@ The 2021 New York Film Festival — Part Two

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 7, 2021

The poster graphic for the 59th New York Film Festival
The poster graphic for the 59th New York Film Festival  (Source:NYFF)

Motherhood seems to be a recurring theme in the 59th annual New York Film Festival, whether it's the depiction of two very different mothers who are bonded in an inextricable manner in Pedro Almodóvar's "Parallel Mothers," or an atypical examination of the scars that can be left on both mothers and daughters in Maggie Gyllenhaal's "The Lost Daughter."

In Joaquim Trier's "The Worst Person in the World," Renate Reinsve plays a young woman who is trying to decide if she even wants to be a mother.

And Charlotte Gainsbourg's "Jane by Charlotte" is a love letter to her mother Jane Birkin, as well as an attempt to understand her better.

One thing is for certain: NYFF59 is the BEST Slate in recent memory. These films are truly powerful and exploratory works that are a testament to these challenging times.

Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Power of the Dog"
Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Power of the Dog"  (Source: NYFF)

"The Power of the Dog"

Sexual repression has never felt so thrilling, frightening, and complicated as it does in Jane Campion's spellbinding western thriller, "The Power of the Dog," adapted from Thomas Savage's 1967 cult novel. Set in 1925 Montana, this masterful cinematic gem centers on Rose (an excellent Kirsten Dunst), a widow who marries a kind and gentle rancher, George (an affecting Jesse Plemons), and moves in with him and his cantankerous, nasty brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Rose's rather delicate, misfit son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is also on hand, and is ridiculed by Phil and his fellow ranch hands. Strangely, after a bit, a special relationship begins to develop between Phil and Peter, which scares Rose.

Phil is someone who desperately needs to be a man, or at least act the part. He rarely bathes. "I stink. And I like it," he proudly bellows. He seems to enjoy cutting off bull testes. He's a proud bully. But all this (what we'd call today) toxic masculinity is a bullish way of masking his repressed feelings. Cumberbatch is so immersive you can smell his foul odor and, also, sense his arousal around the other men. It's his best performance since "The Imitation Game." Perhaps his best, period.

Kodi Smit-McPhee in "The Power of the Dog"
Kodi Smit-McPhee in "The Power of the Dog"  (Source: NYFF)

Smit-McPhee has been a beguiling actor since "The Road." Now all grown up, he's even more queer (in all definitions of that word). His Pete is not the norm by any definition. He enjoys dissecting animals and has a creepy quality. He must and does remain a mystery until the end and the actor is a marvel to watch. The late scenes between Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch seethe with such sexual tension I was holding my breath not knowing whether to be frightened, excited, or exasperated.

Campion's genius is in keeping this crucible cooking at just the right temperature, with the perfect ingredients, stirring it the correct number of times, until it explodes. Production values are amazing from Johnny Greenwood's haunting score to Ari Wegner's stunning cinematography.

This is one of 2021's best films.

Milena Smit and  Penélope Cruz in "The Power of the Dog"
Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz in "The Power of the Dog"  (Source: NYFF)

"Parallel Mothers"

Pedro Almodóvar continues to take told tales and reinvent and reinvigorate them, as well as set them against monumental backdrops. His cinematic eye is as keen and adept as ever, and his narrative storytelling remains absorbing and compelling.

It helps to have Penélope Cruz delivering the best performance of her career (and that is not hyperbole).

In this Almodóvar película, two women's fates are intertwined when they both give birth almost simultaneously in the same maternity ward. They are both single mothers but have very different stories and are decades apart, age-wise. Janis (Cruz) is an ambitious photographer who gets involved with a married man, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), helping her right a terrible wrong done to her and so many other citizens who vanished during the terror-ridden reign of Franco (during the Spanish Civil War). Ana (thrilling newcomer Milena Smit) is a teen who was raped by three men and then had it hushed up by her father. Both women's lives will converge in hypnotic and unpredictable ways.

