Festival Watch: What's On at the New York Film Festival

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    Precious tops the list of must-see movies at the 2009 edition of New York’s most prominent film festival.

    Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire
    ****

    Anyone that has ever complained about the lack of good roles for actresses-especially black actresses-in Hollywood should make a point of buying a ticket for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.  It’s the kind of film that’s rarely seen on the contemporary cinematic landscape: a serious, emotional drama about women with bigger problems than finding a date for Friday night or picking the right pair of Manolos to go with that little black dress.  More than anything though, Precious is a remarkable showcase for its all-female ensemble cast, challenging them in ways most mainstream films can’t – or won’t.

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    Like the unwieldy title says, Precious is adapted from the 1996 novel by African-American poet Sapphire, which chronicles the life of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an obese, illiterate teenager who relies on her overactive imagination to help her endure a hellish reality.  Trapped in a dilapidated Harlem apartment with her emotionally and physically abusive mother (Mo’Nique), Precious grew up being repeatedly raped by her now-absent father.  At 16, she’s already given birth to one of his children and has another on the way.  After she’s expelled from public school, Precious enrolls in alternative education program and starts to turn her life around with the help of a no-nonsense teacher (Paula Patton) and a sympathetic social worker (Mariah Carey).

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    In the wrong hands, Precious could easily have turned mawkish and treacly, but director Lee Daniels avoids Lifetime movie-of-the-week sentimentality, producing an inspirational drama that’s genuinely inspiring.  Much of the film’s power lies in the performances; Patton displays a steeliness we’ve never seen from her before and, in her screen debut, Sidibe brings an authenticity to the title role a more experienced actress wouldn’t be able to replicate.  But it’s Mo’Nique’s ferocious turn that will really have audiences buzzing.  In the film’s closing moments, she delivers a devastating monologue that is guaranteed to win her an Oscar.  That one scene encapsulates the experience of watching Precious-it’s emotionally exhausting but also, exhilarating.
    Precious is the NYFF’s Centerpiece attraction and screens Saturday, October 3 at 7 and 10pm.  It will open theatrically in November.

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    Also at the Festival:

    antichrist1Antichrist
    ***
    Ever wonder what Sam Raimi’s horror classic The Evil Dead would have looked like if it had been directed by Danish bad boy Lars von Trier?  Antichrist is your answer.  After experiencing the tragic death of their young son, a married couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreats to a remote cabin in the woods for some spiritual healing, bizarre mind games and good old fashioned assault and battery.  While it doesn’t rank with von Trier’s best work, Antichrist is a cult movie in the making, marrying compelling psychological drama with over-the-top gore. Screens Friday, October 2 at 9pm and Saturday October 3 at 1pm.  Opens theatrically on October 23.

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    trashhumpers3Trash Humpers
    *
    Would-be enfant terrible Harmony Korine desperately tries to re-establish the artistic cred he lost after the back-to-back flops Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy with this send-up of homemade video pranksters like MTV’s Jackass crew.  Hidden underneath crude latex masks designed to evoke Deliverance-style hillbillies, a trio of performers go wild on camera, humping garbage cans, smashing TVs and telling absurdly racist jokes.  Like the Jackass feature films, there’s not plot to speak of, just scene after scene of these over-the-top Southern stereotypes acting like…well, jackasses.  It’s funny for about five minutes until you realize that its becoming the exact thing it sets out to parody.  
    Screens Friday, October 2 at 11:30pm.  Currently without theatrical distribution.

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    minye2Min Ye…(Tell Me Who You Are)
    ***1/2
    African filmmaker Souleyman Cisse presents a fascinating depiction of contemporary life in the nation of Mali through this story of a married couple whose relationship is seriously on the rocks.  Having willingly entered into a polygamous marriage a decade ago, Mimi (Sokona Gakou) now finds herself hating the fact that she shares her filmmaker husband Issam (Assane Kouyate) with another woman.  Eager to prove her independent, she strikes up a flirtation with a local fish merchant that lands both of them in trouble with the law.  Although slow-moving at times, Min Ye… offers a window into a society and culture we know too little about.
    Screens Monday, October 5 at 9pm and Tuesday, October 6 at 6pm.  Currently without theatrical distribution.

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    nechangerien1Ne Change Rien
    ***
    Never heard of French singer Jeanne Balibar?  Neither had I, but after watching this extremely intimate look at her cutting a record in the studio, I’m ready to download her album off iTunes.  Unlike most behind-the-music docs, Ne Change Rien doesn’t offer any biographical background about its subject. In fact, director Pedro Costa doesn’t even make Balibar sit down for a conventional interview.  Instead, he sets up his tripod in the studio and shoots static black-and-white scenes that run on for five to ten minutes apiece.  The effect is almost trance-like; it’s a movie to meditate to rather than watch.
    Screens Thursday, October 8 at 6pm.  Currently without theatrical distribution.

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    whitematerialWhite Material
    ***
    It takes at least 20 minutes to get your bearings in the newest film from French director Claire Denis, a fragmented story set in an unspecified African country that’s in the throes of a war between the government and a group of well-armed rebels.  Caught in the middle of this conflict is a white French family that operates a coffee plantation.  While the patriarch (played by the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert) tries to ingratiate himself with the local authorities, his estranged wife (the superb Isabelle Huppert) tries to complete the current harvest season, even as her workers flee and her own son joins the guerrillas.  While the narrative could stand to be a little clearer, the performances and vivid location shooting makes this a compelling tale.

    Screens Friday, October 9 at 9:15pm and Saturday, October 10 at 6pm.  Currently without theatrical distribution.

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    mother1Mother
    ***1/2
    Korean director Bong Joon-Ho follows up his acclaimed monster movie The Host with a consistently surprising melodrama/murder mystery about a fiercely devoted mother (Kim Hye-ja) who goes to extreme lengths to clear her incarcerated son of a murder charge. Much more than just a Law & Order: South Korean Unit procedural, Mother offers a complex and often downright disturbing look at how far maternal love can go.
    Screens Friday, October 9 at 6pm and Saturday, October 10 at noon.  Acquired by Magnolia Pictures, theatrical release date TBA.

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    broken-embraces1Broken Embraces
    ***
    Pedro Almodovar has never made a flat-out bad movie, but he has helmed several films that don’t fully realize his talents.  Such is the case with Broken Embraces, the story of a blind filmmaker with a tragic past that’s like something out of a ’50s melodrama.  Penelope Cruz plays the director’s muse and she’s as stunning and vivacious here as she is in every Almodovar production she graces.  Too bad the movie itself meanders all over the map, building to a climax that’s head-scratching at best, laughably implausible at worst.  There’s still lots to like about Broken Embraces, but consider this one second-tier Pedro.
    Screens Sunday, October 11 at 8pm.  Opens theatrically on November 20.

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