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Steve McQueen’s
12 Years a Slave
51st Annual New York Film Festival

September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup & David Wilson

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp

Commentary/Review by Frank J. Avella

I overheard two separate, distressing and perplexing comments at an early screening of 12 Years a Slave. One critic immediately announced to a colleague, as the credits were rolling, “Well, it wasn’t nearly as good as everyone is saying.” Another journalist, who had the good sense to wait until the credits were a minute in, mused on it’s slim Oscar chances (to his guest) stating it wasn’t “an Oscar film,” and that it was ‘too much of a downer for the Academy.’

I say bullshit and bullshit. I wish I had done so at the screening but I believe in keeping my big mouth shut until I am outside so no one has to suffer through my opinion, just in case they don’t agree with me! Both these bozos were bloggers who, without the magic of the Internet, would still be playing Dungeons and Dragons in their basements, where bodies are probably buried.

Forgive my harshness but I have grown weary and angry by the instant opinions that certain writers feel are mandatory in this age of the twittersphere. Can’t we give ourselves some time to meditate on a film—especially one as important (and I do not use that word promiscuously) as 12 Years a Slave?

And shouldn’t we let the year play out a bit more before we start dismissing Oscar hopefuls? Seriously, the screening was in early September!

To now give my two cents—in writing--AFTER I’ve had time to think, the film isn’t as good as everyone is saying it is—it’s better because it truly breaks new ground in historical storytelling and because it’s a riveting and enthralling piece of cinema.

Oh, and who the fuck knows what an “Oscar film” is? I’ve been following and predicting and ranting about the Oscars for three decades now (I started young) and I have no clue. Nor do the legion of prognosticators out there—the best of which admit, “No one knows anything.” Was Silence of the Lambs an Oscar film? (Well, yes—because it WON!) Wasn’t it a downer? How about The Hurt Locker? Would you think The Sound of Music and No Country for Old Men have a lot in common? Guess what? They’re both Oscar films because they both won. An “Oscar film” may have signified something cheery and musical forty or fifty years ago but today an Oscar film is whatever the Academy deems the winner is. Period. And merit does come into it.

I find it additionally fascinating that both grousing guys were white, male and in their twenties. I am not necessarily making parallels with certain (most) Republicans who hate Obama because he’s…shall we say a darker shade than they are, but I’m guessing their opinion might just deep down come from some type of racism. Ergo, my buddies at the screening. Because that is the only way you can dismiss a film like 12 Years a Slave as being not ‘nearly as good as everyone is saying.” My opinion. I’m allowed.

Oh, and in both cases cited above the respective persons being spoken to were also white, male 20somethings who agreed with their respective opinionators.

But enough about idiots…

Steve McQueen has only made two other feature films prior to 12 Years a Slave, Hunger and Shame. Both films bowed at the New York Film Festival (thank you, FSLC) Both are brilliant, difficult, ballsy depictions of the dark side of human nature. Both feature towering performances by Michael Fassbender. Both were praised by most critics. Both received zero Oscar nominations. Allow me to say here, that great and terrible wrong will be corrected this year. If it isn’t, the Academy will lose what’s left of its validity. The validity that began eroding with Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and The King’s Speech defeating The Social Network in 2010.

Here, in his richest cinematic offering to date, McQueen works from an insightful and unsparing script by John Ridley, which is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup.

The film begins in Saratoga, New York in 1841, when slavery is a harsh reality for blacks in the South.

The early scenes depict a free Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) enjoying his life with his wife and two children. He’s respected in his community and treated no differently because of the color of his skin. Through an outrageous sequence of events where he is promised money for his violin talents, he is, instead, drugged, shackled and tossed onto a boat to Louisiana where he is renamed and sold into slavery—and warned to never utter a word about the fact that he was a free man—or else risk being killed.

Solomon, now Platt, is sold to a kind (as kind as the times allowed) plantation owner, Ford (played with great sincerity by Benedict Cumberbatch). Solomon is sold along with Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who is separated from her children (common practice back then, this despicable behavior brings to mind Sophie’s Choice, without the choice). Ford’s wife incredulously tells Eliza, “You’re children will soon be forgotten.”

Solomon soon finds himself butting heads with one of Ford’s underlings Tibeats (Paul Dano, expertly creepy) and Solomon fights back, beating Tibeats, in a wonderfully cathartic scene. Normally a black man would have been put to death for such a deed but Ford steps in—after Solomon is strung up and almost hanged.

There’s a brilliant shot of Northup hanging, hardly able to stand on his tippy toes, barely staying alive, while everyone in the surrounding dwellings go about their business in the background.

The only way Ford is able to help Solomon is to sell him to a cotton plantation owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender, making his third appearance in a McQueen film). Epps is quite a piece of work. He’s an egomaniacal, God-fearing conundrum of a man stuck in a marriage to someone he despises and in love with a slave girl, Patsey (an astonishingly good Lupita Nyong’o), he can never make his—in the biblical sense. To say he’s bitter is an understatement. He is the personification of most everything that was misguided and wrong with the South and the reason they could never see reason on the issue of slavery.

Epps’ unloved spouse (an excellent Sarah Paulson) thinks nothing of brutalizing Patsey and no one, including Epps, does anything to stop her. Such commonplace cruelty, hard to fathom, was the reality back then.

It’s in the Epps household that we are shown something I do not recall ever seeing in any film about slavery and that is the slave owner’s skewed perspective.

Epps: “There is no sin. A man does what he pleases with his property.”

McQueen dives into the mindset of the slave owner, via Epps, who truly believes slaves are his property and, as such, must be subservient to his every whim. And further that it’s God’s will for him to treat his property however he wishes—no matter the cruelty (rape, torture, murder—all acceptable.)

The only fly in this “permission from God” ointment is that if they’re just property—why must they remain ignorant? This need to make certain they don’t learn to read or write denotes fear and knowledge that it’s all bullshit. Fear that the slave will realize a truth—that they’re indeed human and should be treated as human. That would obliterate any notions of a God-sanctioned slavery. So it comes down to WANTING it to be that way—for economic reasons, sure, but to also have that power and retain it--to feel like a God. Cocksure. Shrewd. The MASTER. Fassbender embodies all of this with an enigmatic cunning that’s astounding.

And he is matched by Ejiofor’s careful, controlled and heartbreaking performance as Solomon. He brings us into the heart and mind of the man and allows us to glimpse of his heartache and his anger--the way he must swallow every time there’s another injustice and how he must do harm to others to survive.

In one especially grueling scene, Epps decides that Patsey must be punished for disobeying him (truth to be told she is being punished for thinking for herself) and orders Solomon to whip her. When Solomon apprehensively does (in a way where he can do the least harm), Epps grabs the whip and does it himself. In this moment, the arrogant Epps must show Patsey and everyone else the price you pay for disobeying your master—for having a mind of your own, when you’re simply property. It’s a deliberately overlong scene, devastating but telling.

When Solomon is almost caught trying to get a letter sent to his people back home, he is smart enough to quickly manipulate the situation knowing his life is at stake. Epps believes him because he explains in a reasonable but subservient way. And how silly to think he can read and write.

Later in the narrative, Solomon finally finds someone he can trust to tell the truth to, a carpenter working for Epps, Samuel Bass (a solid Brad Pitt). Bass is his salvation and the film’s final moments are truly inspiring and transcendent.

But what stays with you are the images, the stories. And rarely has there been a story about blacks where blacks dominated the narrative. Here the performances (other than Fassbender) that you remember--that matter--are from Ejiofor, Nyong’o, Oduye and Afre Woodard, in a too-brief but fascinating turn. This is no white man as hero to the black man story (Cry Freedom, anyone—although it is a good film).

The design team is all working at the top of their game from the production designer (Adam Stockhausen) to the cameraman (Sean Bobbitt) to the composer (Hans Zimmer, creating another memorable score).

The non-linear structure of the film works magnificently as Ridley shares just enough with each flashback to enhance characterization.

McQueen doesn’t bother holding back the brutality. This is a true horror film--a film that could easily be titled, Shame or American Horror Story. It’s about a time in American history we should never forget.

McQueen brings up difficult notions of surviving vs. being subservient that are familiar to any Holocaust story and he isn’t afraid to delve deep into the dankest recesses of human nature to try and hypothesize and theorize.

There are no answers. But there are many questions. Many stories.

At a certain point McQueen has Ejiofor stare directly into the camera. He is looking at America—past, present, future. As he stares at the audience we want to look away in embarrassment, in disgrace, but we but we must hold the stare because it is both the character Solomon looking out as well as the actor in representation, forcing us to see—to see that monsters are real. And if we’re not careful, they can easily return.

