NYFF52 in the Rearview: Mr. Turner (2014)

Mike Leigh’s latest feature, Mr. Turner is a wonderfully evocative biopic about the life of English painter J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), played by Timothy Spall (Cannes Film Festival Award winner, Best Actor).

Many art enthusiasts may know the name not only for the work the landscape artist produced but, also for the prestigious prize that bears his name.

As per the director’s statement:

[Mr. Turner] is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength. It is also an attempt to evoke the dramatic changes in his world over the last quarter century of his life.

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Although we enter his life story past the midway point (punctuated by the death of his father), we see his art transforming before our very eyes. A closer examination of his work (which the film refers to) shows that as the years progressed, his work got more and more abstract, reflecting his own emotional turmoil and internal conflict. And be sure, there was a lot to have caused Turner to look inward and be troubled. Aside from the acute sadness he experiences upon the passing of a most beloved father, there were a host of romantic entanglements:

  • the love of his housemaid, which he did not return, but instead exploited to his own personal satisfaction,
  • the strained relationship between himself and a former partner (and their two illegitimate children),
  • and the secret, common law relationship at the end of his life with a woman with whom he would live out his days in the London district of Chelsea.

Leigh ‘paints’ this phase of Turner’s life by showing the people, places and events that influenced his work. There must be a great freedom in being about to do this when you have a stable of actors with whom one frequently collaborates. For star Spall, this is his fifth Mike Leigh feature. The rest of the principle cast including Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesly Manville, have also all worked with him in a variety of productions for television, film and the stage.

So effective was the way this film is constructed and presented, that my screening guest had not realized until our post-screening chat, that the film is based on an actual person. I point this out because I see it as a great credit to the work. Where many biopics are clearly telegraphed as such, in Mr, Turner you still retain some of that linearity, but in addition you are treated to a story that has an artistic and dramatic flare, more often associated with straight narrative features.

NYFF 52 in the Rearview: Life of Riley (2014)

The final film of renowned French filmmaker Alain Resnais (Hiroshima mon amour, Night and Fog), Life of Riley is adapted from the play Alan Ayckbourn’s of the same name. It tells the story of a group of friends coming to terms with the imminent passing of one of their own, the unseen George Riley.

Of course it can’t be THAT straightforward – as there are romantic entanglements and complications which remind the players (and the audience) that even in the midst of death, there is still a lot of life to be enjoyed.

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Photo Credit: Kino Lerber, Inc.

Set in the English countryside, Life of Riley comes off as a sort of contemporary comedy of manners. Sure at the center of the action is a morbid cloud of death looms large over the party, this film manages to balance this maudlin sentiment while also delivering some laughs for the audience.

A work of pure imagination – location shots and traditional cinematic production design crafted to replicate the real environs of the world of the rural English middle classes, is replaced with a creative mix of still photography, closeups, ‘pop’-ish renderings and sets that look like they are taken directly from a stage production.

Initially, it was a bit of a jarring experience. But once I settled into the film I was able to go with it and enjoy it.

 

A Kino Lerber release (French with subtitles).

 

 

NYFF52 in the Rearview: Maps to the Stars (2014)

A little late but, alas, there is a lot to say about my adventures at Lincoln Center for the 52 annual New York Film Festival.

I start with my take on David Cronenberg’s latest feature – Maps to the Stars. Penned by Bruce Wagner (an L.A. native), this film is a cutting satire about Hollywood and our celebrity obsessed culture. The film has an all-star cast lead by Cannes Festival Best Actress Award winner Julianne Moore and includes John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams and Cronenberg muse-du jour, Robert Pattinson.

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It is a cold picture in that it projects Hollywood as this plastic, glossy (at times haunting) world so very disconnected from the “ordinary” and any known reality that I am aware of. No one who inhabits this world is shown much pity; especially those who are self-professed “gurus” have in them a deeply troubling, corrosive core. As the layers of the film are revealed to the audience, this all leads to a shocking and disturbing denouement. In other words, classic Cronenberg.

While the dysfunctional interpersonal relationships (and demons) were very fascinating to watch, I could have done with more of the overarching “Hollywood is not what it appears” theme. But I guess that may have been the point – to interweave the immediate and the personal with the larger world that all of these players are a part of.

It is not a stretch to declare that Maps to the Stars is probably not for everyone – notably those of you who have gotten comfortable with some of the director’s more recent, “mainstream” (term used loosely) fare such as A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method.

There are plenty more qualified folks out there who have and will continue to speak more eloquently about the film, but in my reading some of the reviews, I noticed that there were the inevitable comparisons drawn to other films that have looked at Hollywood with a similarly caustic gaze. For me at least, I had no such thoughts. Surely, the themes of “all that glitters …” and the (potentially) corrupting nature of the machinery driving the industry are common, here with this film, the time, place and context give the story a very different tone. In that respect, Maps to the Stars kind of stands apart as a contemporary example in its dealing with the people, places and things concerning the “Dream Factory” in such an unrelenting manner.

