NYFF: Daily Reviews

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The 49th annual New York Film Festival is in full swing at Lincoln Center and continues through October 16. Here’s where you can find ongoing coverage of the fest from our writers on the scene. Come back often!

Mott the Who? Doc Makes Case for Band You Should Love
By Peter Gerstenzang

As far as most Americans are concerned, Mott The Hoople’s reign as Glam Rock kings was like a meteor shower: radiant, thrilling and very brief. These working class dudes from Hereford, England lit up the landscape in the late ’60s and early ’70s with Little Richard-style rock and roll, a lead singer who brayed like Dylan and a signature song, “All The Young Dudes,” given to them by David Bowie. So: Most rock fans probably remember them as derivative, if they remember them at all.

If, however, you go to the Walter Reade Theatre tonight, you will be disabused of such superficial notions. Chris Hall and Mike Kerry’s documentary, The Ballad Of The Mott The Hoople, will set the record straight about this brilliant, poetic group and make it clear why some fans consider them the best rock and roll band of the early ’70s, and not just another bunch of Mannish boys in makeup.

Although the film, shot digitally, follows the familiar rock-doc pattern (lots of talking heads, then a cut to some concert footage), it more than compensates with wonderful anecdotes, “lost” clips and thrilling time capsule stills. Where else can you see a shot of Dame Bowie (on the cusp of fame) introduce the band he has just resurrected? Or see Clash guitarist, Mick Jones, eyes misting over, as he professes love for these mangy Motts? And for guitar geeks, there’s the lovely black-and-white photo of Mott frontman Ian Hunter playing a gonzo, Maltese Cross-shaped guitar.

One of the real mitzvahs this documentary performs is to restore the name Guy Stevens back to prominence. Pill popper, right head case, ex-con and, oh yeah, the guy who discovered and produced this band, Stevens was “an acquired taste as a producer,” says Hunter, with cheeky understatement. But he’s also lionized as the bloke who “threw chairs against the wall,” when a session needed a boost. A wonderful whack job, who once set a studio on fire to get the right ambience, Stevens is a remnant of those crazy days of rock, when anything went and the record company, reluctantly, footed the bills.

Clash guitarist, Jones, all sincere smiles and disintegrating English teeth, can’t say enough about the band for whom he and other fans, uh, “appropriated” cars, to get to far-off gigs. After a show, says Jones, Mott “would come to the bar and ask about you. They never acted the bigheaded stars. Although they were stars.”

Cinematically-speaking, Ballad gets the job done, but not much more: The band struggles to get known, nearly falls apart, hits it big with “All The Young Dudes,” does the star trip for a while and breaks up. Unlike, say, The Filth And The Fury, the Sex Pistols doc that took all the rules and threw them under a bus, this one breaks no genre barriers.

You see Ballad for the music, and there is plenty of it. “Roll Away The Stone,” “All The Way To Memphis,” “Ballad Of Mott The Hoople”— all ring out loudly throughout the film, to remind us of, or introduce us to, that potent blend of Dylanesque lyricism, Stones-y raunch and a startling sense of mortality that always lurked in Mott’s music, just beneath Hunter’s stray cat yowl.

The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople plays tonight at the New York Film Festival.

Put on Your Glasses: Bodies in Motion in Pina

Pina brought 3D to the New York Film Festival on Thursday—and a respite from somber drama. Wim Wenders’s documentary on the work of famed German modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch (who died in 2009, while collaborating with Wenders) is a glasses-required celebration of bodies in expressive motion.

By not offering any background on Bausch or on the creation and prior productions of her pieces, Wenders’s film—largely comprised of new stagings by Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal ensemble—can occasionally be a context-free patience-tester. Still, as with his Buena Vista Social Club, Wenders exhibits deep respect for the artists he’s documenting, shooting with gliding gracefulness and editing with a deft eye toward heightening (rather than interrupting) momentum and mood.

The camera approaching and retreating from its lithe subjects with profound concentration, the film’s aesthetics are always evocatively attuned to its performances, highlighted by a beautifully cyclical segment of “Café Müller” involving a roundelay of kissing, carrying, falling and embracing. Issues of love, loss, joy, pain and identity permeate Pina’s myriad sequences, which are complemented by occasional archival clips of Bausch herself and brief comments from troupe members (presented over silent shots of their faces) that are unanimously reverential, if less than revealing.

As always, the 3D eventually wears out its welcome, though it affords an increased field of depth that enhances the immersive beauty of Wenders’s portrait of abstract artistry, which—as with performances set on urban street corners and in rivers—posits the emotions of Bausch’s work as part of life’s everyday fabric.

