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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Interview: Ian McKellen











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 Shock of the Familiar: Josh Oppenheimer on The Look of Silence


















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.

Ant-Man













Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is a self-effacing ex-con whose superpower is getting really, really small. But despite that promising premise, this ironic Marvel movie fails to truly subvert the played-out superhero genre.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Interview: Laura Linney











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

10.000 KM













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

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.