Okay, time for a confession: the “best and worst” construction makes for a catchy headline, but there wasn’t much of the latter at the 55th annual New York Film Festival (which ended yesterday), a two-plus week gathering of east coast cineastes that’s known more these days for its curation than its debuts. Sure, there are always a couple of big, splashy premieres, but for the most part the draw is the skill with which NYFF’s impeccable programmers pluck out the best of Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto, and present it as a lengthy, full-course meal, rather than the all-you-can-eat buffet of shorter fests with bigger slates. So this year, it wasn’t so much a case of “best and worst” as two disappointments, and then all the rest which were very good. (And if you’d like our full NYFF experience, catch up with the mini-reviews in our festival preview here.)
THE TWO DISAPPOINTMENTS
Last Flag Flying
Well, this one’s a puzzler – a first-rate cast teams with an A+ director for a pseudo-sequel to a ‘70s classic, and it somehow just falls flat. Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne play modern variations (names and backstories changed slightly, presumably due to rights issues) on the characters of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, once hell-raising young Marines, now middle-aged men – older, if not wiser. As a performance piece, it’s undeniably noteworthy; Carell is quietly powerful, Cranston is playfully engaging, Fishburne is a good foil, and all of them excel at capturing the rhythms of everyday chit-chat. But the dialogue rarely aspires to be more; there’s a fair amount of lifeless conversation (not the expectation, considering director Richard Linklater’s CV), and quite a bit of sloganeering and generalizing. Some of the individual moments and one-liners land, and it’s intelligent and well-acted. It’s just not terribly dynamic.
Maybe “disappointment” isn’t quite accurate – Woody Allen hasn’t made a genuinely good film since 2013’s Blue Jasmine, and the apparent root causes of his subsequent works’ failures seem to be systemic. Still, there were reasons to hope this one would land, particularly the gorgeous cinematography and first-rate cast, and they all land gracefully. But as with much of his recent output, it too often plays like a filmed outline, marching from one plot point to another without much else happening (jokes, tension, unexpected conflict) along the way. Early on, Justin Timberlake’s writer/lifeguard explains, “I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters.” He seems to be speaking for his creator, but the stilted artificiality he ends up with here is straight-up deadly.