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Features

Fassbinder Returns to Film Society

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s ambitious retrospective, Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist, is a near complete survey of the great filmmaker's work, including all of the theatrical features that he directed, along with many of television films, as well as films influenced by him or featuring him as an actor. The series concludes with the works of the second half of Fassbinder’s career — these screen from November 7th through the 26th — a phase which contains several of his most impressive masterpieces.

fearofearOne of the most remarkable and underrated films of this period is the rarely screened, well-written tele-film, the 1975 Fear of Fear, a study of the mental discrimination of a beautiful housewife, played by the fascinating Fassbinder muse, Margit Carstensen. The director’s mise-en-scène here — despite a few infelicities involving zooms — is at its most sophisticated, stylistically alluding to the baroque flourishes of Hollywood melodramas and films noir from the 1950s and late 1940s (Fear of Fear was photographed by the distinguished Jürgen Jürges, one of Fassbinder’s frequent collaborators).

The excellent supporting cast is drawn from the panoply of the director’s celebrated stock company, featuring Brigitte Mira, Irm Hermann, Adrian Hoven, Armin Meier, Kurt Raab, Ingrid Caven, Lilo Pempeit, and Hark Bohm, among others. Fassbinder’s regular composer, Peer Raben contributed a score that memorably evokes the neo-Romantic soundtracks of the American films that inspired Fear of Fear.

The 35-millimeter print being screened by the Film Society, despite some dirt and wear, still has much of the attractive gleam of a new copy, but blown up from the original 16-millimeter format, it is much too grainy.

Fear of Fear screens twice on Thursday, November 13th and once on Sunday, November 16th.

 

NY Film Fest '14 Sidebar

As one of its sidebars this year, the New York Film Festival is presenting a near-complete retrospective of the features helmed by the great Hollywood writer-director, Joseph Mankiewicz. Unfortunately, many of the films are being presented in digital versions while some of the 35-millimeter films are being presented in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center where, to my knowledge, the projection is inadequate, and, to add insult to injury, it's impossible to see all the films anyway since some titles are being projected simultaneously on different screens.
 
contessaposterHappily, one film, the magnificent, moving The Barefoot Contessa, the tragic story of a beautiful dancer — played by screen-goddess, Ava Gardner — who becomes a Hollywood star, was screened at the excellent Walter Reade Theatre in 35-millimeter. This work boasts an impressive cast, including Humphrey Bogart, above all, supported by Edmond O'Brien, Marius Goring, Rossano Brazzi, Valentina Cortese and Franco Interlenghi. The print was a UCLA restoration although it was inadequate as a reproduction of the original Technicolor process which must have looked extraordinary in initial release, given that the film was photographed by the legendary Jack Cardiff.
 
A few premieres of new feature films by major directors are being screened outside of the main slate of the festival — one that is as beautiful as almost any work in the main slate is the unexpectedly affecting For Queen and Country by the masterly John Boorman. A sequel to his celebrated autobiographical film, Hope and Glory, this new work picks up the story a few years later with his protagonist conscripted into the army in the early 1950s. The visionary streak and exalted high romanticism of some of Boorman’s earlier features is absent here, with the filmmaker working in a more nostalgic, largely comic vein. If For Queen and Country does not quite reach the pinnacle of the director’s oeuvre —it is not of the eminence of, say, Point Blank, Deliverance, or Beyond Rangoon —it is nonetheless an entrancing film. The cast here is outstanding, including Caleb Landry Jones (in a bravura performance), David Thewlis, Richard E Grant, Brian F. O’Byrne, and Sinead Cusack, among others. Boorman’s handling of the digital format is beyond criticism.

NY Film Fest '14 Filled With Gems

In Yann Demange's unexpectedly moving and atmospheric political thriller, '71, a British soldier in Belfast trapped in a Catholic district during the height of the Troubles fights to save his life and escape. Gregory Burke, author of the excellent and celebrated play, Death Watch, contributes a first-rate, deeply disenchanted screenplay while the director shows a confident command of the mechanics of suspense. The filmmaker favors an effectively expressionistic deployment of handheld shots, even if he may at times over-rely upon this technique. Demange is aided by a superb cast with the up-and-coming, hunky Jack O'Connell memorable as the protagonist; the members of the ensemble are adept at realizing the vivid characterizations of the screenwriter. The powerful, moody score is by Paul Holmes. By eschewing bright light entirely, the creators laudably employ the digital format with no deficiencies.
 
goodbyetolanguageWhat narrative elements there are in Jean-Luc Godard’s baffling but beautiful, Goodbye to Language, are nearly impossible to summarize upon a first viewing. The work as a whole appears to be a collage of many glorious fragments, an assemblage of gorgeous three-dimensional images, presumably unified by some hidden order, and bizarrely punctuated by scatological moments. On a purely formal level, though, this is another triumph for digital cinema.
 
