Cinespect Presents: Impressions of the 49th New York Film Festival, Pt. 2
Published on October 14th, 2011 | by The Staff2
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, and those who could not attend this year’s festival yet plan on catching (or in a couple of instances re-watching) films from the festival once released at a theater near them, this is the place to read about what choice, future releases to anticipate and what to expect should you be attending the festival. Included next to each capsule review is the distribution status of each film, plus a release date should a film have one. Enjoy the guide and the rest of the festival.
“My Week With Marilyn” – (Simon Curtis; U.K.) – Review by Ryan Wells
“My Week With Marilyn,” Colin Clark’s memoir on his time spent on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” is reworked and cinematized by director Simon Curtis and a gaggle of British theatrical luminaries (Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale). The story particularly focuses on Clark’s coy and slightly flirty relationship with Marilyn Monroe (the good, but not always quite there, Michelle Williams) as he works as an unofficial intermediary between Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier (Branagh, fine but awkwardly miscast). Sure, it’s pleasant fluff, but given the opportunity to go big or go home (prime examples include work Scorsese has done on several Hollywood occasions with fascinating biographical subjects) the action just doesn’t match the supposed (we’re relying on Clark’s renditions here) excitement on the set with two acting legends who make their detestation for each other quite clear for a wide variety of reasons. And it really tells us nothing new about the misunderstood Monroe. Instead it feels like we’ve been given “Almost Famous” meets “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”
Release Date: November 4, 2011
“The Skin I Live In” – (Pedro Almodóvar; Spain) – Review by Ryan Wells
Pedro Almodóvar’s finest work since “Bad Education” (albeit with minor flaws to its finale), “The Skin I Live In” is a smart, profound study on the perpetual complications of grasping at our identities – what we choose for ourselves vs. what others choose for us. Th story has elements from “Eyes Without a Face,” “Vertigo” and daytime soap opera, which isn’t necessarily outside of the usual Almodóvar milieu. We’re introduced to a famous plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) based in Toledo who has a bizarre, apparently romantic relationship with his patient Vera (Elena Anaya, who plays her role like a prayer). Vera stays in this cage of a room replete with video cameras and locked doors – but she seems content in her solitude it seems through yoga and opium. After a break-in and rape by the maid’s (Marisa Paredes) estranged son, “The Skin I Live In” begins a surreal tango between desperate, sadistic identity obsession by the good doctor towards Vera (who she is, who she was) and Vera’s strange complacency and allegiance to Banderas’s character. Not to mention it’s also metaphorically erotic as hell.
Release Date: October 14, 2011
“A Dangerous Method” – (David Cronenberg; U.K./Canada/Germany) – Review by L. Caldoran
“A Dangerous Method,” a character study of psychoanalytic rivalry in turn-of-the-century Europe, is by far one of the most sedate entries in David Cronenberg’s canon, at least insofar as what we actually see onscreen. Following a lifelong interest in psychology reflected in films such as “Spider,” his latest, a rare foray into costume drama, traces the professional rise of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a placid, authoritative man largely married to his work. His actual wife is a docile heiress who spends much of her time popping out a succession of little Jungs, and the good doctor gradually becomes embroiled in an affair with one of his patients, the passionate, kinky Sabine (Keira Knightley). A twitching, stammering hysteric at the start of the film, her fragile, birdlike features contrast starkly with her discomforting intensity (though Knightley emotes far better physically than verbally here): it seems she’s deeply ashamed of her masochistic sexual tendencies. (A couple of spanking scenes are the most perverse this film gets.)
Jung comes under the mentorship of fellow psychological pioneer Sigmund Freud (a well-camouflaged Viggo Mortensen). Frequently pompous and paternalistic, Freud seems a bit overly fond of his iconic status. Jung criticizes his overemphasis on sex—“Freud’s obsession with sex stems from the fact that he’s not getting any,” quips womanizing coke fiend Dr. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel)—while Freud derides Jung’s burgeoning interest in the likes of synchronicity as backwards mysticism. Though Jung comes off as more sympathetic here, Cronenberg has stated that he prefers Freud due to the latter’s emphasis on the body: unsurprising considering his history of spinal-cord game consoles, torso-gut guns, and gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women.
