New York Film Festival 2017

NYFF Review: ‘Wonder Wheel’

By Will Oliver, October 15th 2017

Wonder Wheel | Woody Allen | NYFF 2017

Woody Allen transports us to Coney Island in the 1950s in his latest picture Wonder Wheel. We are told a story by a lifeguard Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), serving as our narrator.

In this story, a young woman named Carolina (Juno Temple) returns home looking to speak to Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), the second wife to her father Humpty (Jim Belushi). Ginny is a failed actress who once dreamed of stardom but now spends her evenings working as a waitress at the local clam shack. Caroline begs and pleads with Ginny to let her come back home and live with them, but Humpty is going to be hard-pressed to welcome her back after she ran away to marry her mobster boyfriend Frank despite her father forbidding it. He knows that if he takes her back in it can only spell trouble for both her and the rest of the family.

Things are complicated by Mickey’s involvement in the family, striking up a love triangle with both Ginny and Carolina, despite the latter being clueless about his growing love affair with her stepmom. Ginny, however, knows full well that he begins seeing Carolina as well and soon bottles up resentment for the both of them, which doesn’t spell well for either considering that Frank has sent out mobsters who are hot on Carolina’s tail.

Allen stages it all like a play (Eugene O’Neill in particular), allowing his actors plenty of one-on-one action of lengthy scenery that they chew away. This is a perfect platform for Winsley who is of course as good as ever in the role and offers up a performance of a lifetime. It’s just too bad that the script and the rest of the cast aren’t quite up to snuff. Belushi and Temple do hold their own and Timberlake is likable as always but it’s hard to see him go toe-to-toe with Winslet when she’s quite simply just operating at another level entirely.

For the story’s shortcomings, it’s all captured in such an awe-struck color palette by the great Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. It’s just too bad that the material isn’t fresh or clever enough to utilize his work or the great performance from Winslet in what will probably sadly be a thankless role when in reality the movie should’ve been strong enough to push her to the forefront of awards consideration.

This isn’t the worst Woody Allen but it’s definitely not one of his strongest features but there’s enough talent involved in this to elevate the material enough to where it’s worth giving a watch.

Rating: 6.0/10

NYFF Review: ‘Mudbound’

By Will Oliver, October 14th 2017

Mudbound | Dee Rees | NYFF 2017

Mudbound is the latest from director Dee Rees, who adapted Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name alongside Virgil Williams. We see how life has unfolded in post-World War II era Mississippi, where two families, one white (the landowners) and one black (the sharecroppers), share and work on the same land even as racial tensions are still very much as tense as ever.

The story begins mysteriously with McAllan family (the landowners), with Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his brother Jamie (Garett Hedlund) burying their Pappy (Jonathan Banks) during a violent rainstorm. When they have trouble lifting the coffin they flag down the Jackson family (the sharecroppers) to help them with the task. Only there’s a clear tension in the air lingering between the two sides and this tense sequence helps set the tone for everything that soon follows.

Rees and Williams’ script helps us navigate the waters with various voiceover narration from varying members of the families. We learn that both families send one son off to fight in World War II with Jamie serving as an Army pilot flying B-25 bomber aircraft while the Jackson’s eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), enlists in the Army infantry and commands a Sherman tank. Ronsel gets to experience life race free in Europe, even falling in love with a White Woman and able to just be himself for the first time ever. But upon returning home both her and Jamie are both happy to see their loved ones again but also disappointed by the reality of returning home as nothing has changed in this world despite their efforts fighting in the war.

Things get complicated when Jamie clearly fancies his brother’s wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), who clearly is not in love anymore with her husband and deep down everyone else can sense both Jamie and Laura fighting their urges towards one another. While Ronsel is welcomed home in loving fashion, the rest of the world still acts as racist and demeaning as ever, including a tense run-in with Pappy, whose bigoted and racist views are hiding in plain sight. This causes a problem when Ronsel and Jamie strike up a close friendship, bonding over their war efforts and their inability to reconnect with civilian life that clearly is as backwards and hateful as ever.

The friendship between Ronsel and Jamie and the budding romance between Jamie and Laura are the strong suit of Mudbound’s script. Sadly, the script relies too heavily on voice narration to the point that it slowed down the momentum of the film and often took me out of the film. Which was a shame because Mudbound is a film that has a lot of smart and timely things to say about race relations and racism that are still sadly bubbling over even in 2018.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison captures the muddy nature of the land with an intense sense of realism that it truly feels like another character in itself, keeping these characters stagnant and racism alive and well. All of the performances are top notch here: You believe the friendship shared between Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell and you absolutely hate Jonathan Banks’ character which is a clear sign that he did his job well. There’s fine work from Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, and Carey Mulligan but it’s the performance from Mary J. Blige that is a true standout and quite an accomplishment from the singer.

