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The 58th New York Film Festival
by Erik Childress

The 58th New York Film Festival has been taking place from Sept. 17 to Oct. 15 this year and below is a sampling of some of its offerings. Watch this space for more to come.

(Reviews out of 4 stars)

HOPPER/WELLES

This is a fascinating subgenre of celebrity journalism (if you want to call it that) with artists interviewing fellow artists. Robert Rodriguez had a whole show dedicated to it on the El Rey Network. Jon Favreau had his roundtable on Dinner for Five. But there is a whole other subtext when it is not merely friends enjoying each other's company or one filmmaker fawning over another's body of work. Just a few years ago we had the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut which was a reflection over one such encounter and the book it inspired. As enjoyable as many of these incarnations have been, none of them compare to Hopper/Welles, an intimate, probing conversation between two directors headed in different career directions that is impossible to take your ears off of once you start listening.

The conversation was filmed by Orson Welles while Dennis Hopper was in production of his follow-up to Easy Rider, The Last Movie, and the free-flowing talk covers the gamut of topics from movies (making & watching) to culture wars and their beliefs in politics. ("You're the first person to call me a leftist since John Wayne," Hopper comments.) Welles, who is never seen on camera (only his voice is heard), keeps Hopper mostly in close-up with his scratchy beard that seems to itch when he's about to get really truthful. Welles, even with his notorious disdain for the studio system, admits to liking more kinds of movies the older he gets while Hopper gets in a shot at any armchair critics that its easy to hate movies if you don't know what goes into making them. They wonder if its true a moviemaker's responsibility is to his art and not the audience; a thought where Hopper candidly admits he only became a director "to get more pretty ladies."

Certainly there will be those who look at the kind of dinosaur mentality that these two men represent in an industry that has only taken baby steps in 50 years to correct itself. Those quick on the cancel button may be shocked at moments especially a prescient one as Welles believes "we're going to have a black President pretty soon" but quickly ruins it by what that could mean for "their ghettos.") Hopper admits to not only wanting to see actresses nude and take their pictures but also a distinct Oedipal complex. Those are all momentary asides in-between debating on visual storytelling vs. emotion and the story itself as well as a fantastic discussion about the responsibility of the artist to speak out against injustices whether it be through their art or speech. The idea that The Last Movie was itself examining the boundaries between reality and fiction lends the kind of murky haze to the topics of their conversation. (Just two years later Welles would release F for Fake.) Welles talks as the "director as God." "God doesn't work magic. He performs miracles. Magic is what people do. Watching Hopper/Welles is one of those rare opportunities we have to put a glass to the wall of history and be that proverbial fly privy to a pair of influential artists discuss their insecurities and beliefs in a way that a journalist would very unlikely be able to get out of them. And to get a chance to experience it 50 years later is a magic trick in its own right.


MLK/FBI

Our nation's Federal Bureau of Investigators working to discredit the work of Martin Luther King Jr. may be "the darkest part of the Bureau's history." Those aren't my words, but those of James Comey as heard in the new film by Sam Pollard which documents this period in history with the help of some newly declassified files. No matter how many times one hears of the lengths that J. Edgar Hoover and some of his men went through to undermine King's movement for peace, change and equality it will always be infuriating. Though this is a well put together documentary it is more for those who haven't heard this tale before.

The film begins with portions of FBI memos and buzzwords splashed across the screen and then begins to recite - through the help of scholars and those that knew Dr. King - the passage of time when the Bureau began their surveillance. This early section is fascinating partly because a narrative is laid out where a reasonable observer could understand why there might be an interest in King's association with a known Communist sympathizer. Of course this was all basted in clear racism and Hoover's own words that he "feared the rise of a black messiah." Pollard keeping the focus on footage of and interviews with the key players like King, Hoover and Lyndon Johnson provides a unique visual overview that prevents this from becoming just another talking head retrospective. [br]

Maybe I've seen or read enough to know about this portion of history in both narrative and non-fiction, but very little surprised me with what was being presented. Could be we shouldn't be surprised anymore given the stories we may have heard just even in passing over the years and the film reminds us that crazies who will believe anything existed well before Donald Trump. Ultimately the film concludes as if it were a teaser for the 2027 release of these tapes that will further expose the agency's desperate bias against this man. The film hangs on long enough to get the talking heads on camera at the very end as if they were just released from federal protection. Overall this is still a fine retrospective of this unfortunate chapter in American history and the hope is that if there are Americans that can still be surprised by what's within that it will do so with an eye that it should never happen again.


