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Michel Hazanavicius’s
The Artist
New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th


Written by Michel Hazanavicius.

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle.

The Weinstein Company

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

A valentine to cinema—old and new—Michel Hazanavicius’ entrancing, enveloping and exquisite film, The Artist, should sweep audiences—young and old--off their collective feet. It’s impossible to not fall in love with this motion picture and get caught up in the spellbinding magic of its irony-free optimism and unmitigated joy.

Do not let the fact that it happens to be a black & white, silent movie stop you from partaking in this delightful experience.

Michel Hazanavicius is a master filmmaker who loves his craft and knows his cinema history so well he can appropriate from the best (Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, Sunrise as well as a slew of silent and sound films from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s) yet make an ingenious homage to a time when Hollywood was considered golden.

The basic plot is the typical A Star is Born story. It’s 1927. High on the heels of yet another cinematic triumph, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) meets an adorable young aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius muse and wife Berenice Bejo) at his film premiere. The two have an instant connection, but George is stuck in a loveless marriage to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller, looking like Miriam Hopkins by way of Mary Astor).

George also has other potentially calamitous things on his mind since talkies are taking the town and country by storm but he refuses to give in to what he sees as a passing fad (truth is he has good reason to fight sound pictures but I won’t say why—it’s a sweet surprise). As Peppy’s career begins to take off, George is all but washed up--only his faithful chauffeur (James Cromwell revisiting his Murder by Death character) and his Jack Russell-terrior who he shared much screen time with—do not abandon him. Little does he know he has one other champion in his corner.

The incredibly charismatic, captivating Jean Dujardin channels a host of suave Hollywood leading men including: Douglas Fairbanks, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power—to name a few—but then etches his own poignant and heart-tugging portrait of a prideful man who is forced to realize he has become obsolete and must ‘make way for the young.’ It’s Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with a sex change and Dujardin is more than ready for his close up!

Equally worthy of tons of praise is his leading lady, Berenice Bejo. Stunning and evoking Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor and Luise Rainer, Bejo is simply spectacular as Peppy—a gal who is highly ambitious but also grateful and graceful.

All the actors have the faces of silent screen stars but the uncanny ability to project a modern perspective. It may seem a bit ananchronistic but it works magnificently.

The entire design team is to be commended for a dazzling, elegant and faithful look to the film and Ludovic Bource’s score keeps us energized and on the edge of ours seats waiting to see what will happen next.

Like Woody Allen’s extraordinary film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Artist is a tribute to movie making at its finest. Both films are sublime and bittersweet. Hazanavicius’ movie leans more towards the sweet.




Roman Polanski’s
Carnage
New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th

Opening Night



Written by Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski, based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza.

Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz.

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I saw Carnage (running time: 80 minutes) and another film (running time: 91 minutes) back to back. At the end of Carnage, I could not believe that 80 minutes had zipped by. I was so enmeshed in the psychological entanglements onscreen that it was inconceivable to me that the film was over. I walked out dejected but thrilled from the experience. The second film, however, was another story—an interminable one. I was trapped in a bad Hollywood thriller, checking my watch every ten minutes in hopes time would stop slowing down. It felt like four hours.

Brevity can be a good thing but it can also leave the viewer wanting—demanding—more, especially when everyone involved is doing great work and the themes being presented are intriguing and universal.

The plot of Carnage, based on the Tony-winning Yasmina Reza play, is quite simple: one pre-teen boy hits another with a stick during a schoolyard scuffle, injuring him significantly. The parents of both boys get together to discuss the matter in a ‘civilized’ fashion. That is the plot. The rest is a swift, four-character game of truth where each parent reveals the true nature they are hiding underneath their respective veneers.

Roman Polanski is a masterful filmmaker so it’s no surprise that Carnage is a cinematic treat boasting electric performances and superb production values, including a terrific score, by Alexander Desplat, that brackets the narrative but never intrudes on it.

