Monday, June 29, 2015

Stray Dog

"I was put in a leadership position when I was far way too young to be in a leadership position. I made decisions that haunt my ass and always will," says Ron Hall of the time he served in Vietnam in Debra Granik's Stray Dog. Hall may be right, but it's easy to imagine why his commanding officers made him a leader. A tattooed mountain of a man who exudes empathy, honesty, and strength, he has shoulders broad enough for nearly everyone he comes across to lean on.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Batkid Begins

On November 15, 2013, the Make-A-Wish Foundation turned parts of San Francisco into Gotham City so five-year-old leukemia survivor Miles Scott could live out his fantasy of being Batman. Since Miles was too young to save the city on his own, acrobat and former stuntman Eric Johnson volunteered to play Batman, leading his mini-me to each of the foundation’s three staged scenarios, then gently guiding the boy through his part of the action. Dana Nachman’s documentary anatomizes the extensive planning and social-media heat lightning that turned the day into a global phenomenon, after a Facebook plea for volunteers to play grateful Gothamites went viral.

It’s a promising premise for a movie: no wonder Julia Roberts is developing a feature version of the story. We’re hard-wired to root for the title character, a round-cheeked little farm boy who had battled leukemia for years by the time he entered first grade, as we learn in an opening sequence that tells his story in comic-book form, in what turns out to be a rare flash of visual creativity. The live-action Miles we see in footage taken before, during and after the event also has scene-stealing moments, especially after he dons his costume and channels his hero, walking “like he weighs 200 pounds,” as one of his parents puts it. But as the story of his big day unfolds, any hope of meaningful reflection or insight is doused by a steady drip of often redundant and banal observations, mostly about the unprecedented size or cooperative spirit of the crowd that showed up to cheer him on.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Even fans of Nina Simone will likely learn some new things about her in What Happened, Miss Simone?, and those who had never heard her name will have a hard time forgetting it after seeing this slow-burning documentary.

As honest as its subject, the film captures the ferocious talent and charisma that was the subject of Simone’s husband and manager Andy Stroud’s documentary, Nina Simone Great Performances: College Concerts and Interviews. But, unlike Stroud’s film, this one also explores the dark side of Simone’s story. The bipolar disease with which she was diagnosed late in life no doubt accounts for some of the violence and paranoia that caused her to become a bitter and angry recluse, but director Liz Garbus also surfaces the role played by racism. Trained from early childhood as a classical pianist when black people were unheard of in that field, Simone grew up a social outcast, out of place among both blacks and whites. Then the career for which she had sacrificed so much rejected her and she was forced to sing and play popular music, a form she considered inferior.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

100 Words On ... The Wanted 18

The Wanted 18 is part of the 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. It screens on June 13 in New York City.

Scored to a lovely, plaintive soundtrack by Benoît Charest (The Triplets of Belleville), The Wanted 18 tells a true story with the deadpan surrealism of a classic fable. The cows of the title were first bought by a Palestinian collective looking to establish independence from Israel during the first intifada in part by producing and distributing their own milk, then hunted by Israeli troops for “undermining Israeli security.” The film combines animation, live-action reenactments, archival footage and simple but elegant visual metaphors, like a paper airplane folded by a pair of hands in one shot and thrown to the talking head in another to symbolize the clandestine flow of information. Its point of view shifts between a mordantly funny voiceover by co-director and illustrator Amer Shomali, beautifully shot interviews with many key players, and the cows themselves, whose increasingly hopeless situation (“We’ve been betrayed--by both Israelis and Palestinians!” says one) becomes a metaphor for the plight of the Palestinians. Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Wild Horses

Robert Duvall's Wild Horses consists mainly of a series of conversations, some stiff and unconvincing, that never quite coalesce into a plausible story, but it shows periodic signs of life. Those exchanges become magnetic whenever Adriana Barraza is on screen, especially in a climactic scene that she and Duvall build toward a wrenching emotional crescendo. And while the nonprofessional actors intended to add authentic local color sometimes freeze the action in its tracks with wooden line readings, Duvall distills the flavor of rural West Texas in scenes like the gentle taming of an unbroken horse, a midday bonding between brothers at a dark, no-frills bar, and a backyard barbecue at which a band plays "Cielito Lindo" while a bearded cook works a grill made of a halved oilcan.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Interview: Andrew Bujalski

Like a character from one of his movies, writer-director Andrew Bujalski has a self-effacing style of speech and a habit of making a thoughtful observation, then promptly second-guessing it. He also seems to be motivated in large part by conquering his own fears, which he acknowledges so freely that he used the word "fear," "frightened," or "terrified" in answering about a third of my questions as we discussed moviemaking in general and his latest feature, Results. Where Bujalski's early films were about people feeling their way through life after college, and his last feature, Computer Chess, was an affectionate and bemused look back at the infancy of computer-nerd culture, Results is a charmingly meandering, brainy rom-com set in the adult working world. As always, the director finds gentle humor and emotional truth in the bumpy road traveled by his main characters: Trevor (Guy Pearce), the owner/manager of a gym; his star trainer, Kat (Cobie Smulders); and their new client, Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a newly minted millionaire who's a schlubby stranger to the world of fitness. He also scores some interesting points about how the work we do—or, in Danny's case, don't do—both reflects and affects who we are.

