Sunday, September 21, 2014

New York Film Festival Press Screenings Week 1: '71, La Sapienza, Heaven Knows What, The Look of Silence, Seymour: An Introduction

This Friday the 52nd New York Film Festival is opening, bringing a wide selection of movies from around the world to Lincoln Center, Manhattan.  Usually this sort of event would not get covered on this blog, but I have some news.  This year I will be attending the press screenings of the NYFF - with a press pass - as part of their Critics Academy Program.   Check the list of names there in that posting, me, "Eric Fuchs" is one of them.  So for the past week I have been attending the press screenings of the Festival, previewing the films that will be shown very soon to the attendees, and much later released to the general public.  Even better, I get to attend the press conferences that the directors and stars of the films give.  Just this Friday I was sitting in the same room as Ethan Hawke (if you'll forgive my youthful starstruck mood).  I'm sitting right next to real critics, and eventually will be producing writings along with my fellows.

However, before I start doing the work for them, I need to do the work for me.  I have never been to a film festival before, so this is already an incredible honor and a unique taste of very different kinds of filmmaking than I usually find at the local cinema.  Last week I managed to five movies, meaning that a full review of them all is impractical.  Every week I'll quickly review the most impressive releases NYFF52 has to offer for you here at Planet Blue.  So let us begin, unfortunately, with the worst movie:

"La Sapienza" is a French drama film featuring a middle aged couple's journey to Italy to reignite their passion and their art.  Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione) is a successful architect celebrating the highpoint of his career, but also a zombie of a man, walking through life half asleep and cold to all those around him.  While he obsesses over his hero, a 17th century Baroque architect, Francesco Borromini, Alexandre has left his poor wife, Aliénor (Christelle Prot) to live a life of quiet desperation.  They eat silent tense dinners together unable to make a connection.  Eventually the couple runs into a pair of budding young Italian siblings, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro).  Splitting by gender, the Frenchmen inspire and are inspired by their Italian wards.  After a lovely vacation across Italy, everybody has learned more about their craft, their lives, and rediscovered their passion in life.

Unfortunately all of this adds up to a movie that has very little going on for it.  Beautifully shot across a dazzling series of Italian cathedrals, "La Sapienza" is as static and immobile as the marble of the structures it so worships.  Avoiding the arguably cliché plotlines of infidelity, the movie instead sets itself about very little at all.  It is an elaborate series of art lectures rather than character building moments.  The camera will linger on the churches for a whole minute when the scenes about them have already ended.  Conversations are extremely awkward thanks to director Eugène Green's odd quirk of filming his actors head-on, as they speak directly into the camera.  An actor will say their line, and the response comes after a strange pause, the natural flow of the conversation lost thanks to a gimmick and poor editing.  You are constantly reminded that these actors are not speaking to each other, but rather to a camera blocking their ability to perform.

Eugène Green has a very meticulous eye for framing his shots.  He shares Wes Anderson's passion for symmetry and geometrical composition, though unfortunately, not his sense of humor.  Watching "The Grand Budapest Hotel" you get the sense that Wes Anderson made the movie with a little smile on his lips, giggling slightly to his own little jokes.  Eugène Green occasionally can add humor to his movie (he gives himself a surreal cameo late in the film as an Iraqi refugee) but there is little whimsey to be found.  The film repeats over and over again the word "sapience" (wisdom), insisting that it has a deeper theme.  But whether you will be convinced of Green's deeper meanings is questionable.

A terrible night in Belfast
Moving into a far more violent genre, we have "'71".  This is a historical thriller set just during the opening riots in Belfast that would preview three decades of terrorism and warfare that would become known as "The Troubles".  The plot features a unit of British soldiers entering the city to settle the situation, only to be caught well over their berets.  Gary (Jack O'Connell) is separated from his unit during a badly mismanaged riot prevention operation, leading him to walk home in a city where everybody wants him dead.  Most of the film is shot during a single night as Gary escapes against all odds to try to get back to his base.  The already confusing situation of IRA nationalists battling loyalists to the crown is made far more difficult when the moral ambiguity descends into a betrayal pandemic.  IRA terrorists are fighting each other, Gary's commanders want him dead, and the people who aren't chasing him with guns are blowing up pubs.

