absolutely perfect physique of his bedmate, before a glamorous shot shows him stuffing that nose candy up his nostril, before cleaning up well enough to smooth talk everyone on the plane moments later. Your moral compass is shaky, and Movie Star Denzel, who has taken great pains to never look like he didn’t have any situation under control, is the reason. This is a hero’s introduction, cemented by the theatrics he pulls on the flight, as he manages an improbable landing tactic to save the lives of a hundred passengers when faulty equipment gives way. What we see, and what is later confirmed, is that the plane gave way to its own flimsy structure, not because of Hero Denzel’s inebriation. Let’s pause for a moment: This character spends his nights seducing women with impossible physiques, casually drinking and ingesting narcotics before saving a flight with hundreds of people, due to a maneuver later deemed borderline impossible by investigators.

Upon learning that the crash cost the lives of six passengers, including his shapely companion of the previous night (who has her own heroic moment during the flight as if to offset her existence as a piece of meat), he gives up the bottle. Upon meeting a beautiful user in the hospital, however (Kelly Reilly, quite good), he’s soon drinking as an act of defiance, defending his right to be his own person as an investigation yields blood tests that reveal his level of intoxication during the flight. Despite what he considers a heroic act (others as well), he could be taken to prison on manslaughter charges simply for getting behind the wheel that day.

At times “Flight” feels like the angry, prickly character pieces of the seventies -- at points the bureaucratic institutional anger of “The Hospital” surfaces, while Denzel’s own refusal to acknowledge a fundamental issue with his behavior recalls the jittery character work of seventies idols like Frederic Forrest and Warren Oates. “Flight” acknowledges the fundamental reasoning behind addictive behavior, in that it’s wrapped in lies -- Denzel’s Whip Whittaker indulges himself in a way that makes him retreat to his own selfish comforts, struggling to offering denial even as his skilled legal counsel (Don Cheadle) is able to torpedo the most damning evidence. But whither Denzel’s mannered, dignified seriousness? Or his sexual potency -- a third act disappearance reveals Kelly Reilly’s companion as a cheap plot device to allow both the tease of recovery and the suggestion that Whittaker really isn’t that bad in comparison. A moment that should shatter - Whittaker attending a colleague’s funeral, then begging a fellow flight attendant to lie to authorities - instead seems like a minor speed bump. Denzel don’t cry, yo.

When Whittaker hits his lowest lows, in strides John Goodman as his reliable drug hookup, lugging narcotics around in a tote bag like powerups in a video game. Zemeckis, who apparently just can’t keep a straight face, introduces this flamboyant cartoon with Rolling Stones songs blaring on the soundtrack, which is either weak subversion of a serious addiction narrative or a tonally questionable digression. This character also allows Denzel to never seem entirely down-and-out, with a quick bump and some various injections needed to perk him up immediately. Consider it a commentary on modern Hollywood, where superhero protagonists aren’t defeated, but are constantly upgraded, and rarely challenged. Perhaps this is Zemeckis’ subconscious admission that, in his years of working on facile diversions like “The Polar Express,” he’s part of this problem.

It’s hard not to give yourself to “Life Of Pi,” at once an unusually thoughtful children’s picture, a surprise until you see the words “Directed by Ang Lee.” This is the versatile filmmaker’s most visually ambitious film yet, a 3D pop-up book about the philosophical nature of survival and the struggle for religious identity. Lee paints in broad strokes, but that should not necessarily read as a critique in a picture like this, one with outsized superficial pleasures that obscure the ideas being backgrounded by chaotic spectacle.

Young Piscine, aka Pi, is a young Indian boy who keeps enough of an open mind spiritually that he embraces several different belief systems, which flummox his otherwise warmly-supportive family. They plead for reason and science, but Pi acknowledges their words while continuing to show that his faith remains a work in progress, not a stopping point. Said faith is challenged, however, when the boat carrying Pi’s family, and the family zoo, capsizes, leaving him stranded on a boat at sea with a small coterie of animals, later winding down to just one Bengal tiger. Basically your standard coming-of-age story.

