Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New York Film Festival 2016 Interview: Laura Dern

Laura Dern likes to tell the story of how, when she was a teenager, Martin Scorsese complimented her for having already started to build a body of work—a feat, as he pointed out, that directors often accomplish but actors rarely do. Since then, she's built an impressive portfolio of complicated women who experience life deeply. She's probably best known for Jurassic Park's highly competent Ellie, but her most memorable characters are those, like Amy Jellicoe from HBO's Enlightened, whose volcanic inner lives keep spitting up burning lava onto the character herself and anyone who gets close to her.

I spoke to Dern earlier this month about her latest role in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, a quietly bubbling cauldron of subterranean emotion that follows three tangentially related female characters. One of those women is Dern's Laura Wells, a lawyer with a troubled client (played by Jared Harris) whose life goes completely off the rails after he suffers an on-the-job injury his employer won't compensate him for. 

In person as on screen, Dern's warm, expressive voice conveys layers of feeling. She takes her time as she answers questions, her alert attentiveness a form of grace that makes the person across the table from her feel fully engaged with. She talked about, among other things, why she loves playing “difficult” women, what has changed in her personal and professional lives since she turned 40, and how Reichardt helped her overcome the challenge of playing a character whose emotions are hidden even from herself.

I read or watched a lot of your interviews in preparation for this. You always give very thoughtful answers and even seem to enjoy yourself.
That's nice to hear! Thank you. I've never had anyone say that to me. You know, I love movies, and my parents [Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd] love movies, and I was raised with a real love of being able to connect on a love of film. Some of my parents' dearest friends have been journalists and film critics. Sheila Benson at the Los Angeles Times was one of my first godmother-advocate supporters of the choices I was making and of my staying true to loving filmmakers and participating in a vision.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Miss Hokusai

“This life is nothing special, but we're enjoying it,” says O-Ei (voiced by Anne Watanabe), a young woman who apprenticed under her well-known painter father in early-19th-century Japan, at the end of the animated biography Miss Hokusai. That sentiment is probably true of most of us, yet when we're telling stories, we tend to magnify the more sensational bits. Not so with Keiichi Hara's quietly lyrical film, which condenses everyday interactions, memories, and dreams in O-Ei's life into a potent mix of all the major ingredients of a well-lived life, including family love, companionship, humor, sex, work, natural and manmade beauty, and sorrow.

New York Film Festival 2016: The Unknown Girl

The Unknown Girl plays October 12 and 13 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Sundance Selects will open the film theatrically in 2017. 

An excellent doctor, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) pays close attention to her patients, treating them with a respectful warmth that puts them at ease. What’s more, she’s unafraid of standing up to disreputable patients who try to bully her into falsifying medical records so they can shirk work. The same skills that make her a good doctor also make her a gifted amateur detective when an African immigrant who had knocked at her clinic door after hours one night turns up dead the next day.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Interview: Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass

The four-film deal Mark Duplass and his brother, Jay, made last year with Netflix is just one indication of how successful the prolific brothers have been at cranking out and marketing smart, talky, emotionally honest and sneakily funny movies and TV shows, in collaboration with an ever-expanding cohort of equally talented youngish actors and filmmakers. Blue Jay, directed by Alex Lehmann and written by Duplass, is the first of those four movies.

Improvised from a detailed but very short treatment and shot over just seven days, the black-and-white two-hander is about a reunion between two former high school sweethearts, Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson), and the distorting magnetic pull a lost love can exert on a person's life. Throughout the film, Paulson's centered warmth and slightly goofy humor make Jim's enduring infatuation plausible while showcasing a loose-limbed, charming side the actress has never quite unloosed before on screen.

At a Four Seasons restaurant in New York to publicize the film on the day of its theatrical release, the two exhibited the same chemistry they exude in the film, watching each other intently as they spoke, occasionally leaning into one another for a hug and often cracking each other up.

So, Sarah, Blue Jay was your first experience with improv. Do you want to do it again?

Sarah Paulson: Yes! Yes! And I didn't know that I would feel that way when I started.

What did you like about it?

New York Film Festival 2016: Julieta

Julieta played October 7 and 8, and will play again October 16, as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film theatrically beginning December 21. 

Alice Munro, the author of the three stories on which he based his latest film, “inspired me to a different way of telling a story,” said director Pedro Almodóvar at the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening of Julieta, later adding: “I tried to make a drama, not a melodrama, which is my natural inclination.” No kidding. Almodóvar’s attempt to channel Munro may be in keeping with the shift visible in his work since 1999’s All About My Mother, as his female characters become more complex and less cartoonish, their inner lives almost as well-rounded as his pulchritudinous leading ladies’ tightly encased curves. Still, the flamboyant Spanish king of baroque plots and peacock exteriors is one of the last people you might expect to adapt the understated Canadian master’s realistic stories about resolutely ordinary people.

