The grind of the New York Film Festival is wearing on me, and we’re not even at the midway point. There are still new films to see from the likes of James Gray, Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis and, uh, Ben Stiller, so perhaps there’s excitement on the horizon. But I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a disappointing slate so far, with a couple of genuine bad films in the mix. Of course, maybe that’s my fault – twice I bailed on “Norte, The End Of History,” intimidated by the four hour plus (plus!) runtime and the fact that it was Lav Diaz’s (who?) twelfth, and shortest (!) film. The wonderful thing about being a film buff is that everyone has blind spots, there are no such thing as completists. Maybe one day I’ll look up Diaz’ other work. The New York Film Festival already tests me when I mistake “319 minutes” for “three hours and nineteen minutes,” as I did with Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” a couple of years back. I love movies, but sometimes I don’t really like vanishing from the physical world for four hours. Maybe with a friend, but, how many other people do you know willing to put Lav Diaz on their to-do list?
That same sort of thinking is, in a reductive sense, what stuffs the theater for the premiere of “Captain Phillips,” a tense pirate thriller from Paul Greengrass. It’s also the sort that allows Tom Hanks to uncharacteristically fire back at the press, as he did during the post-film q+a. When asked about preparing for the role (or some similarly boilerplate question), he talked about meeting the real Captain Phillips, and compared his more sensitive, inquisitive style of investigating the subject to the indelicate way media jerks poke and prod at their subjects with the same stupid, insipid inquiries. There was a brief heckling from the crowd, and Hanks fired back in his usually charming, conflict-deflating way, but it was an interesting set of teeth from the star, perhaps in response to yet another critic cave troll in the audience loudly demanding (not asking) that the people on-stage speak louder into their microphones. Hanks was completely in the right, of course, but you can tell some folks grumbled that this major movie star had reminded them that their jobs are secondary to whatever Lav Diaz is doing.
Whatever the case, Hanks has a right to be judgy, as he hacks and wheezes through “Captain Phillips,” being beaten and dragged throughout the runtime. Greengrass is a sentimentalist in spite of his verite approach, so he can never help giving his lead characters a little fight, and Hanks’ Phillips refuses to be a puppet to these gangly Somali pirates who take over his cargo ship. And yeah, it’s tense and suspenseful and Greengrass knows how to tell a story through this action-chaos method that he’s perfected, but so what? How many movies can Greengrass make where the white American has to battle the dark-skinned foreigner? He would be Hollywood’s red-state secret weapon if he hadn’t blown $140 million on “Green Zone,” which pretended that the general public would care that we went to war in the Middle East under false pretense. When he makes “United 93,” it’s interesting. When he gives the defense department a freebie with the glamorous, politically-cynical “Bourne” films, its understandable escapism. What do we call it now, where Phillips leads a primarily white crew (black crew members have no dialogue) against the blackest men of any mainstream Hollywood release this year? What am I saying? I’m just saying that you start to wonder about this Greengrass character. That’s all. For now.
To say “Inside Llewyn Davis” is “minor Coen” is dismissive and obnoxious as hell. But the reason the phrase keeps creeping up is that the brothers are masters at finding the grace in nothingness, in reaching out into the void and finding out that there’s no central meaning, there’s no movie-like contrivance connecting everything. Sometimes, Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t walk into that bloodbath, and sometimes The Dude doesn’t come close to solving the mystery. Such is the case with Davis, the title character played by Oscar Isaac. Clearly, he’s tremendously talented; Isaac plays the songs himself, which is admittedly impressive. But this sixties-era folk singer isn’t going to be rewarded for his skills or his stubbornness. Folk music isn’t even viable during this era, as one such impresario hears Davis play (impressively) and succinctly tells him, “I see no money in this.”
Davis instead is comically unlucky, and the film follows his aimless journey into nowheresville. That involves quite a bit of meandering; a mid-film excursion into the south lasts about twenty minutes of screen time and ultimately doesn’t affect the plot, other than removing a few precious bucks out of Davis’ pocket. The reminder is of the trials of the protagonist in the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” but while that character openly questioned his universe, Davis motors on, only willing to play his music his way, under his circumstances, with no compromise. It’s funny because of how openly hostile it all is, really, leavened only by the brief bits of music arranged by Isaac and T-Bone Burnett, and only a diehard will be able to discern the genuine material from that written specifically for the movie. It’s telling that you come away humming “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a dopey novelty song performed at the film’s halfway point by Davis and friends, where he is unable to hide his open contempt for a fairly harmless jingle.