In Martin Reijtman’s quizzical Two Shots Fired, a teenage boy shoots himself twice and survives; in the aftermath, his brother romances a girl that works at a fast food restaurant and his mother and music teacher take a trip to the beach together. The director favors an observational, quasi-minimalist style, with a consistent strain of deadpan humor — the film is engaging but also perplexing. Rejtman assembled an excellent cast and the control of lighting here is masterly — once again, the digital format is handled with unerring aplomb.
 
Not long after his extraordinary The Turning Gate, Hong Sang-soo seems to have abandoned his ambitions to be a major filmmaker, cultivating rather the distinction of an "exquisite minor", as exemplified by his charming new feature, Hill of Freedom, about a young, Japanese man that comes to Korea in search of young woman that is the object of his romantic interest. One pleasure of the film lies in its scrambled narrative structure, reflecting the letters the man his written to the woman, read by her out of order. The not un-Rohmerian, light comic tone of Hill of Freedom is of a piece with Hong's other recent features as its subtly distanced, long-take style — the filmmaker's use of zooms has become a trademark and enhance the humorous effect. Hong's direction of actors is characteristically good here and his employment of the digital format has finally attained real distinction.
 
Dominik Graf's The Beloved Sistershas the intrinsic interest of its subject: the story of the ménage à trois of Friedrich Schiller and the Lengefeld sisters. The film operates within classical norms without epitomizing the classical style. The director displays an admirable professionalism remarkably maintaining interest across the length of nearly three hours. Graf and his cinematographer achieve a reliably handsome image here and the digital format is exploited to laudable effect.
 
Alice Rohrwacher's haunting The Wonders is a naturalistic study of a family of beekeepers in Italy that enter a contest for local farmers. The director displays a remarkable sensitivity to her wonderful cast, including her sister, Alba Rohrwacher, and the incomparably beautiful, Monica Bellucci. Rohrwacher employs a poetic, verité style, and evidences a thoughtfulness about how to satisfactorily capture the bright sunlight of the Italian landscape in digital.
 
Eugène Green's enigmatic La Sapienza,about an architect and his wife that travel to Italy and meet a young pair of siblings, adheres to a rigorous formalism: the film is dominated by strictly symmetrical compositions — where it departs from this, the symmetry is frequently restored in countershot. Another eccentricity involves shooting actors head-on, particularly when speaking. The abstract dialogue is reminiscent of the work of Eric Rohmer but the director eschews realistic performances as well as non-diegetic music, barring a setting of the Magnificat by Claudio Monteverdi heard at the opening and close of the narrative. This is another work difficult to evaluate upon a first viewing. I should add, however, that the use of digital here is splendid.
 
Inspired by true events, Josh and Benny Safdie's powerful Heaven Knows What tells the story of a young junkie in contemporary Manhattan. Visually, the film is a study of the expressive power of the telephoto lens. The mesmerizing cinematography is by the widely admired Sean Price Williams and the directors cite the crucial collaboration of Ronald Bronstein as co-writer and co-editor. Once again, the filmmakers display a thorough appreciation of the limitations of shooting in a video format.
 
Maverick filmmaker Abel Ferrara's unconventional biographical of the great Italian writer and director, Pasolini, starring Willem Dafoe in the title role, demonstrates considerable intimacy with the artist's life and work although I found its total effect to be one of diffuseness. The legendary Adriana Asti plays Pasolini's mother but the finest pleasures here may be that of Maria de Medeiros as Laura Betti and the unexpected presence of Ninetto Davoli. Once again, the use of digital here is a marked improvement over Ferrara's previous feature at this festival, 4:44- Last Day on Earth, which had its local premiere at the New York Film Festival.
 
The choreographic couplings of Matias Piñeiro's mysteriously beguiling The Princess of Francerecall the work of Jacques Rivette. The director's mise-en-scene is elegant although this is another film that resists evaluation or even summary on a first viewing. Here too the employment of a digital format is well-executed. The intriguing films of Piñeiro are a valuable discovery of the Film Society, which has recently spotlighted his work.
 
pasolini-posterIn the final feature by Alain Resnais, Life of Riley, he for the third time in his career brings to the screen a work by the brilliant dramatist, Alan Ayckbourn — here the story concerns the sometimes comically vexed relationship of three couples to a man who is dying of cancer. The director eschews a realistic treatment, choosing to preserve and emphasize the theatricality of the original material, as he has done in several previous adaptations from the stage. If this is not one of the best of Resnais's late achievements, it exudes considerable charm on account of its stellar cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz, Caroline Silhol, along with two of the filmmaker’s regulars, the delightful Sabine Azema and André Dussollier. Handsomely photographed in widescreen, the fine use of digital here is an improvement on that of Resnais’s previous feature, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, which also had its local premiere at this festival.
 
