Category Archives: New York Film Festival

Claire Denis presents humanity at the edge in her elegant sci-fi movie HIGH LIFE

HIGH LIFE, France. Director: Claire Denis. Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth. Language, English. Runtime, 113 minutes. A NYFF premiere. Released April 5, 2019. Home release date: June 11, 2019Rating A+

The irony of the title — a constant in Claire Denis’ body of work — refers to something luxurious, grandiose, epicurean. Life is grand and expansive. In her most ambitious work to date, which premiered at the 56th New York Film Festival to great acclaim, humanity, and life itself has been reduced to a perversion of itself. It is as artificial as the garden that Andre Benjamin’s thoughtful Tscherny tends to and which an innocent baby, itself a creation of an act of horror and abuse, plays in, as hopeless as the mission that is in store for the crew, and as heartless as the scientist Juliette Binoche plays.

Claire Denis entry into the sci-fi genre makes her one of the few directors whose work defies a style. Her 2016 film — a slight misstep that perhaps demands a second view — Let the Sunshine In was a very warm, French comedy that told the story of an older woman trying to find love but not finding herself. The noir-ish Bastards (2013) portrays a family, and innocence, torn apart by pure decadence.  White Material (2009) tackled the atrocities of European colonialism in Africa and its aftermath of chaos. Beau Travail (1999), the movie that put Denis on the international map, could be called the queerest war drama made. 

It’s the latter that I kept thinking about while viewing Denis’ High Life, at Music Box in Chicago. The references, while indirect, but like pentimento, came through the narrative. Under the guise of sci-fi, Denis paints a picture that is as cold as it is brutal: humans at the end of time and existence, hurtle towards the unknown, and even then still engage in the monstrous, perhaps sensing that they have no escape to their situation. They are convicts who have been promised a clever ruse, or given the ultimate punishment, a fate worse than death by execution: go into space, harvest the energy from a black hole, and bring back to Earth.

From the start it’s clear this is a doomed mission. Something awful has happened. There’s no mystery. Almost echoing Ridley’s Scott Alien, or John Carpenter’s The Thing, we know this cannot bode well for anyone. Monte, a young astronaut (Robert Pattinson, the ships moral center), goes about his business disposing the bodies of dead inmates while a baby wails. It’s a shocking beginning that demands attention, and Pattinson is here to provide a clarification through his voice over as to how we got here, in media res, and see if there is any possile solution even now in the depths of space.  

It seems, under the control of a scientist (Juliette Binoche, in a role that could be her darkest yet), herself an ex convict, the hapless crew gets subjected to tests against their will. Motherless for reasons that she herself will disclose, she now seems determined to play Mother Earth and create new life, an ambition that overrides the original. Like a malevolent ghost, Binoche stalks the halls and rooms of the spaceship like a jail matron, her white clothes betraying her bottomless, sick depravity. It is this depravity that dominates the entire film with iron brutality of a chokehold. Indeed, it leads to one unbelievable scene after another (one involving a special room, and a queasy scene involving two of the ship’s occupants) which I will not disclose here. What she does to herself, and to the entire crew, veers into Croneberg territory, circa Dead Ringers.

This is not your typical sci-fi movie. High Life will demand at least a second view, not because it’s hard to understand, but because it’s that haunting in its sheer willingness to flaunt its sustained repugnance onto the viewer’s eyes. There were times when I wondered if such brutality was even necessary, but in a story about living in an environment that fosters sheer survival over affection and connection, it seems only appropriate. I highly recommend this movie not just because of its sci-fi presentation but because of its talbeau of ourselves and the unspeakale things we do to each other as a whole. This is by far, Denis’ most accomplished work to date.

 

Bi Gan’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is an exercise on style over substance

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, China. Director: Bi Gan. Starring: Jue Huang, Wei Tang, Sylvia Chang. Language, Mandarin Chinese. Runtime, 138 minutes. A NYFF premiere. Released April 12, 2019. With subtitles. Rating C+

To be honest, I’m not sure how I can start to review a film that has been mostly universally acclaimed without chuckling a bit. It seems that cinephiles are so avid to find “a new voice in cinema” and “a new auteur” that the moment a movie such as this jumps into scene, whether it works or not, it will get showered with so much praise one may wonder if this film will be the second coming of Christ and obliterate all other cinematic creations, excellent, good, and even so bad they’re good.

I’m going to be blunt. I really had high hopes for this film and the many people who know me were probably sick and tired of seeing me yammer about “the famous 55 minute take, done in one shot and 3-D” that frames the movie’s second half. It seems wherever you turned, from the Film Society of Lincoln Center to even casual YouTube bloggers, praise was absolutely unanimous, followed by the almost explicit command that “one must go see this film; this is a completely new form of visual storytelling that elevates the movie-going experience into the stratosphere.” So, okay, I got it. Bi Gan’s follow up to his 2013 movie Kaili Blues is a must-see, and to avoid, or dismiss — how could I? Aren’t I a cinephile? — would be tantamount of slicing my own nose to spite my face.

