noconcessionsThe good news about the New York Film Festival is that it takes care of a chunk of my fourth quarter “prestige” viewing. The bad news is that it interrupts my workaday screenings for a couple of weeks. You can see what I saw here.

A tepid summer has given way to…a tepid fall. Mediocre movies are reporting mediocre grosses, and films that looked strong faded away. Exhibit A: The lifeless The Birth of a Nation, the Sundance phenomenon that was intended to prove to #OscarsSoWhite that #BlackLivesMatter. After a post-nominations tweetstorm the industry gathered at Park City lapped up Nate Parker’s opus about slave rebel Nat Turner, and a significant number of film critics followed suit. Ongoing scandal regarding the writer-producer-director-star ended the enthusiasm by late summer, and the sure thing is now an also-ran for prizes. But the other factor that doomed it is that numerous movies that scoop up awards and acquisition dollars in the rarified mountain air come crashing down to earth off the slopes, and The Birth of a Nation is no different. Liberty-strewn fiction, the movie is contrived and dull, heavy on the excuse of Christianity for desperate acts that likely worsened the blight of slavery over its last three decades, and slippery with what truth we know (an end crawl mentions the deaths of women and children in the final explosion of rage; the movie focuses on the dispatch of stock “bad guys,” easily hissable villains). Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is used to force a connection between past and present as black bodies hang from the trees, but, like so much in The Birth of a Nation, Parker’s use of it is gratingly proud, and unearned by his superficial treatment.

That said, documentaries aren’t immune from problems of their own. Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea is a beautifully filmed contrast of cultures, the fisherfolk of the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, and the refugees attempting to reach the tiny hamlet, a gateway to Europe. Much of the movie (maybe too much) is about a 10-year-old boy living mundanely, struggling amusingly with his first pair of glasses and a slingshot. The old ways seem never to change, despite the patrol boats that crowd the harbor. His misadventures are in stark contrast to the misfortunes befalling the mostly African refugees, whose lives and traditions have been completely upended. We see the patrol boats take away the sick and the dead from floundering craft, as the survivors lament. It’s stark, particularly when they communicate their sorrows through anguished song–but our sympathy isn’t enough. I appreciate a documentary that isn’t encrusted with facts and figures, but we’re thrown into the deep end with all these people, on land and sea, and I left dissatisfied despite Rosi’s craft and empathy (he was also a displaced person in his youth).

Keith Maitland’s Tower is an arresting recreation of the “good old days,” before gun massacres were somehow normalized. That is, it’s arresting when it sticks to news footage and present-day testimonies from survivors of the sniper attack on the University of Texas at Austin 50 years ago, which killed 18, including an unborn child. The mother’s child, who survived, has made peace with the past, and her reunion with her rescuer, who hasn’t, is heart-wrenching. But too much of the fateful day is portrayed via wavy animation, which bobs and weaves and distracts from the brutal realities, particularly when it flashes into “psychedelic” mode, with John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful on the soundtrack. The content is riveting, and resonant; the form, irritating.

(Hmm, what about the gay porn? Godzilla…? Glad you asked!)

“Fuck me…fuck me up the ass with your big cock!” Yes, friends, Gay James Franco is back, trying to lure a twink porn star onto his payroll in King Cobra, which is based on a sordid true-life murder case. One-time Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton plays “Brent Corrigan,” a boyish (and, indeed, underage) lad who attracts the attention of pornographer Christian Slater, who runs his business from his suburban home. Corrigan’s popularity excites Franco, Slater’s rival in the skin trade, who has a hustler of his own (Keegan Allen) but lusts after the slightly younger man’s page views. But Slater won’t release him from his contract, and precious bodily fluids beyond the porn norm are soon shed. Advance word pegged this (largely) VOD release as a gay Boogie Nights, but writer/director Justin Kelly’s account is too cramped and underlit for ribald fun, and the movie suffers from the usual low budget exigencies (set in San Diego, most of the events took place in Pennsylvania, and the film was shot in New York state, which looks like neither). I bet teen princesses Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone, cast in brief roles as Slater’s sister and Clayton’s mother, never thought they’d co-star under these circumstances.

Shin Godzilla has mostly wrapped its brief but successful theatrical run, but before the resurgent (shin) reptile stomps to home video I thought I should add my throw in my two yen. The problem with the newest American Godzilla (2014) was that it saved most of the monster material for the climax; the problem with the first Japanese Godzilla since 2004’s Final Wars is that the creature turns up, in variant forms, for most of the first hour, and is literally stuck in place, metamorphosing, for  much of the last, sluggish hour. You exit more relieved than elated. (The top half of the new design doesn’t move very much, either–perhaps the sequel will be called Godzilla Mobile.) A large chunk of the film is given over to semi-satiric government preparations on how to deal with the emergency, which may have registered more strongly at home. I can’t complain, though, about a Godzilla film that arrived in US theaters intact, with subtitles, and I will of course be adding it to my voluminous Japanese monster movie collection.

Moonlight I should save for another time. I saw it at the festival, sandwiched between two other films, and I can say it rewards further viewing. Barry Jenkins’ impressionistic account of a black gay man’s youth on the fringes of Miami, from a fraught boyhood with a drug-addled mother to a moment of teen intimacy that has life-changing repercussions, is delicate but taut, and has some lovely, unforgettable moments. We go to the movies to see Inferno, or The Accountant; we leave a movie like Moonlight feeling somehow transformed, and better for the experience.