The New York Film Festival 2013, which is now unfurling at Lincoln Center and environs, seems to be packed with more frenzied activity (and press) than ever before. The NYFF prides itself on NOT being as big a film festival as, say, Toronto. And this week it was really brought home to me why. They just don’t have the space and the number of cinemas that Toronto has to use for its’ great festival. TIFF takes over the entire city, near and far. New York does not. It stays comfortably ensconced where it’s always been for its ’51 years of existence :Lincoln Center. The Press Screenings are all held in the medium-sized Walter Reade Cinema, pleasant, charming but certainly not the biggest theater in New York. And in NY, they only show a FRACTION of the films that TIFF does.
Today I saw “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” one of the largest theaters in the AMC Lincoln Square multiplex on W.68th and Bway. And it was packed to the rafters, but a film like this with multiple, elaborate fantasy sequences needs a much larger screen than the Walter Reade. It fit there just fine. It’s very unusual for the Film Society to bond with AMC, but I guess for this charming, funny centerpiece film, it was a very good fit for all.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” turns out to be a thoroughly enjoyable family film that will be pleased by all at Christmas time, but hardly on Oscar-seeker as it was buzzed to be. But it’s good, solid old-fashioned boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl entertainment, and should make a lot of money around the holidays. It’s fizzy family fun. With a lot of adventure thrown in. A very unusual Centerpiece for the New York Film Festival, which usually goes for much more serious fare.
Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, who plays the title role, it is loosely based on the famous James Thurber short story of the same name that ran in the New Yorker magazine in 1939. Walter Mitty, in this version, is someone who daydreams and wishes for a colordul life far-removed from the mundane black and white one he feels he’s stuck with.
True to Thurber, Walter keeps “zoning” in and out of fantasy sequences, that escalate as the film’s action ramps up, precipitated by his blossoming romance with single mother/accountant, Kristin Wiig, in an uncharacteristic ingenue role. But she’s an age-appropriate love interest for Stiller, and has a skate-boarding son who Stiller bonds with.
His fantasies include chasing his idol Sean Penn, a world traveling Life magazine photographer, to the wilds of Greenland(never before seen in a feature film!) and also, of course, the neighboring island country of Iceland. Olafur Darri Olafson nearly steals the film as the drunken, gargantuan Icelandic helicopter pilot, he encounters in a Greenland bar drinking beer out of gigantic “boot glasses” .Yes, they’re shaped like boots. Walter Mitty, characteristically orders “a small boot.”
It’s long, but it held my interest. As did the also overlong “Gloria” a Chilean film about a still attractive, middle-aged working woman, who is trying to enjoy her change of life years in urban Santiago. She has children, but she sees them infrequently. It’s almost as though she’s childless.
A hairless stray cat keeps interrupting her “quiet life” as does her encounter and subsequent relationship with a middle-aged businessman Rodolpho (Sergio Hernandez). The film is much more interesting than it’s plotless plot sounds. God is in the details in this well-observed film about the minutiae of female ageing in the post-menopausal years. It serves mainly as a vehicle for an iconic Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, who is quite marvelous and holds the screen throughout the 2 1/2 hour running time.
If there is any Oscar bait to be found at the NYFF, I would certainly say Senora Garcia deserves consideration for her unstinting tour-de-force performance in the title role. The director Sebastian Lilio said he created the film for her and she was involved with it even before it was written. “You have to fall in love with Paulina to do something like this.” And I have to say, I did. She’s irresistible. Alas an unknown actress in a small foreign film has no chance at breaking in to the Oscar race, where this year, it seems every actress involved already has an Oscar or two or three. But they are going to do a campaign for “Gloria” as Best Foreign Film. And Chile has submitted it as their Official Submission to that race in the Oscars. AND “Gloria” has a US distributor. Which is all wonderful news.
Another film that I mightily enjoyed and was truly fascinated by was the comedy team of Penn and Teller’s venture into serious documentary film making “Tim’s Vermeer.” This riveting doc is heading straight for an Oscar nomination and it may very well get there. In the “Applied Science” section of the NYFF, its central character, an eccentric San Antonio millionaire named Tim Kenison ,gets his art geek on by telling his friend Penn one night in conversation that he’d “always wanted to paint a Vermeer.” And this film shows painstakingly how he does it.
Painstaking is the operative word here. Every single detail of how Tim does indeed paint his Vermeer is on the screen, but surprisingly, it is never dull. Tim had a theory, which he proves using the work of the 17th century Dutch master, that the photographically detailed paintings, which are ravishing in and of themselves on the big screen, were painted using”a small mirror on a stick” and the physics of Camera Obscura. I know this sounds deadly, but like “Gloria”, it is a great work of (documentary) film making that needs to be seen to be enjoyed.
I never would have thought of Penn and Teller as Oscar contenders, but as I type these unbelievable words, I think they very well may be. And “Tim’s Vermeer” is certainly THEIR surprising masterpiece.