Your movies don't seem strictly autobiographical, but they do seem to be at least partly about whatever stage of life you're at. I wonder if you're thinking about doing anything about parenthood, since you've been very open in interviews about how being a father has transformed your life.
I don't know. The problem is it would be such a big undertaking that I'm a little nervous about the idea. You really have to direct kids. Not that the directing would be so scary, so much as coordinating and organizing and the rest of it. Like with everything, there would be ways, but you strike fear into my heart. [laughs] Like you say, nothing I've done is strictly autobiographical, but it's all very personal. My life feeds into what I do in a kind of back-alley way, in terms of perceptions and wondering what we're doing on this planet. So, yeah, the thought of doing a movie about parenthood has crossed my mind. I've imagined what I'd like to say about that, but it would be kind of frightening to try to actually pull it off.

Interview: Guy Pearce

In town to promote Andrew Bujalski's Results, Guy Pearce was articulate, seemingly unguarded, and quietly enthusiastic as we talked this week at the Crosby Hotel. Pearce's character, a gym owner and manager named Trevor, is one of three main characters who spar, spark, and bond throughout the film, which Slant's Chuck Bowen praised as the "rare romantic comedy that's hopeful without resorting to condescending, deadening platitude, temporarily lending respectability to the phrase 'life-affirming.'" A fan of his director's "slightly odd, asymmetrical rhythm," Pearce spoke of finding just the right balance between sharpness and cluelessness for Trevor, and about why it was a relief to play the part in his own Ozzie accent. He also had plenty to say about why Tom Hardy is the new Brando.

You usually play characters who are very self-aware and smart and capable, but Trevor is pretty clueless, in a sweet and funny way. Was it fun to play a bit of a dim bulb for a change? Or did you not think of him that way?
Yeah, yeah, I do. [laughs] Andrew said, "I don't want him to be too dumb." I said, "No, but in all my years of going to gyms and seeing gym junkies and trainers, there's a real sharpness to them, there's a real confidence about spreading the word about fitness and stuff, but there's a slight blind spot. And I'm interested in that blind spot." He said, "So am I," so that was great.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

100 Words On ... Mutual Appreciation

Uneven lighting and musical performances recorded on what sound like on-camera mikes bolster the sense of scrappy DIY creativity in early 21st-century Brooklyn that is the subject of Mutual Appreciation, a low-budget indie about the kinds of people who might make a low-budget indie. A cast gifted at offhand delivery and squirmingly funny body language brings writer-director-editor-costar Andrew Bujalski’s smart script vividly to life. Good with women, as always, Bujalski puts his most insightful and forthright character Ellie (Rachel Clift), the center of a tentative romantic triangle, at the center of the movie as well. The dialogue sounds improvised, thanks to Bujalski’s deftness at capturing that millennial way of talking that manages to be both self-effacingly diffident and disarmingly direct. Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Japanese Dog

The Japanese Dog
has the look of a thoughtful arthouse character study, with its generally still camera, long, deliberately paced takes, and habit of artfully framing characters through doors or windows to make a painterly tableau of quiet, everyday actions. But while classics of this genre, like Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, weight quotidian household routines and family relationships with great meaning and suspense by laying bare the emotional fault lines underlying the status quo, The Japanese Dog never quite cracks the surface.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Farewell Party

A neatly balanced tragicomedy about the easily blurred line between assisted living and assisted death, The Farewell Party follows a group of friends in an Israeli assisted living community as they help each other cope with the ravages of aging, including the agony of slow, painful deaths from the likes of cancer and dementia's rapid diminishment of the self. Scenes like one in which they're stopped for speeding on the way home from a comrade's deathbed inject the kind of relief you might find in a joke shared at a wake. The cocky young traffic cop starts off condescending to Yehezkel (Ze'ev Revach), the "Gramps" at the wheel, but he loses his composure when Yana (Aliza Rosen), the dead man's wife, starts to weep and Yehezkel says it's because of the cost of the ticket. ("We live on Social Security," he says sorrowfully, playing the "old" card deftly). The rest of the group starts to cry, too, triggered by Yana's tears, and the discombobulated cop brusquely announces that he's letting them off.

