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Sunday
Sep282014

NYFF: At Odds Over 'Two Shots Fired' and 'La Sapienza'

The New York Film Festival has started, and here is Glenn on a pair of films from Argentina and Italy, 'Two Shots Fired' and 'La Sapienza'.

As film lovers, and especially as film critics, we like to think we view films from a purely neutral place without bias or prejudice. That feeling of going into any film with a blank slate of emotions, taking films on a case by case basis where there’s the possibility of liking literally anything that gets thrown our way. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s as far from the truth as you could get. Whether it’s an actor or a director, a genre or even a region, sometimes there are things we just do not like or respond to as viewers. I freely admit to there being many personalities whose presence in front or behind a camera I find a struggle and while the the quality of the material they have to work with can fluctuate, sometimes you just have to admit that somebody or something is not for you.

Such was the case after seeing Two Shots Fired and La Sapienza, two films with seemingly little in common. The Argentinian and Italians films do share, however, a style. This certain storytelling aesthetic that aims for faintly quirky, film’s that trade in an excessively dry, often tangential, random humor that is delivered in monotone voices by a cast that sound more like they’re doing a table-read for a badly scripted soap opera. The actors’ robotic body movements suggest a disconnect between character and emotion, but which ultimately does more to distance the viewer from the film than anything else. When a character gets to express actual emotions in the same way a real human would it’s positively elating.

In Martín Rejtman’s Two Shots Fired, I liked a late-in-the-runtime turn of events that sees the return of a character who disappeared after the opening sequence. Sadly it goes nowhere as characters shrug it off and carry on with their lives as if the entire enterprise was for nothing. Eugéne Green’s La Sapienza has more virtues, which make its weaknesses even more disappointing. Its photography is suitably lush and the many, many shots of beautiful Italian architecture are gorgeous to behold, but the story that runs around them is like slowly watching life be drained out of a painting. Such rich possibilities are never taken advantage of.

 Both films’ arch sensibilities kept me at arm’s length from engaging with them in any way. They sit in between stylistic minimalism or flamboyant visual expressiveness, utilizing none of the virtues of either. I had similar issues with Greek “weird wave” titles like Dogtooth and Attenberg, but found much more of interest in their stories and visual storytelling to still be more or less on side despite other quibbles. I found the Argentinian and Italian films incredibly hard to latch on to; this emotional coolness (or detachment, whatever you like to consider it) leaving no hook for me to hang on to. Given how few notes are in their registers, if you don’t ‘get’ them from the start you’ll be at a loss for the duration.

Two Shots Fired screens on Monday Sep 29 (8.45pm) and Tuesday Sep 30 (3pm).
La Sapienza screens on Saturday Sep 27 (3pm) and Sunday Sep 28 (12.15pm).

Saturday
Sep272014

NYFF: J.K. Simmons Holds Court, Boosts Supporting Actor Bid

"I guess I was a professional musician. I got paid tens of dollars," J.K. Simmons shrugged, getting the first of many big laughs at the press conference for Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. He was being grilled about his music background (he studied classical music in college) and what he brought to his big big role in this crowdpleasing drama. Whiplash is about the sweaty bloody foul-mouthed, humiliating and combative relationship of Andrew, a talented drummer (Miles Teller) and his sadistic mentor, Professor Fletcher (Simmons).

The movie is muscularly directed by Chazelle, like he's got as much to prove as Andrew (he'll direct another music related film next) and edited for maximum razzle-dazzle as if syncopated to the double time jazz rhythm -- or any other rhythm, really, that Fletcher demands during grueling rehearsals. Often stopping the action to scream "Not my tempo!" 

Whiplash than sometimes gives off the illusion that it's directed from within, as if the film is continually queued by, responding to, or enraged at Fletcher's barked orders, precise time signature hand movements, and threatening in-your-face closeups. The illusion than is that Professor Fletcher is demanding the movie conform to him, rather than the movie inviting him to be its antagonist.  

