Thursday, September 24, 2015

Interview: Ramin Bahrani

Ramin Bahrani's films marry a strong social consciousness with a sensitive outsider's empathy for people and cultures, especially those that have been marginalized. A fan of the neorealist tradition, the first-generation Iranian-American cast his first three features almost entirely with non-professional actors, often basing the characters largely on the people who played them, but his last two star well-known professional actors in the main roles. His latest, 99 Homes, is an intense American horror story. Like the rest, it's a fictional story with its roots deep in the truth of Bahrani’s extensive research—in this case, on the foreclosure epidemic that's ravaged the U.S. in recent years. The main characters are Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a stony, semi-legit real estate investor who's making a killing in foreclosures in Orlando, and Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father who goes to work for Rick after his contracting work dries up and he's evicted from his own home. I spoke to Bahrani about gun-toting real estate agents, the importance of not blaming his characters for the moral dilemmas they find themselves in, and what he learned from Ernst Lubitsch about how to upend an audience's expectations. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


A sitcom about the magnetic push-pull of messy, sticky familial love, Black-ish includes some of the most thoroughly fleshed-out kids on television. Ironically, those kids are much more comfortable in their skins than the father who’s so worried about molding them. The series centers around volatile marketing exec Andre “Dre” Johnson’s (Anthony Anderson) obsessive attempts—which often involve facing off against his sweetly conciliatory, biracial, raised-by-hippies wife, Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross)—to ensure that his children experience various aspects of being African American in exactly the same way he has.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Gotham Season Two

What's bad for the city of Gotham is good for the viewers of Gotham, as bullied nerds, budding bad girls, and psycho killers who promise to develop into the supervillains of DC's Batman franchise loom into ascendancy. The villains have always provided most of the pathos in this prequel: The show's ostensible main character, future police commissioner Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as a youngish and stubbornly honest cop, feels like a minor character in his own story, while charismatic criminals like Penguin-in-the-making Oswald Copperpot (Robin Lord Taylor) and his former boss turned nemesis Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) dream, scheme, and commit outrageous acts. The villains are surprisingly relatable, a vivid illustration of Jean Renoir's observation that "The real hell of life is everyone has his reasons." Watching Oswald, a cheekily passive-aggressive geek with a suffocating and delusional mother (Carol Kane), dig his way out of trap after trap in season one to triumph over his tormentors and become the unlikely new king of underground Gotham, it was impossible not to root, at least a little, for this resourceful, sardonic outsider.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Prophet's Prey

Another documentary about institutionalized sexual abuse from writer-director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil, An Open Secret), Prophet’s Prey shines a light on secretive sociopath Warren Jeffs, the self-appointed prophet who heads up the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a fast-growing polygamist sect that broke off from the Mormon Church in 1890. The film pays tribute to the dogged investigators who uncovered enough evidence of Jeffs’ serial rape of children—including the many girls who were among his 60-plus wives—to get him convicted in Texas, where he is serving a life sentence plus 20 years, but Prophet’s Prey is no comforting, trial-heavy procedural about a bad guy being brought to justice. Instead, it’s far more unsettling: the story of a criminal despot who, like some Mafia don, rules his fiefdom from behind bars, with the help of a trusted lieutenant, as surely as he did when he was free. In fact, as Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven and one of the film’s main talking heads, explains, Jeffs’ status was only enhanced by his incarceration, which fits perfectly with the paranoid contempt and distrust he has always preached for “gentile” society and its laws.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Sleeping With Other People

