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DISPATCH FROM THE NYFF: Considering Customs and Change on Opening Night #44, Stephen Frears’ “The Qu

DISPATCH FROM THE NYFF: Considering Customs and Change on Opening Night #44, Stephen Frears' "The Qu

The classic tug of war between tradition and modernization is quite apparent as the 44th New York Film Festival heads into opening night with the gala North American premiere of “The Queen,” Stephen Frears‘ new film featuring a spectacular performance by Dame Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. “For 44 years we’ve been accused of being demanding, inflexible and insanely selective,” states the trailer for this year’s festival, adding the punchline, “Remarkably like our audience.” Produced by the stalwart Film Society of Lincoln Center, the promo piece also highlights a long list of acclaimed filmmakers who have been showcased at the eevnt, from John Huston and Ingmar Bergman to Gus Van Sant and Wong Kar-wai. Following a pair of traditional Lincoln Center screenings Friday night, guests will once again make their way to Central Park’s Tavern on the Green for the annual glittering opening night bash, still listed as “black tie” on the shiny invite even though many younger generation attendees opt for a dark suit. The yearly event is the most important night on New York’s annual film calendar, kicking off a season of celebrations in the city.

[Check out the aforementioned trailer for the 44th New York Film Festival online (via YouTube).]

This year’s opening night film, one of only 28 features in the main festival program, boldly offers an unusual story line back home in Great Britain, casting a critical eye on a reigning British monarch. In fact, with a reputation for exploring the inner worlds of powerful figures, writer Peter Morgan has new films stirring audiences. “The Last King of Scotland,” which he co-wrote as an adaptation of the acclaimed book by Giles Foden, has had Telluride and Toronto festival audiences buzzing, and opens the same week as “The Queen,” which struck a chord at the recent Venice Film Festival. Morgan and Frears last worked together on the TV movie “The Deal” about British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and while “The Queen” also depicts Blair, in this case, it begins with Blair’s 1997 rise to power amidst talk of modernizing the British government, just months before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales would test his goals.

Just as some have quipped that the New York Film Festival is stodgy and traditional, Frears’ film captures a British battle between custom and change with the Queen and her fresh Prime Minister on opposing sides. “The relationship between the Queen and the Prime Minister was the first thing that interested me,” explained screenwriter Peter Morgan during a New York Film Festival press conference earlier this week.

Helen Mirren in a scene from Stephen Frears’ “The Queen”. Photo provided by Miramax Films.

Described as a “fictional account of real events, the film, featuring the acclaimed Mirren, begins as the young and politically savvy Blair becomes the government’s top official following his Labour Party’s landslide election victory. In the wake of Diana’s death in the infamous Paris car crash, Blair finds himself at odds with a royal family steeped in tradition and struggling with the legacy its future King’s ex-wife. As the stoic Queen softens in reaction to the apparent media-fueled mourning for Diana, Blair comes to defend the sovereign’s actions.

“If your are British,” Stephen Frears explained, “The royal family… it’s complicated. They are laughed at nonstop. They are quite ridiculous. But you can’t make a movie without sympathy underneath. The film takes them seriously, that already is a shocking thing to have done.”

“I grew up in a vehemently anti-monarchist family and I embraced those ideas and clung onto them for a very long time,” Mirren admitted during Wednesday’s press conference, “Until very recently, I have [since] mellowed somewhat.” She added, “You inevitably fall in love with your character no matter who it is. You find reasons to love them the way we all find reasons to love ourselves. That was what happened with me, I found myself loving the Queen and it was embarrassing to do that.” She remarked, “It was not very cool.”

For Frears, the new film was also an opportunity to look at the career of Tony Blair, who recently announced he will resign within the next year. Saying he has been “profoundly disappointed” with the British head of government, Frears explained that Blair has become more conservative, “propping up the monarchy.” At one point clearly referencing Blair’s actions in tandem with U.S. President George W. Bush in Iraq, Frears jokingly scolded the American journalists at the festival press conference for electing Bush, then added about Blair, “He was OK in the 20th century, (but) he wasn’t in the 21st.” Then he quipped, “It’s clear to us that we should have been voting in the American elections rather than the British ones.”