After only three films, Steve McQueen’s expert filmmaking puts him among the best auteurs working today. Regardless of how many awards it wins, 12 Years a Slave is a remarkable achievement and will be remembered long after naysayers are dust.


 



Richard Curtis’s
About Time
51st Annual New York Film Festival

September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Richard Curtis

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Richard Cordery, Joshua McGuire, Tom Hollander.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

How can a person resist the awkward charms of gingersnack Domhnall Gleeson or the delightful kookiness of Rachel McAdams (channeling Diane Keaton by way of Meg Ryan) or the magical abilities of the amazing Bill Nighy?

I couldn’t, even when Richard Curtis’s fetching new comedy defied logic (even based on the dictates provided in his own screenplay). Who cares if there are inconsistencies and contrivances when a film embraces you with all its heart and soul? I’m sure certain stuffy critics who weren’t loved by their fathers will grouse, but screw ‘em!

The film opens in Cornwall, England where our hero, Tim (Gleeson), who describes himself in voiceover as “too tall, too skinny, too orange,” lives with his loving, if loony, family. The day he turns twenty-one his freaky father (Nighy) pulls him aside and explains to him that the men in his family have this strange ability to go back in time—but you can only revisit a time in your own life. Tim thinks Dad is nuts until he races off to his closet, clenches his fists and ends up back at a New Year's Eve party. The key here is being able to right past wrongs and change bad outcomes.

Tim, a budding attorney, is bent on finding the right girl. Enter Mary (McAdams) who has the same name as his mother (fabulous Lindsay Duncan—described as someone who looks like Andy Warhol), and who wins Tim’s heart.

There’s a lot more plot and a host of sugary-sweet reasons to use the sci-fi device to teach lessons, moralize and make the world a better place via Curtis’s noble screenplay and manipulative but appealing direction.

The film is a bit overlong—especially since Tim seems to waste his gift way too often—and the film never raises the stakes very high the way Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married did, but it’s also filled with truly funny and inventive scenes—like the first time Tim and Mary meet in a restaurant run by blind people where they take you to a completely dark room and you must eat without being able to see anything. It’s a ridiculous notion but it also works because of Gleeson and McAdams.

Gleeson drives the film and he’s just dandy! You simply can’t not root for this silly young man.

McAdams has played in the time-travel flicks before (The Time Traveler’s Wife) and here she’s neurotically loveable. I’m still waiting for her to get a role that will truly fulfill the tremendous promise she’s shown in films like The Family Stone.

Tom Hollander is hilarious as a pompous and mean playwright—a tonic for all the saccharine.

And, of course, there’s Nighy—a criminally underrated actor who says more in a brief moment with a facial expression than most actors do their entire careers. Every time he’s onscreen, you take notice.

Curtis has a certain style that works. And you either usually love or hate his films (Love, Actually, Notting Hill, Pirate Radio) or love to hate or hate to love them.

About Time is certainly not the usual fare for the New York Film Festival. Perhaps the selection committee is softening? Ya think? Take a look at Blue is the Warmest Color and Stranger by the Lake and that proves they’re still as provocative as ever. They’re also eclectic and accepting of the whimsical.

 




Catherine Breillat’s
Abuse of Weakness
51st Annual New York Film Festival
September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Catherine Breillat

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino, Christopher Sermet

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Abuse of Weakness proves a tour de force for Isabelle Huppert who plays Maud, a fierce, tenacious film director who is debilitated by a brain hemorrhage in the film’s first moments. “Half my body is dead,” she says to the emergency operator.

While recuperating in the hospital, Maud spots a charming, unapologetic criminal, Vilko (Kool Shen), on TV, proudly boasting about swindling people out of money. She thinks he would be perfect for the role of the cad in a new film she is developing. She meets him and strikes up a bizarre, semi-flirtatious friendship. Wanting realism proves a little too catastrophic for Maud as she finds herself lending him more and more money until she is deep in debt and the bank is threatening to sell her home.

What makes Maud continue to write large checks for this brute when she knows he isn’t going to pay any of the “borrowed” sum back? She knows his history—the fact that he served his time and has no remorse for what he had done. She even refers to him as a man with, “bitter pride.” So why court trouble? Well, firstly she seems to like the thrill of being around such a dangerous man; he certainly doesn’t intimidate her. She actually laughs heartily at things he says and does that would probably scare others. Does the risk help her feel alive—give her a reason to keep going—despite her circumstances?

Was she trying to keep him around so she felt she had to keep the money flowing? Being quite strong and prideful herself, could she relate to his behavior and therefore feel she found a soul mate of sorts? There’s a reference to Bonnie and Clyde made. Did she envy his outlaw nature?

Or, in addition to being physically challenged was she also slightly mentally incapacitated by her condition?

The film raises many questions and provides few real answers.

What is most fascinating about the story is that it is autobiographical. Writer/Director Catherine Breillat, one of the most well-respected helmers in France, suffered a stroke in 2004 and was semi-paralyzed. Afterwards, she met an ex-con (ex, so she thought), Christophe Rocancourt, referred to in the French press as “the phony Rockefeller,” and, as in Abuse, she wanted him to star in her films, but was taken for close to one million dollars during the course of their “relationship.” Breillat wrote a book about the experience and has now adapted it into this gem of a film.

The film makes no reference to the above and had I not done some reading, I would not have known about it.

As the film progresses it appears that she has no time for her family, but we soon realize it’s the other way around so her need for companionship definitely contributed to the reasons for her allowing this man to ride roughshod over her life. He may have depleted her, financially, but he did provide her with an odd kind of adoration and helped her when she sometimes most needed it.

Huppert is a wonder and the physicality of her performance combined with the fluctuating anguish, pain, frustration, joy, delight and eagerness that registers on her face makes Maud’s journey beguilingly enigmatic and completely captivating.

Maud loves to laugh and after her stroke, is unable to. As she slowly gets the ability back, she uses it every chance she gets and Huppert gives her a wonderfully satisfying laugh that is infectious.

The film’s title kept creeping back into my head. It’s a legal term but who was abusing whose weakness? On the surface, it’s obvious but I’m sure Maud, and consequently Breillat, would like to think she/they were in control, ergo, they did the abusing. Was Maud taking advantage of Vilko just as much as he was of her? Look, more questions!

The paradoxical last lines and haunting final shot keep the mystery going long after the credits roll.

Breillat is dealing with her own demons in this film and, perhaps, trying to find her own answers as well as some type of catharsis. Whether she gleaned any insights, only she knows but she has provided cinema lovers with a strange engrossing tale that is simultaneously believable and unbelievable.




J.C. Chandor’s
All is Lost
51st Annual New York Film Festival
September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Robert Redford

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I don’t believe that Robert Redford has ever challenged himself onscreen the way he does in All is Lost. He’s given great screen performances (The Sting, The Way We Were, 3 Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, The Electric Horseman, Brubaker, to name my personal favorites) and his work with director Sydney Pollack in the underrated Jeremiah Johnson, did require his braving certain mountain man-type elements. But he’s never taken the risks he takes with his new film. Risks have a way of paying off. And at 77, Redford gives the performance of his life.

With his second feature film, J.C. Chandor, the mind behind the smart and savvy indie, Margin Call, which premiered at Sundance in 2011, achieves a most remarkable feat: he’s made a film with only one actor that mesmerizes for almost two hours.

It joins Gravity, Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave, in examining a protagonist’s ability and will to survive. And like the film’s named above, All is Lost is a challenging, emotionally debilitating yet invigorating piece of cinema. It’s also much more existential and abstract than the three other films, making it about the act of survival more than about the reasons why the character (billed in the credits as “Our Man”) wants/needs to survive.

Consequently the film’s focus is on Our Man’s will, resourcefulness--his refusal to capitulate, even when all does, indeed, seem lost.

Our Redford is some 1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits as the film opens. He is also in the worst possible situation as his boat has sunk. The film then flashes back 8 days and takes us on the tense, gripping, thrilling and wrenching journey of just how he has gotten to such a precarious place. A large, abandoned, shipping container, loaded with sneakers, collides with his yacht and tears a great big hole in the lower part of his boat, allowing water to flow into his cabin—destroying all of his electronic gadgets, ergo any communication he might have with the outside world. Our Man must repair the tear and pump the water out. We watch as director Chandor meticulously takes us through the process. Our Man is not a seasoned sailor, so he must rely on his own instincts and ingenuity (and manuals he has on board). He also attempts to repair the radio, to no avail.

Shortly thereafter, luck obviously not on his side, a massive storm hits and things get pretty grim and horrific. Our Man must abandon ship, with few supplies, and hop into an enclosed inflatable raft while he watches his vessel disappear into the vast Indian Ocean.