–Nick Schager

Pina screens at the NYFF October 15 and opens in theaters December 21.

Wayward Young Carry On: Martha Marcy and the Dardennes Latest

Wednesday at the 2011 New York Film Festival was all about homeless, wayward souls, as Sean Durkin’s directorial debut Martha Marcy May Marlene and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike focused their rigorous gazes on young people in the throes of inner chaos. Riding into Manhattan on a wave of Sundance and Cannes huzzahs, Durkin’s film attaches itself to damaged Martha (newcomer and sister to the twins Elizabeth Olsen), who flees an upstate New York cult run by John Hawkes’ charismatically scruffy wannabe-Jim Jones for her estranged sister Lucy’s (Sarah Paulson) Pottery Barn-catalog lakeside rental house, where her transition back into “normal” society is complicated by traumatic flashbacks to her prior experiences as “Marcy May” at the commune.

Despite sterling performances by Olsen, Hawkes and Paulson, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tale of psychological fracturing that’s frustratingly upfront and blunt about its characters’ states of mind as well as its critique of both its rural and bourgeoisie milieus. Durkin’s on-the-nose script too often lacks genuine complication, and a post-screening interview with Durkin and Olsen (conducted by the Voice’s own Melissa Anderson) did little to dispel that impression. Queried about his story’s inspiration, Durkin admitted that the idea came from the sudden notion, “Wouldn’t it be cool to make a film about a cult that’s set today?” while Olsen’s enthusiasm for the project stemmed largely from the (highly debatable) fact that “It was exciting for a character to grow and change so much in a story.” Pressed by audience members about his not-so-subtle censure of Lucy’s upper-middle-class lifestyle, Durkin claimed impartiality, stating that the narrative’s comparisons of its two environments “came from nothing other than being true to the characters”—a skirting of the issue almost as frustrating as the film’s unspoken but ever-present message: Can’t live with a cult, can’t live without it.

Whereas Durkin’s debut felt mechanized, the Dardennes’ subtly spiritual humanism continues to find new, natural modes of expression. Another of the Belgian auteurs’ compassionate examinations of downtrodden loners attempting to subsist (and find salvation) on society’s fringes, The Kid with a Bike fixates on Cyril (a stunningly intense Thomas Doret), an 11-year-old abandoned at a foster home by a father (Jérémie Renier) who, upon finally being tracked down by his ferociously devoted and persistent son, admits to not wanting anything to do with the boy. A random doctor’s-office encounter with an angelically benevolent hairdresser (Cécile De France) affords Cyril a fortuitous second chance at childhood. However, that process of restoring, if not innocence, then at least safety and affection, is an arduous one that involves the repeated theft of his titular vehicle and a dubious surrogate paternal figure,

The directors, in a Q&A, called their latest “maybe the closest [of our films] to a fairy tale, because the characters are the simplest.” Perhaps simplest, but not simple. From an opening scene in which he doggedly clutches to a phone receiver, refusing to believe that his dad’s cell is out of service, to a later violent heist, Cyril proves a heartbreaking figure of raw adolescent agony trapped in a state of constant motion, driven by his anger and confusion to ride, flail, stab, bludgeon and embrace with blind confusion. The Dardennes track Cyril with their usual formally disciplined handheld cinematography, creating not just intimate proximity to their subject but a piercing sense of unbridled anguish in desperate search of direction.

Despite a soulful performance by De France, Samantha’s sudden, bottomless altruism remains a somewhat unbelievable hiccup in the otherwise credible tale, which (for only the second time, after 2008’s Lorna’s Silence) finds the Dardennes interjecting periodic cascades of orchestral music into their unaffected action, a device that, per the directors’ succinct and precise explanation, “brings what is in fact missing for Cyril: Love.”

