I love finding connections and coincidences in my moviegoing experiences. So it made sense that my coverage of the 61st New York Film Festival would find me skipping the press screening of the Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” at the Walter Reade Theater in favor of a public screening in the new David Geffen Hall, the same building where the famous conductor worked in the 1960s.
The building was recently redesigned, so it differed from when Bernstein ruled the roost as music director of the New York Philharmonic. However, several of the guests who spoke before the film set the stage for us, pointing out where the maestro’s conductor stand used to be. We also learned how Bradley Cooper, who plays Bernstein, visited the hall and leaned perilously over its balcony railing to get a feel for the musicians playing below him.
The most amazing story of the night was how, with just 36 hours to go before showtime, David Geffen Hall was fitted with a Dolby Atmos sound system and screen presentation. It would allow the same music Leonard Bernstein conducted — his own works as well as those by classical composers including Mahler — to be carried to every corner of the building, much like it once had been.
And the sound was glorious! Every note of music in “Maestro” filled the air, vibrating our bodies and pleasing our ears. If you were superstitious, or had the heart of a poet, you might have felt Bernstein’s spirit in the building, looking down at the friends and family who attended the screening.
If only the movie lived up to the great feeling this environment engendered.
“Maestro” is nothing more than a standard biopic that unsuccessfully tries to hide its tropes with arty sleights of hand like looping camera movements and black-and-white cinematography for purely ostentatious reasons. It also plays coy with the composer’s homosexual dalliances. No matter how dressed up it looks, you’ve seen this movie before.
(Regarding the controversy over Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose, I’ll just say it looks completely extraneous when we see the real Bernstein.)
As Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre, Carey Mulligan is the film’s richly drawn, emotional anchor. The last 20 minutes of her multifaceted performance are profoundly affecting. She’s great.
Unfortunately, Cooper isn’t. As with his last directorial effort, 2018’s “A Star Is Born,” Cooper the director gets excellent work out of his co-lead, but Cooper the actor’s work is shallow enough to derail his own picture. “Maestro” is really Felicia’s story, but that’s no excuse for Cooper’s lousy performance. Starring beside Mulligan, he’s as big of a black hole as he was next to Lady Gaga.
I also attended the public screening for Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, a western. I was intrigued; at one point in its early development, “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) was pitched as a vehicle for Almodóvar. He turned it down, in part because he thought the script didn’t convey the animalistic passion between the two men that Annie Proulx’s source material described.
With “Strange Way of Life,” Almodóvar has finally made his own queer cowboy film, though he jokingly warned the audience in his introduction that anyone looking for smoking-hot, naked action between its two characters, Sheriff Jake (Ethan Hawke) and Silva (Pedro Pascal) was going to be disappointed.
That doesn’t mean the men don’t sleep together — it’s just one element of the plot of this short, which runs slightly over 30 minutes. “Strange Way of Life” sticks to the tried and true tropes of the western, with homages to classics of the genre such as “Red River” (1948) and “Johnny Guitar” (1954). The story, set at the turn of the 20th century, involves a reunion between two men 25 years after they last met.
The real reason Silva returns to see Jake is steeped in unresolved conflict and blatant criminality. Hawke and Pascal bring their A-games to this two-hander, which interrogates how men construct their platonic and romantic relationships.
Buoyed by a beautiful score by Almodóvar regular Alberto Iglesias, “Strange Way of Life” generates a lot of emotion in a short amount of time. Though it ends mid-story, it’s still satisfying. As a bonus, during the Q&A Almodóvar told us what ultimately happened to Jake and Silva.
Like Almodóvar, Todd Haynes is a regular contributor to the NYFF Main Slate of movies. The director of 2015′s “Carol” is back with “May December,” a new provocation starring his “Far from Heaven” lead actor, Julianne Moore, and Natalie Portman. Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, an actor who visits Moore’s small-town baker, Gracie Atherton-Yoo, whom she’ll be playing in a scandalous upcoming movie.
The sociopathic Elizabeth becomes entangled in the family life of Gracie and her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton), who happens to be Elizabeth’s age. Turns out the Yoos met when Joe was 13 and they worked together at a pet store. Gracie was the adult who initiated sexual contact, repeatedly raping Joe before she went to jail, had his baby, and then married him once he turned 18. Their kids are heading to college when the film opens, and Elizabeth’s presence makes Joe reassess his “May December” marriage.
Melton is the best asset here, and the only person who fully understands his character. Portman is in her own separate Southern Gothic movie, and I don’t know what the hell Moore thought she was doing. Her performance is all weird tics and willful delusions.
Inspired by the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau case, screenwriter Samy Burch crafts an often hilarious and always uncomfortable satire that Haynes treats as camp. This is most evident in the director’s re-use of Michel Legrand’s overripe score from Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between” (1971). The musical cues alone made me rethink my theory that camp can never be intentional.
“May December” is the type of movie I could easily see John Waters making; Moore’s role seems tailor made for the late queer icon, Divine.
The NYFF slate is unnervingly obsessed with adults in illicit, illegal sexual relationships with underage teenagers. In addition to “May December,” there’s also the upcoming Priscilla Presley biopic, “Priscilla,” and “Last Summer,” the latest from “Fat Girl” director Catherine Breillat.
I’ll talk about “Priscilla” in my next dispatch, as well as “Evil Does Not Exist,” the latest from “Drive My Car” director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.