Release Date: November 23, 2011
“Shame” – (Steve McQueen; U.K.) – Review by L. Caldoran
“Shame,” director Steve McQueen’s follow-up to the powerful “Hunger” (both starring Michael Fassbender), is in some ways a more realistic present-day version of “American Psycho”: both center on a cold, aloof protagonist pursuing a private, destructive obsession within the economically flush world of Manhattan executives. (“Shame”’s tiny pocket of the city seems largely untouched by recession.)
Brandon (Fassbender) appears to have few to no hobbies or interests beyond the erotic, which he pursues with an addict’s fervor: ducking into the office restroom for furtive jack-off sessions after his porn-riddled work computer contracts a virus; seeking out prostitutes for joyless, compulsive quickies; going to bars to seduce random women who mistake his innate detachment for suaveness (much to the jealous dismay of his ineptly-womanizing married boss). A flirtation with a co-worker, perhaps sparked by a desire for a more challenging lay, soon fails when it becomes apparent he can’t be sexually intimate with a woman he has come to regard as a real person.
Brandon’s world is shaken by the abrupt arrival of his flighty-but-troubled younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose presence often adds some humor and sympathy to Brandon’s grim world. She seems to be the only person he genuinely cares about, though—as siblings do—he largely expresses his concern by being pissed-off about her various bad habits (and often rightfully so: can’t a guy masturbate in his own bathroom without his sister barging in?). While in most other films, Sissy would be a ditzy, quirky Manic Pixie Dream Girl meant solely to inspire Brandon to “lighten up” and “enjoy life,” “Shame”’s conclusion is honest in its ambiguity.
Release Date: December 2, 2011
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” – (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky; U.S.A.) – Review by L. Caldoran
The final entry in a documentary trilogy that has quite literally saved a man’s life (and freed two others), “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” concludes the legal saga of the West Memphis 3, a trio of Arkansas teenagers who were convicted of an allegedly-Satanic child murder under questionable circumstances. “Purgatory” revisits footage going back to the original trial in 1993, the passage of time marked from 16mm film with visible scratch marks to crisp contemporary DV-cam. All of the trilogy’s participants for both prosecution and defense have aged visibly over two decades of filming, though none better than death-row inmate and alleged “ringleader” Damien Echols, who appears strikingly trim and youthful. (On a rare happy note, he has found long-term, long-distance love—the kind that “gets its claws into you”—with an architect from New York who became a staunch West Memphis 3 advocate.)
“Purgatory” presents further arguments for the young men’s innocence: e.g., a coerced false confession, jury misconduct, the emergence of a potential new suspect, and evidence reinterpreted by a small horde of known experts. Most importantly, the relatively new technology of DNA testing proves the West Memphis 3 were never at the crime scene—though the sentencing judge is less amenable to receiving this than, say, the original trial’s testimony of Satanic Panic-stoking, mail-order Ph.D. “occult expert” Dale Griffis.
This DNA evidence is finally enough to convince victim’s stepfather/former murder suspect/media-whore extraordinaire John Mark Byers that the WM3 were victims of a scapegoating bandwagon: “Oh, I led the bandwagon!” he admits. Included are clips from “Paradise Lost 2” of Byers returning to the crime scene to burn the graves of the WM3 in effigy. “I’m all for burning ‘em at the stake,” admits another bereaved parent in an archival clip—and we’re reminded that Echols et al. were initially brought up as suspects on the flimsy basis that they “wear black clothing” and “act strange.” (Absurd and alien as this may seem to New Yorkers, this kind of witch-hunt mentality is alive and well in the Bible Belt. As a personal aside, I attended high school in the Midwest and was targeted by the administration during post-Columbine paranoia, largely on the basis of my tastes in fashion, music, and humor: essentially, for “wearing black clothing” and “acting strange.”)
In a fortunate last-minute twist, the WM3 have finally been released after spending half their lives in prison—though through the unusual maneuver of an “Alford plea” that still lists them as technically guilty. Thus, a bittersweet resolution, but one that would not even have been possible if the original “Paradise Lost” had never been made.