The pace is brisk. The upper middle class setting is uncomfortably claustrophobic and the jokes and shock-moments are perfectly hit.

I was especially struck by the actor placement in each frame--which seemed to work like a game of chess with different characters being in check or check-mate at different points in the film.

When I saw the play on Broadway, my main criticism was that I wanted more. At the very least, I wanted to see the four gifted actors onstage take things further. I craved a deeper examination of these people beyond the conspicuous. Yes, most of them mask their true natures until it betrays them. Yes, chaos becomes the order of the day. But I always felt there was room to take things further. It was too simplistic and, therefore, unsatisfactory.

Resa had an opportunity here to go beyond the world of the play but chose to remain faithful to her original work. Admirable but disappointing.

Luckily there are four superb actors on the screen for almost all of the 80 minutes keeping us completely captivated.

Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet deliver the best, most fully-realized performances. Waltz nails the educated, slimy, self-involved attorney with ingrained notions of how boys behave. And Winslet probably has the most interesting character-journey as we watch her move from concerned parent to disgusted wife to fed-up woman. And whether she’s projectile vomiting or tossing flowers, she does so with great gusto!

The other two are a bit hard to swallow as a couple to begin with. And while John C. Reilly is certainly good as a Fred Flintstone-type, it doesn’t seem like that much of an acting stretch. Jodie Foster has a more difficult time. She does controlling, bleeding heart/politically correct really well but a little more nasty and abrasive would have gone a long way.

And it’s exactly that bite, that savage exploration that could have given Carnage the boost from admirable film to extraordinary work.

 


 


Alice Rohrwacher’s
Corpo Celeste (Celestial Body)
New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th

Written by Alice Rohrwacher.

Starring: Yile Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Pasqualina Scuncia, Anita Caprioli, Renato Carpentieri.

In Italian with English subtitles

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Marta (an appealing Yile Vianello) is “almost 13” and has just relocated to her place of birth, Calabria (right at the southern tip of Italy proper), after growing up in Switzerland. She is trying to (re-) assimilate into the impoverished and uber-Catholic culture but is finding it quite difficult since she’s a girl who likes to ask questions and she’s in a town that demands religious obedience and is intolerant of detractors.

Marta attends catechism classes in preparation for confirmation—the ceremony where a Catholic decides to confirm the choice their parents made at baptism. (Devout Catholics cannot marry without being confirmed.) In class, Marta is quite confused since she is naïve about a faith where the doctrine seems to ask blind acceptance to its sometimes-incomprehensible teachings.

Alice Rohrwacher has made a film that is more admirable than entertaining, more thought provoking than exciting.

The feel of Corpo Celeste is quite authentic as is the behavior and dialogue of the characters. (I happen to be Sicilian and Calabrese and have traveled to Italy numerous times). In addition, the movie captures the small southern Italian town remarkably well.

Rohrwacher does touch on some current issues the church is facing. In one scene a parishioner who is trying to understand why they aren’t lobbying youth to attend mass since it is currently only attended by ‘old ladies, small children and people who have nothing better to do.’

We also get a keen subplot portrait of a bored priest (a convincing Salvatore Cantalupo) who is ambitious to move to a bigger village with a larger congregation but ultimately knows it will probably never happen.

Rohrwacher has an interesting style and there are some haunting images: Jesus on the cross floating in the sea is one I won’t soon forget as well as young Marta’s caressing of Jesus’ body. Yet Rohrwacher’s treatment of Marta’s sexual awakening is a bit heavy-handed and the film’s ultimate metaphor, while admirable, is a bit too obvious.

Still, the journey of the two central characters, both so eager to escape their current situations, each on diverging paths--both spiritual and otherwise--is a worthwhile one.

 



Alexander Payne’s
The Descendants
New York Film Festival 2011
Closing Night
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th

Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Robert Forster.

