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52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Written by: Gregory Burke

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Harry Verity, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Martin McCann, Charlie Murphy, Killian Scott, Corey McKinley, David Wilmot.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

It’s insane that ’71 is Yann Demange’s first feature film since he displays an assured cinematic eye and has crafted an uber-dynamic suspense-thriller.

The setting is Belfast, Ireland. The year is (obviously) 1971, right before “Bloody Sunday” changes everything forever and turns the streets into a battleground.

Fresh from basic training, Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, the new Tom Hardy, who was the new Michael Fassbender, who was the new Daniel Day Lewis—not bad company) and his company are shocked to learn they’re being deployed to Belfast. “We’re not going to Germany?” he asks, horrorstruck.

The next day, the regiment arrives in the midst of all the strife as Protestant loyalists live side by side with Catholic rebels (nationalists) but are perpetually at each other’s throats. To make a political point (or for other, more sinister reasons), the boys are told they will not be wearing any riot gear on their routine search for hidden weapons in the Catholic part of town. Not surprisingly, a riot ensues that proves potentially calamitous and while trying to retrieve a rifle from a young boy, Hook and a fellow soldier, Thommo (Jack Lowden) are left behind by their squadron. Shortly thereafter, Thommo is shot in the head by an extremist and Hook flees on foot with the IRA goons chasing him.

The rest of the riveting film follows Hook’s dangerous quest to survive as a host of questionable people search for him, including his regiment leader and the IRA-which have different factions and, therefore, loyalties.

At one point in his journey to stay alive, two Catholics, a father and daughter, find him in poor health after an explosion, and the daughter’s instinct is to “leave him be,” a terrible but human response.

The shifting loyalties, deceptions and double-crosses can be quite confusing and that’s just the point. You can’t trust anyone. These conflicts expose the idiocy, stubbornness and duplicity of its leaders and followers.

Demange and his amazing cinematographer, Tat Radcliffe, capture the ominously deadly streets of Belfast as if it were making a horror film, because they are.

O’Connell exceeds the tremendous promise shown in Starred Up, a few seconds ago. His Hook conveys fortitude, tenacity and an astute intuition in just his facial expressions since he doesn’t speak that much dialogue. And the scenes O’Connell has with his wee brother, played by Harry Verity, are lovely and sad. Chalk up another remarkable achievement for this 23-year-old.

One of the most frightening things about this truly affecting film is that it could have taken place in Vietnam or any of the legion of current war-torn countries where everyone seems so certain they’re in the right yet nothing seems to make any sense.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

Visit for more information.

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s
“Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
Closing Night
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo.

Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Merrit Wever, Jeremy Shamos, Bill Camp, Damian Young.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“Birdman” soars.
“Birdman” reaches new filmic heights.
“Birdman” flies into the cinematic stratosphere.
“Birdman” zooms to the top of the best of 2014.

It’s all ecstatically extravagant proclamations, and all true. Alejandro G. Inarritu’s transcendent new film generated an excitement in me that’s hard to explain except to say that it tapped into the artist--that pure “art for art’s sake” idiot in me that still believes in people following their creative passions and forgetting everything else. The movie has stayed with me. I can’t shake it. And I don’t wish to.

The film provocatively opens (and never lets up, btw) with actor Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) in his theatre dressing room, levitating in his underwear, ass to the camera, his first lines: “How did we end up here? This place is horrible. Smells like balls.”

Is he talking about the theatre? The movies? Life? His own inner world? Times Square? All of the above?

It’s actually his alternate voice speaking to him, a growlier, nastier, much more pessimistic Thomas than the one he presents to others. The scene perfectly sets the stage for what we are about to experience: a fantastical journey of one driven man—full of contradictions, confusions, paradoxes—a man on the verge of his own nervous breakdown.

Too often in films, when a character says something we deem “out of character” we call it inconsistent. Truth to be told, most humans on any given day, at any given moment, are at odds with their feelings, emotions, who they are, what they want. We are inconsistent beings. We say one thing and mean another and vice versa. It is often unintentional (certainly we practice passive-aggression, but not always). We are simply trying to figure it all out and not deliberately hurt the feelings of others. Such is the case with Riggan Thomas.

The once-popular thespian used to be Birdman, a movie franchise superhero (3 sequels and boffo box office). Now courting legitimacy as an artist, he’s adapted a Raymond Carver play for the Broadway stage and is directing and starring in it (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”—a real Carver piece). So he’s a control freak, but he needs to be after selling his soul to play the Hollywood game for so long.

Stop to soak in the Keaton parallels since he was the original Batman back in 1989, did one sequel and decided to call it quits, tired of being known as the Caped Crusader but that’s, ironically, what he is most remembered for. Or was. This should change that for good.

The play is Riggan’s chance to show the world he’s a serious artist. And he’s nervous as hell about it. Riggan is an egomaniac and as insecure as they come. Sure, that’s cliché for “actor,” but doesn’t it somehow describe most people. I’m awesome. Aren’t I?

Riggan has gathered together a pretty impressive cast including: Lesley (Naomi Watts, continuously impressing), a movie star making her Broadway bow; Laura (Andrea Riseborough, killing it) a stage actress Riggan occasionally sleeps with and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), Lesley’s beau and one of the strangest birds (excuse the pun) to ever grace any stage. Shiner is quite respected (he’s kind of Marlon Brando meets James Franco meets Al Pacino meets George C. Scott, with a little Shia tossed in) and has taken over for an actor Riggan deemed too horrible to work with.

Also on hand is the producer and jack-of-all-trades (Zach Galifianakis, in his best, most subdued performance), Riggan’s thoughtful ex-wife (Amy Ryan, who needs to work more, she’s so good) and Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone).

Rounding out the major “Birdman” cast is the great Lindsay Duncan stealing scenes (all at a barstool) as New York Times critic Tabitha Dickinson, the “only opinion that matters.” Tabitha is initially described by Mike as looking like, “she just licked a homeless guy’s ass.”

The film has the audacity to wonder about critics. Who they are? “What has to happen in a person’s life for a person to be a critic, anyway?” It’s a valid question. It might piss critics off but it bears reflecting on. Why be a part of a profession that enjoys destroying instead of creating? And yet, when the review is positive, it can help an audience find a hidden gem and, for the critic, validate why they write about a profession they love instead of being a real part of that profession.

“A thing is a thing and not what is said about that thing,” is a quote on the wall of Riggan’s dressing room and it’s a powerful reminder we all need about what really matters vs. what we’ve made matter.

Is the film a satire? Yes. But much more than just that. It’s so many different things all at once. It’s a film that assaults the senses (in the best possible ways) and washes over you like something new and refreshing and enticing. “Birdman’s” cinematic language is all it’s own and that is a great part of the joy found in experiencing the film. It’s a rush. And it’s the genius of Inarritu, his team of co-writers (Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo) and a host of gifted creatives behind the camera AND in front of the camera that make it all work. Spectacularly.

The fluidity of the camerawork (by Emmanuel Lubezki) is astonishing. The magic here is that if you are paying attention the film looks like it’s unfolding in one magnificent take. If you’re really paying attention, you know it’s not. But if you’re lost in the film (the way most will be) you’re not really certain, nor do you care, because you’re caught up in the wonder of the thing as it moves about the St. James theatre capturing each snippet of life-moments. It’s total exhilaration.

The drum score by Antonio Sanchez (seen in a scene backstage actually banging out the music) is thrilling and the production design (by Kevin Thompson) is deceptively complex.

And then there’s the trio of actors who will receive deserved Oscar nominations.

Emma Stone is a marvel to watch, whether she’s sitting way too close to the edge on a ledge (deliberately or carelessly?) or stating the obvious to her dad, that he’s taken on this mammoth endeavor, “to be relevant again,” in one long cathartic monologue--almost to the camera. And afterwards, we do not get a cutaway shot of his reaction, just her devastated reaction to his reaction. Much more powerful. Sam is fragile and more than a little fucked up, but at least, she has the awareness.

Stone shakes up her acting game here. It’s a career-changing performance from someone who has shown so much promise it’s even more surprising that it’s so surprising.

When she challenges her dad about refusing to be on social media, the film’s dissection of duality is again at play since the film makes fun of Twitter and Facebook while acknowledging their importance. The contradictions are always part of the point in “Birdman.”

I have never been a big Edward Norton fan. I’ve liked him in “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “American History X” and “Fight Club.” Keyword: Like. But after “Birdman,” I realize everything else was just a warm up. His method actor turn here is absolutely riveting; a triumph of a character wanting to have his cake and chew all the scenery, too. He’s a cad and he’s sexy (never saw that part of him before) and he’s repellent and he’s irresistible! And he dares to lay himself bare, literally and artistically, diving off that acting cliff and landing right in our happy laps! And his rant about realism is perfectly overdone!

