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Clint Eastwood’s
Centerpiece of The 46th annual New York Film Festival

Starring: Angelina Jolie; John Malkovich; Jason Butler Harner; Jeffrey Donovan; and Amy Ryan.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The story of Christine Collins and the injustices which were perpetrated against her by the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s is the stuff that can inspire great filmmaking. It is also the type of material that can degenerate into cliché’d melodrama and become the stuff of mediocre TV movies.

Changeling is a film struggling to be the former and, sometimes, slipping into the latter.

Master auteur Clint Eastwood has proven that as he gets older, his work seems to become more nuanced and extraordinary. The WW2 bookends, Flags of Our Fathers and the brilliant Letters from Iwo Jima, two years ago, are proof enough of his talents and endurance as a filmmaker. And December will bring Gran Torino, Clint’s latest film.

Clint’s decision to bring the story of Collins to the screen is bold and admirable. And his choice of Angelina Jolie as the star is a pretty ballsy choice as well.

On a gorgeous Los Angeles day (redundant) in March of 1928, a single mom was forced to disappoint her nine-year old son, Walter, by going into work (she’s a telephone operator) instead of bringing him to the movies, as promised. Upon her return home, there is no sign of Walter; and so begins a harrowing and painful saga of a mother’s search for her son, which initially seems dire and futile.

Four months later, a boy matching Walter’s description is found in Illinois. Christine restlessly waits as the police arrange a media-saturated reunion between mother and son—the only problem is when Christine sees “Walter” she instantly knows it’s not her child but is coerced into bringing him home anyone. After a few weeks, she returns him and all hell breaks loose. How dare a woman question the LAPD? She must be delusional.

Christine soon finds herself institutionalized for daring to challenge the system. Enter Reverend Gustav, a vociferous activist against the corruption in the LAPD who does all he can to fight for her rights.

Simultaneously, another story is unfolding that involves the grisly murders of young boys.

In Eastwood’s hands, Changeling is a taut, tantalizing and compelling thriller. It holds you on the proverbial edge of your seat. It’s mightly powerful as the various cross-stories unfold and the audience is assaulted by a series of outrageous and unjust twists and turns. It provides hope, breaks your heart, makes your stomach churn and fosters anger and disgust at the people who are supposed to be our protectors.

Jolie’s performance is problematic. At the Festival press screening I overheard both extreme ends of the spectrum from “She’s phenomenal and will be Oscar nominated” to “She was terrible, one-note.” I don’t think either extreme is quite fair. Firstly, she is handicapped by a script that demands the most obvious, commonplace dialogue delivered in some incredibly formulaic scenes. And yet, even when there was no dialogue, her portrayal felt a bit too defiant and modern to me without the grit that should accompany it--Jessica Lange’s fierce and ferocious Frances comes to mind—almost as if she was forcing herself to hold back. And yet, maybe that was the right choice since she was a woman in a time when women were not allowed to challenge authority.

I never found her uninteresting or bad, simply off-track. Perhaps she’s just miscast. It’s hard to believe Angelina Jolie not speaking up for herself. Ultimately, I do blame the scripter, J. Michael Straczynski, since she was often forced to do her best with simply sub-par lines and scenarios.

John Malkovich, having a grand year after his terrific turn in Burn After Reading, dives into the role of the Reverend with great relish and perfect indignation.

Amy Ryan is pretty powerful is what amounts to a cameo role.

And while much praise will be lavished on the dastardly, camera-mugging Jason Butler Harner who plays the evil Gordon Northcott, my favorite supporting male turn was Jeffrey Donovan as the arrogant jackass police Captain who insists that Christine take the imposter boy home “on a trial basis” to save face.

Clint gets the period perfect with help from his crackerjack team including: James J. Murakami’s awesome Production design; Tom Stern’s wonderful camerawork and the haunting score, composed by Eastwood himself.

While my feelings about the film are mixed, I was always mesmerized and it made me want to learn more about the real Christine Collins as well as the murders. Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can give the film.

