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Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Monday, October 15, 2007

The 45th New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival serves each year as a preview of many foreign and independent movies that are to be released over the following several months. It can be a mixed bag, but is often very rewarding. This year, in addition to the opening night feature, The Darjeeling Limited (which I reviewed here last week), I saw eleven movies ranging from interesting failures to downright brilliant movies that you won’t want to miss. Here’s a look at what I saw:

Margot at the Wedding

Noah Baumbach still hasn’t found a visual style to give form to his skillful writing and the excellent performances he elicits from actors. This new movie, like his last one, The Squid and the Whale, is visually murky and uninvolving. Both films are about dysfunctional families among New York’s literati, but this script is not as consistently excellent and piercing as was Squid. Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh are marvelous as sisters who hate and love each other just about equally. Kidman has the showier part of a near-psychopath whose deep insecurities lead her to lash out at the people she most cares for. Jack Black is also quite effective as Leigh’s sensitive loser of a fiancé.

Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant’s new movie is the third in a loosely connected “trilogy” of strange and beautiful meditations on youth and anomie and violence, following Elephant and Last Days. Possibly Van Sant has left the mainstream, commercial cinema behind permanently, and both he and his audience may be the better for it. This film shares some of the amazing visual qualities of Elephant and Last Days, and their critical view of American culture and conformism and what this does to misfits. But it is based on a young adult novel and has a much more conventional approach to narrative and characters than the two earlier movies, which turned off many filmgoers with their avant-garde refusal to entertain in any “normal” manner. As he often has in the past, Van Sant gets a remarkable performance from a non-professional actor, in this instance Gabe Nevins, in the lead role of a Portland, Oregon skateboarding high schooler who gets involved in a grisly crime. The photography, the use of music, the overall look and feel are hypnotic, but in a way that evokes the sort of post-modern installation art you might find at the Whitney or the Tate Modern, rather than other movies you would see in a theater. This will come and go quickly. Don’t miss it if you care about cinema as a living, evolving art form. But escapist entertainment it most certainly is not.

Flight of the Red Balloon

This too feels more like a post-modernist art thing rather than a conventional movie. But I found it more baffling and irritating than satisfying. The same could be said for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s widely overpraised last film, Three Times, which I saw at last year’s New York Film Festival. Taking the famous 1956 French short movie for children, The Red Balloon, as a starting point, Hou provides a nearly plotless, mostly inert two-hour film that is likely to drive most audiences to distraction. (It certainly will hold no interest at all for young children.) Hou’s aesthetic is one I don’t share. Yet there are haunting moments, mostly involving the unexplained “behavior” of the vaguely anthropomorphized red balloon of the title. The photography and the Paris settings are lovely. And Juliette Binoche gives an effective performance as a high-strung performer involved in artsy puppet plays. Just don’t expect anything resembling a narrative; the film floats and drifts along, like a big red balloon.

I Just Didn’t Do It

This effective Japanese film concerns a young man falsely accused of groping a teenage girl on a Tokyo subway. We follow him methodically, step by step, through the Japanese police and court systems. The practices and customs of the detectives, the lawyers and the judges seem just odd and exotic enough to American eyes and ears to add an extra fascination to the story. At 143 minutes, it is certainly long, but never tedious, and the length probably adds to the impact of, and our sympathy for, the young man’s plight. The excellent actors add greatly to the moving humanism of this sleeper. This is director Masayuki Suo’s first film since the hit Shall We Dance in 1996.


As I have noted before, the protagonists of French movies are often exasperating and charming at the same time. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, the writer and director of this film, also stars as a decidedly neurotic stage actress involved in a production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. She’s experiencing a midlife crisis, acutely feeling the lack of romance (and children) in her life. The resulting comedy in this well-acted movie often nears slapstick silliness, and our heroine has entirely too many visions of dead people from her past (as well as the fictional character she is playing on stage). But the movie is nonetheless entertaining in a bittersweet way.


Before seeing Redacted, I was working myself up to write an impassioned political opinion piece on Blogcritics defending it against the Bill O’Reillys of the world. Unfortunately, Brian De Palma’s Iraqi war film is a real disappointment. Technically it is mostly impressive and rather innovative, using YouTube-like video clips taken by the (fictional) soldiers themselves, or excerpted from (also fictional) websites. But De Palma’s showy, hyperactive, elaborate camera style has always been his trademark, and he has in effect cut himself off from that sort of technique here. In addition, the pseudo-documentary feel of the film is constantly marred by actors acting – the performers all too rarely seem like real soldiers caught on video; they are professionals reading a script. The subject, drawn from the horrifying headlines about GIs raping a teenage Iraqi girl and then murdering her and her family, is a powerful one, and there are scenes that genuinely chill. But overall, Redacted falls short. And the montage of actual bloody shots of civilian casualties at the end feels exploitative and unearned.

