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New York Film Festival 2017
New York Film Festival 2017

Western

“War is war. Life is life. You can’t lump them together,” says a burly construction worker early on in Valeska Grisebach’s Western, immediately invoking the dichotomy between civility and savagery at the heart of the genre referenced by the film’s title. The seasoned audience member will recognize the hollowness in such a statement, as the most ageless westerns have proven time and again that violence—physical and otherwise—is the engine of civilizing progress. And though blood is scarcely spilled in Western, the film nevertheless teems with nervous tension as a German construction crew descends on a modest Bulgarian village to conduct work on a hydroelectric power plant in the hills nearby. In a supremely understated style, Grisebach sets this all-too-modern scenario in motion and charts the ways in which power and privilege unconsciously manifest themselves, turning a boilerplate engineering initiative into a loaded culture clash. >>

New York Film Festival 2017

Wonderstruck

What the photographs of Ruth Orkin and Saul Leiter were to the painstaking tableaux of Carol, the work of Roy DeCarava might be to these 1920s-set sequences. Todd Haynes’s eye for detail is astringent as ever, and he boldly opts to make Rose’s (Millicent Simmonds) scenes “deaf” as well: completely silent beyond Carter Burwell’s punctuating music, itself an exercise in Aaron Copland-esque affect that suggests the music accompanying remastered versions of silent films whose original scores have been lost to the ages. Ben’s (Oakes Fegley) crossing into Manhattan depicts a vibrantly seedy city, throbbing with summer heat, ratcheting up tension by dwarfing a newly deaf child in a vast crowd’s anonymizing bustle. Ben makes friends with a kid named Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose father works at the Museum of Natural History; Rose makes a similar trip and Haynes juxtaposes scenes from both storylines, centering on specific exhibits. Eventually, the characters of the 1927 narrative are reintroduced in their late-adult iterations, and the connection between Ben and Rose is made explicit. >>

New York Film Festival 2017

Wonder Wheel

Though he’s directed some of the finest performances in American cinema, and his gift for rambling, navel-gazing dialogue was, at one point, eminently quotable, Woody Allen manages to coax painfully unnatural performances from almost everyone in Wonder Wheel. The tone throughout vacillates wildly from silly comedy to classic Hollywood melodrama, and all of it feels as artificial and unsatisfying as the cotton candy twirling in a vending cart. Kate Winslet in particular plays her role with unabashed histrionics, all fury and forced emotions. It’s her most misguided performance since Sam Mendes’s voluptuously idiotic adaptation of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. Jim Belushi fares better, spewing out vitriol and love with equal amounts of conviction, but all the shouting and scenery-chewing going on around him saps the poignancy from his performance. >>

New York Film Festival 2017

Zama

Zama’s uncanny visual humor is reminiscent of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu and João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, which are also shot by Poças and approach the legacy of colonialism from a strange angle. What distinguishes Lucrecia Martel’s film from those others is how bluntly its comedy informs its politics. The narrative takes place just before a revolution that united South American Creoles, slaves, and natives against their Spanish oppressors. At once oblique and straightforward, the film uses image and sound to posit this revolt as an inevitability without ever speaking a word about it. Zama’s (Daniel Giménez Cacho) size is diminished by natural rock formations, and shadowy heads and limbs always seem to be wandering by the camera in front of him. To the back of the frame, slaves and natives regard Zama quizzically or merely go about their business. Sometimes llamas, horses, giant dogs, and ostriches pop into view, similarly indifferent to his plight and his gradually waning sense of authority. >>

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