Tuesday, September 30, 2014

NYFF ’14: Sauerbruch Hutton Architects

Architecture is a funny business. Often commissions are determined through open competitions, judged by bureaucrats, politicians, and philistines. Nevertheless, the architectural partnership of Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton has had remarkable success building high profile sustainable, post-postmodern structures. For three months, the late Harun Farocki documented their work in Sauerbruch Hutton Architects (trailer here), which screens as a Projections selection at the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Farocki had certain ground rules, such as no editing out of actual chronological sequence and absolutely positively no talking head interviews. The office simply goes about their business as usual. One thing that will immediately strike viewers is the genuine collaborative nature of the work. Both name-on-the-door architects are open to a lot of bouncing ideas around and challenging viewpoints. A winning competition entry might not be the work of Sauerbruch or Hutton alone, but the fruits of the entire office’s labor. Promising associates even get their own assignments, like the designer dauntingly tasked with reinventing the folding chair.

Farocki also shows us the audience the joys of up-managing clients, particularly local governmental bodies. When a key decision-maker suddenly balks at the settled color scheme for a new university building in Potsdam, Hutton looks ready to strangle her on the spot, but she maintains her composure and negotiates a livable compromise.

Clearly fitting Farocki’s “Direct Cinema” rubric, SHA is definitely fly-on-the-wall observational cinema. Given its aesthetic kinship to Frederick Wiseman’s work, it seems rather arbitrary the Titicut Follies documentarian’s latest three hour study is included in NYFF’s Documentary Spotlight, but Farocki’s manageable seventy-three minute SHA is relegated to the vaguely avant-garde Projections section, but as a Marxist like Farocki must know, life is not fair.

For architectural nerds, the must see film of the fest is Eugène Green’s La Sapienza. While Green’s film is like a master class with reincarnated Baroque architect, Farocki’s doc is more of an office internship largely centered around the copy machine. Still, there are telling things to observe if one is receptive. Recommended for ardent admirers of Sauerbruch Hutton and Farocki, Sauerbruch Hutton Architects screens this Saturday (10/4) at the Beale, as part of this year’s NYFF.

Stephen King’s A Good Marriage: Till Death . . .

Frankly, you probably wouldn’t want to see Stephen King’s idea of a bad marriage. For twenty-five years, Bob and Darcy Anderson’s union has indeed been pretty strong. Then she started to realize she married a coin collecting accountant from Maine. Her suspicion the loyal hubbie might be a serial killer does not help much either. Pillow talk gets awkward in Stephen King’s A Good Marriage (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Good old Bob Anderson has always been faithful to Darcy and a reliable provider for their now grown children. She always thought his only quirk was his weekend trips scouring estates sales for collectible coins. Then she happens across his secret stash in the garage. Let’s just say there are no Buffalo Head nickels in there. Unfortunately, Mrs. Anderson is terrible at keeping secrets. Almost immediately, Mr. Anderson realizes what happened and promises to reform, but his wife remains highly conflicted and unnerved, for obvious reasons.

Directed by Peter Askin and adapted by King himself, from a short story in Full Dark, No Stars (hence the name in the title, a la Mary Shelly or Bram Stoker), SK’s AGM should be an event for his fans. It is his first screenplay since Pet Cemetery way back in 1989—and it is a pretty good one, but it might be overshadowed by the Rader family controversy. Recently the daughter of the BTK Killer, on whom the “Beattie” serial killer in SK’s AGM is admittedly based, objected to the film on the grounds it is insensitive to her father’s victims. Understandably, King has diplomatically taken exception, especially since none of the victim families have objected.

Let’s not kid ourselves—every serial killer movie is exploitative to some extent, but SK’s AGM is much less so than most. All of Bob Anderson’s foul deeds are scrupulously left off screen. Instead, King’s adaptation is more of an old school claustrophobic thriller, in the tradition of Sorry, Wrong Number. Viewers do have to buy into the premise that Anderson’s closest family remained oblivious to his predatory urges, but evidently that sort of thing happens.

Joan Allen also helps sell it tremendously. Her Darcy Anderson is many things, but she is not a passive victim. In fact, there is a moral ambiguity to her performance that is quite effective. Anthony LaPaglia also hits the exact right notes as “Beattie” Bob. Sure, he is a little off, but only just a little, so it is relatively easy to believe he escaped suspicion for so long. It is not quite Simon Oakland’s eleventh hour cameo in Psycho, but Stephen Lang has some nice moments that come very late in the game.

Thanks to Askin’s strong mechanics and King’s tight plotting, SK’s AGM is a pretty tense little thriller. It is a good film that ought to be considered on its own merits, separate from the current controversies and King’s more supernatural oeuvre. This is a hard week for marriage in cinematic terms, with SK’s AGM, The Blue Room, and Gone Girl all hitting theaters this Friday (10/3), but each one is worth seeing. Recommended for fans of dark psychological thrillers, Stephen King’s A Good Marriage opens in New York at the AMC Empire.

Monday, September 29, 2014

NYFF ’14: Pasolini

In 1926, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s father foiled an attempt to assassinate Benito Mussolini. Unfortunately, there would be nobody to intercede when Pasolini fils was murdered, most likely by a gay hustler, but the Italian auteur’s death has almost spawned as many conspiracy theories as the Kennedy assassination. The filmmaker’s final days are now the subject of Abel Ferrara’s speculative passion play, Pasolini (trailer here), which screens during the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Ferrara’s affinity for Pasolini makes perfect sense, given the penchant they share for sexually and religiously charged subject matter. As Ferrara’s film opens, Pasolini is wrapping post-production on his Marquis de Sade opus, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. To this day, it remains one of the most controversial and difficult films ever produced by a prestige filmmaker. Of course, Pasolini was always an extreme figure, politically and aesthetically (holding the dubious distinction of having been expelled from the Italian Communist Party on moral grounds).