Fox Searchlight

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Reminiscent of James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (his long awaited follow up to Sideways) is an exhilarating, poetic motion picture that is as alluring as it is profound. And you may find yourself dreaming of a Hawaiian vacation after you’ve seen this gem.

Matt King (George Clooney) proclaims in the opening voice-over that: “Paradise can go fuck itself.” King is distressed and distraught because his wife is in a coma after a boating accident off Waikiki. He is left to tend to his two rebellious daughters as well as deal with the recently revealed news that his spouse was unfaithful. In addition, Matt is an attorney who must decide what to do about a large block of land entrusted to his family and handed down from Hawaiian royalty. The majority of his legion of cousins want him to sell it, which would alienate many natives.

George Clooney places all-vanity aside to delve deep into the heart and soul of a man who must deal with his wife’s imminent death as well as the realization that she was about to leave him for another man--that and the all-too frightening eventuality that he will have to raise his two daughters alone.

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the screenwriters take a very unique situation in a very unique setting and weave a rich and rewarding narrative filled with great charm, wit and bite--much like the late great Billy Wilder usually did.

The dialogue, as in all Alexander Payne films, is crisp, clever but never ostentatious or overly sentimental. He and his fellow writers know how to create real, intelligent characters who can cope with extreme stress in very distinct, individual ways.

Payne and his top-notch team also provide a glorious sense of atmosphere from the vintage Hawaiian music to the gorgeously photographed vistas to the yummy food on display.

And he’s cast his film perfectly.

Clooney simply gets better as he gets older, unafraid to immerse himself into this complex character—reach in deep and show us the pain and despair as well as the surprising joy. In a brief scene Matt shares with his daughter’s seemingly stupid friend Sid (a delightful Nick Krause), Matt is ready to write the boy off as an idiot until he lets him share some of his own messy familial history. Clooney’s realization that he may have been quick to judge this boy is a master class in subtle but powerful screen acting. This transcendent performance will bring Clooney another fully-deserved Oscar nomination.

The rest of the ensemble rocks—especially Shailene Woodley as Matt’s 17-year-old daughter, a damaged kid who proves much wiser than anyone, including her father, anticipated. Robert Forster nails gruff and angry in a brief but potent turn. And Judy Greer is sweet and heartbreaking in a key role.

The Descendants boasts one of the most satisfying endings of any film in recent memory. It’s definitely one of 2011’s best movies.



Aki Kaurismaki’s
Le Havre
New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th

Written by Aki Kaurismaki.

Starring:: Andre Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel, Elina Salo, Evelyne Didi, Quoc-dung Nguyen, Laika, Francois Monnie, Roberto Piazza, Pierre Etaix, Jean-Pierre Leaud

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Dardenne Brothers gave the New York Film Festival their version of a modern, urban, French fairy tale with the charming The Kid With a Bike. Aki Kaurismaki’s lyrical Le Havre is a wholly different tale that blends modernity with old school values-- in particular, classic French and Hollywood cinema fused with today’s neo-verite’.

When we first meet the protagonist, Marcel Marx (an absolutely delightful Andre Wilms) we may be quick to judge him as a selfish and lazy bum. He shines shoes where he isn’t supposed to. He tries to get away with not paying for bread, food and alcohol from the baker, grocer and bar-owner, respectively. And he seems to treat his wife more like a cook than a partner. But we soon learn that he has quite an expansive heart when he encounters an African refugee, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), and without hesitation, helps hide him from the menacing officials who are bent on deporting him. We also learn that the people in Marx’s life actually love and respect him, with good reason.

Le Havre is the name of the town Marcel lives in, a town filled with folks who are set on doing the right thing in the face of grave repercussions if they are found out. As the splendid cast of character band together to help shield the boy from the dastardly authority figures, we are taken on a bizarre and infectious cinematic journey that is as timeless as it is timely.

Kaurismaki’s world is a world where ordinary people do extraordinary things and villains can actually behave heroically. For example, police inspector Monet (played with great bumbling seriousness by Jean-Pierre Darroussin) surprises us in the climactic scene.