–Nick Schager

Highbrow Bump and Grind with Frederick Wiseman

The New York Film Festival may still not have put Frederick Wiseman in the main slate, but his movie-length residency at French nu chic club Le Crazy Horse put the joys of les fesses for all to see on Monday night. If we go by Wiseman’s closed-door chronicle of the dances, rehearsals, meetings, press interviews, maintenance, and time-killing at the 50-year-old establishment, a large amount of thought goes into the optimum elegant-erotic deployment of women’s buttocks, with all due consideration as well to the shareholders’ bottomline. The dissection of routines in which tasteful grinds can approach curvilinear abstraction in close-up make Crazy Horse a culture-bridging counterpart to Wiseman’s arthouse hit from last year, La Danse. (Wiseman makes the connection explicit with a priceless scene of dancers watching a Russian ballet blooper video.) But it’s also reminiscent of Model (1980) and to an extent Seraphita’s Diary (1980) in its surreal touch and color, with framing and tableau impressing more than the sometimes-constrained movement.
The numbers—which seek to transfigure leggy, lithe dancers into caged spotted panthers, horsehair-tasseled beefeaters, and the like—are shown being revamped and replaced by frustrated artiste Philippe Decouflé, who comically tolerates his artistic director. The sequences of dance and bodies being assembled and positioned could approach a slowed-down silent-film fever dream, were it not for the cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic.” It might be nice to hear further from the classically trained dancers—a snapshot of a pudgy kid on a vanity mirror makes us wish the performers were interviewed more than the directors, or the admittedly amusing costumer. Capping it all is a performance of the freshly recorded house song, “Les Filles du Crazy,” which gives hilariously on-point tribute to these “soldiers of the erotic.”

–Nicolas Rapold
Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses

Rife with rarities from almost every era, The New York Film Festival’s expansive celebration of Nikkatsu, the 100-year-old Japanese film studio, kicked off on Saturday with 1968’s Retaliation—a tough-hearted chronicle of underworld turf wars that zeroes in on the treacherous overlap between gangsters and civilians. Screening in a very fine ’scope print, the bravura action sequences included a bathroom massacre and a flashlight-lit home invasion that spills from room to room, balanced by the nitty gritty details of crooked real estate dealing and bemused farmer reaction shots. Presiding on stage afterwards—and in equally fine form—was Joe Shishido, the 77-year-old Nikkatsu contract player and Seijun Suzuki heavy, who headlined Retaliation with Akira Kobayashi as his nemesis turned admirer. Shishido-san recounted his favored answers about getting his start in movies (as a fetus in his mother’s belly, when she went to toilet-less cinemas that stank of shit) and his childhood exploits (wearing so many swords on his belt that his innards hurt).

Before long, the notoriously cheek-augmented star of home-country hit Fast-Draw Guy was answering a question by getting up and feigning a shootout—ending sprawled out on the stage. As for the film’s sword, dagger, and gunfights, he claimed a minimum of takes (“I don’t like to practice”) and poked fun at his monumental co-star’s “too high” singing voice. The audience, fronted by a contingent of Japanese press, seemed suitably impressed. A man in camouflage, after loudly saluting Shishido-san, buttonholed me on the way out: “Very good, eh? He should be prime minister!”

NYFF’s 37-film Nikkatsu tribute, “Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses,” continues through Oct. 16.

–Nicolas Rapold

Golden anniversary approaching, the New York Film Festival maintains a singular position. Because it’s curated rather than competitive, the annual Lincoln Center bash is a yearly bulletin on the state of world film culture—heavy on festival winners and critical favorites. The NYFF programmers order à la carte from abroad and bring it back home, garnished with a few crowd-pleasing treats for its board and the local media.

The quality varies from year to year, but the 2011 edition is solid. Building on a strong Cannes, which premiered 11 of the NYFF’s 27 Main Slate selections, the festival’s selection committee (Richard Peña, Scott Foundas, Dennis Lim, Todd McCarthy, and Voice critic Melissa Anderson) has created a mix of the hyped and the obscure, the familiar and the new, the tough and the tender, a soupçon of fluff and no less than three movies (Abel Ferrara’s 4:44: Last Day on Earth, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse) visualizing the end of the world.

Although impossible to equal the news value of last year’s opening night, the world premiere of The Social Network, this NYFF has a number of star-enriched, commercially viable, name-brand tent poles. Roman Polanski’s Carnage (adapted from Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning God of Carnage) kicks off the fest Friday night with the director’s first NYFF inclusion, if not appearance, since Knife in the Water, 47 festivals ago. Michelle Williams’s Monroe turn, My Week With Marilyn, the first feature by British TV director Simon Curtis and a world premiere, is the designated centerpiece, while Alexander Payne’s George Clooney vehicle, The Descendants, closes the festival October 16.

Two more movies are flagged as galas: The Skin I Live In by Pedro Almodóvar, whose biannual presence at Lincoln Center is pretty much a given, and, from a director who has never been so honored, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method—a deeply fascinating Freudian love story for the Jung at heart. It’s also—along with the doomsday trio, Gerardo Naranjo’s terrific Miss Bala, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s magisterial Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—one of the festival’s standout standouts.