Release Date: January, 2012 (TV)
“Vito” – (Jeffrey Schwarz; U.S.A.) – Review by L. Caldoran
“Vito” marks another entry in the growing roster of history-lesson docs which depict the life of a groundbreaking-yet-overlooked figure through a format that still hews to genre conventions. In this case, the subject is GLBT activist, lecturer, TV host, and film historian Vito Russo, best known for his landmark book “The Celluloid Closet” and celebrated here through a typical retinue of talking heads and archival footage. A skinny, balding “little show queen” frequently sporting a Castro ‘stache, Russo’s disarming presence helped make him a bicoastal leader in the struggle for gay rights.
Beginning with his childhood in New York and New Jersey in the ‘50s and ‘60s, “Vito” follows Russo’s twin lifelong passions for cinema and “sin” (“Vito was a slut and he was proud of it!”). Galvanized into political action in the early ‘70s and later spearheading organizations such as GLAAD and ACT UP, Russo cemented his reputation via the Herculean task of assembling the first thorough history of homosexuality on film, beginning with nonthreatening sissy minstrelsy through queer-coded predators and on to then-contemporary open targets of scorn and pity who would inevitably face a violent death in the last reel.
The film itself serves as a brief history of gay men’s social progression, from the raid-ridden pre-Stonewall Manhattan bar scene to the sit-ins and rallies of the gay liberation movement (which could serve as both inspiration and advisory to Occupy Wall Street) to the devastation of the AIDS plague, which ultimately claimed Russo in his mid-forties.
Release Date: To Be Determined
“Play” – (Ruben Östlund; Sweden/France/Denmark) – Review by Halim Cillov
Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s “Play” is a dreary psychological drama chronicling an interracial bullying incident involving a group of adolescent boys. In a mall at Gothenburg, five African immigrant boys trick two younger white boys and their Asian friend into a day of intimidation and psychic torture. Initially, one of the savvy immigrant boys blames the trio for stealing the cell phone of his little brother and forces the downtrodden trio to go to the city to – supposedly – meet his little brother. This short incident quickly snowballs into a whole day-long event, in which the immigrant boys take the young trio hostage and together they visit various locales of the city. Throughout the day, the reluctant and frustrated trio passively follow the immigrant gang around out of fear. As the street-smart African boys play many ingeniously scripted mind games on their unsuspecting victims, we being to wonder what kind of a game is being played in here and, more importantly, what is the objective…
At its core, this is a bleak and disturbing rite of passage into adulthood experienced by three naive boys. Similar to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” on the surface, this is also a film about three victims trying to survive their cold-blooded persecutors. Most of the disturbances in the film come from the intimidating and outlandish aura surrounding the immigrant boys who are portrayed as the film’s main antagonists. While director Östlund knows how to succinctly create tension filled atmosphere, he epically fails at creating relatable and complex characters. Unfortunately, most of the characters that populate the film are one-dimensional stereotypes, which give the film an amateurish and undeniably racist vibe. On one side, we have two happy-go-lucky Aryan boys and their peaceful Asian sidekick; on the opposing corner, we have sinister and sadistic African boys with Muslim names. The characters start the film as nothing more than offensive stereotypes like these and none of them ever develop even a little throughout the film. As if to hit us over the head with grotesque racism, the African characters say idiotic lines like: “Anyone dumb enough to show his cell phone to five black guys deserves whatever he gets.” It is truly heart breaking and insulting to cinema that even in a seemingly very diverse union such as the European Union, there are filmmakers that make films solely to reinforce offensive and hateful stereotypes. This is such a shame because with so much potential “Play” could have been a decent movie. Instead, it ends up being a pseudo–Haneke movie minus the elegant sophistication and based solely on shallow thrills.
Release Date: To Be Determined
“The Kid With a Bike” – (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Belgium/France) – Review by Halim Cillov
Belgian auteurs Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s new masterpiece “The Kid With a Bike,” the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a lyrical character study about a troubled boy and his relentless search for a place to belong. Recently abandoned by his self-absorbed father, eleven-year-old Cyril is on a frantic search to find his bicycle and indirectly his father. On one of his many orphanage break-outs, he meets with Samantha, a maternal hairdresser living alone. Quickly, they form an unexpected bond and soon Samantha agrees to look after Cyril on the weekends. At the beginning, Cyril sees Samantha as nothing more than a means to an end, a place to stay until he can find his father, while in a hyper-selfless way Samantha still keeps on striving for the boy’s love. Unfortunately, Samantha is not the only one interested in Cyril. The neighborhood thug starts showing an unorthodox interest in Cyril after witnessing Cyril viciously beating up another boy to get his beloved bicycle back. Soon, Cyril finds himself on the crossroads between the life of violence that he grew up with and the peaceful life that he unconsciously desires.