Reader, I’m going to have to admit, while the movie looks and feels like a work of art — truth be told, it does boast some outstanding cinematography and art direction, and the famous second part seems to have been done in a carefully constructed set in order to accomodate that level of choreography in which the action flows from one moment to the next. There are colors upon colors, the dominant tone being blues and reds often filmed side by side and bleeding into the other, forming a tension of cold-hot that would be perfect in this type of noir film. Almost immediately I caught references to Wong Kar-wai’s langorous, doomed romances In the Mood for Love and 2046, and also Tsai Ming Liang’s 2012 film Stray Dogs, a film that also boasted extended shots of actors in complete stillness to almost nerve-wracking effect. 

The crucial difference between In the Mood for Love and Bi Gan’s Long day’s Journey is rather simple: in the former, you truly felt a connection to these doomed lovers who happened to meet at the wrong place and time and who had no future together. Every second they are filmed is pregnant with romantic tension, with a barely contained eroticism just seconds away from bursting out of the shadows and onto the frame. These were also, clearly delineated characters with enough story that we could identify with their actions. I just didn’t feel the same with Bi Gan’s movie. And keep in mind, Bi Gan has spoken about his connection to the films of Billy Wilder, to name one American director, and I can’t but seek for some connection with the title of this film and the American play (there is none).

I’m not attempting to say that when you speak of a certain type of cinema or specific directors that you should emulate what they do. Look at Brian de Palma, a Hitchcock imitator who makes movies that also revolve around elaborate set pieces to induce suspense and tension, but whose stories, penned by him, are little more than terrible. He’s a true anomaly of someone who could produce a solid two hours of pure cinema that held itself upright on uneven ground. Bi Gan, on the other hand, lets his own story follow its own arc, keeps you somewhat in the obscure, and hopes you can feel whatever it is that his two leads are going through. I, for one, could not. His male lead, Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang), may look gritty, weary, and wear the anti-hero sleeve well, but his motives of seeking the elusive woman, played by Wei Tang (completely miscast in a role that S Korean actress Ming-hee Kim would have inhabited effortlessly, and more memorably), remain murky. Memory drives the plot, and memory gets twisted, and that is fine, but in a noir, memory alone is not enough to justify a story that refuses to decide when it wants to start, and when it wants to end. We are shown snippets of information of Luo’s childhood friend Wildcat (a name clipped straight out of a late-50s crime drama), who has been killed, off-screen. This gets followed by the death of Luo’s father and Luo finding an aged picture of a strange woman. So far, it is interesting, because we then see in flashbacks Luo’s relationship with an enigmatic woman in green, Wan Qiwen (Tang). It starts rocky, but progresses into romance, and then her own disappearance later on, which sparks his interest in finding her to an obsessive degree.

So far, that’s convincing for me — many noirs have been based on this simple premise of a man looking for an unattainable/unreliable woman. Sight and Sound’s greatest movie ever, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is all about the woman, first seen as an ice cold dream, then shown as a an earthy girl-next-door, and the antihero’s eventual discovery of a ruse not of her own making which however did little to absolve her of guilt by participation. Long Day’s Journey into Night also features Wei Tang in a dual role — one, where she’s somewhat distant; the other, a more carnal, street-wise, world-weary version of herself. Again, so far, so good. It’s just that Tang comes off as miscast and is directed to play her part with so much stiffness one wonders what it is that Luo sees in her. She conveys no mystery. Maggie Cheung was all about allure in her character Su Li Zhen. I just couldn’t see it here.

Also, let’s go to to the fact that this is a neo-noir, and it involves the underbelly of society. We do get to see this, but we also see a gun. I’m of the belief that once we see a gun we realize that at one point it must be used, for better or worse. A scene involving a thug torturing Luo goes nowhere, but gives said thug ample time to (badly) perform karaoke. Nowhere does the antihero seem to be sinking into his own obsession, or if he is, it just doesn’t come through.

And then we have the famous second half, which starts in a movie theater that displays the title of the film, where you are advised to put on your 3-D glasses and sit back. I know that somewhere there is a reason for this, but to me, it seems superflous. Reader, it basically yanked me out of the story proper. If I was somehow enjoying the first half — as imperfect and obtuse as it was — the second never bothers to give a proper closure, while looking mesmerizing. True, there are some incredible feats of gravity in which our antihero seems to move deeper and deeper into Hell, but it feels empty.

