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NYFF 2014: Gala Screenings

gonegirlDavid Fincher was already a filmmaker with a significant body of work by the time he made Zodiac, but with that work, and the subsequent The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he established himself as one of the best directors in Hollywood. (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, though highly accomplished in many respects, was too flawed to be more than resolutely minor.) His newest opus, the satirical mystery Gone Girl, the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival, adapted from a brilliant, disturbing screenplay by Gillian Flynn, is of comparable stature with his most recent efforts and cements his reputation as one of the most remarkable of contemporary artists of the motion picture.

The ingenious if self-consciously preposterous plot of this movie is best left as a surprise; however, one can say that Fincher elicits enthralling work from his terrific cast, including Ben Affleck, in one of his best performances, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, and the impossibly glamorous Rosamund Pike. (The presence of Emily Ratajkowski — the luscious object who acquired fame upon her appearance in Robin Thicke's celebrated "Blurred Lines" video — in a small role, is another bonus, while Sela Ward has a glorious cameo.)

Mesmerizingly shot in widescreen and seamlessly edited, Gone Girl displays a consistent visual mastery, although I have some doubts that at the screening I attended the projector bulb was bright enough for the dark vision of the director and his cinematographer, the astonishing Jeff Cronenweth — it will be necessary to see this under better conditions to be sure that this film confirms Fincher's status as one of the greatest practitioners of shooting in digital. (Gone Girl also features an excellent score by the filmmaker's regular collaborator, Trent Reznor.) All in all, this is one of the strongest works in this festival.

Also of interest, if not of quite the same level of eminence, is this year's Festival Centerpiece, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an adaptation of a recent novella by the celebrated author, Thomas Pynchon, a paranoid, comic yarn about a hippie private eye — brilliantly played by the extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix, who also excelled in the filmmaker’s previous feature, The Master — in southern California in the 1970s. The director is one of the most distinguished stylists in contemporary Hollywood but, here, his mise-en-scène is not quite as dazzling as in The Master. (Anderson has also not yet mastered the digital format — in both this film and his last, he has elected to shoot in sunlight with many images unable to sustain the extremes in contrast.) Inherent Vice is most remarkable for its eccentric, sometimes hilarious, humor and for its star-studded cast, including Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Jeannie Berlin, Jefferson Mays, and Joanna Newsom. The effective score is by Johnny Greenwood, Anderson’s regular collaborator.

The terrific closing night film, which screened on October 11th, was Alejandro Gonzalez-Iñárritu's brilliant Birdman, about a washed-up Hollywood action star — played, in a bravura performance, by Michael Keaton — who attempts to stage a comeback by appearing in a Broadway play. The director is a favorite of the festival, having been featured here with his debut, Amores Perros, as well as the excellent 21 Grams. Shot in complexly choreographed long takes with a liberal employment of special effects and magical realist elements, the new film is a tour de force of Emmanuel Lubezki's extraordinary cinematography, a body of work that has attracted the attention of cinephiles especially for an astonishing recent collaboration with the great Terence Malick. Birdman effectively deploys several masterpieces of Western classical music in its soundtrack and also boasts a superb supporting cast, including Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Jeremy Shamos.

Bumbershoot's One Reel Film Festival

Bumbershoot's 1 Reel Film Festival, currated by the Seattle International Film Festival, was a charmed parade of "cinematic brevity" that came and went with a bang; a lavish celebration of the art form offering a smattering of delightful shorts. We had the in to cover as much as possible of this three day long engagement that afforded a chance for festival-goers to break up their day with some much deserved short film action and an equal opportunity for SIFF's bevy of committed programers to delight audiences from the age of four to a hundred with the likes of their distinctive taste for comedy, sci-fi and drama and all the nooks and crannies in between.

Read more: Bumbershoot's One Reel Film...

40 Film Reviews for SIFForty

40 films single-handedly seen by this one naive film critic has me all but overdosed on cinema. I'm fattened on art films. I'm backed up by having seen films from the US, the UK, Spain, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Norway, Australia, Hong Kong, Chile, South Korea, Canada, France, Ireland, South Africa, Greece, and Poland; my pipes all clogged by the sheer amount of celluloid spun out movie after movie. The long and short of it: SIFForty was a haul.

Read more: 40 Film Reviews for SIFForty

"Birds of a Feather" Flock to DOC NYC

Birds of a feather, literally and figuratively, flocked together in three notable documentaries from the fourth annual DOC NYC, held November 14 – 21, are succeeding to wider distribution, in theaters and iTunes, as well as special screenings.

Emptying The Skies

Bird-watching can be dangerous!  Debut directors Douglas Kass and Roger Kass embedded, like combat photographers, for a year with dedicated activists who are determined to save migrating songbirds over southern Europe from being caught en masse for gourmands.  Across Cyprus, France, and Italy, volunteers with organizations such as the Committee Against Bird Slaughter look even more aggressive on the land than the Sea Shepherds on Animal Planet’s Whale Wars or The Cove’s dolphin protectors in the oceans.