No less than two large ships sail by and do not see him, despite the fact that he shoots up flairs.

Will he be rescued? Or will the Ocean swallow him whole?

There is very little dialogue in the film. Mercifully, Chandor doesn’t have Redford monologuing with himself or any narration. So the few words Redford does utter are all the more potent. There is one profane word that he shouts that provides a great emotional release for audience members. At the very beginning, there is also a voiceover in which the Our Man tells his loved ones that he “fought to the end…” We never learn who these loved ones are and his relationship to them. We never know why he is so far out at sea. And it’s a welcome change from the backstory-heavy fare we usually get in films about people fighting for their lives.

It is inferred that there was something missing in his life, some adventure he needed to embark on to fulfill a dream, a desire.

The film is reminiscent of 127 Hours, The Old Man and the Sea, Cast Away and Life of Pi but only fleetingly.

Chandor directs the movie in a way that forces us INTO the man’s struggles. The silences allow us a way in so we share in the experience. So does the placement of the camera (credit Frank G. DeMarco’s terrific work) as well as the editing (Pete Beaudreau) and the gripping score (Alex Ebert).

And one shouldn’t underestimate the power of the screenplay. Despite the dearth of dialogue, the script is well thought out and detailed. And exciting. For 107 minutes we are splashdab there in the middle of the ominous ocean with Our Man and it is never dull--and always intriguing.

At one point, right after Our Man sees that the storm is heading his way, he stops to shave. It’s a great, if oddball, moment. When confronted with a life-threatening situation, panicking is inevitable but our protagonist attempts something normal to prepare himself for the challenge ahead.

Because Redford has so often embodied the all-American hero, in varying forms, our immediate impulse is to root for him, to desperately want him to will out—to succeed to conquer the situation--no matter how dire.

Asking Robert Redford to appear in such a film took balls. Redford’s agreeing took bigger balls. Redford’s revelatory, outstanding work in the film took talents that were always there but rarely tapped into. The actor’s full immersion here (body and spirit) is phenomenal.

One can only hope he worries less now about his looks and his image and, instead, continues to take on more daring work.

Up until now, Robert Redford’s arguably more appreciated as a director. With All is Lost, the ship has now tipped in another direction. Here’s hoping he continues to make us seasick.


 



Frederick Wiseman’s
Documentary Feature
At Berkeley
51st Annual New York Film Festival

September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

There are so many engaging ideas presented in Frederick Wiseman’s sprawling, 4-hour documentary, At Berkeley, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the debate and discourse being depicted. But Wiseman carefully and thoughtfully peppers this work with plenty of regroup moments where minutiae-laden campus shots/lab moments, like a robot trying to fold a piece of cloth and other not-as-dull scenes—like musical interludes and theatrical presentations—allow the viewer a respite.

Wiseman, now in his 80s, has been making important documentaries for decades--he began with the seminal Titicut Follies in 1967—and he shows no signs of slowing down.

His subject this time is the University of California at Berkeley, a school many consider to be the best public University in the U.S. It’s an institution with a rich history of leadership and research, but also a place where protest flourished in the 60s and 70s—against the Vietnam War as well as for free speech.

Way back when, Berkeley was a free school, today it’s riddled with economic hardships and tuition is on the rise each year.

The film captures many debates among faculty and students as well as administration. Wiseman allows lengthy segments to go on unedited allowing us more than just a glimpse into what goes on at Berkeley. He doesn’t bother clueing the viewer in on who is speaking. It doesn’t matter as much as what is being said.

A Caribbean student discusses how, in her country, schooling is completely paid for as opposed to the U.S. That same debate brings up how anti-education the U.S. has become.

A renowned cancer research professor discusses how impossible it was to get respectability and funding because her hypothesis that cancer was an organ-specific disease was considered too radical way back when, but she believed in her convictions and, “they now give me so much money I don’t know what to do with it.” Her mantra being to not listen to anyone and “always think outside the box.”

We also learn that the campus mainframe network is attacked (and hack attempted) millions of times a day.

In the doc’s second half, the campus readies for a demonstration by students and the amount of thought that goes into preparing for anything and everything that might occur is pretty astonishing. The day comes and about 300 students march through campus and into the library with a list of “impossible demands,” one of which is that ‘education is a right and should be free.’ How sad is it that this notion cannot even be taken seriously?

At Berkeley should provoke its own amount of dialogue and debate. So many urgent ideas and issues are raised and while Wiseman could have had a tight-fitted 2-½ hour film, he chose to feature a greater spectrum of this legendary school and, in doing so, has made a work that will be remembered for many years to come.



Abdellatif Kechiche’s
Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adele)

In French with English Subtitles
51st Annual New York Film Festival

September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalya Lacroix. Freely inspired by "Le Bleu est une couleur chaude" by Julie Maroh.

Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche, Mona Walravens, Jeremie Laheurte

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Leave it to a Franco-Tunisian filmmaker to craft a 3-hour intimate, revealing epic that deals with sex and sexuality in such a bracingly honest manner that it will frighten most Americans, turn off others and probably turn on many audience members—for prurient reasons.

Blue was already quite controversial coming out of Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. The film courted notoriety because of its graphic sex scenes—specifically a quite-lengthy lesbian love scene where simulation and real sex lines blur. Recently, the two lead actresses complained about just how difficult the director was to work with and how they’d never do so again. Kechiche angrily fired back wondering how they could complain when “everyone suffered.” And even the graphic novel author who wrote the story on which the film is loosely based chimed in with her two cents calling the film “porn.”

Hopefully all of the bitching and moaning will give the film a good push at the box office here since it will be released with an NC-17.

No matter the controversy, the film is an audacious, intense, raw--coming-of-age, coming out and coming to terms with being an adult—story. It’s the type of film US filmmakers could never make because of our faux Victorian attitude towards sex—especially in movies.

Broken into two parts, the film deals with a young woman’s sexual awakening followed by her first real relationship.

We first meet Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at age fifteen. She’s a sweet, blue-collar girl who loves to read. She is courted by a cute boy named Thomas (heartthrobby Jeremie Laheurte) but senses something is missing when she fantasizes about girls during their time together. And when she dares to allow herself to kiss a fellow female student, her “friends” relentlessly grill her as if she’s committed some heinous crime.

No matter, Adele knows what she likes and heads towards a lesbian bar to get it. There she meets plucky, rebellious artist, Emma (Lea Seydoux) who gently takes Adele through the awkward and enticing first stages of love. Adele’s awakening to true passion and pleasure with Emma is startling to watch since the viewer is placed in peeping tom mode, but it’s also an integral part of the story. In some respects, it is the story.

Emma’s upper class parents are very accepting of their daughter and her sexuality while Adele cannot even tell her parents.

The film then jumps ahead and both women have set up house with one another. Adele is now a content kindergarten teacher and Emma is doing her best to make it as a painter. Emma needles Adele about publishing some of her (diary) writing but Adele is not interested. Emma cannot fathom why she wouldn’t want to.

The class theme becomes even more obvious as Adele tries to fit in with Emma’s friends but cannot get past her own feelings of inferiority. The love between the two women is real as is the attraction, but their backgrounds are wildly different and neither woman seems to have the proper amount of empathy to overcome their differences. It’s a truly fascinating relationship study and Kechiche does not shy away from any aspect of its presentation.

Exarchopoulos carries the film with great love and care. This 19-year-old has the gifts of a veteran actor. She expertly conveys Adele’s confusion, repression, excitement, ecstasy and deep regret. Rarely is an actress allowed to run the gamut of emotions, let alone etch a fully rounded portrait.

Seydoux is simply magnificent—whether she’s falling in love with a minor and conflicted about it, pleasing her new lover or angrily chastising her because she’s been hurt and refuses to even consider forgiveness--you can’t take your eyes off of her. It’s one of the edgiest performances of the year.

Kechiche and his co-screenwriter, Ghalya Lacroix boldly examine what it means to be different in this world. The debate of whether existence or essence came first is a theme openly discussed in the early part of the film and emanates throughout. Also the notion of whether life is predetermined or not. Can we overcome our nature and nurture burdens and actually become something wholly unique? Are we at the mercy of chance when it comes to who we spend our time with—whom we love—who we’re attracted to?

I loved so much about this film—the mood, the feel, the colors, the fluidity of the camerawork, the intelligent script and the sexiness and tenderness of the love scenes--and the ending (which I will not give away). In addition, the notion that there are different kinds of repression is cleverly analyzed. Repression could stem from a religiously influenced lower-middle class upbringing. It could also come from misguided societal ideas about sex and monogamy.