Laurent Cantet’s
The Class (Entre les murs)
Opening Night of The 46th Annual New York Film Festival

Starring: François Bégaudeau

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The winner of the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and France’s official entry into the Oscar race, Laurent Cantet’s engrossing film, The Class, opens the 46th annual New York Film Festival with a heap of accolades already in tow.

With an intense, docu-style narrative and a deliberately claustrophobic setting, Laurent and co-writer and star François Bégaudeau (who also wrote the novel the film is based on) and Robin Campillo, have created a fascinating microcosmic meditation on social justice and how one’s cultural and class background play into how much power that individual is allowed in any given society. In this case the ‘society’ happens to be a classroom.

The Class takes place entirely in a school or on the school premises, but mostly in François’s junior high school class. The movie chronicles one school year in the life of a teacher and his twenty-five students—although many get short-shrift in the screenplay to make way for the louder, more colorful characters.

Bégaudeau plays the autobiographical role of the teacher who seemingly cares a great deal about his students but whose low self-esteem and abundant pride get in the way when it matters most. It’s a sharp and impressive performance with the real/cinema lines blurring in a mesmerizing manner.

As for the student body ensemble: these are not the apathetic, indifferent zombies flooding the screens in recent American films (most notably in Antonio Campos’ irritating Elephant-wannabe, Afterschool, also playing the Festival), these are willful, obstinate, argumentative, intelligent students who challenge everything from the racist manner in which subjects are taught to the rules they are forced to follow in class.

The film features overlapping dialogue and improvised scenes that add to the naturalistic feel. Cantet’s frame is almost always filled with students. I wish he had used more of peripheral kids in the final cut.

What The Class does is ask urgent questions; questions about democracy and the fear of nonconformity. It may be a French film but it resonates intensely here in the good ol’ US of A.

Steve McQueen’s
46th Annual New York Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Five years ago, Lars Von Trier’s groundbreaking film, Dogville, had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. Lions Gate acquired it for distribution and dropped the ball completely. Instead of releasing it in 2003, where it might have gotten critical and awards attention, they dumped it in early 2004 with a practically non-existent promotion campaign. Dogville remains one of the true cinematic gems of the decade that no one has seen.

Steve McQueen’s gripping and ballsy film Hunger is, by far, the best film to show at this year’s New York Film Festival and one of the best films of 2008, that is if IFC (the company that has acquired it) is smart enough to not follow Lions Gate’s blunder and release the film in 2008. If they do, Hunger could find itself doing quite well since it’s a powerful and different take on an oft-told story. McQueen, like Von Trier--although in a completely different manner--fucks with the way an artist can tell a story onscreen. And in doing so rewrites the rules. The results are invigorating and mesmerizing.

Hunger takes us into the bowels of the psychological madness of prison life. The setting is Northern Ireland in 1981. The film recounts the events that lead up to the IRA hunger strike that took the life of nine prisoners including the leader, Bobby Sands.

The plot is pretty simple but the presentation is fascinating as McQueen and his co-writer Edna Walsh, structure the story in a most original way. We first meet prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), as he is brought in. His hair is violently cut and then he is thrown into a filthy cell (where smeared feces stain the walls in an almost-painterly way) with another non-conformist, Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), who trains him in how to behave and how to smuggle in items and communications.

We then meet Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and midway through the pic, there is an extended 22-minute scene between Bobby and his priest, Father Dominic (the extraordinary Liam Cunningham). McQueen holds the same shot of the two of them sitting across from one another for most of the duration of the scene. It’s an audacious move but the results are riveting as they discuss the morality and ethics involved in the notion of giving up your life for your cause. In this scene, in particular, the script probes all the questions and answers and, in the end, one is still left with a discouraging sense of futility.

The final act is the determination and simultaneous deterioration of Bobby, body, mind and spirit. McQueen doesn’t hold back as we watch the lesions grow on his emaciated body and witness the hallucinations caused by lack of food. Then we watch his parents seeing their boy near death.

In a devastating performance that is uncompromising and so bloody real it’s painful to watch, Michael Fassbender is simply astonishing as Sands. To say he embodies Sands completely is an understatement. Fassbender reminds one of Daniel Day Lewis with his total immersion into his character. It’s the bloody performance of the year.