“Life Of Pi” is both patient and lovely, carefully mixing in fantastical elements with more reserved, quieter exchanges between characters. Once he arrives at sea, the beats are exhilarating and unfamiliar, but paced carefully. This isn’t Harry Potter, your child will complain, as it’s CGI effects are not as excessive or desperate-to-please. Moreover, the lead actor is something of a non-entity, clouding the true motivations of a character with multiple beliefs. This results in long stretches of high-minded, somewhat edifying conversations on the test of faith. “Life Of Pi” is that rare thing, a sometimes dim but otherwise life-affirming story about faith that actually encourages an open debate, that actually tests the idea of spiritual re-awakening. The conversations with your child should be greatly rewarding for him and her.

Barry Levinson’s “The Bay” brought back memories of Brian De Palma’s underestimated “Redacted.” Here’s another old hand with several films under his belt trying his hand at new media storytelling. The found footage of this film has it’s own unsettling offscreen narrative -- what we’re watching, we’re told in a throwaway line, is the result of hundreds of recording devices consolidated by a single government program in one small town. Given the nature of the footage, probably illegally. As we’re told by a Skyping narrator in modern day, these are the collected disasters that ravaged a small bayside town in 2009, a truth we’re only now beginning to learn.

Despite the involvement of schlock experts Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”) and the Strouse brothers (“Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem”) as producers, “The Bay” seems more interested in the story of government mismanagement, which allows heavily polluted waters to mutate real-life parasites called Isopods into flesh-eating beasts that devour us from the insides, at horror-movie varying speeds. While these little beasties look like piranhas, there are no jump scares in this picture, only quietly-rotting flesh and decaying bodies. The horror lies in more mundane truths, like an emergency room filled with people being kept in the dark about their condition, or doctors being told that the day spent helping victims is likely their last. The film escapes boredom simply by switching from camera to security footage to Ipods and back, but the sensation Levinson is attempting is more akin to flipping channels on cable. Here’s some chaos. Here’s a dishonest politician. And now, here is the suffering of innocents. Maybe it’s all related.

There’s an even greater perception shift at the heart of the stick “Berberian Sound Studio.” The wonderfully-expressive Toby Jones is a sound mixer onboard “The Equestrian Vortex,” an unseen film that he’s led to believe is something a bit more innocuous than the occult thriller we can hear being projected. His memorable first encounter with an oily chain-smoking producer with a thick, handsome Italiano mustache (an actor whose name I can’t seem to find - he’s amazing) ends with him loudly assuming he was working on a film about a “girl who rides horses.” Oh, she rides, the producer shrugs over footage of a gooey murder, “She just doesn’t happen to be riding right now.”

As Jones’ brow continues to furrow assisting in what seems like a hostile work environment, the film contrasts the pleasures of an old-school sound studio with his distinct discomfort with what sounds like a nasty little giallo. To say the film drives him mad is both an exaggeration, and maybe inaccurate - the picture dissolves into a Lynchian dream world in the third act, where we aren’t sure exactly what’s reality, what’s fantasy, and what’s nightmare. Nor do we know exactly who’s experiencing it, and it’s preferable to think of director Peter Strickland as one of the silent deadpan sound technicians who go by the wonderfully-evocative name Massimo & Massimo. As they slam watermelons into wood to simulate crushed skulls, their silent bemusement and eerie, off-putting friendliness suggest they’re clearly in on the joke.

As I mentioned in my review earlier this week, any discussion of “Holy Motors” is bound to have a whiff of “dancing about architecture.” Leos Carax’s maddening madcap film could be viewed at any number of different vantages, and I fear my own limited vocabulary would not adequately display most of them. Denis Levant plays Monsieur Oscar, who seems like a wealthy office worker who gets into his limousine and essentially begins to play-act, wearing various disguises throughout a day-long trip through France given to him from a binder of assignments from… well isn’t that the billion dollar question? Some are as immersive as an elderly female beggar on the streets. Others, like a disapproving father confronting a dishonest daughter, are more mundane. Oscar’s dedication to these roles seems to waver, as if he tires of mimicking the human experience, and in a few of his job, the façade cracks, particularly when he sees a fellow performer. As he comforts a dying daughter, they both quietly share they must head out to another assignment immediately afterwards. A visit with a man who could be the boss, or a middleman, confirms that what Oscar does is not nearly in-demand as it once was.