Finally, Keaton. It took Bruce Dern almost 80 years to get his dream role, his defining role (“Nebraska”). For some it never comes, despite their merit. For Michael Keaton, it’s “Birdman.” It’s an ambitious, layered, nuanced turn that taps into Keaton’s own career and that is one of the reasons it works so well—HE works so well. The performance has one of the most amazing arcs to it and where it lands is, well, “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Same thing can be said about the ambiguous and sublime ending.

“Birdman” is battling it out with “The Imitation Game” as the best film I’ve seen in 2014 to date. It’s apples and iguanas, since the two films could not be more different, yet equally extraordinary, vital and relevant.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

Visit for more information.

Olivier Assayas’s
“Clouds of Sils Maria”
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay by Olivier Assayas.

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Brady Corbet.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a psychological character study, a memory piece and a ghost story of sorts.

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a fortysomething film star (having appeared in Euro-indies as well as Hollywood action pics) who got her start at the age of 18 playing the role of Sigrid in a stage play, and then film, written by celebrated director, Wilhelm Melchior. In the piece, Sigrid has a lesbian relationship with the older Helena and then drives her to take her own life.

Maria is slated to accept an award on her reclusive mentor Wilhelm’s behalf in Zurich. On her way, she is informed of his death by suicide. Devastated by the news, Maria decides to honor her commitment and pay tribute to Wilhelm. While in Switzerland, she is accosted by Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger, doing pretentious, craft-conscious director to perfection) about starring in an updated version of Melchior’s play in London, this time playing Helena. She initially says no, but finally agrees to do it.

Accompanied by her trusted personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), Maria departs for Sils Maria, a remote Alps region, to begin preparation for the role. Let the parallels begin since Maria and Val have a very close relationship and there is definitely an unspoken attraction between the two that deepens and maddens as the story develops.

The part of Sigrid is to be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz rocking the superbitch), a scandal-prone Hollywood starlet-du-jour who could have easily stepped out of a reel of David Cronenberg’s “Maps To the Stars,” since she’s a more monstrous version of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter’s character in “All About Eve,” for those who have no knowledge of cinema).

Maria must face her own demons and prepare to play the part of a woman who is reflecting her own insecurities.

Binoche and writer/director Assayas first worked together at the start of both their careers when Binoche was 20 on “Rendez-vous,” in 1985. They later made the superb, “Summer Hours,” together. They have a history and Assayas has taken great advantage of that in penning this dense, alluring and illuminating film that dares to pursue the complexities of a woman who has chosen to look back at her younger self in order to try and better understand her present self as well as her craft. Does she come to any real conclusion? Suffice to say Assayas isn’t interested in pat, simple revelations or realizations as much as mapping out the journey for his muse.

Sils Maria is a village in Switzerland where, if one climbs up the Engadin one might be fortunate enough to see the bizarre “snake” of Maloja shimmy creepily by. It’s actually a cloud phenomena and to those who are superstitious it means bad weather is about to arrive. The mysterious and unexplainable symbolism of the “snake,” fits perfectly with the ephemeral nature of theatre and film and the futile attempt to somehow define the art of acting and writing as if it can truly be grasped and really understood with any objectivity.

Assayas wonders about how different a text can be to the actor when read at different ages, which completely impacts the actors approach to the role.

The same can be said for the appreciation of any work of art, including film. How often have we gone back and watched a beloved film only to realize it’s not as good as we initially thought it was. And vice versa, reassessing a film we dismissed, only to find it now has meaning to us. Were we too young to appreciate it? Did we not have the life-experience necessary? Or were we just in a bad mood when we first saw it? So much contributes to our interpretations, our approaches. And revisits can prove disturbing, even damaging.

At one point Maria says, “Maybe I only remember what I choose to remember.” Quite a powerful notion and one the film revisits time and time again.

Maria has decided to take a career and personal risk by donning the shoes of the character that her young, vital and devious self inhabited years earlier. In doing so she must delve into her own memories of playing Sigrid and how and why she treated Helena so badly. What was the dynamic of their relationship? She must now approach the role with a sympathy she never even gave thought to before.

Will the audience care about Helena or dismiss her the way they did the first actress that played Helena who ended up killing herself in real life?

“Clouds” is a rich, multilayered, enigmatic work of true originality that is resonant and quite haunting. It’s also filled with impressive actors from Moretz, who keeps growing and choosing smartly, to Johnny Flynn as her married Brit beau to Brady Corbet, making a potent mark in only one scene as well as veterans like Angela Winkler as the auteur’s graceful widow to Hanns Zischler as a sad example of what old actors can turn into if they’re not careful.

And here’s a film that demands so much of Kristen Stewart that the perpetually petulant attitude she usually displays onscreen has been replaced with actual emotions. Even a smile or two. No doubt working with the sublime Binoche and a master like Assayas demanded she ratchet up her game but who knew she had the ability to be so good?

As for the gorgeous, effervescent Binoche, she delivers a complicated, luminous performance. With her delicious laughter and infinitely expressive face, she’s like those infamous clouds, breathtaking to behold.

In 1993 I fell in love with her in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s beguiling “Blue,” and through the years the adoration has continued and grown. After experiencing her captivating magic in “Clouds,” I have to say I’m just a little more astonished. And a lot more in love.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
Visit for more information.

Bennett Miller’s
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Dan Futterman & E. Max Frye.

Starring: Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carell, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

There’s a lot to admire about Bennett Miller’s third feature, “Foxcatcher,” including the film’s unique style, meticulous attention to detail and the superb ensemble acting (well, almost) as well as a sharp and deliberately puzzling script. It’s a directorial triumph of ambiguity, subtlety and restraint. Of course, admiration does not necessarily denote adulation.

This is Miller’s third quasi-cine-bio of an oddball American figure (“Capote” and “Moneyball”) and here he dares to take on the cuckoo, parochial world of the ridiculously wealthy.

The film takes place in the late 80s and opens with Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) intensely wrestling a dummy. As is his style, Miller tells us so much about this figure just by having the camera follow him. A few scenes later the quiet and lumbering Mark wrestles his more outgoing and friendly brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champion. (The only brothers in history to do so, btw.) As we watch the two face-off, the duality of their relationship is revealed. Theirs is a forceful rivalry that battles a deep love and fierce loyalty. Nothing is black and white.

When Mark receives a phone call from Pennsylvania magnate John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), he has no clue who he is, but agrees to visit him. The millionaire wants him to uproot himself and train on the du Pont estate for the 1988 games in Seoul. Mark asks Dave to join him, thinking du Pont would not want just him. Dave declines and Mark embarks on one of the most bizarre relationship-journeys ever captured on film.

Apparently, du Pont, like many of his ilk, thought that his fortune could buy him everything he coveted from being taken seriously as a wrestler, despite his athletic mediocrity, to being hailed as a mentor, despite the fact that his idiosyncrasies alienated most people. And friendship--or, more specifically people. du Pont’s treatment of Mark reeks of ownership—as if he’s purchased a puppy (a hulking one)--possibly a fucktoy but the movie never dares to actually go there. Kudos to Miller and screenwriters Futterman and Frye, though, for not giving Mark a girlfriend or female love interest.

The way Mark initially takes to du Pont can be seen as a son worshipping a father figure but also as a lover—especially apparent in a freakishly homoerotic scene where Mark shaves du Pont. And after winning the gold, Mark grabs onto du Pont in a desperate hug that is way more than friendly, it’s life defining.

But, alas, all purchased-good things must come to an end and when du Pont feels insulted, he begins treating Mark like a lesser being even calling him, “an ungrateful ape,” embarrassing him in front of his fellow trainees. Shortly thereafter, du Pont contacts Dave, who agrees to move to the estate with his family and the relationship between titan and pet is permanently broken.

du Pont always lauded his superior intellect over Mark in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—at one point forcing him to give an introductory speech where he clearly did not understand the words written for him to speak. Was du Pont that cruel or just blindly entitled? This is one of the many intriguing ambiguities in the movie.

The dynamics of the trio and how they relate to one another is the most fascinating aspect of the film. du Pont is jealous of the brothers’ bond, but
Mark is so hurt when du Pont invites his brother to live there, he takes it personally and acts like a sulky child. And du Pont remains unaware of how laughable he is as both mentor and friend.

It’s difficult to empathize with du Pont but I did muster sympathy in a painful practice scene where he tries to show off for his surprise guest mother, who sees wrestling as a “lower sport,” only to have her don a look of disgust and walk out.

“Foxcatcher” asks a lot of questions and provides very few answers. This is deliberate since it forces the viewer to wonder about so many different things.
And Miller has crafted an elaborate, highly stylized indictment of the wealthy class highlighting their foibles and eccentricities—the stuff that used to be celebrated is now seen as disgusting and intolerable.

In addition, since the film is based on fact, and the denoument is shocking to say the least, we are given a glimpse inside the mind of a rich, petulant man-child who will have his way or else.

And thanks to a few great actors who know how to convey nuance and portray complexity of emotion, we are (mostly) treated to master classes in subtle but powerful acting.

Vanessa Redgrave, in three brief, dialogue-sparse scenes, is mesmerizing as DuPont’s unwaveringly disapproving mother.