Blue is the Warmest Color never ceases to mesmerize and stimulate, both intellectually and emotionally.




Paul Greengrass’s
Captain Phillips
51st Annual New York Film Festival
September 28 - October 14, 2013
Opening Night
Lincoln Center

Written by: Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, Catherine Keener

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In March of 2009, four Somali pirates hijacked a U.S. container ship, the Maersk Alabama, and kidnapped the Captain of the vessel. Paul Greengrass, working with an expert script by Billy Ray (based on two books) recreates the events in one of the most gripping, intelligent, extraordinary films of 2013.

One of the first scenes in the pic is between Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) having a serious conversation while en route to Norfolk to drop him off. They discuss how difficult it gets each time he must go on another journey (subtext about the dangers involved pervade) and they talk about their children and how they worry that it’s so much tougher in the world today than when they were starting out. It’s a normal conversation between two people who love each other and have been together for quite a while but it will later prove to be telling and rich with subtle but potent ironies.

Phillips is, indeed, concerned about his latest voyage which will take him along the Somali coast en route to Kenya. He reads a warning email about pirates in that area and upon boarding, immediately demands that the crew begin emergency drills.

Meanwhile in Somalia, we watch a harried scene where men and boys are being recruited to hijack ships and bring back money and, possibly, hostages for ransom. These ‘pirate’ tasks are so coveted, many of the Africans must bribe the Captain for a spot. We also meet the greedy warlords they have to answer to if they fail.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd immediately establishes his kinetic, yet taut style in these opening scenes.

Captain Phillips’ worst fears are realized when he spots two smallish boats rapidly approaching. He has one of his officers place a call to the US Maritime Emergency line and, incredulously, there is no answer so he attempts a bluff that partially pays off—scaring away one of the boats. The other group, led by an anorexic and ambitious Somali named Muse (an exceptional Barkhad Abdi) is undaunted and, even after the motor fails, remains steadfast in his pursuit of the large vessel.

The next morning, they’re fast approaching and Captain Phillips and the crew begin to scramble to try and lose them but the ship is too large and the only weapons they have on board are streams of water shooting out of the sides of the ship. This is one of the most lunatic realities presented—there were no guards on board that could fend off an attack in those waters.

In an exciting, edge-of-your-seat sequence, the four pirates board the ship as the crew hide deep below in the engine room. Captain Phillips must think fast and try and outwit Muse and his gang.

Muse refers to his actions as just “business,” and Phillips challenges him when he is about to murder one of his officers with, “Is this how you do business?” One of the wonderful things about how Muse is portrayed is that, on many occasions, he can be reasoned with. He is not all villain--not by a long shot.

Muse personifies the downtrodden being given an opportunity to rule and how that power can go to a person’s head if it isn’t tempered with reason.

Through a series of events I will not mention for fear of spoiling great moments, Phillips is taken hostage by the Somalis and, soon, the U.S. military is involved and Navy SEALS are put on alert just in case since Washington has issued an order that, ”Whatever happens, Captain Phillips does not reach Somalia.”

Greengrass holds pretty true to the actual events as they took place—save compressing 4-5 days—and the results are one of the most spectacular cinematic experiences in years.

Phillips and Muse go head-to-head in a few scenes and the results are surprising. Instead of good vs. evil, we get a psychological exploration of each of these “Captains.” Both risk their lives for their chosen work—one inside the law, the other, breaking international law. One lives quite well; the other is as poor as they come. Both have dreams, but only one will likely be able to have his fulfilled (or already has). One is on a mission to do good (Phillips: “We were carrying food for starving people in Africa.”) The other has his own, more pressing reasons.
Muse may be arrogant and avaricious but he’s also trying to stay alive—and trying to get a piece of the elusive pie that he and his fellow band of pirates have been denied by both the warlords as well as the international community who leave them little choice but to turn to a life of thievery.

In a very illuminating moment, Phillips gently admonishes Muse for his actions saying there must be some other alternative for him than kidnapping people. Muse sighs, “Maybe in America.”

Ray’s script is rich in complexity, as the class distinction remains a factor throughout the narrative, as does this odd, mutual respect both Captains have for one another.

The film is superbly edited (by Christopher Rouse, who will be Oscar nominated) and the score (by Henry Jackman) perfectly enhances each scene—never offering too much manipulation.

Both Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass accomplish career-best work with Captain Phillips.

Greengrass is responsible for the second and third Bourne films (Supremacy and Ultimatum) as well as United 93. As thrilling as those films were, his work on Captain Phillips surpasses all his previous efforts.

Greengrass’s hallmark, energetic, handheld style places the audience smack dab in the midst of the action and with Captain Phillips, it is more dizzying, terrifying and gripping than ever. And while United 93 was more of a docu-film, Captain Phillips, is a more layered, nuanced and robust work.

Hanks is certainly no slouch having received two Oscars (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump) in the 90s and going on to solidify his place as one of our most respected actors in films such as Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away and Road to Perdition. Yet, in Captain Phillips there is something transcendent about his performance. It’s his most fully realized work by far.

Hanks cuts deep into the psyche of a man who faces his own mortality and must use all his strengths—physical, mental, psychological—to survive. And while he does all this, he also manages to attempt to understand his captors, and in doing so, we don’t see them as evil—we see the person behind the action. To call his performance remarkable and transformative is only scratching the surface of what he accomplishes here.

And in the final scene, which it turns out was a last minute idea, Hanks brings Phillips’ journey to such a human end it’s as shocking as it is sublime. And that last scene is enough to assure Hanks an Oscar nomination—if there is any justice within AMPAS.

We’ve come to expect the depiction of courage and grit in films about survival. What we rarely get to see is the true terror, confusion and humanity that must usually take a backseat to entertainment. Hanks gives us that gift. And he’s raised the 2013 acting stakes in the process.

And Greengrass secures a place among the best filmmakers working today.

 




James Gray’s
The Immigrant
51st Annual New York Film Festival
September 28 - October 14, 2013
Opening Night
Lincoln Center

Written by: James Gray, Richard Menello

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The opening shot of James Gray’s mesmerizing new work, The Immigrant, is of the Statue of Liberty. The camera pulls back to reveal an ominous man in a hat looking at the great Lady standing tall atop Ellis Island.

My initial impulse was that this is an immigrant staring at the symbol of “the promised land,” but first impressions can sometimes be deceiving. On second examination, especially after watching the first half of the film, I was struck with the notion that the shot was symbolic of someone waiting to take advantage/exploit of one of the tired, poor, yearning masses.

Coming to America did not produce a better life for most of the immigrants that fled their respective countries—especially in the first half of the 20th Century—and it was especially harsh on women.

I am the son of an immigrant who came over on a long, exhausting and debilitating sea voyage in 1955. But at least my mother had a family waiting for her. I wondered how her life and the life of her sister (who came over with her) would have changed had she been accosted on board the ship and labeled a “woman of low morals,” simply because she had the decency to say no to a man. I also wondered how differently her family might have treated her. And what she would have done to survive.

The Immigrant takes place some thirty years earlier (1921) when foreigners were treated with more hostility, crossing conditions were much more brutal and women were expected to be much more subservient.

Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is escaping her native Poland with her sickly sister (Angela Sarafyan), after watching her parents beheading. Things go from bad to horrific as her sister is instantly quarantined for tuberculosis and she is labeled a whore, because of something that happened aboard the ship, and marked for deportation.

Enter a savior named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who brings her home and gives her food and a place to stay and promises to help get her sister out. All he wants in return is for her to actually become a whore. Bruno is a glorified pimp, a poor-man’s Ziegfeld who has a troupe of girls he parades in a burlesque house, expecting them to work overtime making the gentleman happy.

Immediately, Ewa is tossed into this shocking world and must figure out a way to survive. When she fights off Bruno’s advances he becomes furiously violent yelling, “Shame on you! I should beat you to death.” Bruno is not used to any female saying no to him—certainly not one he is so valiantly trying to help.

Ewa escapes long enough to visit her Aunt and Uncle, only to discover that it was her Uncle that refused to give her refuge at Ellis Island because of the alleged incident on the ship. Here a wicked rumor is taken as gospel over the word of one’s own relation—when it has to do with a woman’s morals, consequently the reputation of the family.

With no options but to return to Bruno, suck it up and do what she must to procure the money for her sister, Ewa shows us just how much grit and perseverance she has, and how far she is willing to go for her sister.

Complicating matters, Bruno begins falling for Ewa just as his cousin and nemesis, Orlando—the Magician (Jeremy Renner) enters the picture and also falls for Ewa. Which of these guys is sincere, which is a cad and how will things end for our heroine?

In heavier hands, The Immigrant could have been unbearable melodramatic pap, but director/co-writer James Gray along with his co-scripter, Richard Menello, honestly and painfully pursue a type of down-and-dirty realism we rarely get in stories like this.

They present a true nightmare where America has become the land of the dog-eat-dog, eat-or-be-eaten—survival of the fittest and cleverest, cesspool. These NYC streets are filled with the poor who will compromise themselves with little coercion. A person is either strong and corrupt or weak and subservient.

And for women, life is impossible. And the notion of happiness means not having to prostitute yourself…today.

The story is about Ewa’s pursuit of happiness and how she must crawl through the sewers and fight off true monsters to get there—whereever there is.

Yet through all the drabness, cruelty and bleakness, Gray still manages a transcendent ending. Love can change people. Redemption is possible.

The final scene is awe-inspiring and reminded me of another ending where forgiveness, as improbable as it seemed, proved vital, Stephen Frear’s Philomena.

Gray’s complex, desperate and passionate characters are brought to magnificent life by the two leads. Gray says he wrote the film for Cotillard and Phoenix and could not have imagined doing it if they said no. I wholly understand his feelings.

Cotillard, after winning a deserved Oscar for her astonishing portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose in 2007, has been denied nominations at least four subsequent times (Nine, Inception, Midnight in Paris and Rust and Bone). I only wish TWC Radius would release The Immigrant in 2013 because she’d almost be assured her long-awaited second nomination.

Regardless, it is one of the most understated yet wrenching performances by an actor this year. She creates a haunting, flawed, tenacious woman who walks the minefields of her new life with deliberate determination.

Her journey, from her early days biting into a banana, peel and all, because she didn’t know the difference to the scene where she must handle a terrible tragedy without breaking down, Cotillard’s Ewa is a rich and nuanced character, smart and refreshingly unpredictable.

Joachin Phoenix matches her in the fearless department. Bruno is one of the most irksome, enigmatic characters, yet his arc is extraordinary and his veracious portrayal reminded me of the early work of Brando.

Renner is also quite good but, unfortunately, Orlando isn’t given enough screen time. He’s left a curiosity to us—which may have been the point.

The look of the film is gorgeous with lovely early 1900s tints and hues (like the old postcards)—credit cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer, Happy Massee as well as costumer Patricia Norris.

The Immigrant is paradoxically, a sucker-punch to the gut and deeply satisfying.





Joel & Ethan Coen’s
Inside Llewyn Davis
51st Annual New York Film Festival

September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, F. Murray Abraham

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The latest celluloid creation spawned from the bizarre, treasured heads of the Coen Brothers left me positively giddy, a tad stupefied yet wishing I didn’t have to leave the world they so delicately and meticulously created—not after only 105 minutes.

As much as Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) would be tagged an anti-hero and/or ‘unlikeable’ by some viewers, I adored him—even with all his legion of idiosyncrasies, faults and eccentricities. I loved his sarcastic responses and his semi-bumbling ways, his neuroses and his ability to kick his foot so far up into his mouth, it’s a wonder he can sing at times!

Inspired by musician Dave Van Ronk and his never-completed memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street as well as Homer’s Odyssey (yes, again), the Coens have crafted their own semi-surrealistic folk music world--with great attention to period detail and atmosphere--and created a wholly original, puzzling character with Llewyn Davis.

The film begins (and ends) in Greenwich Village in 1961, at the Gaslight Café (a folk music club), in the days before Bob Dylan changed that style of music forever. Llewyn Davis sings a bewitching and bleak version of “Dink’s Song (Fare Thee Well), ” which is essentially about hanging oneself, and we are instantly taken with this oddball visual blend of Lenny Bruce, Dustin Hoffman and Che Guevera (again, we are talking looks). He’s a shlubby Phil Ochs.

Llewyn had a partner but he “threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.” One can only wonder if Llewyn may have been directly or indirectly responsible.

The guy has no money, is constantly hitting friends up for a place to stay and seems to like sleeping around but doesn’t care about responsibility. Case in point, he may or may not be the father of his folk-singer friend Jean’s child and upon hearing she is pregnant, immediately assumes she’s having an abortion. Jean is embodied by the fabulous Carey Mulligan, who is filled with the kind of anger that is deep and penetrating and can only come from a place where intense passion and love live.

Jean happens to be the wife of fellow folk singer, Jim (Justin Timberlake, in a turn that nicely plays against type), who has no clue his wife sleeps around. Jim asks Llewyn to take part in the recording of a ridiculous single called “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” (one of the film’s many treats), along with a Jew-cum-cowboy who calls himself Al Cody (an uproarious Adam Driver). In an effort to get quick money for Jean’s abortion, Lleywn signs away the rights to royalties. Guess what happens later…

At this point the film takes an even more bizarre detour as characters played by cantankerous John Goodman and gorgeous Garrett Hedlund (Dean Moriarty in Walter Salles’ On The Road, apropos casting here) and Llewyn take to the road and our protagonist suffers some major career setbacks.

In a rather devastating but equally hilarious moment, Llewyn sings for a big time club owner (F. Murray Abraham). He pours his heart and soul into the performance and the man responds, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

It’s too easy to label Llewyn as a failure. He’s an artist who may not be committed enough to his craft. Or he may simply not have luck on his side. He’s certainly talented, but many talented people never make it.

The paradoxical nature of the character and the fact that we care so much is, in large part, a tribute to the acting talents of Oscar Isaac. This is that proverbial star-making turn. Isaac makes Llewyn vital, despite the character’s self-destructive nature. You need only watch his antics with a cat to get how enigmatic Llewyn truly is.

In the end, we hope that Llewyn finds some kind of contentment, or at the very least a gig where his artistry is fully appreciated and he doesn’t get the shit beat out of him.




Ralph Fiennes’s
The Invisible Woman

51st Annual New York Film Festival
September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Abi Morgan, based on the book "The Invisible Woman" by Claire Tomalin

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Burke, MF, Amanda Hale, Perdita Weeks, John Kavanagh, Charissa Shearer

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

This lush costume drama about the tortured relationship between Charles Dickens and an 18-year old girl named Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, begins charmingly enough but becomes less involving as it slogs along.

Borrowing a framing device from her script for The Iron Lady, screenwriter Abi Morgan, adapting the bio by Claire Tomalin, begins her tale with Nelly (Felicity Jones) living a lonely life. The film opens with her storming a beach, years after her affair with a certain Mr. Charles Dickens. Despite being married, she is lost and ill-at-ease, yet immersed in directing one of Dickens' collaborations for a grade school.

We move back in time to 1857 in Manchester, England when she first encounters the great Charles Dickens, who takes a passing fancy to Nelly—which soon turns into an obsession with having her. Nelly refuses his advances at first but eventually—after an interminable length of time-- succumbs.

What intrigued me most about the film is its portrayal of Dickens’ as author and father of several hundred children (only ten, really) and what a loving father he was despite the fact that he was such an egotist.

Dickens was immensely popular in his time and treated the way we treat rock stars today. Allowing a lot of his popularity to go to his head, Fiennes embodies a self-centered, self-serving man—who craved the attention fame brought him and took advantage of the women who threw themselves at him. Fiennes’ Dickens is a man full of verve and vigor chasing after his dying youth.

Dickens was immensely popular in his time and treated the way we treat rock stars today--allowing a lot of his popularity to go to his head. Fiennes embodies this self-centered, self-serving man to perfection. Fiennes' Dickens craved the attention fame brought him and took advantage of the women who threw themselves at him. He is a man full of verve and vigor chasing after his dying youth.

If only the film were as filled with energy and vitality.

I honestly could not get that excited about Felicity Jones’s performance. It’s technically good but there’s a lack of passion that frustrated me. I get that she’s repressed but some sign of life would have gone a long way towards my believing Dickens would have been attracted to her in the first place.

Joanna Scanlan, on the other hand, broke my heart, with an intense, riveting portrayal of a woman who must deal with being shunned by the love of her life, a woman being replaced by a younger, prettier one. A scene where Dickens forces her to bring Nelly a gift mistakenly brought to her, is a study in subtle devastation and capitulation.

Fiennes’ English Patient co-star, the great Kristin Scott Thomas shines in the too-smallish role of Nelly’s morally-challenged mother.

Fiennes is a deft director and the tech credits are above par across the boards, yet The Invisible Woman remains elusive to me. Perhaps that’s the point and I’m just not getting it.




