What's Up @ the Reconfigured NY Film Fest — Weeks 1 & 2

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday September 26, 2020

What's Up @ the Reconfigured NY Film Fest — Weeks 1 & 2

This year's New York Film Festival, like most 2020 Fests, is a virtual/drive-in hybrid running longer than usual, September 17 — October 11th. The committee has selected 25 films, from 19 different countries for its Main Slate. Four other sections include Currents, Spotlight, Revivals, and Talks.

"The disorientation and uncertainty of this tough year had the effect of returning us to core principles," said Dennis Lim, Director of Programming for NYFF. "To put it simply, the Main Slate is our collective response to one central question: Which films matter to us right now?"

The Opening Night selection, Steve McQueen's "Lovers Rock," is a great example of an original narrative. It also happens to be the first in a series of five films called "Small Axe," debuting on Amazon Prime this Fall. Two other installments play the festival: "Mangrove" and "Red, White and Blue."

The Centerpiece selection is Chloé Zhao's "Nomadland," starring Frances McDormand. Azazel Jacobs's "French Exit," with Michelle Pfeiffer, will close the festival.

Below are the first half highlights of some of the Main Slate, Currents, and Spotlights that I have had access to so far.

"Nomadland" (Centerpiece)

This year's NYFF Centerpiece, "Nomadland," is also the highlight thus far. Chloé Zhao, who gave us "The Rider," is back with another factualized fiction film. She has adeptly adapted Jessica Bruder's acclaimed book about itinerant older Americans roaming the West, and delivers a work that can be tagged Neo-Neorealism. The film examines one year in the life of a seemingly stubborn but truly independent woman named Fern (embodied fully by Frances McDormand) who has always called things as she sees them. Fern is a widow whose small town completely shut down after the closing of a factory. She now lives out of her old camper van and looks for work. Along the way, Fern encounters many other nomads (most of them real, like the amazing Swankie!) and each vignette, each visit has profound meaning. Fern loves people, but she also seems to have a deep desire to be alone, out in nature. McDormand is luminous. It's a performance of such grace and wonder it left me breathless.

Zhao has created a true work of cinematic art for our time, a sublime journey of the spirit and the soul of a woman and her country.

"Lovers Rock" (Opening Night)

Around the final quarter of the 68-minute film "Lovers Rock," Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) courageously stops a sexual assault. It's a tense and telling scene, and the only moment that closely resembles any kind of traditional narrative, yet this buoyant and celebratory film, directed by Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave," "Shame") is absolutely mesmerizing. The work is a bold and sexy celebration of culture where the viewer loses themselves in the mood and atmosphere and music and colors. McQueen, along with co-screenwriter Courttia Newland has fashioned a tribute of sorts to the West Indian community he grew up in. These reggae/blues dance parties were a haven for young British West Indian people who were discriminated against in the mainstream clubs. Guys were on the make. Girls were flirtatious, usually cautiously so since men might prove to be predators regardless of culture or class. An a capella version of Janet Kay's 1979 song "Silly Games" is a highlight. The cast is as intoxicating as the milieu, with St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward and Kedar Williams-Stirling particular standouts.

"Lovers Rock" is part of a 5-part anthology series "Small Axe."

"Mangrove"

McQueen's second "Small Axe" segment at the NYFF (the first in the anthology) is a powerful work about taking on the establishment. "Mangrove," written by Steve McQueen and Alistair Siddons and directed by McQueen, tells the story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a Trinidadian bar owner in Notting Hill, in 1968, who found himself the constant target of police raids. These white officers seemed to enjoy hassling and harassing the local West Indian community simply because of their race. When the locals became fed up with the constant intimidation and arrests, they decided to take to the streets in protest, which resulted in a lunatic court case that is the film's core. I saw this and "The Trial of the Chicago 7" on the same day, which made for quite the galvanizing double feature.

"Mangrove" is a taut, tense, often-hilarious, too-often angering account of the harsh and extreme racism that ran rampant in Britain just a few decades ago. It's also a painfully clear reminder of how not much has changed in the U.K...or the U.S. since.

"I Carry You With Me" ('Te llevo conmigo")

This is the only queer-themed film so far at NYFF58.

I was so invested in the heart-wrenching love story at the core of Heidi Ewing's palpable and affecting docu-narrative hybrid, "I Carry You With Me (Te llevo conmigo)," I found myself actually holding my breath several times while I watched, mesmerized. The film is striking for blending narrative fiction, based on fact, with actual footage of the two central Mexican figures, yet the soul of this urgent and exquisite film is the palpable and potent chemistry between Iván and Gerardo played superbly by Armando Espitia and Christian Vázquez, respectively, in the 1994 scenes. Ewing's work reveals just how rampant the insidious and damaging homophobia is in certain families in many countries, it's also a damning indictment of the U.S. immigration policies that destroy families. In Spanish with English subtitles.

"MLK/FBI"

Sam Pollard's "MLK/FBI" should be required viewing in all high schools so our young minds can know all about just how insidious our government has behaved in the past, and how it's probably even worse today when it comes to surveillance of figures who are deemed a danger to the state. The documentary goes into fascinating detail about how the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (as well as President Johnson), began an effort to take down Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by recording his every move and discovering salacious things about his personal life. Hoover feared the rise of a Black messiah. The most shocking part is that the public and government were complicit, since they saw King as a threat to the good ol' USA. Racism was rampant, and the doc goes into detail about how so many Americans viewed blacks as being less than human and how the black man, in particular, was seen as a sexual threat. "MLK/FBI" is as compelling as it is exasperating.

"All In: The Fight for Democracy"

How do Republicans keep getting away with stealing elections?
They make it impossible for all the people who want to vote to actually do so.

"All In: The Fight for Democracy," the enraging yet empowering new doc by
Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, never asks this question outright, but the indictment is obvious. The film is a spellbinding odyssey that charts the history of voter suppression in the U.S., one that was born out of hatred (Southern hatred of Black people), so poll taxes and lunatic literacy tests were created. The activism of the 1960s gave birth to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Alas, in 2013 the Supreme Court whittled away at the Voting Rights Act, creating a return to state discrimination. Certain states wasted no time in gerrymandering, closing polls, and purging voters. All of this has led to a president losing the popular vote by 3 million votes yet stealing...oops, I mean winning the presidency.

Right after I watched this doc, I learned of the passing of the great Ruth Bader Ginsberg. That tragedy was immediately followed by Mitch McConnell's vow, "President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate." We are currently in a fight to hold onto our withering democracy. Unfortunately, winning the war requires our Supreme Court to be bipartisan, to be fair. And that's looking mighty grim right at this moment.

"The Human Voice"

Jean Cocteau's 1930's "monodrama," The Human Voice," has been a showcase for female powerhouse actors throughout the years (many captured on film), most notably Anna Magnani in 1948, Ingrid Bergman in 1966, and, more recently, Sophia Loren in 2014. Now, collaborating with visionary Pedro Almodóvar, Tilda Swinton renders her take on this nameless character who walks a tightrope of emotions (in just 30 minutes) while waiting for her lover, who eventually calls. Swinton's slow build to her own kind of volcanic eruption, that takes a satisfying modern turn, is an absolute joy to behold. She commands the screen and one wishes Almodóvar would have given us a full-length narrative about what happens to this entrancing woman after the credits roll.

"David Byrne's American Utopia"

David Byrne's last concert film featured his then-group Talking Heads in Jonathan Demme's now-classic "Stop Making Sense." 36 years later, Byrne is back in Spike Lee's spirited filmed version of the rousing Broadway sensation "David Byrne's American Utopia," utilizing some songs from Talking Heads, reinterpreted by a gaggle of incredibly talented artists onstage with him for the full hour and 45 minutes. "Utopia" is a not-so-slyly subversive call for change. The irony of the title suggests the show could have been called, "David Byrne's American Idiot," but Byrne isn't about attacking as much as he's about presenting, protesting, and pleading, all in a resonant yet entertaining concert. A favorite moment is the fabulous "Toe Jam." Another highlight is a stirring rendition of Janelle Monáe's "Hell You Talmbout," delivered while images of murdered black youth appear on the screen. Lee captures the joy, but also the pain, of Byrne's view of America, a place that has drifted so far from anyone's notion of a utopia that only a fascist could sell it as such.

"Undine"

German helmer Christian Petzold's last film was the thrilling "Transit," (NYFF56) starring Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer. The two reunite for a much more bizarre and sometimes surreal film, "Undine." In Euro-mythology, Undine is a water nymph who, by falling in love, becomes human and remains so as long as the man is faithful. This info is not established in the narrative, so I had no clue about it until afterwards, when I did a bit of Googling, and yet I found "Undine" to be a spellbinding experience. Beer is luminous in the titular role of a Berlin tour guide who is devastated by a breakup with her beau (Jacob Matschenz), only to find true love with an endearing, if slightly bumbling, diver (Rogowski, adorable). The water images alone are captivating. In German with English subtitles

"The Salt of Tears" ("Le Sel Des Larmes")

In the early scenes of Philippe Garrel's "The Salt of Tears," the film appears to be some kind of nostalgic romance reeking of misogyny. But it doesn't take long to realize that the soft spoken, seemingly genuine protagonist, Luc (a sexy and affable Logann Antuofermo), is really a selfish cad capitulating to the will of his own carnal desires — which are at odds with his pursuit of amor, making him just enigmatic enough for us to care about him. The plot is simple: Luc has a series of encounters with three different women, while pursuing his education. Garrel continues the intimate relationship examinations of his last three films ("Jealousy," "In the Shadow of Women," "Lover for a Day"), but this time he turns the player prototype on its ear and, in doing so, exposes just how toxic behavior that was, until just recently, seen as normal truly is. Karma plays a major factor in Luc's journey, but Garrel leaves the door slightly ajar for redemption. In French with English subtitles

"Time"

Garrett Bradley's "Time" is a deeply personal story about a Black Louisiana woman, Sibil Fox Richardson (called "Fox Rick"), and her tenacious 20-year plight to see her husband, Rob, freed from the state penitentiary where he is serving a preposterous 60-year prison sentence for robbery. This is a story of time that can never be regained — time lost, time wasted in bureaucratic red tape, precious time a father will never get to spend with his wife and six children; time that black men, historically, will never get back. Bradley's doc creeps under your skin so that, by the finale, you are moved beyond explanation. Like many docs I've seen this year, the American South's insidious, ingrained racism is, once again, exposed.

"Fauna"

Nicolás Pereda's maddening, yet absorbing, film "Fauna," hooked me, but failed to build to anything of much substance. There's definitely a host of ideas and themes being explored in the sly narrative that changes lanes just when something was beginning to happen. Perhaps it's a meditation on performance and storytelling. Perhaps it's an indictment of the bullying Mexican patriarchy. But just when the film hops into an alternate reality rife with shady mob-like figures and then seems to introduce a most interesting latent queer theme, the film ends.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

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