Ferrara builds an atmosphere of foreboding and paranoia, clearly inviting the audience to suspect anyone so uncompromising must be a danger to the powers that be. Yet, Pasolini recklessly indulges in the hedonistic lifestyle that will ultimately kill him. Ferrara intercuts his prowling about Rome’s seedy night spots with scenes from the outlandish allegory that would have been his next film: Porno-Teo-Kolossal, a sort of riff on the Biblical Three Wise Men, in which an old Holy fool’s pilgrimage takes him to Sodom’s traditional orgy, where the city’s gays and lesbians come together to procreate.

Truly, Pasolini reflects both the absolute worst and best of Ferrara’s instincts. It is talky, pretentious, and features more explicit gay sex than any non-homophobic straight cineaste ever needs to see. Yet, the operatic sweep of it all is rather overwhelming. Ferrara creates a pungent sense of 1970s Rome, simmering with crime and ideology. Dark and sleazy, it all radiates malevolence thanks to cinematography Stefano Falivene.

Frankly, Willem Dafoe, a frequent Ferrara co-conspirator, makes a downright spooky Pasolini stand-in. He is so gaunt and dissipated looking, the audience might throw him an intervention if he appears at a screening. Watching him play out Pasolini’s final days is like watching a ghost. For better or worse, it is his film and perhaps his career role, but it is also quite eerie to see Pasolini favorite Ninetto Davoli wayfaring through the “Maestro’s” unmade film.

Pasolini is bold auterist filmmaking and a quality period production. It is also rather a mess, but it should not be lightly dismissed. Despite or because of Ferrara’s myriad excesses, when you walk out of his Pasolini, you know you saw a film. Recommended for fans of Ferrara and Pasolini at their most Ferrara and Pasolini, Ferrara’s Pasolini screens this Thursday (10/2) at Alice Tully Hall and Friday (10/3) at the Gilman, as Main Slate selection of this year’s NYFF.

The Decent One: Heinrich Himmler, In His Own Words

It is sort of like watching Hell’s production of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, because its correspondents have certainly earned damnation. Utilizing a cache of previously unseen letters and documents written by Heinrich Himmler and his family, documentarian Vanessa Lapa paints an uncomfortably intimate portrait of the Holocaust architect. Himmler proves just how banal evil can be in Lapa’s The Decent One (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

The U.S. servicemen dispatched to retrieve whatever documents remained in the Himmler family safe kept them as souvenirs instead. Through some circuitous route, they eventually came into Lapa’s possession. For a historian, they represent a wealth of primary sources, but they should not stoke revisionist fears. Despite Himmler’s conscientious concern for their young daughter Gudrun, Himmler’s letters to wife Margarete never ameliorate his guilt.

There are moments when their domestic business is interrupted by shockingly off-hand anti-Semitic pronouncements (often on Margarete’s part), but the first half of the film largely consists of maddeningly prosaic correspondence and journal entries. Still, when Himmler suggests he and Margarete should number their letters, it arguably foreshadows his sinister efficiency (but it must have been a great help to Lapa and her research team).

Not to be spoilery, but Lapa eventually uses Himmler’s own words to establish his knowledge and culpability with respects to the Holocaust. Of course, all reasonable people of good conscience understand that already. She also exposes the hypocrisy of his outward righteousness through letters to his longtime mistress, but those are the least of his sins.

Frankly the tangential approach of documentaries like Decent One risk losing sight of the big picture’s enormity. Perhaps this generation really needs a documentary that launches a frontal assault, overpowering the viewers with the scale and severity of suffering caused by the National Socialists, especially considering the rise of anti-Semitism in Western Europe and the Middle East.

Lapa’s film is skillfully constructed and undeniably well intentioned, but it is unlikely to inspire many epiphanies. It is good that greater historical background and context is now easily available, but it probably should not be the first or last film students see on National Socialist crimes against humanity. Respectfully recommended for viewers who already have a strong grounding in Holocaust history, The Decent One opens this Wednesday (10/1) at New York’s Film Forum.

Nas: the Doc is Illmatic

Olu Dara has been celebrated for his sideman recordings with avant-garde jazz artists, like David Murray, and his own sessions that are deeply steeped in the blues. Yet, far more people have heard him work on Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch.” He had the inside track to that gig. He happens to be the rapper’s father. Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones will take one bow after another in One9’s shamelessly celebratory Nas: Time is Illmatic (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

If you were going to write a generic rapper creation myth, it might go something like this: The sensitive son of a politically conscious but largely absent father grows up in a hostile big city environment, largely keeping on the straight and narrow, thanks to his strong mother. Yet, just as the young man is about to make it big, his close friend and musical collaborator falls prey to the urban pathologies they hoped to escape. Nevertheless, the grieving friend’s destiny would not be denied.

That is pretty much the Nas story in a nutshell. Since that is what happened, One9 is stuck with the general arc, but a good documentarian’s challenge is to delve beneath the surface to find the surprising and idiosyncratic things that make their subjects tick. Unfortunately, One9 and writer Erik Parker are content to print the legend, chronicling a publicist approved narrative that might as well be cribbed from AllMusic.com. Even for a Nas fan, the results are rather boring to watch.

Yes, Nas’s Illmatic album was a hip-hop watershed. We know that because scores of talking heads tell us so, but they never really explain it. Some vaguely suggest he broke new ground in his politicized depiction of inner city life, yet we hear plenty of rhymes similarly addressing issues of race and class from his early 1980s contemporaries. Frankly, there is not a lot of analysis in Time—just a general assumption everyone is already on the same side of the mountain.

Still, Time could be an efficiently inebriating drinking game. Just take one sip for every time he shakes hands, fist bumps, or high fives someone from the old neighborhood. While these scenes are obviously meant to emphasis Nas’s close connection to Queensbridge, we just so get it after the first fifteen or twenty times.