Without ever entering into the dreaded sentimentality territory, the Dardenne brothers once again manage to tell a haunting story about the universal need for acceptance, love and family. As the Dardenne brothers poignantly stated in their interviews, essentially, ‘this is a fairy tale about kindness for our cynical modern age.’ Contextually, this is a nostalgic coming-of-age story about the set in stone ideals we are forced to give up on as we grow up, but this is also an uplifting film about how the right surroundings can soften even the hardest of us. Shot in the Dardenne brothers’ naturalistic, quasi-documentary film style, where the actors have a lot of space to breathe, “The Kid With a Bike” also brings forth newcomer Thomas Doret’s matchless acting abilities, as he marks every single frame of the film with unadulterated charisma. Tragic yet life-affirming, realistic yet riveting, cynical yet optimistic, this genuine movie is a solid testimony that no one can expose the fragility and depth of the human soul more delicately and realistically than the Dardenne brothers.
Release Date: 2012
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” – (Sean Durkin; U.S.A.) – Review by Halim Cillov
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a gritty and bold, spine chilling, genre-bending, directorial debut by Sean Durkin about the clash between the communal identity and personal identity. The movie begins with twenty-something Martha’s thrilling escape from a cult-like farming community in upstate New York. From that moment onwards, in two parallel timelines, we see her past life in the cult and her new life with her previously estranged sister, Lucy, and her husband, Ted. Martha’s life at the cult starts out promising and utopic, but things take a violent turn when the charismatic cult leader Patrick starts to order his followers to do some sadistic deeds. As Martha is haunted by these horrific visions from her past, she is also desperately struggling to fit into her sister Lucy’s posh and materialistic lifestyle, which is in direct contrast to her unassuming life at the cult. As the past and the present collide, Martha’s secrets emerge and familiar faces from her dark past start to invade her life. Is she just suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder or is her past really out to get her back?
This is an ambitious, cerebral movie that stylishly oscillates between many different genres, from psychological drama to thriller to a horror film. Every little detail that we see on the screen feels calculated but more importantly it adds something essential to the claustrophobic atmosphere and the philosophical context of the film – one of the signs of an auteur at a director’s chair. The acting, particularly from Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes, who play Martha and the enigmatic cult leader Patrick respectively, is jaw-droppingly fantastic. However, the true strength of the movie is definitely the inventive way its non-linear narrative unfolds as the story constantly jumps back and forth in time. This not only provides us with some of the most artistic scene transitions of recent film history, but the drastic clash between Martha’s cult life and her new bourgeois existence highlights the central theme of the film: individual versus community.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a vivid and all-too-real portrayal of the dehumanizing cult life, where people are interchangeable and treated like cattle. More than that, this is a controversial and profound work of art that asks what are the ingredients of identity and how much of our surroundings contribute to the shaping of our identities. Without an iota of doubt, this edgy film is one of the most outstanding films of this year’s New York Film Festival and newcomer Sean Durkin should definitely be in your list of directors to watch.
Release Date: October 21, 2011
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” – (Alex Stapleton; USA) - Review by Charles H. Meyer
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” (Alex Stapleton, 2011) is one of the best documentaries on exploitation cinema that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many great ones, such as “The American Nightmare” (2000), “Baadasssss Cinema” (2002) and “Not Quite Hollywood” (2008). But what makes Stapleton’s film essential viewing for all film lovers, and not just those of us enamored with the grindhouse variety, is that the 85-year-old Roger Corman, schlockmeister extraordinaire, has not only produced (and in some cases directed) approximately 400 (!) films and counting, he has also helped launch the careers of a staggering number of the most important and/or interesting directors and actors of the past forty years, among them Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Pam Grier, John Sayles, William Shatner, David Carradine, Tommy Lee Jones, Sandra Bullock, James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich and Robert De Niro.