Nothing this year from East Asia (a retro for the Japanese B-movie factory Nikkatsu aside), but there are two excellent entries each from Israel (The Footnote by Joseph Cedar and Policeman by Nadav Lapid) and Iran (This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and A Separation by Asghar Farhadi). The two Israeli films evoke the nation’s fierce insularity from very different perspectives while, each in its way, the Iranian films are legal thrillers.

Bean-counters will further note the Main Slate is evenly split between vets and rookies. Polanski aside, the 13 returnees include Almodóvar, Ceylan, the Dardenne brothers (back to neo-neorealist form with The Kid With a Bike), Ferrara, Aki Kaurismäki (the mordant heart-warmer Le Havre), Steve McQueen (the much-hyped Shame), Naranjo, Panahi, Payne, Martin Scorsese (with a documentary portrait of George Harrison), Tarr, von Trier, and Wim Wenders (the Main Slate’s other doc and first 3-D picture, Pina). (Majorly snubbed: Aleksandr Sokurov, whose typically eccentric version of Faust won the Golden Lion in Venice.) Along with Cronenberg are a dozen first-timers: Cedar, Curtis, Sean Durkin (making his debut by evoking the Manson family in Martha Marcy May Marlene), Farhadi, Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist, likely the NYFF’s biggest crowd-pleaser), Ulrich Köhle (Sleeping Sickness), Lapid, Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet), Santiago Mitre (The Student), Ruben Östlund (Play), and Alice Rohrwacher (Corpo Celeste, a/k/a Heavenly Body, a slyly understated verité-style comedy in which a 13-year-old girl confounds the Catholic Church).

What to see. Twenty-one of the Main Slate films already have distribution, and nine of these—The Artist, Carnage, A Dangerous Method, The Descendants, Le Havre, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia, Pina, and A Separation—are scheduled to open in New York before year’s end. (Shame is likely to join them, if only for an Oscar-qualifying run, and George Harrison: Living in the Material World will be telecast on HBO the day after its festival screening.) Here, then, in alphabetical order, are five to line up for. Two still lack passports as of this writing; the other three are gutsy festival films for which the cognoscenti (you know who you are) won’t want to wait.

The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s follow-up to her brilliant exercise in terror, Day Night Day Night, is an equally unsettling experiential experiment in directing the audience. Led by a native guide, a frisky pair of backpackers—sensationally embodied by Gael García Bernal and Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg—venture into the ruggedly beautiful Caucasian outback. It might also be the land of allegory. Like Day Night Day Night, which tracked 24 hours in the life of a would-be suicide bomber, The Loneliest Planet has a two-part structure, the hinge being an enigmatic threat and an all-too-human response. No distributor, showing October 1 and 4.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Turkey’s finest filmmaker, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, has made his finest movie to date. Ceylan seems to have taken a long, profitable look at two recent Romanian movies—Aurora and Police, Adjective—before making this bravura meditation on the inscrutable cosmos. Runner-up to The Tree of Life at Cannes, Once Upon a Time’s bleakly comic, superbly crafted, highly rigorous epistemological treatment of a police investigation conducted in the dark emptiness of the Anatolian night confirms its maker’s international status. The movie runs 157 minutes and is showing but once, October 8.


Nadav Lapid’s first feature, a multiple award winner at last July’s Jerusalem Film Festival, is an eccentric corollary in ultra-insularity to The Footnote (the most Jewish father-son drama since The Jazz Singer), presenting an Israel that is even more balkanized. Two violent, violently self-absorbed tribal groups—one a highly disciplined elite police unit, the other an anarchic band of left-wing Jewish terrorists—find each other at a billionaire’s wedding in contemporary Tel Aviv. It’s ultra-macho muscle Jews versus fanatical neo-narodniks. No distributor, showing October 15 and 16.

This Is Not A Film

Made under house arrest and smuggled out of Iran in a loaf of bread, banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s home-movie essay (put together with the help of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and, in some sequences, a cell phone) is an act of political bravery as precisely tuned as it is affectingly modest. Prevented from making films, Panahi thinks them through. One screening, October 13.

The Turin Horse

Béla Tarr might have been musing over This Is Not a Film when he characterized his latest and, according to him, his last feature (co-credited to his longtime editor Ágnes Hranitzky) as “something more than a movie . . . or maybe less.” The Turin Horse devotes 146 minutes to a week’s worth of an elderly father and his grown daughter’s mind-numbing daily routine—a morning shot of pálinka, an evening potato—as an apocalyptic wind blows away the world outside their cabin. A death-haunted masterpiece of sensory underload, with a surging hypnotic score, The Turin Horse is Tarr’s most fully achieved, challenging movie since his 1994 epic, Sátántangó. One screening, October 9.

–J. Hoberman