On Now: NYFF52

Oh yeah there is the tiny little matter of the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival kicking off this weekend.

Hopefully it will not be as confrontational as last year, when I attended a screening of Blue is the Warmest Color and post-screening was ‘approached’ by someone questioning why I was watching the film and what did I think about the misogyny contained therein. Actually, that reminds me – Pro-Tip: Even if I agree with your argument(s), accosting me and bellowing questions at me is not the way to sell your POV.

Mini-rant over.

Anyways, better forward planning this year means that my NYFF dance card will be a little more full and allow me to provide a slightly more adequate level of coverage.

LifeofRiley1

Life of Riley

Among the films that will be attended (and subsequently covered) are:

GUYS AND DOLLS

Guys and Dolls

 

In addition, I will be attending the panel Women’s Impact: Producing in a Convergent World.

You may be asking yourself: Why no Gone Girl? If I am honest, I never got caught in the frenzy that the source material caused in the bibliophile community, so even with Fincher at the helm, this has a wait until later … vibe for me.
Overall, scheduling conflicts this year mean that I have had to massively scale back my moviegoing ambitions and stick mostly to the Friday night – Sunday screening window, which means I miss out on films such as:
  • The 50-Year Argument
  • The Blue Room
  • Saint Laurent
  • All About Eve
  • Two Days, One Night
  • National Gallery
  • Jauja
(visit the NYFF52 Main Slate page for film details)
Lastly, are you going to be the Big Apple for any of the film fun? What are you looking most forward to?
Photo credit: Film Society of Lincoln Center, host of the New York Film Festival.

Festivals, Festivals Everywhere!

Hi All!

First things first — massive apologies for the absence as of late (save some intermittent tweeting). Truth be told, I have been in the final stages of moving house (still kinda sorta am) and it took a lot more time and energy out of me than I had anticipated. Alas, I am a little more settled now and can get back to the business at hand.

And what I time I chose to return. As you may be well aware, we are entering the “serious season” for cinema-goers (i.e. Awards Contenders Season) and the film festivals of this month and next have a lot on offer.

While I did not have the pleasure of attending the likes of Telluride or Toronto (I’ll throw Venice in there for good measure), I did follow some of the titles that were featured and here are some that I thought may be well worth a look-see. Click on the hyperlink to find out a little more about the titles:

  1. The Imitation Game dir. Morten Tyldum. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as brilliant Cambridge mathematician, cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing, who spearheaded the Enigma code-breaking operation during World War II and was later persecuted by the British government for his homosexuality.
  2. Mr. Turner – dir. Mike Leigh. Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his magnificent performance as J.M.W. Turner, in Mike Leigh’s gorgeously rendered biopic of the famed British landscape painter.
  3. Two Days, One Nightdir. Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne. A working-class mother (Marion Cotillard) fights to hold onto her job, in the new film from master filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
  4. Beyond the Lights - dir Gina Prince-Bythewood. A rising young musician (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle) falls into a passionate love affair with the cop assigned to protect her (Nate Parker), in this moving and inspirational romance from writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball).
  5. Before We Go – dir. Chris Evans. Chris Evans makes his directorial debut with this winning romance about two strangers (Evans and Alice Eve, Star Trek: Into Darkness) who spend a long, magical night in NYC after missing the last train at Grand Central Terminal.
  6. The Connection – dir Cédric Jimenez. Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) stars as French police magistrate Pierre Michel, who waged an obsessive six-year battle to bring down Marseilles’ infamous “French Connection” drug ring.
  7. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet – dir Joann Sfar, Tomm Moore, Bill Plympton. Director Roger Allers (The Lion King) assembled an array of internationally acclaimed animators to realize episodes from the classic text by the renowned Lebanese poet, which are woven into the tale of a mischievous young girl (voiced by Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis) who attempts to free an imprisoned poet (Liam Neeson).
  8. Kill Me Three Times – dir Kriv Stenders. A small Australian town becomes a hotbed of scheming, scamming, blackmail and murder in this blackly comic, sun-scorched neo-noir, featuring a sterling cast that includes Simon Pegg, Alice Braga and Luke Hemsworth.
  9. Miss Julie – dir Liv Ullmann. Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton star in this stunning adaptation of the classic August Strindberg play directed by legendary actress and filmmaker Liv Ullmann.
  10. Madame Bovary – dir Sophie Barthes. Mia Wasikowska stars as the disgruntled provincial wife yearning to breathe free in this gorgeously shot adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel, co-starring Paul Giammati, Olivier Gourmet, Ezra Miller and Rhys Ifans. Again, I love period pieces even if they are on a slow path of destruction.
  11. National Gallery – dir. Frederick Wiseman. Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman (La Danse, Crazy Horse, At Berkeley) takes us inside the inner workings of London’s National Gallery. Folks, I love museums and seeing the BTS inner workings. This should be a treat.
  12. A Little Chaos - dir Alan Rickman. Commissioned to construct King Louis XIV’s garden at Versailles, a landscape designer (Academy Award winner Kate Winslet) battles professionally and romantically with the king’s chief architect (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone), in this sumptuous historical drama from actor-director Alan Rickman.
  13. The Riot Club – dir. Lone Scherfig. Two young men are inducted into the exclusive, debaucherous company of Oxford’s elite “Riot Club,” in this scathing dissection of the British class system from Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education).
  14. Girlhood - dir. Céline Sciamma, Céline Sciamma. Céline Sciamma Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy) returns to the Festival with this raw, raucous but tender look at a group of black high school students living in the tough banlieues of Paris.

