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Lars von Trier’s
Antichrist
47th Annual New York Film Festival (2009)

Written by Lars Von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe; Charlotte Gainsbourg


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

A horror film born out of the disturbed, genius mind of auteur provocateur Lars von Trier, Antichrist is one of the most disturbing and deliberately enigmatic films of 2009. It will also prove to be one of the most divisive.

In the press notes, von Trier invites his audience to “glimpse into the dark world of my imagination; into the nature of my fears…” von Trier admits the film was made during one of his most severe depressions and he pretentiously calls it: “the most important film of my entire career.” After seeing the film twice, I have more of an appreciation and understanding of the work than I did after the first viewing —although many moviegoers will find it difficult to sit through once.

In the visually and viscerally stunning Prologue, a married couple played by Willem Dafoe (marvelously chilling) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (a bold and daring performance), are in the throws of passionate sex. Their young son awakens and watches them for a spell. He then walks over to a window and falls out. The camera juxtaposes shots of Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s carnal bliss with the son moving towards the window. As he horrifically falls to his death, we are presented with shots of the parents in orgasmic ecstasy. The scene is beautifully shot (by Slumdog Millionaire photog Anthony Dod Mantle) in slow motion black and white with a rhapsodic Handel vocal accompanying it. Never has the terrible been so visually arresting.

Highly influenced by the misanthropy of playwright August Strindberg, von Trier goes on to explore the Grief, Pain and Despair (the first three chapter headings) felt by the couple as well as the guilt, fear and dark sexual desires that motivate them. Dafoe is a therapist who arrogantly attempts to treat his wife who, in turn, accuses him of being indifferent to their son’s death. At the end of the the second chapter (Pain) she seems to be on the mend, although a disemboweled fox appears and announces, “Chaos Reigns.” No, I am not joking.

By the time we get to the ominously dark forest (Eden), the stage has been set, symbolically, evocatively and psychologically for something evil to occur. And, oh, does it…

(PLEASE STOP READING UNLESS YOU DON’T MIND MAJOR SPOILERS)

One of the helmer’s hypotheses is that nature is not the wonderland we’ve been led to believe it is, but it is in fact “satan’s church”—a place where the malefic, wicked and demonic thrive and rule. In the fourth and final chapter, titled The Three Beggars (a fox, crow and deer—inversions of the three kings), von Trier’s deliberate and fascinating bastardization of Christianity reaches full bloom as the Gainsbourg character becomes possessed and completely unhinged.

von Trier loves to provoke his audience and there’s no better way to do so then by showing some good old fashioned genital mutilation. Both screenings I attended produced walk outs, disgusted grunts, jeering and exclamations that the film was excrement. Shouts of misogyny—nothing new for a von Trier pic—abounded as well.

Regardless of one’s take, von Trier is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who dares to challenge, rattle and ask very difficult and cosmic questions about the dark side of human nature—male and female and how the sexes relate (or do not relate) to one another. His style is highly influenced by old Hollywood but he turns each genre on its ear and then gives it a swift kick in the ass. His films startle, enrage and mesmerize. Antichrist, in that vein, does not disappoint.

The film’s Epilogue initially bothered me, and not in a typical cathartic-von Trier way (as with his best films, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville), until I stopped internally defending him from misogyny. When I allowed the idea the film (arguably) puts forth that women are these destructive, satanic figures, so much of the (over use of) symbolism began to enhance my understanding of the film. Dafoe must crawl and hide in a hole in the earth (a large vaginal opening) if he is to survive. The beggar deer-- appears to be walking around with either an open abortion or miscarriage—lending credence to the idea that the Gainsbourg character is responsible for her son’s death (we see her in flashback deliberately putting the wrong shoes on the wrong feet so his balance is shaky). As a matter of fact, Mother Nature seems to be one large gaping vagina ready to swallow Dafoe—and all men--up.

In a press conference following the NY Film Fest screening--via Skype since von Trier has a fear of traveling and has never been to the US—he explained that the title refers to the fact that he believes there is no God. That notion is quite evident in the bleak, brilliant and hopeless ending. If women are, indeed, evil, the facelessly feminine conquest of the planet of the living females is proof enough that there can be no God, and if, perchance, there is—according to von Trier—she’s a man-hating, sexually-decimating bitch!




Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)

Pedro Almodovar’s
Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)
47th Annual New York Film Festival (2009)


Written by Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Penelope Cruz; Lluis Homar; Tamar Novas; Blanca Portillo; Ruben Ochandiano; and Jose Luis Gomez

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Like Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodovar’s film oeuvre is highly personal. The sheer pleasure one derives from experiencing an Almodovar ‘pelicula’ is in knowing the world you are about to abandon yourself to is a fresh and invigoratingly novel one-- a celluloid treasure trove of images and dialogue that are specific to the auteur. Like the works of Fellini and Bergman, appreciating Almodovar is allowing his work to wash over you like waves on a beach. His technologically savvy, splendiferously colorful visual feast caressing you. His pretentiously jaw-dropping plot reveals slamming you. The sheer lunacy of it all deviously carrying you out to sea—before you even realize it’s happening.

Broken Embraces is the helmer’s 17th feature and, like many of his best films, deals with love, lust, betrayal and the wonderful insane world of filmmaking. And like much of Woody Allen’s best work, is also a valentine to films—and, running the risk of hubris, Almodovar films, in particular.

Blind screenwriter Harry Caine (Lluis Homar of Bad Education) used to also double as celebrated screen director Mateo Blanco, that is until his sight was taken from, him fourteen years earlier, in a tragic auto accident. Harry must now write with the aid of handsome young Diego (Tamar Novas) who is the son of his former production manager Judit (Blanca Portillo). The death of a former producer and the appearance of a mysterious gay guy calling himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) rattles Harry and when Diego almost dies of a drug overdose, Harry decides to revisit the haunting past that has web-like implications for each and every character.

The story moves back and forth up to this point but now grounds itself in the past for a while as we witness Harry/Mateo making his film Girls and Suitcases, and falling in love with the exquisitely gorgeous and cine-chameleon-like Lena (Penelope Cruz). Unfortunately for the lovers, Lena is in a relationship with elderly producer Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) who keeps a dangerously watchful eye on her every move.

The maze-like plot twists and splashes until the consequences of this ill-fated romance are fully revealed as only Almodovar can reveal them.

Almodovar master blends fifties noir, melodrama, comedy and the suspense/thriller to give us a rich, dazzling and spellbinding homage to many a 50s and 60s picture (Sirk, Rossellini and many more), while Cruz evokes Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman.

Cruz continues to prove she is an acting force. As Lena she is elusive and fascinating. It’s a lovely and delicate performance.

Homar manages to be sympathetic without playing the pathos. And Novas is a newcomer to watch. He is strikingly handsome and compelling.

The production values dazzle. Rodrigo Prieto’s camera work is particularly sumptuous and the extreme close-ups of Cruz are alluring and enticing.

Almodovar reworks his own gem, Women of the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and weaves it into Broken Embraces in a clever and charming way. Connoisseurs of the director’s body of work are given a cherry-on-the-film-cake feeling of joy that provides deeper meaning to the work and reveal his mad love for the art form.



Samuel Maoz’s
Lebanon

47th Annual New York Film Festival (2009)

Written by Samuel Maoz
Starring: Yoav Donat; Itay Tiran; Oshri Cohen; and Michael Moshonov

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Last year's New York Film Festival featured Ari Folman’s meditation on the toll the Lebanon War of 1982 took on Israeli soldiers as well as the Palestinian victims. He did it via docu-auto-bio-animation and the result was one of the most haunting and affecting films of 2008.

Samuel Maoz has crafted an autobiographical film based on his experience in the same war. His approach is quite different from Folman’s but just as audacious. The entire film takes place within the confines of an armored tank during the first 24 hours of what was supposed to be a simple mission. The only view we get of what is going on outside is through what our soldiers see via the gun barrel.

The four soldiers are all in their early 20s. Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner, is the Maoz’s character—who has a hard time firing when he is ordered to. Assi (Itay Tiran) is their apprehensive commander. Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) is the loader who argues every order he is given. And Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver, proves he isn’t the most astute of the bunch.

