New York Film Festival 2011 (all films screened at Walter Reade Theater unless otherwise noted):
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011, Alex Stapleton)
★ The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne)
I wrote about the enjoyable if skin-deep Roger Corman documentary Corman's World in my last House Next Door New York Film Festival review here.
The festival ended last night with Alexander Payne's latest film as its closing-night selection...and it turned out to be a pretty good selection. Those who are worried that Payne indulges in his usual penchant for caricature and condescension can rest assured that, in The Descendants, he largely abandons it here...and even when the film threatens to slip into such tendencies with certain supporting characters (Alexandra's dim boyfriend Sid, the philandering real-estate agent), Payne manages to include scenes or moments that humanize even those relatively minor players. What emerges is an often moving portrait of a workaholic father (George Clooney) living in Hawaii who, when faced with the prospect of having to shut off the life-support system of his comatose wife, is forced to not only grow as a father, but also face familial skeletons in the closet that he had long suppressed. Even more so than his last two features, About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), The Descendants proves that Payne is capable of something approaching genuine human drama, not just the wicked satire of Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999).
And now, thanks to the Toronto and New York film festivals, I think I'm all "film-festivalled" out for the time being!
★ Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan), screened at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York
I agreed to write up something about this film for the film- and music-review site In Review Online, so I'll have a chance to flesh out my thoughts on this film later.
For now...well, here is the last line of legendary film critic Pauline Kael's review of Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder back in 1975: "I don't know when I've been so moved by a picture that I knew was riddled with flaws. It must be that [Satyajit] Ray's vision comes out of so much hurt and guilt and love that the feeling pours over all the cracks in Distant Thunder and seals them up." That's exactly what I would say about Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan's wildly ambitious follow-up to his 2000 chamber drama You Can Count On Me. It's far from perfect—some of its editing rhythms are oddly disjointed, for one thing, especially in its last hour—but it's so intelligent, impassioned and deeply felt in its exploration of one adolescent's response to death and guilt that its flaws, such as they are, are mere piddles in what it successfully accomplishes. It is indeed a staggering achievement, in many ways—and so it's a shame that the film (which was shot way back in 2005 and has a copyright of 2008 on it) only got a token two-week run here in New York as a result of a troubled production history and pending lawsuits over the film's ownership. It deserved far better.
★ Dead Alive (1992, Peter Jackson), screened at 92YTribeca in New York
★ Re-Animator (1985, Stuart Gordon), screened at 92YTribeca in New York
92YTribeca screened these two splatter classics in a double bill on Friday night, so I seized upon the opportunity to fill in two major blind spots in my horror knowledge. Horror? That's just the name of the genre; these two films are more accurately described as gruesome black comedies. These aren't ironic parodies, though; the last thing you could call either Dead Alive or Re-Animator is smug or contemptuous of genre. Dead Alive, for all its extreme bloodletting (this may well be the bloodiest film I've ever seen), works quite beautifully, actually, as a sincere coming-of-age tale about a mama's boy (played by Timothy Balme) who learns to break away from his overcontrolling mother (hey, I can relate!); in this case, though, his maturation requires him to eventually wield a lawnmower and mow down scores of zombies in a masterfully orchestrated half-hour setpiece of blood, guts and mayhem. Jackson's film is full of such witty, bravura blood-soaked setpieces, all shot with a proliferation of exaggerated wide-angle lenses that lend the whole film a comic-book air that takes the brutality out of the grotesque violence.
Dead Alive is a lot of fun, at least for those with strong stomachs (and it's also a welcome reminder of the kind of filmmaker Jackson was before he became all respectable with the Lord of the Rings epics). But Re-Animator—an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story—is on a whole other plane of greatness. The best way I can think to describe this, for those who haven't seen this film yet, is that it is a serious comedy about the fear of death, its outré humor borne out of a genuinely serious consideration of the ways people deal with mortality—especially the possibility of avoiding it, as Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) offers with the shiny green serum he develops. What if you were given a second chance at life? What would you do with it? The answers for some of the re-animated characters here are sometimes outrageously perverse (I sure as heck haven't seen a film in which a live severed head goes down on a naked blonde, have you?), but its morbid undercurrents lend the film a coherence that Dead Alive barely manages (not a knock on the Jackson film, mind you). I wouldn't call Re-Animator disturbing, exactly...but in its own gleefully tasteless way, it's thought-provoking.
One minor quibble with Re-Animator: Are people generally okay with how blatantly derivative of Bernard Herrmann parts of Richard Band's score are? Like, his opening-credits music is pretty obviously a rip-off of Herrmann's Psycho opening; Band doesn't even try to hide it.
★ Scary Monsters (1980, David Bowie)
★ Let's Dance (1983, David Bowie)
As some of you can tell in my previous barebones artistic consumption logs, I've been slowly introducing myself to a good majority of David Bowie's recorded output, at least up to the early 1980s (I hear that it's basically all downhill from Let's Dance onward, so I'm inclined to move on to some other artist at this point...but I'm willing to hear arguments to the contrary). For the most part, it's been an immensely enjoyable and often exhilarating experience, with each album a true musical adventure, for well and ill. These two latest "adventures" aren't quite on the exalted plane of my two personal favorite Bowie albums, Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977), but they all have their moments of brilliance. In fact, "Ashes to Ashes," from Scary Monsters, may well be my favorite Bowie song ever, if only because I find it a rather disturbing song underneath its whimsical oddball surface, especially towards the end, with the arrangement laying on a foreboding bass synthesizer as Bowie's voice, enhanced with a halo-like effect, repeatedly intones, "My mother said to get things done / You'd better not mess with Major Tom." Sounds like an ominous children's nursery rhyme, that. Weird and wonderful: That's Bowie in a nutshell. (Maybe now would be a good time to rewatch The Man Who Fell to Earth, which I found generally boring when I saw it at Film Forum earlier his year...)