Even viewers who are not hip-hop listeners can appreciate a documentary about the music if it is well done. Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life is a perfect example, in large measure because founding A Tribe Called Quest member Q-Tip has a lot to say about music and it usually quite interesting (unfortunately his appearance in Time is rather perfunctory). Time simply lacks the equivalent insights. Shallow and fannish, Nas: Time is Illmatic should have been a disposable cable special, but it opens this Wednesday (10/1) in New York at the AMC Empire.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

NYFF ’14: ’71

Thanks to Scotland’s independence referendum, Northern Ireland will probably get a taste of Devo Max. The increased autonomy would hardly have satisfied the irrationally violent “Provisional” IRA in the 1970s. One British soldier stranded in the wrong neighborhood will try to elude the faction’s death squad, but there will be other interested parties also hunting him in Yann Demange’s ’71 (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Private Gary Hook’s unit has been hurriedly dispatched to Belfast, which is just as much a part of the UK as Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square. Yet, it is most definitely dangerous duty. On his first waking day in Northern Ireland, Hook finds himself facing down a mob. Trying to build trust, the relatively green Lieutenant sent them out in berets rather than flak helmets. In retrospect, this was a mistake. As the chaos spirals out of control, Hook and his mate Thompson are separated from the unit. Thompson takes a bullet to the head from a Provisional assassin, but Hook is able to elude the gunman and his partner.

Hook finds a temporary refuge, but he has no idea how to reach his barracks. He is surrounded by a Catholic population that would either like to kill him or is too frightened of the various IRA contingents to protect him. Nevertheless, he finds guide in the form of the rabble-rousing seven year old nephew of a high-ranking Protestant paramilitary. Unfortunately, this only leads to more trouble, when Hook narrowly survives an accidental bomb detonation that could deeply embarrass a small detachment of sinister British intelligence officers. Hook’s death would be quite convenient for them.

’71 has an overpowering sense of place, but instead of Belfast, it was shot in Liverpool, Blackburn, Sheffield, and Leeds, which does not say much for those municipalities’ urban ambiance. It looks like the entire city is a housing project (or an estate in British parlance). As night falls, Tat Radcliffe’s cinematography becomes ghostly disorienting, perfectly mirroring Hook’s increasingly confused state and powerfully reinforcing the edgy vibe.

Rising star Jack O’Connell looks ridiculously young and lost in the grim, battle-scarred world, but that is the whole point. In fact, he is quite effective as an earnest and innocent POV figure for the audience to identify with. Many of the assorted combatants rather blur together, but David Wilmot stands out as Boyle, the local old guard IRA leader. Babou Ceesay (who deserves to become a series regular after his guest spot on last season’s Lewis) is also terrific as the hard but decent Corporal. However, Corey McKinley upstages everyone as Hook’s ferocious young ally (evidently W.C. Fields was right, even in Belfast).

Despite portraying some pretty savage behavior on the part of the IRA factions and their sympathizers, Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke go out of their way to paint the British Army in a negative light. (I’d still trust the honor and professionalism of Her Majesty’s armed forces over any other military, aside from America’s armed services.) Regardless, Demange crafts a tight, tense white knuckle night of the soul. He certainly proves he can stage a riot. Although they are radically different in many respects, the one film ’71 consistently brings to mind is Carol Reed’s absolutely classic Odd Man Out, which is a heavy statement. Recommended on balance for patrons who appreciate gritty military thrillers, ’71 screens again tonight (9/28) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYFF.

SDFF ’14: Where the Road Runs Out

Equatorial Guinea is the only African country whose official language is Spanish. However, it still will not be able to submit the first feature film produced entirely within the country for foreign language Academy Award consideration, because the overwhelming majority of its dialogue is in English. Still, the Equatorial Guineans can work towards other milestones, like improving its rankings on Freedom House’s index of civic rights and Reporters Without Borders’ measure of press freedoms. Political realities are scrupulously ignored, but the country’s desperate poverty offers a handy path to redemption in Rudolf Buitendach’s Where the Road Runs Out (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 San Diego Film Festival.

George Mensah is one of the world’s foremost experts on crop fertility, but the Rotterdam-based scientist is stuck in a boozy rut. When his old do-gooder friend Cheese finally dies from his enlarged heart (nobody can miss that symbolism), he heads to Equatorial Guinea to take stock of the research station and orphanage he thought he had helped underwrite. However, when he reaches the remote community, he finds ramshackle buildings instead of the state-of-the-art facilities he expected. Their mutual friend Martin may have some explaining to do.

Nevertheless, “Mr. George” reluctantly gets involved with Jimmy, an annoyingly heartwarming orphan, given a leg brace for extra added heart-string pulling. He also haltingly courts Corina, the orphanage’s headmistress. She is not a nun, but she had more or less resolved to live that way, until Mensah turned up.

Isaach De Bankolé (recognizable from many Jim Jarmusch and Claire Denis films) is a powerful screen actor, who ought to get more opportunities as a leading man (he happens to be married to Cassandra Wilson, so at least he gets to hear a lot of great music). Despite some slapsticky moments, he maintains his presence and dignity as Mensah, but this will not be the film he shall be remembered for.

Frankly, Juliet Landau and Stelio Savante provide decent support as Corina and Martin, respectively. However, there is way too much precociousness going on for safe adult consumption. There is a rule here against singling out young actors for criticism, so let’s just leave it at that.

There are some perfectly nice sentiments in Road, but its manipulations are not exactly subtle. Cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum makes the countryside sparkle, but the day to day realities of Equatorial Guinea are actually quite grim for those who are not connected with the government. It is a conspicuous blind spot that makes it hard to give the film the love it so obviously craves. Only for diehard Bankolé fans who do not mind some easy sentimentality, Where the Road Runs Out screens again this afternoon at the SDFF and will next play the Heartland Film Festival on October 18th, 20th, 24th, and 25th.

