2005_09_nyff1_gnagl.jpgToday marks the beginning of the 43rd New York Film Festival, and the program looks to be one of the strongest The Film Society of Lincoln Center has put together in years, beginning tonight with Good Night, and Good Luck, a new film directed by George Clooney depicting the battle between legendary CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow and Wisconsin Senator and self-appointed commie-hunter Joseph McCarthy. Gothamist has been attending as many of the press screenings as our little eyes (and schedule) can take, and over the course of the next two weeks, we plan to help you follow New York's annual showcase of what should be the best of world cinema. Also playing this weekend is French filmmaker Philippe Garrel's latest Regular Lovers; the very interesting Romanian drama The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; Methadonia, a documentary about heroin addicts "recovering" through the use of Methadone; the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant (The Child) which starts strong but eventually becomes slightly tiresome; the documentary Avenge But One of My Two Eyes from Israeli activist filmmaker Avi Mograbi, who is often described as the Israeli Michael Moore; and the first in Steven Soderbergh's planned series of seven low-budget, naturalistic films shot in High Def, Bubble.

Some of these screenings may already be sold out, but check <the festival website, visit the Alice Tully Hall box office on 65th and Broadway, or the New York Film Festival box office information line at (212) 875-5050. You can also purchase tickets online at www.lincolncenter.org or by calling CenterCharge at (212) 875-5166. There are usually stand-by lines for sold out shows, so if you really want to see something, you should still try to check-it-out.

Thoughts and comments on most of the films screening this weekend after the jump: Good Night, and Good Luck, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, L'Enfant, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes.

Good Night, and Good Luck
On last night's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, at the beginning of the interview, Stewart said to George Clooney, "Let's face facts: you're a handsome bastard. But I prefer to think of you -- if I may -- as eye candy. Man meat, if you will. To see you also have depth, I feel honestly now like we should all just be spreading your seed throughout the land." Gothamist had a similar reaction after seeing Clooney's magnificent new film which will likely land on our year-end Best of 2005 list. In fact, while we realize making such a statement could be jumping off a really high cliff, we feel compelled to anoint Clooney as the next Clint Eastwood: an actor who spent most of his youth on television, never getting that much respect before making the jump to movies and being thought of primarily as a pretty-face genre star before stepping up to show a real artistry in his own filmmaking. We weren't the biggest fans of his first effort, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but we admired his risk-taking and desire to challenge himself with a difficult story and style (even if it seemed a bit too modeled on the work of his producing partner, Steven Soderbergh).

Good Night, and Good Luck, on the other hand, is a highly accomplished film with a distinctive style and narrative tone that could only come from a very sure-handed filmmaker. Clooney's passion for the subject is evident throughout, and a better criticism of media and even the potential dangers of the relationship between news and sponsorship has not been on screen (besides on The Daily Show) since Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet collaborated to give us the brilliant (and amazingly prescient) Network. For those of us who weren't yet alive in the 1950s, Clooney and co-screenwriter and producer Grant Heslov's depiction of CBS News titan Edward R. Murrow's and his producer Fred Friendly's choice to essentially call "Bullshit!" on Senator McCarthy's methods is a riveting story more applicable to the goings-on today than can be imagined. Murrow's speech from a famous See It Now broadcast in 1954 should be rebroadcast to the nation now, particularly the two lines, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home," and "[McCarthy] didn't create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it."

Certain members of the media (especially on the right) will see this film as an attack on the current administration, and while elements can absolutely be read in such a critical manner, Clooney's one masterstroke is his ability to recreate without over-editorializing. There is not one word that comes out of Senator McCarthy's mouth in this entire film that does not literally come out of his mouth. Old footage of McCarthy, as opposed to an actor, was used for any time he appeared on screen. And as for Murrow, Clooney and Heslov utilized the actual comments from his broadcasts.

Deserving as much credit as the filmmakers is a brilliant cast led by David Strathairn who should certainly receive much attention come Oscar time for this performance. His gravitas and tone, subtle gestures and eye movements, perfectly recreate the enormous presence that Murrow exhibited in his day. He carries this movie on his shoulders, and never lets it falter. (Opening Night film, playing tonight only. Opens theatrically nationwide on Oct. 7)

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Cristi Puiu's second feature won the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes earlier this year, and it's easy to see why a European audience had such a strong reaction to it. Shooting in an almost documentary style with long takes and sequences where not much actually happens, the film feels like it's unspooling in real time even though it takes place over the course of an entire night. Dante Remus Lazarescu is a retired widower living on his own, seemingly estranged from his daughter and with a strained relationship with his sister. He starts not feeling well and vomiting blood. The majority of the film follows him and an ambulance nurse being sent from hospital to hospital for tests and eventually surgery. Along the way, they encounter all the apparent difficulties of the Romanian medical system, both in terms of bureaucracy and personality clashes. (One particular sequence with some arrogant doctors who spend the majority of the time putting down the nurse instead of trying to help Lazarescu is particularly effective.)

