Tuesday, October 15, 2013

NYFF At A Glance, Part II

Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time coping. Recently, I was part of a wave of critics who walked out of the New York Film Festival’s world-premiere screening of “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” with negative opinions, only to be told by the good folks at Gold Derby that I was a “snarl-puss critic.” Apparently this is what it takes to dislike this watered down decaf latte of a film that presses easy baby boomer buttons and willingly drowns in craven product placement. Gold Derby wasn’t giving a review of the film, mind you. Just a review of the reviews of the film, which were almost entirely anecdotal. “Snarl-puss” critics like me were being accused of “tamping down the cool quotient” of this proudly square film, obscuring the fact that it’s really good it could be a curveball contender in an Oscar campaign that features a shortage of upbeat films. As if anyone who really loves films and has ANY respect for their own opinions is going to walk out of a world premiere and start talking about what OTHER people think instead of their own thoughts. In other words, to Gold Derby and all those with similar opinions: shut the fuck up you fucking moron baby.

There’s a fine line between labor-of-love and vanity project, and “Mitty” crosses it frequently, with director Stiller coaching Stiller the actor into a constipated performance as a Life Magazine photo processor dealing with the magazine shuttering its doors. He’s in charge of preserving the photo that will be the very last cover in the magazine’s history, but star photographer Sean Penn has cagily failed to send the photo that he claims is the “Quintessence Of Life,” forcing Mitty to go on a carpe diem expedition that involves him skateboarding on empty roads, climbing mountains, and generally living out a credit card commercial every five minutes. Every cultural signifier in this film is dreadfully dumb, from the obvious use of David Bowie’s “Major Tom” (Kristen Wiig has the unfortunate task of explaining the song’s meaning to the cheap seats) to an out-of-nowhere fantasy Mitty has about being Benjamin Button, which feels like someone inserted a rejected “Mr. Show” sketch in this middle of this Oscar bait. Penn, to his credit, provides the only real-feeling scene in the entire film, but the spirit of the picture seems to belong to Patton Oswalt, who waddles in wearing a shit-eating grin as he openly shills for both E*Harmony and Cinnabon. No joke: drink every time a character says “Papa John’s.”

Contrast that feature-length commercial with something like “Her,” which also seems to endorse a certain capitalist way of life, without glossing over the weight involved. Joaquin Phoenix is the last heart alive in futuristic Los Angeles, one where, ostensibly, crime, homelessness and suffering have been eradicated. Maybe it’s a Los Angeles as simulated by one of those off-world colonies in “Blade Runner,” because it presents a world where technology has allowed us the ability to wallpaper over everything but our emotions. Phoenix’s Theodore bleeds alone, left broken after a horrible divorce that has forced him into a quiet life of solitude, where he pens the handwritten love letters of others at work, quietly retreating to his operating system at night, which soothingly tells him about the content of his emails while he toys around with a sad single-player video game. Sometimes you don’t need to be a weirdo or a jerk to be lonely: Phoenix is neither, but when you hear his voice crack, it’s like his heart breaks a little as well. He could use a friend.

An operating system upgrade proves to be in the cards, and Theodore opts for Samantha. As voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she’s distinctly girlish, flirty but supportive, and ultimately kindhearted. When she says she’s saved his best emails without asking him, it’s clear that no one’s ever made quite the effort to find the sensitivity inside this man. Soon, Theodore is growing fond of Samantha, who has no avatar, but is always there giving him unseen support through his headpiece. And Samantha, who recognizes that she is a program, starts to develop emotions and feelings she never thought possible. The sadness at the heart of “Her” is that, one day (today?), we won’t be able to tell the difference between real and synthetic sincerity. Spike Jonze’s fourth film, and fourth masterpiece, suggests maybe that won’t be such a bad thing.

Phoenix is superb in “Her,” but he’s equally good in a completely different role in James Gray’s “The Immigrant.” This Depression-era drama finds Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant who arrives in New York City, only to find her relatives absent, the local authorities ready to ship her right back. This is where Phoenix, as a wolfish pimp, sizes her up and springs her free, letting her live in squalor with him as he bankrolls gaudy burlesque shows that apparently barely break even. Gray’s always worked with smaller budgets, which makes me wonder just how much this cost, given how it feels like an eerily believable recreation of that era, both extravagantly detailed but ultimately pretty shitty as far as decorum. You almost catch yourself in the moment, wondering, why does this nattily-dressed magician look a lot like Jeremy Renner? Renner feels amusingly cast against type in a supporting role as a possible love interest, and this feels like the first role where the fairly unattractive would-be A-Lister convincingly carries himself as if he were a hunk.