The look of the film captivates with interesting colors and shadows. The ensemble is simply sensational.

The women in Le Havre are especially outstanding. Kati Outinen is heartbreakingly good as Arletty, Marcel’s ailing wife, who doesn’t want to tell Marcel she is dying because it will upset him. Elina Salo as the bar-owner Claire says more with her face then most actresses can with 2-hours of script. And Evelyne Didi, who plays Yvette, the woman who runs the bakery, is equally entrancing.

Le Havre is a film fable about how people should behave versus how the world really operates. The piece has a tremendous social conscience but is never preachy or didactic. It is sometimes droll, sometimes hilarious, and always fascinating to behold.


 



Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne’s
The Kid With a Bike (Le Gamin au velo)
New York Film Festival 2011
Closing Night
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th

Written by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne.

Starring: Cecile de France, Thomas Doret, Jeremie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, Egon Di Mateo, Olivier Gourmet.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Dardenne brothers are forever paying homage to the best Italian neo-realism films of the 40s and 50s. They have an uncanny ability to create gripping, wholly enveloping stories from facile plots and ordinary characters. The Kid With a Bike is no different.

A lovely and lyrical yet uncompromising and authentic meditation on the expectations placed on parents and how family is rarely defined by blood, the film follows the physical and emotional journey of an 11-year-old boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret) who is abandoned by his selfish father (Dardenne veteran Jeremie Renier) but will not accept the fact that he is unwanted. By happenstance, he falls into the lap of a sweet and kind young hairdresser, Samantha (Cecile de France, in a magnificent performance) and the unlikely duo embark on a gritty and unique odyssey that could turn tragic at any given moment.

While watching this mesmerizing film I could not help but wonder what Hollywood would have done with the basic story. The joy of the Dardenne cine-trek is that none of the predictable and unrealistic bullshit turns are ever allowed to manifest themselves. The Dardennes keep it real. Yet The Kid With a Bike is also hopeful. Not an easy feat.

Doret is an amazing find. I hated the boy at first but midway through the little bugger broke my heart and I understood why Samantha would want to put herself on the line for him. (Extra kudos to the Dardenne Brothers for never really giving us a “backstory” reason for her to devote herself to Cyril.)

The Kid With a Bike is an urban fairy tale that could actually come true if more people behaved less selfishly. Too much to ask? Perhaps. Yet that possibility is what the Dardenne’s hypothesize about and that’s where the true magic lies.


 



Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin’s
Martha Marcy May Marlene
New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th

Written by Sean Durkin

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson..

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Elizabeth Olsen makes quite the auspicious screen debut in the disturbing, ambiguous and riveting indie, Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s a haunting and deeply affecting performance that should garner some award recognition and hints at a promising career for the younger sister of the Olsen twins.

Olsen plays the title character (figure that one out yourself but let’s call her “Martha”) who has just escaped a farm where she lived for two years as a member of a cult following the whims of Patrick (the chilling John Hawkes, born to play sleazy bad/maybe good/no, definitely bad) and his sexist, rapist, murderous tendencies.

Martha has called her upper middle class older sister Lucy (the extremely underrated Sarah Paulson) to come get her and she is brought to the Connecticut lakehouse Lucy shares with her perfect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, doing his best with an underwritten part). Martha is obviously completely rattled by her experiences on the farm but does not share any of the details with Lucy so she is seen as weird and inappropriate since she thinks nothing of swimming naked, cuddling next to them when they are making love and asking pointed questions about things that are none of her business.

The film flashes back and forth between past and present in a deliberately- patterned manner and we begin to put together the pieces of who Martha was before and during her cult stay…and the shattered individual she has become since.

Writer/director Sean Durkin has crafted a fascinating story that feels quite familiar-- there are elements of Jonestown, the Manson gang and Waco in the film’s portrayal of the group but we can also see the allure of the place as well.

