Second week of press screenings for the New York Film Festival, and in broad terms, this week was considerably more exciting then the first. This is the diary were I keep my overall thoughts on the films I’m seeing there. Click here for Part One, keep reading for part two…
Wednesday, September 23
Heaven Can Wait (directed by Ernst Lubitsch)
This new (and beautiful looking) restoration by Schawn Belston and the people over at 20th Century Fox is my first encounter with Lubitsch’s work, and a pretty fantastic place to start. If you know anything about classic Hollywood, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the elusive “Lubitsch touch”, a term whose origins might be rooted strictly in early Hollywood branding, but has extended to represent the brilliance of one of history’s most beloved directors.
The “Lubitsch touch” is an esoteric term, that can’t really be defined, but watching Heaven Can Wait -a comedy that recounts a man’s life in order to decide whether or not he deserves to spend eternity in hell- I could sense some of the magic people had found in Lubitsch. My knowledge of his work is limited, but a first encounter leads me to believe the so-called “touch” might be something different to everyone who watches his movies. In my case, I felt sparks rolling down my spine as I saw the cast -led by Don Ameche, Gene Tierney and Charles Coburn, all fantastic- break the boundaries of traditional classic Hollywood acting and indulge in a line-reading, facial gesture, or body movement that goes beyond imitating life and becomes a story all its own.
But those moments, however powerful and meaningful, are relatively brief in a movie brimming with truly hilarious observations and satirical detours.
Microbe and Gasoline (directed by Michel Gondry)
Outside of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, critics and audiences haven’t been particularly receptive to Michel Gondry’s career as a film director. Case in point, Microbe and Gasoline was greeted with so little fanfare when it premiered in France earlier this summer that it seemed destined to be forgotten. In an unlikely turn of events, it was selected for the main slate of this year’s New York Film Festival, and thank God it did.
This coming-of-age tale about two fourteen year-olds going on an unlikely road-trip sprinkles bits of Gondry’s idiosyncratic quirk onto one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen so far this year. Not only is the story of these two tween outcasts very funny (and often audacious in its comedy), but it shines with a sense of truthfulness that isn’t always captured in this type of movies. Having been a fourteen year-old boy myself, I recognized the truthful ups and downs of this friendship in a way that made me think this movie might be some sort of male equivalent to Lukas Moodysson’s wonderful We Are the Best!
Thursday, September 24
Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (directed by Laura Israel)
I guess one could call Laura Israel’s portrait of her friend and sometimes collaborator a well-made film in certain regards, but it is also aggressively not the kind of movie I enjoy. Robert Frank is a photographer and avant-garde filmmaking. Based on the glimpses we get in this movie Frank’s work looks like the kind of experimental film that I don’t usually enjoy. I certainly didn’t enjoy watching Don’t Blink, which uses a loose, non-linear, free association-type style to paint a portrait of Frank as an artist and as a person, but fails -like many lackluster experimental films- to deliver any kind of clear message or emotion. Maybe that’s the point and I’m not sophisticated enough, but I wen into this movie knowing very little about its subject, and walked out somehow knowing less. It didn’t tell me any facts about Frank’s career as an artist, nor did it show me an interesting or insightful side of him as a person.
Friday, September 25
The Forbidden Room (directed by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson)
Guy Maddin’s latest movie (co-directed by Evan Johnson) is a two-strip technicolor pastiche of epic proportions. A gigantic storytelling odyssey, where every character’s dreams, tales, and desires gain existences of their own and take us down a seemingly infinite rabbit hole of B-movie fantasies. It’s chaotic, overwhelming, and somewhat sluggish in its middle section, but it’s definitely inspiring. Like the best of Maddin’s work, watching this movie is like injecting your veins with a shot of pure cinema.
Maddin gave a press conference after the screening, and the story behind the making of the movie might actually be even more interesting than the film itself. Maddin conceived of this as a sort of “internet seance” that tries to summon the lost movies of the past. The Forbidden Room is a companion to this project, which should hit the web early in 2016.
Needless to say, I’m aggressively looking forward to the unveiling of the full project, and The Forbidden Room has only strengthen my anticipation, which doesn’t mean the movie isn’t great on its own. If you want to get an idea of what goes on in this movie, I see it as the other side of The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s coin. If Wes Anderson is an obsessive perfectionist, Maddin is an absolute anarchist; meaning that the nesting dolls of this movie’s structure don’t long for a forgotten past as much as they mock a hegemonic future.
Mia Madre (directed by Nanni Moretti)
The most traumatic and heart-wrenching elements of this story about a filmmaker (Margherita Buy) trying to finish a movie while taking care of her dying mother are kept to a minimum, which is much appreciated. In my experience, the long road toward a relative’s death is not the incessantly loud cry that many movies choose to portray, but something closer to the doubtful whispers Mia Madre‘s protagonist goes through. She does snap at one point, becasue Moretti is not afraid of earned emotion, but it’s mostly a modest and honest movie. To put it simply, you feel this movie knows what it’s talking about.
That being said, it’s not the most original or originally executed piece of cinema of this festival by far. It actually stands out among the main slate selection by being so straight-forward in its narrative. Mia Madre is not flashy. It aims at a modest target and, for the most part, hits the mark. The comedy (courtesy of an improvisational John Turturro) work charmingly, and at the end, the movie is moving when it needs to be.
Saturday, September 26
The Walk (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
This is the big opening film of the festival. It should have its gala premiere minutes after this write-up is posted. The big selling point is Zemeckis’s rendering of Philippe Petit’s 1974 wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and in 3D! The scene in question is undoubtedly spectacular. It’s as tense and exciting as you would want it it be, so it’s incredibly sad that the movie around it is kind of a complete turd.
I plan to write a full review of The Walk later tonight, in case you want to read some more of my thoughts about it.
The Lobster (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
If you’re single, you’re taken to a resort where you have forty-five days to find yourself a partner. If you don’t, you’re transformed into an animal of your choosing and released to the wild. That’s the premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant third feature, which is clearly the stand-out of the festival so far. With the aide of a cast led by Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and Lea Seydoux, Lanthimos seamlessly transitions into his first English-language movie without losing the sharpness of his Greek movies.
You will be hard-pressed to find a movie that blends eeriness, morbidity, and hilarity as seamlessly as The Lobster. The highly stylized world inhabited by these characters seems like something taken out of Buñuel or Kafka, but behind the ridiculous exterior you will find a wistful meditation on the nature of love. I’m still working through the movie’s themes, but I suspect Lanthimos is trying to explore the relationship between our inner and outer lives when it comes to falling and -more crucially- staying in love. Sadly, a relationship is never just about two people.