Tag Archives: New York Film Festival

Shame (2011)

One of the most talked-about films at the NYFF this year was Steve McQueen’s Shame.  Portraying the daily life of a sex addict, its subject matter is attention-grabbing enough, but the film’s beautiful construction and Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance make it one of the most remarkable films of the year.

Shame begins with an overhead shot of Brandon (Mr. Fassbender) lying naked on his bed, staring off into space with a blank expression.  Entwined with ice blue sheets, his body is the center of our gaze, and McQueen holds on this shot for a while.  With no music to distract us, we quietly study Brandon’s body, the body that is so central to the film and over which he has no control.  Long, still shots like these are key to the film.  They force us to unflinchingly face the ugliness in Brandon and the painful nature of his addiction, while placing us firmly in the position of voyeurs.

A number of film-goers I spoke to complained that the film made the same point too many times; there were too many scenes of Brandon having raunchy, degrading sex, too much nudity, etc.  This repetition is actually McQueen’s way of removing the titillation from such images.  The early sex scenes affect us in the usual way, but the more of them we see, the less erotic they become.  By the end, when Brandon is engaging in a sexual encounter most men would revel in, it is simply painful to watch.  Every encounter he has seems to break him down more and more, bringing him only pain instead of pleasure.

Mr. Fassbender is truly a wonder to behold in this film.  His performance is simply mind-blowing.  The myriad of emotions that cross his face within seconds conveys the intense confusion in Brandon and his utter inability to treat himself and others well.  In some scenes, Brandon is the calm at the center of a storm of people, watching the women around him with still blue eyes.  In others, he seems about to jump out of his skin, leg bouncing, head bent down, muscles tensed until they look about to burst.  Mr. Fassbender portrays the many sides of Brandon perfectly, with the kind of commitment that comes from a truly trusting actor-director relationship.

The other main storyline in the film, aside from Brandon’s attempts to control his addiction, is his relationship with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  An artsy young woman with depressive tendencies, Sissy comes barreling into Brandon’s life and takes over his apartment.  She disturbs his routine and makes him feel emotions he doesn’t want to admit to, particularly in the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” ever performed.  As irritating as her character can be, Ms. Mulligan holds her own against Mr. Fassbender, and their scenes together are revealing on both sides.  Her presence allows us to see yet another side of Brandon and gives us a glimpse into where he comes from.

Shame is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, with compositions that quietly convey a sense of alienation in long, static shots.  The beauty of its construction makes its subject matter all the more visceral, forcing us to experience the desensitization that Brandon feels as we see image after image of the naked human body.  Between Mr. McQueen’s masterful direction and Mr. Fassbender’s amazing performance, this is one of the most important films of the year, and I hope this pair continues to work together for years to come.


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Hugo (In Progress)

Last night, the NYFF had a surprise screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which was billed as a work-in-progress.  Mr. Scorsese himself introduced the film and listed all of the elements which were still unfinished, mostly visual effects.  While we were asked not to officially review the film, here are a few of my impressions:

– The pacing is extremely slow, so much so that I thought the movie was an hour longer than it actually is.  It sounds like the editing process is complete, but it definitely needs to be trimmed down some more.

– For the first hour of the film, it’s very unclear what the actual conflict is.  When it finally becomes clear that the film is a tribute to early cinema, the story begins to flow more quickly, but it feels overloaded with exposition.  None of the film history was addressed early in the film, so there is suddenly a lot to cover through flashbacks and voiceover, making the film feel almost like a documentary on early cinema.

– The 3D is generally unnecessary, but Scorsese uses it beautifully in the early sequences.  Hugo works maintaining the clocks in the Paris train station, and there are some gorgeous images of him climbing through the turning gears and sliding down chutes that made me actually appreciate the technology for once.  Again, it’s not necessary at all, but Hugo contains the best use of 3D I’ve seen (yes, including Avatar).

– The young actors are excellent, particularly Asa Butterfield as Hugo.  Sacha Baron Cohen is good but overused – there are a few too many chase scenes through the station, and there are only so many times we can laugh at his strange voice and mechanical leg.  Ben Kingsley’s performance is a little on the scenery-chewing side, especially in the beginning, but he calms down as the film progresses.

– The use of 3D brings up interesting ideas of film technology and how to present early cinema.  Would the early filmmakers have supported showing their films in 3D?  My main problem with the technology is that it disturbs the dynamics of the medium, making for a more distracting composition and different viewer relationship.  I’m sure, however, that George Melies and the Lumiere brothers would have jumped at the chance to use such effects; it was the “cinema of attractions,” after all.