McQueen, an artist making his motion picture feature debut, takes many unconventional liberties including allowing us to see what the guards who are doing the terrible torturing feel as well. It’s a bold idea that works brilliantly as we realize that they’re forced, by the Thatcher regime, to carry out horrific acts that go against their nature.

The look of the film is impressive, specifically Sean Bobbitt’s camerawork which is visually arresting.

The unrelenting, visceral depiction of Bobby’s decline is one of the many ways McQueen toys with the our senses, giving us a cinematic experience that cannot really be described as enjoyable, but can easily be called transcendent.


Ari Folman’s
Waltz with Bashir

46th Annual New York Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Ari Folman has created one of the most visually arresting, politically potent films of 2008. Ironically Waltzing with Bashir (in Hebrew with subtitles) is a documentary. It also happens to be an animated feature. The style is graphic novel meets anime meets live action and the end result is cinema that transcends the norms of storytelling to offer a disturbing, visceral experience for the viewer.

Waltz with Bashir follows Folman’s autobiographical journey of recollection concerning his involvement in the 1982 invasion of Beirut, as a member of the Israeli Army, and the discovered massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians by Christian Phalangists.

Exactly why did Folman decide that the best way to capture the haunting horrors of genocide onscreen was via animation?

With barely any archival footage, the notion of filming middle aged men against a black backdrop droning on about their horrendous experiences seemed pretty dull to Folman so, instead, he embarked on telling his surreal war story by way of animation where he could depict things in a new, exciting and graphically violent way without alienating an audience. In addition, the memory mystery aspect of the pic is emphasized via dreams, nightmares and speculative moments that would appear silly in a live action film.

The engrossing, non-fiction narrative begins in a bar where an old friend of Ari’s discusses a recurring nightmare he has about being chased by 26 angry dogs. He explains that the number is significant because he was ordered to murder that exact number of dogs during the Lebanon invasion over twenty years ago—yet he hardly recalls anything else about the conflict. In this early sequence the power of using animation becomes obvious since it would have been near impossible for Folman to recreate the dream visuals in as effective a way. The dogs are so real, so terrifying and seem to be charging directly at us onscreen that I almost lept out of my seat in fear!

After the opening sequence, Ari realizes that he, too, can hardly recall anything about the time when he was a soldier in the Israeli Army, so he embarks on a voyage of remembrance. Why has he repressed his memories of that time? What was his involvement in the invasion?

To help him fill in the blanks, he interviews other soldiers who were there and slowly is able to put the macabre pieces of the horrific puzzle together. Along the way, we become privy to the lunacy of combat and the hellish nature of war.

The movie plays like an exciting thriller-mystery but there is a sense of foreboding and dread as well. And as we watch the film lead to the inevitably tragic conclusion, we are left with feelings of disgust, outrage, disbelief and wonder.

Folman has the balls to ask hard questions. Questions that are important for his country, his continent and the world to ask. Folman: “Having made Waltz with Bashir from the point of view of the common soldier, I’ve come to one conclusion: war is so useless that it’s unbelievable. It’s nothing like you’ve seen in American movies. No glam, no glory. Just very young men going nowhere, shooting at no one they know, getting shot by no one they know, then going home and trying to forget. Most of the time they cannot.”

The film is fascinating cinema with vivid and dynamic visuals and an ending that will haunt the viewer for a long time to come. Folman has crafted a powerful, unique and devastating chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man. He has also written and directed one of the best films of 2008.

Kelly Reichardt’s
Wendy and Lucy
46th Annual New York Film Festival

Starring: Michelle Williams

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Wendy and Lucy is basically a road movie; a different type of road movie than audiences are used to seeing on the big screen. Not because the two leads are a young woman and a dog, but because the story commits itself completely to one financially destitute but tenacious vagabond in her quest for a better life for herself and her canine.

