Film Gems Screen at 2019 New York Film Festival

The lineup at the 2019 New York Film Festival included art films that will likely be remembered more for their beauty than their content. Yet there were gems among the programming that will win awards, play in art film houses, thrive on streaming services and be remembered favorably.

American Trial: The Eric Garner Story (***1/2) If you turned on the TV and watched this courtroom drama about the Eric Garner case—a Staten Island, N.Y. man dies during a police arrest—you’d wonder how the producers got a topnotch camera crew into the courtroom of one of the most notorious trials in New York City’s history. Perfect angles, clear sound, and compelling testimony pull you in. Witnesses, medical experts and police are on view—under oath. There’s Garner’s wife, Mrs. Esaw Snipes Garner, on the stand answering attorneys’ questions, talking with the judge and reliving what had to be her greatest nightmare. Reality check. This is an imagined enactment, a mock trial and a fact-based film with a touch of fiction. Kind of like a documentary, filled with details, actualities, evidence and outcomes. But kind of not. Professionals (lawyers, doctors, etc.) play characters in a trial that never happened, but it might have had Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo been indicted for administering a choke hold resulting in Garner’s death. Producer/writer/director Roee Messinger has created an astonishing film, a video that contemplates what if. It tackles themes of race, police brutality, stop and frisk and the plusses and minuses of our judicial system. It poses hard questions with no easy answers in the most gripping way. Perhaps the film’s most poignant and humanizing sequences are when Mrs. Garner recollects her last moments with her husband and what they said: “I love you.” “I love you back.” At film’s end, when she sobs uncontrollably as she recognizes that being thrust into the spotlight never gave her time to properly grieve, it will break your heart. 

Cotton Club (****) Back in 1984 this crime/drama/musical was released with a 127-minute run time that left the storyline feeling truncated and jumbled. Gorgeously shot, art directed and costumed, the visuals were strong but the storytelling was not clear. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola has released a 139-minute director’s cut, and his revisions finally do justice to the script. Two coherent plotlines emerge. One involves a young white man, Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), who gets mixed up with mob boss Dutch Schultz and falls for the crook’s lover Vera (Diane Lane). The other narrative follows black tap dancers Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) and his brother Clay (Maurice Hines), along with Sandman’s love interest, singer Lila Rose (Lonette McKee). The latter is so light-skinned, some think she is Caucasian. Sandman: “You may be passing for white but you ain’t invisible.” The latter group works at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, where they can perform but racist policies bar them from being paying customers. Thirty-four years later the film’s perspectives on color barriers, love triangles and New York life still resonate. In this longer version, thankfully they are easier to discern. Gere’s overly edgy performance with its nervous ticks seems dated, but still dynamic. The Hines Brothers are magical on the dance floor. Lane is excellent as the woman in the middle of a triangle. McKee’s singing and swagger is mesmerizing in a Lena Horne way. The supporting cast of Laurence Fishburne, Gwen Verdon  and Diane Venora are superb. Only Nicholas Cage as Dixie’s brother disappoints. In many ways, Coppola, co-writer William Kennedy, Gere and the Hines brothers were telling a very progressive a tale about the 1920s, that was filmed in the ‘80s and still holds up in the 2010s. 

The Irishman (****) Martin Scorsese won a Best Director Oscar for The Departed, which seemed like a consolation prize for not winning one for Raging Bull or Goodfellas—his better work. This new impressive crime/drama clearly sets the director up for another trophy, one he deserves for making an epic (3h 29min) film, shepherding a narrative that passes through decades, guiding indelible performances by veteran actors, and giving the proceedings a look and sound that is never less than captivating. Based on the bio/book (by Charles Brandt) of the same name, the script by Steven Zaillian follows the thug life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a labor union official and hitman who palled around with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and International Brotherhood of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). These boys are rough. They live by a series of codes that can be lethal: “The only way three people can keep a secret is when two of them are dead.” CGI wizardry and makeup magically makes the seventysomething actors look younger and older. Robbie Robertson’s music pulsates. Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain,Babel) captures the time period, locations and faces perfectly with his mesmerizing cinematography. Art direction (Laura Ballinger), production design (Bob Shaw), set decoration (Regina Graves) and costume design (Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell) bring back the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s in the most evocative ways. Thelma Schoonmaker’s decisive editing makes time fly by. In every frame, scene, scheming murder and betrayal you can feel Scorsese’s presence. His style, patience, control, rhythm, restraint and superb taste is evident everywhere. Some will herald this as a fitting crown for the end of a master director’s career. But, smart cinephiles will recognize that this gifted and highly skilled auteur has only climbed to another summit, and there will be more.  