Steve Carell’s performance is a conundrum. On the one hand he transforms himself, physically, vocally into this strange awkward figure—and he certainly delivers an eerie, cringe-inducing portrait of a man lost in his own isolated world. On the other hand, I was always aware that he was playing a part. He seemed to be trying too hard in a film where less is obviously more. Still, the Academy eats these “transformations” up, so it will probably please the old white AMPAS gang.

Ruffalo, on the other hand, seems to be having a lot of fun without trying. He gives Dave a self-awareness and joy that makes his love for his brother palpable and his love for the sport undeniable. And watching him, in a particularly brilliant scene, have to answer a documentary filmmakers question about the importance of John du Pont in his life, is just hilarious and genius.

Rest assured, though this film belongs to Channing Tatum. Who knew Magic Mike was capable of such range? Well, anyone who saw him in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” actually. But this is different. This is an immersion into the world of an Olympic athlete and the heart of a precious boy who never grew up. Mark’s consuming desire to please and be loved is only matched by his need to win on his own terms and Tatum plays it magnificently. It’s a heartbreaking wallop of a performance.

Miller is a fascinating filmmaker. His work is always demanding and enigmatic, “Moneyball” being his most fully realized achievement to date. “Foxcatcher” is disturbing for certain, and compelling, but Miller’s approach didn’t involve me as much as leave me on the outside looking in. And perhaps that was the point. But in this case for me, more would have been better than less.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

Visit for more information.


David Fincher’s
“Gone Girl”
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Emily Ratajkowski, Missi Pyle, Casey Wilson, David Clennon, Boyd Holbrook.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Ben Affleck voice-over that provocatively opens David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is at complete odds with the lovely image of Rosamund Pike’s head, unless you’re married, in which case wanting to crack your spouse’s skull open is certainly something you might have thought about one or two times while staring at its loveliness. Of course that impulse usually goes away quickly and you realize just how much you love him or her and how much you’d miss him or her. And how much you’d hate jail! So you suck up whatever reason it was you had that terrible/wonderful thought in the first place and you have a drink. Or three. (If you live in suburbia, five.) Anyone who hasn’t had this impulse, I would argue has never truly been in love. And Affleck wants to crack her skull to “get answers.” Do we forgive him now?

Nick (Affleck) and Amy (Pike) were madly in love. Once. Now, five years into the marriage, they have issues. Major issues. They no longer seem to like each other. And then, Amy disappears. Is she dead? Murdered? Did Nick do it? I will not give much more of the plot away since one of the so many delights of experiencing “Gone Girl” is not knowing where the perfectly crafted, non-linear narrative is going. The film is structured with just enough information divulged to keep us on the edge of out seats as the revelations escalate and the suspense builds, swirls and mindfucks us several times over!

Gillian Flynn has crafted a dense screenplay, based on her own wildly popular novel and David Fincher, the master filmmaker who gave us one of the best and most significant films of our time, “The Social Network,” directs in his outrageously keen, in-touch-with-the-times manner. It’s the Finchification of pulp, which is basically crafting his own twisted neo-Noir satire once again seeming to work within and defy genre expectation simultaneously. So we are given a dark thriller with camp moments that is also a meditation on obsession, love, marriage and, most especially, attraction.

Set in a small town in Missouri (anytown USA, really), Nick and Amy have had to deal with economic woes, parental illness and whether they want children or not—issues that most couple go through and that can weigh heavily on a marriage. They moved from NYC to Nick’s hometown, which did not sit well with Amy, who comes from money, having been exploited by her parents in a series of children’s books called, “Amazing Amy.” To say she’s psychologically damaged would be like saying Joan Crawford was a troubled mother.

Nick runs a bar, which Amy bought for him, with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). When Nick is accused of her murder, Margo is right at his side ready to help in any way she can. There was never any love lost between the two women. Margo: “Whoever took her is bound to bring her back.”

We hear much of the couple’s backstory via Amy’s diary entries but all is not what it appears to be and when the media gets involved, minds are instantly swayed, only to be swayed back. The film insightfully comments on the fickleness of the public as well as that small group of TV and Internet “journalists” who make their living off “tragedy vampirism.”

“Gone Girl” is an actor’s dream since they all have something meaty to play.

Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit play the detective and officer on the missing Amy case. Both are perfectly snarky with that expected touch of “Fargo.”

Tyler Perry rocks his roll as Nick’s defense attorney while Missy Pyle has just the right amount of skeaze in the Nancy Grace-eque TV gossipmonger.

Carrie Coon, Emmy-worthy on HBO’s “The Leftovers,” is terrific here and the definition of a true supporting character and actor.

Neil Patrick Harris nails the freakish, stalky ex-boyfriend (who has heated floors in his home)!

Ben Affleck shows just how capable he is as an actor when he works with an inspiring director, giving one of his best performances. Is Nick a superficial asshole? Perhaps he’s bored? Could he have killed his wife? Affleck keeps us guessing, but never at the expense of character cohesion. And watching him manipulate the media, when he sees that public opinion is reaching “Cry in the Dark” levels, is a treat and marries the role with the actor.

Rosamund Pike is simply astonishing. Reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake and both Turners (Lana and Kathleen), Pike’s performance hits like a meteor, late in the film as we learn more and more about who Amy is. We understand her and unlike Alex Forrest (Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”) she does not turn one-dimensional in the final reel. If anything, we are perplexed but transfixed. And the attraction between Pike and Affleck is palpable.

Pike’s brilliance (her “peak,” if you will) comes as a shock only because she hasn’t been on anyone’s radar. Sure, she’s been superb in supporting roles in films like, “An Education,” “Made in Dagenham,” “The Libertine” and “Pride and Prejudice,” but seeing what she accomplishes here is like a jolt to the senses. Pike takes on this highly ambitious and potentially catastrophic part and gives it her fearless all. She is mesmerizing and manages to etch a truly spellbinding, multi-faceted portrait of an unhinged woman who is trying to figure out what she really wants and who she really is. It’s, arguably, the performance of the year to date.

Part of David Fincher’s magic lies in how meticulously put together his film is paying homage to director’s like Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock whose motion pictures were precise and pristine. But he messes with that precision and pristineness poking fun at what is expected from the Hollywood film via deft, deceptive editing (via Kirk Baxter), enigmatic camerawork (by Jeff Cronenweth) and an erratic, fascinating score (by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross).

The score, in particular, deserves special mention because it sometimes overwhelms the dialogue making us aware that we are watching a film but it’s also commenting on the nature of different versions of how things happen. For example, in the obligatory “getting to know one another” scene between Nick and Amy, the conversation is the expected stuff most people say when they’re in the early stages of “like.” But the other, more sinister thing at play here is that Fincher doesn’t want us to be privy to everything being said, since in reality one can never been certain about accuracy after the fact. Each member of the couple has their own take on the he said/she said spectrum.

“Gone Girl” is an extraordinary achievement that had me at “cracking her skull.”

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
Visit for more information.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s
“Inherent Vice”
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

On the list of films where getting stoned might actually enhance the experience, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” shoots to the very top! It is also #1 on my list of films I want to see again since it’s difficult to soak in and follow the delightfully anarchic muddled cine-jumble (or is it jumbled cine-muddle?) in one sitting—especially at 10AM!!!

To say I am a huge PTA fan is an understatement. “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” are two of the most significant films of the 90s and new millennium, respectively. And “The Master” is close behind. This is quite a departure, from the previous two especially. And it had me elated, baffled, intrigued and mildly annoyed.

I find it hilarious and fitting that my pen ran out of ink halfway through the film so when I got home my final notes were merely impressions on a page that I could barely make out. It’s not the kind of film where notes are as important as just soaking in all the chaos, absurdity and moments of brilliance. And wondering what inexplicable yet clever scene is coming next.

Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, this is definitely Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” The humor is oddball, madcap noir. Think Humphrey Bogart stars in Robert Altman via a script by Robert Towne. Anderson’s satire is sometimes hilarious, sometimes indulgent.

And understanding the plot requires—I don’t know what it requires but I was often lost. I’m guessing that the anarchic feeling to the narrative is deliberate. Since Pynchon messes with traditional narrative in his writing, Anderson has done the same with his cinematic storytelling. The result reels.

It’s the end of the 60s and Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is a stoner PI living in Los Angeles. Tricky Dick is in the White House, the war in Vietnam is escalating and Manson and his gang have ruined any feeling of security anyone will ever have again—especially in Southern California. Counterculture gave way to a creepy murderous fringe, which gave the committed and true fringe a bad name. But I digress…much like the film…

Doc’s ex-gal (Katherine Waterston) involves him in a cuckoo conspiracy where her current love (Eric Roberts) is being plotted against by his current wife and her current boyfriend. From there things just go truly off the rails and major players like Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line” reunion), Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro (funny as hell) get to have lots of fun with wacky material. Martin Short shows up as coke-addled Dr. Feelgood and even quirky Jeannie Berlin (someone I’ve always thought deserved to work a lot more) has a turn to shine. Jena Malone even has a “shit and vomit” monologue.