As compelling as it can be the film is sometimes unsatisfying, sometimes feels like an obvious first feature (which it is) and ends too abruptly. I understand why the film stops where it does, but I felt cheated.

Still Durkin has talent and the film channels Altman in places (the highest compliment possible for a filmmaker!) And Olsen’s deep psychological delving keeps us focused from beginning to end.


 

Lars von Trier’s
Melancholia

New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th

Written by Lars von Trier.

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Kiefer Sutherland.

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Melancholia may very well be the Lars von Trier film for Lars von Trier haters. But his fans will be pleased as well.

It’s no secret that von Trier is one of my favorite filmmakers. Why? Because he dares. The man is afraid of everything, yet the artist—or more accurately--the work, is fearless. He’s a director currently unparalleled in his originality and chutzpah.

Like the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier’s films are usually born out of his own angst, depression and general ennui. These artists never hide their internal crises; they weave them into highly personal motion pictures. Their narratives have a therapeutic quality--for the respected auteurs and, if you share some of their demons, for the audience as well. In addition, both directors have a misanthropic, Strindbergian view of the world that certainly stamps their films. And misogyny is an additional shared trait. Bergman is subtler. Trier is balls-out obvious about his simultaneous adoration and contempt for the female sex (Antichrist is a prime example of this).

The best work by Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier provide the viewer with a devastating catharsis. You may feel like you’ve spent two hours in exhaustive psychotherapy, yet you feel oddly euphoric.

Sadly, Bergman is no longer with us but von Trier is, and if you can separate the boorish and loudmouth man from the genius filmmaker, you should be thoroughly enthralled by his latest meditation on life, death, love, sex and the true nature of human beings. (If you cannot, it is truly your loss!)

Melancholia is about the end of the world.

In fact, the world ends in the opening sequence (set to Wagner’s classic ‘Tristan and Isolde’) so there is never any wondering about whether it is actually going to happen or not. The shots are visually dynamic, so impressive that they may flashback into the viewer’s conscience as he/she watches the rest of the narrative—always aware that they are experiencing a story with great cosmic weight.

Melancholia is a mental condition marked by depression and unsubstantiated fears. In the film, it is also a planet that is about to collide with Earth.

The story introduces us to two sisters: Justine, a depressed, wreck of a person, played magnificently by Kirsten Dunst, and Claire, the calm, orderly sib pitch-perfectly embodied by Antichrist’s Charlotte Gainsbourg. I’m sure there that it is no coincidence that they represent the two sides of every female (as seen by LVT anyway).

Justine is about to marry sweet, vapid Michael (played winningly by True Blood hottie Alexander Skarsgard), but quickly has second thoughts..and then some.

Von Trier puts his hand-held, shaky-cam style to great use in the wedding scenes as we feel Justine’s unease as well as her increasing sense of foreboding. Claire does her best to handle her erratic sister and her angry husband (Kiefer Sutherland) but as the weeks pass Claire begins to lose it—just as Justine seems to find clarity. The psychological journeys of both sisters are fascinating as we watch two completely different reactions to their impending doom.

The director has assembled a brilliant technical team as well as cast to tell his gorgeously grim story with striking visuals and terrifically gripping performance.


The final shot is one of the most haunting, mesmerizing and unforgettable of any film I’ve seen in the last few decades. It is truly poetic in it’s beauty yet profound in it’s depiction of despair and acceptance.

Lars Von Trier has given us some of the most remarkable, bold films of our generation (can anyone dispute the power of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville?) as he continues to explore his own dark side and unleash his mental monsters on a sometimes unsuspecting audience. In challenging his own beliefs, prejudices and idiosyncrasies, his work makes us question our own thoughts, ideas and behavior, forcing us to visit the disturbing and depraved areas of our own hearts and minds. He’s not just a provocateur; he’s a therapist at a time when psychoanalysis may be an absolutely vital part of our survival.

