Monday, September 29, 2014

NYFF Press Screenings Week 2: The Princess of France, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Maps to the Stars, Time Out of Mind, Jauja

The 52nd New York Film Festival has opened to the public.  Every film media outlet is out there reporting about the movies, the celebrities, and the movies for the entire world.  The doors opened on Friday night, so now Lincoln Center is awash with celebrity, arthouse, and if you have a VIP card, really terrible white wine (get the champagne instead).

The biggest news so far has been the premiere of "Gone Girl", the new Oscar-buzzing thriller starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.  Being a starstruck fool, I will report that I was in the same room as those super stars.  Affleck couldn't find a comfortable way to sit on his silly chair - so glamorous!  Rosamund Pike was so terrified she did not move a muscle for several minutes.  But who am I to criticize when she just put together the best performances of 2014, and I could not think of a question to ask?  Or could bring myself to even attempt to talk with anybody famous at the premiere party?  (Still got to hang with other Critics Academy peoples, who make for some of the best company I've had at a party.  And great goddamn rum.)  Even so, I have been breathing the same air as celebrities, the 21st century aristocracy, and that has to look good on a resume.  However, not nearly as awesome as "Gone Girl", already one of my favorite movies of 2014.  That's more of a privilege than anything else.

But this post is not about "Gone Girl".  Instead I will talk about the movies that may get washed away in David Fincher's wake, both the good and the bad.

I'll start with the good this time and begin with "Maps to the Stars", the new film from my favorite director of all time, David Cronenberg.  It is his second collaboration with former vampire, Robert Pattinson, after the truly awful "Cosmopolis".  This time luckily, it is not entirely a film about Pattinson in the back of a limousine.  He's instead of a limousine driver, and has a much smaller better-cast role.  Cronenberg moves from a movie about the disconnect of Wall Street Masters of the Universe to the disconnect of Hollywood celebrities and the phoniness of it all.  And somewhere while moving across the North American continent, Cronenberg also remembered how to be clever, funny, and extremely disturbing.

Unfortunately tea and yoga cannot cure a schizophrenic city full of damaged people.
The cast is as diverse as the collection of psychoses that Cronenberg depicts. You have the fading middle aged actress, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore).  There is the master bullshit artist guru, Dr. Weiss, (John Cusack).  Benjie (Evan Bird) is the child of this excessively vain culture whose Justin Beiber-esque fame has turned him into a warped cynic and drug addict.  Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is a scarred schizophrenic who has the town under the finger, becoming Havana's assistant.  Surrounding this cast are the agents, the fans, the faceless Hollywood executives, and the pathetic wanna-bes hanging around, like Pattinson's character.  Much of the movie is a high satire on Hollywood, with characters name dropping Harvey Weinstein by first name, or looking for easy gimmicky therapies and expensive trendy foods to solve their emotional traumas.  Benjie's teenager co-stars consider girls only two years older than them "menopausal".

However, only David Cronenberg could have made a movie like "Maps to the Stars" work.  In an instant he makes the parody disappear, the giggling stop, and the horror take hold.  Several main characters are haunted by the ghosts of dead children.  Havana Segrand is tortured by the eternally-beautiful ghost of her mother, who died at the peak of her acting career.  It is a world dominated by an uneasy denial of the truth, where characters can only dare see the sins of the past through specters repeating the lines to a forbidden poem.  While nobody can admit the insanity or corruption of this world, they are all still inevitably driven to the one ultimate tragic destiny.  "Maps to the Stars" ends on an emotional climax that rivals even the ending to Cronenberg's finest film, "Dead Ringers".

Just as the characters have no idea what exactly is going on, neither will the audience.  The various kinds of insanity ultimately do not really fit together   It is Cronenberg, after all, if you fully understood the movie it would lose its terrifying magic.

