The second half of the Film Festival unfolded during the nicest, mildest of New York autumns, and yet every day I eagerly run into the darkness to watch movies. (For Barbara’s Part 1 review of the New York Film Festival, CLICK HERE) .
This great art form that the Festival celebrates, that takes such diverse forms, can move you and be magical, and nowhere more so than in Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck.” Its story, faithfully taken from a book for children by Brian Selznick, has two parallel plots, each concerning a lost and questing deaf child. Ben is a 12 year old who has just lost his mother, in 1977, and sets off to New York City in quest of the father he does not know. And Rose, in black and white sequences that are set 50 years earlier, in 1927 (Haynes’ homage to silent film) — Rose also comes to New York (from Hoboken) on her own search. The Rose story in the book is narrated through black and white drawings.
The plot turns would take too long to describe here, besides unlikely to give a real sense of why the film is remarkable. A deaf world makes this most visual of directors even more brilliantly visual. “Wonderstruck” is poetry, from the explosive opening blue montage of Ben’s recurrent nightmare: abstracted images of wolves, terrified boy fleeing, horrible animal sounds, and astonishing beauty. The two children’s paths crisscross with elegant editing, cross-cutting, juxtapositions. And the film displays historic cinematic virtuosity: for instance, the perfect re-creation of a silent film within the film, with a Lillian Gish-like woman (Julianne Moore) clutching a wrapped child protectively in her arms as she bends under the wind’s fury.
The sense of the child in a storm is a moving recurrent theme, as is each child’s trying to find out where he/she belongs, and each coming to New York where the young have always come to find themselves. The plot may be too busy and a little silly, but in Haynes’ visionary hands there are ancient primal resonances here, mysteries about who we are, and we’re moved by their enactment.
“Wonderstruck” is also an eloquent love song to New York City, shot in gorgeously varied ways, the children’s faces rapt as they first encounter it. And there’s the exactitude with which ‘20s New York and ‘70s New York are captured, by use of the actual film stock, lenses, and techniques of each period — reproduced but also enhanced. The ‘70s footage has a heightened reality, vibrant Latin music, street signs collaged like an art work, the squalor of that time made glowing. Haynes’ great cinematographer, Ed Lachman, who created the swooning beauty of Haynes’ last film “Carol,” is key here as well and if you’re technically disposed, hear his talk on YouTube about all the researched and tracked-down techniques used in filming “Wonderstruck” to actually create footage that could belong to 1927 and 1977. But on the level of the pure pleasure of looking at the film, even when the camera isn’t doing anything special, it always manages to shoot the world with an unusual vibrant freshness, interest, originality. And yet it does so in the most natural way, without attention-getting exhilarating virtuosity like Scorsese’s, or Malick’s images sometimes looking like the lushest of ads.
Music, I should say, is also used well and wittily throughout. Ben walks into a perfect New York old bookstore, which will finally lead him to the answers he seeks, crammed with books from floor to ceiling, with a joyful burst of a very early recording of someone singing “My Blue Heaven.” And it turns out to be a song that actually came out in 1927! Amazing attention to detailed accuracy, yet just the right feeling as well.
But back to the visual glories, that are on full display inside the Museum of Natural History, which each child finds his/her way to — Ben with a boy named Jamie, a kind new friend. They see dioramas and exhibits that never looked so beautiful: a giant surging whale, massive trees, every kind of animal, a huge chunk of meteorite that Rose is mesmerized by, amid images of planets in space. So stunned by the sight of a huge insect in a case, that it is one of the most affecting moments in the film. Despite the sufferings the children endure, the very touching open-mouthed wonder with which they take in these sights, in the end feels like a huge affirmation of our world, reminding us (who are so troubled these days by so much happening around us) that the world is an astonishing place, making us see that afresh, all inside a museum.
And Haynes does this without the slightest sentimentality. He himself is a wonder. I’d love to see this film win a major Academy Award though I know better than to anticipate it. But the NYFF, though it doesn’t give awards the way the Cannes Film Festival does, shows its high regard by making “Wonderstruck” the “Centerpiece” of the Festival.