Mia Hansen-Løve's dazzling youth film, Eden, about the rise and fall of a professional DJ across a span of two decades, is a visual tour de force of brisk, camera movements and fluid editing, although the resemblance between her style here and that of her husband, Olivier Assayas, is uncanny. The attractive cast of unknowns is supplemented by the welcome presence of Arsinee Khanjian, Greta Gerwig, Brady Corbet, and the alluring Laura Smet. Shot largely in the dark of night, the digital look of the film is coolly evocative.
 
One of the fascinations of the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is its at times implicit dialogue with the masterpieces of Robert Bresson —Rosetta appears to remake Mouchette while L'Enfantappears to revise Pickpocket— in both cases, the Dardenne brothers purge the metaphysical dimension from Bresson and replace it with a version of historical materialism. In their gripping new film, Two Days, One Night, one of the strongest at this festival, about a young woman's attempt to convince her co-workers to vote for her to keep her job, the emphasis on sheer chance is once again reminiscent of Bresson. The lovely Marion Cotillard is outstanding in the lead role and Dardenne stalwart Olivier Gourmet has an excellent cameo. Shooting largely in bright sunlight, the filmmakers strain against the limitations of the range of contrast of the digital format, this film's one disappointment.
 
Comparable in stature to Two Days, One Night is David Cronenberg's dark satire of Hollywood, Maps to the Stars, from a scathing screenplay by Bruce Wagner. (The ingenious plot is better left a surprise.) The director's mise-en-scene and editing are characteristically mesmerizing but once again he has assembled a magnificent cast, including Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams and John Cusack. Cronenberg and his extraordinary director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, have succeeded in mastering the digital format — the image quality here is exceptional.
 
In the mystical Jauja, by the esteemed Lisandro Alonso — this year's Filmmaker-in-Residence at the Film Society of Lincoln Center — a Danish man, played by the terrific Viggo Mortensen, sets out alone in the Patagonian landscape of the 1870s to find his missing daughter who has eloped with a young, Argentine soldier. This strange work is not without its baffling dimensions as it astonishingly turns from an atmospheric naturalism to phantasmagoria. Alonso and his cinematographer created an unusual but arresting color palette to record the stunning landscapes of the film's setting, achieving a striking, hallucinatory effect, although the digital format's narrow range of contrast is not always completely adequate to photographing the scenes in bright sunlight.
 
Bertrand Bonello’s accomplished Saint Laurent, a biographical film about the marvelous fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, focuses on a ten-year period of his career, from 1967 to 1977. The director displays a sensitivity to framing, camera movement and editing, rendering this work several cuts above the tradition-of-quality film that this subject might have engendered. Over and above its formal virtues and its interesting screenplay, Saint Laurent is bejeweled by a superb cast, including Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel, the lovely Léa Seydoux, Brady Corbet, and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi — in an extraordinary scene, she is, as usual, extraordinary — as well as screen legends Helmut Berger and Dominique Sanda. The use of digital is here is well-handled on the whole although the film is marred by a few awkward zooms. The original music, composed by the director, is strong.
 
Abderrahmane Sissako's episodic, quasi-neorealist Timbuktu portrays the rise of radical Islamism in that historic city. The director's humanistic approach is touching —even if the ultimate effect is tragic and alarming — and he proceeds with considerable humor. Attractively photographed in widescreen, Timbuktu is notable insofar as even when shooting in daylight in the Sahara desert, the filmmakers attain a digital image that sustains the extremes of contrast rather well. I might add that the film is graced by a haunting soundtrack featuring African music.
 
Another work in a realist vein is Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, a biographical portrait of the sublime nineteenth-century painter, J. M. W. Turner, although the director's penchant for individuating performances by repetition of behavioral mannerisms runs against the grain of any naturalism. Still, this must be the filmmaker's most Renoirian opus, although Leigh's merits as a director have more to do with his screenplays and his actors than to the expressive mise-en-scène of his forbear. The acting is characteristically wonderful, featuring Timothy Spall in the lead role, supported by Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville and many others.
 
grim sleeperThe only documentary in the main slate this year is Nick Broomfield's verité film, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, about the Grim Sleeper serial murders in South Central Los Angeles. This is a characteristically scathing indictment of the police investigation but less absorbing than several of the director's previous investigative works. Cinematically, Tales of the Grim Sleeper is of minimal interest, holding one's attention mainly through the compelling nature of the film's content. (However, I should add that Broomfield's earlier, underrated narrative feature, Dark Obsession, was stylistically very accomplished.)
 
