An Unsettling Strangeness Sets In at the NY Film Fest 58

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 12, 2020

An Unsettling Strangeness Sets In at the NY Film Fest 58

The most disappointing part of NYFF58 was not the fact that it was forced to move to a mostly virtual format but was the fact that there was an egregious lack of LGBTQ-themed work represented. The only queer film in the 25 films I viewed was Heidi Ewing's wonderful, "I Carry You with Me," which I mentioned in my coverage of Weeks One and Two. Come on, Film Society! You can and should do better!

French Exit (Closing Night)

In this very odd and discombobulating year, Azazel Jacob's delightfully bizarre, yet sublime "French Exit" is exactly the film needed right now. Everything about it is just a bit off, yet somehow hopeful enough. Michelle Pfeiffer dazzles as Frances Price a wealthy, eccentric NY socialite widow who loses her fortune and flees to France with her loyal son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). They soon find themselves in a series of strange situations and the levels of absurdity rise. "French Exit" is deftly adapted from the best-selling book by Patric deWitt (by deWitt) and directed with great love and care by Jacobs. Pfeiffer and Hedges have perfect mother-son chemistry. Danielle Macdonald, Imogen Poots, Daniel Di Tomasso, Susan Coyne Isaach de Bankolé and the insanely gifted Valerie Mahaffey provide terrific support as does Tracy Letts as the voice of a cat. But it is Pfeiffer, in a performance for the ages, who makes an indelible mark. Her Frances is an instant cinematic icon.

Atarrabi and Mikelats

Eugène Green's films are always hypnotic. "La Sapienza" and "The Son of Joseph" are two past NYFF examples of his bewitching work. His latest, "Atarrabi and Mikelats," draws from Basque myth and is about the two sons of the powerful goddess Mari, given to the Devil (Thierry Biscary) to raise because she doesn't feel maternal. The boys grow up to be complete opposites. Atarrabi (Saia Hiriart) is good and loving and longs to be a Monk. Mikelat (Lukas Hiriart) is wicked and mean and prefers to stay with daddy and learn evil. The brotherly rivalry and bond are always at the films core amidst the wonderfully satiric and startlingly original milieu. Green's world enchants us and dares us to examine the many layers of good and evil. I have rarely had an experience this year where, after two hours, I did not want a film to end. In Euskara with English subtitles

Beginning

The camera remains stationary in the back of a small church in a remote village in the country of Georgia where a group of Jehovah Witness missionaries are worshipping. In the midst of service, a Molotov Cocktail is tossed into the foreground of the frame (ostensibly by the Orthodox Christian Majority) and pandemonium ensues as the congregation proceeds to evacuate. This is how Dea Kulumbegashvili's audacious, sometimes-exasperating, feature debut, "Beginning" opens. The film brings to mind Bergman by way of Haneke with a little von Trier sprinkled about. The plot centers on a struggling wife and mother Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) who finds herself tested and horrifically treated by the local police as well as her own husband after she is brutally assaulted. "Beginning" is a disturbing work about a woman trapped in a marriage, a religion, a home, a life, a role, a world, she longs to flee. But just when you think Kulumbegashvili is presenting a story about the dangers of extreme religious faith, she turns that notion on its proverbial tail with a double-shock ending you have to see to believe. In Georgian with English subtitles.

Red, White and Blue

The third installment in Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" series playing the NYFF, "Red, White and Blue" stars John Boyega as real-life research scientist Leroy Logan, who became a member of the London Metropolitan Police Force in the mid '80s, right smack in the midst of a system that was insidiously racist. At the film's core is Logan's troubled relationship with his proud West Indian father (a powerful Steve Toussaint), a victim of constant police brutality who insists on his day in court and is not happy with his son's decision to become a policeman. Boyega is excellent and sheds any "Star Wars" residual concerns. The three films together ("Lovers Rock," "Mangrove" & "Red, White and Blue") celebrate a culture and represent a long heroic struggle—a community coming together to fight systemic racism—a battle that continues to this day.