The 44th New York Film Festival continues through October 15, 2006 at Lincoln Center. The complete main program lineup event, with descriptions, is provided by the Film Society of Lincoln Center:

49 UP,” directed by Michael Apted (United Kingdom)
The seventh segment of the landmark documentary series catches up with a dozen of the 14 British participants whose lives have been chronicled every seven years. Conceived 42 years ago, the first film, “7 Up,” examined the worlds of a multi-ethnic, multi-class cross-section of children. Michael Apted, a researcher for the original film, returns to interview the “children”, now on the cusp of their 50s, on a variety of subjects including love, marriage, career, class, and prejudice and captures more life changing decisions and shocking revelations than ever before.
A First Run Features Release

August Days” (Dies d’agost),” directed by Marc Recha (Spain)
Part fiction, part documentary and part personal essay, “August Days” is a lucid and touching re-creation of a trip actually made by director Marc Recha (“The Cherry Tree”) and his brother David (both of whom play themselves), an experience now understood as a key moment in the director’s artistic evolution. Having hit a creative block while trying to conceive a new work based on the memoirs of a recently deceased friend, Marc is convinced by his twin brother David to take a break and to accompany him on a trip through the back roads of Catalonia. During the journey they re-establish the closeness somewhat dissipated since going their separate ways; have several brief interludes with strangers they meet on their way; and hear a number of stories, such as the one about a man-eating fish with whiskers that trawls a local lake. But what comes to define their time together are the extraordinary landscapes they encounter, each mountain passage or river run teeming with memories and history.

Bamako,” directed by Abderrahmane Sissako (France / Mali)
In the dusty courtyard of a West African communal dwelling, a remarkable tribunal has been set up. On trial are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, accused of bankrupting the African nations that they supposedly intended to support. It’s a tribute to the extraordinary artistry of Abderrahmane Sissako (“Waiting for Happiness”, NYFF 2002) that he’s able to alternate so effortlessly the images and rhythms of everyday village life (commerce goes on, a couple gets married) with a stark expose of the causes of underdevelopment; prosecutors offer devastating critiques of so-called aid and development packages, while the accused and their attorneys defend their record and seek to shift the blame elsewhere.

Belle Toujours,” directed by Manoel de Oliveira (France)
In an homage to auteur Luis Bunuel by Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira (soon to celebrate his 98th birthday), “Belle Toujours” revolves around two characters from Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, that are reunited 38 years later. Severine Serizy (Bulle Ogier, in the role originated by Catherine Deneuve) tries to avoid Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) but he lures her with the promise to reveal a past secret. Severine, now a widow, expects a resolution but is driven to despair; Henri is satisfied that he has exacted the perfect revenge on the woman he both desires and detests.
A New Yorker Films Release

Climates” (Iklimler), directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan builds on a major theme found in his earlier films, “Clouds of May” and “Distant” (NYFF 2004)–the ravage caused by the inability to express one’s feelings–in this visually stunning tale of a couple’s rupture and the aftermath. The director himself plays the lead role of Isa, a selfish architecture teacher, who after breaking up with the only woman he every cared about (played by Ebru Ceylan, the director’s wife), travels across Turkey while attempting to come to terms with his need for her.
A Zeitgeist Films Release

Falling,” directed by Barbara Albert (Austria)
Inspired by actresses of her generation who have influenced Austrian cinema, Barbara Albert brings together five women in their early thirties who meet for the first time in 14 years when they return to their small home town to attend their favorite teacher’s funeral. The reunion unexpectedly propels them in a new direction as old wounds are re-opened, friendships are re-ignited and each of them wonders whether they have lost sight of their dreams. Albert is clearly a leading figure in the most recently emerging generation of European filmmakers.

Gardens of Autumn” (Jardins en automne), directed by Otar Iosseliani (France)
In the comic, floating world of Otar Iosseliani (“Monday Morning”, NYFF 2002), people betray their vanities and fears with sardonically amusing, telltale eccentricities that propel them headlong into a series of comic misadventures. In this latest symphony of folly, Iosseliani’s warmest and most winning, we chart the life of Vincent, a powerful minister with an immense office, innumerable staff, a limousine and a beautiful wife, Odile, who spends all his money. But his world is transformed when the people he has ignored for so long, rise up in protest and force him to step down. Finding himself alone, back in his childhood apartment, his friends re-acquaint him with the simple pleasures of music, drinking, flirting–and the beauty of public gardens.

