NYFF: Uneven “Passion,” Solid “Bay,” and “Roman” Documentary

Greetings again from the New York Film Festival!

Today brought a trio of very interesting films (2 Main Slate selections and a Midnight Movies sidebar), and even if they were of varying degrees of quality, they still all had something to offer an audience. The slate consisted of Brian DePalma’s “Passion,” Barry Levinson’s “The Bay,” and the documentary by Marina Zenovich “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out,” a follow-up/sequel to her prior documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008). DePalma was also scheduled for  a press conference following the screening but didn’t make it to the Walter Reade Theater.  Through the magic of Skype, however, we got to talk with Zenovich about her documentary. Overall, today was a better day in terms of my thoughts on the movies, but the fest is still early.  The rest of the week is jam packed as well, but for now, let’s get in to what I saw most recently at NYFF!

Passion (**½)

A remake of the recent Alain Corneau film noir ‘Love Crime’, Brian DePalma’s ‘Passion’ is a real mixed bag. This erotic thriller has some very fun moments, but there are also some very borderline amateur moments from the formerly highly regarded director. DePalma has been in a funk for a while now (even if I seem to be one of the few people who don’t hate ‘Redacted’), and while this is hardly a terrible movie, the bad ends up outweighing the good. At times this is almost vintage DePalma, but at other times it feels way too much like Skinemax, only without nearly as much skin. To be fair, there’s some fun to be had seeing Rachel McAdams play against type, but she and Noomi Rapace are miscast and feel out of place more often than not. For me, this was a missed opportunity for the filmmaker to return to form.

Christine (McAdams) and Isabelle (Rapace) have a complicated relationship, in more ways than one. The former is a top executive at the Berlin office of a major advertising company, while the latter is a few rungs down. They seem to have a friendship/mentorship that Christine often turns into a flirtation, but things begin moving in a new direction when Isabelle and her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth) come up with a brilliant campaign for a new smartphone. Isabelle is the brains behind it, but as her boss, Christine decides to take credit, which leads to her apparently getting the opportunity to move to the big New York office. This infuriates Isabelle, who already has secret issues with her since they share the same man in Dirk (Paul Anderson). When Dani convinces Isabelle to upload the campaign onto Youtube and to take credit, it ruins Christine’s plans and sets into motion a game of further backstabbing that involves kinky sex, double crosses, and ultimately murder. The twists aren’t too hard to see coming, but that’s not really the point in a movie like this one.

Rachel McAdams has never been this dirty before, and while there’s a novelty to it at first, it wears off and you start noticing how wrong she is for this role. She’s hardly bad in the part, but any number of other actresses would have been better choices. As for Noomi Rapace, she’s saddled with a mostly thankless role as the buttoned up of the two. She shows more skin, but honestly both actresses would have been well served by switching roles. It wouldn’t have saved the movie, but it would have been a better fit overall.

The first half of this movie is a decent bit of fun, though when the crime that fuels the second half takes place, things move in the wrong direction. Brian DePalma just seems to be a bit off, which is odd since this should be prime territory for him. As a B movie, it’s just fine, but I wanted more, and I think it’s not unfair to expect it. DePalma needs a hit, and he needs it fast, but ‘Passion’ won’t be the one to do it for him…

The Bay (***)

Director Barry Levinson is among the last people you’d expect to make a found footage horror film, but lo and behold he’s managed to turn in one of the best that the genre’s had to offer in some time. ‘The Bay’ is a environmental disaster movie depicted in a way that’s more ‘Contagion’ than ‘Paranormal Activity’ (or thankfully ‘Apollo 18’). He doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre, but he’s breathed a bit of life into it, along with his career as well. It’s incredibly early still, but this is my top pick of the festival so far. I doubt it’ll remain as such by the end, but for now it’s the brass ring of the first days of NYFF.

Comprised of supposedly previously confiscated footage, the movie is told mocumentary style, which works in its favor. Depicting the events of July 4th, 2009 in the tiny town of Claridge (a seaside burg of Maryland), we see how progressively worse a biological catastrophe gets. The videos are shown and narrated to us by a survivor of the incident, a college reporter. We see the initial warning signs that the government ignored, along with the first incidents of that fateful day. Something is in the water and causing an awful lot of trouble in the bay. When we find out what it is and exactly what’s going on, the unsettling nature of it is surprisingly powerful. Of course, all of the standard horror movie scenes necessary in this type of movie are there as well, but Levinson has arranged it in a really appealing way that should work for all sorts of genre cinema fans.

This really is a spiritual companion piece to ‘Contagion’, even down to some very specific ways of telling the story. I liked what Barry Levinson brought to the table here, and if this is what bigger name directors can do with this style of film, then I’m all for letting them at it (George A. Romero had a more mixed outing when he did ‘Diary of the Dead’). Especially in a film festival setting, this was a welcome change of pace and I think it’ll do solid business when it comes out at the beginning of November. It’s certainly getting a recommendation from me, so stay tuned for that full review next month!

Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out (***)

The final film of the afternoon was a new documentary on controversial filmmaker/fugitive Roman Polanski. Directed by Marina Zenovich, who also helmed the last doc on Polanski (as mentioned above), this one makes direct mention of that last one and often feels like a deleted final act of that movie than its own thing. That’s not a huge complaint, but it’s the one thing holding me back from fully embracing the title. I’m still recommending it, but I’m not sure how essential it is on its own as a viewing experience. It’s a perfect companion piece, but that’s not what it wants to be, and in that regard it’s only a small success.

This documentary is concerned with the arrest of Polanski a few years back when he went to Switzerland while finishing the edit on ‘The Ghost Writer’ in order to accept an award at a film festival in Zurich. He was promptly taken into custody when he entered the country, leading to an attempt to extradite him to the United States. Over the course of a year or so, the legal proceedings drag out, while we again talk with Samantha Geimer, the then young girl that he was convicted of raping before he fled the United States. Anyone who knows the facts of the case knows how this turned out, but it’s interesting as a further note in Roman Polanski’s exile from America.

Zenovich is a talented filmmaker, but I can’t help wishing that this flick had more meat on its bones. The subject matter is interesting, but it’s a bit on the thin side and could have used more details. I’m not holding off on a thumbs up, but it’s what’s keeping me from loving the film. I’ll have more to say when it comes out, but for now consider this a very small scale recommendation from me…

Stay tuned tomorrow for another group of films, including the Oscar hopeful ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!