The easy assumption to make is that Carax is discussing the movies, very specifically during a sequence where Oscar becomes a nattily-dressed zombie who traipses around a graveyard to the theme from “Godzilla” before kidnapping model Eva Mendes. But what to make of the end of that sequence, when Oscar licks the armpit of a blasé Mendes, who cradles him to sleep as he lies naked against her lap? Amusingly, Carax cuts immediately from this shot to a moment of Levant back inside the limousine, to further emphasize the surreal nature of this narrative -- perhaps what we’re seeing is only a portion of what is actually happening, like the moments where Oscar dons a motion-capture suit and is recorded performing martial arts and making love to a woman. Again, simulated reality is just one theory that doesn’t prove consistent with the rest of the film, loaded with aggressive musical sequences, bizarre non-sequitiers, and a final fifteen minutes that confidently doubles down on the oddity of this spectacle of a film. A must for cinema-lovers.

Michael Haneke isn’t so much a filmmaker anymore as much as he’s an experientialist. His acerbic insight provides “Amour” with it’s several moments of stomach-crushing sadness. Jean-Louis Trignant and Emmanuelle Riva are an elderly French couple who begin to come apart as one mate begins to succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, it’s a slow, brutal descent, and Haneke’s film is tough but tender in examining that these situations have no heroes and villains, and absolutely no easy choices. Lost in Haneke’s mischief in earlier films is the sense of human understanding, his idea of accurate human behavior, and “Amour” reflects that stronger than his recent pictures: in “Amour” you won’t see characters as much as you’ll see the mistakes you’ve made, the decisions you’ve regretted, and the people you’ve let down, whether that regret is legitimate or not. Conventional wisdom says not to blame yourself, but Haneke is one of the few filmmakers who depicts characters who understand that and yet cannot help but do it, succumbing to their human natures.

“Amour” also reflects Haneke’s peerless shot composition, and the couple’s expansive French apartment soon closes in like a vice on its inhabitants, it‘s hallways soon home to a hauntingly metaphysical pidgeon. Further complicating matters is a typically-excellent Isabelle Huppert as the doting daughter who seals her own fate when her concern becomes a wholly-separate issue for her father to navigate. Riva has generated awards-talk for her selfless performance as a lovely spirit in decay, though both Trignant and Huppert are All-World performers who have the more emotionally demanding roles, those being kind-hearted people who, like all of us, develop monstrous tendencies when truly tested.

The best performance I had seen during the NYFF, however, was from little-known Tadashi Okuno, the protagonist of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone In Love,” a playful follow-up to “Certified Copy” that again takes Kiarostami to an unfamiliar place, presenting his pet themes of identity and deception. Okuno plays an elderly translator who puts aside one night to take in a comely escort (Rin Takanashi), allowing her to flirt while he shyly prolongs intercourse with home-cooked meals, music and small-talk. The camera consistently moves between the both of them in long takes to emphasize the uncertain distance between the two, both of whom couldn’t be any more different. This tactic allows for Okuno’s amusing low-key irritation at the girl’s seduction attempts, and her somewhat bratty complaints about not receiving his companionship in bed.

This leads to a next-day complication when, driving her to school, he encounters her abusive boyfriend (Ryo Kase). When the boy assumes her elderly companion is her grandfather, he assumes the role, playing uneasy, quiet matchmaker for the two of them and attempting, somewhat unsuccessfully, to deflate the boy’s vain aggression and her timid uncertainty about the relationship. “Like Someone In Love” is funnier and sweeter than Kiarostami’s last, as the director grows looser and less experimental with each film, trading in his early formal restlessness for a newfound interest in re-shaping seemingly simple narratives. Though I confess to being so wedded to these three characters that a thunderclap of an ending left me shocked and disturbed more than anything I have seen this year, a provocative punctuation mark that provides as good a talking point as any film in the fest.