I mean there are dozens more, put that would make this post a programming guide and I am sure no one has time for that, so …

——

Also on my radar (and also in the Greater New York Area) is the first annual Mount Vernon (NY) Film Festival (starts 9.25). Quite near and dear (it’s my hometown, y’all), I hope to have something up concerning this, although my current schedule will mean that I cannot actually attend any of the events.

Lastly, I am looking forward to Lincoln Center’s 52nd annual New York Film Festival (starts 9.26). A preview post will be up sometime this week.

 

In the meantime, what films are you looking forward to seeing from the festival circuit?

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Photo credit: Gabriel Flores Romero (Creative Commons)

 

Columbia University Film Festival 2014

The Columbia University Film Festival is the annual premiere of thesis short films, feature screenplays and teleplays created by graduate MFA students from Columbia University School of the Arts Film Program. (Source: Columbia University Film Festival website)

Held May 2nd-8th at Lincoln Center (with events scheduled in Los Angeles June 17-20) and its 27th year, this festival is an opportunity for the public at large to catch a glimpse at (possibly) the next Kathryn Bigelow, James Mangold or Jennifer Lee (of the Academy Award-winning animated feature Frozen) who is also the recipient of this year’s Andrew Sarris Award.

One of the things that continues to stand out to me is the production value of the work presented. Whereas last year, I attended the closing ceremonies and saw only the closing night (awards events), this time I felt as if I was in the thick of it and could truly enjoy the festival experience.

Unfortunately due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to attend the screenplay workshops and panel discussions.

 

Some of the highlights for me included the following (synopses and photos courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center website):

Alex the Magnificent
Director: Robert Monk Davis, USA, 2014, DCP, 14m
Fed up with his life, Alex Martin gives up all his worldly possessions to hitchhike across the country.

ILC’s take: an irreverent and almost unbelievable story. So entertaining.

Smut
Director: Tom Sveen, Producers: John Wakayama Carey & Sarah Dorman, USA, 2014, DCP, 10m
On a class field trip to the landfill, two boys make a startling discovery that draws them toward adulthood.

ILC’s take: A nostalgic gem. Could easily see this as being a smaller episode of a larger narrative.

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Knives
Director: Aaron David DeFazio, Producer: Larissa Rhodes, USA, 2014, DCP, 16m
A curious shopping-cart collector investigates the suspicious owner of knife-sharpening truck after a string of brutal murders.

ILC’s take: Quirky without being irksome

The King’s Pawn
Director: Jonah Bleicher, Producer: Rob Cristiano, USA, 2014, DCP, 20m
A former chess prodigy challenges the world champion with the super computer he spent his life designing.

ILC’s take: had some really funny moments.

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The winners were announced in a ceremony of May 8th:

JURY SELECTS
A Mighty Nice Man
Devil’s Work
Scheherazade
Sina Forma
Subordinate
The Immaculate Reception
Tobacco Burn

JURY HONORS
Amateur Dictator
Fault Lines
Oasis
Party of Special Things To Do
Rattlefly
Roughstock
Scumbag
Smut
Solid Ground

STUDENT SELECTS
Alex The Magnificent
Amateur Dictator
American Gladiators
Body of Crime
Party of Special Things To Do
Rattlefly
Sina Forma
Smut
The Immaculate Reception
Tobacco Burn


Finally, check out the festival trailer here:

Keep On Keepin’ On (TFF 2014)

My final individual entry for my recap of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is the documentary Keep On Keepin’ the awesome documentary about the life and times of jazz pioneer and nonogenarian, Clark Terry.

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A gifted trumpeter in his own right, he took his greatest pride in mentoring young artists in the way of jazz. His first and probably most famous protege is his first – one Quincy Jones, who actually features at moments in the documentary.