Perhaps more than any other type of movie, a romantic comedy depends on the charisma and chemistry of its lead actors. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie may be a little low on chemistry as a couple: They seem more comfortable when their characters in Sleeping With Other People are spooning than when they’re having sex. But individually they’ve got charisma to burn, and they fit snugly into the well-worn rom-com slots writer-director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) has created for them. As Jake, a laid-back ladies’ man whose game is on the cusp of curdling into cynical shtick, Sudeikis fully commits both to Jake’s romance and to his roguishness. One moment he’s reeling off Headland’s raunchy banter with masterful nonchalance; the next, he’s gazing at Brie’s Lainey, the girl he loves too much to make love to, with awestruck tenderness. Playing a self-sabotaging neurotic, Brie is just as versatile. Toggling between the kind of buttoned-down, “adult” serenity she projected as Mad Men’s Trudy and a wide-eyed, nervous energy that makes her seem almost like one of the preschool kids Lainey teaches, she’s believable as a gorgeous man magnet who is, as Jake puts it, so vulnerable that she “might as well be wearing a sign that says ‘Solve my problems with your penis.’ ” But it takes more than a pair of magnetic actors to keep a rom-com’s engine purring.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Meet the Patels

In this picaresque documentary, the lightly comic musings of a likeable, somewhat nerdy Indian-American actor go surprisingly deep, becoming an honest exploration of how a strong ethnic identity can be both a cradle and a trap, especially when it comes to picking a mate. The movie's co-director, co-writer, and subject, Ravi Patel is in the market for a wife after dumping his girlfriend of two years. He's very close to his parents, but he never told them about the girlfriend, certain that they would disapprove of his dating a white American. But at age 29, he's ready to settle down, so he agrees to enter the Indian marriage market.

A Brilliant Young Mind

As autism sheds its stigma and diagnoses keep tumbling out of the closet, stories about people on the spectrum are starting to multiply too, and for every brilliant work of imaginative empathy like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, there are bound to be at least a couple of clayfooted duds like A Brilliant Young Mind. If it weren’t for the considerable talent of its principal actors, there would be nothing noteworthy about this film. Unfortunately, even they can only occasionally breathe life into this pastiche of tired tropes.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Falling

Set in a boarding school, centered around a close friendship between two teenage girls, and featuring an oddly dreamy revolt against adult authority figures, The Falling evokes trippy classics like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Heavenly Creatures. But while cinematographer Agnes Godard's lingering close-ups of emotion-charged faces, evocative shots of trees and water, and quick cuts to disturbing abstract imagery create an intensely emotional, sometimes vertiginous tone that mirrors the girls' inner lives, the script is less assured. It starts out strong, as the watchful, brooding Lydia (Maisie Williams) shadows her adored best friend, Abbie (Florence Pugh), a lively and charismatic beauty. The two have the kind of boundary-dissolving, semi-romantic bond that adolescent girls often have with their besties, but Abbie is starting to move into the world of sex with boys, leaving Lydia feeling angry and abandoned. Then Lydia loses Abbie altogether, in a development as baffling as it is tragic, and Lydia's moodiness and alienation blow up, making her act out in ways that affect the whole school.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

American Ultra

Like history, movies have a way of repeating themselves, first as tragedy, second as farce. A Bourne movie turned just askew enough to be funny, American Ultra trains a bemused eye on a trope ripe for a ribbing. Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), an ur-slacker convenience-store clerk and stoner, is happily stuck in the slow lane, worried about little more than the panic attacks that prevent him from taking his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), to Hawaii—or, for that matter, anywhere other than their small West Virginia town. But, as we learn long before he does, which lets us laugh at his growing befuddlement rather than sharing it, Mike is actually a deactivated CIA operative. Trained as a fighter for a secret program, he's been targeted for extinction by a new boss (Topher Grace as a silky, dead-eyed sociopath) who wants to get rid of all remaining evidence of the now-discontinued program.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Interview: Hupert Sauper

In the resonant, multi-layered documentaries Hubert Sauper has shot in Africa—including his latest, We Come As Friends—people suffering the effects of colonialism, capitalism and corruption are not presented as objects to be pitied or patronized. Instead, prostitutes, street kids, and sad-eyed Ukrainian pilots talk to the camera, laying out both the roots and the specifics of the problems they face, the experts who help us understand what is going on and why. Sauper, who flies into the sometimes precarious situations he films in a small plane he built himself, talked to me by phone earlier this month from his home in Paris.