"'71"'s best strength comes from its tone.  The director, Yann Demange never lets up on the tension, as even when Gary has escaped his pursuers in one chase scene, he is still just as lost in a dark unfriendly city where backstabbing is constant.  I absolutely loved an extended single-shot sequence following an explosion, where the audio deafens to a shrill squeal, and Gary is left stunned and wandering, having suddenly lost the only ally he had.  Every twist is unexpected and the film will take a horrific left turn into deeper darkness with no warning.  "'71" is probably the most marketable film I saw for this reason.

Unfortunately, the confusing nature of the film's plotline is something of a negative as well.  Gary is badly undeveloped as a lead.  His entire existence in this movie is be punished over and over again by bizarre forces far beyond his comprehension.  Beyond comprehension also is the political scenes, where characters constantly work for the most evil ends without any explanation.  If you lack extensive knowledge of the Northern Ireland conflict you will really have little idea what has gone on during this night of chaos.  There are two surly middle-aged characters with mustaches, and the dim lighting of this movie means you will not realize which one is which until far too late into the film.  I guess the point is that it really doesn't matter who is good and who is bad, because in this world, there is no such thing.

A heroine-fueled quest for most terrible of loves
Speaking of urban horrors, "Heaven Knows What" is the first movie I can talk about that I truly loved.  Directors Josh and Benny Safdie, while scouting for actresses for an currently unfinished project, ran into a young woman, Arielle Holmes, whose life they immediately needed to capture on film.  Holmes' memoirs are credited as the basis of this movie, which is a loose documentation of her life as a homeless heroine addict on the streets of Manhattan.  She plays a fictionalized version of herself, Harley, a young woman desperately in love with a hideous punk, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones).  The production of this movie was filmed during Holmes' own battle with addiction, and she has only been clean a short time.  So this is a woman acting out her own wounds and bad history, in the very place she experience that history, in a search for catharsis.

"Heaven Knows What" opens in medias res as Harley begs for Ilya to forgive her from some unspecified indiscretion, before finally threatening suicide.  Ilya is the sort of charming young man to at first be too annoyed to read Harley's suicide note, and then later decide to take a friend of his to watch as Harley slices open her own arm.  Shot on location in Manhattan "Heaven Knows What" then follows Harley during her life just after she leaves the hospital.  It is a difficult constantly overcast world of uncaring strangers, shady "friends", and petty crimes.  Harley bounces between her true love, Ilya, whom she will always adore for reasons that nobody can comprehend, and the true but cynical Tommy (Yuri Pleskin), who she can depend upon, but cannot truly love.   In her cycle of addiction, Harley leaves Tommy for Ilya, only for him to betray her again and again.  Every day is another repetition of panhandling, barely making enough to pay for her first lover, heroine, and ending up in exactly the same miserable situations as before.

Arielle Holmes is stunning in her role, which is not surprisingly since she playing essentially herself.  The Safdie Brothers are not going for a didactic judgment on the lifestyle of their subject, rather they simply present the world they want to show with a fair camera.  They are not supporting this lifestyle, they are not condemning this lifestyle, they are merely giving it the light it deserves.  You are not going to be inspired by the stirring escape against terrible circumstances, this movie has no victories.  There is a quiet dignity to this subculture, which "Heaven Knows What" shows with stark unblinking realism, even as the rest of the world tears away it's eyes.

One man tries to make a country see
Though if you do want to be truly depressed, I could talk about the first of two documentaries I saw last week, "The Look of Silence".  This is a sequel to the 2012 documentary "The Act of Killing", covering the same subject, the Indonesian Killings of the mid 1960s.  Both films were directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and an Anonymous Indonesian co-director, choosing to remain unknown to avoid reprisals.  Even today Indonesia is run by the successors of the junta that came to power in the '60s, who butchered a million people supposedly as an anti-communist war.  In the first movie Oppenheimer allowed history to be written by the victors, as they remorselessly retold and even demonstrated their crimes.  "The Look of Silence" has a different perspective.  It puts optometrist Adi Rukun, the younger brother of a victim, on camera to interview the people who destroyed his family.