Spanning over four years, filmmaker Alan Hicks’ directorial debut takes a look back at Terry’s life and times while also paralleling his story with that of his most recent student, Justin Kauflin, a 20-something piano prodigy. On the surface, you would think these two people could probably not form a lasting bond beyond their musical tastes. However, they do in large part, as a result of enduring personal physical setbacks. In the case of Kauflin, it is a congenital eye disease that has left him completely blind by the time he reached adolescence. For Terry, his blindness was brought upon by a long battle with diabetes.

In spite of these crippling ailments, each artist, together and in their own right, finds a way to do as the title suggests – keep on keepin’ on.

This is an excellent story for anyone who loves jazz (of course), witnessing a living testimony to music and its history of over half of the twentieth century and a tale of rather unexpected friendship.

 

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Love and Engineering (TFF 2014)

The title (Love & Engineering) and the premise (Is there an algorithm for love?) sounded so enticing, I knew this would be on my must-see list at Tribeca this year.

In brief, Bulgarian engineering student Atanas  lives in Finland and has decided that he has  found the “solution” to finding love and marriage in this crazy crazy world. He decides to share his “algorithm” with a group of test subjects – fellow male engineering students. This film is a document of that experiment.

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At times the film is whimsical and noteworthy – from some statements made about women’s mating proclivities to some of the devices or “hacks” they use when going out on dates – makes it a fun watch. In viewing, one must be willing to admit that part of the laughs come at the expense of the young men, who find themselves in some rather awkward situations and respond in very unconventional ways. I direct you to the scenes with the blind dates …

At one point, however, the film veered into some unexpected drama that finds a couple of the subjects in conflict with one another. It felt a little uncomfortable to watch at times, but that is just me.

The film wraps up in a rather philosophical spirit with the one of the engineers coming to his own conclusions about unlocking the “love code.” I will leave it to you to guess this endpoint.

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (TFF 2014)

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Chapman and Maclain Way, directors) is a documentary of a time and place in baseball’s history which is long, long forgotten. It is the world of the independent farm team and focuses on the appropriately named Portland Mavericks, a team founded and run by Bing Russell (1926-2003; aka Clem Foster of Bonanza fame), character actor and father of Hollywood star Kurt Russell.

battered bastards of baseball

The brief life of the team (1973-77) is chronicled in wonderful detail. Part historical account, part biography, we see that although he had a successful career acting in a steady stream of movies and television programs, Bing Russell’s lifelong passion for the American pastime never left him. His being involved in organized baseball against many odds is a moving testament to the power never letting go of your dreams.

As for the Mavericks’ own story, in it we have a David/Goliath tale which found Russell constantly butting up against Major League Baseball, who was at this time was near completion of the systematic dismantling of the independent minor league franchises and enveloping them into the MLB farm network.

With all of this happening, the Portland Mavericks never lost their spirit or love for the game. Archived footage and a few present day interviews with players, family members and team supporters, showed a motley crew of fun and unique personalities. I liken it to a Bad News Bears: The Adult Years.

(Fun fact: the Mavericks ball boy was none other than award-winning actor/director Todd Field).

I have always felt that baseball, while being possibly not the most exciting event to watch live, makes for great storytelling and The Battered Bastards of Baseball is no exception. The story with all of its moving parts will leave you engaged and entertained until the very end and maybe even afterwards …

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Institute

When the Garden Was Eden (TFF 2014)

Another documentary from actor and filmmaker Michael Rapaport (Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest), Tribeca Film Festival opener When the Garden Was Eden is a must see film for any sports fan, especially the species known as the ever-suffering New York Knickerbocker Fandom. I mean it has been really, really hard for us (20 years since a NBA finals appearance, really?).

In a story that seems tailor-made for New York City (it’s also based on Harvey Araton’s best-selling book of the same name), When the Garden Was Eden blends archival footage with first-hand accounts of players and observers alike of that magical time – all set against the tumult of a city weakened and made even more cynical by the social unrest and urban blight of the time.

Growing up I was regaled (via family and the local sports networks) with stories of this team, punctuated, by the image of a broken-limbed Willis Reed hobbling onto the court of Madison Square Garden during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Watching this film shed a whole new perspective for me and really drove home just how legendary this squad individually and collectively was and continues to be to this very day. I mean seriously. Recently as I was walking down Fifth Avenue and passed by Bill Bradley. Giddy with excitement, I immediately texted my brothers. It was that exciting …

Lastly, hindsight is always 20/20, but I really felt like this film also calls to the audience’s attention the harbinger of what would start to happen in the late 70’s and 80’s in terms of making the NBA true sports entertainment commodity.

Well, I guess it could have only have started in New York!

New York Knicks

When the Garden Was Eden will air as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series (actual airdates TBD).

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Festival