My sixth and final dispatch from the 58th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Steve McQueen’s Red, White And Blue, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno, Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit and Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s American Utopia.
dir. Steve McQueen, Main Slate, 2020, UK, 80 minutes.
The fifth and final installment in McQueen’s Small Axe cycle for Amazon Studios and the BBC is the third to premiere at the festival and also the sparest and most schematic of these films thus far. John Boyega gives the ferocious, fire-breathing performance we’ve been waiting for since Attack The Block as a perhaps too-naively idealistic young police officer ostracized not just by the vile racists in his own department but also members of his community who can’t understand why he would willingly join up with the brutes who have victimized them so. It’s a question the movie doesn’t quite get around to answering, with McQueen tamping down his artsier tendencies for a more street-level, wannabe Sidney Lumet approach to which he’s not entirely suited. Some strong scenes here, yet the film feels weirdly misshapen. It’s either twenty minutes too long or half-an-hour too short. Still, just when I was ready to write it off the whole thing is saved by a wonderfully abrupt, commendably unresolved ending and the director’s expert deployment of Al Green.
dir. Dea Kulumbegashvili, Main Slate, 2020, Georgia, 125 minutes.
The boxy 1.33 aspect ratio has become something of an arthouse cliché as of late, signaling quote-unquote importance the same way shooting on black-and-white did in the early 1980s. But it’s no mere affectation in this harrowing debut from director Kulumbegashvili, who uses the narrow frame’s claustrophobia to convey the cramped headspace of a preacher’s wife in a remote, rural town where their church is under attack by violent extremists. There’s no room for any doubts or misgivings in her role here as dutiful mother and spouse, and the filmmakers make brilliant use of this tunnel vision by having unseen threats suddenly intrude upon the frame to shocking effect. I gasped aloud twice at acts of violence while watching this movie, which combines the icy horror of Michael Haneke with the spiritual convulsions of Breaking The Waves-era Lars Von Trier. Lots of long, uninterrupted shots with the camera in the backseat of a car keep us psychologically locked into the character’s lack of agency or control. When she finally takes charge is when I gasped for the third time.
dir. Gianfranco Rosi, Main Slate, 2020, Italy/France/Germany, 100 minutes.
I suppose I can understand some of the objections being leveled at Rosi’s latest, a documentary shot over three years across Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon but purposefully absent any identifiers. One could convincingly argue it does a disservice to these countries and their complex histories to be lumped together as one like this. But the aim, I think, is to strip away all the geopolitical context that sometimes gets in the way and connect on a purely human level with people who are too often treated as statistics. And do we really need to know the specific region in which these women are wailing for their murdered sons? It’s lousy journalism and exceptional art, a collection of short, stunningly photographed anecdotes that become mosaic of day-to-day life amid the ruins. The film’s unforgettable centerpiece sequence takes place in a classroom, where children draw pictures of the atrocities they’ve seen committed by ISIS, calmly recounting beheadings and dismemberments of their friends and neighbors. America may have collectively decided to forget about these wars but the casualties remain.
dir. Azazel Jacobs, Main Slate, 2020, USA, 110 minutes.
Constructed around an enjoyably oversized performance by Michelle Pfeiffer as an eccentric Upper East Side widow, it’s the kind of self-consciously “quirky” dysfunctional family dramady that used to play for months on end at arthouses back in the ‘90s. Given a grim financial prognosis, Pfeiffer drags her awkward, emotionally stunted son (Lucas Hedges, of course) to Paris where she plans to do herself in once the money runs out. There’s some deadpan silliness about her dead husband’s soul haunting their irritable housecat (voiced by Tracy Letts, of course) along with a cruise ship witch and a friendly private dick. Shades of Whit Stillman, Wes Anderson and mid-period Woody Allen abound –Pfeiffer is basically doing Dianne Wiest—but director Jacobs gums up the brittle banter with sludgy staging and dishwater digital video. It takes some doing to make Manhattan and Paris look drab. Given the season’s strange circumstances Pfeiffer will probably get her gold watch Oscar for this, and then the film will take its rightful place as a bar trivia answer alongside Still Alice and Crazy Heart.
dir. Spike Lee, Spotlight, 2020, USA, 105 minutes.
The key, I think, is when Byrne talks about hearing a school choir covering his “Everybody’s Coming To My House” and bringing to it a warm inclusivity missing the skepticism of his aloof original. This is a rapturous movie experience, with the former Talking Heads frontman leading an identically clad, eleven-piece barefoot band, plus two backup singers, stomping across the stage untethered by any cords, cables or equipment stands. They’re always on the march, arranging themselves into striking tableaux or swirling squiggles of bottomless groove as the singer strolls through some new songs and favorites from his back catalog. Spike was an inspired choice to bring the Broadway show to the screen. Like Byrne he’s a visual design artist with music in his soul, making breathtaking use of overhead shots and slyly emphasizing when the bandleader is a cog in this funky community and when he’s standing off to the side of it. “I need to change, too” Byrne tells us before the most pointedly political number. The idea here is that America’s sure as hell no utopia, but we can all strive to find that spirit of inclusivity and maybe make it feel like one for a few songs, anyway.