Cinespect Presents: Impressions of the 49th New York Film Festival, Pt. 1
Published on September 30th, 2011 | by The Staff1
For the 2011 edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival, Cinespect once again has made its way through a line-up that includes the buzzworthy (“Carnage,” “Melancholia”) and entries that you may be hearing of for the first time. To help you, the New York festival-goer, on what to expect from this year’s line-up we provide choice reviews for you to better gauge what to expect overall from this year’s festival. Included next to each capsule review are screening dates for each film. Enjoy the guide and the festival. And expect Part 2 to follow very soon.
“Carnage” – (Roman Polanski; France/Germany/Poland) – Review by Charles H. Meyer
In his new film “Carnage,” set almost entirely within the confines of a New York City apartment, Roman Polanski, ever the master of staging tense dramas in tight spaces, tacitly repeats the cynical Sartrean adage implied by his boat-bound first feature, “Knife in the Water” (1962): “Hell is other people.” Reinforcing the film’s atmosphere of confinement, Polanski employs his signature framing device of beginning and ending with a shot of the same location, a device he has used so consistently—almost without exception—that it amounts to a formal expression of the Polanskian worldview: “We are trapped. There is no exit.”
Indeed, “Carnage,” an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s brilliantly bitter, darkly funny play “God of Carnage,” strikes me as a worthy contender for the title of “feel-bad comedy of the fall.” The film opens with a scene of adolescent boys playing in the distant middleground of a long shot of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Nothing much seems to be happening until we see one of the boys, isolated from the rest, lift up a broken-off tree branch and whack one of the other boys in the face with it. But the scene transpires at such a great distance from us, we are at such a cool remove from the action, that we hear none of the boys’ dialogue and are unable to discern the exact circumstances of the conflict. The effect is to render us as uncertain as the two implicated boys’ parents, all absent from the scene, as to how to handle the event. The parents, whom we meet at the injured boy’s home, a home they find themselves continually incapable of leaving due to their tragicomically absurd inability to come to terms with the incident in the park, are played with consummate skill by Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, the kind of dream team of a cast that only a filmmaking legend like Polanski can pull together. As the two couples relentlessly duke it out over their boys’ playground scuffle, we are treated to a ceaseless pinball game of negotiations and emotional exchanges that over the course of the film go from stiffly polite to passive-aggressive to aggressive to rather vicious, all of these interpersonal drunken chess moves delivered in virtuoso performances by four awesomely talented actors. Reza, Polanski, Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz remind us that world-class filmmaking’s most valuable assets are a great script, great directing and great acting. “Carnage” is not to be missed.
Screenings: Friday, September 30, 6:30 pm, 7:00 pm, 9:00 pm, 9:30 pm.
“A Separation” – (Asghar Farhadi; Iran) – Review by Carlos J. Segura
Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” winner of several prizes at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is a most infuriating and frustrating moviegoing experience, though, not for lack of skill by Farhadi. Farhadi’s last film, “About Elly,” which remains, sadly, undistributed in America, oversaw how the disappearance of a young woman leads a group of friends to lose hold of unspoken tensions while their friend remains missing. “A Separation”‘s inciting incident is the miscarriage of a pious, lower-class and frail woman, Razieh, who’s been entrusted with caring for the senile father of a middle-class man, Naader, whose wife has just left the home because he won’t go through with their family’s planned emigration so that he may care for his father. Razieh, suspected of having stolen money from the home, while leaving the senile old man alone briefly and nearly causing his death, is thrown out in anger by Naader. Soon after it’s learned Razieh miscarried, allegedly due to his throwing her out of his home so forcefully, though, the mechanics of the fall and lack of one consistent witness make Naader’s guilt difficult to verify. Nevertheless, Razieh’s dejected, unemployed, and very angry and equally (or so it seems at first) pious husband, Hodjat, is convinced of Naader’s guilt and what ensues is a civil and personal he-said, she-said, he-did, she-did.