In essence, can I recommend this film? This will be a film for those who love obscure stories that go into darker regions of narration and throw logic out the window. Patience is absolutely required to watch Bi Gan’s film. If you don’t you will walk out and not bother to look back. If you do sit down, do so with an open mind, and let its imagery take you. In that respect, yes, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a sumptuous, brilliant exercise in trippy visuals. It’s just one that offers no real characters, not much substance, and even less logic.

HOTEL BY THE RIVER, an intimate story of healing, and regret

Hotel by the River

HOTEL BY THR RIVER, South Korea. Director: Sang-soo, Hong. Starring: Ki Joobong, Kim Minhee, Song Seonmi, Kwon Haehyo, Yu Junsang. Language, Korean. Runtime, 98 minutes. A NYFF premiere. Release date: February 15, 2019. Rating: A—

One of the reasons I have a penchant for these talky, moody pictures in which most if not all the action is confined into a limited space — kitchen sink dramas, as they are commonly refered to — is that usually we start at the crux or even at the tail end of some pending matter, and in the fashion of a game of chess, we see cards placed, one by one, on the table, slowly revealing a story, gradually peeling away layers of gauze until we reach the center. We don’t necessarily have to reach a pat conclusion, but always, there is some form of closure at least for one of the characters involved.

Love lost, poetry, cinema, bad choices, and fractured families collide quietly in this intimate movie — the latest of two new releases by prolific S Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, the most recent being Grass, also currently playing in select arthouse cinemas across the country, both 2018 New York Film Festival favorites. Two stories that on regular circumstances would not intersect (except perhaps, in a contrived romantic comedy, which this one, despite moments of humor, is not) coexist side by side in a distant, unnamed hotel during a chilly, snowy winter. The first, and the one which unifies the entire oeuvre, is that of the poet Ko Younghwan (Ki Joobong) who has taken refuge in this hotel for reasons only hinted throughout (although those remain somewhat obscured and only known to the character as he meanders through the hotel’s grounds). He has summoned his two sons, the younger whom is a well-known but “artsy” director, the older, a man who, while never clearly stating it, somewhat resents his younger brother’s success as he has only marriage to prove his worth.

While the brothers make their way to meet up with their father, Younghwan stumbles upon two women, Sanghee (Sang-soo muse Kim Min-hee, luminous and fragile as ever), whom at the start of the movie he spots standing outside in the snow, and her friend. Sanghee opens the film literally showing us a wound in her hand as she wraps it up in gauze and summons her friend over. Both have shared pain that points at a relationship that ended rather badly between Sanghee and the man she was seeing, and echoes of Sang-soo’s previous features Claire’s Camera and On the Beach at Night Alone creep in to glean just enough information to explain what might be the matter with Sanghee.

Younghwan is clearly taken with the women’s beauty, and before meeting his sons, a sequence which seems to take forever, he exchanges some awkward banter with the women, whom he regards as angels (while failing to acknowledge Sanghee’s wound). In the interim, the brothers arrive, express their irritation towards their father (who they keep missing), and exchange barbs where the older brother points out his younger brother’s perceived weaknesses. When the brothers finally meet with their father, the table literally gets set to unfold the other, more psychologically damaging wound that has been barely mentioned (as much as Sanghee’s was prominently shown at the start). Younghwan seems to want to make some amends with his sons and meditates on his own impending death, an observation that while being somewhat bleak and morbid never get too dark.

Throughout the film, Sang-soo never becomes too intrusive into the narration, often choosing to remain as an invisible spectator who just happens to be on scene when the five characters converge. The use of black and white not only mutes the story’s emotional center down to internalized reflections and barely felt notations, but it also gives the film a chilly feel that gives the story its somewhat somber note somewhat reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films from the late-80s, particularly September and Another Woman. I personally think it’s fascinating that someone as Sang-soo can use so much material from a failed relationship and even poke fun at his own persona through not one but two characters to tell a story about fleeting connections with the idealized and painful reconnections with old wounds. It’s a little mood piece, one of many that Sang-soo has managed to turn out in near-record time, one that doesn’t pull all its characters together in a cohesive whole, but leave matters as they are. However, for Sang-soo, that in itself is enough.

55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: BPM (120 BEATS PER MINUTE)

BPM (120 BATTEMENTS PAR MINUTE)
France
Director: Robin Campillo
Runtime: 143 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies.com grading: A+

[Seen October 9th at the New York Film Festival, where it received the second of two standing ovations, and that is rare.]

