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Film critic Harlan Jacobson reviews Bradley Cooper's "Maestro" at the NYFF

Bradley Cooper portrays Leonard Bernstein in "Maestro"
Bradley Cooper portrays Leonard Bernstein in "Maestro"

The 61st NY Film Festival comes to a close this weekend, and our film critic Harlan Jacobson, who worked there for a decade, returns to sift out what the festival launches into the greater NY metroplex over the coming months

HJ: The NYFF festival has in recent years expanded since the years I worked there awhile back from 20 or so films to 32 in its Main Slate and nearly 60 films overall. That somewhat corrects a paucity of programming that was reframed at the time as a jewel box selection, a formulation that encouraged Toronto and Telluride to become the major showcases on this continent, and even Tribeca in New York City itself, to reach for a local audience downtown following 9/11.

The growth in the number of films at the NYFF is largely due to its expanded constellation of theatres at Lincoln Center. Rather than becoming a magnet for never before seen films that is the hallmark of other A-List festivals, NY steers its course as a festival of festivals, culling from Sundance in January and heavily from Cannes in May, Venice in August and following on the heels of Telluride and Toronto in September. The business folks don’t really come except to steer the launch of films they produced or acquired at those other festivals, and the press is therefore local reporting to a local audience.

Though it launched at Venice, what could be more local than the North American premiere of Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, as a slice out of the life of Leonard Bernstein, the Lawrence Mass-born, quintessential New York success story, educated at Harvard and at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, who had that star is born moment one night in November 1943 to conduct the NY Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall to substitute at the last minute with barely any time to prep for the great Bruno Walter, who fell ill. Lenny, as he was forever known to millions around the world, made the front page the next day of The New York Times.

As director and actor, Cooper unpacks screenwriter Josh Singer’s Lenny – and it was Singer’s baby for years before he got Cooper to sign on -- as a bisexual man living inside a publicly heterosexual marriage to Felicia Montealegre, an Argentine socialite who understood him, supported his genius, made a nest, peopled it with kids and ultimately bore his emotional betrayal. The Bernstein children opened their Fairfield home as a location, the production recreated their Dakota apartment for a day and a half of shooting, and from the get-go eagerly supported Cooper’s film over a doc they didn’t like, probably in the interest of rebuilding Lenny’s canon.

Maestro is at least as much about the toll Lenny’s rise took on Felicia, played by Carey Mulligan, who has made a career out of playing cold. Opposite Cooper’s roman candle, Mulligan walks a fine cool line in a film that wonderfully seduces us with Matthew Libatique’s black and white cinematography of their young years, crescendos in the color of their success but doesn’t climax so much as comes sweetly to a rest. Here, they replay a routine between them in their courtship and later years.

When Maestro had its gala festival showing, it was like summoning a ghost of Lenny to the Avery Fisher Hall that he inaugurated for the NY Phil, which never got the acoustics right, until David Geffen, a kid from Brooklyn, spent enough money to re-wood the place and put his nameplate on the door. Dolby spent some thousands of dollars in sound equipment to summon Lenny’s ghost for a memorable one-night stand at Lincoln Center. You can see the film in theatres in November and on Netflix in December.

Also in the 61st NYFF’s jewel box, were a number of great films from around the festival world:

Taken from the edge are two films, as different as they could be.

From winning the Golden Lion at Venice, the brilliant Poor Things is by Yorgos Lanthimos, a Greek director I haven’t much liked over the course of his decade long career. Poor Things is a Victorian feminist Frankenstein tale. It’s like a mashup of David Cronenberg’s Crash with hot sex taking place in wreckage, and the Western Canadian wild man Guy Madden’s 2003 film, The Saddest Music in the World, set in a Winnipeg brewery during the Depression. In Poor Things, Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter is a composite of her mother’s body accommodating her own fetus’ transplanted brain after a suicide as the brain matures, engineered by mad scientist Willem Dafoe, whose face looks as if it has been stitched together after a volcano. Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef are the men Bella meets along her Candide meets Frankenstein journey lumbering into the sexual revolution. See it when Searchlight releases it in December.

Poor Things
Poor Things

And All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Raven Jackson’s debut film from Sundance, is a poetic memoir of growing up as a black girl that just lets the viewer absorb details of rural Mississippi life over decades, as if you are there just off in the corner watching them all read the room, the water, and each other. A24 releases it November 3.

Like me, this weekend you can see Ferrari by director Michael Mann, the festival’s closing night film from Venice. In a story that details what happened to all that beauty, my least favorite actor of the moment, Adam Driver, plays Enzo Ferrari. No doubt, some of my colleagues will have discovered that a Mann hired a Driver to wreck a fast car with style blown out by male bluster. And all the actor had to do was show up.

From the Masters are Pigeon Tunnel, seen at Telluride and Toronto, is by one of the great documentarians of his time, Errol Morris, who records an ongoing conversation with David Cornwell, better known as spymaster and novelist John Le Carré, just before he died in December 2020. I loved LeCarre’s novels and the films that came from them –The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And Morris encourages Le Carré to reframe all of it through the lens of his early family life. Look for it on Apple+ on Oct 20.

Pidgeon Tunnel
Des Willie/Courtesy of Apple
Pidgeon Tunnel

Perfect Days is another first-rate film by German director Wim Wenders with the great Koji Yakusho – you may remember him going all the way back to Shall We Dance in 1996. Yakusho here won best actor in Cannes for his portrait of a man who inexplicably has stepped down from great wealth to clean public toilets in Tokyo. It’s a quietly wonderful film -- and a one-of-a -kind tour of Tokyo public pissoirs.

And I’m Harlan Jacobson

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.