The movie isn’t so much after answers (one example being that the real money thief is never found) but after the nagging feeling of doubt when no one person can verify how it all happened (in this regard it very much reminded me of “Doubt”). We intuit from behavior and glean from little clues, and not so little ones, that no one is being entirely honest, not even the religious couple, and yet the motivations behind half-truths or outright lies can’t always be called outright malicious. There is certainly no one person to root for; if anything everyone is infuriating to one degree or another and the justice system is no less so (their theocratic stance on the miscarriage as murder should lead to some interesting discussions between audiences). Troubling, ambiguous and full of heated exchanges (they certainly do yell a lot here), Farhadi’s film, while not always likable, much like the characters, is genuinely provocative.
Screenings: Saturday, October 1, 6:00 pm; Sunday, October 2, 1:00 pm.
“Melancholia” – (Lars von Trier; Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany/Italy) – Review by Halim Cillov
Misanthrope extraordinaire Lars von Trier returns to the silver screen with another gloomy masterpiece. In this epic drama, he explicitly portrays the destruction of the physical and the emotional life on earth as two interconnected stories. Keeping with his tradition, we’re given another ethereal and disturbed woman, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), as the main protagonist. The movie starts at Justine’s wedding night from hell, where her and everyone else’s self-absorbed behaviors expose the grotesque nature of humanity; all the meanwhile, a newly discovered planet, Melancholia, is on its way to crush Earth. Mixing Dogme 95-style camerawork with über-stylized imagery, this is a provocative modern fable about the most lethal force of nature in the galaxy: selfishness. Even though Lars Von Trier is the target of a lot of negative publicity as of late due to his obnoxious comments regarding Nazis at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this gem steamrolls the bad chatter and concretely secures him as one our finest artists of cinema working today.
Screenings: Monday, October 3, 6:30 pm; Thursday, October 6, 9:00 pm.
“4:44 Last Day on Earth” – (Abel Ferrara; U.S.A.) – Review by Halim Cillov
The last day on earth is shown from the perspective of an artsy urban couple (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh), as they wait for the inevitable end, make love, argue and aim to reconnect with people from their past through various Skype calls. Almost the entire movie takes place at the couple’s loft, creating an intimate and claustrophobic set-up. However, the flat acting and a rushed script dripping with clichéd dialogue make it impossible for the viewer to fully invest in the movie. Director Abel Ferrara fails miserably to supply engaging script details and a convincing mise-en-scène that is highly necessary to set a believable, apocalyptic tone. The city life at the end of days is depicted like it’s a dull Monday night; worse, the characters act bored and totally disinterested at their impending doom. It is a wonder how one can make a movie that so deeply lacks pathos about a topic as energizing as the end of the world.
Screenings: Wednesday, October 5, 6:00 pm; Saturday, October 8, 9:30 pm.
“The Turin Horse” – (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky; Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/U.S.A.) – Review by Halim Cillov
Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s new film is a grim, hyper-slow, neorealist contemplation on the banality of existence. Set on an isolated farm, the movie chronicles the six days in the life of a grouchy farmer and his drudge/daughter. The duo is stuck in the farm for days due to a vicious storm outside and their horse that has stopped eating and drinking. Everyday is the same day; spent in silence and filled with monotonous tasks. With hardly any dialogue, Nykvist-esque camerawork and a minimalist music score this is a bold cinematic experiment that aims to portray existential meaninglessness. It is unfortunate that the end result is a dreary, repetitive and soulless film experience revolving around unresponsive characters.
Screenings: Sunday, October 9, 2:30 pm.
“The Loneliest Planet” – (Julia Loktev; U.S.A./Germany) – Review by L. Caldoran
In “The Loneliest Planet,” Nica (Hani Furstenberg), a sprightly, gap-toothed redhead, and her Latin American fiancé, Alex (Gael García Bernal), are enjoying an extended backpacking jaunt through Eastern Europe: one striking early shot sees the two eating kebabs against a relief sculpture while the Caucasus mountains loom in the background. Soon the two decide to go for a leisurely mountain hike, alone except for a yarn-spinning tour guide.
