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Mike Leigh’s
Another Year

48TH ANNUAL NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Mike Leigh

Starring:: Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Oliver Maltman, David Bradley, Karina Fernandez, Martin Savage, Michele Austin, Phil Davis, Stuart McQuarrie, Imelda Staunton

Another Year begins promisingly enough with a close-up of a very miserable woman, played effectively by Imelda Staunton, sparingly discussing her feelings of angst with her counselor (Ruth Sheen). On a scale from one to ten, her life is a one. It’s a rough, compelling scene that sets the stage for the four-seasons that frame the film. We only see Staunton one more time, which is unfortunate because her character is quite fascinating.

Luckily, we soon meet Mary, played to the hilt by Lesley Manville, who is almost assured an Oscar nomination for astonishingly revealing work. When Manville is onscreen, the film is riveting. When she isn’t, her presence is sorely missed.

The film’s focal point is the (unexplained) happy marriage between Gerri (Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent, ever wonderful). Yet too much of the film is focused on the minutiae of their marriage, rarely giving us any insight into why they work so well together.

In addition we are forced to sit through the indulgent rantings of their mess of a friend Ken (Peter Wight).

Luckily, Mary pops by quite a bit—welcome or unwelcome--to bitch, moan and complain about her life—yet she does it in a way that never gets on the viewers nerves—just the opposite, we feel for her and want things to get better. But we wish she would stop falling into the same trappings. I wish writer/director Leigh had allowed us to follow Mary home for a spell so we could really get to know her. Still, Manville gives us enough to fill in the many character blanks left by the script.

Mary enjoys flirting with Gerri and Tom’s thirty year old son Joe (an efficient Oliver Maltman), that is until Joe finds Katie (Karin Fernandez) and Mary’s true jealousies are revealed. Manville has a ball with her disgusted reactions to the couple’s alleged bliss.

In the final season, Winter, we meet Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley in a lovely performance), who has just lost his wife. We are also introduced to Carl (Martin Savage in an all-too-brief, but explosive turn) and I finally woke to what the movie should and could have been. In a few electric scenes we are privy to the worst type of familial dysfunction.

I had hoped that a dynamic character like Carl would be placed in the same room with Mary, but, alas, like the Imelda Staunton return, it was not meant to be. Leigh misses more than a few great opportunities and, instead, lets the film meander too much.

In the end, I appreciated the way Another Year dealt with themes of depression, desperation and mortality, but I only truly cared where Mary was concerned (and to a lesser degree, Carl).

Mary’s insecurities, slowly dying vanity and constant need to be coddled…loved, gripped me. Tom and Gerri left me cold and bored.

Writer/Director Mike Leigh wants to be the British Ingmar Bergman, but, too often, his films are not emotionally engaging enough and we are left with great performances in static films that show great promise but fail to fully live up to them.



Olivier Assayas’s
Carlos

48TH ANNUAL NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck, based on an original idea by Daniel Leconte.

Starring: Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Nora von Waldstatten, Christoph Bach, Ahmad Kaabour, Fadi Abi Samra, Rodney El-Haddad, Julia Hummer, Rami Farah, Zeid Hamdan, Talal El-Jurdi, Fadi Abi Samra, Aljoscha Stadelmann.

Edgar Ramirez gives a towering performance in Olivier Assayas’s 319-minute study of the life of notorious terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known by his chosen alias: Carlos. It’s certainly the best performance by an actor I have seen this year so far.

Is Carlos worthy of your giving up five and half hours of your time for? It most certainly is.

Olivier Assayas’s cinematic achievement here is beyond impressive. He has made a sprawling, engrossing work that rarely lets its grip over the viewer go.

Like Steven Soderbergh’s Che (which also featured a brilliant star performance) the film makes certain demands on its viewers. Unlike Soderbergh’s film, Carlos is able to sustain viewer interest in his subject and keep things exciting for the duration. (Che goes completely awry in the second half).

Assayas structures Carlos in three-parts. The film is being released here by IFC in its long form and in a shorter two and a half hour cut. The miniseries aired on European television and will be shown here on the Sundance Channel. While I did find that it could have been a bit tighter, I highly recommend the original, uncut version (not having seen the short version but having immensely enjoyed the epic nature and sweeping intelligence of the anti-biopic in its pure form).