There’s a lot to like about Mudbound which even with its over-reliance on narration found a way to move me a great deal by it’s intense climax which really makes up for many of its flaws in a big, big way. It’s the sort of ending that definitely finds a way to tie in to present day thematically and feels like a gut punch as sadly it seems that we have found a way to move closer to the events in Mudbound than to better ourselves in the way that we should be so many years removed from World War II.

Rating: 8.0/10

NYFF Review: ‘Wonderstruck’

By Will Oliver, October 11th 2017

Wonderstruck | Todd Haynes | NYFF 2017

Wonderstruck is the latest from Todd Haynes, working off of Brian Selznick’s script, which was adapted from his 2011 novel of the same name. Wonderstruck connects two stories set 50 years apart from one another, with the first a black and white silent film showing a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who runs away from her father’s (James Urbaniak) New Jersey home and takes a journey into New York City in order to find the actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). This intersects with a story told in modern-day (and in color) about a recently orphaned boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) who suddenly becomes deaf after a freak accident and manages to run away from Minnesota and arrives in New York in search of finding out more about his father, who he never met.

The intersect between these two stories is clear and Selznick’s script is conveyed in a warm, loving manner by Todd Haynes and captured beautifully by cinematographer Edward Lachman. Both children are attracted to the big city in hopes of finding the adult figure that they so clearly lack in their lives and its in this big city that they hope to discover a new sense of self.

Haynes wistfully portrays the fear that Rose encounters as a deaf girl navigating the big city, portraying it all as an old school silent film fitting for not only the era it portrays but also to immerse us into the everyday experience of Rose. Meanwhile the 70s sequences are given a dirty grimy flare by Lachman that feel deadly accurate and are countered well with warmth that Ben finds with a newfound friendship with an equally curious young boy named Jamie (Jaden Michael).

Haynes direction is confident and clear and there’s definitely a spark in the eye of Selznick’s imaginative story. The performances from its young cast of Simmonds, Fregley and Michael are invigorating and signal that these are young talents to keep an eye on. While Julianne Moore offers a typically solid performance, she was overshadowed by her young cast who steal the show.

There’s a ton of heart to be found her and a sense of wonder felt in both the themes of the story and the loving performance by all the actors. Yet, something felt missing in the way that the two stories are used that didn’t quite translate on the screen, not to mention a languid pace and patient approach that didn’t do it any favors. It is obvious to see how the two stories would intersect and although it was heart-warming and totally wholesome, the maneuver and journey to get there didn’t feel as rewarding or impactful as I really did want it to be.

Rating: 7.0/10

NYFF Review: ‘The Square’

By Will Oliver, October 7th 2017

The Square | Ruben Östlund | NYFF 2017

Swedish director Ruben Östlund examines the world or art exhibits and the values within them, both on the surface and behind close doors in his latest, The Square. It focuses on a hotshot art curator named Christian (Claes Bang), at a Stockholm museum who finds a tough task at marketing the museum new exhibit, “The Square.” It’s a small square built on a light strip that is supposed to be “sanctuary of trust and caring,” or a safe space. It’s ironic that what unfolds for Christian is anything but a safe space.

Similary to Östlund’s much better and fully realized 2014 film Force Majeure, he looks at the idea of altruism and ones ability to find ways to help others and at what point you take a step back to worry about yourself. Things go south for him when he thinks he is helping a woman on the street but in reality a pickpocket steals his wallet, phone and cufflinks. He is able to track his phone to a housing complex in a less than favorable part of town and unleashes a plan to guilt those responsible for the theft to bring his belongings back. The plan does work but soon it unleashes some consequences that seem to steamroll into one giant bad day for Christian.

Östlund has his heart and mind in the right place and raises some interesting questions. He poises them in a series of fascinating and rather intense long scenes that he lets unfold in uncomfortable length as if its an art exhibit of its own. The issue is a lot of these scenes feel rather disjointed from one another with a lack of focus. But there’s no denying the impact of these scenes as they stand on their own, but they just don’t quite mesh as much as they should together as one complete whole.

Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West all all great in their respective roles and have their moments to shine. This is a strange and uncomfortable film that sticks to its guns and runs away with it, poising questions that I am not sure it truly knows the questions to but it leaves that up to the audience to sort it all out. There are a few sequences that will stick with you, lingering on your mind in the many hours and days after you leave the theater.