The couple’s naturalistic playfulness caves after a brief misunderstanding with a gun-toting local that leaves both of them deeply shaken—especially Nica, who silently questions Alex’s masculinity. (Their guide, a war veteran, brushes it off easily enough.) As a result, their fun little mountain outing becomes plodding and tension-filled, expressed in subtle gestures and actions: one wonders whether the relationship will ever fully heal itself.
While the natural beauty of the Caucasus and the charisma of the two leads goes a long way, the film could still stand to trim a few minutes off its nearly two-hour running time, as its meandering pace is more than enough to set up the quiet, nuanced fracture at its core.
Screenings: Saturday, October 1, 3:00 pm; Tuesday, October 4, 9:00 pm.
“Corpo Celeste” – (Alice Rohrwacher; Italy/Switzerland/France) – Review by L. Caldoran
“Corpo Celeste”’s heroine, 13-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello), grew up in secular Switzerland and has recently moved to a heavily Catholic town in Italy: naturally, she has difficulty adjusting thanks to the resultant culture clash. Though she enjoys a close bond with her overworked single mom, she also endures the constant haranguing of her older sister while at home. Already a quiet, shy girl, she’s often little more than a silent observer in her new community: her inner life is closely guarded, frequently even from the viewer (though one underdeveloped plot thread sees her dealing with the onset of puberty).
Attending catechism class is less a matter of genuine piety on Marta’s part than a prerequisite for fitting in with the neighbors: though she’s constantly told what to believe, no one ever bothers to explain why, and thus preparing for her upcoming Confirmation bears little more importance than studying for a midterm on a subject she isn’t particularly fond of, complete with rote memorization and rosters of long-ago names. It doesn’t help that the local priest seems more concerned with electioneering than addressing his parishioners’ spiritual needs. A frustrated Marta gradually begins acting out, all the way up to an ambiguous conclusion arguing that personal definitions of faith should be discovered for oneself rather than imposed by others.
Screenings: Monday, October 3, 9:30 pm.
“Dreileben” – (Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler; Germany) – Review by L. Caldoran
“Dreileben,” composed of three feature-length films by different directors, will face inevitable comparisons with the “Red Riding” trilogy: both use this format to explore the effects of murder on a local community, though here it’s small-town Bavaria rather than Yorkshire.
In Part 1, the escaped killer who stirs up such panic in town has only a peripheral presence—sirens in the background, police cars blocking rural roads—though the two leads are later revealed to have pivotal connections with him. Here, a handsome medical student strikes up a romance with an Eastern European hotel maid, and the film spends much of its time tracking the many varieties of often-ill-advised actions young people take when infatuated: leapfrogging serial monogamy and whirlwind rebound flings, melodramatic gestures of anger, knee-jerk jealousy, puppy-dog-like stalking, showing up at each others’ workplaces in order to hook up, etc.
Part 2, arguably the strongest of the three, is more nuanced and richly plotted, delving more deeply into the history and community of the region. A police psychologist from out of town, recruited to help local cops search for the fugitive, temporarily lodges with an old college friend and the latter’s husband, a writer of airplane novels. The two women soon discover that they unwittingly dated the same man at the same time several years ago, and their personal lives slowly begin to unravel from there. Aided by a tense score, the film makes minor past romantic intrigue seem as compelling as the trilogy’s urgent hunt for the runaway convict.
Part 3 primarily follows the killer himself as he hides out in the forest, largely evading the law through panicked instinct and dumb luck. Despite his dangerous reputation, he tends to come off as a childlike Frankenstein’s-monster figure: frightened, withdrawn, and suffering from an unspecified mental illness, he steals sandwiches from tourists, laughs with glee when a deer escapes a pair of hunters, and befriends a runaway little girl who assumes the police are after her. He’s so pathetic that he largely becomes sympathetic, at least until some bursts of violence later in the film. This story alternates with a secondary plotline which is more of a conventional police procedural, investigating the killer’s background and the truth behind the murder that landed him in prison.
Screenings: Part One – Saturday, October 1, 1:00 pm; Tuesday, October 4, 3:30 pm.
Part Two – Saturday, October 1, 3:00 pm; Wednesday, October 5, 3:30 pm.
Part Three – Saturday, October 1, 5:00 pm; Thursday, October 6, 3:30 pm.