Labeled “Carlos the Jackal,” the man was an enigmatic, leftist revolutionary that the CIA called “an historical curiosity,” the KGB called “a mercenary, dangerous, uncontrollable,” and who boasted, about himself “Weapons are an extension of my body.”

Assayas bypasses the typical cliché’ analyses of the man giving us very little backstory, but simply focusing on his life as a terrorist. The insight into his nature is gleaned from his behavior and from what Edgar Ramirez gives us—which is plenty.

Everything about the film works--from its crisp script to it’s perfect 70s/80s look to the sharp editing.

Part One finds early radical Carlos excitedly joining the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine where he took part in car bombings, grenade attacks, an ill-fated attempt to bomb an El Al jetliner and the Japanese Red Army raid on the French Embassy--among other political terrorist plots.

Most of Part Two is devoted to the December 1975 raid on the Opec Conference in Vienna, funded mostly by Saddam Hussein. Here Carlos and his fellow revolutionaries take 42 multinationals hostages and are flown to Algiers. This sequence is taut, suspenseful and deliriously chilling. We learn quite a bit about him when, instead of sacrificing himself and murdering the hostages, he negotiates with the Algerians and saves himself. The segment is an extraordinary triumph, masterfully shot.

The third chapter follows Carlos’ downfall after the end of the Cold War, bouncing from country to country in search of militant guerilla war that the world no longer had a necessity for.

In the end the man took himself too seriously, he was an arrogant revolutionary basking in the glory of his own notoriety. He treated women like sexual object to be tossed aside on his whim. And had little regard for the innocent people he murdered. His eye was on advancing the movement—whatever that movement happened to be.

Early in the film, there’s a marvelous sequence where Carlos stands naked, sexy and proud, admiring himself in a mirror, and cockily touching himself. Assayas’s Carlos gets off on himself or the notion of who the world thinks he is. It’s a brilliant comment on what made a modern day terrorist tick in the days before religious zealotry began to rule the terrorist day. Carlos would never suicide bomb himself; he could never choose death. Even today, he lives in France, imprisoned for life, but alive.

Based on fact, Assayas calls his work a fiction since he had to fill in many blanks. In doing so, he has crafted a powerful hypothetical about the delusions that come with thinking you are so omnipotent you can actually change the world.




Clint Eastwood’s
Hereafter
48TH ANNUAL NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
Closing Night Film
To Be Released Nationwide on October 22, 2010


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Peter Morgan

Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, George McLaren, Frankie McLaren, Jay Mohr, Bryce Dallas Howard, Marthe Keller, Thierry Neuvic, Derek Jacobi, Lyndsey Marshal.

At the age of 80, Clint Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down and we should all be mighty grateful.

This past decade alone he has given us two bona fide cinema classics: Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima as well as two that are pretty close to classic: Mystic River and Flags of Our Fathers. In addition, he has crafted flawed but fascinating films such as: Invictus, Changeling, Gran Torino and Space Cowboys.

Now Eastwood takes on the afterlife in a loving, contemplative yet enveloping meditation on death and perceptions about the hereafter.

In the visually arresting opening sequence, a tsunami wreaks havoc on a beach resort and Eastwood literally takes us into the storm as we follow Marie (an impressive Cecile de France) getting tossed about under the forceful waters. The scene is exceptionally shot (by Tom Stern) and directed with little CGI-obvious moments.

A successful French anchorwoman, Marie’s near death experience changes her perspective on the hereafter and she decides to write a book about it, much to the upset of her producers.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a lonely psychic (Matt Damon), haunted by his abilities, is trying his best to deny his “gift” and have some type of ‘normal life.’

While in London, eleven-year old twins (George and Frankie McLaren) live with their junkie mother until the older twin is killed in a freak accident leaving the grieving boy alone and lost.

These three stories come together, not in a contrived and obvious manner but in a way that tries to say something about different aspects of dealing with thoughts on the afterlife. It also delves into the alienation a person feels when they aren’t necessarily in tune with the rest of the world.