Not always digestable or laid out for you to make total sense of it all, this is a stricking film that forces you to contemplate what exactly you would do if you were in these characters moral positions and if we have any right to judge them when given the chance, we may not step in or act any better than they did. While I think it raises more questions than it answers, it makes its voice heard passionately enough where it had my attention all the way.

Rating: 7.0/10

NYFF Review: ‘Call Me By Your Name’

By Will Oliver, October 6th 2017

Call Me by Your Name | Luca Guadagnino | NYFF 2017

Ah, to be young and in love. We all remember “our first.” The most powerful part of young romance is the associations one makes with that time period, the sort of unshakable little details that would mean nothing to a total stranger, but for you, they mean the world. For so many of us, summertime means endless days spent with friends, at the ballpark, at camp, or on a lengthy vacation where the freedom to lounge almost becomes torturous by nature. This also gave way to the possibility of summertime romance, the sort of idealistic idea that we all have in our heads about the freedom to be carefree and in love. But what happens when reality starts to kick in and suddenly you realize you do care and it absolutely hurts to do so. Well, then you have Call Me by Your Name, the latest from Italian director Luca Guadagnino.

Guadagnino directs based on James Ivory’s screen adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name. 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is having a lovely vacation with his parents in a lovely part of Northern Italy where he swims, flirts with girls and plays the piano. Every summer his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor, invites a graduate student of his to join his family during their stay and help him with his work. This year the student of choice is American Oliver (Armie Hammer), a big brooding stereotype of the sort of Massachusetts frat boy that you’d see on a Polo advertisement.

There’s a strange curiosity and interest brewing between both Elio and Oliver, one that neither can quite put their finger on. As they spend more time alone with one another they realize they share a mutual attraction that they know is forbidden but with the possibility of endless summer they can’t help but fall in love with one another. What begins as a curious exploration soon blossoms into a full-on love affair that they can hardly keep to themselves. Although no one else catches on to them, Elio’s parents notice they’re becoming quite close and his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) becomes frustrated with his sudden lack of interest in her.

What makes this such an extraordinary experience is the way that Guadagnino transports us into the experience of this idealistic vacation, where we feel like we are sweating alongside these characters in this unbearable heat that we love just as much as it frustrates. We can all connect to the story in some way, the idea of finding a love that you know can’t possibly end well but you go with it anyway because, what the hell, you’re young and in love and in that moment, nothing else matters. But Guadagnino and Ivory capture the heartbreak just as authentically as the blossoming romance and it’s in the heartbreak that Call Me by Your Name is elevated into one of the best movies of the entire year.

Anchored by two terrific performances from Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, the film relies on their chemistry to hold it all together and boy does it ever. This is a true star-making performance from Chalamet who is able to convey so much pain and sadness from just a look or glance, saying so much without saying anything at all. This is also the strongest work to date for Armie Hammer who has had a tough time navigating the waters of Hollywood to date but he is a perfect match for this role and brings a good balance of cockiness and honesty that this almost duel role calls for

While Michael Stuhlbarg (who is having a terrific year) has a limited amount of screentime as Elio’s father, there’s one particular scene during a crucial moment that is absolutely moving and unforgettable, the sort of scene that should net him an Oscar just based on his performance there alone. It may just be the finest scene of the entire year.

There’s so much to admire and love about Luca Guadagnino’s film. From its look at the trials and tribulations of young love, and the commanding performance of its entire cast. Then there’s the beautiful capture of the Italian landscape by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and the fitting and brutally touching original songs that Sufjan Stevens wrote for the film that almost act as another character of sorts during curucial, pivitol moments.

Call Me by Your Name may not only be one of the best romantic films of the year one that looks at the idea of young romance and heartbreak in such a raw passionate manner that it is bound to move you to tears and reflect on all your past lost loves, bringing back memories that you forgot you missed or that you’d rather just forget. That’s the beauty of love, the pleasure and the pain simply come together, for better and worse.

Rating: 9.0/10

The Meyerowitz Stories | Noah Baumbach | NYFF 2017

Noah Baumbach’s latest, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), captures the family dysfunction and love that sometimes can be one and the same so well. Taking a page out of Woody Allen and even Wes Anderson, and of course with all the New York charm that Baumbach has shown us time and time again, this film captures the high art scene of New York with a feeling of authenticity that made it a pitch-perfect fit for screening at the New York Film Festival.

