Posts Tagged ‘directors’

Apollo’s Girl

February 28, 2016


apollo and lyre



Friends From Abroad

As a non-member of the Academy, never have I been more grateful for not having to vote than for this year’s flag-bearer from somewhere else; no category breaks more hearts than the Best Foreign Language Film. Backstage politics and deals aside, each entry has already been a winner at home, selected from strong contenders, to represent the biggest talents its country can muster. So, by the time it’s been shortlisted in Hollywood, it’s notas with so many domestic finalists—so much about who did what to whom, or who owes a favor to old friends. It’s safe to say that 2016 has shortlisted an array of foreign talents from first-timers to veterans strong enough to paralyze any attempt to raise one’s hand. And if you are drawn to character-driven films, this is the category in which to find directors, writers and actors united in a single purpose: to create characters (and lives) which remain lodged in memory for decades.

son of saulOf course there is
Son of Saul, a kind of King of Kings, already crowned with Cannes’ Grand Prix. It is 
harrowing, disturbing, painful to watch. It is also a work of genius. For one who has seen countless Holocaust films, it rises above even the best of them for its sheer intensity. During a press conference at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, director László Nemes and actor Géza Rӧhrig recounted their five-year odyssey of writing, rewriting, replanning and fundraising made even more difficult by the fact that Nemes had not made a feature-length film (let alone one on such a difficult subject) before; that his co-writer (Clara Royer) was a full-time academic at the Sorbonne; and that Rӧhrig (who described himself as a professional—“a professional poet”) had previously appeared only in two episodes of a Hungarian mini-series. That press conference was enthralling, and unforgettable for the breadth and depth of its discourse, as well as for the civilized wit summoned by it subjects as they answered Gavin Smith’s questions. press conference

embrace of serpentNo less intelligent, but in an entirely different style and intent, Embrace of the Serpent (director/writer Ciro Guerra) is an original and thrilling marriage of reality and fantasy played out in two 20th-century time frames, magic realism based on the accounts of two European explorers who pierced the Amazon forests, contemplated the natives who had survived brutal exploitation, and did their best to understand both the ecological and spiritual cultures so at odds with their own. The film is hypnotic, full of mystery, and mostly in black and white, which seems to enhance its purpose.

mustang_poster_285The sheer energy and courage of the five young women in Mustang capture your heart and your sympathy from the opening scenes at a beach frolic to the arc of their destinies as their family tries to marry them off and control them in the interim. The progressive constraint takes its toll, yet the two youngest and fiercest of the sisters are able to escape bleak lives and create a future with a truly dazzling and intrepid escape. A first-time feature directed and co-written by a woman (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, with co-writer Alice Winocour), Mustang is a soaring tribute to what is possible for those who are determined enough to take chances. The traditions here are definitely worth pushing against.

a warA War: yes, a man’s film that speaks to women as well, by director/writer Tobias Lindholm, whose style is defined by a pared-down aesthetic without one ounce of fat; it’s all about the story and the characters who tell it. Starring Pilou Asbaek as a Danish soldier in Afghanistan, it is a riveting, intense up-to-the-minute account of an unwinnable war, responsibility, and the effect of trauma and confusion on the soldiers and their families; the consequences do not fade with time and distance. Lindholm has many films to his credit, notably A Hijacking and screenplay credit for The Hunt, and seems to have been born to prove that less is always more.



No matter which contender walks off with the prize tonight, all five films offer a command of filmmaking as art and craft. They remain required viewing for everyone who cares about the medium and for what it can accomplish with imagination, inspiration, commitment, and (to use an overused word) vision strong enough to stay the course

Go forth and see them!

Apollos Girl

October 30, 2013

Film, Lots of It



One Fearless Prediction, One Festival
Coming Up…


Before getting into the recent New York Film Festival at 51, I have an urgent bulletin: the Film Society of Lincoln Center is doing all of us an enormous favor by presenting a week of Harold Pinter’s Comedies of Menace and Quiet Desperation. Made over a three-decade period of creative fever, Pinter’s pinter3-460_1212041c films are in a category by themselves. Not only menacing and quietly desperate, but (although often funny) also heartbreaking. They have remained in memory all these years, waiting to be revisited, or shared with friends who weren’t lucky enough to see them when they were new.

These ten classics, reflecting an infinite landscape of imagination, are still fresh, powerful, and guaranteed to knock your socks off. If you’re smart, you’ll get tickets to all of them (with discounts for three or more). For most, there are multiple screenings, from November 22 – 28. Just go to ; you will be stunned by the Who’s Who of directors and casts and realize you’re getting a bargain. And yes, you may thank me afterward.