What I love so much about Almodóvar's characters is that they do not operate via clichés. They're passionate, erratic, sexual beings. The manner in which Cruz handles a certain discovery is filled with nuance and depth; it's a wonder to behold. And the finale is nothing short of transcendent. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Olivia Coleman in "The Lost Daughter"
Olivia Coleman in "The Lost Daughter"  (Source: NYFF)

"The Lost Daughter"

Maggie Gyllenhaal has screenwriting genius in her blood. Her mother, Naomi Foner, wrote one of the best screenplays of the 1980s, "Running on Empty." I's no surprise she a talented scribe, but she's also a hell of a dynamic director, piecing together a complex psychological narrative without once slipping into either melodrama or detachment.

Based on the 2006 novel by Elena Ferrante ("My Brilliant Friend"), "The Lost Daughter" centers on an enigmatic language professor, Leda (Olivia Colman), who is on holiday and becomes fascinated by a young woman, Nina (a surprising Dakota Johnson) and her child, who, in turn, reminds her of her own tempestuous early life and her relationship with her own daughters.

Confusing, contrary, haunted, liberated, and often at odds with what's expectedly defined as motherhood, Colman allows us inside the head and heart of someone we might normally find incomprehensible, even reprehensible. But we get her; we even empathize with her, to the point that we want to protect her. It's a tribute to the extraordinary gifts Colman has with knowing exactly how to play to the camera. This might be her greatest film work yet.

Jessie Buckley is beyond believable as the younger Leda (a high complement). Paul Mescal, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, and Dagmara Dominczyk provide great support.

Gyllenhaal creates a tremendous sense of foreboding that folds in on itself as the plot thickens and the film moves to its strangely satisfying conclusion.

Renate Reinsve in "The Worst Person in the World"
Renate Reinsve in "The Worst Person in the World"  

"The Worst Person in the World"

It's rare (even today) when a female is the central figure in a relationship/coming-of-age story and the two men in her life are supporting characters. It's rarer still that she's a multifaceted, messy, conflicted being who's allowed to make mistakes along her journey into what we like to call adulthood. Norwegian director extraordinaire Joachim Trier ("Thelma," "Oslo, August 31") and deserved Cannes Best Actress recipient Renate Reinsve deliver just that with "The Worst Person in the World." Reinsve is so compelling I kept hoping her narrative would continue. (The film is broken into 12 chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue.)

The always wonderful Anders Danielsen Lie and newcomer Herbert Nordrum play the two very different, very intense men. And Trier penned the smart and sensitive screenplay with his collaborator Eskil Vogt. But this is Reinsve's showcase, and it's glorious. In Norwegian with English subtitles.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in "The Tragedy of Macbeth"
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in "The Tragedy of Macbeth"  (Source: NYFF)

"The Tragedy of Macbeth"

As the lights went down in the Walter Reade theatre, I just kept wondering: Does the world really need another film version of the Scottish play? One hundred and five minutes later, my answer was a resounding Yes!, thanks to Joel Coen's love for the visual medium and the brilliant casting of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. There is something magnificent about what these two titanic actors do with these roles. This is one tired Lord and Lady who are finally given their shot after years of having to bow to others — and then still to younger others! Now, at last, they have an opportunity to grab it all — misguided as it may be. And they screw it up madly, through greed and unpreparedness. It's the ultimate folly, but watching that unhinged desire is glorious. Washington and McDormand both seem to get better with each new screen performance. It's truly astonishing.

This is a new, reimagined "Tragedy of Macbeth," one where a mad dash for power takes on new dimensions. The production values and supporting cast are magnificent.

We can thank Mrs. Coen for her push to get this made when Mr. Coen had doubts.

I'm guessing Franny, along with Denzel, is looking at more Oscar love.

A still from "A Chiara"
A still from "A Chiara"  (Source: NYFF)

"A Chiara"

Italo-American filmmaker Jonas Carpignano ("Mediterranea") sets his new film, "A Chiara," in a small town in today's Calabria and completely focuses the narrative on a 15-year-old girl, Chiara (an extraordinary Swamy Rotolo), who slowly begins to realize her father is not who she thinks he is. The camera rarely leaves Chiara as she continues her heartbreaking discovery, and often the close-ups tell us all we need to know about her frustrated and complicated reactions. The second half of this gripping film plunges our titular character into a fast-paced drama where she must ultimately make a few life-altering choices.