Beginning with an all-too-classic scene of Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) trying to find street parking on the streets of New York with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). The scene captures the frustration and intensity of what should be a simple task so damn well while also establishing that this isn’t the Adam Sandler that you’ve learned to hate for a good part of this past decade. Sure, there are elements of that familiar unchecked rage but Baumbach harnesses his energy for good reason. You see, Danny is unemployed and forced to move back home with his father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) and his third wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). It’s tough to be around Harold these days as he’s a retired art professor and sculptor who is having trouble coming to terms with the fading relevancy of his legacy in the art world, ironically just before an event celebrating his work is to take place.

This event brings back Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who soon find themselves coming to terms with unfinished family business of the past, presents, and future that is set to tear them apart but may actually bring them together if they can find a way to come together and put aside their differences.

Baumbach, who directs a script that he wrote himself, has his fingerprints all over this picture and has assembled a quirky cast of characters that results in a most memorable family built on dysfunction and unusual tough love. As painstakingly funny in a dry manner that Baumbach has made his bread and butter there’s also plenty of drama and heart to go around and find a nice balance to the absurd laughs that a cast starring Sandler, Stiller, and Hoffman is due to bring out.

Credit to the director for bringing out the sort of performance from Sandler that we haven’t seen since he worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on Punch-Drunk Love. Sandler brings the dramatic heft that we all know he is capable of when he wants to actually act and it’s so damn good to see him surrounded by top-class actors who bring out the best of Sandler, along with Baumbach’s finely tuned material. He and Stiller work well as brothers who have unfinished business and seeing them buttheads in a serious yet absurd fashion is the sort of cinematic moment I didn’t know I needed, but I did. There’s also some nice understated work from Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, and Emma Thompson.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a rich and passionate joyous occasion that works because of these richly drawn characters that Baumbach let roam freely and bring out a lot of the sort of familial-based chaos that is ultimately far too relatable than any of us would like to admit. It’s a smartly fine-tuned piece of filmmaking that captures the frantic fractured love-hate relationship of a family in such a natural manner that all of us can connect to whether we like it or not.

Rating: 8.4/10

NYFF Review: ‘BPM’

By Will Oliver, September 30th 2017

BPM | Robin Campillo | NYFF 2017

Robin Campillo’s sobering BPM focuses on the AIDS epidemic in the early 90s set in France, focusing on a group of HIV/AIDS activists known as ACT UP. Our introduction to ACT UP comes through Nathan (Arnaud Valois) who attends his first meeting and is overwhelmed by the intensity and focus that occurs in the French chapter meeting. They’re tired of the government’s failure to step up and held them as their members are in dire need of assistance, literally getting sick and dying as they wait for them.

Naturally, there are some disagreements in ideology and how they should get these ideas across in protests and members but heads on conflicting ideas or philosophy. Things only get complicated as many of its members develop close relationships that only make matters that much more complicated. Nathan falls for strong-willed fellow members Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) who is passionate for change. Not only is it everything that he stands for and believes in but because he is very sick and his time is slowly running out. Nathan doesn’t always agree with Sean’s ideas but he is obviously conflicted as he cares for him and doesn’t want to see his lover die.

Just like Nathan we slowly acclimate ourselves into this world, overwhelmed by their tactics and meetings at first but with every new one, we find ourselves getting on the same page and find ourselves caring a great deal about these characters. It would be naive to say we hope for a happy ending here but it’s a part of the strong script that Campillo wrote alongside Philippe Mangeot that has us desperate for all of these members to get along with one another but to survive so they can keep fighting for not only the cause but for their relationships.

From top to bottom there are strong performances from this French cast of many presumably unfamiliar faces to general American audiences. In a way, this helps give the film a more realistic down to earth approach that feels slightly more like a documentary than a feature film, immersing the audience even more so into this heartbreaking uphill battle for survival and justice.

That’s not to discredit these performances in any way, quite the opposite. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart offers up one of the most powerful performances seen on screen this year as Sean and he is equally matched by a more strong, stoic presence of Arnaud Valois as Nathan.

It’s a drama in every sense of the word, giving a cold but necessary look at what these activists and HIV/AIDS victims had to endure to try and keep motivated to keep fighting for not only their lives but for the cause that was larger than just them. You’ll be hard pressed to find a dry eye in the theater once the credits come rolling, proof positive that Campillo’s film hits deep into the core and captures a sense of humanity that is within us all. This is a truly heartbreaking story and one that breaches many walls and themes that are perfectly relevant and timely even in today’s world.

