My fourth dispatch from the 58th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Tsai Ming-liang’s Days and Mohammad Reza Aslani’s The Chess Game Of The Wind.
dir. Sofia Coppola, Spotlight, 2020, USA, 95 minutes.
I doubt I’m going to see anything as delightful the rest of the festival – or the rest of the year, for that matter – as Bill Murray’s performance playing an aging lothario who dotes on his daughter in Coppola’s beguilingly personal, gossamer farce. Rashida Jones stars as a frustrated writer and stay-at-home mom whose suspicions about her workaholic husband (Marlon Wayans) are stoked by her endearingly caddish dad, a world champion at infidelity. Their amateur detective efforts result in a sort of slowed-down screwball adventure in a dream of high society Manhattan where’s it’s always cocktail hour, straight out of silver screen leisure fantasies like The Thin Man or Arthur. (I think the title might even be an in-joke about the latter’s sorry sequel.) Coppola has never been much for plot but the movie really sings whenever Jones – notice how Sofia cast another daughter of an icon as her surrogate – is trying to find her own light in the shadow of a larger-than-life dad. Uncharacteristically dapper with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Murray’s screamingly funny scamp brings caviar to a stakeout and the world is his oyster. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he tells his little girl. Neither would we.
dir. Steve McQueen, Main Slate, 2020, UK, 126 minutes.
Not as loose or vividly impressionistic as Lovers Rock, the second of the festival’s offerings from Steve McQueen’s five-film Small Axe cycle for Amazon Studios and the BBC is more in line with what we’d expect from the 12 Years A Slave director, again rigorously examining the machinery of systemic oppression. An excellent Shaun Parkes stars as Frank Chrichlow, proprietor of the first Black-owned restaurant in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood and the target of relentless police harassment. With the assistance of a Black Panther played by Black Panther’s Letitia Wright, Chrichlow’s attempts to protest his brutal mistreatment turn into a riot and later a courtroom drama that’s still scarily relevant fifty years later. The echoes of today’s unrest are so overwhelming McQueen doesn’t need to amplify anything, even if the screenplay does tremble now and again under the weight of some baldly expository dialogue. But as in the director’s best work, what you remember is his lingering eye on an unexpected detail, holding for a beat or two too long so it’ll burn into our brains.
dir. Chloé Zhao, Main Slate, 2020, USA, 108 minutes.
Not unpleasant, which is a problem. A nice movie for nice people, it stars Frances McDormand as a widowed former schoolteacher from a mining town that was literally wiped off the map when all the jobs went away. She puts her stuff in a storage locker and hits the highway in a van, finding herself welcomed by a community of fellow wanderers living in their vehicles, working odd jobs here and there all along the great expanses of the American West. Zhao has populated the picture with non-professional actors she found in similar circumstances, all of whom beatifically recite their sad stories into the middle distance at dusk while sparse piano music plays and McDormand gazes soulfully upon them, breaking into the same crinkly, wet-eyed smile in every goddamn scene. I’ve never seen a movie full of real people that feels so phony. Nobody ever gets angry. They don’t say swears, get drunk, bear any resentments or do anything at all that might disrupt this soothing appeal to socially conscious Whole Foods shoppers who will undoubtedly feel good about themselves rooting for a Disney movie about homelessness to win the Oscar.
dir. Tsai Ming-liang, Main Slate, 2020, Taiwan/France, 127 minutes.
“This film is intentionally unsubtitled” is obviously the most baller title card of this year’s festival, if perhaps in the end unnecessary, as there’s no real dialogue to be translated in Tsai’s latest exploration of urban anomie. His opening shot – a full five minutes of the director’s regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng staring silently out the window during a rainstorm – sets the tone for everything that follows, straight through to the six-minute closing shot of co-star Anong Houngheuangsy waiting for a bus. I understand it’s a big ask, but if you have the patience, unexpected emotional textures arise from the inertia. (Still, I probably shouldn’t confess how long it took me to notice that my screen had frozen halfway through.) It all finally clicked after these two characters we’ve watched going about their dreary day-to-day business at great length finally meet in a motel room for paid sex, and suddenly the studied banality of the film’s first hour gives way to startling intimacy and an aching tenderness that becomes almost unbearably sad by the time we finally get to that bus stop.
dir. Mohammad Reza Aslani, Revivals, 1976, Iran, 93 minutes.
Screened publicly only once at the Tehran Film Festival in 1976 before being banned by the Islamic regime in 1979, this fascinating cultural artifact was long thought lost, with censored VHS dubs circulated in secret by scholars and cinema buffs. But in 2015 the original negative was discovered in an Iranian antique shop and safely smuggled out of the country. This stunning 4K restoration by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project reveals a candlelit, starkly moral portrait of decline, set in the waning days of the Qajar dynasty as a family of aristocrats squabbles over their hoped-for inheritances after the matriarch’s passing. A Greek chorus of washerwomen gives us all the gossip and a respite from the heirs’ incessant backbiting. Think Persian Visconti but with a lurid, horror movie ending. The third act plunges exhilaratingly into the abyss to the screams of a spellbinding score by Sheyda Gharachedaghi, circling back to an opening quote from the Quran: “Competition in increasing worldly gains diverts you. Until you visit the graveyards.”