Friday, September 24, 2010

NY Film Festival Sheds Some of Its Stodginess

The 48th New York Film Festival opens today and has a lot on offer until it closes on 10 Oct. Among the film offerings is "Black Venus" with Andre Jacobs and Yahima Torres, above. In descending order, Edgar Ramirez as "Carlos," Carlos Villar and Lupita Tovar in a Spanish-language "Dracula," a scene from "Pale Flower," as well as Bryce Dallas and Matt Damon in "Hereafter." Photo credits: "Black Venus"/MK2 Productions; "Carlos"/Film en Stock; "Dracula"/Universal Pictures; "Pale Flower"/Courtesy of The Criterion Collection; "Hereafter"/Warner Bros.

HEAD’S UP: Welcome to the debut of “Reel Bits.” It is to be a twice-/ thrice-monthly digest of goings-on in film. While Yours Truly will usually publish Reel Bits on Friday – ditto for standalone film stories/reviews – it may from time to time appear on another day of the week as breaking news dictates. It is fitting that the start of Reel Bits coincides with the opening of a major film festival.

ONE of the most infamous, heart-wrenching atrocities that emerged from the barbaric African slave trade is that of the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” lesser known by her actual name: Saartjie Baartman. SB was the well-endowed woman/slave who was taken from her homeland of South Africa and deposited in European capitals for so-called civilized folks to prod, paw and peep at.

In “Black Venus,” from French-Arab director Abdellatif Kechiche (“The Secret of the Grain”), Cuban actress Yahima Torres imbues the pitiable character with dignity and determination in the face of humiliation and certain doom. The film, shocking and graphic, has been generally well-received and was nominated for the Golden Lion award at the 67th Venice International Film Festival earlier this month.

“Black Venus” (screening at 6 p.m./7 Oct. and 8:30 p.m./9 Oct. at Alice Tully Hall) is one of 28 feature-length films from 14 countries showing in the 48th New York Film Festival, which this year is presenting a number of higher-profile, less esoteric works.

A festival screening and gala screening of “The Social Network” this evening officially opens NYFF. (NYFF shutters on 10 Oct.) Interest in this one (screening at 6 p.m./9 p.m. at Alice Tully Hall) about the rise and fall of Facebook founders Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg - aka the 35th richest person ($6.9B) on Forbes’ latest 400 list - is intense. It seems that MZ is not cast in the best light in this allegory of sorts from the pen of Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men”/“The West Wing”), about greed, over-privilege, social ineptitude and gross behavior. Not to be one-upped by an unflattering film, MZ disclosed yesterday that he has pledged $100 million to the Newark, NJ school system. The official announcement is to be made today during an appearance on “Oprah,” provoking praise and pillorying.

Creating just as much buzz for its nearly 5-1/2 hour-length as its pace and muscular performance by Edgar Ramirez in the title role is “Carlos.” Ilich Ramírez Sánchez aka Carlos the Jackal attained international infamy after he led a 1975 raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna that resulted in the deaths of several, including some French intelligence types. From French director Olivier Assayas, the film is told in three parts and is airing that way on French television. Reportedly at Cannes, there was not an intermission until the 3-1/2 hour mark. It will be interesting to learn where that plumb line will be dropped for American audiences taking in this roller-coaster ride, described by some as a cross between “The Bourne Identity” and “Munich.”

One also wonders what the Jackal – so named by The Guardian, legend has it, after a copy of “The Day of the Jackal” was found amongst some of his personal items – thinks of the film chronicling his fascinating life. At the moment the Venezuelan's home is a French prision. (Screening at 11 a.m. on 2 Oct at Alice Tully Hall)

In addition to the festival’s Main Slate are several other categories. One of the Special Events screenings is George Melford’s 1931 Spanish version of “Dracula” accompanied by Gary Lucas’ live guitar. One interesting bit of trivia: this version was filmed on the same sets and at the same time as the Bela Lugosi vehicle. The English-language version was filmed during the day; its Spanish-language counterpart at night. (Screening at 9:30 p.m. on 9 Oct.).

Another with a must-see pedigree is the documentary, “A Letter to Elia,” directors Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones’ tender tribute to one of MS’s major influences, the great Elia Kazan. It will be screened with EK’s epic and deeply personal, “America, America.” The 1963 film was nominated for four Oscars and won one: Best Art Direction, Black-and-White (Screening at 6:15 p.m. on 27 Sept.)

“Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda, is one bookend of the Masterworks section (shown at the Walter Reade Theater). Here are 12 films, mostly classics, from the Japanese New Wave member, including “Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana).” (Screening at 7:30 p.m. on 25 Sept. and at 4 p.m. on 27 Sept.)
Masahiro Shinoda himself is expected at several screenings: “Pale Flower,” as well as “Melody in Gray aka The Ballad of Orin (Hanare goze Orin)”/5:45 p.m. on 26 Sept., and “Double Suicide (Shinju Ten no Amishima)”/8:15 p.m. on 26 Sept. … “Fernando de Fuentes’ Mexican Revolution Trilogy” is the other bookend. The seminal works are “Prisoner 13 (El prisionero trece)”/6 p.m. on 29 Sept; “El Compadre Mendoza”/ 7:35 p.m. on 29 Sept., and “Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (Vamanos con Pancho Villa)”/6:15 p.m. on 30 Sept.

A festival-within-a-festival of experimental films falls under the rubric, Views from the Avant-Garde (30 Sept.-3 Oct.). Mainly shorts, the offerings are grouped under themes such as “History is Homemade at Night: The Crazy, Beautiful World of Jeff Keen” (3:30 p.m. on 1 Oct./Walter Reade Theater) and “Visibility Unknown" (at 5:30 p.m. on 2 Oct./ Walter Reade Theater)

Finally, HBO Films’ Director Dialogues rounds out the last noncompetitive category. One submitting to an interview is director/designer Julie Taymor. The two-time Tony winner for “The Lion King” and Oscar winner for the lush “Frida” will jaw about her career influences and creative process, including the joys and challenges of applying a modern gloss to “The Tempest,” the festival’s centerpiece. With Columbia University professor James Shapiro (5 p.m. on 3 Oct./Kaplan Penthouse)

Closing the festival is “Hereafter” from Clint Eastwood aka Rowdy Yates/Man with no name. The octogenarian last had a presence at NYFF with “The Changeling" in 2008. “Hereafter” finds Matt Damon, Cécile de France and others in intersecting storylines that ponder whether we can communicate with those who have passed on, in some alternate portals between life and death. It’s supposed to be more profound than a Ouija board experience. (Screening at 7 p.m./10 p.m. at Alice Tully Hall).

Stay tuned, I'll be making comments on films, etc. throughout the festival.

Visit to learn more about the 48th New York Film Festival.


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