Hugo is, at this point, a very slow film that is rather confused in its storytelling.  It is, however, a lovely piece of visual filmmaking from one of the true master directors, and Scorsese is never more endearing than when he is writing love letters to cinema.

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Melancholia (2011)

Last night’s NYFF screening was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which I’ve been eagerly anticipating since it debuted at Cannes (and not because of his ridiculous Nazi comments).  While not a perfect film by any means, Melancholia is beautiful and mesmerizing.  Clocking in at over two hours, it’s definitely a draining experience, but it’s meant to be; the end of the world should be devastating.

The film follows a young woman named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her family as the earth is approached by a recently-discovered planet that has been hiding behind the sun.  Like most of von Trier’s films, it’s divided into sections.  The first major section (after the prologue) portrays Justine’s wedding reception.  She has just married a sweet, not-too-bright man named Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and, although everything seems fine at first, we slowly begin to get the sense that all is not well with her.  Her smiles are a bit too bright, her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a bit too worried, and her new husband is trying a bit too hard.  The shaky, handheld camera in this sequence jumps around from guest to guest, nervously looking back and forth between Justine and Michael as if the camera itself is hoping everything is going to work out.

I won’t spoil things by going into what the second part entails, but the major problem with the film is a marked difference in tone and pacing between the two parts.  They feel almost like separate films, two mood pieces that happen to be about the same people.  That said, however, both sections are beautiful in different ways, and they are tied together formally and thematically by the prologue.  Filmed in extreme slow-motion so that the shots look almost still, the prologue is one of the highlights of the movie.  Each shot takes your breath away with its rich colors and compositions that echo famous paintings (one of which is the poster above). Here’s an example, although the colors in this still don’t do the shot justice:

Shot compositions like these kept the film utterly mesmerizing, despite its uneven pacing and disparate sections.

Performance-wise, Melancholia is impeccable.  Kirsten Dunst gives the most subtle performance of her career, using minute changes in her facial muscles to slowly betray her creeping depression.  Charlotte Gainsbourg, as her long-suffering, slightly neurotic sister, is both soulful and brittle.  You sense she has been weathered down to the bone by her trying sister and arrogant husband, played with a touch of dry humor by Kiefer Sutherland.  As Michael, Alexander Skarsgard is the exact opposite of his True Blood avatar, Eric Northman.  He is awkward and utterly sweet, trying desperately to make Justine happy, and Skarsgard makes him completely believable.  His father, Stellan Skarsgard, gives an amusing performance himself as Justine’s obnoxious boss.  The cast is rounded out by John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, and Jesper Christensen (the “Surgeon of Birkenau” in The Debt).

In the end, Melancholia left me feeling drained and awed by the power of its images, many of which are still haunting me a day later.  It has its problems, but it’s the most beautiful apocalypse any of us is likely to see.

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A Dangerous Method (2011)

When director David Cronenberg introduced A Dangerous Method at the NYFF tonight (accompanied by the wonderful Michael Fassbender), he implied that the film is very different from his earlier work.  It is true that this most recent effort does not contain mutant babies or twin gynecologists, and it lacks the visual flair of his usual films.  It is, however, clearly a Cronenberg film as far as subject matter goes.  Its exploration of the darker side of human nature and the visceral urges we attempt to repress fits in perfectly with his previous work.

The film follows Dr. Carl Jung (Mr. Fassbender) and his relationships with a masochistic patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).  The small cast is uniformly excellent.  I have always been anti-Keira Knightley, but her performance here is surprisingly good.  Her reed-like, fragile physique and wide eyes make her the perfect image of a broken, battered child who, over the course of the film, gradually composes herself but refuses to soften.  The character is all hard edges, demanding and incisive in her ability to read human behavior.  Despite the fact that she is the masochist, you get the sense that she is the one who holds the power over Jung, not vice versa.

Jung’s relationship with Freud is similarly fraught.  Beginning as a mentoring relationship, it eventually turns into a battle for the future of psychoanalysis.  No matter what the viewer may think about Freud and Jung’s theories (I have my problems with them, of course), their discussions over the course of the film are gripping and genuinely thought-provoking.  A Dangerous Method is, appropriately, a very talky film, but the content and performances kept me interested.  Mr. Fassbender employs his subtle, visceral style to make Jung the slowly-crumbling center of the film.  He is on camera almost the entire time, making every small change in his facial expressions and body posture count.  Viggo Mortensen, an old favorite of mine who has been doing excellent work with Cronenberg over the last decade, brings a dry wit and quiet consideration to Freud.  The character could have so easily become cartoonish, with his perpetual cigar and prosthetic nose, but Mortensen makes him an intriguing and humble intellectual presence.

