My second dispatch from the 59th New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Sean Baker’s Red Rocket.
dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Main Slate, 2021, Japan, 121 minutes.
How do you say Rohmer in Japanese? World cinema’s breakout superstar Ryûsuke Hamaguchi had two films in the festival this year. I wasn’t able to make it to his three-hour Drive My Car, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes this past summer and was just announced as Japan’s selection for the Best International Film Oscar. But I did manage to catch this intoxicating Berlinale prize-winner, a collection of three unrelated short stories playfully overlapping in their themes of willful deception and mistaken identities. The tales all take the form of one-on-one conversations, with various characters talking themselves into and out of trouble and at times trying to convince themselves of things they probably really shouldn’t. It’s not just the chattiness that Hamaguchi has in common with the French master, but also a fluidity of technique and gentle amusement at the follies these folks can’t help creating for themselves. The second story, about a married woman seeking revenge on a professor for her adulterous boy-toy’s lousy grades, contains what might be the most thrillingly suspenseful sequence I’ve seen all year – an interlude both intensely erotic and incredibly silly, involving nothing racier than a pretty lady in an office reading aloud from a best-seller. The evolving intentions of the characters within the scene had me on the edge of my seat, and that’s before Hamaguchi leaps forward in time to let loose multiple punchlines. The first and third stories are swell, but the one in the middle is sublime.
dir. Wes Anderson, Spotlight, 2021, USA, 107 minutes.
It’s obnoxious when critics wish distinctive filmmakers would act less like themselves – like when folks scold Spike Lee for being too strident, suggest Sofia Coppola should make movies about poor people or complain that Fellini was too preoccupied with women’s bosoms — so when I describe the latest Wes Anderson movie as his most Wes Anderson-iest movie yet, it is in some sense a value-neutral statement. If you’re into his kind of whimsical macrame filmmaking, this one is the twee apogee of Wes-ness, a tribute to a fictional magazine modeled on The New Yorker that unfolds – like the Hamaguchi picture – in the form of three short stories, along with some front-of-the-book filigree and an obituary at the end. Boasting an all-star cast of Anderson’s usual suspects (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, etc.) it’s his most densely designed movie, every frame a buzzing diorama of symmetrical precision that looks even less live-action than his animated efforts. But the short form doesn’t suit him. None of the stories stick. (A week later I can’t tell you how any of them ended.) The Anderson films I adore – mainly Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom — allow space for the characters’ unruly emotions to bubble up and disrupt the dollhouses. The French Dispatch is too busy sprinting ahead to the next over-elaborately crafted visual wonder for anything else to register. Watching it becomes exhausting. And annoying.
dir. Sean Baker, Spotlight, 2021, USA, 128 minutes.
In wonderful films such as Starlet, Tangerine and The Florida Project, writer-director Sean Baker has shown a genuine interest in America’s marginalized outsiders not as martyrs or pious victims to be pitied, but rather as hustlers and scamps he accepts on their own complicated terms, not symbols but people in all their beautiful belligerence. (One can only imagine what Baker’s Nomadland might have been like. I’m guessing funny and not nearly as full of shit.) His funky, fundamentally humane gaze reminds me of the late Jonathan Demme, especially in the case of Red Rocket, the loosey-goosey tale of a down-and-out former porn star played by MTV washout Simon Rex, who returns to his Galveston hometown and crashes on the couch of his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) while trying to come up with his next grift. Rex has a delightfully scuzzy, amoral screen presence, selling weed outside the local donut shop and eyeing the jailbait cashier (Suzanna Son) as his ticket back into the adult film industry. Farcical at heart, it’s the post-reality TV equivalent of one of those old Blake Edwards movies where the skirt-chasing scoundrel gets his comedic comeuppance, full of first-time actors Baker discovered on location or in his travels. The story might be stretched little thin for the two-hour-plus running time, but with all the drugs and dangerous decisions you keep waiting nervously for Red Rocket to get serious or become more consequential. What a relief that it never does.