I cringed through most of “Le Week-End,” coming off a run of movies where women are horribly emotionally abusive towards their male counterparts. I suppose that’s rightful punishment for so few films passing the comically-simple Bechdel Test. I’ll accept it, even if it makes me feel like James Gandolfini in “Enough Said,” simply grinning and accepting the indignities thrown his way with a fractured grace. The target of the ire in this film is poor, doddering Jim Broadbent, here playing a flighty college professor vacationing with wife Lindsay Duncan in France. Little does he know that the relationship has run its course, and she’s about to give him the broom, the final straw being his empathetic enabling of their unemployed (and unseen) son. Seeds are planted to suggest that this has been a relationship built on constant emasculation: Broadbent quietly sings along to classic rock on his IPod when the wife isn’t around, and takes her brow-beatings as sadomasochistic flirtation. When he jokes about a sexy pair of heels, “Who did you buy those for?” she dryly responds, “I bought them for me!” There are no nautical miles to register how far his expression sinks.
“Le Week-End” calls into question the fourth wall when halfway through the movie, International Superstar Jeff Goldblum struts in. Goldblum’s always been recognizable more than worshipped by audiences, but some brief time away from screens and a sojourn into supporting roles has only granted him the sort of latter-day status where barging into a modest film like this is super distracting. It feels like less of a stretch to imagine that this character is in fact Goldblum himself with a changed name, and all the same memorable mannerisms and behaviors of the famous face, including the open-palm temple press and the unnecessary redistribution of weight. His role feels ceremonial: his best-selling novelist serves as a way to get the bickering couple to the same table together for the third act. But is there necessarily anything wrong with Goldblum the gentle scene-stealer manipulating the narrative and providing a few laugh lines for what has become a fairly downbeat marriage drama? Can we just ignore Goldblum the actor, and appreciate Goldblum the weapon?
The still-vivacious Duncan also figures into “About Time,” though like all the women in Richard Curtis’ latest schmaltz-fest, she’s window-dressing that allows boys to play at gods forever. Domnhall Gleeson is on the cusp of adulthood when his father tells him he has the ability to travel back (and not forward) into time. Instead of saving the world or improving the lives of everyone around him, he uses this ability to do what any of us would do: romance Rachel McAdams. With ease, he pulls enough time-jumping tricks to win her heart within the film’s half hour. I was amused by all the walkouts during the press screening at this point, a quarter of the way through a two hour movie: once he’s ended up with Rachel McAdams, what greater feat can this man achieve?
“About Time” ends up leaning on its one random, arbitrary crutch, where Gleeson is forbidden to alter the lives of anyone not within his tiny social circle (read: upper class white people). As a result, it’s another bullshit Carpe Diem narrative written by people who wipe their ass with hundred dollar bills. As the father figure, Bill Nighy seems like he’s performing interpretive jazz around the lines of dialogue; it’s not a performance, it’s a pose, a particularly charming one done to avoid the fact that this is a movie with no characters, only people who wear signs around their neck alternately saying, “Care about me!” and “Don’t care so much about me!”
The NYFF is under new leadership this year with the arrival of Kent Jones, and it seems he’s revealed himself as a fan of slight comedies that deserve to be dumped on DVD stateside. “About Time” isn’t even the strongest in Curtis’ weak filmography, and what is “Alan Partridge” doing here? This paper-thin excuse to stretch the shelf-life of a beloved BBC character feels like it traps “Frasier” in a sub-“Anchorman” world of comedic chaos, where now local radio DJ Partridge is desperate to hold onto his job during a corporate takeover, only to suggest a rickety co-worker (Colm Meany) become the staff’s latest cut. When a retaliatory shooting and hostage situation puts Partridge under the gun, he has to invent a number of inane screwball schemes to keep everyone alive. There will be pop songs, and a few montages, and extended repeated gags desperate to stretch this thing to ninety minutes.