The Go Master” (Wu qingyuan), directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang (China)
The Go Master is based on the true-life story of the world’s most renowned master of the ancient Asian game of Go, Wu Qingyuan. A Chinese prodigy practicing a Japanese game, Wu’s allegiances are torn by the increasingly bellicose relations between the two countries. Remaining in Japan in spite of the outbreak of war, and later, sucked into a religious cult which tries to exploit his celebrity, Wu (excellently played by Chang Chen) is the still center of the storm, following his own inner notions of spiritual integrity and loyalty to the discipline of his chosen vocation. Few filmmakers today can make movies as visually elegant and psychologically astute as Tian Zhuangzhuang (“The Blue Kite”, NYFF 1993).

The Host” (Gwoemul), directed by Bong Joon-ho (South Korea)
A smash hit in South Korea, the exhilarating third picture from Bong Joon-ho is the decade’s best monster movie. Its premise has a 1950s purity: Toxins from a U.S. military base flow into the Han River causing the birth of a mutant creature (imagine the world’s hugest, most malevolent guppy) which proceeds to terrorize Seoul. When it grabs a little girl, her dysfunctional family must band together to save her. Bong’s movie is everything our homegrown horror movies are not–funny, suspenseful, rich with ideas and intelligent about family values.
A Magnolia Pictures Release

The Inland Empire,” directed by David Lynch (France / USA)
A Polish woman looks, intently, into someone or something … an actress (Laura Dern) is warned that her new movie is cursed … a rabbit-headed family perform sit-com actions on a stage set as if engaged in a solemn ritual … Such are just a few of the elements and recurrent motifs of The Inland Empire, a mesmerizing surge through countless looking glasses that lands us on the far side of the land of nightmares. Lynch’s first foray into high-definition video is just as visually stunning as his work in 35mm, but the long gestation period of his new film (he shot on and off over two years, and wrote as he went) has allowed him to give his own uniquely epic form to many of his primary concerns: the exploitation of young women, the mutability of identity, the omnivorousness of Hollywood.

Insiang,” directed by Lino Brocka (The Philippines, 1976)
The first Filipino film screened at the Cannes Film Festival, Insiang begins as the title character, marvelously played by Hilda Koronel, watches as her mother, Tonia (Mona Lisa), eases her relatives out of their ramshackle house so that she can ease in her boyfriend, Dado (Ruel Vernal). It doesn’t take long for Dado to notice the beautiful Insiang, and soon the three are locked in a vicious emotional and sexual triangle clearly heading for some kind of explosion. Like his contemporary R.W. Fassbinder, Brocka used the conventions of melodrama in order to transcend them; if Hell is other people, with Insiang Brocka created one darkest visions of the inferno ever committed to film. A New York Film Festival Retrospective.

The Journal of Knud Rasmussen,” directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn (Canada)
The new film by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn focuses on the Danish explorer and scientist Knud Rasmussen’s visit to the isolated camp of the great Igluik shaman, Aua, in 1922. Rasmussen and his protege, the young anthropologist Therkel Mathiasse, are captivated by the artic paradise, an intoxicating mix of spiritual and physical vitality, amazing intelligence and exuberant generosity. But the tranquility of the nomadic Inuit community is interrupted and irreversibly marred by encroaching Christianity, foreign goods and the shocking first murder of a white man.

Little Children,” directed by Todd Field (USA)
Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly and Patrick Wilson star in Todd Field’s multi-layered romantic drama that is loosely based on the acclaimed Tom Perrotta novel. “Little Children” follows a group of young married couples whose lives intersect in the playgrounds, town pools and streets of their small community in surprising and potentially dangerous ways. The lives of the seemingly perfect parents are disrupted when a mom has an affair with the neighborhood’s only stay-at-home dad, causing everyone involved to look inside themselves and discover what they really want in life.
A New Line Cinema Release

Mafioso,” directed by Alberto Lattuada (Italy, 1962)
A comic classic from the Golden Age of Italian cinema. Antonio (Alberto Sordi), a conscientious factory official, takes his wife and children to meet his family in Sicily and finds himself in the favor of local mobster Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attansio). Terrified and conflicted, he tells his family that he is going hunting but instead seeks out an enemy of the mafia in New York. A New York Film Festival Retrospective.
A Rialto Pictures Release