They say that the closer the drama is to one’s real life experience the stronger the story that comes out of it. Nothing could be closer to the truth than the viewing of Robin Campillo’s aggressive yet tender drama BPM (120 Beats Per Minute) that makes its bow at the Angelika and the Lincoln Center October 20th and is France’s strongest submission to the Oscars in decades. Campillo, in discussing his film during the Q & A, spoke about being an Act-Up activist in the Paris Chapter during the 80s and 90s and literally seeing his then lover die of AIDs while no cure was visible in sight; his and the actions of this force of nature that was gay activism eventually led to the release of the medicine that would curb the corrosive effect of the AIDs virus and at least allow those who were positive to live (and love) if at all for a little while more than if they had not been given anything at all.

From the moment it starts, BPM is two hours of a literal battle not for equality, but for the very right to simply exist. Much like its title implicates there are no pauses for contemplation for contemplation’s sake; Campillo’s film is, without machine guns, a war movie that involves a rather broad spectrum of people at the bottom of society: gays, lesbians, and those infected with the blood of HIV-positive people. Anyone who either witnessed or survived the 80s and 90s can and will tell you that to even be gay during that period was tantamount to already have the ‘cancer’, and thus, be not just an undesirable, but also be unworthy to life itself. In short, it was a period where gay men and women would have to slip back into the dark, remain silent, and let AIDs do its infernal work.

So what was one to do then? Once it was made clear that those in the bottom could never aspire to have their voices heard, the only thing that anyone then had left was becoming the cry in the dark. BPM illustrates this effect in a chilling sequence where the members of Act-Up Paris infiltrate a pharmaceutical corporation and start throwing bags of fake blood everywhere and unto their executives. The intent is to shock, of course, and it makes its mark, but it’s also to sling back the blood corporate France  had on their hands. It’s hard not to see a clear correlation between these events and the many that transpired here in the US when Act-Up protested, how one can view this and not be reminded of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and David France’s searing documentary How to Survive a Plague. [Side note: David France’s newest documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson is currently in cinemas and on Netflix.]

Robin Campillo moves between the documentary — Act-Up meetings and protests — and the personal, inserting smaller yet more poignant stories that stand out from the mass of activists that occupy the large tapestry of participants. First in line we get Nathan (Arnaud Valois, standing in for Campillo), a twenty-something young man who’s joined Act-Up and is seen as a bit of an outsider since he’s negative (most aren’t). There he meets the very vocal Sean Dalmazo (Argentinean actor Nathan Perez Viscayart in a compelling, riveting performance) who’s passion for life is as big as his need for action from those at the top to deliver the drugs he needs to live a bit longer. There is the hemophiliac kid who’s mother unwittingly gave infected blood to for months, effectively infecting him. Also shown are Sophie (Adele Haenel, a tremedous presence, but underused — also the only marquee name in the movie) and Thibaut (Antoine Reinartz), an activist with whom Sean clashes often.

The brilliance of this ferocious movie is that it never pauses for maudlin and I loved that. Too often, AIDs-related movies treated its characters’ deaths like over-long operas to be played out in slow motion as if somewhat fascinated at the fact that yes, gay men did die dramatic deaths, disfigured, weighing less than their clothes, listening to some campy classical music. [And as a side note, I noted the conspicuous absence of sex in AIDs movies made in our own soil raises the question, do we still, even now in 2017, still have issues with gay sex represented on film?] This movie uses house — the music of the time — to express its defiance at the face of death. Even the central romance that becomes born under the threat of death — that of Sean and Nathan — is played with a vibrancy I have not seen in any American film about the same topic. It’s probably what will make this stand out from its American counterparts, that it knows death (for many) is looming, but embraces life, the ultimate spectacular now, as its own affirmation. And the sex? Confessional, revealing, and ultimately, a means to mourn those who have passed on, who were loved.

BPM opens at the Angelika and the Film Society of Lincoln Center October 20.






55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: LET THE SUNSHINE IN

LET THE SUNSHINE IN
France
Director: Claire Denis
Runtime: 92 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies.com grading: C+

If there is something one can state about acclaimed French film director Claire Denis is that she definitely is unpredictable. Most directors tend to have a connected style in their storytelling, and that, one can say, defines the director’s body of work. With Denis, you can’t really say her pictures have a theme, a sense that one story somehow flows right into the other even when some of her greatest films (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, and White Material) have taken place in Africa. Her 2013 film Bastards (Les salauds) was a compelling black hole masquerading as film-noir; the movie reeked of pure, conscious evil that lay within its characters. It was almost a horror movie by way of the human exploitation (and particularly the subjugation of women to their masculine counterparts).

Her latest entry couldn’t be more divorced from the underbelly of society and is even more removed by anything she has done before. The poorly titled Let the Sunshine In (technically, the title should read Bright Sunshine Inside) is a light as a feather character study of Isabelle (luminously played by Juliette Binoche), an artist going from one relationship to the next, each one ending in what seems to be an ellipsis. When we first see her, she’s in the middle of having sex with a married banker, That doesn’t end well, predictably so. She moves right into the arms of an actor, and then into yet an unnamed man who sweeps her off of her feet in a club to the sounds of Etta James’ “At Last“. [I sensed some perverse irony in the selection of this title, and Denis of course, delivered.]