NYFF ’14: Last Hijack

According to the Oceans Beyond Piracy project, over 1,000 international seamen have been held hostage by Somali pirates—roughly a third of whom were tortured and 62 died from a variety of causes. Yet, it sure is more convenient to cast the pirates as victims of colonialism, globalism, capitalism, and generally mean old westernism. However, films trying to advance that narrative have been less than convincing, despite the quality of their execution. Sort of picking up where Greenglass’s Captain Phillips left off, Tommy Pallotta & Femke Wilting offer a personal and figurative defense of high seas plunder in their animated hybrid documentary Last Hijack (trailer here), which screens today as a Convergence selection of the 52nd New York FilmFestival.

Former pirate Muhamed Nura pulled off a few big hijackings and lived to talk about. Unfortunately, he did not save any of his ransom money. Facing middle age with little prospects, Nura decides to assemble a team for one last job. However, times have changed and maritime security is much tighter. Everyone is against his plan, including his stern mother and his vastly younger fiancée. Nonetheless, he has no trouble lining up crew and financial backers.

Pallotta and Wilting clearly invite sympathy for Somali pirates, trying to position them as modern Jean Valjeans, but they bizarrely chose a distinctly unsympathetic POV character. During his screen time, Nura emerges as a rather rash braggart, who seems to have little concern for the consequences of his actions. Although he is supposedly in hard fiscal straights, he has a new wife and a new fixer-upper house, which does not look like such a bad situation.

In contrast, radio talk show host and anti-piracy advocate Abdifatah Omar Gedi cuts a more interesting (and more heroic) figure. During his on-camera sequences, Gedi’s cell phone never stops ringing, constantly receiving calls from strangers trying to determine his location. Frankly, viewers will quickly conclude Pallotta and Wilting choose the wrong person to build their film around.

At least, Nura’s hijacking exploits lend themselves to the animated bird of prey interludes that incorporate Hisko Hulsing’s striking paintings. Their symbolically charged look and feel recalls the vibe of Damian Nenow’s short Paths of Hate and select moments of the original Heavy Metal. They are effective, whereas many of the straight forward doc segments are often a bit sluggish—snoozy even.

Last Hijack makes some legitimate points here and there, but like Captain Phillips, it never pursues the shadowy moneymen underwriting the hijackings. As a result, the attempts to build empathy for Nura fall flat. Drastically uneven, it offers tantalizing hints of a better, deeper film that might have resulted from different decisions at several critical junctures. Perhaps audiences will get more of what might have been at Pallotta & Wilting’s presentation of the film’s online component. Regardless, Last Hijack is largely disappointing when it screens tonight (9/28) at the Gilman Theater as a Convergence selection of this year’s NYFF, in advance of its New York opening this Friday (10/3) at the Quad Cinema.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

NYFF ’14: The Blue Room

In a provincial town, there is no such thing as a no-tell motel. Nevertheless, Julien Gahyde thought he was being discrete in his regular meetings with the village pharmacy owner’s wife in the titular chambre bleue. Inconveniently, he learns their affair was largely common knowledge when he becomes ensnared in a murder inquiry. Just who was killed by whom will be slowly revealed in Mathieu Amalric’s adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel The Blue Room (trailer here), which screens during the 52nd New York Film Festival.

After a long absence, Gahyde returned to his home town, making good as a John Deere sales rep. It probably was not just lust that drove him into an affair with the sensual Esther Despierre. She also happens to be married to an old classmate, whose wealth and privilege Gahyde always resented. Regardless, her talk about a more permanent arrangement does not sit well with Gahyde, so he uses a near miss with her husband as a pretext for a cooling off period. However, her reckless letters portend bad things. Before long, Gahyde is in prison, fielding questions from the investigating magistrate, but the film’s fractured temporal-hopping narrative structure jealously guards its secrets.

One thing is certain: Gahyde is in a mess of legal trouble. Even if he is technically not guilty, he still bears considerable responsibility for the state of affairs. Amalric and editor François Gédigier keep audiences on their toes with their frequent cuts, often emphasizing oddly elliptical perspectives. There is more than a hint of the old school Nouvelle Vague in their almost Pointillistic approach. (Coincidentally, one of Picasso’s best known Blue Period paintings was also called The Blue Room and it fits the spirit of Amalric’s picture rather well.) Yet, what most distinguishes the film is the degree to which Amalric captures the vibe and essence of Simenon’s non-Maigret hothouse psychological thrillers.

Director-co-screenwriter Amalric also gives himself an important assist, portraying the thoroughly compromised and increasingly confused Gahyde. There is something Kafka-esque about the weasely philanderer that inspires rapt fascination. Frankly, both Madame Gahyde and Despierre are rendered somewhat simplistically, as the standard issue wronged wife and Fatal Attraction mistress, respectively. However, in what might appear to be a disposable role, Serge Bozon (another actor turned director), adds a hard to quantify dimension, hinting there is much more churning beneath his magistrate’s poker face façade.

Amalric nicely distinguishes himself as a triple threat with Blue Room. Brainy and rather steamy at times, The Blue Room belongs in the top rank of Simenon adaptations, in the company of films from the likes of Chabrol, Leconte, and Duvivier. Recommended for fans of mature literary thrillers, The Blue Room screens this Monday (9/29) at Alice Tully Hall and Tuesday (9/30) at the Beale, as part of this year’s NYFF, in advance of its opening at the IFC Center this Friday (10/3).

SDFF ’14: Touching the Sound—the Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii

Blind since birth, Japanese classical pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii’s admirers even included the late great Van Cliburn, who heard the young musician during the international competition that bears his name. It is therefore probably safe to conclude Tsujii acquitted himself quite well in Fort Worth. Viewers will follow his progress round-by-round and even more importantly watch Tsujii give back to the survivors of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Peter Rosen’s Touching the Sound: the Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii (trailer here), which screens today during the 2014 San Diego Film Festival.

