"Let's hear it for the girl...Let's give the girl a hand..." These could be signature lyrics (with apologies to Denise Williams) for a number of pics in the second half of the NYFF. Many are about women; four (all foreign) are directed by females. Odd, given that most of the films in the first batch were marked by male bravado and bonding (with only one made by a woman, whose co-director is a man). Foreshadowing these mostly melancholic, femme-focused movies are the Grace Chang starrers in the tantalizing sidebar "Chinese Modern: A Tribute to Cathay Studios." Chang (aka Ge Lan) was a major icon of the '50s and early '60s Hong Kong cinema.
Yi Wen's fabulous black-and-white "Mambo Girl" (1957) begins as a light teen musical, with Chang in pedalpushers wowing her classmates with hipster dancing and relentless charm. After she discovers that she was adopted from an orphanage and, according to the dialog, "a bastard," she becomes as morose as she had been sunny. "Mambo Girl" shifts 180 degrees in tone and becomes a nearly subterranean melodrama in which subtlety is off the table. In Wong Tin-lam's "The Wild, Wild Rose" (1960), an adaptation of "Carmen," the mood suddenly alters as well, with Chang's lounge chanteuse morphing from silly vamp to responsible adult.
Two women directors of the contemporary selections venture into painful autobiographical turf that they no longer inhabit. In the cleverly animated "Persepolis," Iranian emigre Marjane Satrapi (co-directing with Vincent Paronnaud) adapts her graphic novels about growing up under the repressive regimes of the Shah and Islamic theocrats, charting horrors ranging from the Iran-Iraq war to the chador. Paper and ink, with the look of charcoal, effectively convey the impact of dehumanizing politics on a freethinking young woman.
In the excellent, astonishingly edited doc "Calle Santa Fe"--a must-see--Carmen Castillo, like Satrapi now based in Paris, revisits her native Chile, from where she was forcibly exiled in 1974. She had been active in the radical left organization MIR and lover of its head, Miguel Enriquez, with whom she lived in a safehouse on the eponymous street. Ten months after the 1973 coup that toppled Salvador Allende, General Pinochet's soldiers stormed the small home, killed him, and seriously wounded her. Using abundant introspective voiceover, archival footage, and interviews with her parents, tortured former exiles, and resistance leaders in poor neighborhoods, Castillo analyzes the legacy of MIR and Enriquez in her own life and in Chilean society. Her dilemma: Should she push aside personal concerns for the common good?
A connoisseur of sex in women's lives, French director Catherine Breillat neatly surveys the space occupied by females of a certain class in her engaging, passion-inflected "The Last Mistress," adapted from Jules-Amedee Barbey d'Aureuilly's novel of 18th-century manners. Asia Argento portrays an irresistible Spanish courtesan under the spell of Fu'ad Ait Aatou's dandy; she's Id to his refined (and sexually inert) Superego of a wife. Ex-model Ait Aatou's overwhelming beauty takes center stage, though Argento's libidinal energy makes him seem like a case study in ennui. You can't beat a woman's fire.
Or can you? In "Actresses," her second outing as a filmmaker, veteran Italian (and French-reared) performer Valeria Bruni Tedeschi casts in a significant supporting part Louis Garrel, like Aid Aatou a stunning young actor with feminine features. Is this a middle-aged woman's thing? This is the kind of uninspired French production that gets my blood boiling: a project both naive ("The Marriage of Figaro" AND "I Will Survive" on the soundtrack?) and rarefied, born of and about privilege and set in a high-culture milieu (remember "Avenue Montaigne"?). A movie about a famous theater actress (played by the director in full vanity-production mode; she gets to crack up) whose biggest problems are wanting a baby and a spouse amounts to very little dramatically--even if they are entwined with her role as the aging Natalia Petrovna in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country." I loved her presence in Francois Ozon's "5 X 2" and "Time to Leave," among other projects, but she should remain in front of the camera, under someone else's guidance. Breillat, for instance, who is as liberated as Bruni Tedeschi is constrained.
Some of the male directors attempt to explore the deeper recesses of the female psyche. Gifted New Yorker Noah Baumbach probes the pros and cons of the sisterly bond in "Margot at the Wedding," his first film to take place outside the Big Apple (if we can separate the Hamptons from the city). A character like Jennifer Jason Leigh's Pauline (the film is modeled on Eric Rohmer's "Pauline at the Beach"), somewhat weak but unpretentious and grounded (she's engaged to Jack Black's Malcolm, after all), is a first for the filmmaker. Her disapproving sib Margot, played by Nicole Kidman (title changed as star wattage increased), is a clone of Laura Linney's mother in the autobiographical "The Squid and the Whale": cold, manipulative, and insensitive to her son, but an intelligent scribe. Frequently handheld, with soft jump cuts and witty repartee, "Margot at the Wedding" is a big leap technically over "Squid": Baumbach just needs to move on from his ice-mama fixation.