Rating: 8.0/10

NYFF Review: ‘Ismael’s Ghosts: Directors Cut’

By Will Oliver, September 29th 2017

Ismael’s Ghosts: Directors Cut | Arnaud Desplechin | NYFF 2017

Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric) is a director trying to finish his new film which has already begun production but is nowhere near ready to go. He’s enjoying a fruitful getaway with his girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) when a literal ghost from his past life crashes the party. You see, his first wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) comes uninvited to their beachside house. The problem is, Carlotta has been missing and believed to be dead for 20 years.

Things go south quickly as Vuillard is understandably confused by this all and tries to make sense of how the hell Carlotta is standing in front of him. Once he realizes he isn’t going crazy, the anger kicks in. Where has she been for 20 years and how could she just waltz on in on him like that so casually as if she hadn’t just spent two decades as a ghost to not only him but her own father (László Szabó).

To make this batshit situation even more complicated, Vuillard has to balance all his emotions with the equally confused Sylvia who feels that she has and will be cast aside from Carlotta, as the void in his heart has been seemingly filled after all these years.

On the surface, this is a potentially interesting plot but one that is bogged down by Desplechin’s loose narrative between this storyline and cutting to scenes of the movie Ismael is struggling to complete. We see literal scenes about the thriller he is making about a spy that is a fictionalized version of his younger brother who he hasn’t seen in years. On top of that Desplechin cuts to scenes of Ismael losing his mind trying to make the film and dealing with this new internal conflict on what to do about Carlotta, Sylvia and if he should tell Carlotta’s father that his daughter has returned from the dead.

It’s hard to argue with seeing Amalric, Cotillard and Gainsbourg in leading roles, they all command the screen as usual and offer some fine performances that are way above the material that they are given. The problem is that the film is strung together is such a loose clumsy manner that you are never pulled into any of the storylines in any way. It’s just too disjointed and lost in its characters madness that it just was a cold uninviting journey that never amounted to anything resembling a satisfying viewing experience, despite the actors admirable best efforts.

Rating: 4.5/10

NYFF Review: ‘The Florida Project’

By Will Oliver, September 28th 2017

The Florida Project | Sean Baker | NYFF 2017

The most remarkable feat about Sean Baker’s The Flordia Project is the way the director manages to both capture childlike innocence but also the humanity of a group of people surviving day to day at a cheap Flordia-based motel. Based on a script Baker wrote along with Chris Bergoch, the film focuses on the everyday life of Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida, right near Walt Disney World. We see this area through the eyes of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who is stuck to the confines of the motel, staying occupied with other children stuck in the same boat such as Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

Moonee lives at home with her Halley (Bria Vinaite) an immature woman who can barely take care of herself, who barely makes rent by pulling off random schemes from selling stolen amusement park bands or selling herself to visiting men in the motel room. This is a great cause of concern and frustration to Bobby (Willem Dafoe) the manager of the motel and the surrogate father figure to not only the children but in many ways to Halley as well. Bobby is a tough, no-nonsense figure but one with a big heart who gives motel residents such as Halley every chance in the world to get their shit together and find a way to make it work. But as we learn in life we’re usually our biggest enemies and theirs only so much that Bobby can do when he has a business to maintain.

While the overarching plot is just the relationship of Halley and Moonee and their interactions with Bobby and the motel’s other colorful collection of residents, Baker handles it all with such a graceful lens of humanity that it’s all you need to tell a moving, captivating story.

At just the age of Brooklynn Prince is a captivating presence on screen, who commands your attention and your heart. She and her friend’s natural innocence is captured so well by Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe, who frames their interactions at the motel and the outer area by filming at their eye-level, transporting the audience to their worldview. There’s something to be said about watching these kids growing up on the brink of poverty when they’re just mere miles away from Disney World, the supposed “happiest place on earth.”

Equally convincing in Bria Vinaite, a first-time actor who Baker found on Instagram, who offers a performance that is just the amount of raw and believable. She has a kinetic energy and chemistry with Prince that works really well and allows you to see the love that they have for one another when we know deep down that Moonee deserves to be raised in a better environment.

However, the star performance of the film is the always fantastic Willem Dafoe. He’s absolutely terrific as Bobby, a role that calls for a stern boss like role but also tons of warmth and humanity that should net the actor many well-deserved nominations come award season.

The Florida Project is a terrific look at a part of society that so many of us ignore and it’s captured in such a humane way by Baker that is never judgemental or viewed as looking down upon. The fact that Baker used so many real-life residents of the real actual Magic Castle Inn & Suites adds a layer of authenticity that made a huge difference for what is ultimately a beautiful and moving picture about a part of America that is unfortunately ignored.

Rating: 9.0/10