April 13, 2010
 

Brokaw's New York Film Festival, Part 1.

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"The Windmill Movie" How many independent cinematographer/directors can you think of who also lectured at Harvard, chaired a film department at SUNY Purchase, lived in the Hamptons in a gorgeous home next to a windmill, and relished bragging rights as a dashing, elitist bon vivant? The one--surely the only one in the history of cinema--was Richard Rogers, who died in 2001 at 58 after completing 18 short and long-format films. Some focused on literary giants like William Kennedy and William Carlos Williams, others covered medieval communes, elephants and air balloons. Over more than two decades, Rogers also compiled hundreds of little cans of film containing tape, l6mm and Super 8mm scenes exploring his own unruly life and splintered times, which he didn't live to assemble into his own autobiography.

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That work has been taken on and boldly, respectfully completed by Alexander Olch, a former Harvard student and protege of Rogers. Working in a Mott Street apartment with the world-class Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas (who married Rogers very late in his life following a long and complicated relationship), and later with the fine documentarian David Grubin, Olch inched his way through endless footage "by trial and error." He built a half hour summary that eventually expanded to 80 minutes. In the process, he introduces friends of Rogers like Wallace Shawn and Bob Balaban, but resists the usual biographical impulse to use talking heads as providers of exposition who cue our responses to the subject. Olch leaves us mostly on our own through the first hour, tripping through the exploits (and sometimes tripping over the feet) of the ever-filming Rogers.

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The man is a sly fox and something of a showboat. He tells us confidently that if you seem successful, people will cut you plenty of slack and freedom. The gang in Wainscott certainty does. He's embraced by the Hamptons' community and he's at ease among tastemakers and the wealthy. But he's also a maverick, the filmmaker forever chasing a dream. He may remind you of an odd blending of Joe Papp and the monologist Spalding Gray, with a dash of Mailer tossed in. (His companion Ms. Meiselas seems a perfect soulmate, given her penchant for photographing outside-the-box subjects like carnival strippers.) One of Rogers' short films, "Quarry, "made in 1967, shows young adults and teens frolicking and diving into a Massachusetts river--it draws an uncanny contrast between the carefree joys of youth and the awful uncertainties of military service in Vietnam, that we hear being discussed off-screen.

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The last seasons of Richard Rogers' life are heavy-laden. His mother is felled by a disfiguring cancer. One of his feet is crushed in an accident, severing three toes. He's undergoes successful surgery for several brain tumors, but the cancer returns and spreads. He begins to resemble his own father, who we've seen diminished by illness. One scene near the end seems to imagine Rogers as a boy, approaching a cemetery at which a funeral service is being held for his adult self. The final footage pictures an earlier Rogers, toes intact, filming a blue ocean he's wading into, as the water slowly rises around him. In a way this bookends his "Quarry" film with all its water imagery. It may also trigger memories of Tim Burton's "Big Fish," in which a dying Albert Finney is borne out into the open sea, past waving throngs of friends up on river banks.

"The Windmill Movie" is a small and wonderful film of a large and wondering filmmaker.

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"A Christmas Tale" There's more than a touch of "August: Osage County" in Armand Desplichin's classy new French soap opera. This one's a tangled family reuniting over a medical crisis. The aging matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) requires bone marrow to combat the same rare leukemia that took her first child at birth, and the donor must be a family member. Her two grown daughters and one adult son--plus children, lovers, even a lesbian friend of her husband's mother--descend for bone marrow tests and Christmas at the sprawling, urban home of the parents. The one donor match is the drunken, playboy son (Mathieau Amalric, amusingly similar to his role in "Diving Bell and the Butterfly"), who's been banished from the family by his older sister (Anne Consigny). The family anchor is the father (Jean-Paul Roussillon), a robust manufacturer who channels Lionel Barrymore with a crusty gusto, plays Cecil Taylor LPs, and accepts all his dysfunctional children and grandchildren with equal affection.

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This sparkling company and ripe script are undeniably arresting, and they power the twists and turns of the days leading up to Christmas and mom's surgery. Filmically there are echoes of John Huston's "The Dead," Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters," and even Bergman's "The Magic Flute," though Desplechin fills the frame with his own inventive details and quirks. The lovely Miss Deneuve, who has aged gracefully into one of France's national treasures, acts with ease as a grandmother acutely aware of her fragile mortality. As in "August: Osage County," everyone is onpoint and serving the material. At 150 minutes "A Christmas Tale" is one of autumn's most trim and tidy screen gifts.

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"Tony Manero" Choose a friend who's forever bemoaning the lack of originality in today's new movies, and make this your treat. We're in Santiago, Chile at the height of the Pinochet regime's repression of citizen rights (a subject fully explored in last year's Festival documentary, "Calle Sante Fe," also set in Santiago). Curfews are enforced by armed soldiers in trucks, and night life is minimal. But the local cinema is showing John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever," and the 52-year-old unemployed dancer/choreographer who's named himself after Travolta's screen name is staring at the movie night after night, getting down all the moves. He practices in the mirror of his rundown flat, and rehearses a tiny, ragtag company of backup dancers in a cheap bistro. For 52 he's pretty good on his feet, even when he takes a hard fall and crashes through the floor.

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He's also crazy. Tony's short-term goal is tearing up that floor and replacing it with thick glass panes that can be lit from underneath, like Travolta in the movie. When the movie theater replaces "Saturday Night Fever" with "Grease," Tony storms into the projection booth and beats the operator to death. Then he kills the ticket taker and walks out with the 35mm print of "Fever" so he can study the raw film. "Tony Manero" has lots more surprises in store, and while some are grotesquely ugly, others are wildly imaginative and genuinely touching.

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"Tony Manero" belongs to its star and co-author, Alfredo Castro, a Chilean stage actor. He has Al Pacino's hawkeyed countenance, and he displays reserves of Pacino's volcanic intensity and anger. But most of the time he's on auto-pilot, observing and listening and brooding. He's outwardly normal if withdrawn, not unlike a number of Jim Thompson's loony psychopaths, and we give him our undivided attention because we know he can murder without provocation. The conclusion of "Tony Manero" is deft and satisfying, and the coda moments following the conclusion are bright as a button--make that bright as a black button.

The 15-minute Festival short preceding this feature is "Love You More," an English prep school boy/girl hookup featuring music by The Buzzcocks. It's slick, well-acted, sharply observed and highly erotic.

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