Peter Morgan’s screenplay is a bit sentimental at times, but never feels forced or overly religious. For the most part, it’s a terse and absorbing script, sincere in its desire to ask questions.

The ensemble is uniformly wonderful with Damon continuing to prove he is one of the best actors working today. His George bears the “curse” of being able to speak to those who have passed on and Damon’s conflicting feelings are painstakingly investigated. Bryce Dallas Howard is heartbreaking as his potential girlfriend. The development of their relationship, through an amusing Italian cooking course subplot, is meticulously explored and Howard’s revelatory (in all respects) moment is a great example of the “be careful what you wish for” sentiment.

Frankie McLaren is perfectly haunted and devastated by the loss of his ID twin—a bond that is deeper than any other type of relationship.

All tech credits are superb, including Eastwood’s gorgeous score.

Eastwood is a wonder in the director’s seat. He, thankfully, takes his time to set up what he wants to depict yet the film is never dull—it actually takes on a surprising urgency. It’s as if the pain, loss and confusion that is felt by the characters forces the viewer to wax on his/her mortality, asking the big questions: why are we here and what do we think happens when we die? Do those we have loved and lost watch over us or do we need to feel that in order to get over the pain of their passing and move on with our lives? Why do some of us feel out of synch with the rest of the world and it’s inhabitants?

Eastwood’s final shot offers some hope--not necessarily a hope that any tangible answers about the afterlife will be revealed to us--but a hope that those people who feel estranged from the here-and-now-world can find common ground with others who feel exactly the same way.



Charles Ferguson’s
Inside Job
48TH ANNUAL NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
(105 min.)

2010 has yielded a host of urgent and vital non-fiction films. One of the best in a year of bests is Charles Ferguson’s intelligently crafted indictment of the US economic system, Inside Job.

Ferguson takes a complex, potentially excruciating subject and patiently explains it in such a precise and detailed yet exciting manner that one leaves the film feeling far more educated about the financial crash than ever—and therefore incensed by how our government allowed and actually encouraged the behavior that caused it.

This meticulous expose’ of how the meltdown happened and how no one in charge has yet to serve time is pretty powerful stuff and Ferguson’s filmmaking technique makes it riveting cinema.

Narrated by Matt Damon, the film seems to have one major goal in mind: to incite his audience to demand change.

The film masterfully begins by using Iceland as an example of how deregulation led to three banks having all the power and how that led to the collapse of the Icelandic economy.

‘Part One: How We Got There’ explains that after the great depression the US saw forty years of financial growth due to the face that the system was heavily regulated, that is until the Reagan administration began an ultimately cataclysmic plan for deregulation, setting greed in swirling motion.

‘Part Two: The Bubble’ shows just how the moneymen thrived on a system of derivatives that made it possible for the top 1% to get richer while the poor got shafted.

‘Part Three: The Crisis’ focuses on the warnings that went unheeded and takes us through the details of what happened in September of 2008.

In ‘Part Four: Accountability,’ we are presented with damning evidence that those that caused the crisis received no punishment and actually got to keep the fortunes they made at the expense of taxpayers. This segment also explores just how Academic Economists benefited financially from deregulation and continue to do so.

‘Part Five: Where Are We Now’ bleakly shows how the Obama administration has done little in terms of reform, how the villains are still in power and sadly boasts that for the first time in history the average American has less education and is less prosperous than their parents.

Ferguson peppers his work with fascinating interviews with a potpourri of experts, including a chatty Wall Street Madame. Of course the gentlemen who refused to be interviewed for the film—and are called out for it—prove telling.

In a revealing moment in the movie, Glenn Hubbard, Chief Economic Advisor during the Bush Administration and current Dean of the Columbia University Business School, gets increasingly agitated by Ferguson’s fair but probing questions and begins to warn him that he has little time left so he should “Give it your best shot!”

This jackass, along with so many others, royally screwed most US taxpayers, because he COULD, and continues to be allowed to financially thrive. Isn’t it time to insist that these men pay for their crimes? Inside Job is a wakeup call to demand just that.


 



Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese & Kent Jones’s
A Letter to Elia
48TH ANNUAL NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

Narrated by Elias Koteas

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

60 minutes. Documentary.