The mission is to clean up a bombed Lebanese village. But things go very wrong and these boys are forced to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

Maoz and his Das Bootian claustrophobic camera captures the uncertainty, confusion and sheer terror felt by these soldiers on their first mission who are told by their commanding officer to “Be creative. Improvise,” in moments of peril. The statement ‘war is hell,’ easily becomes ‘war is lunacy,’ as we watch the terror on their faces and the chaos that ensues.

All four actors are tremendously gifted and serve the film well.

Maoz has created one of the most unrelentingly grim and viscerally horrific, yet mesmerizing and powerful films of 2009.



Joao Pedro Rodrigues’s
To Die Like a Man (Morrer Como Un Homem)

47th Annual New York Film Festival (2009)

Written by: Joao Pedro Rodrigues; Rui Caralao; and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata
Starring: Fernando Santos; Alexander David; Goncalo Ferreira de Almeida; and Chandra Malatitch


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Almodovar meets Fassbinder with a splash of John Greyson in Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ bizarre, uneven, yet ultimately rewarding film, To Die Like a Man.

Set in Lisbon, Portugal in the late 80s, the surreal opening finds two young male soldiers prepping for war but ending up having sex with one another before an insult prompts a seemingly ridiculous act of violence.

Cut to the world of Tonia (Fernando Santos), a pre-op transsexual whose drag show is becoming less and less popular as he ages. His junkie boyfriend Rosario (Alexander David) causes him more trouble than he seems to be worth. To muddy matters, Tonia has a son Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch) who breaks into his home and tosses strange objects into his aquarium (including a high heel pump and a half-eaten chicken bone). Zé Maria, it turns out, was one of the soldiers in the film’s prologue—although one is never certain if he is actually alive or simply exists in Tonio’s mind as the son he failed.

Oddball moments abound including an “enchanted forest” sequence where Tonia and Rosario take a wrong turn and encounter two drag queens and a weird doctor. The segment is a bit too lengthy and has moments of sheer cinema chutzpah featuring an extended musical break as the camera remains stationary (although the hues change) and we hear Baby Dee’s ‘Calvary’ on the soundtrack. But there is something unusually captivating about it. The same could be said for the film.

What makes To Die Like a Man worth the 133 minute sit is the unlikely love story at the heart of the film. When we first meet Tonio and Rosario, we assume one thing about their relationship, but as the narrative ebbs and flow, we get a very different portrait—one of two people who truly belong together. Santos’s maddeningly conflicted Tonio could have been camp but the actor keeps him grounded. David is the real revelation here. His Rosario is so much more than we are led to believe and in the last moments we wholly understand his motivation.




Lee Daniels’s
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
47th Annual New York Film Festival (2009)


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Screenplay by Damien Paul, based on the novel by Sapphire.
Starring: Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe; Mo’Nique; Mariah Carey; Paula Patton; Lenny Kravitz.

A journalist at the NY Film Festival press conference asked director Lee Daniel’s if he felt his new pic Precious represented a bold, new step forward in ‘urban filmmaking.’ The helmer smiled widely and modestly sidestepped answering directly, which was the perfect way of handling it since Precious should not be pigeon-holed into one genre. It’s an amazing film that should appeal to all moviegoers who appreciate quality.

The actual story has Lifetime movie written all over it. What makes the film rise above your typical made-for-TV fare is the manner in which the narrative unfolds and, specifically, depicts the inner world of our protagonist. Of course, the fact that the film boasts some of the best female performances of the year doesn’t hurt.

Claireece “Precious” Jones is an illiterate, overweight 16-year old black girl with very little self-esteem.

Pregnant with her second child by her own father--who has vanished—she’s about to get kicked out of school. Her mother loathes her and when she’s not using her as a house slave, she’s abusing her—quite literally. Mom is obsessed with the lottery, watching game shows on TV and keeping her welfare checks coming. Precious enrolls in a GED prep school and meets a teacher who will forever change her life and show her that she isn’t the worthless person her mother is constantly telling her she is.

Precious is a film that seems to run against our country’s own sad view of intellectual pursuit. The film’s message has education triumphing over ignorance. How refreshing is that? A film that proves learning actually begets a whole new world of possibilities for all people.

Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe is perfection as the title character. The newcomer is able to capture the pain, confusion, anger and deep desire to escape the hell she was born into. It’s a marvel of a performance and one that will surely be remembered as awards season unfurls. Sidibe’s sweet smile alone, gave me goosebumps. And in the (too) few scenes depicting her mindescape, she comes completely out of her shell, whether she’s a film star on the red carpet or the lead girl group singer—she’s simply divine!

The stand-up comic Mo’Nique delivers a powerhouse portrait of a seemingly inconceivable mother. This is one of the most horrific monster mom’s ever created onscreen. This is not a campy Mommie Dearest performance to savor and enjoy. This is a true-blooded, terror of a mother who’s so ignorant she blames her own daughter for the fact that she was molested, starting at the age of three. Mo’Nique will be nominated for an Oscar, the sheer courage in her embodiment of this horrorwoman, demands that. And the fact that we are actually able to feel some sympathy for this ogre, albeit near the film’s end, is an extraordinary feat on her part. Although once the reason for her hatred is revealed, we are even more horrified.

An unrecognizable Mariah Carey is quite effective as a jaded social worker who attempts to get Precious to tell the truth about her homelife. Carey goes without any makeup or glam and proves she actually has acting chops.

Paula Patton breathes nuance and grace into the role of the teacher who happens to be the first (only) person who believes in Precious. In a scene where Precious has a monologue about all the terrible things life has dealt her, Patton fiercely demands she stop feeling sorry for herself and write.

Tech credits are good with highest marks going to Joe Klotz’s inventive editing.

The script, by Damien Paul, is crisp and tries its best to avoid clichés. The harrowing scenes between mother and daughter are particularly well written.

Daniels proves he’s a good director. At times, there’s a certain clumsiness to the film, but Daniels does a magnificent job of blending the borderline melodramatic elements of the plot with exhilarating comic moments and always keeping focus on Precious, herself, a young girl who matters—and actually begins to believe that important and life-altering fact.


 



Marco Bellocchio’s
Vincere (Win)

47th Annual New York Film Festival (2009)

Written by Marco Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli
Starring: Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Marco Bellocchio’s amazing new film Vincere is based on fact and begins in 1907 with a young, then budding journalist and Socialist, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) provoking a crowd by standing up and telling God that he has five minutes to strike him dead to prove his existence. The beautiful Ida Dalser looks on completely enthralled. It’s this arrogant, hubristic behavior that marks who he will become and her reaction personifies the way an entire nation will find themselves entranced, beguiled and, ultimately, deceived by this titan.

The early part of the film moves back and forth between 1907, when they first meet and 1914, on the eve of WW1. Their first love scene is magnificently shot as a demonic Mussolini makes love to Ida, body thrusting, eyes bulging as he looks outward. It’s as if he’s fixated on raping the future. But there is also an extremely palpable sexual connection between the two.

In 1914, they marry and Ida sells everything she has to finance his newspaper and one year later, she bears him a son (named Benito). She soon learns that he has married another woman. As he begins to distance himself from her, she demands he do right by her. (Ida could never produce a marriage certificate, but many sources state that they were indeed married before Mussolini’s acknowledged marriage to Rachele Guidi).

As his power rises, she becomes more stubborn and insistent that she and her son are legitimized. This leads to her being institutionalized, yet Ida never wavers. Had she agreed to be quiet, she probably could have lived out a wealthy existence but she refused. Was it stubborn pride? A true belief in their love? A belief justice would win out?

Or the need to know her child would be provided for?

In a gripping scene, with the help of a nun, Ida escapes and returns to her village in hopes of seeing her son one last time. She does not and as she leaves town the only thing she defiantly says to her fellow townfolk is, “Don’t forget me.” History (and cinema) would ultimately vindicate her, albeit more than half a century later as new evidence has come to light about this incredible true story.

Bellocchio is a master who knows the language of cinema and how to rewrite that language to great effect. He mixes archival footage with his own beautifully shot intimate moments. After Ida is institutionalized, the only Mussolini we see is the real dictator which leads to a very funny moment where she sees him in a newsreel and comments on how he’s changed and is now bald.

Genius production values help create the perfect mood and tone of the film from Daniele Cipri’s arresting cinematography to Francesca Calvelli’s intricate editing to Gaetano Carito’s exquisite costumes to Marco Dentici’s ravishing production design to Carlo Crivelli’s magnificent score.