Look, I have no idea, okay?  Sue me.
While, Cronenberg's puzzle was twisted and fascinating, this next puzzle is really just a lot of nonsense.  "The Princess of France" is a Spanish-language film from Argentine director Matías Piñeiro.  The NYFF blurbs on the film claimed it was about a group of young people making a radio drama adapting William Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost".  In fact, the play they are adapting is not "Love's Labour Lost" at all, but rather a stitched-together Frakenstein creation made out of pieces of various other plays.  One speech we see ends with the character suddenly borrowing lines from the narrator of "Henry V", about as far from Shakespeare's romantic comedies as you can get.  Nothing in this movie adds up properly.

"The Princess of France" opens with a game of soccer between people in red shirts and yellow shirts, filmed entirely in one take high above from an apartment building.  Slowly during the match, the red shirts switch over to yellow, until all that is left is the goalie standing alone, until she flees into a theater.  The entire film is like this:  a trick.  "The Princess of France" is impossible to follow, thanks to most of the cast being similar-looking young women, and all of them in love with the star, Victor (Julian Larquier Tallarini).  One sequence repeats the very same two scenes three times, with the actors changing roles.  Then the very next scene has the lines repeat.  So much of this movie is a complicated web of romances and cheating, but we are never properly introduced to any of the players, or even told why we should care about this particular slice of young adulthood.

Ultimately I believe this filmmaker, Piñeiro, can make a fun little 70 minute romantic comedy.  Much of this movie has the basic framework of something I would like to see.  The cast is believable in their roles.  They are charming with all their romantic betrayals.  Even the playful nonsense was intriguing in its own way.  The problem is that while Piñeiro is a very clever director who has made a movie rich with humor, we are not the ones laughing.  Only he is.  He did not bother to let anybody else in on the joke.

Richard Gere wakes up from a ten year nap.
Going back to New York, we have "Time Out of Mind".  This movie was produced by the rich actor Richard Gere who also stars in it, playing a penniless homeless drunk with dementia.  Gere's character, George Hammond, is an invisible nuisance to the city.  He has lost everything, his family, his job, his life, and finally the apartment he was squatting in, to a decade of depression and amnesia.  Most of the two hour film are long scenes of Gere standing or walking through the streets of the city, unrecognized by the real New Yorkers despite his fame.  They will continue on their way, not knowing that the bum they avoided was the charming handsome businessman from "Pretty Woman".

Director Orren Moverman makes an extremely slow movie.  Normally this would be a death sentence on this blog, but "Time Out of Mind" rewards your patience.   Certainly it could be a faster more eventful film, but that would break the mood and insult the story Gere and Moverman are trying to tell.  There are no villains here in this film, and no plot beyond a minor element of bureaucratic hang-ups.  Rather Gere's character is framed walking through a city flush with so many of its own stories.  Most of "Time Out of Mind" is shot through a window or a glass storefront, giving us a voyeuristic impression of following this poor man lost who has lost both his mind and anybody to care about him.  You overhear a million side conversations from the buildings.  The city buzzes with in its own universe around the character.

There are many side characters played by famous faces.  "Time Out of Mind" opens with a landlord played by Steve Buscemi reluctantly kicking George Hammond out onto the street.  Michael K. Williams is a guard at a shelter.  You can see so much going on with their lives and their personalities, but it is all background.  The real relationship is between Hammond and his daughter, brilliantly played by Jena Malone (an actress who really has deserved a great role like this for a long time).  So much of this film is about isolation and loss, but maybe at the very end comes a chance for a connection as Hammond finally tries to make amends with his only remaining family.  Very subtly "Time Out of Mind" draws you in, never giving maudlin dramatic needs to love the characters, but presenting the story plainly.

"Jauja" will challenge its audience.  Challenge them to stay awake.
Now here is something that will make me feel bad for calling "Time Out of Mind" slow.  "Jauja" is a self-indulgent mess, an absolute nightmare of a film in all of the worst ways.  Apparently comprehensibility ceases once you pass below the Tropic of Capricorn, as this is another movie made by an Argentinian director, Lisandro Alonso, and also completely unintelligible.  Theoretically it is a Western starring Viggo Mortensen playing Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish surveyor working in South America for greasy Latino military colonels.  Obviously Mortensen is not a native Dane, and his accent is terrible.  His daughter (Viilbjork Agger Malling) runs away with a young officer, and Gunnar chases after them into the desert.  It is at this point that nothing happens for two straight hours and the movie ends.

