N.Y. Festival’s Very Mixed Bag

Mortgage payments, cobwebs and film festivals: Just when you think you’ve got one out of the way, another one shows up to take its place. Do not believe overpaid actors who cry poor mouth. Overstuffed programs in Venice, Montreal and Toronto have recently proved there is no such thing as a faltering economy in the movie business. Hundreds of new films are upon us like carrion birds, but why do the ones nobody will ever see again (or want to) reliably turn up in the New York Film Festival, and why are they always so lousy? To be fair, there is sometimes a welcome exception. Last year, The Magdalene Sisters . This year, from what I hear, maybe Mystic River , the opening-night film by Clint Eastwood (which I have not yet seen at this writing), and the closing-night drama 21 Grams , which I can safely endorse as a scalding study of the altering effects of a hit-and-run accident on three strangers (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro) whose lives become inextricably intertwined through grief. Otherwise, the 41st year of New York’s most elitist cinematic event provides nothing much to write home about.

Weighty 21 Grams

21 Grams , the second feature by Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of the highly regarded Amores Perros , is a trilogy of interconnecting stories that cross economic, geographic and social barriers to weave a fabric of colliding fates like cinematic needlepoint. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a reformed alcoholic and ex-con who, under the guidance of a priest, has become a born-again Christian counselor for troubled teenagers and a sober, loving husband and father. Paul (Sean Penn) is a 41-year-old university mathematics professor with cardiac disease who has been given one month to live. Christina (Naomi Watts) is a sunny source of positive energy with a healthy and loving life as a suburban wife and mom. There is no reason, under normal conditions, why any of these people would ever know each other. But suddenly Christina’s husband and two daughters are killed at an intersection by a runaway car, and three diverse people from three separate walks of life find themselves linked in more ways than one. Paul is the patient who receives a heart transplant from an anonymous organ donor who turns out to be Christina’s husband. Jack’s guilt and fury with God turn him blasphemous and cynical. Christina turns in her pain, sorrow and despondency to drugs and promiscuous sex. Paul’s marriage fails and so does his new heart, but a sensuous affair with Christina provides some respite, until she becomes consumed with finding and getting her revenge on Jack. Life takes a devastating turn for all three, while the tragic and redemptive intersections of their lives are gradually revealed in a rich narrative that encompasses many violent shifts of emotion as well as some shocking and complicated character intersections. The three main stories focus attention with riveting yet wrenching simplicity, but the structure of the film is anything but conventional. Time and space pulse subliminally with a challenging tempo. Flash-forwards and flashbacks move in mysterious patterns that blend with overlapping sensibilities to create a feeling of longing and dread. The movie has the feeling of a jazz fugue; the camerawork and the editing create cadences from a jam session. And each of the three leads play solos that stun and stagger. Mr. Penn won the Best Actor award in Venice for his ripe portrayal of the conflicted Paul, but his two co-stars keep up with him scene by scene. Ms. Watts has grown mercurially with each film since the rancid Mulholland Drive . Mr. Del Toro is powerful even when he does nothing but stare with those poisonous darts he calls eyes. Rare is the American film with this much emotional texture. A sad movie about the irony of inescapable destiny, it left me captivated and trembling. The “21 grams” of the title refers to the amount of weight a human body is said to lose at the moment of death, but I felt as though I lost as much just from the exhausting free-fall of this movie’s impact.

Barge of Boredom

For nonstop sex and dreary, dopey pointlessness, Ewan McGregor has returned from his catastrophic Hollywood spoof of Rock Hudson–Doris Day movies and is back to his old self again-unwashed, unshaved and stark naked. In the stultifying tedium of British director David Mackenzie’s Young Adam , he plays Joe, a lonely, lost drifter floating through the dark, misty canals and rivers of Scotland on a barge owned by a miserable, loveless couple played by Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, the director of The Magdalene Sisters . As the boredom grows, so does the eroticism, until the hired hand and the wife try out all of the Kama Sutra positions in a blur of sex on an endless array of uncomfortable surfaces under dripping drainpipes. Ms. Swinton is so sinewy and flat-chested that sometimes, in the swirl of sweat and pubic hair, it looks like two guys going at each other full throttle. Then Ms. Swinton disappears from the movie completely when the naked body of a woman Joe made pregnant is fished from the murky water. An innocent man goes on trial while Joe watches from the gallery. The man is sentenced to death. Mr. McGregor walks into a long tracking shot and vanishes in the fog. Duh. Young Adam makes no sense and doesn’t seem to be about anything except dirty floors, splintered fingernails and eye sores. There isn’t a single character in it, young or otherwise, named Adam.

Tired Italians

I barely endured one hour of the six-hour-and-six-minute Italian saga The Best of Youth . What I saw of the social, economic and political forces that spanned 40 years in the lives of a Roman family and changed the course of Italian history-well, it had its moments. I admire the ambition and arrogance of a director (Marco Tullio Giordana) with no regard for editors or audiences, who doesn’t give a damn whether anybody ever sees his work or not. If you have better eyesight and a stronger lower lumbar than I do, you might confront the challenge of reading six hours and six minutes of subtitles with more enthusiasm than I did. But it’s still six hours and six minutes out of your life.