“Last Flag Flying,” given the place of honor as the Opening Night film, was for me a disappointment of perhaps too high expectations. The director Richard Linklater refers to it as his kind of war movie — no battle scenes, just three old ex-Marine buddies reflecting on their time in the service. Linklater likes working with maleness, a boy coming of age in the wonderful “Boyhood,” male camaraderie in earlier films. Here he closely follows the 1974 Hal Ashby film, “The Last Detail,” as a kind of sequel. But the linkage is disturbing, because “The Last Detail” is so much more affecting than “Last Flag Flying.” Echoing the earlier trio — Randy Quaid’s depressed sailor, Otis Young’s black sensible sailor who loosens up a bit, and a brilliant Jack Nicholson — Linklater’s trio in the new film consists of the recessive Doc (Steve Carell), near broken by his son’s just having been killed in Baghdad, after his wife’s death from cancer; a proper Black preacher (Laurence Fishburne), once a wild guy, who now gets a lot of ribbing for his uptightness; and most notably, rebellious Sal (Bryan Cranston), the dramatic spark of the film. They come together to help their old buddy Doc take his son’s coffin back home to New Hampshire. So the plot meanders with the journey, like Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” encountering obstacles, second thoughts, stops on the way — much the same structures that “The Last Detail” has, though to a different end.
This structure in “Last Flag Flying” permits much talk, remembrance, and re-assessment of a war that should not have been fought. It looks back at both the Vietnam and Iraq wars and the pointlessness of the suffering and losses, and asks what is “service,” “heroism,”“patriotism”? But the joshing and horsing around throughout feels rather strained and formulaic, not spontaneous — too reminiscent of mundane predictable old-Hollywood soldier pals. (Though the audience of critics laughed and were enthusiastic). And despite mockery and cursing at a government that lied (which they as ex-marines are entitled to do with impunity), the film’s ending — sure to move most people — is an affirmation of flag and country, of men supporting their buddies, of the dignity of soldiers, and of grief. Ashby’s film on the other hand ends on a stunningly powerful note of darkness.
Ruben Ostlund in his exciting ambitious new film “The Square” is a master of the outrageous. He assaults you. He makes you uncomfortable. Is he being gratuitous when he blasts you with very loud music out of nowhere? When motorcycles savagely thrust into a frame and a second later are gone, to no evident purpose? When a baby cries on the sound track all through an important meeting? Is this artistically justified, representing the constant noise, clutter, violence, on-edge-ness of the world we now live in, and that a maker of art has to find a way to break through, to draw attention to his vision? Or is the use of shock here just a kind of flashy sensationalism? The film is packed with large important ideas that reverberate in your head and if they don’t quite come together, if they contradict themselves, there’s a provocative exploration going on. For all its flash and capacity to irritate, this film is a serious enterprise and for good reason won the very highest award at Cannes this year, the Palm d’Or.
“The Square” deservedly lampoons an art world that with its abstruse language and its meaningless exhibitions, can be irrelevant to a world where the homeless lie everywhere and the threat of violence is also everywhere. But when Christian, the film’s protagonist, a handsome contemporary art museum curator in Stockholm, tries to launch an art project on the theme of trust — in the form of a square, four-by-four meters, as a sanctuary space — a series of events follow that in every way go against such trust: from pickpockets, to a very funny and squirmy fight with a predatory American interviewer (Elizabeth Moss) over sperm in a condom. The genteel world of museum patrons keeps its head down as it is literally threatened with assault by a man-animal, but society’s victims — a woman beggar, a boy who is likely a refugee — are also ferociously aggressive. Again, brutal violence recurs through unexpected loud sounds — a Tourettes’ man shouting out obscenities during a politely highbrow literary talk with a writer (played by Dominic West) — comic and really funny abuse (and arguably appropriate!) but also shocking. And all of this struggles with Swedish humanistic guilt and compassion. We don’t need Ostlund to tell us that Haneke’s “Code Unknown” is his prime influence. Both films are brilliant portrayals of Europe’s current malaise, but Ostlund is young and full of large possibility, with (one feels) a very exciting film life ahead of him.
Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected)” is a family drama with a remarkable cast and a witty/literate/highly intelligent/painful script. The film opens with close-ups of Adam Sandler, who wonderfully plays the less valued son of the family, trying to park a car in Manhattan with his daughter — close-ups that couldn’t possibly come closer. But the whole film is in similar psychological close-up. The complicated family at its core is headed by the sculptor father, very skilfully played by Dustin Hoffman, with two sons from different marriages (Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler), and a more peripheral daughter.
But it’s the many tensions and loyalties between the men — the brothers, and each with their father — that are explored at length with acuity. The subject of art is again central here and receives knowing, very funny treatment. As one character says, art has replaced religion in this family — perhaps especially true for earlier generations of Jewish intellectuals. The pain of art work not getting the attention the artist feels it deserves, and watching the success of others with whom one started out (with a great noisy performance by Judd Hirsch as a fellow sculptor now famous): all the emotions surrounding this are assessed with the delicate accuracy of a surgeon’s touch and yet with comic lightness. The nuttiness in families is presented here with laugh-aloud humor, skillfully mixed with pain, confusion, queasiness. With an unbelievably glittering and gifted cast, it’s an involving entertaining experience.
