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.

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.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Tallulah












Writer-director Sian Heder's Tallulah has an impressive set of genes on the matriarchal side. Header was a writer and story editor on Orange Is the New Black, and co-stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney play roles much like the ones they so memorably embodied in Juno—Page as a sardonic young woman grappling with unplanned motherhood and Janney as the no-nonsense mother figure who helps her. But Tallulah, a kind of neofeminist Lifetime movie, is high drama writ in black crayon, lacking either Orange Is the New Black's moral complexities or Juno's sweet-and-sour sass.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pootie Tang












Part goofily spoofy turn-of-the-20th-century biopic, part hip-hop Spinal Tap with the absurdist knob up turned to 11, Pootie Tang is not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen. Whether because of the self-described cluelessness that got writer-director Louis C.K. fired while the film was being edited or the voiceover-narrated frame that was then imposed by the studio, this parody of a star vehicle meanders a bit before sputtering to a stop, but it delivers plenty of pleasures along the way.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Infiltrator











A strenuously sold yet inert string of anecdotes from a nonfiction book about a high-stakes undercover DEA operation, Brad Furman's The Infiltrator is all revving engines and no momentum. Interpersonal dynamics that might have helped propel the plot wind up in cul-de-sacs: When suburban dad and DEA undercover agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) gets paired up with scruffy, fast-and-loose Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), their odd-couple friction might be expected to lead to clashes over strategy or execution, but aside from the unstable informant who Emir refuses to cut loose despite Bob's qualms, their differences never seem much more than cosmetic. Similarly, the sexual tension between Bob and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), the inexperienced but savvy agent who's the third participant in the sting operation Bob is heading, plays out more as a Hollywood trope than a lived-in reality, though it's apparently enough of a threat to Bob's wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), to contribute to her decision to temporarily leave her husband.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Neither Heaven Nor Earth











Neither Heaven Nor Earth is screening tomorrow at the French Institute Alliance Fran├žaise 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

Nuts!


















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.

Interview: Penny Lane


















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

Call Her Applebroog









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

Interview: Amy Heckerling









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

100 Words On ... Clueless













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.