You opened both Darwin’s Nightmare and this film with plane’s-eye views of Africa, where people are the size of ants—or where you are actually looking down at ants. Does that, for you, typify the perspective most Europeans have of Africa?
You know, that’s a really good question. I’ve asked myself that question and I have no answer. I find things in my films that reoccur and I just watch the film and I see it. But it’s just because my brain works that way; I didn’t necessarily make the connection, you know?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Interview: Jemain Clement

Never taking himself—or the rest of us—too seriously, the brilliant Kiwi multi-hyphenate Jemaine Clement is best known as the touchingly hapless musician he played on Flight of the Conchords and the preening cockatoo in the animated Rio movies. His vivid gallery of painfully self-conscious or unjustifiably self-confident characters includes a socially awkward vampire with roommate issues in What We Do in the Shadows, an even more socially awkward video store clerk in Eagle vs. Shark, and a smarmy self-styled artist and sex guru, Kieran Vollard, in Dinner for Schmucks. Now, in Jim Strauss's likeable, low-key rom-com People Places Things, Clement plays another variation on the well-meaning, shabbily loveable beta male he has so often portrayed—but with a twist. This time, his character is sharp-witted and reasonably good at life, with twin daughters to whom he's a devoted father and an interesting career (he's a graphic novelist and a beloved teacher on that subject at the School of Visual Arts). He even gets the girl—after being humiliatingly dumped by the twins' mother—when one of his students, played by Jessica Williams, sets him up with her mother. We talked to him yesterday at the Crosby Street Hotel, where he was quick to laugh, graciously responsive, and allergic to self-aggrandizement.

 This was your first time doing a straight dramatic role. How did that feel?

Um, I still thought of it as a comedy. Or something somewhere in between.

But your character was more—

More real.

Right. Not so goofy.

Hey, no need to be mean. [laughs] It was good. It was more relaxed, in a way, because it was real, so I didn't have to be intense.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

100 Words on: Heartworn Highways

Shot in the mid-70s, Heartworn Highways is a bittersweet amble down memory lane for lovers of the “outlaw country” movement. Mumblemouthed good ol’ boy Mack McGowan provides a little perspective, explaining that the Grand Ol’ Opry had “gotten a little bit snobbish” and the outlaws got back to the basics. But mostly, the film sidesteps explication—the musicians generally aren’t even identified until the final credits—to deliver a nearly nonstop stream of songs, interspersed with anecdotes and observations, from the likes of Guy Clark (soulful), David Allen Coe (hitting the bad-boy chord a tad too hard) and Townes Van Zandt (sweetly funny and searingly poetic).  

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Call Me Lucky

A workmanlike mix of talking heads and contrast-y old performance video, Call Me Lucky is the story of Barry Crimmins, a standup comic who didn’t suffer fools, the American government, or the Catholic Church gladly. Always seemingly as interested in exposing political lies and corruption as he was in getting laughs, Crimmins went public in the early 90s with his memories of horrific childhood sexual abuse, then began to focus his attention on fellow survivors and on children currently being abused. Around that time, as David Cross observes, he pretty much stopped worrying about being funny and started “just yelling at the audience.”

Monday, August 3, 2015

Shaun the Sheep Movie

The situations may not be as wildly imaginative as they usually are in the Wallace and Gromit films, but this sweetly silly little-sheep-in-the-big-city cartoon has generous lashings of Aardman Animations' trademark warmth, visual inventiveness, and satisfying Claymation tactility. Settings, machines, and props are always finely detailed, down to the texture of a painted wall, while faces and bodies are highly stylized and exaggeratedly expressive. And the fixes the characters get into are endearingly goofy.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Staten Island Summer

Produced by Lorne Michaels, written by Saturday Night Live head writer Colin Jost, and featuring SNL stars new and old (among them Cecily Strong, Fred Armisen, Bobby Moynihan, and Will Forte), this subtlety-free mash-up of American Graffiti, American Pie, and pretty much every other American celebration of—and farewell to—adolescence puts a whole new spin on the phrase "summer camp." Introduced as a collection of stereotypes, the characters never develop enough to become relatable, and the humor is pretty much all on the level of an ice sculpture of a woman on her back with her legs spread, or a crooked cop who brays about the contraband he's peddling in a voice so loud it hurts.