Hats off to the Academy for finally giving a lifetime achievement award, in 2010, to such a kind, jovial, avuncular soul who has enabled and inspired countless cinematic careers and continues to do so at the same alarming rate and within the same tight budgets as always. He’s a kind of American Henri Langlois—if Langlois had been a hyper-prolific B-movie producer instead of an omnivorous film collector and librarian—an underappreciated but indispensable father figure to our entire film industry just as Langlois was to French cinema (and beyond) post-WWII.
The most moving moment of the film occurs when Jack Nicholson breaks down in very genuine tears, his hand covering his face. The audience of jaded film critics at the Walter Reade Theater was reduced to a sympathetic hush. It’s all too easy to forget that Nicholson toiled in obscurity for ten years, supported only by his work with Corman, until “Easy Rider”—a Corman-produced film—catapulted him into mega-stardom. Nicholson owes his success to Corman, and he knows it, and he loves him for it. And he’s just a case study for hundreds of other filmmaking professionals, some of them still wet behind the ears, first-year students at “Corman U.”
But “Corman’s World” isn’t hagiographic. Many, if not most of the various interviewees lament Corman’s cheapness, his unwillingness to spend more than a million dollars per film. But they grudgingly, admittingly respect him, too. And rightly so, as there is a progressive political dimension to Corman’s approach to film financing. He is outspoken–but more through his actions than his words (he is nothing if not a man of action)–in his belief that there is something obscene about the over-bloated budgets that became so common in the film industry after “Jaws” and “Star Wars” changed everything, the tyranny of a handful of absurdly expensive films crowding out all the wonderful little films that could be made but are denied the funding. In stubborn, steadfast defiance of the mainstream, and of course to his own benefit, too, Corman has been making wonderful little films for over fifty years now, gleefully breaking every rule that tries to get in his merry way.
I almost forgot to add that Corman hasn’t just produced hundreds of films and hundreds of filmmakers, he’s also distributed much of the finest European art cinema, sometimes getting it onto the unlikeliest of screens. Who but Corman would have the balls to show Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” (1972) at drive-ins?
Release Date: To Be Determined
“Goodbye First Love” – (Mia Hansen-Løve; France) – Review by Charles H. Meyer
French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s third feature was my favorite film at this year’s New York Film Festival. An Eric Rohmer-esque tale of l’amour fou, paradoxically complemented by preternatural intellectual, sexual and emotional maturity from every party involved, “Goodbye First Love” may just be the most intelligent treatment of young love ever to grace—and “grace” is the perfect word—the screen. Hansen-Løve has an uncanny (and enviable) ability to write and direct films with no exposition and in which “nothing really happens” at any particular moment and yet which are utterly captivating to watch from start to finish. It doesn’t hurt that she chose three fascinatingly photogenic actors, actors who perform with a naturalistic ease, to star as Camille (Lola Créton), Sullivan (Sebastian Uzendowsky) and Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke).
We begin, in 1999, with fifteen-year-old Camille waiting in bed as fifteen-year-old Sullivan rides his bike through the Paris streets, stopping along the way to purchase a package of condoms (preservatifs for a love that will be preserved in spite of everything) from a sidewalk dispenser (so convenient!). As we come to realize later in the film, which moves along in four-year increments to cover eight formative years in this young couple’s lives, from Act One’s 1999 to Act Two’s 2003 to Act Three’s 2007 (thereby leaving us an implied four years to imagine the characters’ post-narrative destinies), this opening sequence neatly establishes the two lovers’ temperaments and trajectories—she will stay in one place, becoming an architect, a designer of immeubles, that French word for “buildings” that so fittingly, so literally evokes their immobility; in contrast, he will be forever on the move, a resident of Marseille, a port city offering him the freedom to escape whenever it suits him.
“Goodbye First Love” brilliantly manages to both follow in the grand tradition of the most lyrical, poetic, sensuous, intellectually stimulating French cinema—evoking Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, François Truffaut, and most of all Rohmer—without looking or feeling the least bit derivative. Hansen-Løve, like some of her cinéphilic forebears a former critic for the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, has clearly absorbed all of these influences and many more, but I believed her completely when she told me after the screening that she doesn’t think of her influences as she writes. The result is a semi-autobiographical film that is all her own. If you see only one French film this year and only one film about love, see “Goodbye First Love.”
