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NYFF57 Part Two: Big, Bold, Brave Cinema that Speak to our Times

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Oct 15, 2019

The story of the New York Film Festival 57 may very well end up being the unique and diverse stories being told in bold, imaginative and divisive ways, each commenting on our currently divided culture.

After seeing 19 films at this year's Fest (the first 12 covered in my preview piece), I am struck by how most of the selections are big, provocative, and highly cinematic works that almost demand to be seen on the big screen.

From Scorsese's super-colossal masterwork "The Irishman," which takes a very different, less glamorous, approach when it comes to depicting the life of a mobster, to Bong Joon Ho's enthralling "Parasite," a searing social commentary on an ever-growing class divide, this year's slate, in general, speaks to a world approaching chaos.

Weren't technological advances and social media supposed to bring us together?

Speaking to that, Scorsese recently made headlines for his alleged attack on superhero films, which begat quick condemnation. A lot of this was due to the click-bait media headlining that Scorsese said Marvel films were "not cinema."

Alas, there was more to his statement, but many did not bother to read past the headlines. Scorsese went on to explain, "It isn't the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being." And you can disagree with that, but it's the opinion of a man who came of age when the artist's vision mattered before the blockbuster took over and box office became about little boys.

The bottom line is that this his opinion is valid. And the ageist vitriol that's been leveled against one of our finest filmmakers for merely expressing an opinion proves that the division in our country is mega-splintered within the liberal hive itself (and probably the conservative, but they seem better at rallying together). We are reaching a point where there seems to be a refusal to even listen to one another anymore.


"Marriage Story"

And that relates directly to one of the most affecting films at this year's festival, Noah Baumbach's astounding, "Marriage Story," about an irreparable disconnect between a celebrated theater director and his famous actor-wife.

Three quarters into the 136-minute feature, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johannson) finally confront one another about all the muck that's taken place on the road to divorce. In many ways, the viewer has been awaiting this moment with anticipation and dread. And it proves to be a lengthy, intense, nasty, and vindictive confrontation. But Charlie and Nicole aren't quite arguing with one another as much as yelling things at one another, never bothering to hear the other (or even wanting to hear the other) and respond in kind. It's a perfectly awful testament to where we are as a culture.

Baumbach and his brilliant cast deeply probe and dissect a marriage in tatters to find that things might not have been so rosy to begin with. It's a painfully honest and uncomfortably bittersweet film that deliberately invokes Ingmar Bergman's seminal "Scenes From a Marriage," adding a heaping dose of comedy to the proceedings (And, for the record, it's so much better than the overrated "Kramer vs. Kramer," a film that was ridiculously one-sided and overly melodramatic).

Driver and Johansson create a layered, textured relationship that pulsates with true adoration and deep resentment. He's arrogant, demanding, and controlling. She's devious and vacillating. Both are manipulative in different ways. Both actors do the best work of their careers, and have help from an amazing supporting cast, which is led by the magnificent Laura Dern and features great turns by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, and Merrit Weaver.

The film captures a palpable love gone awry with a young boy caught in the crossfire. It's a telling, emotionally devastating, yet somehow cathartic work.


"Beanpole"

Kantemir Balagov's "Beanpole" takes place in post-WW2 Leningrad, and chronicles the lives of two desperate and damaged women, Iya and Masha (extraordinary newcomers Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina). The two are ravaged by war, trying to hold onto whatever they can to survive.

Iya is a nurse working with traumatized soldiers. She herself suffers from a type of PTSD where she becomes immobilized, in an almost trance-like state. Masha is the BFF she met in battle. The two are bonded, and not just by the war. When a startling tragedy strikes, they are forever connected.

Balagov has meticulously crafted a beguiling portrait of damaged and despairing war survivors (reminiscent of Mazursky's "Enemies: A Love Story"). The film is bleak, yet oddly uplifting, and it presents a story we don't often see: The human cost of Russia's hand in beating the Nazis, told via two strong female characters.


"Wasp Network"

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has made a string of terrific films these last ten years, including "Carlos," "Clouds of Sils Maria," "Non-Fiction," and one WTF? ("Personal Shopper"). His latest lands in between.

Sprawling, sometimes muddled, often confusing, always gripping, "Wasp Network" takes us on a non-linear epic journey chronicling the "Cuban Five," who were part of a spy network in the 1990s, set up in the U.S., to infiltrate anti-Castro groups and stop more terror attacks in Cuba. At the center is Cuban pilot René González (a dynamic Édgar Ramírez), who leaves his wife (Penélope Cruz) and daughter to defect to the States.

The film begins excitingly but, midway through, seemingly important story threads are dropped and others feel tacked on. One gets the feeling Assayas had a great miniseries on his hands but was forced to trim it down to a feature-length running time. Assayas shows great sympathy for the Cubans, something we don't see very often in films. And the U.S. government doesn't emerge with much dignity. The film is a valiant, if muted, effort at telling a different side of an oft-told story.