Leading the acting awesomeness is Phoenix who is on quite a roll after extraordinary work in “The Master,” “her” and “The Immigrant.” Here he’s loony tunes in a role that calls for crazy crackers. Unafraid and unhinged, he goes for it and shows us that maybe being constantly high is the only way to get through all the bullshit life throws at you.

Of the supporting cast, Josh Brolin stands out most as a very angry detective named Bigfoot. Stealing every second he’s onscreen, Brolin proves what an underrated actor he is—comedy, drama…he’s fantastic.

There are loads of clever gumshoe dialogue, many lines with double meanings and a voice over narration that eventually gets tiresome. The mosaic-like, impossible-to-follow plot expands like the oddest of Altman (“O.C. and Stiggs” and “Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” as well as the more obvious “The Long Goodbye” came to mind).

Robert Elswit’s photography is hazy gorgeous and the score, by Jonny Greenwood, is fab.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

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Eugene Green’s
“La Sapienza” (“The Sapience”)
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Eugene Green.

Starring: Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Prot Landman, Ludovico Succio, Arianna Nastro.

In Italian and French with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The glorious cinematic surprise of the 52nd annual New York Film Festival (besides the beguiling “Birdman,” of course) is Eugene Green’s “La Sapienza.” Here’s a film that, based on the synopsis, I had no desire to see and I did so almost begrudgingly. What a total, unexpected pleasure!

The writer and director of “La Sapienza,” Eugene Green, studied literature and art history at the Sorbonne before founding his own theatre company. He has directed a handful of films and here sets out to examine the work and life of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini as well as shed light on contemporary architecture and urban planning, or so he says in the Director’s Statement. And that is all well and good for anyone passionate about architecture, but what about the rest of us? Trust me, the film is so much more than just that—although you may leave with new, enlightening ideas about the importance of architecture in our lives.

Alexandre (fabulous Fabrizio Rongione, also repped at the Fest with “Two Days One Night”) is a middle-aged architect in crisis, professionally, creatively, personally and romantically. He and his wife, Alienor (the wondrous and expressive Christelle Prot Landman) are not really getting along or even communicating much.

In a telling early scene, after Alexandre’s project wins a bid but then the board begins to insist on changes, he and Alienor sit at a restaurant, drink wine, eat dinner, and have coffee—all without speaking a word to one another. There is no interaction, no connection. Something has terribly damaged these two.

Alexandre decides to say no to the board and pursue an old dream of studying Borromini. He and Alienor visit Ticino, Italy, the birthplace of the great master. They then travel to Stresa on Lake Maggiore where they encounter two teen siblings, Goffredo (impressive newcomer Ludovico Succio), who happens to be a student of architecture, and his ailing sister, Lavinia (an affecting Arianna Nastro). Alienor is fascinated by the two and urges Alexandre to mentor young Goffredo.

In a scene that mirrors the early restaurant scene, the two males sit across from each other, staring at one another. The boy is filled with excitement and passion. The man, having lost his excitement and passion, doesn't even attempt conversation.

Alienor insists that Alexandre take Goffredo on his pilgrimage (including a visit to Rome) instead of her and he, begrudgingly, capitulates. She stays on with Lavinia in an attempt to figure out why the girl has these strange spells.

Goffredo has rarely been out of his birth city and soaks it all in like a kid in a candy store, occasionally challenging Alexandre’s jaded views. Goffredo’s idealistic plan is to build a utopian temple for all religions.

What follows is a meditation on finding oneself, whether via rediscovery or discovery, through a bizarre yet synchronicitous kind of self-examination and re-examination. As the boys learn more and more about Borromini and his tragic story, they’re able to deal with their own demons, or, at least, face them. They also learn from one another. Similarly, but not as obvious, the gals go through their own catharses.

Green insists on a deliberately stilted, self-aware style from his actors. In addition, he utilizes theatrical blocking and stagey shots as well as powerful, invasive close-ups. And it’s most effective.

The film is extremely complex and dense with many themes being touched on and hints of a gay attraction and even incest woven into the often-mystical narrative.
Borromini’s was never given his due in his own lifetime. He was plotted against and exiled. His work, according to Alexandre, went beyond knowledge and beauty.
What exactly is beyond knowledge and beauty, the man cannot put into words, but the film tries to capture. “What I know is useless,” Alexandre concludes.

“La Sapienza” is truly illuminating, both filmically and literally (kudos to cinematographer Raphael O’Byrne and production designer Giorgio Barullo).

And while knowledge of architecture would help the viewer immensely it’s not imperative to the enjoyment of the film. Each character is haunted by something and must find their own way of purging before they can move towards some kind of redemption.

The film’s title comes from The Saint Yves at La Sapienza Church in Rome, designed by Borromini. And the word “sapience” means wisdom.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

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Alain Resnais’s
Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter)
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay by Laurent Herbiet, Alex Reval; dialogue, Jean-Marie Besset, based on the play by Alan Ayckbourn.

Starring: Sabine Azema, Hippolyte Girardot, Caroline Silhol, Michel Vuillermoz, Sandrine Kiberlain, Andre Dussolier, Alba Gaia Bullugi.

In French with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The iconic director Alain Resnais was 91 when he made his final film, Life of Riley. Like Robert Altman’s last movie, A Prairie Home Companion, Resnais seemed to know this would be his swan song—and had a few wise things to say about the misconceptions many people have about aging and facing mortality.

Life of Riley, in addition to being a sweet, absurdist meditation on love, restlessness and infidelity, is also his own contemplation of the whimsical and ephemeral pursuit of sex and love.

Resnais (probably most famous for Hiroshima Mon Amour) chose to direct a third film by the celebrated Brit playwright Alan Ayckbourn (only a spry 75) who, regretfully, isn’t that well known in the U.S. Ayckbourn’s work is often focused on marital and extramarital relationships. Life or Riley is no exception.

As he’s done in the past, Resnais’ cinematic structure is theatrical with emphasis on artifice. The film has been shot on an obvious soundstage using highly theatrical sets, painted background scenery and extreme lighting. The auteur has certain (female) actors speak directly to the camera with a different backdrop featured. He uses split screen and breaks scenes up exactly the way you’d do in the theatre, only using shots of a long country road or the front of a (cardboard) home to denote passage of time. We are forever being reminded it’s all fakery--just a gaggle of ridiculous actors playing about—like life is just a gaggle of ridiculous people playing about—until our number’s up.

The simple story surrounds three couples living in the English countryside who discover that someone close to them, George Riley, has six months to live.

Kathryn (the fabulous Sabine Azema--the widow Resnais) coaxes the news of George’s terminal illness out of her doctor husband Colin (Hippolyte Girandot), right before the first rehearsal of a play they’re both acting in—ironically Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking. She rushes over to the director’s home as Tamara (a delightful Caroline Silhol) and her cheating husband Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) are discussing the sad news. Jack is George’s oldest friend.

The plot weaves nuttily from there as George is talked into taking a part in the play and begins to woo all three women, including Kathryn who shares a secret history with him as well as Tamara, who’d like a fling with him. George’s incredibly uninteresting ex-wife Monica and her new boyfriend round out the cast.

Note that we never see George or a couple of other key characters that are important to the soapy plot. Since George is talked about by each and every figure, we think we have a good idea who he is and can fill in the blanks ourselves. “He gives you his full attention,” says one. ’”He makes you feel so important,” another.

I get the feeling Resnais and Ayckbourn are making a deliberate statement about how we draw conclusions about who people really are based on gossip and hearsay all the time, so why actually show the person.

As the delusions, lies and secrets mount, each female promises to go away with George on holiday to Spain. The last twist can be seen a country mile away but it’s still loads of fun.

Time becomes a major theme in the film. Colin has an obsession with clocks and must spend a great deal of HIS time changing them to please his wife.

Resnais’ dying character, George is having a blast in his last few months on earth. There isn’t much time to wallow as he romances no less than four women, makes his acting debut onstage and goes off on a carefree vacation. Very telling indeed, considering the director himself may have been thinking about the inevitable.

In discussing how such a vital man can die so young, Jack angrily states, “the tiresome humdrum ones live forever.”

Resnais lived quite a long life, created amazing art—films that matter, some groundbreaking. He was anything but tiresome or humdrum. I can’t help but think that Resnais was hyper-aware of the irony of Jack’s statement. And good for him.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

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Alex Ross Perry’s
“Listen Up Philip”
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Alex Ross Perry

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, “Listen Up Philip” is a dense, intricate, oddball satire that pokes fun at the literati, New York intellectuals, artists in general and egocentric novelists in particular—especially the craggy, misanthropic kind. But rest assured this is not your typical portrait of an author in crisis although Philip is an author and he is in crisis.

The film opens with a narrator (Eric Bogosian) clearing his throat before we even see an image. This sets the cine-literary-stage for a whacky, biting and penetrating blend of novelesque cinema via Perry’s erratic and unique visual and storytelling style.

Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is a misanthrope, “unwilling to even consider emotional honestly.” Although I wonder if it’s fair to call him that since he doesn’t hate people as much as he’s chosen to not really connect with them--for the most part. This is one of the things I love about Perry’s filmmaking. No matter what adjective you choose to describe each character, it could be argued and debated.

Perry introduces Philip by giving us a scene where he gets together with his ex-girlfriend, Mona, and unleashes on her. She is late, as usual, and this enrages Philip who has already planned to tell her off—quite uncharacteristic for him—or so the narrator tells us. As he cuts into her, in a speech we would all like to give unsupportive, naysaying exes, it’s as if Philip is attacking everyone who has ever doubted his talent. For Philip, it’s liberating and cathartic, if only for the moment, since he seems to be stuck in an angsty, angry place. He is unable to experience happiness. So he goes about severing ties with people he believes are “damaging to his mental health.”

Now that he’s a successful author, having written two books (“Obidant,” his most recent), he’s even more tortured (with that added ego boost), refusing to do press for his book. He would rather focus on writing. Meanwhile his relationship with his longtime girlfriend and photog, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) is falling apart. So when he gets a call from loner and literary titan Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), he meets with him and ends up staying at his country home.

Zimmerman: “The city has a creative energy but not a productive energy.” Ike acts as his mentor and is filled with advice, much of it misogynistic and cynical. He’s a cad, an alcoholic and a mess. We also meet Ike’s jaded daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) who is uber-aware of her father’s shortcomings and harshness.

About 45-minutes in, the film shifts focus (it has followed Philip pretty exclusively) and we spend some time with Ashley, who is a much more loving person but, ironically, more isolated.

Besides the obvious Philip Roth influences, Perry’s style brings to mind the great John Cassavetes with some hat nods to contemporaries Wes Anderson
Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen and, yes, the Coens.

Philip is a kind of anti-hero like Llewyn Davis. You can’t help but love him despite his seeming lack of lovability. Casting has a great deal to do with that and Schwartzman conveys a vulnerability right under that miserable surface. His despondency and dissatisfaction is something we can all relate to. And his cruelty masks true pain. We all know how much easier it is for people to be mean to a loved one rather than be honest about being hurt by that person.

He also captures the confusion that comes with achievement: “Things I coveted for years are mine now and all I feel is miserable.”

This is the best role of Schwartzman’s career so far.

Pryce is perfectly arrogant, bitter, jealous and destructive. He’s the embodiment of the “be careful what you wish for” result. He’s older but none the wiser.

Moss superbly expresses confusion, love, longing and despair—often almost simultaneously. She’s becoming the new indie go-to gal.

The film’s structure and whiplash blending of non-linear scenes with (an awesomely judgy) voiceover will make or break some viewers. So will the fact that Perry’s film is as idiosyncratic and anxiety-ridden as its protagonist. Like a modern art exhibit, Perry moves from surreal to painfully real, from personal to elusive. And Perry has penned a kick-ass, hilarious, depressing, wonderful script.

Masterfully shot by by Sean Price Williams, “Listen Up Philip” boasts a terrific jazzy score by Keegan DeWitt and is densely edited by Robert Greene.

“It is horrible to be treated in a way that points out how meaningless you are.”

“Listen Up Philip” is about the walls we build and the modes of behavior we adopt to protect ourselves from pain, artists and non-artists alike, and how insurmountable they soon become if we’re not carful.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

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David Cronenberg’s
“Maps to the Stars”

52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay by Bruce Wagner.

Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon, Jennifer Gibson.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Nothing is sacred in director David Cronenberg’s searing, nasty portrait of Hollywood, “Maps To the Stars,” even killing an adorable animal. And I am thrilled by his chutzpah.

This is about as black as comedy gets and what better subject matter to satire than tinsel town? Although many might say that the movie industry satirizes itself just by existing.

The demonic tale begins with a mysterious, burn-scarred Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arriving in LA and taking a limo, driven by actor/writer wannabe, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson in a nod to his role in the last Cronenberg enigma, “Cosmopolis”). Agatha, via a recommendation by Twitter-friend Carrie Fisher (in a neat cameo) becomes the personal assistant to former leading lady Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore).

Havana is a mess of insecurities, hyper-aware of her age in a city where youth is celebrated and anyone over thirty is considered obsolete. She is a survivor of sexual abuse and is haunted by her dead abuser. Havana’s agent is trying to get her an important (and close to home) role.

Meanwhile, 13-year-old superstar Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is currently filming the sequel to his monster hit, “Bad Babysitter.” Weiss’s callous mother Cristina (Olivia Williams) acts as his manager while his self-involved father, Stafford (John Cusack), has little time for him since he’s promoting his latest self-help book/DVD/tour.

To say that things unravel for all of the key players is a massive understatement. The situations become as ridiculous and over-the-top as the character names with the ending pushing the envelope pretty far and Karmic comeuppance being the name of the ghoulish game.

Screenwriter Bruce Wagner (“Wild Palms”) and Cronenberg have created a world where ego rules the day and someone’s tragedy means intense joy for another. Basically, Hollywood.

In a hilariously vicious scene, Benjie arrives at the bedside of a dying teen wondering how she got AIDS. When he is told what she has is actually Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma he is incensed wondering if it is even a disease since it has “Non” in the name.

Evan Bird steals all of his scenes as the obnoxious Justin Beiber meets Macaulay Culkin child star. He’s a teen devoid of humanity, but when we are given the full picture we realize he can’t really help what he is. Bird should have a very healthy career ahead of him.

“Y’know for a disfigured schizophrenic, you got the town pretty wired.”

Wasikowska (so effective in “Tracks”) is fascinating to watch. You never quite know what she may do next and that’s a refreshing treat.

And then there’s Julianne Moore giving another career-best performance—a down and dirty portrait of Hollywood petulance, privilege, paranoia and psychosis. Havana is a self-obsessed, Awards hungry creature and Moore is bewitching in the role. She takes chances like no other actress working today. She enraptures and enrages in the same moment. Give this woman an Oscar already!

Bruce Wagner’s script is malicious, but a bit too self-congratulatory. Luckily Cronenberg is there to distract from the “cool factor” and keep things deliciously brutal and brittle. No one in this particular sendup of the motion picture holy land is in any way likeable or behaves heroically or without thinking of themselves first. And that’s just fine because Cronenberg keeps you intrigued.

“A History of Violence” and “Dead Ringers” remains my two favorite Cronenberg films, but “Maps,” is great fun for those of us who have a demented take on what fun is.

And while not coming close to the most devastating portrait of Hollywood, John Schlesinger’s “The Day of the Locust” based on the brilliant novella by Nathanael West, “Maps” goes so far in its depiction of movie folk as a bunch of incestuous, self-involved, inhuman fiends that you might find yourself questioning what your favorite actors are really like the next time you watch them being interviewed on one of those glossy filler shows like “Entertainment Tonight.”

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
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Abel Ferrara’s
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Maurizio Braucci.

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Riccardo Scamarcio, Valerio Mastandrea, Maria de Medeiros,

In Italian (and English) with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“To scandalize is a right. To be scandalized is a pleasure.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of the true original provocateur filmmakers, radical thinkers and leftist politicos of the 1960s and 1970s. Openly gay at a time when it was dangerous (in Italy, especially), Pasolini’s cinema didn’t overtly deal with gay themes but they were certainly loaded with homoeroticism.

Abel Ferrara’s engrossing, if sometimes disaffecting film, “Pasolini,” depicts the last day of the icon’s life as well his version of what the auteur’s planned film project would have been like. Peppered into the challenging narrative are interviews with Pasolini (played intelligently and admirably by Willem Dafoe). The result is a bizarre homage to the master, an experimental filmic poem where liberties are certainly taken, but the spirit of Pasolini’s art is always present.

The movie opens with the director at work editing his final film, “Salo: 120 Days of Sodom,” and already in prep for his next picture. A difficult yet brilliant “Salo” would prove a censorship nightmare because of its graphic sex and violence, not to mention moments of torture and humiliation. While watching scenes, an interviewer asks: “Are these actors masochists? Is sex politics?” Pasolini responds in the affirmative to both valid questions.

Interspersed with scenes of the aforementioned dramatization, we are taken on a “day in the life before the death” journey. For most Italian gay men, Pasolini’s paradoxical life wouldn’t seem that odd. He a mama’s boy living at home, despite his middle age. (Mamma has that perpetually worried look on her face like most Italian mothers of gay men, who know their secret and fear for their soul and their lives). But at night he cruises for hot guys who he has anonymous, and sometimes, not-so-anonymous sex with.

After a day of work on the film and time spent with family, he dines with his trusted friend, Ninetto Davoli (Riccardo Scamarcio), his once lover. Pasolini discovered the boy when he was fifteen and featured him in six films. And, although the sexual relationship allegedly ended after a few years, Davoli remained a loyal companion to his dying day.