Alongside the more obvious discussion of human sexuality and psychology, the film also tackles issues of class and religion.  Spielrein and Freud are both Jews, while Jung is Protestant.  Freud is from a lower class and lives in a cramped apartment with his six children, while Jung’s wife is incredibly wealthy and he lives in a country house with his own sailboat.  These differences create a quiet tension that suffuses the characters’ interactions and lends an extra edge to Jung and Freud’s disagreements.  The implications of these differences become very clear in the end titles, which I will not spoil for you.  Suffice it to say, World War II played its part in these characters’ lives.

A Dangerous Method is thought-provoking and well-executed, if mainstream for a man of Cronenberg’s eccentricity.  The dialed-down style makes for a visually bland experience, but in a way it is appropriate for the subject matter.  Just like in Jung himself, all the darker elements lie beneath the surface.

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Ben-Hur (1959) – The New Print

So, I’ve decided to blog about everything I see at the New York Film Festival this year.  I have tickets to a bunch of exciting screenings, so it’s going to be cool.  To start the festival off this year, a couple of friends and I went to see the new 8K restoration of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), one of only three films to win 11 Academy Awards (I used to be an Oscars nerd).  I’d seen Ben-Hur back when I was around 13, so I didn’t remember much of it.  Here are my impressions upon this viewing:

– First of all, the new print is absolutely BEAUTIFUL.  It’s a shame it isn’t being shown on big screens across the country, because I was simply amazed at how clear and bright the image was, and I think this is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen to get the full effect.  I’d honestly never been that into the famous chariot scene before this, but on the big screen, it was simply breathtaking.  My heart was in my throat the whole time, and the sound of the racing hooves was wonderfully intense.

– I never get over how obvious the homoerotic undertones are between Judah and Messala.  I love the story, famously told by Gore Vidal in The Celluloid Closet (1995), about how he wanted to inject more dramatic tension into the film, so he and William Wyler decided that Messala would be in love with Judah.  They purposely neglected to tell Charlton Heston about this, however, so Stephen Boyd is acting his socks off the entire time, looking at Judah with puppy dog eyes for the whole first section of the movie.  Then, of course, there’s the spear-throwing moment (nice phallic symbolism there), and the toast:

Not homoerotic at all...

Ben-Hur is, of course, subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” and the film handles this element with mixed success.  It opens with the birth of Christ, which we assume is also around the same time Judah is born.  For most of the film, Judah’s story intersects with Christ’s only sporadically.  First, when Judah is on a chain gang struggling across the desert, a mysterious man gives him a drink of water.  Christ’s face is never shown on film, which I find very effective.  Instead, we only see people’s reactions to him, which I feel makes his presence more powerful than it would if we actually saw the actor.  (Note: I am an atheist myself, but I find the Bible interesting as mythology/folklore) Periodically, someone in the film will mention “the young rabbi from Nazareth” to Judah, talking about his ideas, and Judah’s love interest winds up being present for the Sermon on the Mount.  In the end, however, the film spends too much time on the Passion.  After Judah settles his score with Messala, there is a full hour of the film left, and it is mostly taken up by relatively graphic depictions of the Passion and the Crucifixion.  As my friend Maggie said, “Is this movie about Ben-Hur anymore?”  Suffice it to say the film loses its way in the resolution – the effect would have been the same with much less time spent on Christ and lepers.

– Something I found odd in this viewing was that the pacing was actually very uneven.  Some scenes took way longer than they should have, with beats being drawn out too long between lines and people giving essentially the same reaction multiple times.  (Prison guard 1: “Lepers!” Prison guard 2, two minute later: “Lepers!”)  On the flip side, there were storylines where necessary scenes were totally elided.  My friend was confused by how quickly Judah and the Roman Quintus Arrias went from “We grudgingly respect each other” to “We’re father and son!  Hooray!”  The editing definitely could have been improved.

– I love the sequence on the slave galley for some reason.  Maybe it’s because I used to row…or because Charlton Heston has his shirt off.

–  Ben-Hur is not really a good film for female characters.  Esther, though she has some sense of agency, is mainly just irritating, while Miriam and Tirzah seem to exist to be rescued.  This one’s definitely about the boys.

The screening itself:

– For much of the first half of the film, the sound was significantly off.  The projectionist at Lincoln Center had to actually restart the system.  It was very distracting.

– At the beginning, William Wyler’s daughter and Charlton Heston’s son introduced the film.  The were upstaged by William Wyler’s great-grandchildren dressed in gladiator/toga costumes, made by the Ben-Hur costume department back when it was being shot.  It was ridiculously adorable.

All in all, Ben-Hur is definitely worth a watch.  It has some fantastic sequences and definitely holds your interest for the first two thirds.  In the future, I’ll probably just stop watching after the chariot scene.

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