Release Date: December 9, 2011
“The Artist” – (Michel Hazanavicius; France) – Review by Charles H. Meyer
French director Michel Hazanavicius’s charmingly funny and at times surprisingly moving new feature “The Artist” is not only the first silent film to come along in ages but also quite arguably one of the best silent films to come along since F.W. Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece “Sunrise,” incidentally one of the key influences on “The Artist.” In some ways, “The Artist” is superior to all the films made during the silent era after which it is so painstakingly and exquisitely modeled because of how masterfully it uses most of those films’ best techniques while enjoying the benefits of over eighty years of hindsight and technological development. The film’s narrative, only slightly newer than its endearingly anachronistic style, seems heavily inspired by both fact: the real-life Hollywood drama of Greta Garbo trying to resuscitate John Gilbert’s ailing career by getting him cast opposite her in her 1933 star vehicle “Queen Christina”; and fiction: the 1932 film “What Price Hollywood?” along with two of its progeny, the 1937 films “A Star Is Born” and “It Happened in Hollywood.” Each of these latter three films is about an older male film artist seeing his own career falling apart as the pretty young ingénue he introduced to show business becomes the new sensation. In those films, as well as in “The Artist,” the young female star is extremely sympathetic and reaches out earnestly and thoughtfully to help the old-timer. (Lest I spoil plots, however, I won’t say how any of these stories turns out.)
Although “The Artist” tells an old story in an even older style, it nevertheless still looks and feels fresh, in large part because it is so well cast, with Jean Dujardin playing the titular “artist” George Valentin as a winning, dashingly handsome, seamless blend of Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, William Powell, Fredric March and Fred Astaire (and in roughly that order); and Bérénice Bejo playing the ingénue Peppy Miller as a simultaneously cute and gorgeous swirl of Janet Gaynor, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Eleanor Powell and Ginger Rogers. The film also stars John Goodman as an Edward Arnold-esque producer and James Cromwell as Valentin’s faithful manservant.
“The Artist” pays adoring and adorable homage to Hollywood—and not just to its pre-talkies heyday—quite thoroughly yet unselfconsciously, with so many clear but subtle references. But it never feels as if it’s copying anything, even as it points back obviously to “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Top Hat” and every movie to previously make use of the stunning central atrium of Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building.
“The Artist” expertly reinvents the silent cinema as nothing more nor less than a new and improved version of what it already was, but somehow in doing so it manages to feel like a major accomplishment, perhaps just because it’s such a good film, one that only gets better the more times you see it.
Release Date: November 23, 2011
“The Descendants” – (Alexander Payne; U.S.A.) – Review by Charles H. Meyer
“The Descendants” is the best film yet by Alexander Payne, a director who has only made great films, but whose every new film is better than his last, from “Citizen Ruth” to “Election” (1999) to “About Schmidt” (2002) to “Sideways” (2004) to this latest, greatest offering. Seven years was a long time to wait between releases, but it feels worth it when you see a film that is this beautiful, this finely crafted, this acerbically but humanistically witty.
In a film that is about a relatively common but rarely cinematically well-handled subject—the painful ordeal of a modern American nuclear family watching a spouse/parent slowly, inexorably die, and wrestling awkwardly and painfully with unresolved intra-family and inter-family conflicts—Payne shows incredible intelligence, restraint and care by delivering a story that is neither sentimental nor cynical. “Realistic” may be a problematic term, but having myself suffered through the same loss (albeit, thankfully, with neither the adultery, child delinquency nor parental absenteeism) as the King family, and having watched “The Descendants” very critically, I was moved by how “real” the film felt, real in the sense that it did not feel clichéd or hackneyed. It did not feel like a Hallmark sympathy card, that is, which it would have in the hands of a less capable director.
Although his oeuvre is still small, I think it’s safe to say that Alexander Payne is one of our greatest living American directors. His four features have demonstrated to me, at least, that we can continue to expect from him many more masterpieces of dramatic filmmaking, balanced effectively and appropriately with the lightness of original and wise touches of comedy, for a long, long time.