My one problem with the movie stems from the fact that other than a leisurely paced portrait of a woman who’s basically clueless about herself and what she wants, Let the Sunshine In never quite manages to intrigue you about Isabelle’s misadventures in a way that Woody Allen’s female-centric studies do. It takes the very late entrance of a certain French actor posing as one thing, but being something completely different, to neatly explain Isabelle to us, even when she herself remains totally and tonally blind. Perhaps this is what Denis’ movie is meant to be: a snapshot of a ridiculous woman, on a love treadmill, going nowhere. Maybe I need to see this odd little film again when it reaches US cinemas (a thing that seems meant for next year). Directors love to play games on their audiences and remain one step ahead. For now, my impression is that of a movie that didn’t quite deliver despite having a brilliant star on scene for 90 minutes, living, breathing, and failing to love.






55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Italy / France / Brazil / USA
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Runtime: 132 minutes
Language: Italian / French / English / German
Mostlyindies.com grading: A+

There was a pregnant tension in the air inside the Alice Tully during the half-hour leading to the world premiere of Luca Guadagnino’s film version of Andre Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name — would it remain faithful to the novel, how would the performances be, and what about that famous scene with a fruit? Not having read the book or known what the plot was about other than the synopsis featured in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s page and a little apprehensive after seeing Guadagnino’s awful 2015 film A Bigger Splash that made its rounds in US theaters last year, I figured I’d give it a try based solely on the trailer. When it comes to LGBT cinema, I’ll usually watch them all — the bad with the good — because hey, if one can’t support it, what’s the use in complaining there aren’t any stories being told? And considering that this year the New York Film Festival has not one but three in its Main Slate — the other two being the Norwegian Thelma and the French BPM as well as Todd Haynes new film Wonderstruck and a restored version of G W Pabst’s 1929 classic Pandora’s Box, there should be enough quality to glean a lot of positive chatter about the state of Queer Cinema yesterday and today.

Luca Guadagnino again returns to his native Italy to take us into a sensual trip through a lazy summer in 1983. Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) lives with his parents, both intellectuals, in a secluded part of Italy and have a tradition (established by his father, a history professor (Michael Stuhlbarg in a role that anchors and elevates the film) of inviting a student over for mentoring. Elio doesn’t quite care for this since his privacy will be altered, and could you blame him? The look of disdain on his face as he and his girlfriend Marzia get their first glimpse of the impossibly beautiful Oliver (Armie Hammer) emerging from his parents vehicle says it all. Elio is frankly, not impressed one bit.

Not that Oliver makes it easy, either: a good ten years older than Elio there doesn’t seem to be much holding them together. Both are clearly sophisticated in their fields; Oliver in his knowledge of history and languages; Elio, in music. However, Oliver varies from being dismissive to vague, flighty interest, and any attempt at dialog ends with a sense of the both of them being completely incompatible. Conversations end in moments of awkwardness, and no one seems to know how to break the ice. A visual discovery that Oliver is also Jewish, while striking a spark, also fails to really make things work between them. All Elio can hope is that the six weeks that Oliver will be in Italy will go as quickly and painlessly as possible so life can return to normal.

It’s this tension between the two that carries the story to its conclusion; constantly framed together, it only seems logical that something has to give. A first attempt at physical contact during a volleyball game backfires. A night on the town, where both Elio and Oliver dance with women, also goes south. It’s precisely at the halfway mark when we realize not that Elio has been resenting Oliver’s presence, but that he’s attracted to him, and this being 1983, a crucial year for gay men as the Disco era had begun to feel its aftermaths and AIDS had made its way to the cover of Time magazine, such feelings were best kept in the quiet and resolved in the dark.

What makes Call Me By Your Name succeed is precisely this need for silencing: Elio obviously doesn’t need his parents to know yet, but Oliver suddenly becomes less a Greek God in the flesh and turns into a vulnerable young man who doesn’t wish to harm this boy who’s clearly growing up and has a world to learn. Perhaps, also, he has his own demons to wrestle with, and again, the timing of the story is crucial. Both begin a dance of wanting to be as close as possible to wanting to stay away from each other, a thing that leads Elio to experiment with Marzia and sadly, lead her on. In the meantime we’re left to wonder, how much do the parents know about what’s going on?