That night, the restlessly sexual filmmaker picks up a baby-faced hustler and takes him to dinner at his favorite restaurant (same one as where he dined with Davoli), before driving to the beach at Ostia, where his fate is sealed. Pasolini’s great joy watching the young boy devour a plate of pasta, speaks to his own altruism as well as his appetite for pleasure (paradox). Of course, the inevitable, horrific murder looms over every moment.

The film-that-never-was-within-the-film utilizes the real Ninetto Davoli playing Epifanio who along with his trusted boy-companion (played by Scamarcio), follow a comet that is supposed to lead them to the birth of the messiah, but instead it guides them to a Sodom of sorts--which looks like an abandoned warehouse. Here, gays and lesbians procreate once a year to make more gays and lesbians. Taken from Pasolini’s writings, the scene is stunning to watch and quite an edgy idea that one can only speculate would have made a most daring statement had it been done in the mid-seventies. Ferrara excels at depicting the orgy-like feast—especially when it comes to photographing naked women frolicking together.

Was this Pasolini’s notion of nirvana? He certainly liked to provoke in his art. And in his life he seemed to be attracted to risk and peril. “We are all in danger,” he warns in the film. “The urge to kill is in all of us.” Pasolini was fascinated by how the dark side of human nature manifests itself with possession and destruction. “Salo” is so difficult to watch because it confronts the viewer with painful truths about what we become given power. Ferrara seems to parallel Pasolini’s warning and quest for danger. And many of his scenes are Pasolini-esque.

In addition, Ferrara pursues a slew of important Pasolini themes including asking what the relationship an author has to the form he creates (more parallels) as well as his feeling that “narrative art is dead.” Here, Ferrara challenges that notion since he’s creating his own vexing, peculiar but almost-faithful narrative.

My biggest issue with the film is that there’s tentativeness to Ferrara’s handling of guy-on-guy action. Fellatio has never been less sexy. And intimacy between two men is never shown. It’s a shame Ferrara couldn’t get his gay on here where it’s critical, because then it would have been a true tribute to a master director who dared to show good looking working class guys as tough but sensual and sexual beings. Sure, Ferrara has cast some very attractive young actors, but he never quite uses the camera to show them in an alluring and sensual way—as Pasolini often did.

In most accounts, Pasolini’s death is attributed to one rent boy. There are also theories that he was actually assassinated by the Italian government, something Ferrara doesn’t bring up. Instead, he reimagines his brutal slaying as a fag bashing where a band of thugs attack him and it is the young pasta boy who, either driven by an “urge to kill” or just a need to survive, turns on the maestro. Ferrara’s version is deliberately political and one gets the idea that Pasolini might have appreciated it, even been a little titillated.

Those well-versed in Pasolini’s life and work might find more in Abel Ferrara’s creation, than someone with little knowledge of the man and his oeuvre. But the newbies will, hopefully, want to learn more about the great visionary--his thoughts, poetry, politics, prose and, above all, his audacious films. Bravo Signore Ferrara for a vital service and for a singular achievement.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

Visit for more information.


Mike Leigh’s
“Mr. Turner”
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay by Mike Leigh.

Starring: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh’s exquisitely shot but uninvolving portrait of the idiosyncratic British painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) offers a first glimpse of the artist with a wicked scowl on his face. I probably duplicated this disgusted facial expression several times throughout the overlong, overhyped feature film.

Later in the movie, Turner is speaking with two potential buyers while the camera pans to Turner’s long-suffering housekeeper scratching her breast and yawning. I know how she felt. Had she hit her head several times with a mallet, we would have been in complete synch.

This film maddened me. I found moments that were certainly worthwhile and Dick Pope’s cinematography reached new levels of breathtaking, as did Suzie Davies’ beautiful production design but most of the rest of the film left me empty.

As opposed to way too many bloggers out there who think that press notes and the ability to use Wikipedia somehow makes one an expert on things they really know nothing about, I am unfamiliar with Turner. But I wanted to know about him. I wanted some notions into what made him paint and what made him such a cruel man to some who loved him and, yet, so generous and caring to others.

The narrative follows the last 25 years of Turner’s life as the divisive painter deals with the death of his beloved father, continuously takes advantage of his housekeeper and, incognito, meets a sweet, lovely woman who he falls in love with. Turner has two illegitimate daughters he refused to acknowledge as his. And when we aren’t suffering through the messy, soapy (and still somehow dull) travails of his personal life, we watch him interact among his fellow artists, draw inspiration and paint.

Why was he so cold and mean to Hannah? Why did he admire his father so? Why did he loathe his own daughters and seem uncaring when one dies? I don’t need everything spelled out but SOME idea of the above would have been nice.

But let’s forget his personal life for a moment and chalk it up to a simple “who knows why people do what they do.” What about the artist?

Now I can Google, too, so I am aware that the “painter of light” was quite the controversial figure in his day and is now regarded as a great landscape artist.

I also know that Leigh is very passionate about Turner and, has crafted a motion picture that pays tribute to his art. So perhaps Turner’s work is simply just not my cup of tea. All I know is the Sondheim lyrics in “Sunday in the Park with George,” echoed in my head as I watched, “No life in his art. No life in his life.”

The film offers very little insight into the creative process beyond one fantastic scene where Turner has himself strapped to a ship during a storm, in order to capture it later on canvas.

Perhaps Leigh point is to contrast the beauty of nature with the glum reality of most people’s lives, since the latter is a theme he loves to visit over and over again ad nauseum in his films. Most critics love his work. And he’s a fine director. His screenplays, however, are sorely lacking in emotional depth (exceptions being “Naked” and “Vera Drake.”) Usually, his actors must compensate.

Timothy Spall’s full immersion is to be commended, even if his piggish snorts and sounds of disdain become annoying after so much repetition. Spall is wonderful in a scene in a brothel where he allows himself to fully mourn the passing of his father. I also loved his reaction to his first encounter with a camera.

The two major female figures in Turner’s life are played by formidable actresses who do admirable work. Dorothy Atkinson is deeply moving as his loyal housekeeper who is ultimately treated like trash. Her looks of devastation in the final minutes of the film are unforgettable. And Marion Bailey is vivacious and a delight to watch as Turner’s landlady turned longtime companion in Chelsea. I woke up every time Bailey was onscreen.

There is one very enticing reason to see “Mr. Turner” and that is the exhilarating camerawork. However, gorgeously photographed vistas and majestic shots of sunsets, countryside’s and seashores do not add up to a satisfying experience.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
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Matias Pineiro‘s
“The Princess of France” (“La Princesa de Francia)
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Matias Pineiro.

Starring: Julian Larquier Tellarini, Agustina Munoz, Pablo Sigal, Gabriela Saidon, Romina Paula, Maria Villar, Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes.

In Italian and Spanish with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Here’s a confession: I’m not the biggest fan of the Bard. Now I realize that’s like saying I don’t love dogs but allow me to clarify: I am simply exhausted by creative teams (in film and theatre) constantly reviving Shakespeare instead of producing new work. I get it. He was a great writer. Blah-blah. Adaptations (even loose ones) of Shakespearian work have an immediate disadvantage with me.

This is Matias Pineiro’s third movie inspired by the great one (and a fourth is in the works as well). “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” is the play that he’s loosely paying homage to and sometimes mirroring. And the results are initially intriguing but slowly become exasperating.

Pineiro’s film is experimental and highly personal so audiences will either take to it and bask in its odd, alienating qualities or simply tune out. I vacillated between the two, throughout.

The mercifully short feature centers on a handsome, young theatre director (Julian Larquier Tallarini) who recently lost his father and has returned to Buenos Aires from Mexico with news that he has been given monies to do a radio version of a stage presentation he worked on a year ago. This means the lothario must reconnect with a handful of girls he has in some way loved or pissed off or both—all of whom want to be or are a part of the production.

The film erratically moves from moments of twentysomething melodrama to the audio recording of the play to different scenarios that could play out between characters—this being the most fascinating aspect of the film and the one I wish was explored further because here Pineiro actually makes some thought-provoking statements about the different possibilities we have based on the choices we ultimately make. And how once we make those choices, they can’t be undone, but we tend to always look back and wonder, “what if.”

I found much of the film inaccessible and most of the actresses interchangeable. And watching actors speak poetic lines into a microphone isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, either.

Still, Pineiro’s style is definitely unique. I look forward to seeing his talents at work in a wholly original screenplay one day.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
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Mathieu Amalric’s
“The Blue Room” (“La Chambre Bleue”)
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Mathieu Amalric, Stephanie Cleau, based on the novel by Georges Simenon.

Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Lea Drucker, Stephanie Cleau, Laurent Poitrenaux, Serge Bozon.

In French with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

A dark tale of adultery, murder, passion and consequences, Mathieu Amalric’s adaptation of Georges Simenon’s 1964 novel “The Blue Room,” borrows from the best including Hollywood noir, to a achieve something riveting and hypnotic.

