Wednesday, July 15, 2015
A Royal Shakespeare Company veteran who is equally at home in Gandalf’s long, pointy hat, Ian McKellen wears his greatness lightly. When we spoke this week at the Lowell Hotel, he started by raiding the sandwich plate and eating with enthusiasm while interviewing me a bit about how Slant makes money. Exhibiting a skeptical curiosity, a talent for close observation, and a healthy if self-mocking ego, all of which must serve him well as an actor, he was a delightful conversationalist, peppering his remarks with playful gestures and tart or mischievous asides.
McKellen was in town to promote Mr. Holmes, a lovely character study in which he plays an aged Sherlock Holmes who struggles with memory loss and the dimming of that great mind while trying to solve the mystery of his own prickly personality. He also talked about being a grand marshall of last month’s historic gay pride parade here in New York and about the art of finding a character’s DNA through the way that he moves.
So this was just your first time as grand marshal for the New York gay pride parade?
Yeah. I have done it before in San Francisco and Oslo. And next month I’m going to do it in Manchester, for the second time. But this was the first time in New York. This was a biggie. Actually reminded me of San Francisco, which, you can imagine, is a big one.
The Act of Killing, documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, jump-started a national dialogue about an atrocity that had been a toxic secret for decades. Largely unknown in the rest of the world, the killings were actively celebrated in Indonesia, where the perpetrators, who are still in charge of the government, described their gruesome deeds in heroic and triumphant terms. After something more transformational than merely revealing buried truths or eliciting the easy sympathy of moviegoers for victims from a far-off time and place, Oppenheimer sought out perpetrators, not victims, to tell the story of the genocide, inviting them to reenact their crimes for the cameras. It is deeply unsettling to watch mass murderers matter-of-factly act out some of their more horrific deeds, often enlisting terrified locals to reluctantly reenact the tortures, rapes and murder they are still traumatized by. It is even more disturbing to get to know the perpetrators well enough to see ourselves in them.
In The Look of Silence, the second of his films about the genocide, Oppenheimer switches to a victim’s point of view.
Monday, July 13, 2015
One of the best actresses of her generation, Laura Linney has a knack for making cool, even somewhat icy characters seem sympathetic. Her latest is Mrs. Munro, the beleaguered housekeeper to Ian McKellen's Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes. In the film, an elegiac tale about the detective toward the end of his life, Holmes struggles with the steady disintegration of his magnificent memory and tries to put his emotional affairs in order, finding unexpected inspiration in a friendship with Mrs. Munro's precocious son, Roger, played by Milo Parker. Meanwhile, her pained absorption of his high-handed, unintentionally rude treatment helps trigger a primal memory that haunts Holmes for reasons he struggles to understand, giving him one last mystery to solve.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
The 23-minute-long shot that opens 10.000 KM is an unshowy tour-de-force that accomplishes its aim with impressive economy, introducing us to an attractive young couple and setting up their coming separation without ever feeling contrived or expository. It starts with Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) in mid-fuck, capturing the intensity of their physical connection and the teasing ease of their banter as well as the important fact that they’re trying to get pregnant. Then they get out of bed and the camera follows them through their cosy Barcelona apartment as their comfortable morning routine is disrupted by big news: Alex has been offered a year-long photography residency in LA. Initially supportive, then resentful, Sergi sulks while Alex apologizes, tries to justify her desire to have a rewarding career as well as a family, and finally concedes to Sergi’s wishes. By the time he relents, urging her to go, we have a visceral sense of their dynamics.
Monday, June 29, 2015
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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.