The darkest side of the Jewish experience is present in “The Hippocratic Oath,” an offshoot of Claude Lanzmann’s brilliant “Shoah.” This documentary comes from a long 1970s interview with a woman narrating the events of her life as a Jew born in Czechoslovakia. A prosperous childhood soon turned into a nightmare with the rise of Nazism, her father banned from entering his own factory by his own foreman. She tells of refusing early on to be part of a transport with her whole family (despite her father’s insistence) because at 19 she married her boyfriend and would not leave him, and thus she survives and the whole family disappears forever. What follows is a very detailed, compelling narrative of forced journeys, concentration camps, near escapes from death. In Thereisenstadt she maneuvers to get work in the kitchen, driven by terrible constant hunger. She tells of her experience with Mengele in Auschwitz, when she was about to give birth, how handsome and charming he was, as he experiments to see how long her baby could live without being fed. She relates situation after situation like this, in precise vivid non-self-pitying detail. But when she finally gets to Israel in 1949, which she embraces with ferocity as the only place in the world she could feel safe, her joy couldn’t be more emotional. It’s a very moving narration, and leaves you with wonder that someone could survive all that. And Lanzmann touchingly sits and carefully listens, patiently documenting.
As I began Part I with women directors, I’d like to near conclude with women directors. (I admit a bias — I did write a book called “Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema” in the mid-1980s, and it’s only now — it’s taken all this time — for that change to be truly happening in a large way.
“Lady Bird” is the debut feature film by actress Greta Gerwig, known especially as the lead in Noah Baumbach’s recent films. It’s a girl’s coming-of-age movie, a genre as rare as hens’ teeth, and only possible I think for someone of Gerwig’s current prominence in the business. She says it’s not literally autobiographical but has a core of truth. That she’s made this first film so skillfully, she herself explains as having for 10 years been involved in every aspect of filmmaking — that’s been her film school. The young girl at the film’s center, Christine, played by an excellent Saoirse Ronan, is locked in battle with her mother (the terrific Laurie Metcalf). The first frame of the film has them asleep face to face, and the core drama of the film involves this 18 year old’s struggle to get away from mother and home.
We watch the process: a girl’s growing consciousness of who she is, how she stands in relation to others — the “in” girls and the “out” ones, what she’s good at and not good at, attractions and first kiss, first sex, first letdown (with a lot of humor around the constant sexual vigilance of the nuns at her school, the Immaculate Heart of Mary). Maybe some of this is Amy Heckerling territory, and she was great at it in her way, but the tone here is totally different. Lady Bird (she names herself) is ambitious, she wants desperately to leave Sacramento and go to New York where culture is, and at the same time she yearns for the fanciest homes in Sacramento and is ashamed of her parents’ modest financial situation. Her mother chastises her for not picking up her clothes, for thinking only of herself, for wanting too much.
You could say there’s something generic about this list, and indeed about the portrait of this mother, but though the characterization does not go deep, maybe by choice, and IS very familiar, most young women would resonate with the truth of it (as would most mothers of adolescent girls). Women might also recognize all too well the mother’s continual critical barbs and diminishing comments, which despite the fact that she also seems a loving mother, are of a kind that can damage for a lifetime. But Ladybird gives as good as she gets, she cheats when she has to, she clearly can take care of herself, as her new life is about to begin. This is an easy film to like, there’s an honesty and truthfulness about a girl’s adolescent struggle that will resonate especially with women, it will do well — and should for sure be taken by the Triplex! And Gerwig promises to keep directing.
“Mudbound,” by Dee Rees, a Black woman director, is set in the Mississippi Delta spanning the years from just before WWII to the post-war era. It follows two families struggling to farm the land, one white and one black. The film moves back and forth between white and black worlds, and multiple voice-overs let us hear what various characters are thinking and feeling. We see the small daily humiliations suffered by this black family working for whites on the white man’s land. The most effective and affecting part of the film is when each family’s returning serviceman — the white fighter pilot, the black sergeant in a tank brigade — come home from war with profound re-entry difficulties and form a bond because they alone can understand what the other is feeling. It’s a forbidden friendship in their world, and what crossing that line means is made very clear by the impact of their doing so, as the last part of the film moves toward violence that is hard to watch. The actors playing the two servicemen (Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell) are excellent, as is the black father (Rob Morgan).