I should emphasize, though, that the lightness in Payne’s films, however much it offsets the seriousness that might otherwise be unbearable, is never comic relief. The shifting moods of his films are woven seamlessly together as part and parcel of the very human, everyday experiences he depicts.
With each successive film, Payne moves away from any semblance of shallow caricatures towards more thoroughly drawn characters with genuine depth and complexity. We usually first encounter these individuals as “types,” but such is real life. Only after we get to know the philandering asshole real estate agent with the instantly unlikable face (Matthew Lillard) or the spoiled teenage pretty girl with the drug and alcohol problems (Shailene Woodley) or the beach bum surfer dude (Nick Krause) or the jerk of a father-in-law (Robert Forster), do we start to see their humanity open up to us through the eyes of our protagonist and paterfamilias, Matt King (George Clooney). The only thing in this film that rings false is the notion that Matt has ever been a bad or neglectful father. He seems too kind for that. Never have I liked Clooney or one of his characters more. If Matt King is his best performance, it’s partly because it’s one of his latest, so it makes use of all of his accrued talent and experience, but also because Payne has not wasted the seven years it took him to make “The Descendants,” whose script and direction are as close to perfect as really matters.
Lastly, I want to rave a little about the setting and music. Finally, a film set in Hawaii that forgoes exoticism! And yet it also doesn’t hide that state’s great physical beauty or the charm of its culture, with an extensive soundtrack of Hawaiian songs performed by surely the finest male vocalists in the state. As the writer Phillip Lopate once said (and I’m very loosely paraphrasing here) of the way that the loveliness of the locations brings soothing relief (for the audience, at least) to another wonderful but painful family drama, Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” the sunny, perpetual vacation atmosphere of the music and settings of “The Descendants” (a mood not unlike that of Baumbach’s latest film “Greenberg,” although not quite as dark and melancholic), like the film’s humor, makes the bitter horse-pill of its mournful, sorrowful theme easier to wash down. Further rescuing us a little from the film’s air of sadness is a noble decision that Matt quietly makes at the end of the film that is thankfully unaccompanied by the usual, cheesy fanfare indulged in by most films that depict their heroes doing a good deed.
“The Descendants” might just be the best American film of the year. If I were a member of the Academy, it would certainly win my vote for Best Picture.
Release Date: November 18, 2011
“The Exterminating Angel” – (Luis Buñuel; Mexico) – Review by Paul Anthony Johnson
Inevitably, Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) returns to the NYFF after 50 years, ready to induce panic and confusion in a whole new audience. The film’s scenario is a marvel of simplicity – a group of upper middle class acquaintances congregate for an after-opera dinner party and then discover that they can’t or won’t leave. The film never bothers to explicate the source of the prohibition, but once it comes into force, the film follows the ruthless logic of a standard siege narrative, as panic, death, despair, and rage unfold over the next several days and nights. Some characters reveal a certain nobility, while others prove relentlessly petty, but the central irony of the film is that compared to the inane banalities and insensitive non sequiturs uttered during the introductory dinner party, their reaction to their own insane taboo possesses a kind of sanity new to their world. Buñuel’s camera follows all the contradictions and excesses of his characters’ behavior with a cool, observant eye, only engaging in overtly surreal stylistic flourishes twice, both during dream sequences. The film casually, economically, and maliciously evokes the everyday banality of a mad, ridiculous civilization. Very likely the best film screening in this year’s New York Film Festival.
“Salvador” – (Oliver Stone; U.S.A.) – Review by Paul Anthony Johnson
Forget everything else in “Salvador” (1986), Oliver Stone’s typically ham-fisted, turgid exposé of U.S. complicity in atrocities committed during the Salvadoran civil war, and concentrate instead on James Woods’s gloriously sleazy, repellent performance, a riot of smarmy smirks and smart-ass gestures that gives the movie a rat-a-tat-tat verminous intelligence otherwise lacking in the Oliver Stone oeuvre. Woods plays a photojournalist who uses his vocation largely as an excuse to travel to exotic locations and get high and get laid until he finds himself emotionally involved in the conflict in El Salvador. Woods never stoops to evocations of nobility even when his character finds his political conscience, and he makes the whole film stand apart from the tiresome tradition of patronizing ‘white liberals will save the world’ pictures. The result, 25 years later, is the only Oliver Stone movie worth revisiting.