We often hear how other senses compensate for lack of sight among the blind. In Tsujii’s case, he developed a Mozart-level musical talent, at an astonishingly young age. It is not just his ear and his mechanics that impress, but also his remarkable memory for long passages of music. Clearly, he was born to play the piano—a fact his supportive mother quickly recognized.

Indeed, Tsujii’s mother is a central and edifying figure in his story. However, it is worth noting the extent to which his fellow students also accepted Tsujii, despite his differences. In fact, Rosen shrewdly recognizes one of the pivotal stories of his early career revolves around his mother’s decision to allow him to attend a class camping trip, rather than force him to practice slavishly for an important competition.

Not surprisingly, Rosen’s nicely constructed and surprisingly intimate documentary has absolutely nothing bad to say about Tsujii. At only twenty-four, he has not had much time to do anything scandalous, especially while living the life of an international prodigy. Perhaps the film’s greatest drama involves the Chopin and Cliburn competitions, but the most emotionally resonant sequences capture his special concerts for tsunami survivors. The healing and rebuilding are far from complete, yet in films like Touching we get a sense of the dignity and resiliency of the Japanese people. Nations that have endured far less have demanded far more, considerably less graciously.

Of course, Rosen also documents the fact Tsujii sure can play. Altogether, he is quite a nice young chap, who is particularly gifted expressing the lyrical beauty of his instrument. Definitely worth spending time with, Touching the Sound screens this today (9/27) as part of this year’s San Diego Film Festival.

NYFF ’14: Gone Girl

Nick Dunne looks the part of a Scott Peterson surrogate, but he is probably not guilty of murdering his wife, Amy. Probably. Nonetheless, nobody would call him innocent. Frankly, that is true of everyone involved in this sordid affair, but that does not stop the wolf-pack media from anointing victims and villains in David Fincher’s Gone Girl (trailer here), the opening night film of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

It does not take very long to find the cracks and strains in the Dunnes’ marriage. A great deal of it involves money. Since both were laid off, they have had to rely on her much depleted trust fund. There are other issues as well, which will be revealed over time, but with varying degrees of credibility. Regardless, it is perfectly logical for the police to initially suspect Dunne when his wife disappears under mysterious circumstances. When they discover large pools of her blood have been freshly scrubbed from the Dunnes’ kitchen floor, the noose tightens. However, a number of game-changing shoes will drop in the second and third acts.

Adapting her own novel, first-time screenwriter Gillian Flynn is unusually adept at maintaining the unreliable narration and related narrative devices that are often sacrificed in page to screen transfers. Still, some things are crystal clear, such as her withering contempt for the baying media hounds. Missi Pyle plays a character named Ellen Abbott, but she might as well wear a name tag that says: “hello, my name is Nancy Grace.” It is not a flattering portrayal.

However, the depiction of marriage is just as jaundiced. While it might sound like some sort of “the stranger I married” Lifetime movie (a genre unto themselves that drew a snarky comment or two at the NYFF presser), the film really hinges on just how well the Dunnes know each other.

Rosamund Pike was very good in Barney’s Version and unjustly overlooked in Jack Reacher, but she takes her craft to a new level as Amy Dunne. For reasons that would be spoilery to explain, it is a physically and emotionally rigorous performance that brings to mind Bette Davis at her most noir (and that it not suggested lightly). Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) is nearly as a great a surprise, killing it as Dunne’s lawyer, Tanner Bolt (cool name). He deliberately refrains from channeling well known celebrity attorneys, but he projects the intelligence and charisma you would dearly want in a defense attorney.

Poor Ben Affleck took some Batman ribbing in stride at the press conference, but he is solidly good to very good as the highly flawed Nick Dunne. Neil Patrick Harris also has his moments as Desi Collings, Amy’s well heeled, but decidedly squirrely ex-boyfriend and possibly stalker. Nevertheless, it is hard for those who share the screen with Pike’s Dunne to get out of her dominating shadow.

Gone Girl is definitely a rebound film for Fincher after the completely unnecessary and largely uninspired Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, but it still does not have the distinctive auteurist stamp of films like Fight Club and Se7en. Arguably, this is more of a writer and actor’s vehicle. Even though she does not exactly mirror the structure of her source novel, Flynn’s screenplay is still cleverly constructed, even though she allows the endgame to drag out a bit, rubbing our noses in the story’s implications.

Unfortunately, the film is probably too dark, too thrillerish, and far too morally ambiguous to garner much Oscar love, with the notable exception of Pike, who deserves to be in contention for best actress. For the rest of us civilians, it is quite a good suspenser. Recommended for fans of mainstream film noir, Gone Girl kicked off this year’s NYFF last night at Alice Tully Hall, in advance of its October 3rd opening.

Friday, September 26, 2014

NYFF ’14: Hill of Freedom

Why would a visitor from Japan spend so much time in Korean at a Japanese coffee shop? He is a Hong Sang-soo character, which explains a lot. As it happens, he is not in Korea to see the sights. He has come to woe back an ex-girlfriend. Unfortunately, she was not waiting to be wooed in Hong’s Hill of Freedom (trailer here), one of the Main Slate selections of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Two years after Kwon dumped him, Mori has returned to Korea on spec, hoping to win back his former language school colleague. Finding her out of town left him at loose ends. Despite his intentions, Mori kind of-sort of gets involved with the characters at his Bukchon guest house and the Hill of Freedom coffee shop across the street from Kwon’s apartment. He even has a halting romance with Young-sun, the coffee shop manager. He will explain to Kwon just how he spent his time in Seoul in a series of letters he leaves for her at their old school. However, after dropping the untidy bundle, Kwon will read and the audience will see Mori’s story out of sequence.