Ultra-bourgeois gallic director Claude Chabrol misses the boat altogether in "A Girl Cut in Two," set in a world as elitist as that in "Actresses." Ludivine Sagnier's diminutive Gabrielle is so spineless that she plays slave to an inconsiderate, extremely accomplished novelist-lover 30 years her senior, then tarnishes his memory in court to cash in from the wealthy family of her murderous sociopath of a husband. She becomes, almost literally, cut in two by film's end: Someone please explain. "Flight of the Red Balloon," Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's homage to Albert Lamorisse's classic "The Red Balloon," displays the soft Hou touch, though his style, the Parisian setting, and Juliette Binoche's thesping don't fully gel. He does do a decent job of observing the travails of a single mom, a struggling puppeteer with a Taiwanese nanny. Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke allows the purist, anachronistic fashion designer Ma Ke freedom of the screen in "Useless" (the name of her line), his suitably stylish doc on Chinese clothing vis-a-vis the loss of historical memory in a newly consumerist society. Ma Ke may lack charisma, but no matter: Jia focuses on her artistry, her ideology. It's an anti-glamour approach to a "glamour" industry. In this three-tiered second installment of his "Trilogy of Artists" (following "Dong"), the director also films endangered old-style tailors as well as laborers who toil on the assembly lines that Ma Ke so despises.
But most guys make movies about other guys. (Let's hear it for the boy?)
John Landis's doc "Mr. Warmth, the Don Rickles Project" appeared on paper like an unlikely choice for the fest. I was wrong. In this world premiere, Landis supplies the high-energy maestro of spontaneous putdown a suitable format. He gives the multiple talking heads (a bit too celebrity heavy) just the right amount of screen time: They get their say, but, like Rickles, they never bore. To break any semblance of monotony, the director sparingly deploys brief photo collages to illustrate his subject's past. Then, suddenly, almost with the same jolt we get when Rickles fires off one of his best barbs, we get clips and trailers from some of the comedian's diverse films, including "Run Silent Run Deep," "Kelly's Heroes," "Muscle Beach Party," "Toy Story," and the chilling "The Rat Race"--he is a great, if underappreciated, actor--not to mention scenes from TV appearances (lots of Carson) and, of course, his Vegas shows. Wisely, the first half has most of the best zingers, while the second spotlights more his background, family and friends, and, in an interesting tapestry, his career in the context of a changing Vegas scape. There is perhaps a touch of hagiography--I wish someone had said they don't like him or his humor--but I don't remember when I laughed so hard that I cried.
Gus van Sant's "Paranoid Park" is, no surprise, literally about the boy. In this coming-of-age story, he zeroes in on a beautiful skateboarding teen who accidentally kills a railway security man with his board, then undergoes a proto-existential crisis. In a smart move, van Sant strays from the formal stasis that he embraced in his last three projects, opting instead for dynamism, fluidity, and technical wizardry--after all, this is a collaboration with D.P. Chris Doyle, the embodiment of slithering camera movement. A perfect combo: van Sant's appreciation for youth and their fetishes and Doyle's unfettered experimentation in matching apparatus to subject.
Sidney Lumet probes what makes more adult men tick in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a movie packed with biblical father/son and brother/brother resonance. Set in New York (of course), drifter Ethan Hawke and his brother, junkie/embezzler Philip Seymour Hoffman (and he's the competent one), have little in common except empty bankbooks (and Hoffman's wife). They hire someone to rob their mother's jewelry store, but the job goes awry and she ends up brain dead. As a film it's fine, slick as studio fare and a bit mannered in its fragmentation. Because we know the outcome from the beginning, we learn the process of setting up a heist, should anyone need to know.
Auteur of "Casualties of War," Brian de Palma must have felt confident addressing the conflagration in Iraq in "Redacted," a faux doc encasing two smaller faux docs. Based on the actual rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl and the killing of her family by American soldiers in Samarra, de Palma wants to sensitize you to the atmosphere of an occupied country. Not to be disrespectful, but how? Nothing direct, nothing felt: He used to filter through Hitchcock, now he mediates with a video camera, with footage from a French "doc," with computer screens. He crops us out. His worst mistake is making the guilty soldiers certifiable loonies. Why the excuse of mental imbalance? Are the Blackwater fellows bonkers, too?
The old Grace Chang vehicles ring truer. Let's hear it for the girl.
Unseen: "I Just Didn't Do It" by Masayuki Suo, Japan