The only one who seems to hint at something is Mr Perlman (although a telling expression in Mrs Perlman answers the age-old question of “Does Mother know?”). There is a build up to a scene that happens in stages. Firstly, a gay couple appears, and Perlman wants Elio to at least try to behave with a certain tolerance not because they’re gay or ridiculous but because they’re “both.” It’s the film’s one self-hating moment, a subtle slap that strikes at the way gay men were still seen at the time — campy, effete, diva-worshiping, and overall, emasculated. This is followed by another scene in which Perlman goes on and on about the male form and how it was admired in Grecian times. It’s a very telling revelation. MIchael Stuhlbarg’s delivering of his lines reveal something completely startling about his until then very worldly, bourgeois professor. So disarming it is, that even Hammer’s Oliver gets taken aback and it hovers over the second half of the picture until Stuhlbarg, practically doing nothing other than sit with his son, has the most ideal,naked, and emotionally revealing conversation any father should have. Because of this, his is the character that stands out the most because of how it informs the viewer of where he comes from other than making him “the clueless father”. Anyone — me included — knows that parents always know, but to do what Perlman does during the film . . . priceless. An Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor could happen for him.

I dare anyone to view this movie and not reminisce about those days of experiencing first love and choke a little on tears. It is as nuanced and detailed a love story as a coming of age, beautifully rendered by everyone onscreen, meticulously acted to a point where one would be hard pressed not too see oneself in any of the two leads, or perhaps the father. Several 80s New Wave classics make their way into the film (notably The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way), but it’s Sufjyan Stevens ethereal music, reminiscent of the early 70s, that paints this film in smoldering passionate hues that will still evoke emotions well past the end credits. Guadagnino in my opinion has made the perfect gay romance.

Call Me By Your Name just had its screening at the 55th New York Film Festival and will make its US premiere November 24.






55TH NY FILM FESTIVAL: ZAMA

ZAMA
Argentina
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Runtime: 115 minutes
Language: Spanish
Mostlyindies.com grading: C —
Argentina usually produces strong dramas that engage you right from the onset, so it confuses me as to why Lucrecia Martel’s film, Zama, based on an obscure novel by Antonio di Benedetto, winds up looking austerely beautiful with hints of the Colombian Embrace of the Serpent and Argentina’s own Jauja. Now, looking at the sheer lever of the producers involved – which include giants like the Almodovars alongside Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover, Julia Solomonoff (who’s own picture Nadie Nos Mira won Best Actor at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and just enjoyed its run at the Film Forum; do seek this film out on DVD please) – I can perhaps see a reason. Twenty-seven producers thought adapting di Benedetto’s novel would be a great idea and perhaps on paper, it does look like it. But the film version never takes off unless we take into account a burgeoning relationship between the lead character (Daniel Jimenez Cacho) and the treasurer’s flirtatious wife (Lola Duenas).

 

To wit, this is the synopsis of the movie: Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer stationed in Asuncion, awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires. As it reads, this synopsis doesn’t exactly translate into compelling or engrossing and the picture itself remains unwilling to truly introduce us into Diego de Zama the man, how he arrived, who he is as a person, and his almost paralyzing fear of the mostly unseen super-villain Vicuña Porto who does make a late appearance in a rather surprising way. There is precious little that engrosses you to want to know what transpired in Asuncion. Yes, we wait for Zama’s transfer, while he parades himself as though he were a statue in movement, and it slowly becomes clear that this might not happen.  Zama, at first seen proud and authoritarian, begins to age and crumble by the sheer force of time imposed in exile. Meanwhile, we fail to truly connect because the movie’s own dense nature makes it nearly impossible to understand only at a marginal level. If at least the film had a hint of humor at what seems to be an absurd situation, perhaps it would be more engrossing, Sadly, we are left with a movie that slogs forward at a pace some art cinema snobs aficionados would like to identify as deliberate. To me, it’s as fast moving as the waters of those nearly still rivers covered in moss pictured at the end in what could be the film’s most dreamlike and serene sequence.

 

Zama, a curious movie without a start and an ending,  has been selected as the Argentinian entry for the Best Foreign Language movie at the 90th Academy Awards. Its release date will be sometime in 2018.

 






55TH NYFF: THE FLORIDA PROJECT

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

USA
Director: Sean Baker
Runtime: 110 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies.com grading: A+

Do not let the garish color palette of Sean Baker’s new movie The Florida Project fool you; despite its Floridian setting, this is as neo-realist (and I’m talking about the kinds Vittorio De Sica, Luschino Visconti, and especially Roberto Rossellini produced in the 40s, 50s, and 60s) a picture as can be and for that, it is at a much higher level than the sea of indies being produced by the masses today. I’d even go to deny its inclusion in the genre; indie cinema can be a rather grey area where kitchen sink dramas and low budget stories get lumped together with tales of existentialism, horror, and romance.