Although it is an unusually concise sixty-seven minutes, Hill could still be considered a perfectly representative Hong Sang-soo film. The Korean festival favorite instills the proceedings with a bittersweet vibe, but it is more neurotic than sentimental. It is all about connections made and broken, told with a gentle narrative gamesmanship to keep us on our toes.

Ironically, South Korean most likely could not have submitted Hill as their foreign language Oscar submission, because nearly all the film is English, or rather the stiff, formal version of English that serves as an awkward lingua franca for the Japanese and Korean characters. That would presumably present some acting challenges, yet it seems to play to the strengths of sad-eyed, American-reared Japanese movie-star, Ryô Kase. He measures his words and plugs away in understated fashion, as a good Hong protagonist should.

It is a strong supporting cast all around, particularly including Moon So-ri’s remarkably open and vulnerable Young-sun. Korean cinema’s grand dame and Hong regular Youn Yuh-jung also adds some salty vinegar as the tart-tongued landlady. There are also the brief but memorable supporting turns from various visitors to the guest-house that seem to practically fall out of the sky.

If you like Hong Sang-soo movies, this is a very good one. It certainly captures the zone of futility, where romantic frustration leads to exhaustion, ennui, and confusion. Characteristically sly, Hill of Freedom is recommended for those who appreciate Hong’s intellectually advanced relationship chamber dramedies when it screens this coming Tuesday (9/30) at the Walter Reade and Wednesday (10/8) at the Gillman, as part of this year’s NYFF Main Slate.

NYFF ’14: Beloved Sisters

It is a love letter to love letters. Without the benefit of e-mail and cell phones, Friedrich Schiller maintained ardent relationships with both von Lengefeld sisters, often communicating through neatly folded missives. Of course it was a secret, but only from society and not the siblings themselves. Naturally, there were complications, developing and intensifying over the course of years in Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters (trailer here), which screens in its one hundred seventy minute entirety as a Main Slate selection of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

The von Lengefeld’s are technically aristocrats, but they hardly have a Mark to their names—hence Caroline’s marriage to the wealthy but boorish von Beulwitz. It is an unhappy union, but it provides the necessary support for Lengefeld’s younger sister Charlotte and their overbearing mother. Reluctantly resigned to her fate, Caroline tries to spend as much time as she can with her sister, who has been entrusted to her socially connected godmother, in hopes she can arrange a suitable match for “Lollo.”

As a commoner known to advocate a radical Enlightenment philosophy, Schiller would hardly qualify. Nonetheless, when the younger von Lengefeld sister spies him from her window, he makes quite the roguish impression. When Caroline subsequently meets him during a holiday, she is also quite taken. It eventually leads to an understanding of sorts to share Schiller as best they can. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially for a married woman like Caroline von Beulwitz. Eventually marital statuses will change, but the two sisters’ respective relationships with Schiller, Lolllo’s future husband, will necessarily remain unequal. This consequently leads to almost three hours worth of drama.

Yes, Beloved essentially revolves around a sort of ménage a trois situation, but Graf emphasizes the literary and philosophical tenor of the times more than the potential luridness of his subject matter. In fact, the film is relatively chaste all things considered, but there is still plenty of passion and jealousy. Yet, bigger issues loom over their private scandals, especially the French Revolution, which initially thrills and then horrifies Schiller and his intellectual circle.

Like the three-hour historical epics of old, Beloved is a big, chewy melodrama, filled with simmering yearning and cold sweats. Supposedly inspired by Schiller only letter to Caroline she did not manage to destroy before her death, Graf’s screenplay relies on considerable speculation, but the earnestness of the central trio gives it all the ring of truth.

While Caroline might have the short end of the ménage, Hannah Herzsprung gets the juiciest scenes as the divorcee turned romance novelist, making the most of them. It is a wonderfully complex and tragic character. However, Lollo is no shrinking violet either, nicely played by Henriette Confurius, who convincingly segues from her youthful coquetry to her more mature resolve. If anyone is underwritten here, it is Schiller, but Florian Stetter portrays him with enough charismatic likability to suspend disbelief and generally hold the proceedings together.

In a sense, Beloved is like a sequel to Philipp Stölzl’s Goethe in Love (whose protagonist Graf references but never shows), but it calls and raises its predecessor in nearly every category (especially running time, but it never feels that long). It is a smart, literate, emotionally involving film that could honestly be considered old fashion, in a good way. Recommended for patrons who enjoy quality period pictures, Beloved Sisters screens this coming Tuesday (9/30) at the Walter Reade and Wednesday (10/1) at the Gilman as a Main Slate selection of this year’s NYFF.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

SDFF ’14: A Love Story, Lindenfeld

There are not a lot of Deutsch speaking ethnic Germans left in Romania. The Communists saw to that. Ulli Winkler was fortunate to escape when he could. Decades later, he will return to the ghost town here he once lived, searching for the love of his life in Radu Gabrea’s A Love Story, Lindenfeld (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 San Diego Film Festival.

Germany was good to Winkler, or “the Chairman” as most of his employees know him. He even adopted a son, but he never married. The memory of his intended Helga Kerber simply remained too strong. When the Soviets came to ethnically cleanse Romania’s Banat region, they swept up Kerber in their net, but they missed Winkler through a twist of fate. However, a 2005 television report on the presumably abandoned town of Lindenfeld spurs a flood of memories. Through serendipity, Winkler soon receives reports his beloved Kerber is still alive. With his health and faculties slowly but steadily declining, Winkler instructs his loyal servant-protector Boris take him back to Lindenfeld (a relatively manageable drive in today’s borderless Europe).

Lindenfeld is an unabashedly and achingly old fashioned film, it the best way possible. There is no unfinished business like first love—and Gabrea takes care of business quite well. The constant strains of Pachelbel’s Canon are admittedly a bit of a cliché, but the recordings featured on the soundtrack are unusually lush and pretty. Even if the audience resists, it does what it is supposed to do.

