Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Are You Here












When TV weatherman Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) asks for his job back after quitting in disgust following years of bad behavior, he’s startled to be welcomed back—and given a promotion. “Jeez, what do you have to do to get fired around here?” he asks.

You might ask the same thing of Matthew Weiner, the writer/director/producer of this rambling, tedious film, which keeps going and going but never gets anywhere. Stumbling from unfunny “comedy,” like an icky, overlong sequence in which Steve kills a chicken, to drama that’s generally either unconvincing or overplayed, Are You Here can’t settle on a tone.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Coldwater







There's a certain kind of fantasy, appealing to teenagers, that involves imagining yourself in a situation harsh enough to justify the alienation and rage flooding your soul. The attraction is the perverse satisfaction of enduring nightmarish scenarios, no matter how high the deck is stacked against you. Coldwater has the feel of one of those fantasies, from its melodramatic mixture of grandiosity and powerlessness to its view of the world as a torture-chamber crucible for an angry young man who has to grow up too fast. So it comes as no surprise that writer-director Vincent Grashaw wrote the film's first draft soon after graduating high school.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey












In The Hundred-Foot Journey, the Kadam family—-doe-eyed Hassan (Manish Dayal), a chef who learned all he knows from his mother; his bullheaded father, referred to only as Papa (Om Puri); and Papa's four other children—-leave India when their family restaurant is torched. The fire, a hate crime that incinerates Hassan's mother, is described only as the result of "some election" and quickly dismissed, as there's no place for grief in this upbeat dramedy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

100 Words On ... Annie Hall












Annie Hall was supposed to be a murder mystery and a psychological anatomy of Alvy Singer, the first of Woody Allen’s alpha neurotics. But when the footage proved lifeless in the editing room, the filmmakers reworked it radically, focusing on Singer’s relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The result is one of cinema’s great love stories, a funny, tender tribute to one very specific, goofily lovely woman that also speaks to all the loves we’ve ever lost, thanks to a built-in running commentary (including jokes and asides Singer delivers to the camera) on everything from the nature of love to the perils of living too much in your head.

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Master Builder














“I would like to tell you a very strange story—I mean, if you’d be willing to listen to it,” title character Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) says in A Master Builder, a production headed by Shawn (who wrote the screenplay from his own translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play) and his longtime collaborator Andre Gregory (who adapted it for the stage and plays another of the main roles), with the help of Jonathan Demme, who the two recruited to direct. Halvard’s line, which could easily have come from either of the two old friends’ other films, is spoken early enough to feed our hopes that A Master Builder will follow in the nimble footsteps of My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, deftly exploring human nature and the nature of language—both the stories we tell and the things we leave unspoken. Unfortunately, this film is as flatfooted as the others are agile.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Land Ho!












The industrial-strength whine of an unseen engine dominates the opening moments of Land Ho! What could it be? A plane getting about to take off for some exotic place? A chainsaw preparing to rip through something--or someone? Nope, it’s a vacuum cleaner, wielded by Mitch (played by Earl Lynn Nelson, co-director Martha Stephens’ second cousin). Mitch, we soon learn, is a recently retired surgeon who’s cleaning up a bit before his favorite ex-brother-in-law, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) comes over for dinner.

That aural punch line is a nice introduction to this deadpan but lively film, which presents everyday situations and encounters with just enough of a twist to focus our attention on them. And you’ve got to savor the small stuff, as Land Ho! gently reminds us, because those seemingly inconsequential moments make up the warp and the weft of our lives.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014: The Supreme Price














The recent kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram highlighted many of the problems that are corroding civil society in Nigeria, including a brutal and growing disregard for women's rights and a government that is as ineffective at protecting its citizens as it is adept at punishing them. Those are the problems that Hafsat Abiola, the heroine of The Supreme Price, is devoting her life to addressing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

100 Words on ... Elena











An homage to the beloved older sister cowriter-director Petra Costa lost when she was 7 years old, Elena is a detailed anatomy of grief—-and a poetic tribute to life, love, and the transformative power of art. Costa combines family video, photos and testimonials from her sister with new footage of herself and New York, the city where she retraces the contours of Elena’s life and explores its effect on her own. Her entrancing, beautiful footage frequently features blurred images, soft colors, slow pans, slow motion, and scenes involving water, which set the stage for her concluding metaphor for the healing power of time: “Little by little, the pain turns to water, becomes memory.”

Written for The L Magazine

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne












Part of the fun of movies like To Catch a Thief and Ocean's Eleven is identifying with famous actors playing thieves, thrilling at their inventiveness and insouciance. But as The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne reminds us, it's more than just lack of nerve or poor bone structure that keeps most of us from a life of heisting. Doris Payne used that Hollywood trope as a template for her life, remaking herself as a glamorous jewel thief. She plays the part well, fooling countless sales clerks over the years and always looking great—even in her mug shots. There's a backstage-pass kind of thrill in learning just how she ripped off so many high-end jewelry stores, but this somewhat hamfisted doc is strongest when exploring the flip side of that fantasy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

We Are the Best!



A humanist with a rare sensitivity to the inner lives of children, Lukas Moodysson is one of the best living directors of young people, and he’s especially good with girls and young women. As he did in Lilya 4-Ever and Together, he gazes at the young people in We Are the Best! eye to eye even when they are all but invisible to those around them, capturing the awkwardness and innocent sincerity of youth without a trace of condescension or sentimentality. But, like all true humanists, he knows that loving human frailty and finding humor in it are not mutually exclusive. Even as we empathize with the protagonists of We Are the Best! we also laugh at them--and the laughter is energizing, because there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. It’s just another way of acknowledging the humanity we share with three teenage girls in 1982 Stockholm.