The two women/mothers have their own shared moments, the black mother’s role very well served by Mary Blige, and Carey Mulligan also good though with less asked of her. There are problems, in the editing, the pushing of emotions too hard, the asymmetric apportioning of vices and strengths — though Rees deliberately aimed for melodrama, and painting with a broad brush, with Black-Lives-Matter anger.
When you hear that “Zama” by Lucrecia Martel is an historical drama, you have expectations of a certain kind of film — and in my case, you are already a bit bored by the prospect, but this one is nothing like that. This Argentinian woman director, who had been working on a science fiction project, said this was not so different because South American history as written by white men is itself a fiction, and so she felt free to take liberties. Working with a 1956 classic novel of the same name, she DOES create another world, which is startling visually. The film opens with Don Diego de Zama gazing out to sea, an elegant-looking low-level functionary for the Spanish colonial government stationed in a remote part of what is now Uruguay, yearning to be transferred back to Lerma in Spain, to be with his wife and children, or to at least be in a more civilized place.
This is the basic theme of the film, along with its quiet running commentary on colonialism. At the very start, we watch Don Diego watching native women covering their naked bodies with mud, looking as strange and beautiful the earth itself. All through the film, the shots of indigenous people — slaves/servants — are startling because they are often exquisite looking, doing their menial tasks but looking intently at what is going on, and their beauty and intensely focused awareness make us very conscious of them even as we follow the action centered around the whites: Diego appealing to the governor for a letter to allow the transfer, and endlessly being refused.
As the film proceeds, Zama is subjected to ever-worsening degradation, almost as if the director is putting this colonial male through a sadistic vengeance, and the action and violence increase in the final part of the film. But for me the most interesting feature of this work is how mesmerizing it is as it slowly meanders, the characters moving through rooms that have touches of grandeur but walls textured by age, peeling, mottled, moldy, tarnished, strange and beautiful. The use of sound is extraordinary. Native women group like figures in Gauguin paintings. There are strange frozen tableaux with whites and blacks positioned in unusual ways. Animals are often in a frame, horses or parts of horses — an important statement is made by a character looking out at us, as a horse in the foreground fills most of the frame. Or a llama hovers behind the protagonist, almost like a comic double, at a crucial dramatic moment. These are not intrusive devices but dream-like and intriguing.
While the film is most clearly a continual comment on colonialism, it’s more mysterious and unruly than that — leaving one unsure of what’s going on, or of how much substance there really is here, but sure of having experienced something fascinating and original. Yet the oddness of the film will limit its screenings and it will never come up to the Berkshires, so if you are interested, you will have to see it in Manhattan.
The Film Festival has honored Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” as the Closing Night film. It’s really beautiful to look at, far more so than Allen’s other recent work. There are astonishing shots throughout of Coney Island in the ‘50s, of the Cyclone, the Parachute, the Wonder Wheel, a carousel and shooting gallery, the boardwalk and beach. The lighting, in the hands of the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, is exquisite, aglow around new romantic hope, or grey around a dull marriage. The production design by Santo Loquasto is also a delight. The film is replete with Woody Allen themes, not just redone in a facile or stale way, but given some extra life, a little more depth and even edge than has been true of the light fare Woody continues to issue yearly.
Kate Winslet is the center of the film, as Ginny, in a tedious working-class marriage to a carousel operator (James Belushi), a mismatch for a woman with not only dreams of romance but also dreams of becoming an actress. She secretly has an affair with a younger lifeguard/aspiring playwright (Justin Timberlake), who offers her both. When the husband’s beautiful estranged young daughter (Juno Temple) by a previous marriage joins the household, complications ensue. Above all the film is about desperation, entrapment in marriage, longing for love, a weakness for falling in and out of love too often and destroying relationships, a young woman and an older one in the same household desiring the same man, a father anguished over estrangement from his daughter and also accused of being too close to his daughter. The use of gangsters is also a recurrent Woody Allen motif.
Though “Wonder Wheel” is not especially funny, Allen creates a comic stylization and distancing between characters and also in our relating to them, that keep us from getting too close to the pain in the film. But the pain is there, the continual frustration of dreams, of life’s disappointment, fragile people — who fear they are falling apart — holding on for survival to loveless situations. The Wonder Wheel (that old Wheel of Fire Johnny Cash sang of) goes round and round and comes back to where it started. In the end all this is affecting. And the leitmotif of a boy, the Winslet character’s son, who does nothing but go to movies and set fires throughout the film — is a metaphor that in the end works very well. Not a great piece of work, certainly, but for me this is the best Woody film in a long time, and an apt conclusion to a really interesting film festival.