Steve Coogan’s Partridge remains an amusing distraction, a broadcaster with infinite hubris and confidence despite a less-than-workable knowledge of the world. But fans of the character, or fans of any longstanding creation that waited to make their screen debut, will see the flop sweat coming from four credited writers (including Armando Iannucci!) struggling to justify this small-screen regular’s presence in a skimpy premise that can’t even keep straight whether Meany is one-dimensionally insane, or comically tragic, a threat or a diversion. For Partridge completists only, and also for those who haven’t seen any generic lowbrow American comedies of the last fifteen years.
It wasn’t all shits and giggles at the fest, particularly with documentaries like “American Promise” sparking conversation. This is a real lightning rod of a movie, dealing with two black children from middle class families as they navigate thirteen years of private school. Along the way, they deal with the crush of being surrounded by what the world views as an ideal, competing with white children in every walk of life. When the more overly sensitive of the two kids, just entering his teenage years, talks about how his life would be “better” if he were white, it’s the heartbreaking sign not only of a young child developing a unique awareness of the world, but also displaying a level of critical thought towards an enemy too big to defeat, to out-think or out-smart.
What’s upsetting about this film is that the directors, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, are also the parents of that same child. It troubles when he starts to struggle in school, and becomes diagnosed with ADHD as a result of plummeting self-esteem and performance issues. Hm, is that because of that invasive camera butting its way into his life, forcing him to behave in a certain way, making him play to an unseen audience? Is there any more accurate way to magnify the pressures of growing up? The two directors are also seen on camera, egging on this despondent boy as he grows less certain of himself in the face of challenge. Their desires as parents are quite like the behavior of a director, as they corner him and force reactions out of him for mistakes he’s made and shortcomings he’s developed. Interestingly, they leave him alone once he delivers an achingly sad rejoinder, usually about how he needs to take responsibility for his failures. They’ve gotten what they want from him.
There’s more curious parenting in “Club Sandwich,” the latest from “Duck Season” director Fernando Eimbcke. In this slight comedy-drama, there’s a burgeoning tension between a younger-than-usual mother and her doughy teenage son. On vacation in a run-down, under-populated motel, they spend their days lounging by the pool, though you get the feeling she requires his companionship a lot more than he needs her. When she talks about watching her weight despite a limber figure in a bikini, he tells her he doesn’t think she’s fat, and she blushes a bit too much than she should. It gives her the confidence necessary to order the title meal, which becomes a go-to during their stay
Soon, he starts hanging out with a sullen, well-endowed girl of the same age, and their virginal courtship reeks of indie movie contrivance: no real conversations, just endless, clumsy heavy petting. Mom gets territorial, creating the potential for a face-off that never happens. Characters in this film either don’t listen to each other, or respond to conflict by walking away with shoulders shrugged. I haven’t seen Eimbcke’s other work, and I’m curious to see if it has the same sort of weightlessness to its conflicts. I don’t think there’s anyone or anything to root for in this film, nor am I intrigued by any appealing moral dimension. In my mind, these characters will continue walking in these circles at that motel forever. I’m not certain how to feel about that.
I am becoming more certain as to what Catherine Breillat is like after her latest, “Abuse Of Weakness”: a big ole’ sexy pervert. The plot follows a provocative female filmmaker who suffers a stroke, calling to mind the same condition Breillat herself recently suffered. After a couple of fairy tales in “Bluebeard” and “Sleeping Beauty,” Breillat seems ready to bare herself, and the opening scene lays it all out. In bed underneath flawless white blankets lies a naked Isabelle Huppert, who succumbs to a painful stroke and tumbles to the floor, a chair gracefully landing alongside her bottom as if it were a particularly chic fashion shoot. The presentation of Huppert’s physical perfection, the billowy sheets, and the naked floor on which Huppert lies in profile is the first suggestion that Huppert’s complete loss of control is meant to be immensely sexual. Brelliat here is copping to the fact that her films, laced with oppressive sexual violence and viciousness, also turn her on.
