New York Fest Opens with Celebrities Big and Small
by Anthony Kaufman
"To open the New York Film Festival with a Woody Allen film seems like
doing what comes natural," said Joe Mantegna last Friday, hours before
the opening of Allen's film, "Celebrity" at the 36th New York Film
Festival (NYFF). The kick-off event is one of New York's swankiest,
with two sold-out Lincoln Center concert halls showing the movie and a
glitzy post-screening party (black tie) at Central Park's Tavern on the
Although the screening is indeed appropriate for a glamorous fest
opener, with an array of stars coming out for the event like Mantegna,
Leonardo DiCaprio, Kenneth Branagh, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen, Bebe
Neuwirth, Charlize Theron and the appropriate marriage between Woody and
the NYFF has not gone unnoticed, the buzz on the Miramax release has
been consistently bad. Notably Allen did not show (as he is shooting
his next movie), but Harvey Weinstein did appear on stage with the
stars, this being his most recent visit since "Pulp Fiction" opened the
NYFF in 95.
When the film was over, a man on a cell phone in the lobby was overheard
saying, "It felt like 5-hours long." And after press screenings last
week, critics and journalists left the screenings decidedly unsatisfied.
Even the even-handed Janet Maslin's NY Times review confessed, "Though
Celebrity' is filled with beautiful and famous faces, it has plenty of
opportunity to bog down between star turns, and some of the episodes
about the Simons are astonishingly flat," while Variety's Todd McCarthy
called it "a once-over-lightly rehash of mostly stale Allen themes and
motifs." But even with the critics' tepid response, the film has a
star-studded cast including the now-world famous DiCaprio (shot before
"Titanic"), so Allen's latest could prove the power of celebrity that
now exists at the box office.
At a press conference for the aptly-titled inaugural film, Kenneth
Branagh defended his performance, one which anyone seeing the movie will
immediately consider a Woody Allen rip-off. "There is no question that
the part, itself, was written in the voice of the cinematic personality
we've come to know from him [Allen]," said Branagh. "But there was no
attempt to mimic him. . . . I felt I was playing [the character] Lee
Simon, but there is no question that it inevitably has a Woody
resonance. But I promise you, it wasn't conscious."
In what will likely be the most talked about scene in "Celebrity," Bebe
Neuwirth, portraying a hooker, performs fellatio on a banana. At press
conference, indieWIRE contributor Brandon Judell asked the former
"Cheers" star if there was anything in her past she brought to the
performance. "This was not my first banana," she replied. The press
applauded her retort.
Two other forms of celebrity are appearing in the opening days of the
festival: legendary "Frankenstein" creator James Whale and the daughter
of a famous Iranian cinematic master. "Gods and Monsters," Bill
Condon's smartly-directed tale of Whale (played by acclaimed Brit actor
Ian McKellan) premiered in Sundance's American Spectrum section. The
film's success has been mostly due to favorable critical response. At
Sundance, positive reviews gave it a second look from distributors, and
Lions Gate eventually picked up the film. Maslin's NYFF review called
the film "an unalloyed success at the New York Film Festival, with a
performance by Sir Ian McKellen that richly deserves to be remembered at
the end of the year."
Maslin's note is well-taken. The New York Film Festival is far from an
industry event. Approximately 16 out of the 24 film selected already
have distribution and no awards are given. Where it lacks in dollar
signs or laurels, the fest often makes up for in foreshadowing year-end
critical and public esteem. The 1996 festival, for example, included
Oscar nominees, "Secrets and Lies," "Breaking the Waves" and "The People
vs. Larry Flynt."
Bill Condon told indieWIRE, "It's like the great book end," speaking
about his selection at the NYFF. At Sundance, Condon explained, it was
"nerve-racking, because we didn't have a distributor, so there was no
way to enjoy it. It had been finished a week earlier; it was the first
time seeing it with an audience, and everyone who could possibly buy it
was in that audience. Only by the end, by the time everyone was gone,
there was a late Sunday screening did it become fun." At the NYFF, he
remarked, "This feels so much better, all those questions are behind us
now and we're going to open in six weeks."
Quickly becoming a celebrity on the international film festival circuit
is Samira Makhmalbaf, the 18-year-old daughter of the esteemed
Iranian-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Her directoral debut "The Apple,"
which premiered in this year's Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, is
sure to have the art-house success of the 1995 Iranian hit by Jafar
Pananhi, "The White Balloon." Picked up for domestic release by New
Yorker Films, "The Apple" is marked by the universal truths and profound
simplicities often found in the Iranian critical successes that reach
Based on a true story about two girls who were locked up in their house
for 11 years, Makhmalbaf used the actual family as actors, creating a
narrative out of the days she lived with them. Some critics were deeply
moved by the film's precision, while others found it slow. As animated,
passionate, and well-spoken as any American director in the festival,
the teenager Makhmalbaf is sure to have a long career ahead of her.
The fest's first few days also premiered two films that don't have U.S.
distribution, "Same Old Song" directed by Alain Resnais and "You're
Laughing" by Italian brothers, Paulo and Vittorio Taviani.
Resnais, renown for his masterpieces like "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," "Last
Year at Marienbad" and "Providence," creates a semi-musical written by
Agnes Jaoui and Jean Pierre Bacri ("Un Air De Famille"). Throughout
this well-acted story of Parisian loners and lovers, characters begin lip
syncing famous French pop songs in the middle of sentences. While the
film garnered multiple Cesars (French Oscars), the success of the film's
device is questionable in the US market. At a press conference after the
screening, Jaoui said, "I was in the back and you were not laughing at
all like in Paris, because the known songs trigger laughs and also other
movies in French audiences." Though Jaoui did claim, "But the strange
thing is in Italy, Israel, Vienna, and other countries, it was a really, big
The Taviani's adapted two Pirandello stories for their latest entry into
New York (they appeared in 1992 with "Fiorile"), the first a probing and
sensitive fable about a depressed man who laughs uncontrollably when he
sleeps and the second, a less-successfully executed story about a
political kidnapping. If it weren't for the lack of focus in the
latter story, "You're Laughing" could have become the next "Il Postino"
in the U.S., but it looks as if industryites passed on it after its
screening in Toronto.
Other films screening this week are French provocateur Gaspar Noe's
brutal, brash and nihilistic first film, "I Stand Alone," Shohei
Imamura's "Dr. Akagi," a dizzyingly ornate Russian film years
in-the-making "Khroustaliov, My Car!" and a trio of Cannes award
winners, Ken Loach's "My Name is Joe," Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine,"
and John Boorman's "The General." If you want to second guess the NYFF
selection committee, note that all 6 films debuted at Cannes.