Victor Rebengiuc and Victoria Cociaş play the senior Winkler and Kerber with wonderfully wise maturity. There are no theatrics, thank you very much, but their ardor feels very real. Yet, the subtlest work might come from Alexandru Georgescu as the poker-faced but stout hearted Boris, with the sort of performance that stealthily sneaks up on viewers.

Based on a popular Romanian novel, Lindenfeld dramatizes one of the first tragic manifestations of the Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe and its lingering repercussions. It is a perfect story for Gabrea, who really ought to be more widely celebrated on the international festival circuit. However, his choice of subject matter, such as the National Socialist occupation, the Communist experience, and Yiddish culture (see films like Gruber’s Journey, Red Gloves, and Goldfaden’s Legacy) are apt to make European cultural arbiters rather uncomfortable. Throughout Lindenfeld he helms with a delicate touch and a forgiving allowance of human fallibility. Highly recommended, A Love Story, Lindenfeld screens this Saturday (9/27) as part of this year’s San Diego Film Festival.

SDFF ’14: Miriam (short)

She is not one of those sugar-and-spice girls. In fact, she is a rather pushy kid. She might even be more than that, but it is hard to tell for sure during the course of Esther Hegarty’s short film adaption of Truman Capote’s story Miriam (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 San Diego Film Festival.

Miriam Miller is rather taken aback when a precocious young girl approaches her in a cinema. It seems the deceptively innocent lass claimed the widowed Miller as adult companion to gain entry to the film. They also happen to be namesakes—a fact that little interests the younger Miriam. The elderly woman probably would have forgotten the encounter had the girl not turned up at her flat later that evening. Miller is justifiably put off by Miriam’s unexpected presence, but she is alarmingly difficult to keep out and even harder to eject.

Representing Capote’s gothic impulses (transplanted to the UK), Miriam will comes as a bit of a surprise to fans of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (although the novel is considerably darker than the film), but it is not exactly In Cold Blood either. In fact, Hegarty’s screen treatment is particularly effective, because it keeps viewers uncertain whether they are watching an outright horror film or simply a rather dark drama of human frailty.

Karen Lewis (daughter-in-law of the late great Richard Attenborough) is terrific as the increasingly panicked Mrs. Miller, vividly conveying her effort to maintain her proper British composure. Young Annabel Parsons is certainly creepy as her unwelcome guest. In his final screen appearance, Harry Potter alumnus Roger Lloyd Pack is also quite ominous, in a distinguished kind of way, as the mysterious old man.

At about half the length of a Twilight Zone episode, Miriam nicely demonstrates the virtues of ambiguity and Hegarty’s command of mood and atmosphere. It would be a great candidate for one of Shorts Interntional’s theatrical packages. Recommended for fans of short films, Truman Capote, and sinister cinema broadly defined, Miriam screens this Saturday (9/27) and Sunday (9/28) as part of The Twist shorts programming block at this year’s SDFF.

NYFF ’14: La Sapienza

You do not often see ghost stories that double as tutorials on Baroque Italian architecture, but Eugène Green is no ordinary filmmaker. Often he reminds us spirits need a space to abide, so what could be more appropriate than the chapels designed by Baroque master builder Francesco Borromini? A contemporary architect will explain the history to us as he learns his own lessons in Green’s La Sapienza, which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

The story is deceptively simple. In hopes of repairing their ruptured marriage, Aliénor Schmidt accompanies her husband Alexandre on a trip through Italy and the Italian speaking regions of Switzerland, as he pretends to research the book on Borromini he always meant to write. However, their plans are upending at Lake Maggiore, where they encounter the fainting Lavinia and her protective brother Goffredo, a prospective architect student. Taking a shine to chronically ill Lavinia, Aliénor stays on to offer her support and friendship during her latest recuperation, sending Goffredo in her place with Alexandre. Initially, Schmidt is not particularly enthusiastic about the arrangement, but he too is soon won over by Goffredo’s earnestness.

If you are expecting teary sentimentality, guess again. As a leading Baroque dramatic revivalist, Green has a distinctive aesthetic that is guaranteed to be divisive at NYFF. There will be no conventional theatrics to dilute the film’s central ideas. At times, Sapienza has the feel of Baroque drama informed by post-modernism when characters essentially recite their dialogue standing side-by-side.

Yet, Green would argue his dramatic austerity is actually a much closer approximation of nature. Indeed, as the lead actors in the plays of our lives, our delivery is often rather flat and uninspired, even though it might take on greater significance later. After all, when couples argue, how often are they really engaging in dialogue or merely taking turns speaking?

Ironically, despite Green’s stylistic severity, he offers significant distractions in the absolutely gorgeous visuals (gloriously lensed by cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne) and the accompanying baroque soundtrack. This film is such an exquisite feast for the eyes and ears, anyone ought to be able to bask in its surface beauty. Still, there is considerably more going on beneath the surface.

There are ghosts of a sort in the film, but tellingly, the terms spirit and light are used interchangeably. Arguably, all four major characters are haunted to some extent. Mr. Schmidt is saddled with guilt and shame for emotionally undermining his late partner (somewhat mirroring Borromini’s relationship with his rival, Bernini), while Ms. Schmidt still mourns their ill-fated baby. In contrast, their youthful friends are tormented by ghosts that do not exist yet: the fear that the sister will eventually succumb to her persistent ailments in his absence and the concern that the brother will sacrifice his promise out of sibling loyalty.

Green’s principles faithfully execute his vision, giving utterly egoless performances. Nevertheless, as Lavinia, Arianna Nastro’s eerily incandescent presence shines through unabated. Green himself also throws a heavy sinking curve ball as an Aramaic-speaking Chaldean holy fool in what is just slightly too substantial to be deemed a cameo.