Amalric shoots in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (the norm for pre-widescreen films) which makes things all the more claustrophobic and old-fashioned in style, but the explicit nudity and raw passion onscreen is more reminiscent of the more daring post-production code dramas of the 70s (Polanski instantly sprung to mind, not just because of his physical resemblance to Amalric).

As the film opens, we see a staircase and hear moans of sexual pleasure followed by varying shots of body parts. We meet our lovers. In a refreshing switch, she asks, “Did I hurt you?” We see a drop of his blood fall onto the bed sheet. We see his lip has been pierced (by her bite?) She is in charge. He is at her mercy--consumed by her. The way he looks at her, lustfully, she can do what she wants. “Your wife will ask questions,” she prods. He is undeterred. “Could you really spend your life with me? Would you be a little scared?” He doesn’t have to answer. He would be. Anyone would be. And yet, he can’t stop himself.

The rest of the exquisite, and gorgeously shot (by Christophe Beaucarne), suspense thriller moves in non-linear fashion telling a chilling story of the consequences of an illicit, intimate affair between two married people who allow sexual desire (and possibly other things) to lead them down a destructive road.

Amalric has cast himself as Julien, the guilt-ridden lead while Stephanie Cleau brings her radiant and mysterious charms to his lover, Esther. They met as teens and have now embarked on a torrid affair. He has a wife and young daughter. She is married to a wealthy but sickly pharmacist. To give any more away would be to spoil much of the puzzle-piecing plot.

The amazing Amalric, along with co-writer Cleau, take on quite a bit in a breathtaking 75 minutes, including the nature of passion and how it can be all consuming and devastating.

In addition, the film depicts how society is quick to judge people based on gossip and hearsay as well as appearance. Her motives come into question because she looks the part of the femme fatale. He’s damned because he’s not traditionally handsome and appears untrustworthy. How could these two be capable of true love? And let’s not forget, “thou shalt not commit adultery.”

At one point, during a recurring (and framing) interrogation scene, Julien is being taken to task for something he said to Esther during lovemaking. “We were just naked in the room. People say things,” he explains. It’s a fascinating notion that a person could be held accountable for something said during an intimate moment. And in this new viral world, we are left with an urgent question, should we conduct ourselves, at all times, as if we are being watched, recorded or studied?

“The Blue Room” refuses to answer most of the questions it poses. In keeping things ambiguous, some may leave feeling cheated others, like me, will leave exhilarated--and a little paranoid.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

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Abderrahmane Sissako’s
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay by Abderrahmane Sissako & Kessen Tall.

Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Abel Jafri, Fatoumata Diawara, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettly Noel, Mehdi AG Mohamed, Layla Walte Mohamed.

In Arabic, Bambara, French, Songhay and Tamasheq with English subtitles.

Film Opens January 28, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

For some bizarre reason, Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” reminded me of Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” Perhaps because of the seamless weaving of many beguiling characters and plots, all set in one particular place. Perhaps it is the mosaic-like feel of the film. Perhaps it it is the strong political statement the film makes. Perhaps it is the film’s shifting tones and genre-blending. Or the underlying satirical element in the subtext of the depiction of religious fundamentalists as messengers of God. Perhaps it is all these things.

Timbuktu is a city in the West African country of Mali. I recall from childhood that it was a word used when someone wanted to invoke a strange, exotic place that was far away. “I ended up in Timbuktu.” There was also an idea that Timbuktu didn’t really exist.

Once a flourishing trading town, today the nation is impoverished.

In his director’s statement, Sissako was driven to make this film because of an unconscionable crime that was committed in 2012 that the media largely ignored (imagine): the stoning of a couple who had two children simply because they weren’t married. The horrific video of the brutal murders was posted online for the world to see.

One of the many wonders of Sissako’s exquisite film is that he never lets the brutality overwhelm the desire for hope and restoration of beauty and tranquility.

The film is a shattering depiction of just how religious fundamentalism can turn decent men into demons. The power that comes with carrying out God’s will can provide the ultimate hubris.

The film goes a long way in showing that most Islamic people are good, decent and caring. This might seem obvious to some but in these times where it’s easy to lump people together because of their religious beliefs or ethnicity, it’s most enlightening and welcome.

The opening shot is of a deer racing across the screening with Jihadists shooting at it and shouting, “Don’t kill it. Tire it.” If you wear it down it will eventually have to stop and capitulate. This is exactly the job of the Jihadists, to make life so difficult for the townspeople that they eventually accept the new rules and regime because they’re simply too exhausted to fight anymore. They have moved in and taken over.

Music is forbidden. Smoking is forbidden. Women must now wear gloves. Many have fled the town. The few that remain are under a siege of sorts. Many break the rules anyway knowing full well this puts their lives at risk.

Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) who is pursued by a lech Jihadist when her husband isn’t home.

Kidane has put an orphan boy in charge of his herd of eight cattle. One day one of the cows strays into the net of a local fisherman who angrily murders the animal. Kidane must now confront the fisherman. What follows is filmed in an amazing long shot in the lake right after the showdown, which has tragic results.

Other intriguing stories and characters are woven into the filmic tapestry including a wise man ‘committed to his own improvement’ who has the courage to ask the Jihadists to leave a mosque; a young man coached on how to denounce his hip hop background, a woman who is accused of singing (ironically, singing the Lord’s praises) given forty lashes in a disturbing “12 Years a Slave”-type scene and two adulterers given the harshest of penalties just for loving one another.

My favorite character, Zabou (Kettly Noel) is a babbling, nutbag who may be mad or just getting her freak on. She loves to wear loud colorful robes and piss these self-proclaimed “guardians,” who are really just intruders, off.

At one point in the film, a Jihadist visits one of the townswomen to ask to marry her daughter. She’s already had one daughter abducted by one of these men. Her answer is no. Her reasoning is that she knows nothing about him. His reaction is to let her know that if she refuses, he will simply take her by force. What can people do when presented with totalitarianism pretending to be righteousness?

“Timbuktu” is stunningly shot by Sofiane El Fani and contains scenes that will stay with me for a long time including a mysterious woman on a bike, shot from behind, who rides around town and, strangely but not-so-strangely, reminded me of Jeff Goldblum in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.”

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
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Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s
“Two Days, One Night” ("Duex jours, une nuit")
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s.

Starring: Marian Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione. Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Christelle Cornil.

In French and Arabic with English subtitles

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

From the frenetically filmed opening to the exquisite final shot, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s “Two Days, One Night,” hypnotizes the viewer and peels away layers of plot and characterization until we are left in a state of transcendence. Pretentious as that sounds, it’s so true. I couldn’t move from my seat.

The Dardennes love to present morality tales onscreen and this is their best to date because of the film’s power and character complexity, yet story simplicity. And because Marion Cotillard is a gift from God.

Sandra (Cotillard) is a blue-collar worker recently given leave because of depression. Exactly why she was depressed we are never told. There are some clues, though. She is married and has a young daughter and would like to return to work but has been blindsided by being told her 16 co-workers voted to have her fired in order to keep their earned 1,000 euro bonuses.

Just why these struggling folk had to make such a choice is discovered as the narrative unfolds.

Sandra and her good friend and one of only two people to vote for her, ask their boss for a second, “secret” vote since they’ve been told that the factory foreman, Jean-Marc, lied to some of the employees to get them to vote against Sandra. He agrees and Sandra has two days and one night to visit her fellow workers, some of whom she hardly knows, and get them to vote FOR her and AGAINST their own bonus. This is something Sandra does not want to do but her loyal and devoted husband, Manu (the amazing Fabrizio Rongione), has insisted she must, at least, try to do.

Sandra is desperate to keep her job so her family can survive these cruel economic times, but she loathes having to beg and she is even empathetic to their needing to vote to keep their money.

This frail woman does not have the courage of a Norma Rae or the self-esteem of a “name that Jane Fonda-role from the ‘70s.” She’s weak, suicidal at times, downright whiney and filled with a bleak, physically slouched, defeatist attitude. It doesn’t help that she encounters some horrific reactions along her odyssey—including a young co-worker who becomes violent at the suggestion he give up his bonus and attacks her. Interesting enough, many of the younger men who, arguably, can afford to be generous turn out to be the avaricious ones. Others, with a lot more to lose, are willing to put their needs aside for her.

Sandra finds hope via two unlikely people. In an especially moving scene, Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) reacts in such an extraordinarily unexpected way, breaking down because he remembers how kind she was to him and feels the guilt of voting against her. Still another co-worker, Anne (Christelle Cornil) has a revelation thanks to Sandra’s plight and decides to support her.

As the numbers get closer and closer to a dead heat, the film takes on a suspense-thriller tone, but the Dardennes do their best to keep the scales balanced. Many of these people voting against Sandra, truly need the money to survive; although others are just greedy. It’s the gamut of human nature. And we are never certain who to believe or trust, like in real life. We never really know if Jean-Marc really had it in for her or whether the notion was manufactured by one of the selfish bastards she works with that wanted the bonus at any cost.