Baker’s cinema, and I also include his breakthrough 2015 movie Tangerine which followed a pair of trans-women working the streets of an LA no one gets to see, fall under the former, Italian style. Subtract the colors in The Florida Project and you get something similar to The Children are Watching Us, or even Sciusia (Shoe-Shine), the latter filled with irreverent boys creating mayhem. The one thing separating these movies is this larger-than-life joie-de-vivre that carries these kids through their day to day. Their Italian counterparts emerge with their spirits crushed; here, Baker’s children are defiant to the very end.

The plot of The Florida Project is rather minimal in appearance only. In fact, it’s so minimal that it seems to be just a study of people in a forgotten little corner of the world as they go through their day-to-day activities. Set in the fringes of Orlando in what were at one time the equivalent of Choice Hotels or Best Westerns and have now devolved into weekly motels for people below the poverty line, We get introduced into its pastel universe via the three kids at the center of the story: Moonee (the superb Brooklynn Prince, who has arrived fully formed as an actress with a capital A), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Jancy (Valeria Scotto). Unschooled, they spend their days at play moving throughout the motels like a coven of mini-thugs looking for a thrill, causing all sorts of problems while their mothers scrape away just to bring food to the table. Moonees mother Haley (Bria Vinaite, also a force of nature, girlish, but a feral survivor), a waifish horror with shoulder-length blue hair and tattoos, is the least responsible, moving from hotel to hotel selling perfumes and scamming the unsuspecting. She has no sense of direction and could care less; she just wants a fix and will even use Moonee to get what she wants.

At the other end of this scenario, standing like an observer, is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who might just be the only and closest thing Moonee will ever know as a father. Early scenes don’t seem to give him a lot to do; as a matter of fact all he can do is to nicely ask Haley for the rent money, or repair the AC that the kids blew out while keeping the place bright and colorful. However, if you look closely into Bobby’s face there is a worn-out sadness living there, magnified because we don’t know who the man is other than his part in the movie. We don’t know how he got here, what his private life is like. We just know and see him hovering protectively around the trio, chiding their mostly useless mothers, and acting like any father would do: stern, but clearly loving and warm.

So as I said, the story is minimal, but if you look closer, you will see an arc developing. The actions at the start look like a preview. The kids get into mischief, cause a problem, clean the mess, and move on. The next event is a little more brazen, as is the next. When they unwittingly (and innocently) cross the line into crime, the film takes a subtle turn: dynamics are broken, Haley finds out Scooty’s mother doesn’t want her son hanging out with Moonee anymore and denies them leftover food from the eatery where she works, which puts Haley in a bind and hell-bent on getting even, acting out even against Bobby who for a chunk of the movie has let her go scot-free. You can sense a pressure cooker building in the film’s final quarter, here, a noose tightening around the characters. Nothing — not even this delusion of endless summer and arrested development — and actions bring consequences. The way Baker handles this is again, a writer-director in full control of his story who isn’t unafraid of delving into a moment of fantasy even when it’s clear that the gig is up, and everyone has to get out of the pool.

The Florida Project opens in limited theaters October 6.






55TH NYFF: MADAME HYDE

MADAME HYDE

France
Director: Serge Bozon
Runtime: 91 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies’ grading: A–

I doubt that Isabelle Huppert will ever repeat the same kind of powerhouse performance like the one she turned in a year ago in Paul Verhoeven’s rape-comedy-mystery Elle (a movie that was one of my top five of last year). That picture gave Huppert a role actresses unafraid to push the boundaries of their own selves would die for: a woman who, despite having gone through a horrific assault, still managed to come out on top and assert her dominance in the most unusual way possible. She returns to the 55th New York Film Festival with a completely different performance altogether.

In Serge Bozon’s newest film, a novel approach to the Robert Louis Stevenson horror novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Huppert plays Mme. Gequil, a woman that is basically living in abject fear (of what, we don’t know). Her home life is a quiet shambles as her husband (Jose Garcia) treats her with a certain condescension while he focuses on his composing. Her school life fares no better as students openly dismiss and mock her while she teaches and a colleague (Romain Duris), decked in outfits that resemble rejects from Miami Vice) basically finds any way to diminish her. One night, while working in her lab to prepare materials for her next class she gets struck by an enormous power surge caused by a lightning storm. Soon after, she’s showing signs of not being all there . . . displaying a ravenous appetite (until then she would secretly deliver half her food to neighboring dogs), a sudden desire for sex with her husband . . . and walks at night, where, glowing, she sets things on fire.

She also takes an approach to a disabled student, Malik, and by nurture alone she cracks the shell that Malik up until then had kept intact, turning him into her most prized student. Problems arise when the other part of her, the one that acts out at night, starts to manifest its own presence. It’s only time before things will get slightly out of hand. Will Mme. Gequil be able to control the Mme. Hyde she is slowly morphing into?

