Friday, October 06, 2006

In and around the NYFF

The first two weeks of October are always one of the busiest times of the year for me. There's work deadlines. The New York Film Festival. The theater season. The new TV season. Vacuuming. Personal stuff. All of which conspires to keep me from blogging just when I should really be working the keyboard.

But I would be lax in my duties not to say at least a little something about the films I've been seeing in and around the festival, though it can only be a little something for now. As most of the movies are sold out at Lincoln Center, I can always return to them closer to their release.

Right? Or just rationalizing?

Anyway...playing at the festival this weekend...briefly noted...

Volver (Sony Pictures Classics, opens Nov. 3). After the chilly intellectual breezes of Talk to Her and Bad Education, Pedro Almodovar's new film warms the circulation. The subject matter--hauntings, cancer, severely dysfunctional family relationships, homicide--is bleak but the filmmaker has calibrated everything to the strut and bounce of Penelope Cruz's ravishing performance. Wearing a big caboose as if she were born to it, her liberation from stultifying U.S. roles is worth the price of admission, with the great Carmen Maura and a cast of fine actresses adding to a smart, reflective entertainment.

The Host (Magnolia Pictures; opens January 2007). Little Miss Sunshine meets Godzilla. When a ravening monster makes off with a plucky schoolgirl, her family is forced to put their grudges and anxieties behind as Korean bureaucracy and American duplicity prove as much of a challenge as the creature, a tadpole-like beast with a prehensile tail and the ever-devouring mouth of Little Shop of Horrors' Audrey II. Bong Joon-ho made one of my favorite films of recent years, Memories of Murder, and his contribution to monsterdom is an equally impressive mixture of satire, social criticism, and gentle humanism. A remarkable balancing act.

David Lynch's Inland Empire and Johnnie To's Triad Election (plus a peek at the Hong Kong filmmaker's very latest, Exiled) are on the slate for Sunday.

Screening next weekend at the festival is Emmanuel Bourdieu's unsettling Poison Friends (Strand Releasing), about a very particular type we all come across, this time at university in Paris--an effortlessly charismatic know-it-all (newcomer Thibault Vincon as Andre) whose effect on those in his orbit is part galvanizing and part paralyzing, inspiring, intimidating, and undermining all at once. The strength of the piece is that it refuses to outright condemn Andre, who is more, and less, what he seems to be through the prism of his merciless ego. The accompanying short, Chronicle of a Leap, is a delight, by the way.

The closing film, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (Picturehouse, opens Dec. 29, and pictured), is very much a case of saving the best for last. A sweeping fantasy of a little girl caught in the crossfire of Franco-era fascism and insurgent resistance fighters in 1944 Spain, it takes its place with the best films of its kind, like Forbidden Games, The Night of the Hunter, and The Spirit of the Beehive, but is very much one-of-a-kind, a great leap forward for the inventive but inconsistent maker of The Devil's Backbone and Hellboy. Sergi Lopez is wonderfully malevolent as a sadistic captain, right up there with Robert Mitchum in Hunter, and Ivana Baquero charming as his youngest, most unexpected opponent. The fantasy aspects, creepy and persuasively design, augment the storyline well. Terrific.

Two other films open next weekend. Douglas McGrath's Infamous (Warner Independent Pictures) plows the same ground as last year's Capote, but with a lighter, "gayer" touch, as the writer (dead ringer Toby Jones) more explicitly finds a kinship with his journalistic quarry, the In Cold Blood killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig). The New York material is mostly new and the all-star cast largely pleasant company, but once the film hits Kansas it's scene-to-scene similar to its more sober predecessor. Being first has definite advantages.

Being way, way out there does not, as is the case of Terry Gilliam's Tideland (ThinkFilm). This is an unfathomable and only very intermittently watchable story about a little girl lost in her own imagination of broken dolls and friendless souls once her hard-rocking father (Jeff Bridges) dies of a drug overdose, leaving behind little more than his rotting corpse in their isolated farmhouse home. Like David Cronenberg's Spider, the running time is largely given over to the kid (Jodelle Ferland in a heroically untethered performance) babbling nonsense to herself, a sure way to clear a theater. Those of us who stayed behind to watch to the bitter end were rewarded with an impressively staged aftermath of a train wreck, a metaphor that suits the entire artfully botched film. Only the hardest-core Gilliamites need apply; the rest of us can only hope that his semi-serious begging for work leads next time to a more engaging movie.

I hear the vacuum cleaner calling my name...

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