Marie Antoinette,” directed by Sofia Coppola (USA)
Academy Award(R)-winning Sofia Coppola’s new film brings to the screen an imaginative interpretation of the life of France’s legendary teenage queen Marie Antoinette. When betrothed to King Louis XVI (Jason Shwartzman), the naive Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) enters the opulent French court, which is steeped in conspiracy and scandal. Without guidance, adrift in a dangerous world, the young girl rebels against the isolated atmosphere of Versailles and becomes France’s most misunderstood monarch. A strong supporting cast including Marianne Faithful as Maria-Theresa and Rip Torn as Louis XV.
A Columbia Pictures release

Offside,” directed by Jafar Panahi (Iran)
A tireless chronicler of the inequities and contradictions of contemporary Iran, Jafar Panahi here traces a group of Iranian girls who attempt to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium dressed as boys to watch a major football tournament. Their deliberate flouting of the law, which forbids women to enter stadiums, puts them at great risk as they are caught, arrested and punished, yet nothing can quell their spirit of rebelliousness–or their willingness to ignore a law they consider unjust.
A Sony Pictures Classic Release

Our Daily Bread,” directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Austria)
Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s sparse and restrained documentary about food-manufacturing factories is punctuated with footage of anonymous workers and startling images of meat processing. The measured, un-narrated piece aptly demonstrates humans’ disconnection from their meals. The few scenes with factory workers enjoying their lunch break before heading back to operate the unearthly machines underscores the fascinating polarity that such a messy business as eating starts in these clinical and robotic environments.
A First Run / Icarus Films Release

Pan’s Labyrinth” (El laberinto del fauno), directed by Guillermo Del Toro, (Spain / Mexico) – CLOSING NIGHT FILM
Guillermo Del Toro’s sixth and most ambitious film, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a gothic fairy tale set against the postwar repression of Franco’s Spain. The film centers on Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a lonely and dreamy child living with her mother (Adriana Gil) and adoptive father (Sergi Lopez), a military officer tasked with ridding the area of rebels. In her loneliness, Ofelia creates a world filled with fantastical creatures and secret destinies. With post-war repression at its height, Ofelia must come to terms with her world through a fable of her own creation. The film is a haunting story that deftly combines the director’s penchant for the fantastical with a rich historical vision.
A Picturehouse Release

Paprika,” directed by Satoshi Kon (Japan)
Satoshi Kon’s new anime plays like a head-on collision between Hello Kitty and Philip K. Dick. The plot starts with a machine that lets therapists enter patients’ dreams: When it’s stolen, all hell breaks loose, and only a woman therapist (nicknamed “Paprika”) seems able to stop it. Kon is a brilliant director by any standard and as the characters shuttle from dream to dream, nightmare to nightmare, Paprika becomes a thrilling tour-de-force of visual invention–every frame is packed with imagination. This delightful movie is bursting with ideas about Japanese repression, multiple identities, collective dreams and the dark side of his countrymen’s love of Cute.
A Sony Pictures Entertainment Release

Poison Friends” (Les Amities Malefiques),” directed by Emmanuel Bourdieu (France)
Eloi (Malik Zidi) and Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger) meet Andre on the first day of the academic year. Seduced by his cool behavior, charisma and intelligence, they easily fall prey to his charm. Andre (Thibault Vincon) offers them friendship and mentoring in return for a pledge of loyalty. Overcome with admiration, Eloi and Alexandre bow to the harsh discipline until the day that he leaves them pretending he has earned a scholarship at an American University. Suddenly left to their own devices, Eloi and Alexandre have nobody to turn to and must grow up.
A Strand Releasing Release

Private Fears in Public Places” (Coeurs),” directed by Alain Resnais (France)
Alain Resnais collaborates again with British playwright, Alan Ayckbourn. The setting is snow-covered Paris where six lonely peoples’ lives collide. Andre Dussolier is the real estate agent in love with his pious assistant (Sabine Azema) who moonlights as a home care worker for the demanding father of a widowed bartender (Pierre Arditi). One of his customers, a bitter army vet (Lambert Wilson) splits from his fiancee (Laura Morante) and meets a shy young woman (Isabel Carre) who lives with her brother, the real estate agent. Ineffably graceful, Private Fears is a heartbreakingly delicate meditation on loss, uncertainty and love, made with the kind of serene wisdom available only to true masters.

