Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Interrupters












The Interrupters will screen on August 19 for opening night of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Kartemquin Films retrospective; Steve James will be on hand for the 162-minute original cut of the film, which was never released theatrically.

In the five years since I first saw Steve James’ indelible documentary, I’ve never heard about another killing in Southside Chicago without thinking about The Interrupters’ stars, Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. Former gangbangers who abhor the violence they perpetrated and bear the scars of the harm done to them, they are now “violence interrupters” with a program that treats violence as a socially transmitted disease rather than an individual failure. The interrupters aim to disrupt the vicious cycle of shootings in their city by helping their neighbors manage their emotions and learn new patterns of behavior, choosing not to react to insults and attacks with more of the same. James’ tiny crew (three people, including him) anatomizes Chicago’s violence pandemic close-up and from many angles, attending monthly meetings where the interrupters strategize and compare notes, learning about the three leads’ backgrounds and the paths they found out of the mayhem, and tracking their fitful progress and their enormous outpouring of effort and love as they work with several of their cases. If Chicago’s violence epidemic is ever cured, it will surely be largely through the heroic interventions of people like these. Written for Brooklyn Magazine

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins












Florence Foster Jenkins was a mid-20th-century New York socialite who became known for her generosity to musicians and musical institutions, then grew notorious for the abysmal singing voice she insisted on sharing, through concerts and recordings, with an increasingly amused public. Florence Foster Jenkins, the latest take on her life (the most recent before that being Marguerite), is the story of a long con told from the point of view of the perpetrator and her enablers. That technique worked well in Penny Lane's recent Nuts!, where it set up a second-act reversal that revealed the dark truths behind the triumphal myth that film's subject had created around himself. But director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Nicolas Martin construct a suspiciously simple and sympathetic story about Jenkins (Meryl Streep) and play it straight through (though not entirely straight, as a streak of broad comedy runs through the film), leaving audiences to wonder about the very things that make Jenkins's story intriguing in the first place.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Tallulah












Writer-director Sian Heder's Tallulah has an impressive set of genes on the matriarchal side. Header was a writer and story editor on Orange Is the New Black, and co-stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney play roles much like the ones they so memorably embodied in Juno—Page as a sardonic young woman grappling with unplanned motherhood and Janney as the no-nonsense mother figure who helps her. But Tallulah, a kind of neofeminist Lifetime movie, is high drama writ in black crayon, lacking either Orange Is the New Black's moral complexities or Juno's sweet-and-sour sass.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pootie Tang












Part goofily spoofy turn-of-the-20th-century biopic, part hip-hop Spinal Tap with the absurdist knob up turned to 11, Pootie Tang is not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen. Whether because of the self-described cluelessness that got writer-director Louis C.K. fired while the film was being edited or the voiceover-narrated frame that was then imposed by the studio, this parody of a star vehicle meanders a bit before sputtering to a stop, but it delivers plenty of pleasures along the way.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Infiltrator











A strenuously sold yet inert string of anecdotes from a nonfiction book about a high-stakes undercover DEA operation, Brad Furman's The Infiltrator is all revving engines and no momentum. Interpersonal dynamics that might have helped propel the plot wind up in cul-de-sacs: When suburban dad and DEA undercover agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) gets paired up with scruffy, fast-and-loose Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), their odd-couple friction might be expected to lead to clashes over strategy or execution, but aside from the unstable informant who Emir refuses to cut loose despite Bob's qualms, their differences never seem much more than cosmetic. Similarly, the sexual tension between Bob and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), the inexperienced but savvy agent who's the third participant in the sting operation Bob is heading, plays out more as a Hollywood trope than a lived-in reality, though it's apparently enough of a threat to Bob's wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), to contribute to her decision to temporarily leave her husband.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Neither Heaven Nor Earth











Neither Heaven Nor Earth is screening tomorrow at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City.

Set among an encampment of French soldiers stationed atop a couple of barren hilltops in Afghanistan in 2014, Neither Heaven Nor Earth injects strains of the supernatural into a realistic war story to highlight the eerie disorientation of modern warfare. As members of the troop begin to disappear, the soldiers lose their emotional footing, their relationship with the civilians in a nearby village transitioning from tense to toxic. The eerie green light that illuminates parts of the soldiers’ faces as they patrol at night underscores the dehumanizing effects of technology, as do the ghostly white silhouettes they see through their infrared scopes. Meanwhile, the nervous sheep the villagers tie to stakes in the dangerous open land create a growing sense of dread, their fate becoming mysteriously entangled with that of the missing soldiers.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nuts!


















Parallels between the controversial self-styled doctor John R. Brinkley and Donald Trump pop up with startling frequency throughout Penny Lane's lively Nuts!, which opens just under a century ago, as Brinkley is starting to treat impotence by surgically implanting goat gonads in men's testicular sacs. That and other Brinkley “cures” soon become wildly popular as Brinkley masters the most promising new media of his time, broadcasting a call-in show from a powerful radio station that he built so he could counsel callers nationwide about their sexual problems and prescribe treatments.

Interview: Penny Lane


















One of Filmmaker Magazine's “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012, writer-director Penny Lane exudes a winning blend of intellectual curiosity and sheer effervescent humor that shapes her films as well as her personality. In arty DIY shorts and two feature-length documentaries, 2013's Our Nixon and this year's Nuts!, Lane often investigates science or history in weird and wonderful ways, imbuing subjects like space travel, Nixon's presidency, and the use of goat glands to treat impotence with sly humor and unexpected emotion. In Nuts!, she also encourages audiences to explore their own susceptibility to charlatanism by first telling her conman subject's story as it's laid out in his authorized biography, then revealing the lies that story was built on and the price people paid for believing those lies. I spoke to Lane about why it's best to make art for an audience of one, the pros and cons of using animation, and what makes so many of us want to believe the whoppers spun by people like Donald Trump and John Brinkley, the self-styled doctor Lane anatomizes in Nuts!

