Monica Castillo at the New York Film Festival, day 1


Once again our intrepid correspondent Monica Castillo braves the Big Apple and the New York Film Festival to make her report.

Ah, Lincoln Center. An eerily sanitized white spot of land set aside for the arts in the middle of a grimy, busy city. It this location where I find the New York Film Festival, now in its 50th year. It looks pretty good for 50, crowds are still lining up outside of theaters hours in advance and almost every screening tacks on a Q and A with the director at the end of the credits.
But I'm only here for four days, trying to cram in as many movies as I can before my bus for Boston leaves 34th Street. I'm a film critic on a mission.
As often happens at film festivals, the first film I see in the morning is a documentary about an incurable disease. In this case, Alzheimer's.
To be honest, it was not as rough-going as it might sound."First Cousin Once Removed" is a personal story about progressive memory loss up to the point where the movie's subject no longer realizes he is the subject of the movie. Alan Berliner records the decline of his mentor (and first cousin, once removed) Edwin Honig at different times in the latter stages of his disease. The movie's chronology is non-linear, and the jump cutting doesn't let the audience linger long on the gravity of Honig's situation at any particular moment. Berliner wisely includes lighter moments, such as when his young son plays music with Honig. But like many personal documentaries, it was shot on an almost nonexistent budget. The pixilation and lighting in the movie was distracting once blown up for the big screen. It will be coming to HBO later in the year, so perhaps the smaller screen will alleviate that problem. Nonetheless, the movie still has the emotional strength of last year's "How to Die in Oregon," especially if you have gone through the experience of watching a loved one suffering a similar malady. 


So let's move on to another uncomfortable subject: arranged marriages! The Israeli feature "Fill the Void" concerns the marital woes of a Jewish Orthodox community. After the death of her sister during childbirth, 18-year-old Shira decides to take her place and take care of her son and husband. Yup, marrying her brother-in-law, which other members of the community have problems with. Director Rama Burshtein joined the audience via Skype after the screening to clear up a few things. She is a member of a Hassidic Jewish community herself, and while the premise of the story itself is a rare occurrence, it does take place. Gender politics complicated the production because the strict Hasidic male extras would not take direction from a woman. It was enlightening to learn of a community of Hasidic women who make films for themselves and by themselves and screen them in rented halls and venues.


Then came the avant-garde feature, Jeff Preiss's "Stop." I can't give a thorough review of this film: it frustrated me so much I couldn't watch the whole thing. The filmmaker's premise, recording his son as he grows up, is heartfelt, but the style put me off by inserting a brightly colored number in ascending order at random points of the film. By the end of the first hour, the numbers were in the mid-200s. An equally annoying piano score, consisting of a thud of notes that would then cut to the audio of the film, didn't make the numbers gimmick any easier to take. But when the film lovingly focused on the child playing in the sand or watching TV, I was entranced. I could feel my own nostalgia creeping in. Only to be interrupted by a flashing number in yellow and red.

Finally I saw Marina Zenovich's documentary "Roman Polanski, Odd Man Out," the follow-up to her "Roman Polanski Wanted and Desired" (2008). In this film Zenovich explains that she had an interview set with the reclusive director one month after he was to make an appearance at the Zurich Film Festival. As you might recall, however, that's where Polanski was arrested, setting off the consequent legal and media circus. Here Zenovich digs up familiar faces for interviews again, but also includes some new material that make this yet another interesting addition to Polanski's file. The film does a decent job of breaking down the international conspiracies at play, but the real odd man out is the viewer, as Zenovich relies mostly on secondary sources. And no word from the man himself, who has for 30 years eluded the long arm of the L.A. D.A's office.

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