The film’s location may be Belgium but it takes on a universal tone almost immediately. One can see this same story easily playing out in any small town here in the U.S.

Despite her lacking in Hollywood bravery, Sandra is a kind of superhero. One I wish we saw onscreen more often. She’s flawed, hopeful, confused, ready to give up but also ready to fight back. She’s a host of contradictions—like most people. And like blockbuster superheroes, in a race against time, trying to save the world, Sandra is in her own race against time. Only instead of saving the world, she’s trying to save herself and her family from starving. She’s trying to save her own sanity, or at least, manage her depression. She’s trying to stay alive. She should be the new screen heroine.

And Marion Cotillard embodies her to perfection. The Dardennes took a risk casting such a known actress in this role but it paid off. Cotillard is without vanity here, giving us an everywoman. It’s a difficult, nuanced turn; one of the best in a year of tremendous performances by women.

In a scene where Sandra is about to give up, Petula Clark’s rendition of “La Nuit N’en Finit Plus” comes on the radio. Her husband immediately turns it down worried the depressing tune (which talks about this “senseless world”) will bring her further down. She defiantly blasts the volume and allows the song to wash over her, using it and her husband (whose hand she holds) to gather some more strength. SuperMarion!

“Two Days, One Night” is much more engrossing and exciting than any comic book franchise film. It should gross a billion dollars worldwide. It certainly won’t. But, like the film offers, there are far more important things than money.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
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Martin Rejtman’s
“Two Shots Fired” (“Dos Disparos”)
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Screenplay: Martin Rejtman.

Starring: Rafael Federman, Susana Pampin, Benjamin Coehlo, Camila Fabbri, Manuela Martelli.

In Spanish with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

At the Festival screening I attended, Argentinian director Martin Rejtman introduced “Two Shots Fired” by telling us that it is a comedy despite the way it opens and he hoped we would find it funny.

The film opens with good-looking 16-year-old Mariano (Rafael Federman) dancing solo at a club until the wee hours. He comes home at dawnish, goes for a timed-lapped swim, mows the lawn, finds a gun in the garage, goes up to his room and (say it with me since you’ve read the title) shoots himself twice (once in the head and once in the stomach). This would be the part that Rejtman was referring to as the serious opening, although it is intriguing.

The rest of the film, however, never lives up to its grabby beginning, although it does offer quite a few funny and unique moments along its bumpy way.

The movie jumps ahead a week and Mariano is recovering from his wounds, although there’s probably a bullet still in his body somewhere.

His mother (Susana Pampin) is burying all the sharp objects in the house and his brother has been put in charge of keeping an eye on him.

In therapy, Mariano insists there’s nothing bothering or depressing him. “It was an impulse. It was very hot.”

We are then shown a series of scenes where Mariano goes back to some semblance of normal, getting together with his wooden flute quartet (although, because of the bullet he now makes the sound of two flutes), eating fast-food with his brother, setting off metal detectors with his lodged bullet and taking flute lessons from his insensitive music teacher (Laura Paredes).

And just when you begin to like and care about Mariano, and wonder whether his bullet will be found and taken out and/or we will understand why he did what he did, the narrative shifts to a bunch of far less fascinating characters as his mother decides to take a road trip to a Buenos Aires beach with the annoying music teacher and some pain-in-the-ass lady who no one likes and…well, I kinda lost interest. But I still hoped we’d loop back to Mariano.

I like odd. I also champion filmmaker’s personal visions onscreen. Suffice to say, the second half of the film was not for me. I get it was trying to probe how mom coped with her son’s suicide attempt, but I didn’t care. And I really didn’t care about the dog. Really!

I also get that sometimes there is no answer to those hard questions. Perhaps, “It was an impulse,” and “It was very hot.” And that WAS it. Fine. But don’t create a compelling situation with a character the audience takes to and then shift focus midstream unless you are going to match what you’ve created.

Rejtman does capture that general sense of apathy felt by most teens and his film does have funny moments but, in the end, I was alienated more than entertained.

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
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Damien Chazelle’s
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
September 26th - October 12, 2014
Lincoln Center

Written by: Damien Chazell

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Jayson Blair, Nate Lang

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The very first shot in Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating second feature, Whiplash, is of young, ambitious drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) seen in long shot, practicing his craft with a dogged ferocity. As the camera zooms in we can see the many enigmatic emotions registering on Andrew’s face including persistence, alienation and, once renowned conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) enters the room, a desperate desire to be accepted and adored. Fletcher dismisses him outright but that won’t stop Andrew. He’ll just rehearse his fingers to bloody bits until he finally impresses the impresario or dies trying.

A little later in the narrative, Andrew is seated in a movie theatre with his milquetoast father, Jim (Paul Reiser), when a random patron hits Jim in the head with bucket of popcorn on the way to his seat. The patron keeps walking, no apologies, and Jim barely reacts to the action, while Andrew watches him intently. It’s a quick, funny moment but a rather telling one about how our children learn to react to situations from their parents. And how, if pushed too far, they’ll rebel and react accordingly.

How much abuse is Andrew willing to take from Fletcher in order to reach the allusive perfection in his craft he so craves?

The boy is certainly dedicated, driven and competitive but nothing has prepared him for the unrelenting, army-sergeant training he’s about to endure, not to mention Fletcher’s manic ways of pumping his ego one moment while tearing him to shreds the next, using personal details to shame him in the process. Fletcher also enjoys pitting Andrew against two other talented drummers, forcing them to continue playing the same piece of music over and over—switching them off—until one of them does it the (impossible) way he wants it done.

For Fletcher fear and shame begets the determination needed to achieve genius. The conductor is fond to telling the tale about how young Charlie Parker was perceived a nobody of little talent until he messed up one night at the Reno Club in Kansas City and the resident drummer threw a cymbal at his head, barely missing him. He was then was booed off the stage. What could have crippled him, instead, made him practice his fingers off and he would return with a vengeance and become one of the few true jazz greats.

Of course the fact that “Bird” ended up a heroine addict who died at 34 doesn’t seem to matter to Fletcher, who instructs his musicians accordingly at the elite NYC music conservatory most of the film is set in. He delights in hurling homophobic, anti-Semitic remarks at them, humiliating them and weeding out the weak.

Andrew has a cocky confidence that, like most teens, can be easily toyed with and undermined because deep down he’s lacking in self-esteem. This partially comes from an extended family that enjoys pitting their children against one another when it comes to accolades and achievements. This becomes too obvious in a tension-filled (but familiar to anyone who has attended a large family Thanksgiving dinner) scene where he loses it and let’s his uncle and cousins know just what he thinks of their small ambitions.

The film takes some beguiling twists and turns and Andrew is forced to make a few tough choices, none of which I will reveal here.

I was completely unprepared for a film to envelop me so and not let go until the extraordinary finale—which left me with my mouth down somewhere near my feet!

Whiplash brings up a number of themes and issues and it never gives us black and white answers. Instead, the film basks in the gray, making it a tough sell to those audiences who like their ethics and morals spoon-fed to them in 1950s ideals-style. Viewers, however, who appreciate nuance and fascinating debate and aren’t bogged down with bullshit notions of likeability, will appreciate the dense and complicated ideas being put forth.

Chazelle is to be commended as writer, for penning a truly gritty and marvelous script devoid of much melodrama. As director, he knows how to stage scenes that captivate and tell the story in an electrifyingly cinematic manner. And as a jazz aficionado, he’s deft at infusing each moment with the precision that art form demands—even the dialogue and filmic cuts feel jazzy.

And he’s cast the film perfectly.

Teller is an astounding talent with quite a future. Reminding me of Jesse Eisenberg (especially in The Social Network) and even a little Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Teller has that nasty blend of charm and arrogance, but allows the viewer to feel so much more just under the compulsive surface. Chazelle’s remarkable script allows Teller to go on quite the journey and grow and develop. I felt like I was watching a boy become a man—retaining much of the boyish anger and desire, but finding a new way to express it. And the radical element is that Fletcher had a lot to do with shaping who he becomes.

Simmons’s Fletcher is a fearless hornet’s nest of cruel sadism, ridiculous ego and dictatorial delusion. It’s such a bracing, refreshing performance, with only hints of humanity; you can’t help but be astonished by its chutzpah. It is great acting and Simmons will be recognized at year’s end for such a daring, courageous and immersive turn.

Austin Stowell and Nate Lang put in their grueling time and both do memorable work as well.

The film’s attempt at a love story is the only thing about it that feels unnecessary and forced, but I can forgive that since Melissa Benoist is so appealing and since it doesn’t become a happy ending romance.

In these big-brother-cam, stool-pigeon, social networking times when things are more PC than ever, I don’t know that even a kinder, gentler Fletcher would be allowed to keep teaching. And that may not be a bad thing. But if you buy into some of his theories about brutally nurturing true musical genius, then it may not be a good thing either.

Perfection at what cost? And is paying the price such a bad thing? Or anyone else’s business but the artist?

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.

Visit for more information.





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