Wendy Carroll has left an unhappy life in Indiana; just how unhappy we are only given clues to, including a phone call where she seems to get along far better with her brother-in-law than her sister. Wendy is traveling with her best friend, Lucy (played by the filmmaker’s real dog), destination: Alaska. Of course, post-Sarah Palin, the desire to migrate to Alaska takes on an entirely new and disconcerting resonance.

Unfortunately, her car breaks down in Oregon, which leads to a series of desperate moves that lands her in jail and estranged from Lucy.

Michelle Williams embodies Wendy wholly and completely. She is onscreen for almost every shot so the viewer takes the journey with her and Reichardt does an amazing job of chronicling the minutia of her day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute strife-ridden existence. Williams, ironically, has a lost puppy-dog look throughout, as if she’s been beaten down so much in her short life that she had to leave, but she never seems to lose hope for something better and is never bitter about the lousy cards she’s been dealt.

Based on the short story, Train Choir by Jon Raymond (adapted by Raymond and Reichardt), Wendy and Lucy is stark, minimalist, anti-Hollywood cinema, but is never uninteresting or pretentious. Reichardt and Williams truly care about their protagonist and want her to find some semblance of a good life, but they’re also realistic enough to realize the odds are against it.

One gets the feeling there are far too many Wendys wandering around these United States trying to simply feed themselves and find a place in this land where they belong. The recent financial crisis makes this film even more urgent since many more Wendys will be out there soon.

Reichardt presents a piece of Americana that is difficult to swallow: a gorgeous landscape where the inhabitants do not care for one another; a dog-eat-dog world where, in the end, the dogs eat better than most people.

Darren Aronofsky’s
The Wrestler
Closing Night of The 46th annual New York Film Festival

Starring: Mickey Rourke; Marisa Tomei; Evan Rachel Wood; and Judah Friedlander.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Mickey Rourke gives the performance of his career in Darren Aronofsky’s riveting new film, The Wrestler. Okay, you’re thinking: “Well, now, is that really saying much?” But you must remember prior to hitting the wall and allowing the excesses of Hollywood to consume him, Rourke managed to carve out quite an impressive array of portrayals, specifically in Barry Levinson’s Diner, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart and Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly.

Still not convinced? Then allow me to rework that opening sentence: Mickey Rourke gives one of the best performances of the year in Darren Aronofsky’s riveting new film, The Wrestler. Better? Well, it’s true! Really.

As has-been wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke sears the screen It’s a complete transformation into this sweet, down-on-his-luck-lug, who feels more alive in the cheesy world of professional wrestling than anywhere else.

It’s a fairly simple story about a aging champion who’s physical ailments are beginning to prevent him from doing the outrageous stunts that will bring in any money and glory. Ram lives in a trailer park and works at a deli counter. He is estranged from his daughter (a moving Evan Rachel Wood) and begins to develop feelings for an aging pole dancer (Marisa Tomei), who has baggage of her own.

In the hands of a lesser director this could have been a paint-by-numbers, tug-at-your-heart popcorn flick. And while the screenplay, by former editor of The Onion Rob Siegel, is sometimes overly sentimental and a bit too Hollywood, Aronofsky decides to probe deeper. His camera follows Ram around like a pushy fan, wondering where he is going, what he’s doing next. Of course, this is the genius helmer of Requiem for a Dream, so it’s no surprise the film is as good as it is.

Aronofsky wants to delve into the pain that is felt by a man who, having made his career in the circus-like, wrestling world, must now figure out what he is trained to do if that world is no longer an option to him.

Rourke is simply remarkable. It’s a full-on, give-it-his-all turn and the results are exhilarating to watch. Mickey Rourke will be Oscar nominated for Best Actor. Trust me.

Having been unjustly overlooked by the Academy last year for Sidney Lumet’s astonishing Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Marisa Tomei delivers another vanity-free performance. She is poignant and her scenes with Rourke reek of real-life, which is wonderfully refreshing. Look for her to make the Supporting Actress list.

The Wrestler carefully tows the line between melodrama and realism and remains true to Ram’s hard-knock life. The final shot will leave you speechless and breathless.


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