45th New York Film Festival
Somewhere other than Alice Tully Hall, which looks like a bomb hit it.
28 September - 14 October, 2007

Previously seen at Cannes (scroll down for the index): 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Alexandra; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Flight of the Red Balloon; Go Go Tales; The Last Mistress; The Man From London; No Country for Old Men; Paranoid Park; Persepolis; Secret Sunshine; Silent Light.

Previously seen just prior to Toronto: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

Previously seen in two different incarnations and I really don't need to see the third: Blade Runner.

Redacted (Brian De Palma, USA): 49

Briefly thought this might be a misunderstood masterpiece, as Barrage, with its mournful strings and pseudopoetic voiceover, positively garrotes a particular strain of pompous European docmaking (Varda, Ophüls, even Herzog to some degree). I couldn't stop laughing, pretty much alone in the packed Walter Reade -- but the joke was ultimately on me, since De Palma resorts to the same shameless pandering when he finally arrives at his tragic conclusion. En route we're forced to endure a pretty lame exercise in phony testosterone, one that answers the question "What would Casualties of War look like if a group of third-year acting students turned it into bad theater?" Occasional Web-based interpolations -- a remarkably credible-looking "soldier's wife" site, complete with visitor comments you have to squint to read; some clueless anti-war zealot ranting on YouTube -- keep the enterprise from simply keeling over in embarrassment, and the crime itself, which is as close as De Palma gets here to a set piece, does possess a queasy intensity, thanks mostly to the actors playing the victims. But every scene involving the two Army psychos just made me flash back to watching NYU Drama students struggling with early Mamet. Still, you can't help but admire the attempt on some level. This is exactly the kind of movie that major American directors should be making right now. Except, you know, good. Not crappy.

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA): 54

A great idea for a movie rather than a great movie, and further evidence that semiotics majors don't make natural filmmakers. Which is not to say that Haynes isn't tremendously gifted, but I do wish his work didn't always feel like it should be accompanied by a Study Guide and seen only by those who've passed a rigorous entrance exam. (Safe is the exception to the rule, and not coincidentally my favorite Haynes in a walk.) As someone with eight Dylan albums in his collection (the big ones, basically) and one long-ago viewing of Dont Look Back under his belt, I'm guessing I caught maybe a quarter of the references and allusions; the rest of the film whizzed by in a vaguely playful blur, little more than a panoply of surface affectations. The biggest problem, as even admirer Theo admits, is that four of the six pseudoBobs simply don't work as anything more than stark concepts: Bale's section is just wan mockumentary; Whishaw's presence is largely redundant; Ledger could have been playing a gloss on Pat Boone as far as I was concerned; and the Western stuff featuring Gere as Billy The Kid is an embarrassment, frankly. Whereas Blanchett and the little black kid -- sorry, little black kid, I'll learn your name if you ever do anything else of note -- are both mesmerizing, perhaps because they're so far removed from the source that they felt the liberty to exist as well as evoke. (Blanchett transcends mimicry here in a way she never did with K. Hepburn, capturing not just Dylan's adenoidal mannerisms but his unruly prankster spirit.) In their segments, you get a frustrating glimpse of how glorious I'm Not There might have been had all of its avatars been equally arresting; instead, it comes more into focus the further away from it you get, and when it finally does come together it inevitably looks quite small.