Philippe Garrel’s
Jealousy (La Jalousie)
51st Annual New York Film Festival

September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Philippe Garrel, Caroline Deruas, Arlette Langmann, Mark Cholodenko

Starring: Louis Garrel, Anna Mouglalis, Rebecca Convenant, Olga Milshtein, Esther Garrel

In French with English subtitles

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Scenes from a Non-Marriage could have been another title for Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy (La Jalousie). The new film from the celebrated French director struck me as Ingmar Bergman-lite. And that’s not necessarily a put down.

The narrative comes directly from Garrel’s own life since his father, Maurice, left his mother for an actress when Philippe was young. He’s cast his son, Louis, in the role of his father and Esther, his own daughter, plays Louis’s sister. To add to the nepotistic atmosphere, Philippe’s life-partner, Caroline Deruas, is one of the credited screenwriters, along with Philippe.

So does it play like an inaccessible home movie? Absolutely not. And that’s a tribute to the filmmaker’s gift for storytelling, the terrific actors involved and the effective fragmented editing (by Yann Dedet) that presents each scene as if they were separate short films that will somehow guide you to an outcome.

The film begins with a couple breaking up. Louis (Louis Garrel) is leaving Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant) for another woman. It’s telling that the director chooses to open the film with Clothilde in tears.

The two have an 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte (a delightful Olga Milshtein).

Louis is a struggling actor who is currently doing a play—but not being paid for rehearsals. He moves in with his new love, the moody, paranoid and sometimes schizophrenic Claudia (Anna Mouglalis, so good in Romanzo Criminale a few years back), an actress who hasn’t worked in years.

Louis is a shameless flirt, holding hands with a strange woman in a movie house and even kissing one of his co-stars, but he never takes it further.

Claudia, on the other hand, picks up strange men in bars and has sex with them. She has an ‘as long as we love each other that’s all that matters’ policy, although early in the film it seemed she was more possessive of Louis than she ends up being.

Claudia meets Charlotte and instantly charms her, to the extent that the little girl goes home and raves about how wonderful dad’s new girlfriend is to her devastated mother.

Claudia is never happy and complains constantly about the small apartment they live in, until she finds a nice man (who it appears is also taken) to set her up in her own place. When she tells Louis, he can’t fathom her infidelity. Her response: “We’re here to have as full a life as possible.”

Once again the French go where no American dares delving into notions of whether humans were made to be monogamous. I’m sure many U.S. reviewers will bring their religion-based morals to their take on this film but the truth is infidelity is a fact of life and trying to get to the whys is always fascinating—and should be explored.

There’s a telling scene where a stranger walks into Louis’s dressing room and tells him that she was madly in love with his father. The look on Louis’s face is extraordinary as he realizes that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

The film is filled with incisive scenes, many involving the interplay between Garrel and Milshtein. Garrel, the director, does his best to stay away from too much character judgment.

Louis Garrel has established himself as one of the most exciting European actor’s working today. With his sad, expressive eyes, sweet, slightly wicked smile and wavy, high-coifed hair, he can seduce a telephone pole. Here he is superb, showing us Louis’s conflict within himself. “I know who I am,” he states to Claudia in the first part of the film, yet the subtext is more that he wishes he knew who he was and could be sure of things.

Mouglalis plays Claudia with all her flaws and foibles out for us to see. She’s irksome and frustrating but she can also be passionate and loveable.

The film is shot in gorgeous black and white by Willy Kurant.

My only complaint is that at 73-minutes, the film is too short. A few more vignettes from this erratic but infectious non-marriage would have been welcome.




Rithy Panh’s
The Missing Picture
51st Annual New York Film Festival

September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Documentary

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

From 1975 to 1979, under the reign of dictator Pol Pot, nearly 25% of the Cambodian population was decimated via his extreme “reeducation” notions that forced city dwellers to relocate to the country and work in “collective” farms. This resulted in brutal mass executions, forced labor, malnutrition and starvation, horrific medical conditions and soul-numbing psychological effects. It stands as one of the worst genocides in modern history.

Pol Pot’s mission, modeled on Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” as well as Rousseau’s ‘Noble Savage,’ was to purify the people by destroying class distinctions and any notions of the individual. This communist movement, enforced by the Khmer Rouge, wanted to created a new order, the Kampuchean Revolution.

Docu-director Rithy Panh is a survivor who has dealt with the subject in two other films. This time, however, he has decided to examine his own story and has made a sobering, chilling yet beautiful film in the process.

Panh lost his parents, siblings and cousins during this reign of terror. He witnessed those around him suffer and die in the worst ways possible. And he has crafted his film in a most unusual, initially off-putting way.

Photos and film of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge survived to tell their story but Panh is interested in “the missing pictures,” all the unphotographed, unfilmed, undocumented moments in the lives of the victims. His recollections keep their stories alive.

And he has chosen to recreate all the details via these amazing, handcrafted clay figures that are placed within each recreated setting and stand in for the persecuted as well as the persecutors.

It’s an ambitious and ballsy choice and I was apprehensive at first, but there is something truly haunting and real about the dolls, and the faces, in particular, that I found the end result alarmingly poignant. In many ways it’s performance art meets celluloid.

The first-person narration also goes a long way toward enabling the viewer to understand what really happened in “Kampuchea.”

Panh’s personal story, seared into his memory yet told in a distancing manner—possibly the only way he could actually deal with such a colossal tragedy—achieves powerful results.

The film details how the Khmer Rouge surrounded the city, rounded everyone up and separated families, “women from men, adults from children, no personal affects, only numbers,” and how their first names were changed and their clothes died black so they could become the “New People.” And each subsequent, harrowing event is depicted as Panh relives his bleak, tortured childhood and wonders, “Why couldn’t I help my loved ones more?”

The film is a devastating memory piece about a dark moment in world history that needs to be explored further.




Alexander Payne’s
Nebraska
51st Annual New York Film Festival
September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Bob Nelson

Starring: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Angela McEwan.

Review by Frank J. Avella

Nebraska is pleasurable tonic in a year filled with mindless or broad comedies that bombard the senses. Here the jolt comes from just how funny a movie can be when it doesn’t try so hard and presents fascinating characters in off-kilter situations--then deals with it all in a very real way.

It’s a road movie of sorts, a family dramedy, a look at a Midwest that is disappearing and morphing. It is a lovely picture postcard album of a country. It is also a harsh comment on the bill-of-goods our citizens were sold and how it imbeds itself into your being.

It’s hard not to personalize when I related to the father’s plight since my dad—as he got older--upon receiving each Clearing House Giveaway letter in the mail, used to insist that he was a winner. That all he had to do was fill out the form and mail it in and someone would show up at his door with a check for one million dollars. His misguided but steadfast enthusiasm and insistence that they wouldn’t send him such things if it wasn’t true is permanently embedded in my memory.

Well, the father in Nebraska takes things a few steps further...

Woody (Bruce Dern) is a headstrong, cantankerous old man (my dad again!) of few words whose health is in decline and who might be losing his memory. Upon his receiving his lucky winner’s letter, he insists he’s won and wants to travel 750 miles from his current home in Billings, Montana to the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, Nebraska. And since no one in his family believes him, he begins his journey on foot. Of course, Woody can barely walk and needs liquid sustenance to get through his day (one of his two son’s calls him an alcoholic).

His tell-it-like-it-is wife, Kate (June Squibb) has grown annoyed by all Woody’s antics and dismisses him outright.

His son David (Will Forte of SNL) is concerned about Woody and agrees to take the trip with him, knowing it’s a study in futility. The decision is made, against Woody’s will, to stop in their hometown of Hawthorne and have a reunion where Kate and the older “local celebrity” son (Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk) will also show up at the home of one of Woody’s brothers and their misfit offspring.

Upon hearing of Woody’s good fortune, everyone in the family—heck, the town, devise some story about how Woody owes them money—when usually the opposite is true. The biting satire here isn’t so far off the reality mark as anyone who’s come into any type of money would corroborate.

David ends up learning more about his gullible father than he expected and we, the viewer, come away with a great sense of who Woody is, despite the fact that he’s a man of few words.

In the hands of another director, this could have been a condescending mess, but Payne has respect for his characters and takes a fairly ridiculous situation and grounds it in intense, emotional reality.

Don’t misunderstand, the screenplay, by Bob Nelson, tells a terrific story and is loaded with great lines and moments.

Woody takes one glance at Mount Rushmore and dismissingly grouses, “It doesn’t look finished to me.”

And the sight of Kate flashing a tombstone to show a dead suitor, “what he coulda had,” is simply priceless.

Payne honors the script and the deadpan humor of the characters while creating a stately, picture-perfect film. He’s a master of filling the celluloid frame in certain moments (the family sitting around the TV) and keeping it deliberately sparse in other scenes (a shot of the barren streets of Hawthorne).