Let's get the name out of the way. Were your parents hippies?

No. They were just teenagers with the last name Lane. It wasn't that thought out. Lois Lane was another option, so all I can do is be happy that they didn't go with Lois, from the depths of their 15-year-old stoner minds.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Call Her Applebroog









The possibilities and limitations of art as a route to self-knowledge are on display in Call Me Applebroog, Beth B's gently incisive portrait of her mother, Ida Applebroog. For much of the documentary, Applebroog, now in her 80s, culls through her conceptual drawings and self-published books, many of which incorporate handwritten-looking, Dada-esque snippets of thought or observations, in what she calls “a mass excavation of myself and my mind and everything that's pertained to me over the years.”

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Interview: Amy Heckerling









Fresh out of film school, director Amy Heckerling hit the ground running in the early '80s. Her first feature, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, remains a classic for its delicate balance of absurdity and pathos and the way it treats its characters with bemused-older-sibling affection laced with comic incredulity. Her next few features were more uneven, the humor generally broader and the emotional stakes often less engaging, but they also had their moments, reflecting the director's quick wit and love of larger-than-life characters, and they never sold their female characters short. In 1996, Heckerling returned to form with Clueless, another brilliant high school comedy—this one written as well as directed by her—that deeply respects and understands its female characters at the same time that it laughs at their, well, cluelessness. This week, I had a chance to speak with Heckerling, who was promoting a retrospective of four of her films by the Metrograph theater in the Lower East Side. Quick to laugh, with a sense of mischief and a lack of interest in mincing words that may explain why she's so drawn to young characters, the filmmaker discussed gender inequality in Hollywood and what movies have in common with the economy.

Fast Times and Clueless are great in so many ways, but what I especially love about them is how well they get American teenage girls, and in such a fun away.
In a fun way is the different thing. There were so many movies about teenage girls. It's a scary, depressing time for a lot of people, and a lot of movies capture that brilliantly. But they may not be as happy. When we came out [with Clueless], there was this movie Kids...

The Larry Clark one?
Yeah. And people were saying, “Oh, you've captured American kids,” and I'm going, “Well, that one did too. It's just, I chose those kids.” [laughs] There are a million stories in the naked city, and I gravitated to the happiest one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

100 Words On ... Clueless













The first, and still one of the best, of the now numerous movies to transpose the plot of a Jane Austen novel (in this case, Emma) to a modern context, writer-director Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is a fizzy SweeTart of a pop culture time capsule. It’s also a classic female coming-of-age story, echoing both Austen’s older-sister appreciation of her headstrong heroine’s good qualities and her bemused eye-rolling at her misplaced priorities and callow confidence. Young Emma’s early-19th-century version of entitlement and her appealing, if often delusional, self-confidence translates seamlessly to Cher’s (Alicia Silverstone) brand of 1990s alpha-girl California high-school cool.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Being Charlie












“I know what you're thinking. I do. Who is this kid with the silver spoon in his mouth and why does he keep cooking heroin in it?” says Charlie (Nick Robinson), doing stand-up at a halfway house's talent show. It's a good line, particularly because it's Being Charlie's first and only indication that its titular character, who's apparently spent most of the last couple years cycling in and out of pricey rehab facilities, has any awareness of how whiny and self-martyred he might appear to audiences.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tribeca Film Festival 2016: Hunt for the Wilderpeople












Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople is told from the point of view of a chubby, self-confident orphan, Ricky (Julian Dennison), with a rich inner life who composes haikus for fun. As the film begins, he's delivered to the last foster home willing to take him in, a small farm carved out of the edge of New Zealand's bush country. Ricky has a bit of trouble in his past and fancies himself an outlaw, but he's really a goodhearted kid, as his enthusiastic and intuitive foster mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), sees from the start.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Meddler














In Lorene Scafaria's The Meddler, the recently widowed and adrift Marnie (Susan Sarandon) tries to fill the hole in her life, first by launching an extreme invasion of her daughter's privacy, and then by offering random acts of generosity to near-strangers, who subsequently become her friends. Perhaps to embody Marnie's penchant for running from her own problems, Sarandon pumps the character full of raw, aimless energy, never walking when she can trot along briskly and talking fast in a broad, supposed-to-be-Brooklyn accent. The actress's frenetic need to keep busy betrays the loneliness and rootlessness underlying Marnie's impulsive acts, but even Sarandon's innate warmth and the sympathy she generates for her character can't make some of Marnie's stunts come across as anything other than unintentional cruelty.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tribeca Film Festival 2016: Don't Think Twice












Writer-director Mike Birbiglia condenses years of experience in live comedy into this smart, affectionate take on the rivalry, love, ambition, and creative juices that fuel the lives of professional comedians. When one of members of a New York City improv group called The Commune gets hired at Weekend Live, an SNL-like kahuna of a TV show that represents the ultimate in ticket-punching success for a professional comic, his coup sends most of the other members into a frenzy of self-doubt, frustration, or attempts to ride his coattails into the limelight.

But Don't Think Twice isn't about success or failure as much as it is about the creative life, as experienced by a group of youngish comedians who've achieved a certain level of success, but still need day jobs or indulgent parents to support their comedy habit. As thirtysomething Bill (Chris Gethard) puts it: “I feel like your 20s are all about hope, and then your 30s are all about leaning how dumb it was to hope.” And most of the group's members are in their 30s.

Read the rest on The House Next Door