And, while you’re there, check out FSLC’s Next Big Thing: Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, November 30 – December 3. It showcases Bucharest’s best and brightest, notably Corneliu Porumboiu, who will present When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism for the closing night. But he’s also the subject of a retrospective featuring police adjective(my favorite!) Police, Adjectiveseen twice, with pleasure – now it’s your turn. Be sure to take it. 

And now…

captain phillipsBecause this year’s NYFF marked a transition from Richard Peña’s 25-year reign as artistic director (more foreign films), to Kent Jones and a new direction (more domestic), there was a distinctly different vibe for its opening night, centerpiece, and closing night selections. (Captain Phillips; Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Her). All secret-life-of-walter-mitty-posterthree were impressive, but Spike Jonze’s Her retained a whiff of the European hersensibility for which the NYFF was once famous. And, with three cinemathèques to fill with more screenings, sidebars, and conferences in addition to the main slate at Walter Reade, it was a non-stop binge for cinephiles. No matter; there were plenty of serious contenders from abroad, including 12 Years a Slave (a UK/USA production), now in wide release, surely barreling toward a multi-Oscar sweep. 

Slave is not the first film to deal with the subject, but is surely the most devastating. Credit Steve McQueen’s direction, meticulous and passionate, and a brilliant cast speaking, for once, credible 19th-century American English. 12 yearsNothing is held back, and the emotional impact of every scene, hard to bear, doesn’t let up for a second. Because the cast makes the characters indelible, they don’t disappear at the end of the film. For a fascinating account of what happened then, see

Of course, these recommendations are entirely personal, and perhaps idiosyncratic. But the major releases have had, and will get, tremendous publicity; others, less mainstream, may not. So that’s where this post is heading: First, Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun (Dir: Nancy Buirski); it will turn up later this season on PBS’American Masters. Le Clercq le clercq2cast, and still casts (in this film), a spell. Even in many archival excerpts in grainy black-and-white kinescope, her singular, angular grace and unconventional beauty are an odd parallel to Audrey Hepburn en pointe, forevershadowed by the cruelest of fates. Just before leaving on a tour with the New York City Ballet in 1956, Le Clercq refused to get a polio shot and got, instead, the disease itself, becoming paralyzed for the rest of her life. It was tragedy on a Greek scale foreven though her then-husband (GeorgeBalanchine himself), family, friends and colleagues surrounded and supported hershe was unable to dance, or even walk, afterwards. Grainy kinescopes or even still photographs notwithstanding, we will not see her like again. See this in a theater or on your home screen to   capture briefly, her real, enduring magic.

What Now? Remind Me…(Dir: Joaquim Pinto)

In describing his own film as “…the notebook of a year of clinical what nowstudies with toxic, mind-altering drugs as yet unapproved,” Pinto does not do himself any favors. But then, this rara avis with extraordinary sensibilities and a profoundly generous heart has chosen to share both with everyone who sees the film. Pinto and his life partner (Nuno Leonel) are Portuguese, in Spain not only for the clinical studies but to return to and farm the land, explore the local caves (full of prehistoric artifacts), visit antiquarian archives, listen to every kind of music, cook, connect, and keep a record of their time together. Every minute of it is precious, and intensely lived. 

what now2Pinto has had a long career as a sound recordist for great directors, and has made (with Leonel) many films of his own. Sound is important to him; its use, along with his choice of music and visual effects enhance the film; the sensual rhythm of the editing and cinematography will have you rushing to pack and catch the next plane to Iberia. Despite his physical discomfort (and his occasional inability to deal with it bravely), Pinto is someone you’d love to know: reflective, raucous, lyrical, wickedly funny. You will meet him and Leonel, their four rescue dogs and their friends, and come away wanting more. His has been a life well-lived to the hilt, savored, and offered as a gift . You will have to look for ways to find What Now? Keep trying!

 Burning Bush (Dir: Agnieszka Holland)

If you don’t have HBO, get a subscription before Burning Bush is broadcast. The only catch: for now, it has to be HBO Europe…
burning bushBut, also for now, you can at least see a five-minute trailer that might inspire you to bombard HBO with emails suggesting a westward Atlantic passage for this gorgeous mini-series (originally the Czech nominee for Best Foreign Film, later disqualiied because it appeared on TV before its theatrical release). It’s top-of-the-line filmmaking from a director known for atmosphere, probing character studies, and seamless blending of
sound and image, who was studying in Prague in 1968 when the events took place.