And with Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous black and white photography (using old CinemaScope lenses), the film pays homage to some classic American movies.

His style here is a throwback to the clever, genius directors of the 30s and 40s (Billy Wilder and, especially, Preston Sturges come to mind instantly) as well as the stark, elegant yet sometimes zany quality of the best of Peter Bogdanovich (specifically The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon). He has the smarts of the Coens, without the condescension. He may poke fun but it’s in a reverential manner.

Payne continues to add to his illustrious homeland oeuvre. Nebraska fits nicely along side the greatly underrated About Schmidt, the slightly overrated Sideways and his stunning jewel, The Descendants.

I’ve never really thought of Bruce Dern as a great actor. Sure, he was superb in Coming Home but with such a fantastic script, Hal Ashby directing and Jane Fonda to play opposite, it’s hard to suck. At the press conference following the Festival screening, Dern talked about how he studied with Strasberg and Kazan and basically said he was waiting his whole life to show what he could do. Well, thanks to Nebraska, he will be remembered as an actor with extraordinary gifts.

Underplaying Woody at every turn, Dern deliberately keeps the mystery of this stubborn mule of a man alive. And every time we think he’s going to say something revealing, he either turns away or says something inconsequential. The richness of the performance is in the subtext and the quick-revealing facial expressions. Dern’s eyes are bulging with the despair of a life unlived—dreams unrealized, desires unfulfilled. He is the essence of today’s dying American dream—the Eisenhower-era bullshit promise pissed on and cast aside.

June Squibb is a scene-stealing dynamo, munching on the landscape like a ravenous Midwestern Ms. Pacman. Is Kate overbearing? She sure is. Has she been the one to hold the family together? She sure has! Is there a heart at the center of Squibb’s portrayal? There sure is. And an Oscar nomination will prove that.

Forte’s performance is so subtle, he almost gets lost in the family of loons and loudmouths, but it pays off in a key father/son scene where he understands more about his dad than he imagined.

Payne has crafted a precious, exquisite look into Americana—what it (allegedly) used to be vs. what it’s become…and what it still can be.



Jim Jarmusch’s
Only Lovers Left Alive
51st Annual New York Film Festival

September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The only U.S. director that rivals David Lynch in terms of creating truly strange and personal works on film is Jim Jarmusch. Since the early 80s, Jarmusch has enthralled us with his unique and bizarre visions of love and individuality—from Stranger Than Paradise to Dead Man to Broken Flowers. With Only Lovers Left Alive, he has made one of his most accessible and, yet, most singular features.

When was the last time you saw true love portrayed onscreen with no conflicts tearing a couple apart? What was the last American film you saw that depicted devotion so wholly and pure?

Yeah, I can’t recall either.

Only Lovers Left Alive is so rejuvenating (especially after the summer of Hollywood crap) and resplendent, you almost forget that the film is about a couple that happens to be undead. And they also happen to be Adam and Eve. Yes, that Adam and Eve. I think. Sure seems like it.

So we have the two oldest vampires on the face of the Earth who so adore one another and look out for one another. Nothing can or will stand in the way of their togetherness. Is Jarmusch saying that only non-humans can be capable of such unflinching allegiance?

Set in Detroit and Tangier, the film is a melancholy and moody meditation on love (that word again), passion and survival—even when things are at their bleakest.

When the film opens, Adam is living in decaying Detroit while Eve relaxes comfortably in the Moroccan city. Times have changed and it is no longer advisable to simply drink blood directly from a human. And there’s a fear of contamination so they must be extra careful.

Just why Adam and Eve are apart is never addressed but as soon as Eve gets an inking that Adam is depressed and possibly suicidal, she boards the next nighttime flight, making certain she arrives after dusk as well since our vamps sleep during the day, as they are want to do.

Adam is a musician with a cult following (he wrote Schubert’s Adagio but decided to give it to him). Adam is quite depressed since he sees the human race as hopeless. He has grown weary of the ‘zombies’ (his nickname for humans) and the fact that, “they fear their own imaginations.”

Eve can speed read in all languages and knows the name of every species on Earth. She’s definitely the cheerier of the two and, as opposed to Adam, is ready to embrace new things (check out her Iphone 5!).

As soon as Eve arrives in Detroit so does renewed passion and hope for Adam and we are able to enjoy the couple’s genuine devotion to each other with no contrived conflicts, no petty jealousies, no bullshit. The two vamp-sophisticates have traveled the world and seen everything—together.

There is a reference to Einstein’s theory of entanglement where if you separate two entwined particles, even at opposite ends of the universe, both will be affected by the other. In this case, nothing can break their connection.

Trouble does, indeed, arrive in the body of Eve’s sister Eva (a deliciously wicked Mia Wasikowska), but it’s nothing they can’t handle—as they probably have for centuries.

The film has a definite eerie quality to it and is almost psychedelic in it’s visual style. Gorgeously shot by Yorick Le Saux, the pic features a haunting score by Jozef Van Wissem.

Adam and Eve love to name drop (Byron, Shelley) and there are quite a few hilarious moments like when Eve sees Adam’s mess of a flat she drolly states, “I love what you’ve done with the place.” Or when Adam discovers that Eva has drained his only human friend he, slightly upset, sighs, “You drank…Ian.”

The banter between Adam and Ian is also a treat with Anton Yelchin doing his best Ethan Hawkesque grunge dude.

John Hurt shows up as Christopher Marlowe (yes, Shakespeare’s rival) in time for a few wise-old-man moments.

But the piece belongs to Hiddleston and Swinton and they play weirdly/brilliantly/sublimely together.

Tilda Swinton is devilishly otherworldly on a good day so it’s no stretch for her to be believably ethereal and witchy. But Swinton goes far beyond the obvious here with a charming and subtle portrait of a woman fiercely dedicated to the man she loves and the planet she wishes was thriving again. I don’t think there’s any role this masterful actress cannot tackle. And if she ever wants to play a deeply flawed but loyal mother to a bullied gay son, I have the perfect part for her. But I digress…

Hiddleston’s droll, tired Adam is just a joy (as odd as that sounds) since once Eve shows up we realize what he was missing. Hiddleston is one the best actors working today. And his chemistry with Swinton is palpable.

Jarmusch doesn’t bother with too much vamp explanations or blather. He knows we are a culture steeped in knowledge of the genre. There is an intriguing bit about them wearing white gloves and only taking them off when they’re in each other’s presence…just enough to make us curious.

And as far as Adam and Eve—there’s a throwaway line referring to God as a myth—again just enough to whet our wonder.

Jarmusch cleverly comments on our present times using the couple as representative of the current, fragile nature of humanity. Can we survive? Do we want to? Do we deserve to?

Only Lovers Left Alive is the stark yet feel-good fringe-indie vampire movie of the century!



Jehane Noujaim’s
The Square

51st Annual New York Film Festival
September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The urgency and insanity of the Egyptian revolution is absorbingly depicted in Jehane Noujaim’s remarkable (and ongoing) account, The Square.

Nouujaim is right there in the trenches capturing the commitment and heroism of the revolutionaries who rose up against the dictator, Hosni Mubarek, after a thirty-year regime reign where he tortured, electrocuted, beat and murdered foes.

The filmmaker smartly focuses on a well-selected group of individual citizens who are bound by the cause and collectively take to Tahir Square in Cairo in January of 2011. The notion that “there is no such thing as Muslim or Christian, We were all equals,” echoes their determined sentiment.

In February, Mubarek resigns and there is hope for a democracy but the military, after swearing they wouldn’t, take over, do just that, meaning the secret police still had all the power. In the spring, the brave people take to the streets again acknowledging that their biggest mistake was leaving before anything was actually done.

It’s here that Rami Essam, a famous Egyptian singer, is arrested and badly beaten for singing a protest song.

“As long as there’s a camera, the revolution will continue.”

In the summer of 2011, via more protests, they demand a constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political organization, “hijacks the revolution,” and, that fall, protests increase and nerve gas is used—even in hospitals. Mohamed Morsi, of the Brotherhood, is elected President and nothing changes—worse, his privileges are even greater than Mubarek’s and the torture continues. “Military fascists,” are replaced with, “religious fascists.”

“Soon enough they will wipe us out, and all their opposition.”

Ahmed Hassan is the loud, intelligent, idealistic, throughline-voice Noujaim uses to great effect in the film. He’s young and cares about his country and is willing to do what it takes to affect real change.

On June 20, 2013, millions of Egyptians take to the streets in “what is possibly the largest demonstration in the history of the world,” and Morsi falls. But, even this, is nowhere near the end as is acknowledged by the incredibly courageous revolutionaries.