 

 




Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn

Simon Curtis’s
My Week With Marilyn
Festival Centerpiece
New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th


Written by Adrian Hodges.

Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Judi Dench, Dougray Scott, Derek Jacobi, Zoe Wanamaker.

The Weinstein Company
Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


I wanted to love My Week With Marilyn. I loved certain moments. I loved most of the performances (even the highly caricatured ones). I loved the look of the film, the tint. I loved the tone. I loved its ambition. And, mostly, I loved that it was a love letter to one of the most iconic movie stars that ever graced the screen. The word ‘iconic’ is tossed around like a baseball, of late, so it’s meaning has been diminished. When you think of Marilyn Monroe, you realize words like ‘icon’ and ‘legend’ were created specifically for her.

What I didn’t love about the movie: the obvious and predictable approach the screenwriter (Adrian Hodges) chose to take. The talent involved in this work demanded a better, more complex script. Still, most everyone does their best with what they are given.

In the summer of 1956, the most famous woman in the world, Marilyn Monroe, landed in England for the very first time to begin principle photography on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film that would co-star and be directed by the most celebrated stage actor of his time, Sir Laurence Olivier. It was a monumental pairing of an aging, but brilliant, egotist with an erratic, needy and neurotic Hollywood star. Talk about olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Simultaneously, 23-year old Colin Clark, an aspiring filmmaker, got his first job as the third assistant director on that very set. Forty years later he would write a detailed account of the six-month shoot titled, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me. He would then write a follow-up memoir titled, My Week With Marilyn, which chronicled a fantastical weekend he spent with Monroe during that time. The film is based on both books. Basically Clark becomes Monroe’s go-to boy once hubby Arthur Miller flees her side.

Simon Curtis, responsible for Cranford and many other terrific Brit TV dramas—along with his design team—does a fabulous job of capturing the period and getting the movie-set look perfect. As with TV films like Moviola and Norma Jean and Marilyn, that is half the battle.

The other half always proves more challenging. Which brings me to my main issue with biopics and films about known stars: why can’t screenwriters pen normal speak for celebrities? It’s bloody unfortunate that the actors are forced to spew out cliché-ridden drivel instead of real, true sentences. Here the character of Vivien Leigh (played by Julia Ormond) suffers most. Yes, by all accounts Leigh was highly aware of the fact that she was no longer able to play certain types because of her age (she, ironically, originated the part of the showgirl on the stage but was too old for the film version) and she was manic-depressive, but the lines Ormond is forced to speak are downright appalling. And the writer is to blame.

I get the difficulty involved in breathing life into public figures that were so popular and have taken on legendary status. But I’m certain when no one was around they didn’t put on airs and act all the time.

As far as the approach by the actor, that can be more of a conundrum. Do you rely on mimicry? Do you move away from the obvious and run the risk of alienating the audience? When it’s blended well it can be glorious (Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin, Christian McKay as Orson Welles).

Most of the actors fair very well. Eddie Redmayne, as Colin, is a delight and, since he isn’t saddled with playing someone we know, etches a splendidly sweet portrayal of a boy completely transfixed by a goddess, but also horny for a girl (and they happen to come in the same sexy package).

Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier is a masterful impersonation and yet he gives us deep insight into a man who longs to be more famous than he already is while trying to remain an artist. Most of his best moments involve little dialogue—Branagh’s face simply says it all.

Dame Judi Dench in the tiny role of Sybil Thorndike enlivens every moment she is in. And Dougray Scott is Arthur Miller to a frightening T.

Michelle Williams has the greatest challenge on her hands with Monroe and mostly triumphs. She has the pouty look, the sexy movements, the charm, the insecurities, the sweetness and when she isn’t forced to utter obvious lines like: “Please don’t forget me,” she is magnificent. It’s more than impersonation; it’s the best embodiment possible given the limitations.