Monday, May 11, 2015

I'll See You In My Dreams

Explaining why he just bought himself a yacht, Bill (Sam Elliott), the sexy septuagenarian whose arrival at a retirement community creates a stir in Brett Haley's I'll See You in My Dreams, tells Carol (Blythe Danner) that he can't understand people who wedge themselves into a rut after retirement and stay there until they die. Carol simply listens, no longer sure where she stands on the subject. Since her husband died 20 years ago, she's been living just the sort of life Bill is sneering at, so she's well aware that there are far worse ways to pass the time than reading the morning paper by the pool in your L.A. bungalow, playing bridge or golf several times a week with your best friends, or settling into bed with your pet and a glass of wine to watch some TV before falling asleep. On the other hand, a series of small but seismic changes in her life—the death of her dog, a budding friendship with the sensitive young man, Lloyd (Martin Starr), who cleans her pool, and Bill's unexpected interest in her—is altering her longstanding routine and making her wonder if she wants to spend the rest of her life doing essentially the same thing every day.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Go West, Young Man: Talking to Slow West Director John Mclean

One of the best movies at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, Slow West, which opens in New York on May 15, is an accomplished, original Western by first-time feature filmmaker John Mclean (formerly a member of the Beta Band). In it, young Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his guide (Michael Fassbender) strike out to find a young woman named Rose. Shot in New Zealand and written and directed by a Scot, it looks at the American West through what Mclean calls “a European point of view.”

There’s a lot going on in this movie, but one of the main themes is how many different cultures came together to create the United States—from south of the border, from Africa, from all over Europe and more—and how the Native Americans who were here to begin with were shut out of that process. What made you want to focus on that part of our history?
I traveled around America a lot when I was younger, and I met a lot of Americans who said, “Oh, my grandfather was European.” So I decided to write it from a European point of view. Then I started reading up on the story of the West, and it’s a lot more tragic than all these Western movies tell it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tribeca Film Festival 2015: The Wannabe, The Driftless Area and Meadowland

Set in Little Italy, executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, and "inspired by" a true story, The Wannabe is a solid but unexceptional addition to the growing canon of gangster movies whose mobsters are not glamorous, soulful antiheroes, but canny and unprincipled brutes. Not much is known about why the real Thomas and Rosemarie Uva chose to do something as risky and, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid as robbing mafia social clubs in Queens (the Daily News called them Bonnie and Clod). In last year's Rob the Mob, Thomas is portrayed as being angry at the mob for having beaten his father when he was late with his payments on a business loan, but The Wannabe's writer-director, Nick Sandow, shows him as motivated by a childlike obsession with the mafia in general, and John Gotti in particular. Desperate to be accepted into one of the families, this version of the man somehow convinces himself that robbing gangsters as they play cards is a good way to prove that he belongs. But then, thinking isn't exactly his strong suit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tribeca Film Festival 2015: The Cut and Applesauce

The campaign of conscripted labor, systematic rape and murder, death marches, and displacement waged by Turkey against its Armenian citizens at the start of WWI, which resulted in perhaps as many as 1.5 million deaths, is marking its 100th anniversary this week. Yet it remains an extremely tender topic for Armenians, not least because the Turkish government has refused to acknowledge the extent of the calamity, sometimes even prosecuting and jailing Turkish citizens for citing the killings or calling them genocide. As a result, The Cut lived up to its title for me, creating two sets of strong, sometimes dueling reactions. The Armenian in me felt grateful to director Fatih Akın, an ethnic Turk who grew up in Germany, and his co-writer, Mardik Martin (Raging Bull), an Armenian-American, for taking on this charged topic and giving these gruesome facts a rare cinematic airing. But the film lover in me sometimes wished that The Cut, which often has the self-consciously art-directed, undead feel of a Natural History Museum diorama, were less encyclopedic and more irreverent, with more of the messy misbehavior and convincingly complicated characters that give Akin's best films, Head On and Edge of Heaven, a jittery sense of life.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Tribeca Film Festival 2015: The Overnight and Man Up

Executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, Patrick Brice's The Overnight has a lot in common with the brothers' HBO dramedy Togetherness. Both explore the existential angst of being no longer young but not quite middle-aged yet, as experienced by a small cohort of middle- and upper-middle-class white Angelenos. And both create a sometimes cringe-inducing facsimile of the unpredictability of real life by mixing comic awkwardness with genuine tenderness and vulnerability, often in the same moment.