ON THE ROCKS

The reinvention of Bill Murray's career began in earnest with Rushmore but was certainly cemented with Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola's beautiful tale of friendship amidst the wandering of different stages (and classes) of life brought Murray his single Oscar nomination to date. Reuniting for his Netflix Christmas special in 2015 notwithstanding, Murray returns to feature work with Coppola, both older and likely wiser. Though this time they are saying the quiet parts out loud in another examination of life in stasis that has Murray doing what he does best - and maybe even better with an assist by Rashida Jones - by elevating a pretty standard sitcom situation into something much more enjoyable.

Laura (Rashida Jones), just on this side of 40, has carved out a pretty good life for herself. A couple of kids, a nice New York apartment and a husband (Marlon Wayans) she still loves. But little warning signs have appeared in his behavior that are taking her to the belief that he may be cheating on her. This thought process is further driven into her when she asks her father, Felix (Bill Murray) for advice. Practically the Sherlock Holmes of womanizers, Felix knows all the moves too well and begins taking steps to confirm what he also now thinks is clear in plain sight. As the two of them begin to spend more time together they are able to reevaluate their own relationship and what happened when he was responsible for the very thing years ago.

If this sounds like a plot you have seemingly witnessed on every sitcom, you would not be wrong. What On the Rocks has going for it though is Murray who gets an opportunity to bridge the strengths he has shown so naturally throughout his career. Felix is not an outright caricature of a womanizer. In fact, one can even imagine him as the turbo-charged version of Murray's Broken Flowers character who took a few pointers from Jeffrey Wright's mystery-obsessed neighbor. (Felix even makes notes the way he did.) But he also remains vulnerable in seeking the love (if not approval) of his daughter. Jones (who I've always felt was an underappreciated link to the Parks & Recreation family) carefully plays Laura as someone skirting the line between complacency (there are a lot of positives in her life) and expressing her true feelings about the men who have disappointed her.

Coppola's screenplay does not just evolve into some Roger Dodger-like battle for the soul of what men and women want. Those moments when they arrive feel like old Defending the Caveman sentiments. The film is actually better when it is exaggerating the search for truth in those particular cliches, notably in a stakeout (and subsequent chase) sequence that is a true comedic highlight right up until its confrontation with police. However, there's a richer movie somewhere in here that may have explored well beyond its sitcom trappings. Are we, as the observer, more disappointed if the husband is cheating (because of the moral implications) or that he isn't, dragging us through a "what was that all about" that may sour those on Laura's thought process in light of the baggage that we all enter carrying about the dog days of the male species. Like as said in Beautiful Girls, it's "a bad bet" because either way you lose. The audience may lose out on complicating something greater about ourselves, but not by watching the most entertaining rich dad since Thornton Melon in Back to School. He may not be all of us, but is that who we aspire to be? Something to think about.


THE SMALL AXE TRILOGY

Steve McQueen's five part series coming to Amazon was doled out in chapters at this year's New York Film Festival. Three of them in fact, shown out of order from both their planned broadcast and timelines of both their real-life and fictionalized dramatizations. In some respects the ones that were chosen have a bit of a Goldilocks feel to them, one going on too long, another too short and a third that feels just right. Yet all of them good as standalone films. Though I wonder if there would have been a greater emotional impact if they were all viewed together in succession since the ones we have seen thus far have something to feed the others even if we got the dessert first.