In Clouds of Sils Maria directed by Olivier Assayas, a long-term favorite of this Festival, an aging actress, played by the glamorous Juliette Binoche, discovers new complications in her relationship with her independent-minded, self-possessed personal assistant (Kristen Stewart), as she takes on a role in a play that she had performed in twenty years before. The puzzlement that this film elicits — because the note of inauthenticity that pervades the dialogue either represents a failure in the filmmakers’ intentions or is exactly what they sought to realize— softens its emotional impact. The director’s style is consistently controlled, but this work doesn’t have the hypnotic intensity of some of his best films — for example, Late August, Early September or Les Destinées sentimentales. The supporting cast is of interest, featuring Chloë Grace Moretz and the legends, Hans Zischler and Angela Winkler. The use of the digital format here is generally well-handled.
 
Alex Ross Perry's entertaining Listen Up, Philip, about the interpersonal entanglements of an up-and-coming, young writer in New York, is driven by clever dialogue and the exhilarating performance of the inimitable Jason Schwartzmann in the title role. Shot in Super-16 format by the talented cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, the film is dominated by close-ups and highly edited within scenes, achieving a jagged quality. The tone of the film strongly recalls the work of Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson and is an extended homage to the life and work of Philip Roth — going so far as to reproduce the specific font used for the covers of that author's books and featuring Jonathan Pryce as a Roth-surrogate. Elisabeth Moss is superb as one of protagonists girlfriends. The conversion to digital here is seamless.

Life or Something Like It

Grace of Monaco

Biographical films aren’t what they used to be, and thank goodness for that. Many of those inspirational, by-the-numbers celluloid (er, digital) resumes are thud-worthy. At Cannes there are a few biographies, and while not all are works of genius, many take a different approach to the genre.

The festival opened with Olivier Dahan’sGrace of Monaco,” starring Nicole Kidman as Princess Grace, nee Kelly. Alright, this is not the best example of a new style of biography. In fact in this version of her life, Princess Grace single-handedly saves a world on the brink of war, when she gets all the right people to attend a Red Cross benefit. On top of that, she discovers family traitors in the ranks in a story of palace intrigue. Who knew?

Mr. Turner” by Mike Leigh, stars Timothy Spall as the eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner. In addition to the apparently huge amount of research done by Leigh and Spall, the film itself has the look and feel of a Turner painting. Spall is magnificent as the solitary painter who had a genius way of painting but has the look and feel of a feral animal when it comes to most human contact. As with another great work by Leigh that deals with historical - and artistic - characters, “Topsy Turvy” (about Gilbert and Sullivan), the film doesn’t lay out the characters’ entire life. No flashback to childhood so we might understand why Turner is the way he is. Instead we are treated to a moment in his life; a sketch, perhaps, that give us a hint to the life of the man.

foxcatcher posterSaint Laurent,” Bertrand Bonello’s fantastical and exciting portrait of the designer, comes on the heels of a fairly standard bio of Yves Saint Laurent. That one uses a prosthetic nose so that we recognize the main character. Bonello does no such thing. His actors (two portray Saint Laurent at different stages) simply embody the man, and so we know him very well by his words, his movements. Bonello uses lavishness in the characters and the photography to represent an excessive era.

Speaking of prosthetics, Steve Carell does use one to inhabit the character of disturbed (to say the least) millionaire John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” And while his portrayal is intensely disturbing, this writer spent a great deal of time internally remarking that Steve Carell was hidden under that nose. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum used no such devises to play the Schultz brothers. Miller depends on these intense portraitures to evoke that strange happenings on the du Pont estate.

Jessica Hausner’s “Amour Fou” tells the story of 19th century poet Heinrich von Kleist, who committed suicide along with his lover, Henriette Vogel. The film comes off as a studied, wry comedy. By the way, that’s comedy in the Shakespearian sense; that is, Hausner does not view suicide as tragedy. Instead, she creates a period set piece that veers on the absurd.

With the exception of “Grace of Monaco,” each of these films gives a new look to biographical drama. Taken together they represent not just deeper looks at real life, but instead using true stories and characters to propel cinematic storytelling, a win for viewers, certainly – but also a win for the future of biographical storytelling.

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