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands): 88

Just a quick word on the revised cut of this near-masterpiece, which has been trimmed by about 15 minutes since its Cannes premiere -- to its very slight detriment, if I can trust my memory. (My original rating was 91, which will still be reflected on my top ten list.) Reygadas has streamlined a narrative that really didn't need streamlining, giving the film a more urgent, less contemplative rhythm. (Note to those who've seen only the newer version: No, seriously.) I especially regret the loss of a strong sequence depicting Marianne (the Other Woman) at her job selling soft-serve ice cream -- I can't recall whether it was before or after Johan shows up with the kids for their tryst, but it gave Marianne a degree of autonomy she now sorely lacks, and was also fascinating as one of the only scenes that showed the Mennonites (who, it's important to note, are never once identified as such) interacting with ordinary Mexicans. Still a magnificent film, of course, and a second viewing confirmed that its power derives not so much from its individual shots -- though we're talking wall-to-wall stunners -- as from their lacerating juxtaposition. One sequence begins with a slow push-in through a shadowy garage door, tilting down to reveal mechanics working in a pit; then jumps back 20 feet or so to reveal Johan standing at the door, hands on hips, peering into the murk; then cuts to a reverse angle from inside, with Johan now facing camera and framed against the landscape: Breathtaking, and all about the duration of each shot and the way we're thrust from one perspective to another. I'm really a montage guy at heart.

Married Life (Ira Sachs, USA): 50

Having seen only the first two episodes of "Mad Men" -- which were quite good; just got distracted and haven't gone back yet -- I can't join the plethora of folks who've been using AMC's hit series as a club with which to beat down Sachs' superficially similar portrait of mid-20th mores. But no great loss, as Married Life is plenty banal even by comparison to domestic melodramas of the very era it's ostensibly deconstructing. Hard to go completely wrong with Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Cooper and Rachel McAdams as your primary quartet, and all four actors do solid if unspectacular work; they're let down, alas, by a humdrum tale of multiple infidelities and by a director with no discernible point of view. There's no juice here, basically -- the movie just plods competently from one familiar, mildly diverting scenario to the next. Intermittent narration by Brosnan's character suggests we're seeing events from his once-jaded perspective, but it's strictly an expository device, no doubt derived from the British source novel. None of the wit and sophistication promised by the clip-art opening credits sequence quite materializes; none of the characters is as devious or mysterious as (s)he appears. It's all quite tame, really -- so much so that I almost wonder whether that's somehow meant to be the point. But Occam's Razor suggests simple mediocrity.

A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol, France/Germany): 59

Looks like this is the year of the ludicrously literal concluding metaphor. You have to laugh, and according to this film's admirers that's what I should have been doing from the get-go...except there's nothing terribly amusing, not even blackly so, about its sordid central "love" triangle, with the somewhat jarring exception of Benoît Magimel's foppish dissolution. Unlike most of Chabrol's recent films -- and here I should note that his early work is one of the most notable gaps in my major-auteur viewing, as NYC continues to await a retro that isn't devoted exclusively to odds and sods -- -- anyway, unlike the recent stuff I have seen, Girl Cut in Two doesn't unfold solely from the perspective of the morally infirm, and Gabrielle's essential decency (which isn't significantly compromised by the fact that she's a bit vapid) precludes the sort of appreciative chuckling that Chabrol's characters' bad behavior usually inspires. At bottom, this is an illustration of two wildly divergent methods for breaking a young woman's heart, which means that the director's typically chilly remove only serves to stifle and undermine the otherwise fine performances by Sagnier and Berléand. (I'm still on torn on Magimel, who's hilarious but also overwhelms every scene in which he appears.) Chabrol's boldest and most intriguing choice involves Saint-Denis' "saint" of a wife, who never gets the One Impassioned Monologue you'd expect; in fact, the actress, Valeria Cavalli, never so much as hints at the woman's inner life, instead proving a portrait of complacent complicity that's easily the film's most unnerving aspect. In the end, though, it all feels slightly undercooked; that final shot needed to be poignant, not just perverse.