Rukun is given an incredible task, to sit in the same room as these butchers, and calmly ask them to explain their actions, often doubling his interviews with eye exams.  We are first shown Adi sitting alone, watching "The Act of Killing" on an analog television set, with his usual diplomatic expression.  He does not flinch while one elderly monster describes how they chopped his elder brother's penis off to finally kill him after a long night of torture.  Then Rukun, representing all of those defeated by this conflict, has to march into the comfortable homes of the killers, bringing in the terrible truths that to these people who were content to forget their past.  Some families are furious to be threatened by this knowledge, terrified of what the truth might mean.  One man issues vaguely ominous threats about "asking political questions".  I am most impressed by a woman, about the same age as Adi Rukun, who requests that victims and criminals remain a family - even saying her father, a man whose hands are covered in the blood of Rukun's brother, be considered his symbolic father.  That they come together to forgive the past.

The first film was purely a spotlight on a forgotten Holocaust, showing the world just how unremorseful the criminals are, helped by the fact they are protected by their successors in the government.  (Even today most of the credits are billed as simply "Anonymous" out of fear of reprisal.)  "The Look of Silence" is giving a larger view, the view of the victims.  We see Rukun's unbelievably ancient parents, born over a century ago, and we see his adorable children, representing both the past and future of Indonesia.  There is much more to this place than a couple of years of violence, Oppenheimer and Anonymous are clear about that.  More impressively, it tries to build a road between the divided halves of this country.  It is giving those in power a choice:  either repress the truth and dig deeper scars into this land, or let the truth come out and let the healing begin.

The complete artist introduced
Finally there is the last film to have premiered, "Seymour: An Introduction", directed by Hollywood star Ethan Hawke.  It is an overview, decidedly not a biography, of the life of eighty-seven year old pianist and composer Seymour Bernstein.  Hawke is no musician, he is not a student of Bernstein, and he knows nothing of the piano, yet he was inspired by this incredible man, as will be anybody else who sees this documentary.  The genesis of this project began with Hawke met him at a dinner and within a year he had a camera following Bernstein around, giving us an uncensored look at his life.

Hawke is a minimal figure in this film, appearing only for a few minutes to be the confused student before the master that is Bernstein.  Seymour is a little old man with a round face, living alone in a one-room apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side.  He speaks quietly, he speaks slowly, always in complete sentences, but every word is something that needs to be heard.  Nothing was scripted, yet Bernstein's natural cadence makes for better screenwriting than you will find in most fictional filmmaking.  Once a public performer who toured around the world and romanced elderly female patrons, Bernstein reached a point in his life where he had enough of the public world.  This was no retreat, he felt his art no longer needed he commercial world of professional performer.  Now he is a teacher and a composer, living his life simply but with an inspiring pride.

Very little of the success of "Seymour: An Introduction" comes from filmmaking design or craft.  Ethan Hawke simply stumbled upon a font of dignity and glory in this man, Seymour Bernstein, who may be the greatest advocate of the artist as a necessary part of human life that this modern world may have.  There are no versions of Seymour Bernstein only a single person who has incorporated every part of his life into a single whole, pianist, teacher, friend, and philosopher.  He tells you that your talent must be fostered:  not necessarily for monetary gain, but for your own completeness as a person.  He refuses to take stage fright as a detriment, but rather embraces that fear as an integral part of the act of making art.  One of his students gives a speech about listening to the "music of creation", and Bernstein does not laugh, he is respectfully impressed.  If anything, he seems envious of this crackpot.  What does it say about me that I must be minimize this man by using derogatory words like "crackpot" while Bernstein can embrace the possibility?

Towards the end of the film, Seymour Bernstein discovers a Grand Steinway piano in the basement of the Steinway auditorium.  He is so in love with the way the music sounds, how the keys float onward after hitting the notes.  This is the most complete man I have ever seen, doing exactly what he wants, for himself, and loving every second of the life he has left to live.  One cannot help but envy him.


  1. Damn,first E3 now this. What's next on the ''Event i'm improbably going to go to'' list?

  2. Damn Blue, you're moving on up in the world! The "Heaven Knows What" sounds very interesting. Will their be a way to legally watch these without a 300 dollar plane ride to New York?