Nominally a true story about a young Czech’s self-immolation in protest of the Soviet occupation of his country, it begins as authorities investigate his death, determined to prevent other protesters from following in his footsteps. Gradually, as the investigation broadens, the film becomes a mirror of the forces working at cross-purposes behind the scenes, following activists, heroic jurists, the secret police, and government officials as they ensnare and oppose one another over a period of twenty years. It’s a twisty, enthralling tale, with the darkness hollandof the 60s and 70s giving way, color by color, to the the light of the post-Glasnost conclusion.
There is nothing, by now, that Holland doesn’t know about how to balance action, issues, and emotion. The script (by
Štĕpán Hulík) is a marvel of complexity made crystal clear, perfectly enhanced by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz’ subtle music. This is a haunting, yet fast-paced thriller that digs deeply into the bleak realpolitik of postwar Eastern Europe without dropping a stitch. The press screening of the entire series (in one gulp) lasted almost four hours. No one talked, no one texted; we were pinned to our seats the entire time.  How can you see it? Do something! 

Jehane-Noujaim480-w_-cameraThe Square (Dir: Jehane Noujaim) Currently at the Film Forum.
Noujaim has received many awards for her films, often for their penetrating views of difficult subjects. But the one award
she hasn’t received (because it doesn’t exist yet) is for absolute fearlessness. The Square is a film in progress, i.e. it was begun in 2011 and shot continuously, updated as events prevented any conclusion to the story of Egypt’s revolutions, deposed rulers, and political future.the squareIt’s all there: the factions, the economic woes, the uncertainty as to who, and what group, will prevail.  She and her crew think nothing of wading into huge demonstrations that crackle with danger, often turning violent in an instant. Her six protagonists include members of the Muslim Brotherhood,  and many Muslims determined to support democracy and prevent an extremist Islamic state. Their opinions evolve over time, but quickly. Noujaim’s fluent Arabic and encyclopedic knowledge of these complicated and volatile issues make The Square an essential primer to the as-yet unfinished narrative, and to the future of the Middle East.

inside llewyn daviesInexplicably absent from NYFF’s three featured slots, the
Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was definitely a Festival favorite. Yes, tongue-in-cheek (one of many selections in that category, which wears well over time), and right on the money, but always affectionate. Oscar Isaac’s mournful folksinger is a brilliant turn, matched by John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands (of Kinky Boots fame), Carey Mulligan and (I think) several marmalade cats playing one on whom the plot depends. (Could (s)he be 2014’s Uggie?) And, of course, assorted characters  you could encounter in those days at any coffee house or dinner party.  

Like most of the Coen brothers’ films, there is a gentle, persistent rhythm,
an inspiredcoens conspiracy of image, sound, and music that starts with the first scene and lasts til the last, and you are part of its deliciousness. And for those who’ll get them: a few memorable Early Music jokes that really hit home. Opening in December nationwide. If you want to see a movie that you’ll walk out of smiling (and who doesn’t love to smile?), make room for
Inside Llewen Davis. It will do the job.

only loversThen there was the Festival’s polished shot at the current vampire epidemic, Only Lovers Left Alive. Like Inside Llewen Davis and Spike Jonzs’ Her, Only Lovers keeps its tongue (and its fangs) firmly in its cheeks. It’s a paradigm of controlled perfection from Jim Jarmusch, with Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt, and Mia Wasikowska not so much playing their elegant roles as timelessly  inhabiting them, offering us a dark and original view of history among the undead. What makes it go every minute is the celestial pitch-perfect tone sung by everyone involved, all crowding on to the same page at the same time, never straying from it. Like a kind of deadpan chamber music made visible. Huge plus: it’s also literate. Be grateful! 

Finally, there’s…..Her (Dir: Spike Jonze)Very much today, but even more tomorrow, it’s Artifical Intelligence evolving faster than a flu virus. Voiced by Scarlett Johannson, its easy to think of Her scarlet(Samantha) as a lot more than an operating system that can improve and co-opt your so-called life before you can say R2D2. In the same class as Inside Llewen Davis and Only Lovers, Her is a deadpan (though a bit mournful) pushback to the mediated lifestyle, defined by electronic hard-and-jonzesoftware, that has become today’s normal, tomorrow’s necessity. Jonze has his hands firmly, but delicately, on the reins all the time. You’ll have to wait until January to see (and hear) Her, but in the meantime you can have all the quirky fantasies you want to decide what you’d do in Joaquin Phoenix’s place. 

So having stepped up to the plate to identify some of the NYFF contenders (I did pretty well last year), and trying to describe the kind of shift in focus that they represent, let’s say that the emphasis on European and/or foreign films that was once NYFF’s hallmarkat least for its three top slots—has been changed to feature American product.  

Though all three examples were well-chosen, there is something else on the horizon: three films that are also all-American, masterpieces of deadpan art and craft (from the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Jonze).  Each relies on tone, texture, and the delicate tongue-in-cheek understatement that satisfies and delights, while bearing the unique stamp of its particular filmmaker.  A new category, perhaps? Watch this space to see what happens…

%d bloggers like this: