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Nanni Moretti’s
“Mia Madre”

53rd Annual New York Film Festival
September 25 - October 11, 2015

Lincoln Center

In Italian with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Nanni Moretti masterfully blends the often-surreal world of filmmaking with the very real and devastating pain involved in coming to terms with losing a loved one in “Mia Madre,” his best, most affecting work to date (and yes, I am including “The Son’s Room,” which is superb but unrelentingly grim).

It’s obvious that much of the thoughtful narrative is very personal to Moretti, who casts himself in the small role.

The extraordinary Margherita Buy plays a resexed alter ego version of Moretti. This Margherita is an anxiety-ridden, driven, veteran filmmaker who seems much more comfortable directing than visiting with her own ailing mother, Ada (the luminous Giulia Lazzarini). Margherita’s brother, Giovanni (Moretti) is much more at ease with Ada as is her teen daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini).

Onset, Margherita finds herself having to coddle a whackadoodle American actor, Barry Huggins (John Turturro, over-the-top loony) who keeps messing up the few lines he actually has. Barry loves to be the center of attention and, in a hilarious scene, talks about what it was like to work with Stanley Kubrick, despite the fact that he never actually made a film with the master.

The film Margherita is making is about workers occupying a factory after massive layoffs (a very real issue in Italy) with Barry playing the villainous factory boss. In midst of filming, she learns her very intelligent and self-sufficient mother is now terminally ill—a reality she has trouble accepting.

The film bounces from the comedic shooting segments where Margherita tries her best (or does she really?) to direct the insecure and indulgent Huggins to her moments of anguish and frustration dealing with her mother’s failing health as well as trying to come to terms with some painful truths about aspects of her own personality. Peppered throughout the narrative are several bizarre dream sequences that reveal quite a bit about Margherita’s state of mind.

The script, by Moretti, Francesco Piccolo & Valia Santella is both deeply moving and Woody Allen-ishly satiric. A confrontation scene between director and star is particularly biting and purging. And the final moment struck me as profound.

The film is seamlessly edited, by Clelio Benevento, and intimately lensed by Arnaldo Catinari.

And all of it is anchored by Buy’s enigmatic, magnetic performance.

Throughout “Mia Madre” Moretti explores the notion that the job of cinema is not just to entertain but to affect the viewer’s reality. He does both and also manages to capture the guilt, confusion and helplessness inherent in watching a beloved parent slip away.

 


 

Ridley Scott’s
"The Martian"
53rd Annual New York Film Festival
Sneak Preview
September 25 - October 11, 2015
Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

One of the great surprises of the fall season is the return of Ridley Scott as a Class A filmmaker. Not since his seminal, “Thelma and Louise” back in 1991 has he directed a film of such beauty, humor and depth as “The Martian.” And Matt Damon has his best role in years as well.

After the blunder of “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” I was prepared to rule out Ridley completely. But working from an intelligent, insightful and truly funny script by Drew Goddard, based on the book by Andy Weir, the man who gave us “Alien” and “Blade Runner” returns to his space roots and fashions a tale of survival that is incredibly optimistic and perceptive without being preachy or cloying.

Damon plays Mark Watney, one of a team of astronauts doing research on the Red Planet, when a sandstorm hits. Faced with the annihilation of her crew, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the decision to evacuate. As they prepare, a satellite dish hits Watney and he is assumed dead and left on a planet that cannot sustain life.  But he is alive, wounded and has no way to communicate with anyone.

Luckily, Watney is a botanist so, after tending to a pretty nasty wound, he begins the impossible task of growing his own food. Math is his friend and he geeks out trying to solve problems and figure out a way to communicate with his home planet.

Meanwhile, aboard the space ship Hermes, his compadres must deal with the guilt of leaving him behind.

And on Earth, the NASA team begins the arduous process of trying to figure out how to bring Watney home before his sustenance (and confidence) runs out.

“The Martian” is a gripping, eye-popping delight of a motion picture that is part fable and part survival science fiction but with a twist—fully rounded characters that actually care about one another.

