2005_09_nyff3_pluto.jpgThis weekend marks the midpoint of the New York Film Festival, and this year, that means a whole slew of screenings and interesting events to choose from. For those of you who like your films a bit less straightforward, the NYFF's annual sidebar "Views from the Avant-Garde" screens all weekend at the Walter Reade Theater. If that's not enough, HBO Films hosts a "Directors Dialogue with Neil Jordan" at 4 PM on Sunday in the Kaplan Penthouse (Lincoln Center Rose Building at 65th and Amsterdam; 10th Floor). Jordan's latest Breakfast on Pluto screens this weekend, honored as the festival's "Centerpiece" film. At 7 PM on Sunday, also in the Kaplan Penthouse, is "The Squid, the Whale, the Filmmaker: A Conversation with Noah Baumbach." And at midnight on Saturday at the Walter Reade is a special screening of the latest from Japanese horror master Shinya Tsukamoto. Haze may be less than an hour long, but from what we hear, that's more than enough time to freak you out for the at least the rest of the weekend.

Meanwhile, down in Alice Tully Hall, the regular program continues with screenings of Manderlay, , Something Like Happiness, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Tale of Cinema, Through the Forest and the aforementioned Breakfast on Pluto. It's been a heavy week of press screenings, and sadly, due to circumstances beyond our control, we actually had to miss three of these films. We were especially disappointed to miss Korean director Hong Sang-soo's latest Tale of Cinema, and will do our best to get to one of the public screenings on Saturday at 6:15 PM or Sunday at 3:15 PM. We also were unable to see controversial Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's continuation of his look at American started in Dogville. This new film, Manderlay screening tonight at 9 PM and Saturday at Noon, is his look from afar at race relations. Like Dogville it is sure to inspire awe from some and vehement hatred from others.

Keep in mind, even if something appears sold out online,chances are tickets may still be available if you go to the box office before the screening. With such a full program this weekend, now is as good a time as any to visit the NYFF. Meanwhile, comments on Breakfast on Pluto, Something Like Happiness and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance after the jump:

Breakfast on Pluto
Like Neil Jordan's 1997 film The Butcher Boy, his latest work is an adaptation from a novel by Patrick McCabe. In Breakfast on Pluto, Jordan and McCabe present us with the character of Patrick "Kitten" Braden, an orphaned, effeminate, androgynous and then transvestite young man searching for his mother. He calls her the "Phantom Lady," really only knowing that she left for London and supposedly looks like glamorous '50s movie star Mitzi Gaynor. Braden, played wonderfully by the great Cillian Murphy, doesn't care much about politics and he's completely secure with the person he's become. This is less the story of Kitten finding himself or having any significant transformation as it is his simple journey in an attempt to fill the one void in his life.

We haven't read McCabe's novel; we understand it, too, is comprised of short chapters that relate little vignettes in the life of Kitten. As interesting and whimsical as Jordan's film is, it's this similar structure that makes it someone unsuccessful. The film is simply too episodic with actual chapter numbers and titles appearing on screen at the beginning of each section. The problem is, these chapters simply emphasize that Pluto is more like 36 short films about one person's experience rather than one cohesive story that progresses from one place to another. Additionally, other than Kitten and with the possible exception of Father Bernard (Liam Neeson, there's not one other character with any semblance of depth or dimension. Pluto at times wants to be a whimsical fairy tale presented against a backdrop of conflict and violence, but it still would be nicer to see real people rather than plot devices and caricatures.

Jordan is one of the more consistent directors working in cinema today. He won't always blow you away, but rarely does he disappoint or make a flat-out bad film. Breakfast on Pluto fits somewhere in the center of that continuum as well. It's not bad, some elements are quite entertaining and provocative, and Murphy not only makes one of the prettier guys in drag but also proves again why he's one of the most interesting actors working in film today. But with a running time which could stand to lose at least 20 of its 135 minutes, Breakfast on Pluto is a long trip that doesn't make us want to go back for lunch. (Screens Saturday at 9 PM and Sunday at Noon)

2005_09_nyff3_vengeance.jpgSympathy for Lady Vengeance
Korean director Park Chan-wook has been making films for just about a decade, but it wasn't until early last year that some of us who may not keep constant watch on everything coming out of Southeast Asia heard about him. Earlier this year, however, he made a big splash with the phenomenal Oldboy, an ultraviolent revenge thriller that was a hit at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and finally came out in the US in March. Oldboy was the second film in a revenge-themed trilogy that started with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Thanks at least in part to the success of Oldboy, Mr. Vengeance was released here a few months ago, and now comes the final part: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.

What a conclusion it is. While we weren't quite as blown away by Lady Vengeance as by Oldboy, that's more a testament to Park's work in the earlier film rather than anything dramatically wrong with the current one. This time out, we follow the story of Geum-ja (the compelling Yeong-ae Lee), a woman just out of spending 13 years in prison for kidnapping and murdering a five-year-old boy. Or did she? It's not really giving anything away to say no, as the crux of the story focuses on her plan and eventual execution of her revenge on the real killer. The difference between this film and its two predecessors, however, is the additional concept of revenge as an act of redemption rather than simply one of vengeance. Answering whether or not redemption can be achieved through violence -- and the common thread in all three films is that simple revenge doesn't seem to do anyone any good, rather it just continues circularly until all involved are destroyed -- isn't as important as exploring the idea itself. Certainly in religious circles, penance and forgiveness are the paths toward redemption, but in many ways, when confronted with a crime as despicable as murdering a helpless child, revenge might seem more human.

Park's utilization of all the elements of filmmaking is remarkable. His visual style and storytelling technique continue to be fresh, innovative and eminently compelling. His use of soaring elegant music especially during scenes of violence is breathtaking, creating a symphony for the eyes and ears, and one which may not always be easy to watch. (Although it should be noted that he does seem slightly more restrained this time out.) At yesterday's press conference, Park mentioned that his favorite directors were Ingmar Bergman and Robert Aldrich. A fascinating marriage of choices, but one that is ultimately quite visible in his films, especially this one. It may not be my favorite of the trilogy, but Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is certainly the most thematically and philosophically impressive , and like its predecessors, it shouldn't be missed. (Screens tonight at 6 PM and Sunday at 8:30 PM)


Something Like Happiness
We're having a hard time deciding exactly how we feel about this Czech drama from director Bohdan Sláma. On the one hand, the drab, concrete and industrial look perfectly sets the tone for this little bit of Eastern European drama. This is a well-made film, but we're not so sure it's a well-told or even particularly interesting story. The title accurately describes what every character in this film strives for -- none seem to expect to actually find happiness, but something like it would be nice.

The film primarily focuses on three friends who live in the same housing project. Monika is a pretty young woman waiting for her boyfriend, who recently emigrated to America, to send for her; Dasha is her upstairs neighbor and friend, a single mother of two young sons, who is in love with a married man and progressively moves towards having a nervous breakdown; and Tonik is the good-natured young man, best friend to both, constantly suffering from his hidden unrequited love for Monika. Chances are, from that description alone, you likely would be able, in two or three tries, to actually write much of what happens in the rest of the film. The biggest problem, however, is that even set against a landscape where everything is grey, the characters and plot are a bit too black and white. The good characters (Monika and Tonik) are a little too perfect; the bad (Dasha and her lover), a bit too annoying. While the conclusion may not be exactly what you'll expect, everything that leads up to it is essentially storytelling-by-numbers. Something Like Happiness is a perfectly nice movie, competently made, but it lacks anything to make it truly memorable, unique or interesting. (Final screening Saturday at 3:30 PM)