While Kiarostami, Assayas and Ang Lee were among those saluted this year, one former master was sadly relegated to the “Midnight Movies” designation, that being Takeshi Kitano. “Outrage Beyond” is the first overt sequel of Kitano’s career, coming after what was perceived as a commercial picture in the straightforward Yakuza drama “Outrage.” Considering Kitano’s filmography and the evolution of foreign distribution in America, it’s no wonder he’s gone more commercial, and “Beyond” is his most violent picture yet. Kitano returns as Otomo from the first film, where he survived a bloodbath to end up in prison, hiding away from those that would want him dead. But time has turned him into a free agent in demand, and a convoluted scheme by a jackass cop involves springing him out to tear down two warring families from the inside.

He only relents because, as he claims, “I am no longer Yakuza.” The code that he speaks of lovingly, the one his combatants have violated, no longer applies to him. It’s almost as if Kitano’s talking about the formalist straightjacket that complicated his earlier efforts -- now he’s free to make heads roll, but only on his terms. “Outrage Beyond” is unmistakably a Kitano film, from it’s quick-burst staccato gunfights to the lightweight humor that dots the premise, from undermanned underlings to hot shots destined to shoot themselves in the foot. Hopefully “Outrage Beyond” is exactly the gateway drug that helps fans seek out his earlier pictures.

Both “Camille Rewinds” and “Tabu” engage with the idea of going back to the past to reaffirm lessons about the future, although they go about it in entirely different ways. Written, directed by and starring fortysomething Noemie Lvovsky, “Camille” depicts a soon-to-be-divorced failed actress who drinks up a storm on New Years Eve and somehow finds herself sent back to the eighties, inside the body of her teenage self. Considering the pedigree of the NYFF, it’s a surprisingly broad, bubbly romantic comedy, as Camille attempts to right the wrongs of tomorrow from inside the body of a horny, frustrated sixteen year old. The movie eschews any special effects or trick photography, meaning Camille is seen fully acting her age, which greatly informs what we know about her more contemporary self as well -- turns out, there’s not much of a difference. If you blow, “Camille Rewinds” would topple over, but Lvovsky is a warm, bubbly presence who carries nearly every scene with her effervescent charm.

“Tabu,” told in austere black and white, tells the story of an elderly mess of a woman who has shocked her friends and neighbors by engaging in the sort of late-period misbehavior that marks a person with a death wish. It’s only an hour into the film when we’re told who this person is, as her lover recounts her earlier days as a rich white heiress in Africa. “Tabu” is playful, shot in a manner that suggests an old adventure film, the sumptuous photography at home capturing hunting misadventures as much as glamorous, fashionable tableau of characters laying about in the sun. Without the proper ability to intellectualize it, the picture consciously mimics a picture of the thirties, from it’s look to it’s impeccable casting, in a way that suggests a formalist experiment done with a sly smirk.

I received little enjoyment from the ingeniously-engineered “Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries And Mentors Of Ricky Jay.” Despite being a world-famous illusionists, Jay and the filmmaking team know a straightforward biography will not properly explain who he is as much as a poppy analysis of the more obscure magicians that shaped his craft. While it’s subject seems blustery and outwardly charismatic, while purposely, possibly arrogantly, remaining an enigma, the picture is turgid PBS-quality stuff, a timid way of illustrating larger-than-life subjects. More gratifying was the similarly straightforward doc “Casting By,” which analyzed the history of casting agents, and how it was turned into an art form by Marion Dougherty, who took the practice to the East Coast, where faces with “character” replaced the typical leading men and beach bunnies. “Casting By” doesn’t earn any style points, but it’s respect for Hollywood comes across, both in the sheer amount of talking heads (Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Robert DeNiro, among others) but also in the rare early footage of teenaged versions of some of our more beloved actors. Most amusingly is the moment where Taylor Hackford, head of the DGA, comes across as a jackass who claims there should be no Academy Award for casting because the director has final say on that matter, to which John Sayles scoffs, claiming that every editor in Hollywood now has to return their Academy Award. As moral ambiguity goes, sometimes it’s good to have a bad guy.

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