Like all Gray films, this one descends into melodramatics by the end; depending on the day, I like that sort of thing. But the real pleasure is in seeing Phoenix and Cotillard’s characters collide. You’re never sure if he’s telling the truth about his feelings for her. She seems to be an opportunity for him to earn a quick buck, but he’s awfully patient with her, treating her almost as a good luck charm. Even though you know he’s rotten, there’s something so convincing about his sweetness that it sickens you when he tries to turn her to prostitution. Cotillard, to her credit, doesn’t play the title character as a victim. In gestures both powerful and petty, she lets you know that she’s not to be trifled, allowing herself a small reservoir of self-respect even when she engages in the most unsavory behavior. Odd as it may seem, she’s kinda gangsta.

There were two major films at the festival with major LGBT content, and ultimately I feel underqualified to talk about either. “Blue Is The Warmest Color” is a sprawling three hour love story between a twentysomething lesbian and a sixteen year old girl just learning about her own sexuality, and it features several scenes of graphic, un-simulated lesbian sex. “Stranger By The Lake,” meanwhile, is a suspense thriller that takes place on a beach for cruising gay singles, and it too features several moments of un-simulated sex between gay males. One of these was much easier to watch than the other, and I think you can probably guess which one that was.
“Blue Is The Warmest Color” packs most of its power in extreme close ups in dialogue scenes where you can read the emotions on the beautiful Adele Exarchopoulos’s face as she navigates romance as a sudden shove into adulthood. She can barely figure out how to make it through high school, never mind what to do about this assertive blue-haired beauty (Lea Seydoux) calling her number. The sex scenes are enormously explicit and upfront, but most of “Blue” has that overly eroticized feeling, the one that comes from pressing your face against someone else, the physicality providing an undeniable desire. It is a film of passion, the camera lovingly capturing Exarchopoulos’ sensuous overbite and bee-stung lips, and later her considerably young, supple curves. It feels as if my opinion about this picture matters little, for I am a heterosexual male, and you know full well what I think of it.

“Stranger By The Lake” doesn’t have the same eroticized charge, instead concerning itself with the fact-of-life treatment of homosexual relations. Even someone attracted to men would realize that the gorgeous sun-kissed location, where men lie on the beach and tan until a like-minded stud picks them up for a romp in the forest, is the most gorgeous sight onscreen. Early on, the unencumbered sight of various flaccid members onscreen (several crossing paths with the subtitles) is at once relaxingly casual, and then overwhelmingly distracting. I’d like to think this isn’t because of a phobia of penises, but because the slow-burn suspense plot, which involves a cat-and-mouse game between a killer and his wary lover, feels too slight on its own. Ultimately, the sexual frankness of the film feels like a gimmick of sorts, and by the time the third act resolves itself by becoming a slasher, you realize there isn’t much sexy, naked, tight, masculine meat on the bone.
That slightness has worked for the most part as far as Jim Jarmusch’s body of work, and it returns in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which could also derisively be called “The First Hipsters.” Centuries-old lovers Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton) are casually separated, in elegantly wasted ways. She’s nestled away in Europe, living in secrecy with fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) as they sip designer blood and crack Shakespeare jokes. He’s straddling an endless row of guitars while wasting away in Detroit, taking a half-hearted interest in suicide as he bribes a local doctor (a very funny Jeffrey Wright) for a little extra juice. When they hook up for a Skype call, it’s amusing that Adam has to pick up a 1990’s-era phone, before cracking open an early 2000’s laptop, wired to transmit through a television set from the 1960’s.

Eve finds cause to visit her old paramour, getting him to spruce up a bit and go out, possibly humoring the well-equipped groupie (Anton Yelchin) that keeps Adam’s hipster bonafides intact. What follows is an extended chill-out vibe that likely reflects Jarmusch at his most relaxed and pokey. Nothing much happens before Eve’s attention-starved sister (Mia Wasikowska – no, I still don’t get it) comes aboard, inorganically jazzing up the proceedings as the sort of irritant that leads the gorgeous Hiddleston to constantly roll his eyes through the rest of the film. It doesn’t feel altogether heavy, but it does feel 100% Jarmusch.

It was an unlikely “Great Gatsby” reunion at the NYFF as the stars of the seventies version, Robert Redford and Bruce Dern , both debuted their biggest roles in almost a decade. Unfortunately, in the case of both of them, it feels slightly like bullshit. Less so in Redford’s case, as the intrepid sailor at the heart of “All Is Lost.” The J.C. Chandor-directed survivalist thriller features Redford, the only actor in the film, as just a guy on a boat, dealing with a sinking ship after a horrible storm. Its greatest virtue is also its weakness: this movie is what it is, and any projections about aging, mortality, or ingenuity are just that. Chandor made a similarly no-bullshit movie with “Margin Call,” a well-written and well-acted film about the architects of the major financial crisis. That picture had real feeling and sentiment from a great cast. This film, considerably less talkier, relies on the weathered visage of Redford, who, undeniably, has had a bit of work done on his face, and seems less physically interesting than someone else would in the same predicament. It’s an old dude at sea. What more do you want?