A Girl Cut in Two

A minor effort from the great French master Claude Chabrol. He has made over 50 films, some of them sublime. Rent Le Boucher or La Rupture or La Femme Infidele instead.

The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-65

I didn’t even know this footage existed before the film festival. This wonderful documentary is essential for fans and may be revelatory for everyone who sees it. Bob Dylan was idolized during his three annual performances at the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s. This straightforward collection of performance clips (there are a few brief interview excerpts) is extraordinarily powerful. You hear the protest songs in the traditional folk idiom that made Dylan a cult icon. You hear the hit ballads that made him into a pop star. And finally you see two numbers from the set he played with a rock band that scandalized the Newport festival in 1965, when he was booed after what now seem like utterly brilliant performances of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Both a beautiful time capsule and an ageless collection of brilliant art, this is an indispensable document and you shouldn’t miss it. Its theatrical release is uncertain, but Sony plans to put out a DVD shortly.

In the sidebar to the festival, I saw three wonderful revivals at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s marvelous, intimate Walter Reade Theater:

Underworld (1927) is a silent gangster film/love triangle from master director Josef von Sternberg. It was presented in a glisteningly beautiful new print, with a new accompanying musical score performed live by the sublime Alloy Orchestra, a trio who use percussion and electronics to bring new vivid intensity to every silent film they touch.

Martin Scorsese was on hand to personally introduce screenings of two restored Technicolor gems from 20th Century Fox:

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) is an early color film from John Ford, set during the Revolutionary War. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert star. The action sequences are first rate, the color production is gorgeous, and Edna May Oliver is priceless in a supporting role.

Leave Her to Heaven (1946) is nearly everyone’s favorite florid Hollywood melodrama (at least if you exclude the Douglas Sirk masterpieces from the 1950s that seem to be its first cousins). It’s a truly over-the-top story of a psychopathic beauty (Gene Tierney) and the lives she destroys. The color gives it the quality of a fever dream.

After eleven movies in ten days, I’m happily exhausted! Watch for these films to open during the coming fall and winter season around the country.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

This very entertaining new film from Wes Anderson is a step up from the uneven The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, although it never reaches the heights of the extraordinary The Royal Tenenbaums. The visuals are splendid – not only the breathtaking photography of India, where most of the film is set, but also Anderson’s unique cartoon-geometric composition and editing. It’s a brightly colored delight to watch. And with Anderson’s already justly renowned taste in music, the soundtrack is, not surprisingly, a treat.

Most of the acting too is very fine – particularly Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzmann as two of three tragicomically dysfunctional brothers staging a reunion on the train that gives the film its title. Adrien Brody, the third brother, is sometimes too mannered and self-conscious, an easy trap to fall into when playing Anderson’s heavily whimsical, minimalist material. Wilson and Schwartzmann, as previously initiated members of the Anderson stock company, appear far more at ease, and devise something approaching three-dimensional – and often very funny – characters. Anjelica Huston (as the trio’s mother, now a nun!) and Waris Ahluwalia (as the train’s no-nonsense Chief Steward) are two of the standouts in a great supporting cast.

But even though this movie only runs about 90 minutes, it feels longer, unlike the nearly-two-hour Tenenbaums. I would attribute this to an imbalance of charm, of which there is almost too much, and narrative and emotional resonance, both in rather short supply – despite such inventive bits as a beautifully executed flashback (moving from one funeral to another) that is also a dramatization of the Schwartzmann character’s autobiographical short story.

Imperfect as it is, The Darjeeling Limited is well worth seeing, as is Anderson’s prequel short film, Hotel Chevalier, viewable free on iTunes. Featuring Schwartzmann and Natalie Portman in an extended deadpan, bitterly comic romantic vignette, it was shown before the feature at the New York Film Festival screening, and each of the two films makes the other better, more satisfying.

It’s good to have this gifted young American filmmaker back on the screen, even with something less than a masterpiece. No doubt he’ll give us more of those in seasons to come.