At the press conference the 59 year old actor was also the star of the show. In this case he had no competition for the spotlight. Miles Teller wasn't there and the film's young director was stuck in traffic allowing J.K. the bulk of the press conference to himself. Though his face is familiar from a long career of well received supporting roles he doesn't usually get this much of the screen (or stage as it were) all to himself. He took the opportunity to keep the press laughing, faux-mock his young co-star for being too busy "working" to be there with him, and for not making the short with him which was used to raise interest and funding for the movie (the short, which was a huge hit at Sundance in 2013, co-starred Johnny Simmons, no relation, who J.K. complimented adding that his take on the Andrew character was much different than Teller's work). J.K. reserved most of the good-natured teasing for his director who he continually referred to as an "adolescent" or "child". When the 29 year old director arrived toward the end of the event, and the questions began to flow his way, Simmons burst out laughing when a reporter began his question with the formal "Mister Chazelle..." 

A true scene stealer, that J.K. Simmons.

J.K., Damien, and Miles on set

It was deeply moving for me to work with musicians of that calibre and relive that part of my youth after having taken so many left turns in my career. It was really fun to work with musicians every day at work and/or scream at people which are two of my favorite things."

But for all his joking he managed to slip in thoughtful responses to questions, emotional hooks, and admitting that he wasn't sure how to unpack some of the provocative questions the movie raises about teaching and pushing people to greatness. This juggling act should serve him well in the quest for Oscar gold. The crowd was stunned to hear that they shot this tense intimate movie in just 19 days, a tiny blip in the amount of time they've spent promoting it since. As you'll recall the film premiered to rapturous response at Sundance 2014 and finally hits theaters in select cities on October 10th. Count on J.K. Simmons to spend the first two months of 2015 on red carpets and with cameras trained tightly to his face on Oscar night.

Friday
Sep262014

NYFF: Gone Girl's Gone Wild

Tonight marked the opening of the 2014 New York Film Festival with the world premiere of David Fincher's Gone Girl -- here's Jason's take on the film.

In the deeply darkly funny world of Gillian Flynn's bestselling murder mystery Gone Girl, Nick and Amy Dunne's wedding vows are like cliffhangers or dares - in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, I do... she does, he does... what exactly? All manner of unspeakables, it turns out. The book's at its sharpest as a ghoulish fun-house mirror reflection of deranged marital compromise - the hollowing out of our interior spaces for the exterior presentation of platonic ideals; a jack-o-lantern propped on the front porch with a pumpkin pie in the oven, all is pretty and home and sugar and spice on the windowsill... save that horror show, smashed glass coffee tables, mopped blood, behind closed doors. And what happens when the nightmare tumbles out into the street for all the world, and all the world's cameras, to see? Who pulls the mess back in once its spilled, and how...

David Fincher's Gone Girl is at its best when it has everybody grabbing their pails and their shovels and frantically trying to scoop up those spilled Humpty Dumpty pumpkin guts and make sense of it. For a two and a half hour movie it's shockingly spry on its feet, bouncing from Clue One to Clue Two in its own emotional kind of scavenger hunt, trying to piece together the What Went Wrong And How, and in its finest moments it vibes on a surprisingly loose Coen-esque sense of danger - as the sharp tools in the shed try to stay one step forward and find themselves in up to their necks, there's fun to be had in their catch-up, watching games change and rules rewritten mid-play.

[more...]

Click to read more ...

Friday
Sep262014

NYFF: Maps to the Stars, Or: Julianne Moore is God, Again

The New York Film Festival has begun. Here's Nathaniel on the latest from David Cronenberg which won Julianne Moore the Best Actress prize at Cannes earlier this year.

Let's not bury the lede. At a key moment in Maps to the Stars when the actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) gets some bad news that she's more or less been expecting/dreading, she is in a Buddha pose in yoga pants. Her eyes struggle to hold back tears and her body struggles to pretend it's relaxing when she lets out a sudden wail. You think the wail will descend into Julianne Moore's familiar crying jag (You know how she loves to do). Instead the wail abruptly stops. Fans of Julianne Moore won't be able to silence their own screaming so quickly. I, for one, felt euphoric watching her. For those of us whom we have famously dubbed "actressexuals" - the word originated at this blog though it's now escaped our small pfeiff fiefdom and entered the greater internet -- major achievements from our favorite stars can feel, however absurdly, like personal triumphs. Or at least like just rewards for enduring loyalty. Especially if you've worried that the magic has dissipated with familiarity, poor career decisions, lesser roles and/or medicore films.