The Italian film I did sit through, fool that I am, was Good Morning, Night by Marco Bellocchio, a once-great director whose smashing 1965 debut feature film Fists in the Pocket made him an instant icon in Italian cinema on the level of Visconti and Bertolucci. What happened to that rage, energy and vision? Good Morning, Night is as tired and inconsequential as week-old pasta. The subject is the kidnapping and brutal, politically motivated murder of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade in 1978-a primal act of terrorism that plunged Italy into politicized economic and emotional chaos. Mr. Bellocchio treats both terrorists and Christian Democrats with compassion, which robs the film of the edge it desperately needs, and in the end it’s not clear what kind of point Mr. Bellocchio is trying to make, if any. In reality, Moro’s bullet-riddled body was found after all negotiations failed, but in the movie’s fanciful postscript, thanks to one bleeding-heart Red Brigade radical (the only woman in the group, natch), Moro escapes and walks through the streets of Rome, a free man smiling in the sunlight. A dull, unsurprising and unexceptional retelling of a familiar event with a fairy-tale finale.

Shapeless Elephant

For trite, wearisome monotony, look no further than the flat, shapeless Elephant , a big prize-winner in Cannes that isn’t likely to draw flies here. Gus Van Sant, another sometimes admirable director ( To Die For ) with an incurable lust for self-indulgence ( Gerry ), gives us a commissioned-for-television trifle that vainly attempts to dramatize a high-school killing spree modeled on the events at Columbine. Like the elephant right before our eyes that nobody notices, today’s alienated, angst-ridden teenagers are easy to ignore but vital to the future of the world we live in. Troubled by the growing incidents of campus violence that are horrifying communities from coast to coast, Mr. Van Sant trains his cameras on a group of nonprofessional kids making up their own one-dimensional dialogue and improvising a typical day in a fall school term in an attempt to show the oppressive problems that turn ordinary teenagers into killing machines. It’s an idea whose time has come, but there is not one scene in Elephant that broadens our scope, increases our understanding or makes us care. Making all of the students stereotypes has a numbing effect, and the film is more an exercise in style than a revealing sociological document. Flaunting every cliché in the yearbook, meet the ugly, masculine misfit girl who refuses to undress in gym class. The shutterbug geek who connects with total strangers through candid snapshots. The gossipy, bulimic flirts. The jocks in a game of touch football accompanied by Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” The effect is subtlety on the verge of anesthesia. When a lifeguard in a red sweatshirt walks the entire length of the campus while the camera follows slowly behind, the calculated banality looks and feels like freshman-class Directing 101. Absolutely nothing happens for nearly 80 minutes, until two abused nerds who research guns, rifles and automatic pistols on their laptops finally decide to strip naked, climb into the shower together, kiss each other passionately on the lips, then slaughter their classmates. The whole movie is a benign setup before the movie ends with the screen splattered in blood. What a waste of time. Elephant is so contrived and minimalistic that it has the dramatic effect of a line drawing.

Mindless Dogville

Finally there is the abominable Dogville , a mindless three-hour avant-garde experiment by Lars von Trier that schematically crosses Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Bertolt Brecht’s Mahagonny with all the disadvantages of the proscenium stage and none of the limitless possibilities of cinema. A gang of baffled, miscast thespians, including Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzarra, Harriet Andersson, Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Stellan Skarsgård and the ubiquitous Chloë Sevigny, all work their asses off trying to inject some kind of remote coherence into a pretentious, paralyzing bore. Nine chapters and a prologue played out on a Monopoly board with chalk marks for doors give Mr. von Trier a chance to exercise a rampant misogyny and pound home some ridiculous ideas about an America he’s never seen. Dogville is a metaphor for American greed, avarice, suspicion and intolerance, and Ms. Kidman’s beautiful fugitive from gangsters symbolizes the way Americans insult, enslave and spit on whatever they don’t understand. Under the guise of kindness and offers of freedom, the town lets her stay but makes her work longer hours for less pay (like America’s immigration policy?) By Chapter 6, Dogville turns vicious and repays her unselfish goodness with rape, betrayal, extortion and an iron wheel chained to her neck, replacing trust with revenge because the town can’t live up to its false promises (America’s foreign policy in action?). Instead of intelligence and compassion, Dogville reacts to honesty and truth by eliminating all detractors before their accusations spread (the Bush administration’s reaction to the idealism of the liberal Democrats?). In the end, the criminals and capitalists win out over the oppressed masses, babies are massacred with machine guns, and shots of American poverty are intercut with air-brushed 8 by 10′s of Richard Nixon. If you make it through three hours of this naïve bilge without a barf bag, you deserve what you get. Dogville is like climbing the Matterhorn with a cement block tied to your back.