My second dispatch from the 60th annual New York Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, Maria Schrader’s She Said and Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave.
dir. Charlotte Wells. 2022. Main Slate. UK. 98 minutes.
The camcorder footage is pixelated and blocky. We can make out that it’s a parent and a child, but their movements keep getting interrupted, the context staying stubbornly out of reach. They say that the best movies teach you how to watch them, and these opening moments of Charlotte Wells’ miraculous debut feature Aftersun serve as a tutorial for the film as a whole. Plucky, eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) is on a vacation at a Turkish resort with her sad-eyed single dad (Paul Mescal.) The Chumbawamba and Macarena soundtrack tell us that it’s sometime near the end of the ‘90s. We spend a few relatively uneventful days with these two, the movie allowing us to come to our own conclusions as to what’s happening between the lines of their pleasant conversations. There are money problems for sure, and hints of something deeper going on with dad. Wells adopts the dreamy atmospherics of early Sofia Coppola (Somewhere is an obvious influence) but with the jagged fragments of Lynne Ramsay (a friend called the film Tween Morvern Callar.) We’re watching the remembrances of a much older Sophie, looking back on what might – nothing is ever said for sure – be the last time she saw her father. It’s all elisions, ellipses and lingering looks that build to an almost overwhelming emotional force. Wells and her brilliant editor Blair McClendon get at something vital about how memories work, how we rewind scenes in our mind, stubbornly trying to make sense of something – or somebody – who sadly slipped away.
dir. Maria Schrader. 2022. Spotlight. USA. 135 minutes.
So artless and prosaic it makes Spotlight look like All The President’s Men. I wonder who films like this are supposed to be for in the first place. Director Maria Schrader’s plodding procedural about New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) breaking the Harvey Weinstein story back in 2017 takes no dramatic angle nor does it offer any new information about a case with which we’re all familiar. More offensively, it doesn’t dare question the wider culture’s complicity, as did writer-director Kitty Green’s excellent, underseen 2020 indie The Assistant. Instead, we’re left with a bunch of Hollywood stars cosplaying as crusaders and exonerating their industry by putting forth the fiction that everyone was surprised by behavior that had been an open secret for decades. (The movie even name-drops celebrities it’s supposedly okay for you to still like: “Lena Dunham wants to help,” and “Scorsese hates Harvey.”) It’s a series of flatly photographed, suspense-free scenes of people talking on the telephone for two hours and fifteen minutes, with the bizarre and distracting choice of having Ashley Judd playing herself outdone by the even more bizarre and distracting choice of only showing the back of Harvey’s head like he’s Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only. (And is that the SNL guy doing the voice of Donald Trump?) Movies need to be about something more than just “This happened.” It doesn’t even have the nerve to include the twist ending of Ronan Farrow getting famous for all the work these women did.
dir. Park Chan-wook. Main Slate. South Korea. 138 minutes.
Wait, a Park Chan-wook movie without any sex or violence? I can still recall coming home from a morning press screening of his 2005 Oldboy and going back to bed because it left me so sickened I felt like the whole day needed a hard reboot. His most recent feature, 2016’s The Handmaiden famously featured a cunnilingus scene shot from the POV of a character’s vagina, and yet Park’s latest psychological thriller is something you can watch with your mom. Assuming she’s pretty perverse. All that stuff is still simmering under the surface in his tale of a wonderfully repressed detective (buttoned-down Park Hae-il) who finds himself falling for a suspect (Blackhat beauty Tang Wei) in the possibly accidental death of her abusive husband. It’s like Basic Instinct by way of In The Mood For Love. It’s also as stylishly and thoughtfully directed as any movie you’re going to see this year – basically the opposite of She Said – every scene meticulously worked out as a complex restatement of the picture’s fixations on ways of seeing and what gets lost in translation. Surveillance and hypothesis are made literal, with the detective projecting himself into flashbacks and suppositions, characters hovering inside and around each other’s memories with a dazzling command of screen space in a formalist’s film noir paradise. After seeing Decision To Leave I joked that it was the best romantic comedy since Gone Girl, or at least Phantom Thread in its snickering, sinister implication that the only unsolvable mystery is the human heart.