I have not been much of a Williams fan of late. I’ve found her work quite wooden and one-dimensional. And during My Week With Marilyn I was fighting enjoying the performance but midway through I was completely won over. She charms in unexpectedly spectacular and sublimely subtle ways--as I’m certain the real Marilyn did. A fitting tribute, indeed.




Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in Shame

Steve McQueen's
Shame
New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th


Written by Steve McQueen & Abi Morgan

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


“Fucking fearless” is the best way to describe both Michael Fassbender’s groundbreaking performance as well as Steve McQueen’s edgy and thrilling new film. And you may reverse the two words as well and it would still be appropriate.

Shame is one of the most searing, realistic depictions of sex addiction ever captured onscreen. Not that many films are vying for the title. Reminiscent of Richard Brooks’ extraordinary Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but without the moralistic ending, Shame follows hot, fit, thirtysomething Brandon (Fassbender), a financially successful sexaholic on an Inferno-esque journey through his own libidinous heart of darkness though, in his case, the heart is replaced with another vital organ (very vital to Brandon)!

Brandon’s dolce, yet empty, vita is interrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Their intense, borderline-psychotic relationship gives the film its pulse and allows us a peep-show window into their dark and nasty world.

A third important character in this feral film is New York City. But realize this is not the NYC of Woody Allen’s Manhattan as much as the NYC depicted in Scorsese’s seminal Taxi Driver—2011-prettier, but festering with Lynchian nastiness beneath the surface, certainly beneath the surface of it’s inhabitants.

From the first erotically-charged image of Brandon laying on blue bed sheets, shirtless, with his hand near his crotch and a tormented look about him to the repetitive nude walking scenes where he listens to disgruntled messages left by angry women (right before he hits the shower) to his maniacally masturbating at work and at home to the his many anonymous sexual encounters—Shame is bent on pulling no punches in its portrayal of a man so obsessed with sex, yet so devoid of the ability to feel anything other than momentary pleasure.

McQueen and his team have decided to boldly probe issues of intimacy and how most of human foibles and idiosyncrasies—especially the sexual ones—are born in childhood and can sometimes mutate into unhealthy compulsions.

For Brandon, there is a definite separation between love and sex; the former is completely foreign to him, the latter he excels at. Like alcoholism, gambling and drug addiction, sexual compulsion is a real disease and Shame doesn’t shy away from a frank and challenging narrative.

The nuanced script, by McQueen & Abi Morgan lay the groundwork for a rich and disturbing meditation on sex addiction, but Shame is about Brandon’s odyssey and that focus allows the film to penetrate (I’ll intend the pun) and, ultimately, devastate.

So much of the film’s success has everything to do with Michael Fassbender.

McQueen’s gripping and ballsy first feature, Hunger, played at the 2008 New York Film Festival and never got the release or push it deserved. Back then I said in my review: “Fassbender reminds one of Daniel Day Lewis with his total immersion into his character. It’s the bloody performance of the year.”

Well, ditto 2011.

Incredulously, Hunger was completely overlooked by the Academy and most other accolade bestowing organizations. Let’s hope that Fox Searchlight is smarter and savvier than IFC (the indie that released Hunger)—they certainly have more money to spend—because this film deserves recognition and Fassbender’s performance should not be overlooked.

I realize many of us get lost in the end-of-year awards battle but the reasoning, at least for this writer, is that I’d like to see the best in film actually rewarded and awards usually means a larger audience. A film like Shame, guaranteed to get an NC-17 if they even submit it to the MPAA, needs that attention.

Overlooking his transformative performance in Hunger was shameful enough (sorry, I had to) but if he is passed over for Shame, then the Academy must collectively shoot themselves. While I realize this isn’t exactly family-fare, it’s the reason people get excited about the motion pictures; it is original, urgent, astonishingly and soul-piercing. Whether we can admit it or not, there is an honestly about this film that speaks to most adults. It’s also an unpredictable film and how exciting is that for a change!

