Thursday, October 16, 2008

New York Revisited: The Good Bits of a Great Festival

As you can probably see from this review, I loved me some New York Film Festival (NYFF). I discussed only the truly great films for the published piece since they defined the experience for me. That being said, the NYFF offered other interesting films which didn't quite reach such a high standard.
Here are my thoughts:

I'm Gonna Explode (Voy a Explotar)

Adolescence: an awkward time filled with raging hormones, social pressures, and according to the new Mexican film "I'm Gonna Explode", tumultuous romances. Roman is the depressed son of a local congressman who meets the bored girl Maru in detention. To pull a fast one on their annoying parents, the kids hide out in Ramon's mansion leading everyone to believe they've run away.

At the heart of the film are two fine performances that expose teenage boredom and the pitfalls of blossoming sexuality. The film falters, however, in its attempt to make the story of teenage outcasts more exciting with a ridiculous infusion of Hollywood-style violence. This clashes and takes away from the often startlingly good central actors and the excellent performances they give.

Ashes of Time Redux

What happens when a world-class art house director Wong Kar-wai and a martial arts movie come together? You get "Ashes of Time Redux" which explores questions about memory and love under the pretext of an action film. The overly complex story about dueling assassins and lost loves takes a back seat to the beautifully shot imagery. Peppered throughout the deliberately slow film, are striking sequences that capture the duelists in almost mythic terms. While one character duels against her reflection in the lake, explosions of water follow her every sword thrust. Awesome stuff.

While it has its share of whiz-bang moments, do not go into this movie expecting a visceral thrill ride. "Ashes of Time Redux" is kungfu at its most meditative.

Night and Day (Bam guan nat)

This Korean comedy twists the now clich├ęd culture shock genre by centering on a traveler who cares very little about the new land he finds himself stuck in. Sung-nam flees to Paris in order to escape the authorities in South Korea for smoking marijuana. Most interesting about Sung-nam's adventures are not his interactions with the French but his awkward meetings with fellow countrymen. In the city, he interacts with a broad cross-section of his culture including fundamentalist Christians and, most hilariously, a North Korean. Sung-nam cannot help but see the latter in disbelief as an artifact from some distant, fantastical world.

The director Hong Sang-soo echoes the disengagement of protagonist by capturing Paris' iconic landmarks almost incidentally. As the camera pans there are occasionally catches glimpses of sites like the Orsay museum, but the city is deliberately cast as a backdrop for the hero's meanderings. While "Night and Day" has a lot to admire, the movie feels like a series of vignettes- sometimes interesting even amusing but just as often unremarkable.

Remember when I said that I would only talk about the festival's lesser pictures? Well, that was a bit of lie. There was an excellent movie which knocked my socks off that I didn't get a chance to write about in my full review. Here is below:

A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel)

If you have ever found yourself watching a Wes Anderson movie and thinking "I wish this is darker...much darker," then "A Christmas tale" is right up your alley. Don't let the deceptively light title fool you as the relentlessly somber, visually rich flick explores the many degrees of a family's mutual hate.

Following the discovery that the matriarch (played by Catherine Deneuve) of an eccentric family has cancer, the estranged clan has an impromptu reunion over Christmas. Bucking the trend of these dramas are starkly photographed affairs, the director incorporates many haunting images in the film. Periodically, old black-and-white photos of the once happy characters are intercut into the narrative suggesting that a large part of the damaged people died along time ago.

Though the tensions run high between all of the family, the most dysfunctional pair of the brew is the mother and estranged son (played by Mathieu Amalric). Deneuve and a particularly despicable Amalric have such chemistry that their mutual loathing for each other seems absolute. As repelling as it is perversely exhilarating, "A Christmas Tale" stands an intimate yet epic look at a family in crisis.

Movie theater musings

A festival can be held back at by its choice of movie theaters and here the NYFF is a little lacking. The Walter Reade Theater is excellent. Stadium seating and a screen that’s just the right size for the auditorium. Perfect.

As good as the Walter Reade, the Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center is bad. The setting usually reserved for big premieres like the closing night film. This auditorium can literally fit thousands of people, but it was not constructed as a movie theater. This means that you run the risk of getting partial view seats with a big security rail cutting right across the screen. Oh boy! Even if you're a big spender like myself and are willing to lay down $40 for a seat, you are still not guaranteed an ideal movie going experience. I was so far back from the screen while watching "The Wrestler," I had the impression I was watching a television. Luckily, next year Avery Fisher Hall will no longer be used in the festival. All I can say is good riddance!

Final thoughts

It says a lot about the quality of a festival that it can feature such a mediocre theater and still deserve a wholehearted a recommendation. This is the case for the NYFF this year which truly was a pleasure to attend.

More trailers

Below are some trailers of the some of the other films I watched at the fest. For my thoughts on each, go to my published review here. Leave a comment if you find any English versions of the foreign trailers.



The Class (Entre Les Murs)



Waltz with Bashir

The Wrestler
Two clips from the movie