Motherless Brooklyn  (**1/2) You need to have great patience during the first hour of this film adaptation of a Brooklyn-set novel (by Jonathan Lethem). The payoff for soldiering through cumbersome exposition, stagnant scenes and stilted direction is a second and third act that pull errant plot pieces together into a pretty engaging finale. Credit actor/writer/director Edward Norton for even attempting an ambitious project. He vividly recreates the world of 1950s New York city politics, its crooked officials and a power-hungry urban developer who favored and built highways that often-displaced low-income dwellers. The latter plot device is the most interesting of the bunch. Unfortunately, it’s buried for all too long under a not-so-intriguing narrative about a private eye named Lionel (Norton) who has Tourette’s Syndrome. Lionel tries to solve the mystery surrounding the killing of his mentor Frank (Bruce Willis). Opening moments depict Lionel, his sidekick Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Willis peering into their car. The scene and their chattering drag on like a bag of bricks. The script unnecessarily frontloads character descriptions and backstory in wordy dialogue and incessant voiceovers. Why? It’s a needless crutch. Audiences are fully capable of figuring out who’s who, characters’ eccentricities and what’s what just by watching. Show, don’t tell—it’s the golden rule of filmmaking. The cinematography (Dick Pope), music (Daniel Pemberton), and editing (Joe Klotz) are never consistently good or bad. Willis acts like he is in another movie, a parody, not a stylish drama/thriller. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe are decent. Leslie Mann as Frank’s wife and Michael Kenneth Williams as a Miles Davis-like trumpeter steal scenes. There is something about Norton’s interpretation of a man with Tourette’s Syndrome that seems overly studied and inauthentic. Fake. Like it belongs in an advanced acting class, not in a movie. This very iffy and frustrating experience is nearly saved by the enlightening bits of New York history.

Pain and Glory (**1/2) It’s as if veteran Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has come to a crossroads and a time for reflection. At least that is what audiences may think as they view this very retrospective endeavor: Director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) recounts his life in flashbacks that reveal his childhood, nurturing mom (Penelope Cruz), unconventional upbringing, old flames and first crush on a young handyman. As Mallo shuttles between film festivals, speaking engagements and reunions his ruminations on love, sexuality, family and reconciliations are thoughtful and quite often amusing, in a decadent (e.g. drug-fueled) kind of way. The autobiographical moments seem intimate and personal, like someone sharing secrets that are curiously entertaining but never really profound. Makes you wonder if this pseudo biofilm would be as interesting if it weren’t about a world-famous filmmaker. Almodóvar’s ability to weave enchanting tales is so evident in his earlier works: MatadorWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Talk to Her. In his last batch of films, the visuals (cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; production designer Antxón Gómez) and (music composer Alberto Iglesias) tend to overpower his scripts, as it does here. Fortunately, Banderas  saves the day and is a revelation as his mentor’s alter-ego. His nuanced performance fills in the cracks of this moderately engaging and slightly indulgent self-portrait. 

The Traitor (****) Mob stories abound these days. Few focus on the informer, the killer who breaks away and helps authorities seek justice. Astutely, director Marco Bellocchio (Vincere, Victory March) reconstructs the life of Tommaso Buscetta, Sicily’s first Mafia informant. Set in 1980s Palermo, Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) leaves Italy and relocates to Brazil to escape the interfaction Cosa Nostra wars. He leaves behind his older offspring and ex-wife to start a new life with his current paramour and young kids. Back home Mafia hitmen are systematically killing his friends and family. He returns, rats on them to Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), and becomes a notorious traitor or savior, depending on your point of view. He’s hated and hailed. The inter-mob rivalries, murders and betrayals are fascinating. Watching the re-enactment of the Maxi Trial, the most famous prosecution of the Sicilian Mafia, with the accused in cages heckling witnesses, is a marvel. Favino recreates a character with incredible charisma who lives by a Cosa Nostra code of honor that doesn’t exist anymore. The supporting cast is as excellent as the tech team. In a career that has been vibrant and vital for six decades, Bellocchio has created another masterful achievement. He takes the shine and glamour off of mob life. A brilliant, revealing and enlightening piece of filmmaking. Riveting in every way.

Zombi Child (**) From a sociological aspect, this dual storyline film is somewhat fascinating: Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian man, dies on the Caribbean island in 1962, but lives in torment as a zombie. Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a young modern-day Haitian girl lives at an elite, mostly white, boarding school in France. Their lives are connected. The paranormal and cultural differences boil up under the direction of Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama), who bases the zombie story on a “real life” person. The cast, including Louise Labèque as a student who befriends Melissa and seeks out her aunt for some voodoo ritual, is good in a film that never becomes eerie enough to be truly haunting. Fear, melancholy and imminent danger should be the overriding feelings when a soul is caught in purgatory and needs to be freed. Those elements would be the barometer. If you’re not scared enough to crap your pants, it’s a limp zombie movie. This film never takes you or your psyche to a place that that would make you worry. Pity. 

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