Letter From New York | Leonard Quart: Movie-going in New York

NEW YORK — Autumn in New York is a time for serious film-going. It follows the dry spell of a summer when most films with a few exceptions, ("Detroit," "Dunkirk") were produced to appeal to an audience of adolescents and children. The summer films include innumerable ones with superheroes derived from Marvel or DC (some better than others like the pop feminist "Wonder Woman"), animated features, and pointlessly egregious sequels.

At their best these films can be skillfully crafted and may even provide a poignant moment or two, but they rarely speak to viewers like myself who crave more from a film than being able to escape for, at best, a pleasant two hours in the dark. I connect deeply to films that speak to me either personally or politically/socially or aesthetically, and demand more emotionally and intellectually than merely passively sitting watching forgettable images and characters wash over me.

But this is the right season in the city for a passionate cineaste. I go to Peter Nicks' evocative v rit documentary film "The Force" depicting the beleaguered Oakland Police Department, which has had agonizing problems over the last decade. With the department as a stand-in for many urban police departments that face community protests for their brutal behavior, the film has resonance at this moment.

The Oakland police have had a fraught, volatile relationship with the city's minority communities for a long time. In 2002, the department was placed under federal oversight for its history of misconduct, but none of the reforms instituted since then seemed to have made much of a difference. The film begins in 2014, the year after a new chief, Sean Whent, has taken over — he's the fifth one in a decade. Whent is a liberal who says all the right things about ending "the blue wall of silence," committing the police to zero-tolerance of racism and a respect for the city's citizenry.

His earnest attempt to bring about reform should have made a difference, but the most thorough and sensitive training doesn't mean that the police will make sound judgments when faced with split-second decisions. The film treats the police in an even-handed manner, conscious that it's a job filled with a variety of intense pressures caused by shootings, raging street people, and the community's often justified anger towards them.

Nicks' portrait of the Oakland police avoids turning them into monsters of repression, but many are trapped in a macho, toxic culture that goes beyond the existence of good and bad cops. A Citizens Police Review Board has been established in Oakland so citizens can file complaints about police misconduct, but the film doesn't promote solutions, just leaves us with the painful ambiguities and imperfections of policing that we are unable to do much to change.

Ambitious slate

I also attend press screenings at the New York Film Festival of it Main Slate offerings. The Slate includes works by gifted American filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Noah Baumbach, Richard Linklater and even Woody Allen, a number of international festival award winners like Ruben Ostlund's "The Square" and Robin Campillo's "BPM," and the films of European New York Festival veterans like Agn s Varda, Aki Kaurism ki, Claire Denis, and Agnieszka Holland.

Every film shown at the festival has serious artistic ambitions and a number succeed, but a few falter and suffer from incoherence, sentimentality, and characterizations that never get off the ground. But those that succeed, whatever their imperfections, can stir one emotionally and intellectually.

Two films that impressed me were Noah Baumbach's psychologically acute, witty comedy-drama "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)" about the intergenerational dynamics of a dysfunctional family. Baumbach enlists an ensemble of first-rate actors including Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Ben Stiller, and even elicits a strong performance from Adam Sandler, who plays a pained, more complicated variation on his usual man/child. Baumbach grants most of his characters a relatively intricate emotional life that avoids reducing them to a set of facile adjectives and attributes.

Ostlund's "The Square" works on a number of levels. It's a sharp satire of the emptiness and pretension of a great deal of post-modern art, and it captures the struggle of an enlightened upper middle class museum director to deal with his class and ethnic prejudices. But it's wilder and more ambitious than that — this is no simple social message picture. It's filled with disquieting images of immigrants and the poor, and over-the-top scenes that don't quite come together, but suggest there is more to the film than it can deliver.

The festival has screened other films that I can recommend, all of them an antidote to the summer multiplex fare, and an enrichment of our lives.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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