Hopper/Welles

I'm not quite certain that anyone outside of cinephile circles would get much out of "Hopper/Welles." Perhaps, those interested in the political and social upheaval of the 1960s. Personally, as someone steeped in both, I was mesmerized by the work which, in essence and on the surface, is a 130-minute chat with director/actor Dennis Hopper, conducted by the great Orson Welles. But it's a bit more complicated. Coming off the great success of "Easy Rider," Hopper was in the midst of filming his follow up, "The Last Movie," which would not be received with the same fanfare. The "conversation" is part of a scene that is supposed to be taking place at a party in Welles' notorious film "The Other Side of the Wind," which Hopper "acted" in. "Wind' has a complex history. It was never completed in Welles lifetime and was reconstructed in 2018. Welles, often as the film character Jake Hannaford, goads Hopper to speak about his family (wanting to sleep with his mother!), sex ("I think I'm a lesbian") politics, and whether movies can change the world. This cinephile wishes he could absorb at least another 130 minutes.

On the Rocks

Whenever Bill Murray is onscreen in Sofia Coppola's affable new comedy, "On the Rocks" the film is an absolute treat. Luckily Murray is around for a good portion of the narrative, which is fairly slight. Rashida Jones plays a NY-based writer in her late 30s who can't seem to find inspiration. She's married with two kids and soon begins to suspect that her handsome, career-obsessed husband (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair with a coworker. Her dad (Murray, just fabulous) is set on proving the husband is a cheat and convinces his daughter they should "get in front of it." Coppola is an amazing filmmaker who has yet to gift us a follow up that matches, "Lost in Translation." Perhaps this is the same unfair assessment leveled at her father after he made, "The Godfather" films and "Apocalypse Now." And speaking of her dad, it is difficult to watch "On the Rocks" and not think of the Murray character being based on Francis Coppola, which makes him all the more interesting—the charm, the charisma, the attitude that no one is good enough for his daughter—I can only imagine some of this stems from real life since it rings so real.

Notturno
The Truffle Hunters

Two Italian films, "Notturno" and "The Truffle Hunters" are both exquisitely photographed and incredibly thoughtful, admirable projects that require a lot of patience from the viewer and, depending on your fortitude, the payoff can feel poetic and stimulating, but also remote and cold.

If you're a dog lover, by all means watch Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw's strangely entrancing, "The Truffle Hunters," a verité doc that takes us deep into the forests of Piedmont, Italy, where a gaggle of elderly men hunt for outrageously expensive white Alba truffles (that people spend a fortune acquiring for expensive meals). Key to finding these treasures—their trained and beloved canines. These men live an old-world way of life and seem pretty content, especially with their doggies at their side. As a matter of face, nothing else in their world seems to matter but these dogs!

Italian director Gianfranco Rosi takes us on a different journey. Over a three-year period, along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon he has sought to capture a region gripped by horrific and senseless violence where children relate the atrocities committed by ISIS (the most moving part of the film). I wish Rosi had focused more on inviting us into the world of these people than showing us the lovingly photographed exteriors.

Isabella
Tragic Jungle

Two films that sent me for a cine-spin were Yulene Olaizola's mesmeric (up to a point) and evocative "Tragic Jungle" and Matías Piñeiro's non-linear "Measure for Measure" meditation, "Isabella." Both films gave me anxiety. Both have certain elements that make them worthwhile yet both left me cold. "Jungle" struck me as a terrific idea for a short film belabored to death. "Isabella" is the more intellectually challenging making it the most curious and yet maddening. Both have women as their central figures ("Jungle" in the strangest manner) yet neither do enough with their female characters. Still both Olaizola and Piñeiro are filmmakers with singular visions and I look forward to seeing what they do next.

NYFF58 runs through 10/11. For more information, visit the New York Film Festival website.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

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