Lovers Rock was the first film available (and will be the second one to be available on Nov. 27) and it is indeed a joyous celebration of a film. The timing of a film about a house party in 1980 brings its own bittersweet tears as it is something responsible people can (and will) not do in the era of COVID. There is very little in the manner of plot. We do meet a few specific characters, but this film is all about the mood of togetherness. The music being played is practically the lead character as it begins to resemble a concert film than a straight narrative with the focus being on the crowd rather than the musicians on stage. (The reaction to the opening strains of Carl Douglas' Kung Fu Fighting is a mood all by itself.) It is a film about community, love, friendship and the occasional threats to them. And at just 70 minutes for someone like me who is not a party guy, its simply perfect to drop by for an hour, hear some great music, see some attractive people, don't have to smell the smoke and then just go home.

The next film we were provided, Mangrove, is actually the debut of the Small Axe series (on Nov. 20) and a more downbeat experience based on a real court case. Frank Critchlow (Shaun Parkes) owned a restaurant in Notting Hill circa 1968 that was a haven for those who would find other establishments not as welcoming. Racist cops would frequently harass him based on previous improprieties at a former location and meetings held there by Altheia Jones-Lecointe, part of the British Black Panthers. When she convinces him to be a part of a protest against the PC Pulley, the clash that forms between them on the street leads to a courtroom case that commands the rest of the film.

Much has been made about the connection and timing to Aaron Sorkin's forthcoming The Trial of the Chicago 7 and indeed the two cases have a striking similarity. They were even referred to as "The Mangrove Nine" and it is, admittedly, a piece of history not taught in any of my schools. In that, the lesson is undoubtedly interesting in its outcome being the first of its kind in the country and the tactics used to find a measure of equality for the defendants. As for the film McQueen gets passionate performances out of Parkes and Wright which go further than the courtroom portion, which has a lot of necessary anger but seems like a lot of deja vu with scene after scene reiterating the same points. Sorkin's film may be more polished because of its screenplay and name cast but, even in his room-for-improvement directing style, a film that still has the sheen of something made for television manages to feel more cinematic when it needs to than Mangrove does. This story deserves a bit of that sheen too at moments when it feels like it is just getting by with providing us a lesson.

The final film shown was indeed the final of the series in Red, White and Blue and it is one I wish had gone on even longer if only to showcase more of the great John Boyega. This story begins with Boyega's LeRoy as a boy being harassed by the local bobbies for "fitting the description." In this case, a full schoolboy uniform when what they really mean is black. His father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), sees this and after chewing out the cops gives his son the talk about being authority and doing everything he can to defuse the situation, starting by not getting into trouble. The older LeRoy, now a lab technician with a pregnant wife, sees the aftermath of his father's latest B.S. confrontation with police and sets forth to join the force himself to bring about change from the inside.

Once again we have an all-too-true story where blatant racism is practically the star. Though the film is only 80 minutes long, McQueen takes the time (as he did with Mangrove) to spend days and evenings with LeRoy and his family. (We learn a lot about them simply from one Scrabble game.) By the time we finally get to him going through police training it wouldn't be wrong to hear the Dropkick Murphys on the soundtrack announcing the title of The Departed. The first half of the film is undeniably important but it would have been even more affecting to spend more time with LeRoy in his unwitting role as Serpico just because of the color of his skin. He wants to do a good job but is often literally on his own with no backup when needed and coming back to cowardly graffiti on his locker for his efforts. The reaction from his community feels even more damning than that of the treatment we expect from his fellow officers and even that feels like it warrants more exploration especially when we know his intentions are honorable. Boyega is such a commanding presence in both quiet and terse moments that we hardly noticed we have reached the end of the film which concludes with a clink of glasses that the struggle LeRoy embarked upon has only begun. That it comes at the end of this series and over a decade past the Civil Rights Movement makes the moment both powerful and undeniably sad. Thankfully we can always return to Lovers Rock, a momentary safe haven that should be the goal for everyone in this world.



link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4268
originally posted: 10/03/20 05:22:47
last updated: 10/09/20 09:16:32
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