During her rehab, she is turned on by a thief-turned-bestselling author, played by mature rough-neck Kool Shen. What appeals to her is the casual masculinity he wears on his sleeve, but also the shark’s sadism of his eyes. He’s only moving in one direction, for one purpose. She invents a new movie for him to star, but it’s soon clear that, despite her vivid description of the plot (in a single shot, Huppert gives the year’s best female performance), there is no film. Instead, she uses him as a muscular prop, as he casually remarks that her condition pleases her because it makes men into slaves. He also takes advantage of her, requesting a series of loans that financially cripple her, and the film ignores the underlying air of sexual violence to present two people draining each other of life. What she is doing is intentional, and Breillat gives her typically troubling insight into the sadistic pleasures of being a victim, told with an intimacy her previous films, for good reason, simply couldn’t muster.
I’m not entirely clear what to make of Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch Of Sin,” which feels like both a commercial film from him as well as a self-critical look at what a filmmaker has to do to be noticed. It is an excessively violent multi-character piece about accountability, political and otherwise, with four also-rans taking on the system in specifically violent ways, people who have snapped waiting for justice to be served as the watchmen look the other way. The first moment of the film features an overturned fruit truck, spilling apples along the street. One man looks on while eating one, as undisturbed as the accident scene itself. When a society cannot clean its messes, it’s understandable. When it simply doesn’t bother, it’s maddening.
Zhangke reportedly based the film on a series of real-life incidents tied to corporate malfeasance, and to their credit the cast perfectly recreates the struggles of impotent people being softly crushed by the thumb of bureaucracy. It’s not the freshest material, but from such a taciturn filmmaker, the violence is astonishing in moments. The first sequence alone is a shotgun squib-fest, and the way Zhangke lovingly captures the puddles of blood dripping onto the ground implies a sick catharsis. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Chinese culture; I imagine there’s greater insight to be had from someone else other than “dis blood loked gud.”
“Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of A Plains Indian” probably features the one standout performance I’ve seen at the fest, from Benicio Del Toro as the title character. His Jimmy, a disturbed Native American, is endlessly watchable, salvaging a soggy two-hander where he engages in folksy therapy sessions with an eccentric doctor played by Mathieu Almaric. Like most Del Toro movies, it seems like almost a shame that there’s any dialogue at all. There are five movies constantly happening on Del Toro’s face all at once, and they’re all good. Here, he manages to place himself visually into his own dreams and fantasies, and his reactions reflect a troubled bemusement – could I really be this cracked? There isn’t much more to it beyond Almaric’s affectionate flirting with a colleague who brings a little sun to the darker proceedings. But when you watch Del Toro bark that he’s not crazy, it’s as if his voice is setting off a million different impulses in his own face and body, fighting over whether to prove those words right or wrong.
One of those matter-of-fact docs about stranger-than-fiction stories, “The Dog” chronicles the life of John Wojtowicz, the loquacious hustler who inspired “Dog Day Afternoon.” As most could have guessed, that film only tells the partial story, leaving out the heartbreak and deception of a post-prison relationship between Wojtowicz and his transgendered lover, as well as a sexually ambivalent early life that birthed the man who today, in his advanced age, openly calls himself a “pervert.” Wojtowicz makes for a great subject, but the flashes of his contemporary self simply remind that this is a man entirely based in self-promotion, and at this point a documentary is the sincerest form of flattery.
There’s so much visual majesty in “The Wind Rises,” the final film of Hayao Miyazaki, that for a moment you forget you’re watching animation, and you wonder just exactly how certain images came to be. The increasingly hermetic world of American kiddie animation continues to take notes from the Saturday morning cartoons of yesteryear, but only Hayao Miyazaki feels like a real filmmaker. That being said, this non-fantastical story of WWII-era engineer Jiro Horikoshi is fairly dry and overly expository at points, and probably isn’t a great entry point into the filmmaker’s work. But when his characters take flight, the picture is breathless, and the visuals are so powerful as to feel sentimental, like someone has recreated a dream you think you had on the big screen. A character introduces themselves as being sick at the film’s start, and it feels like a bit of a slow march to get to the end. But I confess, I wouldn’t know. I snuck out early to headbang my way through a screening of “Metallica: Through The Never 3D.” Please don’t tell Lav Diaz, okay?