Huppert, as usual, delivers strong acting in a part that requires her to be basically two different personalities. For the most part Madame Hyde is fairly comedic — a class project based on the Faraday Cage serves as a perfect tool to enact a certain revenge filled with a restrained “fuck you” approach. It’s in the final act when Mme Gequi’s alter ego takes over, that Huppert sinks into what she does best, which is finding the pathos and tragedy within.

For lovers of Huppert, seek her out in Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs, Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, Bozon’s previous Tip-Top, Francois Ozon’s 8 Femmes, Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, and Claude Chabrol’s Violette.

Madame Hyde has no known US Premiere date, but will premiere in France March 28, 2018.






OPENING NIGHT, 55TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: LAST FLAG FLYING

LAST FLAG FLYING

USA
Director: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 120 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies’ grading: A+

Opening night at the 55th New York Film Festival is such a wonderful, fun-filled event. I’ve been going now five years now, and I love how every time it seems as though it was the first — you’re surrounded by men and women of all walks of life, some are in the arts, some are patrons, some just movie buffs like you or me who just want to experience the screening of a future release before hand and sit there, amazed, at the artistry and performances involved.

I was a little surprised when Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying was announced as the film that would open the festival; I knew nothing about it, but I thought, “I’m not too sure this is the type of movie that should be shown on opening night; it seems like it would belong elsewhere.” How wrong I was; from the moment that the film proper begins and focuses on the quiet figure of Steve Carell as he stands in front of a mostly empty bar somewhere in Norfolk, Virginia, I knew I was in for something truly remarkable.

Carell is Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, a mild mannered former Marine living in New Hampshire who’s come to Virginia at the end of 2003 to visit his ex-Marine buddy Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), who runs a drinking hole that’s gone to pot. Of course, a man like Shepherd wouldn’t just walk into a place like this for the hell of it, and soon the men are talking of times gone past. Shepherd asks Nealon to come with him to see another friend from their Marine days, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) who’s long left his military days behind and has become a pastor. Mueller is less than thrilled to see these two men show up on his church, but it’s a last minute revelation at dinner that Shepherd reveals his true motives for contacting his two former friends.

Shepherd’s son was killed in combat in Iraq (he’s also lost his wife to cancer), and needs their support in his time of need. Nealon is more than happy to escape his momentary boredom, but it takes a little convincing from Mueller’s wife for him to go on and ensure Shepherd’s son gets proper burial. So, a road trip ensues, landing them first in Arlington where the body has not yet arrived, then in Maryland where they get informed that Shepherd’s son did not die in heroic circumstances but the government and military still feel to bury him as a military war hero. It’s here where Shepherd, up to this moment as quiet as a mouse, takes his own stance to bury his son not in Arlington, VA, but in his own New Hampshire town, and not in his military uniform, but his graduation suit.

The story from here on takes a couple of turns before it arrives to its final destination, first involving an Nealon’s and Shepherd’s attempt to DHL the casket back up North that a hilarious left turn, the official trip on an Amtrak train in which the men, accompanied by Private Washington (J Quinton Johnson, holding his own with the older men), a former friend of Shepherd’s son who’s been tasked with escorting their safe arrival, and a pit-stop in New York City in which the men, previously unaware of the advances of technology, buy themselves cellphones, a sequence that again demonstrates how in command Linklater is with the handling of comedic dialogue as a pause before the final dramatic act that starts with a short visit to the mother of another soldier (played by Cicely Tyson in an affectionate short 5 – 10 minutes of screen time) to the end of their journey.

Now, the performances by the three leads here are by far some of the best I’ve seen in their careers. Cranston, the actor who gradually turned his mild mannered, bespectacled chemistry teacher in Breaking Bad into a demonic force of nature, gets the lion’s share of scenes and dialog as Nealon, a man who’s still got an unquenchable fire inside and doesn’t give a shit what you think of him. Fishburne is right on point as the Rev. Richard Mueller, once known as a total motherfucker who now would rather live in peace and provides the movie with much grounding.

However, it’s Carell, the quiet, almost childlike character at the center of the story, that I want to talk about. Walking into this movie, erase everything you’ve seen him in — the loud comedies, the creepy guy in Foxcatcher. He’s gone. Carell, playing a man who was dealt with a lousy deck of cards, who’s lost everything, is so, so still and dignified in the face of suffering, that even a gesture as a smile lights his entire face up. I’m even going to go out on a limb to compare him to Chaplin in the final scene of City Lights,, but imagine him doing this during the entire film, his ego completely removed, letting the other two men be the perfect counterpoints. That, my friends, is acting.

Last Flag Flying opens in theatres November 3.