Sunday, October 11, 2015

Film festivals, Coen brothers, and Scorsese talks

The 15th anniversary screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the New York Film Festival (photo credit: Sean DiSerio).

With the end of the New York Film Festival today, fall festival season is mostly at a close. The big ones – Telluride, Toronto, Venice, New York – have had their say and launched a great majority of the films that will compete for the top Oscars come January and February. For the most part, the movies that were meant to play like gangbusters did, and a little below, we will take a look at some of the reactions as the first phase of the run-up to the Academy Awards wraps up.

I have lived in New York nearly two years now, but this was the first year I was able to attend any of the New York Film Festival. As you might imagine, it was quite the experience, one I hope to expand on in the coming years. No, I did not get to attend any of the big premieres or see any of the new films. I will catch up with those in theaters like most of you will. Instead, my 2015 New York Film Festival experience was focused on the past.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

On Sept. 29, I was invited to the 15th anniversary screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the brothers’ adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey transposed to Dust Bowl America. In attendance for the post-screening question-and-answer session, moderated by festival director Kent Jones, were the Coens, stars George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Tim Blake Nelson, Geroge Clooney, and John Turturro in O Brother.
The Coens are as rye as their films suggest, and at any mention of their genius – which came up a lot from the audience – they demurred. As far as they are concerned, they are just two humble guys who like to make movies. In their introduction, Joel Coen said they rarely re-watch their films, and the last time they had was at a similar event for their debut feature, Blood Simple. He joked they came away with 15 or 20 minutes of edits to make and added the next time we see O Brother not to be surprised if it is about 15 minutes shorter.

For the most part, they seemed reluctant to discuss any deeper meaning or intent behind their film – a trait that can be seen in almost all their interviews, as well – but that did not stop the rest of those assembled on stage from gushing about their work. Nelson in particular was complimentary and also offered that the Coens and this film essentially launched his career.

Deakins, who was Oscar-nominated for the film and has worked with the Coen brothers 12 times, spoke about the digital intermediate process used to capture the faded-postcard look of the film. The technique involves digitizing a film to alter the color and other characteristics of the image in post-production. It was the first time the process had been used in a major motion picture in the U.S., and its success is further proof of Deakins’ brilliance behind the camera.

Ethan Coen, Kent Jones, and Nelson at the afterparty.
Clooney, whose third collaboration with the Coens you may have seen a new trailer for this week, is every bit the star you imagine him to be, and his reputation as a charming, impish troublemaker seems well deserved if you believe Clooney himself. He told tales of playing the Coens off each other, trying to trip up the famously simpatico siblings, and just generally being a puckish presence on set. He was similarly puckish on stage, much to the audience’s delight.

The evening concluded with an afterparty at the Landmarc restaurant in Columbus Circle and drinks with the Coens, Deakins, Nelson, and a number of festival luminaries. Clooney did not attend the afterparty, which is probably for the best. Stars like that have a tendency to suck all the air out of a room just by showing up. As it was, it was a loose affair full of good conversation, tasty food, and free-flowing wine.

I told Deakins what he must already know – that he is a master of what he does and his work on this year’s Sicario is breathtaking. I listened to Nelson, Jones, and Ethan Coen chat it up on one side of the room as Joel Coen held court on the other. At the end of it all, I stood on the sidewalk and joked with Ethan Coen about the rain, which had started sometime during the party. He chuckled, but the joke was clearly on me as he made his way to the car he arrived in, while I, dressed for the occasion but not the weather, walked to my train.

Heaven Can Wait

If you are a film nerd – and if you are here, you are either a film nerd or related to me somehow – there is no more rewarding experience than listening to Martin Scorsese speak. Hearing Scorsese talk about film and film history is like hearing Hank Aaron talk about baseball or Ernest Hemingway about writing. There is nothing you can say that will add to the conversation, so just shut up, sit back, and listen.

Martin Scorsese talks to Jones (photo credit: David Godlis).
For about 25 minutes Oct. 1 at Alice Tully Hall, I had the chance to do just that. Scorsese was at the Lincoln Center for a screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic Heaven Can Wait (no relation to the 1978 Warren Beatty movie of the same name), but mostly, he was in town to talk about The Film Foundation and its ongoing mission to rescue and preserve classic films for future generations.

Heaven Can Wait is a beautiful showcase for the foundation’s work. For a movie from 1943, the print we saw looked absolutely gorgeous, featuring a depth of color and brilliance of sound we would be lucky to get for a new film, let alone one produced more than seven decades ago. The set design truly pops, and Gene Tierney is as luminous as you are ever likely to see her. If you have the opportunity to see a roadshow screening at a theater or museum of one of The Film Foundation’s restored prints, I urge you to go. Whether or not you have seen the films, these restored prints are like seeing them anew.

Jones was back, ostensibly to moderate the conversation, but in the end, he was just like the rest of us in the audience, an engaged student humbly taking in lessons from the master. Jones opened the talk by asking Scorsese to describe how he got involved in the preservation and restoration of old films, and that was it. Scorsese was off.

It would be an injustice to the experience to pull out of context a few choice quotes or funny anecdotes. It was not that kind of evening. When you listen to Scorsese lecture, it is about feeling the cumulative effect of one man’s life in film washing over you. If you are lucky, you will grasp just some of it. This man, a giant of the film industry, has dedicated most of the second half of his life so far to giving back to that industry. He is an inspiration, through and through, and just given the chance to sit in awe of him, well, yeah, heaven can wait.

Festival season

The fall festival season is an embarrassment of riches for film fans. It is the time when movies we have all been anticipating get their first public screenings, and when movies we have never even heard of prove worthy of anticipation. Moreover, the festival circuit is now the prime breeding ground for Best Picture contenders at the Oscars and, more often than not, Best Picture winners.

Going back to the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, each of the last eight Best Picture winners has debuted at a festival, and just to prove everything is connected in some way or another, the last film to win without a festival premiere was Scorsese’s The Departed in 2006. Unsurprisingly, that was also the last Best Picture winner that was a significantly commercial proposition from the get-go, although The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and Argo were all box-office hits.

However, over the last few years, an interesting shift has taken place with regard to the line between independent, festival hit and big-budget blockbuster – namely, it has disappeared. In fact, some of the best reviewed films of this festival season have been commercially minded movies from marquee directors such as Ridley Scott (The Martian), Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), Robert Zemeckis (The Walk), and Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs). There is no saying exactly whether these films will have the legs to make it to Oscar season, but with those names, those reviews, and likely big numbers at the box office, they have a good shot.

Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa is scheduled for a December release.
As far as the movies I was less familiar with coming into the fall, a few have certainly cropped up that I will be putting at the top of my personal must-see list. Foremost among them, writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated feature that won the special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival. I am a big fan of Kaufman’s writing (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and an even bigger fan of his lone feature directing credit, Synecdoche, N.Y., so consider me in the bag for his latest venture.

Another director I have always loved is Tom McCarthy, whose first three features are unimpeachable – The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. He took an odd turn off course with last year’s simultaneously dour and oddly whimsical The Cobbler, but he appears to be back in form with Spotlight, which has gotten some of the best notices of any film at any festival this year. The film tracks the true story of the Boston Globe’s attempts to break open the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. It sounds like topical, important work from one of our finest, most underappreciated directors, and I cannot wait.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The festival season is over, which means it is movie-going season for the rest of us. It is nearly impossible in any year to keep up with all the great films being released, and this year looks better than most, so as my idol used to say, I’ll see you at the movies.

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