The Reeler


September 27, 2007

Choice Words

Reeler reviews editor Michelle Orange on early NYFF faves and a bastard named De Palma

Go Go Dafoe: The actor portrays NYC club baron Ray Ruby in Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales (Photo: Wild Bunch)

Choosing what to see is the dilemma at any film festival, but the New York Film Festival really knows how to stack a tight, prestigious deck, somehow making the choice more difficult in spite of the relatively small number of films (only 28 films will screen, as opposed to almost 200 at Tribeca, or over 300 at Toronto). With NYFF finally breathing its hot-buttered quality and fine tuned, international scope down our collectively craned necks, this week I took the deer-in-the-klieg-lights approach to the program, drawn wide-eyed toward several of the heavy-hitters and at least one hometown favorite.

The release of this year's docket in August was just cause for the proverbial flurry of anticipation, and the notion of nouveau quintessential New Yorker Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited opening the festival made this writer clap into a miniature, assiduously art-directed, precious jewel box of a swoon. Darjeeling will certainly not disappoint Anderson obsessives any more than The Life Aquatic did; those bent on disappointment will find what they are (not) looking for, but the twee one's fifth film flashes edifying signs of a slow, stubborn evolution. That growth is especially evident in the short film Hotel Chevalier, which will precede Darjeeling screenings but as of yet is not expected to accompany that film's theatrical release. (It is, however, downloadable for free at iTunes). The pseudo-prequel manages a more successfully strange, consistently enthralling tone than the feature, with Jason Schwartzman's Darjeeling character holed up in a Paris hotel, only to be descended upon by the girlfriend (played by a startlingly louche Natalie Portman) he is hiding from.

Darjeeling holds its cards a little further from the vest, from the family baggage metaphor (three brothers played by Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody reunite for a trip to India, carrying their dead father's copious luggage around with them everywhere they go) to the walking wounded (the tabloid-besieged Wilson is covered in bandages from a recent, possibly self-inflicted accident) to the signature, impeccably scored slo-mo sequence; The Royal Tenenbaums' Nico/Gwyneth/slo-mo combo will never be outdone, but there are several here that give it a good go. Anjelica Huston contributes a nice turn as the absent, inadequate mother the boys end up seeking in the Himalayas, and a funeral sequence bisected by a flashback to the last time the boys were together in New York is moving and unforced. The same can't quite be said for what follows, although the film's small moments of beauty and wist make it worthwhile.

Suffering from more fatal third act wounds is Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, another familial saga, this one from an octogenarian who is clearly spiking his Geritol, Sidney Lumet. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers quietly falling apart beneath the shiny exterior of their New York City lives. Both living beyond their more than comfortable means, greed and debt drives Hoffman, playing the eldest, to propose the robbery of a Westchester mom-and-pop jewelry store to his puppyish younger brother. Problem is, the mom and pop happen to be their own. Hoffman, at his darkest since Happiness, is magnetic as the monsterish paragon of entitlement, and Hawke responds with an energized, utterly believable portrait of scrabbling desperation.

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Lumet's flashy directorial flourishes go from placid to kinetic in a stroke; his jumpy timeline unpacks the greatest mistake of one's life by revisiting it obsessively from every angle. The robbery goes horribly wrong, and the tension that Lumet builds around the events that unfold in jagged, perspective-driven shards works beautifully -- until it doesn't. The narrative eventually stops pulling its own weight, and by the time the brother's father, played by Albert Finney, begins threading in and out of the boys' mutually assured self-destruction, the melodrama begins to draw too deeply on the viewer's investment. I was reminded of The Brave One's dystopian invocation of New York and the fear and violence so easily revealed beneath the surface of all that was once loved; this is indeed not just a family but a city at desperate odds with its own desires, its own promise of the good life. It turns out to be a film at odds with itself as well.