As with Hunger, Fassbender manages to create a visceral performance that demands great physical and emotional intensity.

There are so many remarkable and subtle touches to his characterization like how Brandon drinks three-olive martinis but never eats the olives--and in a terrifically detailed scene in a restaurant on an ill-fated date with a co-worker where even the minutiae of his pouring Pinot Noir proves mesmerizing. A wonderful example of just how obsessive his behavior is can be seen in a powerful subway scene where his smile turns predatory once he realizes the woman he’s cruising is married.

As bloody brilliant as Fassbender is, the entire cast and creative team is to be commended beginning with Carey Mulligan who is an absolute revelation. Anyone who has seen her impressive work in An Education, Never Let Me Go and Drive will still be blown away by how far she is willing to go to examine the depths to Sissy’s damaged nature.

The oddly enchanting Mulligan is also responsible for a stirring and evocative rendition of the ‘Theme from New York, New York.’ It’s a brilliant scene, photographed mostly in close up and should guarantee Mulligan her second Oscar nomination (there I go again!)

The Fassbender/McQueen collaboration is reminiscent of the DeNiro/Scorsese work from the 1970s. With films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, DeNiro and Scorsese made cinema history by changing the language of film. If Hunger is Fassbender and McQueen’s Means Streets, perhaps Shame is their Taxi Driver. That means the best is yet to come. I cannot wait!



Pedro Almodóvar’s
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)
New York Film Festival 2011
Lincoln Center
September 30th - October 16th

Written by Pedro Almodóvar, Thierry Jonquet.

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Roberto Álamo, Jan Cornet.

In Spanish with English subtitles.

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Pedro Almodóvar continues to paint with bold cinematic strokes, never losing sight of his own unique and enveloping style, but managing to genre-blend in such an original way that it’s a delight to simply enter his world for two hours. In the case of his latest film, a bizarre and twisted delight titled The Skin I Live In, he has taken Thierry Jonquet’s novel, Tarantula, and given it the ostentatious Almodóvar treatment, rich with unsettling intrigue and unhinged characters.

Between Almodóvar and Lars von Trier, mashing up genres has become quite an art form in itself as each auteur borrows what they need from old and neo-Hollywood and add their own personal notions about the politics of love, sex and, of course, death.

In The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar mixes horror with melodrama (his forte) as well as some noir to create a creepily perverse and wholly absorbing tale of lunatic obsession and revenge.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is an exceptional surgeon and, possibly, quite mad. He’s been hard at work creating the perfect skin and has been experimenting on a gorgeous, if plastic looking young woman named Vera (the captivating Elena Anaya).

The film zaps back and forth in time telling a truly haunting story of a man obsessed with vengeance as we learn about his secretive mother, dangerous brother, adulterous wife and lunatic daughter. None of this takes away from Dr. Ledgard’s immense charm but when a particularly jaw-dropping plot twist is revealed, we also realize the extent of his derangement.

The movie marks a reunion with Antonio Banderas (who starred in Matador, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) and Banderas dives into the devious doctor’s sociopathic psyche with great relish. This is Banderas at his best giving us a Dr. Frankenstein for the new millennium.

The entire cast hit all the melodramatic highs required with special mentions going to the fabulous Marisa Paredas as well as handsome and mysterious Jan Cornet.

As with most Almodóvar features, the glorious colors pop thanks to the exquisite photography by José Luis Alcaine and marvelous production design (Antxón Gómez) and art direction (Carlos Bodelón). And Alberto Iglesias’ score perfectly captures the creepy mood.

Almodóvar is one of a few filmmakers that dares to push the boundaries of sexuality far past what we normally see onscreen. In The Skin I Live In he gives us an outrageous and beguiling film about retribution combined with a meditation on accepted notions of sex and sexuality. I left shocked, disturbed…and just a wee bit giddy.


 


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