"The Traitor"

At the third New York Film Festival, Italian maverick Marco Bellocchio catapulted onto the cinema scene with his daring film "Fists in the Pocket" ("I pugni in tasca"), which depicted youth in torment and seemed to capture a culture trapped in a state of dissatisfaction, ready to explode. At the age of 80, Bellocchio is still compelling audiences to take a good look at themselves and challenge long-held, culturally-inbred ideas about blind loyalty, trust, honor and community.

In "The Traitor" ("Il traditore"), an exceptionally exciting piece of cinema that often feels like a homicidal theme park ride, Bellocchio tells the true story of mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino, in a towering performance) and how, in the '80s and '90s, he turned the tables on a slew of his Cosa Nostra family after they engaged in a murder rampage that is unparalleled in the history of the mob. But this is no glorification of organized crime - quite the opposite, as the usual notion that the mob exists to "protect poor people" is debunked. (We watch their ravenous need to gain more power and wealth by pushing heroin.) Paranoia hits a high with one of the most notorious Mafioso, Toto Riina, deciding all bloodlines of his rivals must die, including women and children (this is some serious Herod shit).

Bellocchio expertly depicts the insane circus-like courtroom scenes where the judge often appears lost and befuddled and the onlookers and defendants run roughshod over those in charge. The auteur isn't afraid to portray a good portion of the Sicilian people as misguided sheep rallying around a bunch of crooks that have pulled one over on them. And if that doesn't speak to today...


"Motherless Brooklyn"

Adapting "Motherless Brooklyn" for the screen, Edward Norton takes Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel and gives it a period re-adjustment (the late '50s NYC) and a huge dash of Trump-era allusion, resulting in a pointed, moody, meandering work that is entertaining and biting.

Norton plays the titular protagonist, a P.I with tics and twitches (basically, Tourette's) who is on the prowl to discover why his beloved boss (Bruce Willis) was iced. Along the way he uncovers rampant political corruption and power grabs. He is aided or deterred by a collection of colorful characters played by Bobby Cannavale, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (awesome), Michael K. Williams, Willem Dafoe (wonderfully rambling), and Alec Baldwin, who has an 11th-hour monologue that is startling and pungent. "You can do whatever you want, and no one can stop you."

Baldwin is playing a megalomaniacal, Trump-like (or is that redundant?) political figure, but the twist here is he's one with smarts. Does that make him even more dangerous? Are we underestimating Trump's intelligence?

Norton borrows from the best to give us a ravishing, jazz-infused work that meshes different variations of Noir and evokes some of the best neo-Noir ("Chinatown" springs to mind) with a touch of Innaritu's "Birdman" thrown in. But at the film's core is Norton's "Brooklyn," who is trying to stop the bad guys, save the girl, and stay alive. Basically, he's doing what was once thought of as "the right thing."


Two Special Event Screenings:

"The Cotton Club Encore"


Francis Ford Coppola is a genius at taking a look back at his brilliant but flawed past films and recutting/restoring them (usually with added footage) to tell a better story. (Let's hope he does so with "Godfather III" one day). "Apocalypse Now," in both the "Redux" and recent "Final Cut" versions, offers a more intricate and astonishing vision than the rushed original. And now with "The Cotton Club Encore," he's turned an ambitious mess into a minor masterpiece.

Back in 1984, Coppola was going through an experimental phase (that continues to this day) and, in an effort to please certain producers, he cut some dance scenes and amputated most of the significant narrative involving African-American characters from this film, thus focusing mostly on the Richard Gere/Diane Lane romance (still the weakest aspect of the film because it is so underdeveloped and Lane was, to be kind, a bit green). In doing so, he cut the heart from the film. This "reawakened" version the film bedazzles and captivates, thanks to the immensely underrated Lonette McKee and exuberant Gregory Hines, as well as some amazing jazz and tap numbers - and also, thanks to Gere's sexy and alluring performance.

Back in the late '20s and early '30s, the Cotton Club was a place where only white audience members were allowed in to see black performers at their best, adding to an art form they created. It is a real and upside-down example of the maddening race relations in our country then, making this Encore edition, sadly, just as resonant today as it was 35 years ago.


"Joker"

What can be written about Todd Phillips' "Joker" that hasn't already been blogged to smithereens? Since its bow at the Venice Film Festival on August 31st, and after it received the Golden Lion Award, the hive has continued to weigh in. Now that the film has opened, social media is in a frenzy. Some are hailing it as a worthy addition to the pantheon, while others are publishing poison-penned, mean spirited takedowns.

I found the film to be a very disturbing, uncomfortable sit, but a rather transcendent one. Sure it owes a lot to Scorsese ("Taxi Driver," "King of Comedy"), but it also owes a lot to "Conquest for the Planet of the Apes." And it was a delight to have a comic book movie not rely on CGI. "Joker" is a gritty, repetitious, and shockingly bare story about a mentally ill man (Joaquin Phoenix, in an immersive performance that is that good) searching for love and acceptance, even as he is continuously savaged by society. As his bitter reality begins to blend with his hopeful fantasy world, he falls deeper into madness.

The film is a call for empathy and a searing commentary on how the masses are often misguided in knowing where to put their faith when they feel beaten and battered - and how they react when they feel cast aside and disenfranchised. It's our reality right now.


Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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