Noujaim presents each lunatic government change in a way that can be understood by even those who aren’t up on their world current events. She is right there in the symbolic square with her camera, making the film all the more potent. It’s exciting cinema that matters. And she lets those with the most at stake, voice their thoughts and feelings and allows the immediate images to create her docu-narrative.

Make no mistake--there is no balanced view here (nor should there be). Noujaim shows some of the pompous military figures lying and denying—even when footage proves them to be mendacious, selfish monsters.

And that’s the most fascinating thing about this particular revolution. Social media and the Internet have played a special and vital role in getting the truth out to the rest of the world about the injustices in Egypt. The digital age has changed perception forever. And that’s as it should be.

The Square is the most powerful documentary of 2013 to date.




Alain Guiraudie’s
Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac)

51st Annual New York Film Festival
September 28 - October 14, 2013
Lincoln Center

Written by: Alain Guiraudie

Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick D’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch & François Labarthe

In French with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In the last few years, gay filmmakers have given us searingly accurate portraits of same-sex relationships. Films like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On and Travis Fine’s Any Day Now have broken new ground in honest gay storytelling. But nothing could prepare us for the temerity of Alain Guiraudie and his thrilling new film, Stranger by the Lake.

This profound work is so perceptive when it comes to the obsessive/ compulsive desires and behavior of gay men, I was gobsmacked, titillated and truly disquieted.

Realize, though, that the film transcends being solely about gay life and acts as a microcosm for what our world is turning into—an apathetic playground where people only care about things directly affect them. A world where people aren’t willing to take any action—even when people die right in front of us each day (think about the perpetual shootings in this country and how we do nothing about our gun laws). It may be harsh, but it’s also the truth.

Stranger by the Lake takes place in one setting--an unnamed lake area in an unnamed town in France where men of all ages, shapes and sizes go to sunbathe, cruise, have sex--oh, and occasionally, swim. No one reads, eats or tweets. Exactly when the film takes place is also a big question mark. It could be present day (but not one cell phone is shown) or a decade or so ago. The non-specificities add to the universality of the story.

Each day twinkish-cutie Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arrives and parks in the same area. The film’s passage of time—a few days (weeks at the most)--is marked by Franck’s driving up to the same general locale each day.

The first day, Franck says hi to a friend, swims a bit and then meets a dumpy older guy named Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao) and the two guys strike-up a conversation. Over the course of a few days they become friends. Henri stays at his one spot and stares out most days—never bothering to play with the other boys. One of the joys of Guiraudie’s script is his fearlessness with depicting the odd and, yet, natural silences that are often part of any conversation between strangers or even friends.

As soon as Franck lays his eyes on Michel (Cristophe Paou), a sexy new guy shimmering from his swim, he darts off to follow him into the nearby woods, leaving Henri alone on his perch. Once Franck finds Michel, he is too late as the moustache’d hottie is already having sex with another guy amidst the shrubbery.

Franck finds his own consolation shag and, dejected but ejaculated, goes home.

It’s not much of a stretch to call Franck a slut. Sure, he’s looking for Mr. Right but ready, willing and able to settle for Mr. Right Here-Right Now until Mr. Right comes along.

The next day Franck comes face to face with Michel and mid-conversation is interrupted by a younger guy, who may or may not be Michel’s boyfriend, telling him he’s been waiting for him. Franck is thwarted again. Franck complains to Henri: “Guys I like are always taken.”

One night after most all the cruisers have left the area, Franck stays late and witnesses Michel frolicking with the same guy in the lake. The scene quickly turns macabre as Michel drown the boy and then swims to shore as if nothing happened. Franck’s does nothing, waits until it’s pitch-dark and then leave. This moment is exceptionally shot from Franck’s faraway point of view and is chilling and unsettling (I was reminded of Jaws).

Franck’s reaction feels very curious—but is it considering the circumstances and even considering the real world we live in? Does Franck not shout out while the boy is being drowned because he’s afraid or because he’s uncertain of what is actually happening OR is it because he simply doesn’t care? Or does it go deeper? Does he realize that Michel’s killing his beau, Ramiere, paves the way for him as Michel’s boyfriend? Does he care more about his lust than a human life?

The next day Ramiere’s towel and belongings lay on the beach and his car remains in the parking area, but no one seems to notice he’s gone.

A day or two after the murder, Franck and Michel hook up and have intense, unsafe sex. It’s a graphic scene, erotically charged, borderline pornographic. Franck is mesmerized by Michel and admits to Henri that he’s falling for him. When Franck becomes frustrated with Michel’s never wanting to grab dinner or spend the night with him, Michel responds with: “We can have great sex without eating or sleeping with one another.”

The body of Ramiere is found a few days later and an Inspector arrives to investigate, creating tension among the cruisers. But pretty soon it’s back to normal for everyone—meaning lying on the beach, swimming and, most urgently, having indiscriminate sex in the woods. Another comment on society and how people are much more concentrated on themselves and their personal pleasure than their fellow man or what is going on around them—even when it’s something terrible. No one wants to get involved in anything outside his own little world.

The Inspector questions Franck who denies ever having seen the boy. When asked about his alibi, Frank admits to not knowing the name or contact of the person he was having sex with. This perplexes the Inspector who cannot fathom enjoying oneself sexually with someone but then not wanting to see them again. The Inspector is also confused by what he sees as apathy on the part of the men at the lake, who are acting in a business-as-usual manner—back to getting off.

Tension soon percolates between Michel and Franck as Franck becomes increasingly irritated by Michel’s inability to give him more. Ironically, he doesn’t seem fearful of pissing Michel off. Henri, suspicious, confronts Michel with his own theory. The film becomes scarier, creepier and more beguiling until it reaches its climax.

Guiraudie’s direction is masterful creating a hypnotic visual style where the lake, woods and parking area act as significant characters in the film. And the sounds of the water, the wind blowing through the trees and even Franck’s car driving on the gravel road add to the Hitchcockian suspense.

The filmmaker isn’t afraid of nudity—depicting gorgeous bodies along with those that are less than appealing. He isn’t afraid of delving into the libidinous nature of men portraying the cruising as a nauseatingly repetitive and mundane compulsion--sex for the sake of getting off.

But he also show when feelings come into play as with Franck’s infatuation with Michel. Franck gives himself over to him in a way he doesn’t to other tricks. It’s telling that Franck wants to be kissed as he climaxes, showing that deep down his is after something real and lasting.

For Franck, and many gay men (many men) sex and love are two separate but intertwined things. For Franck, sex, love and death are seriously and frighteningly connected. Franck never asks Michel about the murder and the ‘why’ is very curious. Does Franck enjoy courting danger? Does that add to the attraction he feels towards Michel?

And is Michel a representation of man’s true nature—taking what he wants and then killing it when he’s done.

There’s also something to the idea of not just having unsafe sex but doing so in a manner that’s deliberate and more gratifying. It’s as if Franck willingly invites the possibility of death.

The film also reveals intriguing theories about solitude and how, even though we may be in the company of others, we can still feel alone. And how sex provides a fleeting connection with another person. But then we’re back to being alone.

Guiraudie isn’t afraid to deal with sex in a frank and vital manner. Some of the scenes in Strangers is so explicit that it makes Blue is the Warmest Color feel like Mary Poppins. But like Blue, sex is important to the narrative--to the character development.

And he’s cast his film very well.

Pierre Deladonchamps’s Franck is perfectly vapid yet alarmingly preoccupied with Michel. We sense a true infatuation that borders on the demented. How far is he willing to take his obsession? Deladonchamps embodies this guy wholly and completely and his facial expressions are a key to his psyche. It’s a captivating performance—easy to dismiss as simple—but that would be erroneous.

Christophe Paou’s Michel looks like the love child of a young Giancarlo Giannini and Freddie Mercury. He’s smoldering and dangerous and you can instantly understand the hold he has on Franck. Paou plays him ambiguously so you wonder about his backstory (actually, the backstories of the three main characters provide fascination) and whether he has a separate heterosexual life or is a politician or a celebrity of some sort. Or maybe he’s just a sociopath. Has he murdered before? Does he make a sport of killing the boys he grows tired of? The charm to Paou’s portrayal is the mystery he creates and sustains about his motivations. He’s an enigma.

And Patrick D’Assumçao is probably the most fascinating character. What does he really want? We get a glimpse of that answer with his last line, which ends up creating many more questions about him than providing answers. D’Assumçao etches a very familiar portrait of a lonely man who desires company but is too timid to seek it out.

Guiraudie is a courageous filmmaker who has given the world a provocative work of true cinematic art.



 

 

 


 

 


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