The Romance of Astrée and Céladon (Eric Rohmer, France/Italy/Spain): 58

Key moment here, quite early on, occurs when Céladon, unable to convince Astrée that he hasn't betrayed her, solemnly announces "I shall drown myself at once." And off he heads to the river, leaving behind those viewers who can't roll with this film's unabashedly corny romanticism, which extends to the deliberate naïveté of its gorgeously wooden young cast. For better and worse, Rohmer sticks to the text, which ain't exactly Shakespeare (though contemporaneous) but has its own fanciful, archaic charm -- this might be the first movie I've ever seen that could accurately be called "sprightly." Still, film adaptations of Moby Dick don't include Melville's often-excised chapters on the ins and outs of the whaling industry, and here we could likewise have done without e.g. D'Urfé's lengthy, turgid exegesis on the Druids' alleged stealth Christianity, which is basically just a sore-thumb Author's Note. I can't imagine, however, that the novel carries this movie's surprising erotic charge -- the third act, which of course finds Céladon seeking out his beloved in drag, consists almost entirely of young women not noticing or caring that their nightgowns have slipped off one shoulder, exposing a bare breast. It's the innocence that makes the nudity so titillating, and to the extent that this film works, it's via the same basic principle. Any hint of knowingness would have been fatal; I detected none whatsoever.

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, USA): 51

Wes Anderson movies are invariably about family, but he's sharper and less self-indulgent when depicting surrogate families than actual ones -- characters who share chromosomes tend to bring out his maudlin side. It's one semi-forgivable thing to weigh down your sibling protags with a numbered, hand-crafted set of their late father's Baggage...but when your climax consists of an epic slo-mo procession in which they all grandiloquently divest themselves of said Baggage, you're in dire need of a slap upside the head. Familiar touchstones are all here, except the mood is leaden and the whimsy forced, save for the rather charming fling between Jack and "Sweet Lime"; consequently, when the film turns "serious" about two-thirds of the way through, the effect is not so much jarring (as I assume was intended) as dully gratifying: finally, somebody died. (This is also the first time I've found Owen Wilson actively annoying, though that reaction was tempered somewhat by the knowledge of what he's going through at the moment.) What keeps The Darjeeling Limited on the rails, for a while at least, is the Darjeeling Limited: Nothing inspires creativity like (per Lars) obstructions, and it's amusing to watch a director known for his exacting widescreen tableaux attempt to navigate a locomotive's narrow corridors and cramped compartments, all while keeping everything perfectly centered. Once the boys were booted off, I quickly lost interest in their petty squabbling, all of which only made me long to revisit the sublime moment in Life Aquatic when Jeff Goldblum sees that he's being rescued and decisively says "Fold." Not a disaster or anything, but this one deserves the beating Wes mistakenly took last time, complete with exhortations about horizon expansion. And someone with more abundant free time will have to take up the enduring question, obviously magnified in this instance, of whether the various brown folks in Anderson's films might as well all just be named Sirajul or Mujibur.

I Just Didn't Do It (Masayuki Suo, Japan): 39

Damn, this is the longest and least fascinating episode of "Law and Order" ever. Not one to monkey around, Suo establishes the problem with Japan's legal system -- once arrested, you're guilty until proven innocent -- within the first five minutes, then proceeds to spend well over two subsequent hours demonstrating absolutely nothing else. The film has no characters (in the psychological sense), no drama, no subtext, no atmosphere -- nothing at all, really, except for some poor schnook who swears he never grabbed that schoolgirl's ass on the morning train and the umpteen sets of deaf ears he encounters over the course of his laborious journey to trial. (When you get to the first courtroom scene, hunker down -- there are eleven more to follow, handily numbered.) On some level this probably qualifies as Victim Cinema, but I must say I didn't feel those particular hackles arise; had the case itself been suitably complex, or the folks involved in it even marginally compelling, odds are I could have rolled with the didacticism to some degree. But there are only so many mundane iterations of "didn't do it"/"just admit it"/"didn't do it"/"just admit it" that I can take. Suo does pull off a visual coup when the harrassee takes the stand, deftly shooting her testimony through a series of partitions erected in the courtroom to protect her privacy (she's 15) and cutting to her face only at a key juncture. But it's a rare instance of formal intelligence in a movie that's otherwise doggedly and tiresomely rhetorical.