Seen at the Movies: The 43rd New York Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, wraps this weekend after two weeks of new film showings, retrospectives, and special events. This year, the selections included a few high-profile fall movie releases and a substantial Asian film contingent, particularly hailing from the very vital South Korean industry. Relatively few films lack distributors at this point, so most should be going into commercial release sometime over the next year.
The festival’s opening film, which also is being released this week, was Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s very focused, small-scale examination of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s showdown with commie hunter Joseph McCarthy. Murrow is played by David Strathairn, McCarthy is played by his archival footage self, and the cast also includes Clooney, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, and Frank Langella (sensational as network head William S. Paley). The black and white cinematography by Robert Elswit skillfully suggests the look of a 1950s TV drama, production designer Jim Bissell’s sets perfectly capture the newsroom aura, and Louise Frogley has a monochromatic field day with gray flannel.
Another festival film with unfussy period design is Bennett Miller’s Capote, which has also been released to theatres. As you may have heard, Philip Seymour Hoffman has himself a tour de force in the title role of the movie, which concentrates on the author’s research and writing of In Cold Blood in the early 1960s. (Also worth noting are Catherine Keener as friend Harper Lee and Clifton Collins, Jr. as Perry Smith, the killer Capote became so involved with.) Adam Kimmel contributes beautifully spare widescreen photography to the film, which subs Manitoba for the Kansas plains, while Jess Gonchor’s production design captures both plain middle-American homes and Brooklyn brownstones; this time, the suits in varying shades of black are designed by Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who also gets to supply Truman with a scarf or two.
Two other notable American films in the festival were Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, a tiny little drama shot in Ohio with non-professional actors, with the director using his DP pseudonym Peter Andrews; and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, an autobiographical 1980s-set story of the marital breakup of two writers (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) and its effects on their sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline). Baumbach is the son of critic Georgia Brown and novelist Jonathan Baumbach, and he sets his movie in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, where he grew up. An interesting side note: the Baumbach townhouse was used as a location for Mike Nichols’ Heartburn, a film Squid and the Whale production designer Anne Ross researched for accuracy’s sake. Robert Yeoman was the cinematographer, and Amy Westcott the costume designer.
The festival centerpiece was Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, starring the odd-featured Cillian Murphy as an Irish drag queen circa the 1960s and 70s. This fanciful tale, based on a novel by Butcher Boy author Patrick McCabe, has a colorful, multi-textured look courtesy of DP Declan Quinn and production designer Tom Conroy; Elmer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes for Murphy cover a spectacular range of ensembles, from hippie androgyne to cabaret chanteuse—he’s like the anti-Ed Murrow. Equally idiosyncratic is Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a sort-of filming of the 18th-century novel starring Steve Coogan that has great fun breaking the third wall and portraying its own production. All kinds of trivial details are included, including a costume designer reduced to tears by a criticism of the historical accuracy of her military uniforms. The film’s actual costume designer is Charlotte Walter; the cinematography is by Marcel Zyskind, and the production design is by John Paul Kelly.
Danish bad boy Lars von Trier was back with Manderlay, a follow-up to Dogville, with Bryce Dallas Howard taking over for Nicole Kidman to diminished results. Once again, the film—set on a 1930s-era Alabama plantation—is shot (by Anthony Dod Mantle) on a relatively bare stage with chalk marks to designate sets and props; Asa Frankenberg’s lighting design and Marten Negenman’s sound design take care of the rest. A more subtle example of stylization is to be found in Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun, an impressionistic portrait of Japanese emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata) in the last days of World War II. Though less formally striking than Sokurov’s one-take Russian Ark, The Sun includes such beautiful effects as airplanes with bird’s tails bombing miniature cities. Sokurov himself is responsible for the soft, extremely dark images, and the elegant production design is by Yuri Kuper. From Poland, Dorota Kedzierzawska’s I Am features self-consciously gorgeous cinematography by Arthur Reinhart and little else of interest.
For me, the most powerful European film in the festival was Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a by-turns harrowing and bleakly funny examination of a dying man’s adventures with the Bucharest health-care system. Shot in near-documentary style by Oleg Mutu, with similarly modest production and costume design by Cristina Barbu, the movie is unflinching in its portrait of both dysfunctional bureaucracy and human fallibility. Also worthwhile is L’Enfant, the latest effort from the Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; it’s a little more schematic than the directors’ last movie, The Son, but it still packs a naturalistic punch, with DP Alain Marcoen once again on camera. Both of these entries are far superior to the stinker of a closing-night film, Michael Haneke’s Cache, in which Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil take on a tiresome burden of post-colonial guilt. DP Christian Berger delivers Haneke’s customary static images, while production designer Emmanuel de Chauvigny and costume designer Lisy Christl help depict a comfortable upper-middle-class existence that we’re all supposed to despise the attractive main characters for leading.
From Japan, Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s Who’s Camus Anyway? is a playful and entertaining portrait of a band of student filmmakers, with a virtuoso opening tracking shot that both mimics and comments on similar flourishes in Touch of Evil and The Player. The director of photography is Junichi Fujisawa.
The aforementioned South Korean films in the festival included the violent Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (directed by Park Chanwook and shot by Chung Chung-hoon); the self-reflective Tale of Cinema (director, Hong Sang-soo, and cinematographer, Kim Hyungkoo); and Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang, a wildly exuberant account of dictatorial president Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979. The active camera style of DP Kim Woohyung and the lively colors in Lee Min-bok’s production design and Kim Dohee’s costumes undercut the sober potential of the subject matter, which is all to the good.
Though it also contains moments of humor as well as suspense, there is little to leaven the despair of Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, an up-close look at the ambiguous motivations of two Palestinian volunteers for a suicide bombing mission. Shot in thriller style by Antoine Heberle, the film provides insight into if not sympathy for its subjects. One of more startling moments in the film finds the scruffy characters emerging from a makeover session looking like extras in a Quentin Tarantino film, complete with black suits and thin ties (courtesy costume designer Walid Maw’ed).--John Calhoun