Damon is obviously having a blast playing Watney. He gives us all shadings of this man desperate to stay alive. And willing to tap into areas of himself he never expected to in order to do so. In a scene, near the end, Damon’s astonishing achievement comes full circle as he breaks down in tears.

The continuously ubiquitous and reliably great Jessica Chastain imbues Commander Lewis with just the right blend of authority and pathos.

The supporting cast all deliver wonderful performances, from the crew members (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan) to the NASA higher ups (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean) with particularly outstanding work by Jeff Daniels as the tough ass NASA director (having quite the month with another terrific turn in “Steve Jobs.”)

Tech credits are amazing across the boards. In particular, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is stunning as is Arthur Max’s production design.

The only music left for Watney on Mars is Lewis’s playlist of lady diva disco songs that include, “Turn the Beat Around,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” which lead to some ridiculously fun moments with Damon camping it up. Underneath all the playfulness is a remarkable sense of self-knowledge about his fleeting chances of ever making it back home.

And that duality is at the core of what makes “The Martian” one of the most entertaining as well as captivating films of the year. We are on a journey with Watney and we are uber-aware that his chances of survival aren’t very good but we are also keen enough to realize that the good will and tenacity of those who are trying to help him might just be enough to make the difference.

I would advised seeing the film in Imax 3-D to thoroughly enjoy the visuals but “The Martian” goes beyond being simply an action-adventure thrill ride. The film delves into notions of endurance and loyalty that cut to the core of who we are as humans as well as what we could be, if we wanted to.

 




Robert Zemeckis’s
“The Walk”
53rd Annual New York Film Festival
Opening Night
September 25 - October 11, 2015
Lincoln Center

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Anyone who saw James Marsh’s stirring Oscar-winning documentary, “Man on Wire,” from 2008, knows the story of Philippe Petit and his dare-devil, lunatic high-wire walk from one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to the other in August of 1974. But, besides critics and film lovers, how many people really saw that doc?

Robert Zemeckis, director of “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump” takes on the story so he can tell it on a mass-appeal spectacle level and results are mixed but certainly compelling and, when we finally get to the walk sequence, completely entrancing.

And while it doesn’t have the grit of his last film, “Flight,” “The Walk” is still less sugary and standard-Hollywood-cookie-cutter than most of the films that have earned him the big bucks. (I do like Zemeckis, but other than his flop, “Death Becomes Her,” I have never really found any of them to be truly challenging.)

The film opens with Petit (an effective Joseph Gordon-Levitt) staring directly into the camera, center frame in close up, as he begins his narration. As the camera pulls back, we see that he’s standing on the shoulder of the Statue of Liberty. It’s a dazzling shot especially since the Towers can be seen in the background.

The CGI recreation of the WTC is spellbinding and will have special meaning for most New Yorkers, hell, most Americans.

The first half of the film is all set-up and not as bad as so many bloggers have written, although the love story is simply superfluous.

Petit starts life as a street artist and then, while at the dentist, sees photos of the soon-to-be built Towers in a magazine and decides that he must walk from one to the other. “This was the birth of my dream,” he enthuses.

A cantankerous circus mentor (Ben Kingsley) takes him under his wing and soon Petit is putting together his own team of “accomplices” to make the impossible possible. From this point onward the film takes off in heist-like fashion culminating in the staggering and exhilarating “walk” sequence that gives moviegoers their money’s worth of the spectacular.

The screenplay, based on Petit’s memoir and written by Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, is just filled with obvious lines that tell the audience what Petit is feeling and thinking while also showing it, just in case you’re tweeting and not paying enough attention to the busy screen. (“My life is no longer under my command.”)

Zemeckis and Browne, also, could have explored the significance of this event in the scope of U.S. history. The Watergate scandal was in full swing and Nixon would resign the day after Petit made headlines.

But the filmmakers were more interested in entertaining their audience and, at that, they certainly succeed.

 


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