Vincere also boasts two of the best performances of the year.

Filippo Timi’s feral and focused Mussolini is a frightening depiction of ambition and lust—sexual and political. In the first half of the film Timi shows us the human side of Mussolini, before he becomes the consumed monster. And Timi’s portrayal of the dictator’s ill-fated son is equally astounding. In two brief scenes he is able to convey just how consumed with his mother’s manipulations he is and how terrifyingly mad he’s become. Timi is one of Italy’s rising stars.

Mezzogiorno has proven her acting chops in Ferzan Ozpetek’s Facing Windows and Cristina Comencini’s Don’t Tell. It was unfortunate that she was involved in one of the biggest filmic travesties of the last decade, Love in the Time of Cholera. Vincere should completely erase that mess. Her Ida is a ballsy, unwavering force of a woman and Mezzogiorno carries the film grandly.

Both actors deserve award consideration and if Italy is smart enough to select Vincere as their Foreign Language film entry and the nominating committee isn’t on crack, it should have no trouble securing a nomination.

Besides the obvious modern relevance the film has in Italy and here in the US, Vincere also comments on the totalitarian ways of the Vatican. Catholicism has always had a stranglehold over Italy. Mussolini’s renunciation of his real first wife and child was necessary for him to rise to power unblemished with the needed blessing of the Pope—which he got. The pretense of morality in the Church has always been more important than morality itself.




Michael Haneke’s
The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)

47th Annual New York Film Festival (2009)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Michael Haneke; screenplay consultant, Jean-Claude Carriere.
Starring: Christian Friedel; Leonie Benesch; Ulrich Tukur; Ursina Lardi; Burghart Klaussner


If Lars von Trier is cinema’s current emotional provocateur, Michael Haneke may be cinema’s intellectual provocateur.

With The Piano Teacher (2003), Caché (2005) and Funny Games (1997 as well as his English language remake in 2007), Haneke has managed to distress, provoke and fascinate via cine-mental machinations. He, like von Trier, is a divisive filmmaker.

The White Ribbon is Haneke’s best film to date. It’s an incredibly riveting and disturbing tale that warns viewers that what they are about to see may go a long way in explaining some of the atrocious behavior by the German people in the decades that will follow.

The film is set in a small Protestant village in Northern Germany right before World War I breaks. A series of questionable acts befall a quiet, God-fearing community: a local doctor is seriously injured; the Baron’s son is beaten and tied upside down and a sweet, mentally-retarded boy’s face is mutilated. Who is committing these heinous acts? And why?

We are slowly introduced to the townsfolk who include a schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) and the young gal he’s in love with (Leonie Benesch); the powerful Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his family and a Protestant Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and his children who are punished for visiting a friend, given 10 strikes of the cane and forced to wear a white ribbon to remind them of “innocence and purity.” (Thoughts of masturbation by the young boy lead to more corporal punishment including having his hands tied to his bed at night.)

As the mosaic plot proceeds we become privy to exactly who the culprit (s) are/is…

The ensemble is to be highly commended. Haneke has assembled a terrific group of actors to tell his grim tale.

The film is shot in striking black-and white, by Christian Berger, with deliberate static shots held while certain queasy activities occur off-camera allowing the viewer to use his or her noodle to sometimes figure out what is happening.

Haneke allows the audience some of their own creativity with the story but the intent is pretty potent and obvious in the end. Make no mistake; Haneke is basically stating that the seeds of Nazism were planted by the rigid Protestant repression that pervaded the country. The notion of extreme religious righteousness leading to evil-doing is nothing new (see: Catholicism) but to witness the outcome of this film--the responsible parties unveiled—is a shock, not because it comes as such a surprise but because the implications make such insane sense! Watching the innocent become macabre monsters, I was reminded of how we are taught to hate. Religious fundamentalists TEACH their children to hate gays…to hate anyone…who doesn’t agree with their views. And that can and does lead to hate crimes.

At 144 minutes, the movie never feels lengthy. On the contrary, I wished it had gone on for a bit longer. I actually enjoyed spending time in this small town…until it creeped me the fuck out! Then I wanted to see some kind of justice. The justice I so craved did not manifest itself. And it would not…until Nuremberg.

 

 

 

 


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