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The NYFF Marathon

By John Magary

Like civilization, the New York Film Festival plans on ending with a bang this weekend. Go down with 'em, my friends, go down with 'em. But what to watch? You can’t leave the fantasy caskets of the Ziegfeld and Walter Reade for too long -- even if the 70-and-sunny forecasts hold, it’s just too scary out there -- so I’ve drawn up a relentless itinerary for Saturday. Stray from it at your peril.

O Holy Nuit: Mathieu Almaric and Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale, one of the highlights of the closing weekend of the New York Film Festival (Photo: IFC Flims)

First, head to A Christmas Tale at the Ziegfeld (11:15 a.m.). Families have assembled and reassembled for the holidays an awful lot in movie history, but rarely have they been so bracingly and hilariously transparent. Arnaud Desplechin, hurling fearlessly with co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu into the sweet spot of their collaboration, has carved from quickly melting ice an intensely nuanced comedy, wild with resentment. Despelchin’s astonishing stable of regulars -- Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, et al -- are so in sync with their try-anything director that, moment to moment, the film takes on an almost collage-like emotional range. The New York Film Festival doesn’t give out awards, but if it did, I’d say this is the pony to beat. And if there were a second place prize, this would probably deserve that, too.

After the not-to-be-missed Q&A with Desplechin, a big French bang of magpie vitality if ever there was one, you have a decision to make: Darezhan Omirbaev’s Chouga (3 p.m., Ziegfeld) or Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (4 p.m., Walter Reade)? It goes without saying that this is the only time you’ll make this decision in your entire life, so savor it. Unless a miracle happens, neither Chouga, an elliptical compression of Anna Karenina, nor Death by Hanging, a 1968 treatise on the moral hypocrisies of capital punishment in Japan, will screen here again for years. I have not seen Death by Hanging, whose rarity is surpassed only by its masterpiece reputation, but Chouga is bone-dry and slight in the extreme. A few critics have mentioned this film’s implicit commentary on the rising consumerism of Kazakhstan’s middle class; fine and dandy, except the vehicle for this commentary is a coldly affected stoicism-at-gunpoint. I have no doubt that Omirbaev, considered a master by some fine critics (Kent Jones among them), has brilliance to spare, but Chouga, a merely adequate work, feels both fashionably "relevant" and hemmed in by its own vast literature-purifying premise. It feels like an in-between work: a B-side. First time I’ve said this, but I'd happily choose Death by Hanging.

Then you’ll have to run on back to the Ziegfeld, for the second half of Saturday’s Kazakhstani double bill: Tulpan (6 p.m.), the debut feature by documentarian Sergey Dvortsevoy, feels like, to paraphrase Michael Tully’s apt assessment at Hammer to Nail, a collaboration with God. A small tale in a very big place, Tulpan is notable not so much for its narrative elements (regional ambition, disapproving father, fumbling courtship, etc., all a little indie-familiar) as for its natural elements. Dvortsevoy gives us not one but two instances of man-to-lamb mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Loaded with startling ethnography, fluidly staged among the sublime, howling dust-clouds of the Kazakh Steppe -- take note, my friends, this is a bold step forward in new energy development: the world’s first wind-powered filmmaker -- Tulpan has no distributor. God knows it should.

We end a day of dreaming with -- what else? -- shame and avoidance.

(L-R) Kyoko Koizumi, Kai Inowaki, Teruyuki Kagawa and Yu Koyangi in Tokyo Sonata (Photo: NYFF)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (9:15 p.m., Ziegfeld) is an immaculately composed game of middle-class hide-and-seek. A husband and father is laid off, and, rather than tell his family the truth, whiles away the days in soup kitchens and unemployment agencies, joined by scores of salarymen engaged in the same shame-fueled shadowboxing. His wife, her face smoothed by an Olympian calm, performs thankless domestic duties (vacuuming, paying bills, frying up donuts) with phantom detachment. Their youngest son, a closet prodigy struggling at school, longs to play piano. Their restless older son, in one of the film’s few skunky threads, signs up for the American (!) Army, and more or less disappears.

What reads on paper like stock suburban ennui becomes, in Kurosawa’s hands, surprisingly fresh and engaging. A delicate tangle of mutual deception, Tokyo Sonata, like Kurosawa’s better-known horror work, creeps just above the white noise of despair. In one of the film’s most haunting scenes, the father slumps off to bed, leaving his wife lying still on the couch. She raises her arms, hypnotized by exhaustion, and whispers out, “Somebody please pull me up.” It is an exquisitely structured chamber piece with an unforgettable coda. If the last frame doesn’t get you, then I don’t know. You, my friend, may be lost to the temperate world outside.

John Magary is a New York-based filmmaker. His short film The Second Line is currently making the rounds.

Posted at October 11, 2008 7:41 AM

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