At least Redford gets to play capable and resolute, which is more than what can be said by Dern in Alexander Payne’s latest peanut-gallery mockery of the Midwest, “Nebraska.” With his white hair windswept far over his dome, the elderly Dern looks like a hungover wizard, delusionally chortling over the millions he just won from an obvious mail scam. Without a license, he’s determined to walk through multiple states to claim his bogus winnings, much to the chagrin of his exasperated son (Will Forte) who eventually accompanies him on the trip. As much as it pains this member of the Will Forte Fan Club to say this, he seems genial but out of his depth alongside Dern, who seems too bright but is otherwise fairly convincing as a bitter old man. Were the picture only about these two, it would carry similar (not equal) weight as David Lynch’s “The Straight Story.” Unfortunately, Payne loads the picture with several dopey bumpkin stereotypes just itching to get a taste of the money (including a literal Tweetledum-Tweetledee pair of brothers), artificially stretching the narrative to the breaking point. June Squibb brings considerable pluck and resolve to the role of Dern’s put-upon wife, but soon the movie finds itself leaning too hard on her aw-shucks plainspokeness. By the time she’s flashing the grave of a former suitor, you get the sense Payne’s lost the story a bit.

Two wayward girls take center stage in “My Name Is Hmm” and “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon.” The first, in agnes b.’s directorial debut, is an eleven year old that engages on a somewhat fantastical journey where she runs away from home, leaving behind an overworked mother and sexually abusive father to play house with a kindly tattooed truck driver. It’s fairly student film-ish for most of its runtime, and the gravity of the situation never seems to be addressed or subverted. It almost feels like a version of Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland” made without any imagination whatsoever. It soon becomes clear that this is mostly a fantasy version of a kidnapping, and the empathetic point of view towards everyone involved (including the monstrous father) feels less humanist and more idle-minded. 

The second girl is the lead of the prolific Hong Sang-Soo’s 14th feature, and if you’ve already seen a couple of his films, you know what to expect. Haewon is a college student struggling to find her identity after the departure of her mother to America. She does this through a series of dreams and reveries she has about a failed relationship with a co-dependent college professor and the friends that she assumes she trusts. Sang-Soo makes hangout movies, where characters often sit and play out minor conflicts over tea and snacks, and this film features a number of similar sequences, which subtly reveal each person’s desires and secrets through not only what is said, but what goes tantalizingly unsaid.
Director Sebastian Lelio of Chile also contributed his own heroine to the fest, and the results were a bit more colorful. In the Spanish-language “Gloria,” the title character is a hard-drinking mess in her mid-forties, classically the last person at the party. A new love affair blossoms, but ten years after a divorce, she finds that it’s too late to pretend neither her nor her lover has any baggage. “Gloria” reminds of the darkly comic AA drama “Julia” with Tilda Swinton awhile back, but while that picture found its drunken protagonist forced to grow up, “Gloria” instead finds its lead lost in a maze of bad decisions and forced to act like a kid. This results in some fairly plastic comic set pieces that betray the honesty and explicit sexuality of the material, audience concessions rather than real life drama. Which is unfortunate – this is a film that very nearly sticks the landing.

Speaking of which, it appears that Claire Denis remains the world’s greatest filmmaker. Her “Bastards” is unforgettably bleak and upsetting, Denis’ take on a noir that manages to address sex scandals, revenge, and forbidden love in one tough-hearted cocktail. There are some who believe female filmmakers have a natural softness that keeps them from mainstream success, but clearly that person hasn’t seen Denis’ work, and “Bastards” is the toughest film of the fest by far. The story slowly unravels, doling out morsels of detail bit by bit, a storytelling act of seduction that forces you to claw onto each story beat. All you need to know is in the images; a naked girl roaming the streets alone, a bloodied ear of corn, a mangled car, a manila envelope in the darkest office in the world.

Ultimately, with “Bastards” it’s not the images you recall as much as the vibe. This is a dark film, and while the story is told through slivers of light, you remember the shadows. You remember the darkness through which powerfully masculine Vincent Lindon peers, you remember the light that cascades over Chiara Mastroianni’s beatific face, and you know that Denis understands the simpler pleasures of the genre. You also remember the title and realize that Denis’ picture is sinister, unpredictable, and damning in all directions. There isn’t a single moment you feel more than uneasy during “Bastards,” and as it builds to its deeply upsetting final minutes, you realize they’re set to one of the slinkiest, sexiest tunes from frequent Denis collaborators the Tindersticks. It’s Denis’ way of showing you the despair at the heart of compromised people, and daring you to be the slightest bit aroused.

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