Martin Scorsese (along with Robert DeNiro) presented Elia Kazan with an Honorary Oscar in 1999 amidst protests because Kazan named names when he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. He named eight names—to be exact--to avoid being blacklisted. Of course, Kazan had already won two Best Director Oscars while so many talented directors had never won one. But that didn’t stop then Academy president Karl Malden, who owed his Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire to Kazan, from pushing for his pal to be awarded one last time.

Now, in a 60-minute documentary by Scorsese, we come to understand just why Scorsese stood by his friend. In A Letter to Elia, Scorsese explains just how influential Kazan’s films were on him and gives Kazan credit for his becoming a filmmaker.

Kazan was one of the most celebrated stage directors of his time and went on to become quite an extraordinary film director, helming Streetcar, On the Waterfront, East of Eden and America America (Scorsese’s favorite), to name a few.

It’s obvious that A Letter to Elia is a highly personal film for Scorsese, but because of that, it’s also rather dull and toothless. It’s great to see gripping clips from On the Waterfront, East of Eden and the underrated Wild River with Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick. But where were the moments from A Streetcar Named Desire, Gentleman’s Agreement, Viva Zapata!, Baby Doll, Splendor in the Grass and The Last Tycoon? Was there a rights issue?

I felt Scorsese tried to explain away Kazan’s actions by stating that he wasn’t the only one to name names and that Kazan’s films after 1952 were his most personal (as if to imply ruining lives was somehow a good thing for Kazan’s creativity). I know he didn’t directly state this, but I kept getting the feeling Scorsese made this documentary to try and offset the negativity surrounding Kazan the man vs. Kazan the artist. He also stated that because Kazan wrote a letter to the NY Times explaining his actions, that “almost guaranteed he was the one people would remember.”

Maybe we should separate the artist from the person. This film brings that debate up…but doesn’t really address it. To Scorsese that probably isn’t the point. It’s Kazan’s filmic legacy that is the point.

I am glad Kazan’s films existed so we can have Scorsese’s films. They are both artists who have contributed greatly to American film. One day Scorsese deserves a loving tribute for his continuing contribution to the film medium and film preservation. He is an artist who should be celebrated. He is also a man who commands our respect. Alas, the same cannot be said about Kazan.


 

David Fincher’s
The Social Network
48TH ANNUAL NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
OPENING NIGHT



Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book The Accidental Billionaires, by Ben Mezrich

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin), Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker), Armie Hammer (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss), Max Minghella (Divya Narendra), Josh Pence (Tyler Winklevoss), Rooney Mara (Erica Albright), Brenda Song (Christy), Rashida Jones (Marylin Delpy), John Getz (Sy), David Selby (Gage), Denise Grayson (Gretchen), Douglas Urbanski (Larry Summers)

The opening scene in David Fincher’s startling and intoxicating film should be required viewing for all future filmmakers. In less than five minutes (apparently nine pages according to Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin), the groundwork is laid for the entire film. We are introduced to Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Erica (the terrific Rooney Mara) as they verbally spar and go from lovers to ex’s as Erica decides she can no longer tolerate Mark’s arrogance and condescension (he brags about getting a 1600 on his SATs, then the highest score possible). Ego bruised, Mark returns to his dorm at Harvard University and sets a chain of events in motion that will change a generation’s way of socially networking with one another. It’s the beginning of the Facebook generation where everyone interacts through emails, websites and texts, oh my! The horror, the horror.

Much is being written about this film capturing a generation. It is certainly a ‘right place, right time’ movie. It’s urgent, contains a kick-ass ensemble of new blood actors and is damn good filmmaking.

The fact that it’s based on a true story (although just how true is anyone’s guess) adds to the relevance. But just how good is it?

Zuckerberg sets out to prove his genius and because of his ability to create a site that has so much traffic it crashes the Harvard network, he’s brought to the attention of Aryan-esque Olympic rowers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer masterfully playing both twins with the help of cine-magic). The boys and their friend (Max Minghella) have an idea about a Harvard-exclusive social website and they want Mark’s help. He instantly agrees, yet puts them off for weeks as he and his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) begin work on their own idea called “The Facebook.”

The insanity ensues from there as the duo set about creating what would arguably become one of the most significant social inventions of the new millennium.