We wouldn't be surprised to see some politically-interested American filmmaker try to adapt this story as a comment on the American health care system. If anything, Lazarescu has somewhat easy -- he's never turned away for care due to lack of insurance or funds. The film becomes more of a social commentary than a character piece, especially as Lazarescu slowly devolves into more prop than person. The title doesn't refer as much to what happens during the film as to the likely outcome at the end (although even with that, we can't be 100% certain). While not always a fun film to watch and a bit overlong at more than 2-1/2 hours, it is an interesting meditation on health-care and especially the different personalities who make their living as doctors and nurses. (Screens Sat at 3 PM and Sunday at 8:30 PM)

L'Enfant (The Child)
Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been around for years but become favorites on the international film scene for recent movies such as The Son and Rosetta. With L'Enfant they explore many of the same themes, this time in a story about a young couple with a new baby. Bruno is a small-time thief, and when he sees an opportunity to earn a lot of cash by selling his and Sonia's newborn son, he doesn't get why that might upset her. This is because both Bruno and Sonia are childlike in many ways, however Bruno simply has no comprehension of an adult's place in the world whatsoever. He thinks selling little Jimmy isn't such a big deal because they can just have another one.

Gothamist found ourselves hooked on the film and its very naturalistic storytelling style. That is, until Bruno sells the child and we thought, "Oh good, there must be about 30 minutes left," only to glance at a watch and discover that only half-and-hour had passed. The film isn't bad by any means, but ultimately it isn't that gripping either. We get Bruno and his character flaws long before we are repeatedly shown what they are over and over again. And the film's denouement, while not specifically predictable, is still pretty much as expected. There's little subtle about L'Enfant, starting with the title itself. Sure we meet baby Jimmy before Bruno, but it doesn't take very long to realize that the titular character is the father and not the infant, and that is characteristic of this entire film: it doesn't take very long to figure it out, and once you have, what's the point. (Screens Sat at 9:15 PM and Sun at 12:15 PM)

Avenge But One of My Two Eyes
Avi Mograbi's documentary is a magnificent example of a fascinating, provocative subject made frustrating and dull by poor and occasionally overly self-indulgent filmmaking. Mograbi is an Israeli who disapproves of his government's treatment of Palestinians, and his film does a reasonably good job of showing why life in the West Bank has been made so difficult for the Palestinians. For example, soldiers forcing kids to wait at checkpoints for no apparent reason when they're just trying to get home; or trying to make farmers stop plowing land saying that it is now a military zone. In similar fashion to Michael Moore, Mograbi has no issues with filming everything and even confronting the Israeli soldiers, asking them why can't these women and children cross the road.

The most interesting element of the film, however, is Mograbi's utilization of the of Masada and Samson -- stories considered in Jewish history as those of heroism even in the face of self-destruction -- to show not just why there is a culture of violence in today's middle east, but to attempt to rationalize why the Palestinians -- who consider themselves living in an oppressive occupation -- would turn to suicide bombing. The Zealots on Masada killed themselves rather than be captured by the Romans. Samson prayed for strength in order to topple the Philistine temple and allow him to kill himself while taking the lives of as many of his enemies as possible. Mograbi essentially asks us how the Palestinian cause is so different? If Jews consider Samson a great hero, how were his actions so different from those of a modern Palestinian suicide bomber.

We're not going to take issue with Mograbi's political argument as that could be discussed in positive and negative terms endlessly. Our problem is how Mograbi gets in the way of his own argument, much in the same way as Moore is often criticized of doing. There are so many long shots of Israeli checkpoints with nothing really happening, and all of them essentially depict the same thing. More disturbingly is the way he berates the Israeli soldiers, literally screaming at them at the end of the film. We're not bothered by his anger or passion, but it seems a bit silly to believe that spending so much time with only a bunch of 18-21 year old soldiers who are following orders is a better way to make his argument than at least trying to speak to government officials or others involved in deciding why a bunch of Palestinian schoolkids shouldn't be allowed to go home. If they won't talk, fine. But at least make the attempt. Mograbi is in a position where because he is Israeli he is able to stand there with a camera in their faces. And he rejoices whenever he's able to show-up a soldier who tries to get him to stop shooting. But to us, it often just felt like a bunch of hot air. Sticking to the Masada and Samson stories and their relevance might have been more effective. (Screens Sun at 3:00 PM)