Monday, October 3, 2016

New York Film Festival 2016: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

Steve James displays his usual savvy for picking culturally resonant topics in his latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. This time it's the oddly underreported story of Abacus, the eponymous family-owned Chinatown business, which is the only U.S. bank ever indicted for fraud in connection with the subprime mortgage scandal of the late 2000s. The rest of the film's title comes from journalist Matt Taibbi, who explains that the banks actually responsible for the crisis were all deemed “too big to fail,” so none were prosecuted for their crimes. “Too big to fail translates to small enough to jail, and Abacus is small enough to jail,” he says.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

New York Film Festival 2016: 13th

13th was the Opening Night film of the 54th New York Film Festival. The film is now available to stream on Netflix.

The past couple years have seen a creative outpouring of works, mostly by African Americans, that anatomize the systemic discrimination and violence perpetrated against black people since this country’s inception. These include books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad; TV series like OJ: Made in America and the remake of Roots; and movies like 12 Years a Slave, The Central Park 5, The House I Live In and Ava DuVernay’s majestic Selma. DuVernay’s latest film, the feature-length documentary 13th, is an important addition to that lineup.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


Ever since he debuted with 2004's cultishly adored Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess has been cranking out broad comedies about loveable losers whose ineptitude is magnified to the point of absurdity. As in his other films, the humor in Masterminds often curdles into reverse-snobbish condescension toward its too-dumb-to-live characters. But this one spends more time than its predecessors in a comic sweet spot, thanks to a gifted cast that milks moments of inspired slapstick, goofiness, and pathos from a script whose thin, generic arc seems engineered to encourage improv.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Nos Amours

We first see Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire, in her first starring role) rehearsing the main part in a summer camp play. Though the screenplay doesn’t belabor the point, the play is the story of a young woman who, taught by her embittered elders to mistrust love, abandons her soulmate to live unhappily ever after. That, in a nutshell, is Suzanne’s story and the narrative arc of A Nos Amours, a brilliant work of fatalistic realism that views even its youthful love scenes through a scrim of melancholy. Bonaire is mesmerizing as a strong willed young woman whose instincts are continually undermined by her borderline incestuous father and brother and her neurotically resentful mother.

Friday, September 9, 2016

In Jocelyn Moorhouse's The Dressmaker, the first words we hear from childhood bully magnet turned fashion plate Tilly (Kate Winslet) come after she steps off a bus into her one-horse hometown, lights a cigarette, and coolly surveys the façades on a street that brings to mind the set for a 1950s western. “I'm back, you bastards,” she hisses. After that brashly meta opener, you might expect a smartly constructed Tarantino-style black comedy of retribution, but the film fails to deliver on that promise, devolving instead into a dispiriting tonal mishmash of mean-spirited revenge fantasy, girl-power romantic fantasy, and comedy so broad it tips into caricature.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Meet Me in St. Louis

Judy Garland is at her soft-eyed, honey-voiced, urgently empathic best in this story of an upper-middle-class Smith family in St. Louis in the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. But the film’s greatness comes mainly from its detailed and relatable depiction of the emotional ups and downs of three of the family’s daughters: Rose (Lucille Bremer), a proper beauty on the brink of marriage; the emotionally labile Esther (Garland), who’s nursing an enormous crush on the boy next door; and young Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), a strongwilled tomboy who gives the film its most wrenching scene when she knocks the heads off all her snowmen, heartbroken by the thought of the family leaving their beloved city (Dad’s been offered a promotion that would involve a move to New York). Director Vincent Minnelli dances nimbly on the line between comedy and drama, keeping the camera and the story moving as he cuts from one member of the family to another.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Hollars

In John Krasinski's second feature as a director, no sooner have we met Hollar family matriarch Sally (Margo Martindale), her perpetually verklempt husband, Donald (Richard Jenkins), and Ron (Sharlto Copley), the grown son living in their basement, than Sally collapses and is diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. John (Krasinski), the Hollars' other son, a depressed graphic novelist trying to make it in New York, is summoned home and soon joined by his very pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick). The rest of The Hollars observes the family members as they coalesce around Sally or splinter into smaller groups or pairs to conduct charged conversations about their work lives, their love lives, and their relationships with one another.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hands of Stone

Considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, the Panamanian-born Roberto Duran punched so hard that he earned the nickname Manos de Piedra. The man was known for his iron will, never quitting and almost never losing, yet he infamously blew his hard-won reputation by walking away in the middle of a fight to defend his welterweight title. His story has all the makings of a fascinating film, but Hands of Stone isn't it.

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.