Doggedly enforcing (weak) European Union and government regulations, these shaggy international birders ruggedly camp out to follow the seasonal swarms being cruelly trapped by hunters and poachers.  Their Sisyphean task is to dismantle a range of traps, from the small scale of individual farmers resentfully claiming centuries of traditions with homemade baited rocks and roadside lime sticks coated with gum, to armed, organized crime gangs with high-tech lures, large-scale nets, and a frightening willingness to thuggishly attack those who interfere with their profits.  (Assaults are captured on the run and veterans display their scars.)  Sometimes the bird-lovers can even get to free or repair a few tiny beautiful creatures.  

Seen in the opening bird-watching in Central Park, executive producer Jonathan Franzen inspired the film with his titular 2010 essay in The New Yorker, when he first followed these intrepid avian knights in Malta and elsewhere.  But his article also provides context and more detail that’s a bit confusingly missing here on the legal, financial, cultural, and market issues.  Without that information on the practical political challenges, the impression is left that conservation education and anti-bird-eating campaigns would have more impact as extinctions loom than brave birders flying from trap to trap on foot.  Music Box Films’ theatrical release of this valiant documentary in Fall 2014 will go a long way to raise people’s consciousness and help stop the threat of a silent spring.

We Always Lie To Strangers

We Always Lie to Strangers Key ImageDon’t roll your sophisticated eyes at the thought of a documentary about the place that markets an image as the capital of cornpone.  Branson, Missouri, the entertainment mecca of wholesome traditional values, turns out to be more Glee than Hee Haw.  Of the ten thousand residents working real hard to keep almost eight million tourists a year happy on 100 stages, native Missourian directors AJ Schnack and David Wilson followed, over several years, four families who have to keep smiling onstage amidst financial woes and their own battles in the culture wars.  

Just as the title is a sardonic play on a folkloric joke, the locals are heard on their nights off far off the beaten path at a traditional Appalachian country guitar pull that wouldn’t fill any of their large commercial theaters, but clearly fills a meaningful spot in their musical souls.  While the [not Elvis] Presley family’s story is the most conventional benchmark to provide historical perspective (there’s lots of wonderful archival and contemporary clips), from founding theater operators to the ever-promoting mayor, the others reveal the sharp contrast between their onstage glitz and their offstage grit.  

The Lennon Family plays on the nostalgia for their matriarchs, the Lennon Sisters who were singing stars of TV’s The Lawrence Welk Show from 19551968.  But, surprisingly, they still think of themselves as Los Angelenos and have the (lonely) lefty California political ideas to match.  Most heartbreaking to watch are the strapped owner and performers, including single parents, in the struggling new Magnificent Variety Show whose kitschy patriotic revue and overly optimistic business plan (there’s no headliner like comedian Yakov Smirnoff or the singer Andy Williams seen in other shows) add to the considerable stress in wavering lives that are more like backstage Broadway than front row church pews.  

You would think it would be obvious that some of these exuberant extroverts who enjoy dressing up to sing and dance for the public acceptance of applause include gay artistes.  But this reality painfully crashes into the wholesome heartland rhetoric of the dominant evangelistic southern Christian environs to keep them shoved into the (costume-filled) closet at great personal cost.  After getting to know these show folks so intimately, their personal compromises to their hopes and dreams linger long after the last upbeat notes fade.  This moving and entertaining documentary is now available on iTunes.

A Will for the Woods

awfw posterThe very serious people gathered here are celebrating a life, and a good way to die.  Four directors -- Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson— tag-teamed every step in the final illness and death plans (300 hours worth) of the amazingly open musician, psychiatrist, and folk dancer Clark Wang.  As lively as the North Carolina 40-something is shown doing what he loved in his prime, and trying every means to conquer Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, he appreciated having a legacy as a role model for green burial.  This movement eschews the chemicals of embalming, the use of resources to make coffins, the pollution of cremation, and the artificiality of pristine cemeteries to have a minimal impact on the environment while conserving and replenishing natural areas.

Though the enemy here is what Jessica Mitford called "The American Way of Death" back in her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, much of what these new-agey sounding advocates describe and supervise here is simply what many religious traditions have undertaken for millennia, and continue to do so.  While there’s no mention that urban cemeteries were an innovation of the Romantic movement to bring beautiful multi-use green space to cities (such as Mount Auburn in Cambridge, MA, and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood), usefully shown are how cemeteries are now setting aside sections as green burial gardens, and the audience is encouraged to find such back-to-nature facilities in their community.  This useful and emotional primer in how to do a green burial with considerable dignity will be released in theaters nationally beginning August 2014.

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