This year, with Maps to the Stars and Still Alice (previously reviewed), the Julianne Moore I first fell for, the actress who inspired my whole career path (newbies might not know that this site emerged from a zine I started in the 1990s with issue #1 dubbed "Julianne Moore is God," pictured left) came roaring back into full power.

Pity, then, that the movie can't quite keep up with her or harness her brilliant satirical embodiment of all that is self-absorbed, self-loathing, self-medicated, and self-serving in modern Hollywood celebrity. [More...]

Click to read more ...

Friday
Sep262014

NYFF: A Swarm of Surrealism

Our coverage of the 2014 New York Film Festival, which opens today, continues - here's Jason with an askance look at some of the unsung heroes of The Wonders and their cinematic precedents...

Earlier this week Glenn wrote up a review of Alice Rohrwacher's really very fine film The Wonders, which I also heartily endorse. I was sitting next to him at the press screening and besides being communally delighted (that sounds dirty but I mean it in the most innocent way possible) by the movie together we squirmed, writhed, and let out little moans of discomfort (alright it sounds dirty again, just bear with me here) when the screen repeatedly filled with bees - so many bees! If I'd given it any thought beforehand I might have skipped the film because despite not having an allergy I am a total melissophobic and watching them crawl on human skin is akin to water torture - you might know me as a horror movie fan, a badge I wear with pride, but nothing will make me cover my eyes and climb backwards in my seat quicker than a plain ol' minding-his-own-business honey-bee. Know the real enemy.

That said there's a surrealistic beauty to ways the bees are shot in The Wonders (there's a reason that the poster uses the imagery), and also another animal in the film (which I won't name since it contributes a nice jolt of WTF), and all this got me thinking about the use of animals as surrealist props. It's got a long, sometimes sordid (think of Jodorowsky blowing up all those poor frogs in The Holy Mountain or the tortoise being slaughtered in Cannibal Holocaust) history - I'm sure there have been plenty of dissertations written on it but what I think it comes down to is the unfathomable interior life of The Beast - we cannot know what is going on behind the eyes of these creatures, and so they will always remain strange, the Other. They're a nice short-cut to Uncanny Land, in other words.

And now, because I agree with Nathaniel that lists are super fun, here are the 5 fun instances of animals being used to inject a little surrealism into a film.

The Giraffe in The Great Beauty

The Escaped Zoo Animals in Twelve Monkeys

The Cat Attack in Let the Right One In

Chaos Reigns: The Fox in Antichrist

The Elephant Funeral in Sante Sangre

---

Name some of your favorites in the comments!

Friday
Sep262014

Ellen Page

Photographed for W Magazine by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin

Yum.

Friday
Sep262014

NYFF: '71, Your Opening Weekend Nightmare

The New York Film Festival begins tonight. Here's Nathaniel on the Irish thriller '71 starring this year's breakout actor Jack O'Connell (see also: Starred Up, and Unbroken)


Rookie soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is already breathing heavy when '71 begins. He and his fellow soldiers are deep in military drills, managing obstacle courses, target practice and running hard miles. Introductions are brief and rote as they meet their commanding officers, only one of whom drops the protocol for a little personality. Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid) attempts to win the new recruits over by admitting that's he's green in his position, too. This isn't comforting to everyone. Just as soon as we've begun the new soldiers get their orders and learn that they're not flying out but staying put in Ireland.

You aren't leaving this country." 

For some that sentence will be literal, and a fatalistic omen. But which country are we talking about? Whose country? Belfast in 1971, where the story takes place, was deep into "The Troubles," a bloody and decades long conflict over the identity of Ireland itself. [more...]

Click to read more ...