“They came up with an idea, I had a better one,” charges Zuckerberg in one of two courtroom lawsuit scenes that frame the film (he is eventually sued by the Winklevi as well as Saverin).

One of the great ironies of the film and Zuckerberg (as he is presented) is that this great social network was created by one of the most anti-social people in existence. Here is someone who, had he not been at the helm of Facebook, would probably be someone with few, if any, Facebook friends!

Of course, what Facebook really means comes into play here as well. It can be argued that the new technology has created a generation of social retards…but is the opposite true? Have a handful of socially retarded individuals (regardless of intelligence) created a technology that protects them from pain and rejection?

Midway through the film we met Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in a tease of a performance—is he a manipulator or isn’t he?) who created Napster and proudly announces that he brought down the record companies. When challenged, his response is: “How many Tower Records do you see open?”

Mark is seduced by what he sees as Sean’s ingenuity but also by his ability to live a lifestyle only the rich and famous are privy to. And he is awfully quick to betray a friendship in order to reap the titanic rewards. Although just how close Saverin and Zuckerberg really are depends on whom you listen to.

Eisenberg plays Mark as cool, pompous and apathetic. Many times he isn’t even paying attention to people that are speaking to him. But because of that first scene we carry with us the realization that a lover scorned him and most of his nastiness comes from that humiliation. Mark can easily be dismissed as an obnoxious asshole, but Eisenberg won’t let us off that easy. It’s a fascinating performance.

Garfield is slowly becoming one of the best actors of his generation. His Eduardo is a good guy caught up in a world where good guys are eaten alive. The scene where he confronts Mark after the ultimate betrayal shows Garfield at his best. He may be nice and accepting but when he’s crossed, look out!

The film’s ending brings Mark’s journey full circle and should have felt perfect but I actually wanted more. Perhaps that is one of the marks of a great film. I guess I’ll have to see The Social Network again and, probably, again, in order to really figure out where it lands on the great scale. Right now, I can easily say it’s one of my favorite cinema experiences of 2010 thus far.





Julie Taymor’s
The Tempest
Centerpiece Film

48TH ANNUAL NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Julie Taymor, based on the play by William Shakespeare.

Starring: Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, Djimon Hounsou, Reeve Carney, David Strathairn, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, Tom Conti, Alfred Molina, Russell Brand.

Julie Taymor’s feminized version of Shakespeare’s last great play, The Tempest, has all the earthly elements assembled to create a remarkable motion picture. Alas, as ambitious as it begins, the end result is a stunning feast to behold but a filmic experience that is uneven and unsatisfying.

Taymor is one of the few film directors with roots in the theatre that has managed a seamless transition to the visual medium. She has the innate ability to transport audiences to a singular world of her own creation. Here, with the help of a gifted technical team (including the extraordinary Elliot Goldenthal’s musical compositions), she does just that, bombarding our senses with fantastical scenes. But there is something sorely missing. I felt similarly about Frida and Across the Universe (although after repeated viewings I have warmed to the latter film). Titus is still her best work. The Tempest is not. Helen Mirren, however, makes the journey worthwhile.

The original play is about 400 pages long and its protagonist, Prospero, is a clever magician who has been banished to a deserted island. Taymor chose to cut the text so it runs under two hours and re-gender Prospero so he is now Prospera. This was her smartest move, changing the story significantly and giving it more urgency.

Mirren is a force—powerful, maddening, yet sympathetic. Her Prospera is a woman born into a man’s world, fighting for her daughter. Medea and Mamma Mia overtones abound.

The only other ensemble member allowed to give a fully realized performance is Ben Whishaw, a magnificent, bizarrely-intoxicating, sexually-ambiguous Ariel. Part Gollum, part Tinkerbell, part David Bowie, Whishaw’s Ariel is loyal, ethereal and menacing.

Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney are pretty enough as the young lovers and Djimon Hounsou does his best with the very angry Caliban.

The others perform well enough but aren’t really allowed any stand out moments--save the anachronistic Russell Brand, as the jester Trinculo—who I enjoyed despite myself.

Ultimately, Taymor’s Tempest is visually arresting but emotionally lacking.


 

 


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