Monday, June 27, 2016
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
Sunday, April 17, 2016
There are a lot of surface similarities between The Family Fang and Arrested Development, another tragicomedy about an extravagantly dysfunctional family in which Jason Bateman's character reacts against his parents' high-handed neglect by trying to become a model of emotional health and stability. But where Arrested Development used a light dusting of sorrow to add shading to a gleefully absurdist romp, The Family Fang is an earnest story of redemption with a wacky veneer that doesn't quite fit.
Several characters make significant psychological progress in tonight's season finale of Girls, which begins and ends with Hannah (Lena Dunham) jogging. The first instance is played for laughs, as she plows doggedly up and down her block, in workout clothes that couldn't be less flattering, while her parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari), camped out on her stoop, try to get her to acknowledge them. The second is played straight, with a determined Hannah running toward the camera in the great outfit her mom bought for her reading at the Moth, a creative writing slam. But whether it's presented as comedy or drama, the jogging is another sign that Hannah is learning how to take care of herself.
The first half of Girls' two-part season finale includes several kinds of love: romantic, platonic, and that sparkly feeling somewhere in between that can spring up in the glow of a new friendship, like the one between Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her old classmate and nemesis, Tally (Jenny Slate). It's surprising to see Hannah connect so deeply with a new potential friend, especially someone whose success used to trigger such jealousy in her. Maybe it helps that Hannah hasn't been writing—or doing much else—for so long that she no longer feels as if she's in competition with Tally. As she says, when she accepts her offer to hang out: “I'm not really headed anywhere particular at the moment.”
Then again, maybe being open to Tally is another sign of the emotional maturity Hannah's fitfully tumbling toward. Or maybe she's just open to a new friendship because her old friends have been busy or evasive lately. Whatever the reason, Hannah and Tally do some serious bonding, confiding in one another, dancing to Beyoncé, and getting so high on falling-in-friendship endorphins that they briefly consider making love before dismissing it with a mutual “nah.”
Read the rest on The House Next Door
If it had bigger stars and a less quirk-dependent plot, Rachel Tunnard's Adult Life Skills would be right at home at the multiplex, probably starring someone like Kate Hudson. The romance here is relegated to comically awkward background, sparing us the trope of the hapless heroine whose messy life is all tidied up by the love of a good man, but the rest is dispiritingly predictable. Anna (Jodie Whittaker) is a kind of English Zoe Deschanel, a wide-eyed free spirit who doesn't realize how loveable she is. She lives in a shed in her mother's backyard, which she has crammed full of artsy detritus like pinwheels and homemade tinfoil rocket ships. When she's not working at a community center, she likes to draw a rudimentary face on each of her thumbs and then shoot video of them having a conversation.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Jenny Gage’s All This Panic is a somewhat meandering but engaging documentary about a handful of girls from a private high school in Brooklyn and a couple of their younger sisters. Talking about how girls her age are objectified, Sage says: “People want to see you, but they don’t want to hear what you have to say.” The film is a response to that insidious tendency. Gage and her husband and director of photography, Tom Betterton, appreciate the girls’ beauty, employing magic-hour lighting that bathes them in a soft glow, but the filmmakers are far more interested in the girls’ inner lives.