52nd New York Film Festival: Provocation and Pleasure – Rania Richardson Comments

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Many of the films in the recently concluded 52nd New York Film Festival will fill theaters, fuel discussions, and collect awards for months to come. Topping the list is Citizenfour, a late edition to the tightly edited festival’s main slate of 31 features. Read on…

Completed just days before its premiere, Laura Poitras’ documentary focuses on former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s eight days in a Hong Kong hotel room, as he prepares to blow the whistle on a massive surveillance operation via the reporting of journalist Glenn Greenwald. A thriller, a horror, a tearjerker– and a bit of a perilous love story– Citizenfour is an emotion-packed journey that reveals Snowden as a brilliant, albeit hubristic, defender of citizens’ rights. Director Poitras put herself at risk to make the film, but will undoubtedly add more footage to the open-ended doc as the story continues to unfold.

High Profile Films

Of the three high profile films in the festival’s key spots– David Fincher’s opening Gone Girl, Paul Thomas Anderson’s centerpiece Inherent Vice, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s closing Birdman, the latter is the one that pushes the art form forward, and is a must-see. The conceit is ridiculous: a washed up Hollywood actor attempts to reinvent himself in legit theater while a ghost of his former superhero character controls his present life. Birdman completely transcends its silly side in both theme and form, to be one of the most innovative films of the year. Star Michael Keaton, spoofing his own history as a successful Batman whose career peaked too early, embodies success, failure, and last chances in the self-referential story. With a gliding camera, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki peers into the milieu and underbelly of Broadway theater, and then together with Inarritu’s masterful writing and direction, fairly replicates the stage experience on screen. Supporting players Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis add layers to the many faces of fame, in this rare perfect balance of art and entertainment.

Gone Girl is an engaging mystery-thriller based on the popular book by Gillian Flynn. Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne who is accused of having killed his missing wife, Amy, played by Rosamund Pike. At a press conference, Affleck asked, “Who but David Fincher could make a film with such Swiss watch precision?” (“A Swiss filmmaker,” answered Fincher, helpfully.) Yes, the acting, the pacing, and the accretion of detail demonstrate superlative direction, and the ride is exciting. Unfortunately, a false rape charge that is pivotal to the story cannot be overlooked as a gut-punch to feminist viewers, toppling the film from its otherwise awards-worthy perch. And as potent as the Dunnes are in their marriage of opportunism, they are no match for the Machiavellian Underwoods in Fincher’s Netflix series, House of Cards.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s ‘70s-era druggy detective novel Inherent Vice, is crammed with colorful characters, but short on plot– a big fruity pie that just won’t bake. The meandering story involves Joaquin Phoenix as a perpetually stoned detective investigating a kidnapping scheme. Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Martin Short (over-the-top hilarious in his brief role) play hippies and squares, detectives and drug addicts, actors and surfers in a southern California coastal town. Verisimilitude in costumes and sets adds to the fun, in an ultimately minor film.

Amalric and Rohrwachwer

Somewhat disappointing as well, is Mathieu Amalric’s, erotic crime drama, The Blue Room, based on the novel by Georges Simenon (and no relation to the play by David Hare). From an extramarital tryst in a blue hotel room to a double trial in a blue courtroom, the downward spiraling story of lovers, played by Amalric and Stephanie Cleau, unfolds through memories. Naked body parts, artful close-ups, and other arresting visuals shot by Christophe Beaucarne in a 1:33 boxy aspect ratio, add a claustrophobic sense of dread to the tale of adultery and murder. Amalric, a stalwart New York Film Festival leading man since starring in Arnaud Desplechin’s 1996 My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, does not carry the weight of the film that he has directed. His weak presence, perhaps a failed strategy to demonstrate his character’s helplessness, undermines an otherwise first-rate film.

Winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, Alice Rohrwacher’s female-centric The Wonders, is the story of a beekeeping family in rural Italy. Struggling to survive in a shrinking agrarian economy, the parents of four young daughters train their own to maintain hives and harvest and package honey. Twelve-year-old Gelsomina, played with naturalism by Maria Alexandra Lungu, is coming of age, and is the focus of the film. Her interaction with the bees– picking them up one by one and holding them in her mouth– express an uncommon sensuality, echoed in her urgency to scoop handfuls of overrun honey off the floor, and to swim out to sea alone, to rescue a runaway boy who has caught her fancy. It’s not the majority of female characters, but the day-by-day/minute-by-minute negotiation of household chaos that defines a woman’s sensibility in films full of life and sensitivity such as The Wonders.

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Rania Richardson (Archived Contributor)

Rania Richardson is the Communications Manager for a philanthropic nonprofit in New York, and a freelance writer specializing in film, culture, and business. She came of age in Cambridge, MA and began her career at Time Magazine. Her favorite film is Jean Cocteau’s "Beauty and the Beast" and her mission is to champion the best in world cinema.