The Queen,” directed by Steven Frears (United Kingdom) – OPENING NIGHT FILM
With Helen Mirren in the title role, “The Queen” is an intimate, revealing and frequently acidly funny portrait of the British royal family during the dramatic days after the death of Princess Diana. Stephen Frears’ fictionalized account features James Cromwell as Prince Phillip and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and captures the interaction between the royal household and the government during their struggle to reach a compromise between allowing privacy for a personal family tragedy and the public’s demand for an overt display of mourning.
A Miramax Films Release

Reds,” directed by Warren Beatty (USA)
Reds is a masterful political and historical epic that mesmerized critics and audiences alike. A love story between activists John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) set against the backdrop of the outbreak of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, it became an American cinematic milestone, garnering 12 Academy Award(R) nominations in 1982–more than any film in the previous 15 years. The film boasts a tremendous supporting cast including Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O’Neill, Gene Hackman, Paul Sorvino and Maureen Stapleton. A New York Film Festival Retrospective.
A Paramount Pictures Release

Syndromes and a Century,” directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand / France / Austria)
“Syndromes and a Century” is an exploration of how people remember as well as a fictional account of the lives of filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s parents before they became lovers. The movie is broken into two distinct, but analogous parts: one focusing on a female doctor in a small-town clinic, the other on a male doctor at a big city hospital. What unites the stories is Apichatpong’s superb eye for nuances of feeling and an alluring knack for finding marvelous moments, be it a droll Bangkok doctor boozing it up before she appears on TV or the exquisite poetry of villagers listening to a Thai country-western singer serenading the night.

These Girls” (El-Banate dol), directed by Tahani Rached (Egypt)
Filmmaker Tahani Rached’s sensitive documentary delves in to the marginalized existence of adolescent girls on the streets of Cairo, many of who are escaping acute poverty and abuse. All exude astonishing strength and camaraderie whilst coping with a gamut of human experiences ranging from rape, drug abuse and prostitution to pregnancy and motherhood. This uncompromising film follows the girls over an extended period of time, allowing us to discover the inner workings of an invisible section of Middle Eastern society.

Triad Election” (Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai), directed by Johnnie To (Hong Kong)
Jimmy (Louis Koo, one of the superstars of Hong Kong cinema) is in the running for the coveted post of Triad president. He faces resistance from his “godfather” Lok (Simon Yam), who has served his two-year term and makes an increasingly desperate effort to throw tradition to the wind and maintain his position. As the power plays escalate, so does the violence … not to mention the virtuosity of director Johnnie To, who creates one spectacular cinematic set piece after another. To is working deep within the gangster genre, whose traditions he observes with the greatest respect even as he’s busy revitalizing and re-contextualizing them. But he’s also given Triad Election a genuinely political edge: in To’s dog-eat-dog vision, the body of free-market expansion beats with a savage heart.
A Tartan Films Release

Volver,” directed by Pedro Almodovar (Spain) – CENTERPIECE FILM
Pedro Almodovar’s 16th feature returns to his roots; the lively working-class neighborhoods, where immigrants from various Spanish provinces share dreams, lives and fortune with a multitude of ethnic groups and other races. Three generations of women survive wind, fire and even death, thanks to goodness, audacity and a limitless vitality. With an ensemble female cast: Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo, Yohanna Cobo and Chus Lampreare that was awarded an ensemble award at the recent Cannes Film Festival.
A Sony Pictures Classics release

Woman on the Beach” (Haebyonui yoin), directed by Hong Sang-soo (South Korea)
A filmmaker, trying to complete a script, stumbles into relationships with two women during a stay at an off-season seaside resort. The affairs reveal the patterns of destructive behavior that define his romantic relationships–and generate material for the new film. Even for director Hong Sang-soo’s many admirers, his new film turns out to be an unexpected delight–the most sheerly enjoyable and satisfying film of his career. Even as “Woman on the Beach” brilliantly explores one of Hong’s enduring themes–the Korean male psyche in all its willfulness, anger and self-contempt–it brings its female characters to the forefront in a revelatory new way.

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