NYFF reviews: 'The 50 Year Argument,' 'Midunserstood,' 'La Sapienza'

The New York Times Review of Books gets profiled in "The 50 Year Argument," while Asia Argento explores her childhood in "Misunderstood."

The New York Times Review of Books editor Robert Silvers (center, in the back) puts together the week's edition in "The 50 Year Argument." Credit: NYFF The New York Times Review of Books editor Robert Silvers (center, in the back) puts together the week's edition in "The 50 Year Argument."
Credit: NYFF

 

The 52nd New York Film Festival kicked off this weekend with David Fincher's take on "Gone Girl," which we reviewed right here. It also boasted a doc that feted an institution nearly as old as it is, plus a (half) nice film from Asia Argento and one from one of the most unique and undersung stylists working right now.

 

‘The 50 Year Argument’
3 (out of 5) Globes

 

Technically “The 50 Year Argument,” co-directed by Martin Scorsese, is about The New York Times Review of Books, celebrating its half-centennial as a force for cultural discourse. But it’s really a paean to intellectual piss-taking, an art form that some claimed died 10 years ago with Susan Sontag — a take the doc makes a halfhearted attempt to take down. Sontag makes frequent appearances, as do other late luminaries, like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, seen tussling over the former playfully comparing the latter to Charles Manson. Mailer also fights with Sontag, in a clip from D.A. Pennebaker’s blistering free-for-all “Town Bloody Hall,” in which the macho writer gleefully allowed himself to be assaulted by feminists after he’d taken potshots at them.

 

In fact, a couple quick segues into recent international human rights violations aside, “Argument” seems to either unintentionally or subliminally undermine the rag’s importance, as well as that of modern day intellectual discourse. Its greatest battles are in the past, its participants no longer as active or even here. An early suggestive edit cuts from Occupy Wall Street to Robert Silvers, the now elderly co-founder and editor, quietly fumbling with a computer in his tony, highrise office, cut off from the times and unable to steer discussions the way he once could.

It even accidentally or implicitly suggests it never exactly wielded that much control anyway. The doc frequently gets lost in the battles that the paper at least touched upon. It's clear these arguments would likely have happened with or without a newspaper supplement, and the doc makes no strong claim that it’s solely responsible for, say, James Baldwin smacking down Angela Davis in the 1970s (in the paper, though he would have done it anyway) or debates about the prosecution of the Central Park Five. Like most Scorsese docs, it’s atypically imprecise, though his Hail Mary — closing with the bookworm ending to Francois Truffaut’s film of “Fahrenheit 451” — makes one want to get into some good old fashioned fights.

Young Giulia Salerno gets her drink on in Asia Argento's memory piece "Misunderstood." Credit: NYFF Young Giulia Salerno gets her drink on in Asia Argento's memory piece "Misunderstood."
Credit: NYFF

‘Misunderstood’
3 (out of 5) Globes

There’s a single letter difference between the first name of “Misunderstood” maker Asia Argento and that of the young girl, named Aria (Giulia Salerno), at the center of it. That’s not all: Aria’s dad is an attractive, self-destructive young movie star (Gabriel Darko), whereas Argento’s pop is Dario Argento, a not terribly attractive famous movie director. However much of “Misunderstood,” the third and by far nicest film Asia Argento has directed, is truth doesn’t matter; it’s a rollicking look at a childhood that swings wildly between moods. It’s shouty and unpleasant one scene, with dad and mom (Charlotte Gainsbourg, atypically OTT) screaming at each other and at Aria; the next is calm, subtle, even lovely. What Aria goes through is far from ideal, but it has peaks as well as deep valleys. It never seeks audience pity, and even has Aria demand the viewer to give her none. Killer mid-’80s soundtrack too, includingthis great.

Christelle Prot Landman looks into the camera, as she often does, in Eugene Green's "La Sapienza." Credit: NYFF Christelle Prot Landman looks into the camera, as she often does, in Eugene Green's "La Sapienza."
Credit: NYFF

‘La Sapienza’
4 (out of 5) Globes

The American-French filmmaker Eugene Green ("The Portuguese Nun") makes talking pictures, which is to say ones filled with endless discussion. But they're the most highly stylized films one can imagine. His actors are Bressonian mannequins, standing awkwardly (which is to say intentionally) still as they calmly rattle through discussion points, lecturing each other on history or offering alternative perspectives that blow the other's minds. His latest finds an architect (Fabrizio Rongione, who's more recognizably human in another NYFF player, “Two Days, One Night”) and his wife (Christelle Prot Landman) heading to the Swiss town of Ticino, the former hoping to rejuvenate himself by taking in the buildings of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. While there they each havetheir preconceptions challenged through conversations with the young: he with an idealistic architecture student, she with a sickly, bed-confined girl. The architect describes Borromini's work as shapes within shapes. That's how the film works too: It's both open and rigidly controlled, gently guiding us through its intellectual prism. Each scene is based on the same structure, with wide shots building to shot-reverse shots and finally close-ups, where the actors stare right into the lens as they speak to each other. It’s Bresson meets Ozu, with heavy dialogue scenes broken up by contemplative building staring, snowballing into something tightly controlled yet open enough to be about everything.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
Latest From ...
Most Popular From ...