"Jauja" is shot in tight 4:3, with a black curved frame around the edge of the screen.  Every shot looks like a photograph from seventy years ago.  The color has a washed Technicolor quality, reminding me of grisly Spaghetti Westerns.  Making a Western in a square box, when the genre so easily opens itself up to widescreen panaramas of the sweeping vistas of the wild landscape is definitely a difficult challenge.  Alonso does make beautiful shots despite the claustrophobia of his frame, but I would still would prefer a proper widescreen to properly show off the bizarre landscapes of Peru.  If only the movie had actually taken advantage of its backdrop to tell a story, instead of dicking the audience around, this could have been a great film.  We are promised a crossdressing bandit who has deserted the local military and joined with the wild barbarians.  That sounds like a fantastic villain for a Western.  He never shows up.  Nothing happens and the movie is unwatchable.

If you enjoy movies where an entire hour can pass with nothing but Viggo Mortensen riding a horse slowly, "Jauja" is definitely for you.  I hope you also enjoy stilted conversations where characters will take up to nineteen seconds to respond to basic questions like "where are you from?"  You could doze off for twenty minutes and miss nothing.  It is the kind of movie with artificial mystery, built with pretentious slowness and a confusing unnatural ending which insists that you ask the filmmaker what it means.  "Aren't I clever" thinks Alonso, "everybody will be begging me to understand my genius!"  I don't care what it means.  I just want the fucking movie to end already.

Radioactive romance.
I will conclude by going all the way back to one of the early works of arthouse cinema, "Hiroshima Mon Amour", one of the early works of French New Wave.  The film came out in 1959, making it older than both of my parents, and indeed, older than the New York Film Festival itself.  It was made when the fallout in Hiroshima was still fresh, just fourteen years after the Enola Gay dropped its payload onto the city.  "Mon Amour" is a romance between a French woman, Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese survivor, Lui (Eiji Okada*).  Initially they meet in a hotel bar, have a one-night stand, and then lick each other's wounds for the next few days as they fall into depressing co-dependent love.

Much of the film is a reaction to the post-World War II period of cultural dialog between France and Japan, former enemies and now allies, but both sharing a defeat and occupation.  For the first twenty minutes the two characters speak over an elaborate documentary on the Hiroshima bombing, and an attempt by a Westerner to understand the catastrophe.  All of it is juxtaposed by the characters fucking like rabbits.  Lui and Elle have great chemistry when they are keeping up their facades of warmness and humor.  Emmanuelle Riva could smile for seventy minutes and I would be perfectly fine watching just that.

I cannot say I enjoyed "Hiroshima Mon Amour" despite its lofty status.    It is not a very inspiring love story, but the problems are deeper than just lack of pleasantness.  You can make a moody love story, but this one did not work for me.  The wounds are not equal between the partners.  Much of the film is Elle admitting to her dark past, where she was in an affair with a German soldier, and was then tortured by her village as punishment.  Lui does not seem sympathetic as much as terribly manipulative.  Why is it that the woman has to give up so much of her darkest secrets and Lui has nothing to contribute?  Where is his tale of survival and hidden pain?  It is not to be found.  Elle is crucified by her past, Lui is pushing her deeper and deeper into agony, and using it to force her to stay with him.  It is an awful dynamic.  And a slow movie too.

So lots of slow movies last week.  But there was one movie that really was not slow, and that was "Gone Girl".  Getting to that soon, Space Monkeys.

* Who would later appear in "The X from Outer Space", a 1967 giant monster movie about a chicken-lizard creature with triangular head burning down Tokyo.  That movie did not help spawn a film subgenre that continues to be beloved at festivals over half a century later, but it does have silly effects.  The central monster, Guilala, is one of the most adorable monsters to ever come out of Kaiju, this lovable creature with flopping antennas, big ridiculous arms, and a peak.  So cute. 

After so much arthouse, I needed to talk about a cheesy B-movie to cleanse my mind from all this suffocating culture.

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