Saturday, October 9, 2010

Film Socialisme, Meek's Cutoff, and missing Old Cats (New York Film Festival)

My final day at the New York Film Festival was a serious overload. Last time was hard enough, but imagine starting the day in the 3:00 slot and continuing with not only 2 other features (6:00 and 9:15) but also two 10-minute-plus shorts in between. Add to that the fact that I was pretty sick, which didn't do me any favors for the last film that I saw. That was the world premiere of "Old Cats." I felt pretty much like I was going to faint, so I had to leave the film early. I hadn't seen enough of it to make a real judgement, but I was intrigued by it, and if I had been at full strength I would have stuck around.

Anyways, on to the films that I did actually see. Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme" does some interesting things with sound and image conventions, such as juxtaposing supposedly "meaningful" music with stuff you wouldn't particularly associate with it, recording a blasting club scene with a digital camera with poor audio, flashing a blank screen, and making some jarringly unexpected cuts on the tracks. Godard also does some nice compositions and has a beautiful shot of waves crashing against each other in slow motion.

But he makes some tiresome choices that make the film pretty hard to tolerate. The most prominent would be making the film have "Navajo subtitles," which means a faulty and erratic readout that blends words together and sometimes doesn't even give them. This is a middle finger thrown by Godard, and it irritated me. (To tell you the truth, a lot of things irritated me about this movie. I'm guessing that was entirely intentional on Godard's part.) However, it's not as if what the (irritating) actors are saying is particularly profound. In fact, it seems like it's the same sort of rhetoric that populates all of his work.

There's not a lot one will gain from seeing this film. I personally wish I'd walked out or just seen something different. I understand Godard's tactics, and they had some effect on me. And it's interesting to see his presumable swan song. But the film has already pretty much decayed in my mind. C

After a movie like that one, I was ready to be astonished by Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff," but that simply didn't happen. Maybe it was the short that came before it (the somewhat needless "Day Trip" by Zoe McIntosh) that shook me from the right mood. Maybe it was the fact that it was slotted second. Maybe it was all of the people who came in late and who were escorted around with blaring flashlights. In any event, this overrated film failed to grip or engage me. (I feel very similarly to Joshua Rothkopf, who articulated this feeling in this piece.)

I really wanted to like it a lot, but I was faced with a smartly-written but monotonous and underwhelming film with nothing more than a couple of good moments. The film has an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood in what could be considered either an excellent or massively hammy performance as Stephen Meek, who is taking a brood of 7 people on a tortuous and possibly aimless trip in 19th century Oregon. As my friend noted, we have no clue who these people are, where they've been, or where exactly they're going. Among them we have Emily and Soloman Tetherow (Reichardt regulars Michelle Williams and Will Patton), Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), and Glory and Jimmy White (Shirley Henderson and Tommy Nelson) with their son William (Neal Huff).

Emily sees a recurrent figure: a horseman who disappears on the horizon, who she later sees up close. This "heathen" (Rod Rondeaux) the group eventually assimilates, desperately asking him for water and being afraid that he'll lead them into an ambush.

A huge mistake the film makes in my opinion is going the "classical" way and confining the aspect ratio to a box. Joshua Rothkopf calls this an "ugly western" and I totally agree when it comes to this "screen-fitting." The colors of Chris Blauvelt's good cinematography can also be a bit sickening as well, although I'm not exactly sure why. Another thing I'm unsure of is Michelle Williams' performance. It seems muddled between afraid and sure, and it's unclear whether that is intentional or not. Also on the subject of acting, famously plaintive Shirley Henderson seems rather oddly cast here after her work in Solondz's "Life During Wartime."

Many consider the film to be an exceptionally towering achievement. I understand their sympathies, but I don't really share them. Even in terms of Reichardt, I like "Wendy and Lucy" much better. C

As noted before, I had to leave "Old Cats" early due to feeling sick. I did catch the short film that opened for it, "Protect the Nation" by C.R. Reisser, which is energetic in that "Slumdog Millionaire"/"City of God"/3rd-world-country type way, but ultimately unresolved and sometimes a bit idiotic.

So that marks the end of an overwhelming NYFF 2010 for me. 5 1/4 features, 2 shorts, and no big discoveries, sadly (the best film I saw being the B- rated "Uncle Boonmee"). However, I will be seeing Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's "A Screaming Man" and Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy" in the next few weeks as a part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, so there may be a favorable review around the corner ;).

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