La Sapienza is a rapturously lush film, with genuine spiritual heft, but it never spoon-feeds viewers. As a filmmaker, Green demands the audience meet him more than halfway, which asks quite a bit. However, there is definitely a there there to engage with. Like an especially potent after dinner liqueur, you would not want a steady diet of Green’s films, but it is nice to have one every four years or so. Highly recommended for architecture nerds and fans of challengingly literate cinema, La Sapienza screens this Saturday (9/27) at Alice Tully Hall and Sunday (9/28) at the Beale as part of this year’s NYFF.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tazza: The Hidden Card—a New Generation of Rounders

Just like the old Kenny Rogers song, Kim Go-ni knew when to walk away. He went out on top, retiring from the gambler’s life after winning a large pot. However, he had a nephew. Unfortunately, Ham Dae-gil inherits one of his uncle’s old enemies along with his luck and dexterity in Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Tazza: the Hidden Card (a.k.a. Tazza 2, trailer here), which opens this Friday in the Tri-State area.

Ham might be comfortable with a deck of cards, but he still has much to learn about human nature. He tasted a bit of success playing for gambling den proprietor Kko-jang, until he is taken by his own mark, the rather merry widow Woo. With his boss flat-busted, Ham tries to raise some cash in loan-shark Jang Dong-sik’s private game, but once again he is set up. This time, it is his hometown crush Heo Mi-na who plays him. Deeply in debt to Jang (and suddenly short one kidney), Ham manages to escape his clutches thanks to Heo’s intervention, but it will cost her dearly.

Regrouping in the exurbs, Ham convinces his uncle’s former mentor to take him under his wing. Returning character Ko Kwang-ryeol knows all the high-rollers, but he prefers to keep a low profile, eking out a modest living in low stakes games. Of course, lying low will not be much of an option, given Ham’s unfinished business with Jang and Heo. Eventually, his path will also cross that of Aw-kwi, a mysterious gambler of almost mythic ferocity, who holds a grudge against Uncle Go-ni.

With not one but two femme fatales and shadowy nemeses in the mix, Taz 2 has no shortage of double-crosses and shifting alliances. There is a lot of picaresque bluffing and cheating, but it is considerably darker than The Sting or even Rounders. It is tough to be a woman in this film, even (or especially) for Woo, the jaded seductress. Frankly, some of the scenes in question kill the buzz of the caperish conning and backstabbing.

Although he made quite a credible action lead as the North Korean high school sleeper assassin in Commitment, rapper T.O.P. seems far too light weight for a cat like Ham. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a first rate supporting cast, who chew up all the scenery he disdains to touch. Yu Hae-jin is a particularly nice surprise as Ko, Ham’s Obiwon. While he has played his share broadly shticky characters before (see The Pirates as an example), he balances humor with a good deal of world weary wisdom, while crafty veteran Lee Kyoung-young adds some class as Kko-jang.

Yet, Taz 2 is really all about its villains. Former Miss Korea (Honey) Lee Ha-nui is appropriately sultry and disconcertingly dangerous as Woo, even when her character’s decisions defy all sense. Yet, the real battle is between Kwak Do-won’s Jang and Kim Yun-seok’s Aw-kwi to see which can outdo the other’s stone cold malevolence.

Despite callbacks to the original Korean box-office smash, Taz 2 is easily accessible for audiences walking in cold. Kang keeps it moving along briskly, nimbly juggling the large cast of characters. It is fully stocked with appealingly devious twists and turns, but at times it is a little too gritty for its own good. Recommended for fans of gambler and grifter movies, Tazza: the Hidden Card opens this Friday (9/26) at the AMC Bay Terrace in Flushing and the Edgewater Multiplex in New Jersey.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Little Bedroom: Nurse-Patient Commiseration

Crusty old Edmond Berthoud is reaching the point when his natural cantankerousness can no longer compensate for his failing body. Nevertheless, he wages a cold war against his grown son and the Swiss visiting nurse service, but reaches an unexpected détente with his newest care-giver. Perhaps because she has plenty of her own issues, the nurse and her charge develop genuine empathy for each other in Stéphanie Chuat & Véronique Reymond’s The Little Bedroom (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Berthoud hardly knows his grown son Jacques’ American fiancée and likes her even less. He is not exactly devastated by Jacques’ impending move to Chicago, but all the resulting fussing about becomes a considerable annoyance. As usual, he tries to take it out on his new nurse, Rose, but she has more gumption than her predecessors.

On paper, Berthoud would appear to be a terrible assignment for Rose’s return to work, following the still birth of her baby. She is still not over it, as her husband Marc can tell only too plainly. Eventually, the frustrated Marc will temporarily move out and the recently hospitalized Berthoud will move in, in defiance of patient protocol and without the knowledge or consent of his son. However, his decision to sleep in the eerily preserved children’s room rather throws the still grieving healthcare professional for a loop.

Bedroom is a very nice little movie that never gets excessively saccharine or simplistically pat. Chuat & Reymond’s screenplay shows a sensitive understanding of life’s messiness, but it can be a bit pedestrian at times.

Regardless, veteran French screen actor Michel Bouquet puts on a clinic as Berthoud. Flinty yet vulnerable beneath all the gruffness, he subverts all expectations of cutesy senior citizens borne out of films like Marigold Hotel. He doesn’t do quirky, but he develops some realistic chemistry with Florence Loiret Caille’s Rose. Their relationship might be short-lived, but it feels lived-in. Loiret Caille also goes all in as the faithful nurse, looking like the personification of a migraine.

Bedroom is a small film that treads down a rather well worn path, but (metaphor alert) it does so quite sure-footedly. It is not essential, but fans of French language cinema will appreciate the finely wrought work of Bouquet (Pierre-Auguste Renoir in Bourdos’s Renoir and Scrooge in a mid 1980s French television Christmas Carol, among scores of other screen credits). Respectfully recommended, The Little Bedroom opens this Friday (9/26) in New York at the Cinema Village.