By William Wolf

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2003 (I)  Send This Review to a Friend

As usual one can agree or disagree on some of the selections in the New York Film Festival 2003, but major coups were scored in getting some top notch films to showcase and highlighting them in key positions. The opening choice, "Mystic River" launched the event to a rousing start, not only because the film is such a strong one, but because the choice resulted in the presence of Clint Eastwood, who not only has matured into a special director, but carries the kind of charisma that made everyone hope to meet him when he turned up at the festival's opening night party.

"Mystic River" (see review by returning to the Home Page and clicking on Film or going to Search) is exactly the sort of movie that makes for a great opening night. It comes from a major studio, Warner Brothers, and it has top stars, including Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden. Linney and Harden provided opening night glamour and cachet at the huge party, held traditionally at the Tavern on the Green.

As the closing night attraction the Festival chose "21 Grams," the new film by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who hit it big with their "Amores Perros," which showed at the 2000 festival. Told with shifting back and forth in time, the film is a powerful drama involving a professor who receives a heart transplant from the victim of an auto accident, then later falls in love with the widow, who doesn't know he carries her dead husband's heart. The plot is further complicated by the decision to seek vengeance upon the man who caused the accident, who has been trying to build a new life that extricates him from his problem-wracked past.

Apart from the screenplay and directorial style, what gives the film impact is the collection of top performances by Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts. Their work is dynamic and involving. Focus Features plans a November release for the film, which was also one of the best-received films at the Toronto International Film Festival. (To be fully reviewed at the time of the commercial opening)

As much as I like the two aforementioned films, my favorite festival treat is "The Barbarian Invasions," the Canadian film that opened the Toronto International Film Festival then became a key part of the New York Film Festival. Written and directed by Denys Arcand, this is a wonderfully sophisticated, funny and moving work that deals with an important issue, the right to die for people who are terminally ill. Arcand has pulled off the tricky accomplishment of making a film about death that is entertaining as well as emotional.

The drama is centered on Rémy, a history professor, who is terminally ill. Rémy Girard plays him, and he is the same actor who played the same character, much younger, in Arcand's "Decline of the American Empire." Other characters from that film are reprised by the actors who originally played them as the professor's old friends are gathered to help him approach the end. It is a great filmmaking idea carried out to perfection.

In context, there are other important relationships. Rémy's son Sébastien, played by effectively by Stéphane Rousseau, has had issues with his dad, and when he returns it is a new opportunity to establish a rapport before his father's death. There is also Rémy's ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman), who still has affection for him despite his years of philandering, and one of the key characters, Nathalie, a young drug addict who aids Rémy, is movingly played by Marie-Josée Cruze.

What makes the film so special, in addition to the across-the-board top level acting, is Arcand's witty approach to the material. He is a writer and director who enjoys humor, and he has a perspective on life, politics and important issues, which he infuses into some of his characters. This is a film for adult minds, and by the end, one is has been exceedingly touched emotionally.

Another special film shown at the New York Film Festival, and shown previously at the Toronto Festival, was the French "Since Otar Left," directed by Julie Bertuccelli. The scene is in Georgia, where an elderly woman named Eka (played by superb actress Esther Gorintin) is deeply attached to her son Otar, who left for Paris. Eka's daughter Marina (Nino Khommassouridze) and Marina's daughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova) care for Eka, but are fed up with her fixation on Otar, and the household brims with resentment.

A curve is thrown when Marina and Ada learn the Otar has died. Marina is determined to keep the news from her mother, and the deception becomes more and more complicated, especially when Eka decides on her own to head for Paris to see Otar. Bertuccelli, who also wrote the screenplay, treads delicately and the portrait of the mother is deeply affecting. This is a measured, beautifully constructed and acted gem.

Controversy surrounded Lars von Trier's ambitious, stylized "Dogville," which had been shown in Cannes, was presented at the Toronto Festival, and then made its way into the New York Film Festival. It is the sort of film one either likes or can't stand, with not much room in between. Nicole Kidman is the major attraction in this fascinating three-hour exploration of hypocrisy and cruelty in a small American town. The set design is especially adventurous, with what in effect is a huge stage as seen from above and the town impressionistically divided into marked streets and playing areas representing the various houses, which are sparsely furnished.

The story has universality, until music and stills at the end would seem to make the United States the target of the philosophical idea that sometimes it is better to wipe out everybody for the greater good. Kidman plays Grace, a young women fleeing mobsters. She seeks refuge in the town and is given jobs that enable the townsfolk to exploit her. She becomes a punching bag for raging resentments and frustrations with the hard life in Dogville, as well as a sexual object. She also falls prey to the hypocrisy of a do-gooder suitor. The repression is piled on to the point of her wanting to escape but the attempt goes awry due to betrayal, and the subsequent events build to a choice that she must make. The tone of the film is that of a morality tale, and there is an impressive cast handling other roles, including Harriet Andersson, Stellan Skarsgard, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Jean Marc-Barr, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara and Chloë Sevigny.

(More to come)


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