The only thing beneath the surface in the New York of Ray Ruby's Paradise, the dank, dying strip club where Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales is set, is more surface: skin, for the most part. Willem Dafoe is Ray Ruby, a club manager in a helmet of marcelled waves and a stained white suit. The Paradise is not a going but rather an ongoing concern -- business is bad, the strippers can't get paid and Ray is squandering what little money does come in on his addiction to the Lotto. Having bet the farm on a $17 million jackpot, Ray is in a holding pattern -- that is, holding off his screeching virago landlord (Sylvia Miles) and his much better-off brother (Matthew Modine), who has his own cash invested in the joint. Ferrara seems to have a good time vamping up the good old/bad old days of underworld New York, particularly when serving up more writhing ass than a donkey farm during a cholera epidemic. But some of the riff-heavy scenes feel riff-heavy, and Ferrara seems more impressed with his satire of a dying lifestyle/New York/genre than I was, luxuriating in nipple shots in between the chef's rant about cooking organic hot dogs in his "gourmet kitchen." When the humor works it's playfully wicked, both visually and otherwise (Dafoe has a fantastic scene of tumbling confession at the end), but when Asia Argento is upstaged by a pole-dancing Chihuahua, something is either very wrong or very right. You decide.

Troop morale: The cast of Brian De Palma's Redacted (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

At least Brian De Palma's Redacted leaves no room for invoking reader discretion: It is infuriating, and I imagine most viewers will find it so, if for differing reasons. Casting obvious aspersions on the media misrepresentation of the Iraq war from the lofty perch of an HDNet-backed project, De Palma decided to construct a film that "visually documents" the events surrounding the 2006 gang rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qasim Hamza and the slaughter of her family. He has fictionalized them, though, changing the locale and the soldiers and biting on the style -- and in some cases the content -- of the host of documentaries that have come out of Iraq (The War Tapes and Gunner Palace in particular) in the past several years. Clever, clever, or so the director clearly thinks, but Redacted manages to be overdone and undercooked at the same time, both disingenuous and entirely self-serious. Intermixing the ostensible video diary of a soldier in Samarra with a portentous French documentary on their unit, news segments, YouTube and other internet videos and the footage of various security cameras, De Palma attempts to shed some light on how four soldiers could wind up committing the atrocities they did.

The dialogue is terrible, the acting is almost uniformly bad, the characterizations of the soldiers trite and eagerly inflammatory and the politics entirely gaffed in their bulldozing rush to indictment. "The camera doesn't lie," one soldier says. "That's all the camera does," says another. Here's the truth about this movie, its cameras and its lies: De Palma's decision to cap off his offensively botched response to the war with a photo montage entitled "Collateral Damage," featuring the battered, brutalized and decimated corpses of Iraqi women and children with the self-congratulation of one who thinks he is doing what is not just necessary but right, then ending the montage with possibly the most horrific image I have ever seen -- reportedly that of the actual Abeer Hamza after being gang raped, shot in the face and set on fire -- made me white with rage. Yes, Americans do need to have a better sense of the heinous toll of this war, although I can't in good conscience imagine arguing that anyone could ever need to see something so spirit-crushing, so blazing with evil. More critically, tacking such violently upsetting images onto this piece-of-shit polemic as an afterthought and hiding behind the defense of enlightening Americans about their war is Hollywood hackery at its most despicable, pairing low intentions and cheap effects with the actual, excruciating experiences of real people who can't protect themselves from such exploitation or anything else any longer.

I'll return next week with a continuation of my NYFF survey, when I will have checked out Cannes favorite 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Persepolis and I'm Not There, among others.

Comments (1)

This comment--

"The Royal Tenenbaums' Nico/Gwyneth/slo-mo combo will never be outdone, but there are several here that give it a good go."

kinda weakens the rest of your writing here, which is really strong. This is Pitchforky. It puts me in mind of a lot of Nathan Lee's stuff, which is also really strong in general--I'm not sure whether or not to take this as legitimate criticism, or mock-idolatry. Is there a wink here? It certainly doesn't further anything--just fan-writing.

I guess I'm also thinking: slow-mo sequence shots scored to Nico? Really? Are we that impressed?

The divide widens...

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