"They call it Mafia, we call it survival," Chiara's papa says by way of explaining what he does, and why. Carpignano never judges his characters, but his coda is a stunner and speaks volumes to his intent. I loved his film. In Italian with English subtitles.

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in "C'mon C'mon"
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in "C'mon C'mon"  (Source: NYFF)

"C'mon C'mon"

Joaquin Phoenix taps into his sweet and loving side for Mike Mills' "C'mon C'mon," a deeply affecting, uplifting, and unconventional peek at a small family looking to reconnect. Johnny (Phoenix) is a radio journo who volunteers to take care of his estranged sister's nine-year-old boy, Jesse (Woody Norman, in one of the most outstanding young newcomer performances since Ricky Schroder in "The Champ" in 1979) while she helps her husband through mental health issues. Johnny travels around the U.S. asking kids pertinent questions about their thoughts on the future, so now Jesse is along for the ride. The connection that Johnny and Jesse establish is so real it puts the Dustin Hoffman/Justin Henry masquerade in "Kramer vs. Kramer" to shame. Gaby Hoffmann does fine work as well.

Writer-director Mills, who helmed the superb, "Beginners" and "20th Century Women," continues his keen and wonderfully odd look at damaged humans. I found it fascinating that Johnny worked in radio, which many might see as obsolete, and yet the power of the voice — via radio and podcast — has never been more urgent than during these pandemic times.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin  (Source: NYFF)

"Jane by Charlotte"

"Jane by Charlotte" is a loving and moving portrait of a mother from the literal and psychological perspective of her daughter. Rest assured: This is no "Mommie Dearest." Charlotte Gainsbourg, an extraordinary actor in her own right ("Antichrist," "Melancholia"), has created an intimate, highly personal work that eschews technical prowess or background info and simply focuses on her mother and her notions on aging, death, and success, as well as regret. Charlotte is the daughter of two seminal 20th century figures, Serge Gainsbourg, the singer/songwriter/filmmaker/author, and Birkin, his muse for 12 years. If you want to learn more about this iconic family, there's always Google, or, more importantly, their work. The director, though, is more interested in trying to further understand her mother while she is still here, and thanks to her sharing that with us, we might learn a bit about our own mother and/or child. Birkin had a stroke just a few weeks ago, but is said to be doing well. In French with English subtitles.

A still from "Marx Can Wait"
A still from "Marx Can Wait"  (Source: NYFF)

"Marx Can Wait"

As someone who is no stranger to familial suicide, and who has explored it in his own creative work, I applaud Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio ("Fists in the Pocket," "The Traitor") for taking on the task of dissecting the circumstances around the suicide of his twin brother — at a family reunion — a tragedy that occurred over 50 years ago. Bellocchio is not looking for absolution (at least, not entirely) but is trying to ask questions that weren't posed back in the late '60s. In his many films, he has often dealt with family and political dynamics at odds with one another. Here, they come to a head. Labelling "Marx Can Wait" a highly personal documentary isn't enough. It's an investigation of past sins, a laying bare of all the bullshit fakery that Italian-Catholics are forced to grow up with. It's a purging and a mea culpa. In Italian with English subtitles.

A still from "The Tale of King Crab"
A still from "The Tale of King Crab"  (Source: NYFF)

"The Tale of King Crab"

A gaggle of Italian hunters gather in a pub to tell the true legend of King Crab — agreeing and disagreeing about the details — except that it took place in the 19th century. In Chapter One, Luciano (a captivating Gabriele Silli), a lumbering, drunken outcast, screws his life up even more when he falls for the wrong woman and picks a fight with the aristocrat who owns the town. Chapter Two finds him in Argentina, dressed as a priest following a crab around to find an elusive treasure.

"The Tale of King Crab," directed by Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, is a sometimes-engrossing film that tends to meander. But the redemptive ending makes up for the less exciting moments. In Italian with English subtitles.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute