Thursday, December 13, 2012

Consuming Spirits

Consuming Spirits is what you might get if Ironweed mated with A Prairie Home Companion and had a movie baby. Set in a Rust Belt Appalachian town and told through hand-made animation, mournful American roots music, and literate but plainspoken narration, it’s a sad story marbled with arch observational humor.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Central Park Five

It’s been a good year for cautionary tales about how easy it is for our criminal justice system to be abused—and abusive. The House I Live In portrays our “war on drugs” as little more than a handy way of sentencing poor and/or black people to economic irrelevance by funneling them into prison. Better This World introduces us to two idealistic young men who came under government observation after protesting a Republican convention and wound up convicted of an act of terrorism cooked up by the FBI informant who testified against them. The gentle subject of If a Tree Falls Bernie, a gentle farce based on a true story, not because they didn’t think he did it but because, for cat’s sake, everybody loves Bernie, and who ever had any use for that mean old Miz Nugent he shot, no doubt for good reason?

But none of these hit as close to home for New Yorkers as The Central Park Five, a documentary about the legal lynching of five teenage boys that followed the rape and near murder of a jogger in northern Central Park in the spring of 1989.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Red Dawn

Like John Milius' 1984 original, from which it never strays far, Dan Bradley’s remake feeds the warrior fantasies of adolescent boys in the waning North American empire with a testosterone-heavy tale of a war much like the ones in Iraq and Vietnam—only with the roles reversed, so we’re the blameless civilians protecting our homes from armed invaders.

A Man Vanishes

When director Shoehei Imamura started this black-and-white docudrama in the mid-1960s, he intended to investigate why tens thousands of people disappeared every year in Japan at the time—and how, as a cop wonders aloud at the start of the film, anyone can slide out of view in such a small, crowded country. But Imamura wound up exploring an even bigger mystery.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


For a few disheartening minutes, grim statistics and drive-by shots of Detroit’s abandoned buildings make this look like another ruin-porn documentary about the stalled-out Motor City. But Burn turns a fresh lens on a subject that already feels a little burned-out, looking at the devastation of Detroit through the eyes of firefighters who put their lives on the line to save it.

Café de Flore

“I like to cut the sound. It gives more punch to what’s coming,” Antoine (Kevin Parent) says of his DJ-ing style in Café de Flore.

He’s clearly speaking here for director/cowriter Jean-Marc Vallée, who constantly cuts from chaos to quiet to give “punch” to what amounts to a story about how a man who has it all gets to keep it guilt-free.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

No was part of the 2012 New York Film Festival

The brilliant Chilean director Pablo Larraín gives us another take (after Tony Manero and Post Mortem) on his country’s dark dance with military dictatorship in this often lighthearted, sometimes inspirational but ultimately unsettling feature.

No covers an extraordinary time in 1988 during which the Pinochet regime was shamed by international pressure into holding an election to produce a show of legitimacy. For 27 days leading up to the election, the state-controlled TV station aired 15 minutes a day of free programming for the government and 15 minutes against it. After 15 years of silencing the opposition with torture, death, or sheer terror, the junta was confident that their supporters would turn out to vote Yes while the No’s would stay home, fearful of retaliation or (rightly) convinced that the vote was fixed. But they didn’t account for the brave No team, led by canny image-shapers straight out of advertising, who stole the election back from them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Mary Elizabeth Winstead is magnetic as Kate in Smashed, a delayed coming-of-age story that never quite gets inside its heroine’s head. An intense beauty who happens to be a lush, Kate remains charming as she sings sloshed karaoke in a bar, drunk-bikes home, or makes out with her equally smashed husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul)—though she can turn feral on a dime, peeing on the floor of a liquor store when the clerk refuses to sell her a bottle after hours. After Kate joins AA, Winstead ratchets down the voltage in an even more interesting way, making Kate still appealing but less explosive, less unpredictable—just less in general, without the fire that alcohol used to light in her.

But the script is as superficial as Winstead’s performance is dense, its on-the-nose dialogue and ticking-things-off-the-list feel making Kate’s story play like a series of anecdotes whose edges have been smoothed off in the telling.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Night Across the Street

Night Across the Street was part of the 2012 New York Film Festival

"It was very autobiographical," said producer François Margolin of Raúl Ruiz's last film, Night Across the Street, after its New York Film Festival press screening. And that, said the producer, was odd, "because Raul was absolutely not a director that made anything that was autobiographical. It's as if he finished his career with his first film." The director of 115 films in just under 50 years, Ruiz was more than just fluent in the language of film: he was a poet of cinema. True to form, Night Across the Street rarely falters, maintaining its surrealistic deadpan as assuredly as it does its golden-brown palette. Yet it often drags, feeling longer at 110 minutes than Mysteries of Lisbon did at 272.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Memories Look at Me

Memories Look at Me was part of the 2012 New York Film Festival

In this quiet meditation on mortality, the healing powers and limitations of family intimacy, and the inexorable passage of time, writer-director-star Song Fang (the hypnotically tranquil filmmaker/nanny of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon) plays a fictionalized version of herself.

Returning home from Beijing to Nanjing, Fang settles into the rhythms of her fit but aging parents’ (played by Fang’s real parents) lives, sharing domestic chores and talking about the past, various relatives, other people they know while fending off well-meaning attempts to diagnose or “fix” her single status.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Here and There

Here and There will play on September 29, October 2 and October 10 as part of the 2012 New York Film Festival.

Here and There is as studiously unself-dramatizing as its subject, whose signature song, which functions as the movie's theme, includes the refrain, "I just want to be humble with real people." A fictionalized biography, it reimagines a slice from the life of Pedro De los Santos Juárez, a 30-ish amateur musician from a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero.

Talking to Steadicam Pioneer Larry McConkey

Stockton, New Jersey resident Larry McConkey is a cinematographer and award-winning Steadicam operator whose credits include contemporary classics like Three Kings, Miller’s Crossing, Kill Bill, The Sopranos, and Goodfellas. (The photo above is of him shooting a scene for Hugo.) McConkey will talk about his work at a meet-the-filmmaker dinner in Lambertville on October 7 to benefit the ACME Screening Room. He talked to me last Saturday from his home in Stockton, after a late night of shooting Boardwalk Empire in New York City.

That long, unbroken shot in Goodfellas where Henry(Ray Liotta) takes Karen (Lorraine Bracco) into the Copacabana through the back door is one of my favorite movie scenes of all time. Is it one of your personal favorites?
Yeah, yeah. I started out really early with using Steadicam in motion pictures, so I was able to help define what it could do.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

As cheeky as its stripped-down, Pink Panther-esque Ennio Morricone score, this 1970 Italian satire starts at the apartment of a beautiful masochist, Augusta (Florinda Bolkan). “How are you going to kill me this time?” she asks her thin-lipped, cold-eyed lover (Gian Maria Volonté). “I’m going to slit your throat,” he says. And so he does, after which he methodically plants damning evidence against himself and then heads back to work—as a high-ranking cop. What the what?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Waiting Room

In this scrupulously realistic and ultimately optimistic documentary, Peter Nicks creates what appears to be a chronicle of a day in the life of an overburdened Oakland emergency room, while actually doing something considerably more complex and ambitious. Cherry-picking his main stories from dozens shot over five months in 2010, he homes in on just how emergency rooms function as primary care practitioners for the vast American army of the uninsured.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Uncle Rafael

LA is home to more Armenians than almost anyplace else in the diaspora, so it was probably inevitable that we’d eventually get a movie about Armenians in Glendale. Too bad it had to be this aggressively bland bit of pablum, which plays like a faux-funny sitcom.

Slathered in clumsy layers of makeup, cowriter/coproducer Vahik Pirhamzei plays the title character, an Armenian variation on the Magical Negro.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Snowman's Land

Skilled at establishing a deadpan look and tone but not always successful at maintaining narrative tension, Snowman’s Land is a pretty good addition to the robust subgenre one imdb listmaker calls “dark comedies with pesky corpses, botched kidnappings, murderous blunders, & accidental deaths.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Beauty is Embarrassing

Director Neil Berkeley’s first feature is as puckish as its subject, so steeped in artist Wayne White’s creative juices that it makes you want to go straight home and start making things. With his bright blue eyes, mountain-man beard, gently sardonic humor, and highly calibrated bullshit meter, White comes off as a funny, charismatic, endlessly inventive character, though he’s also a bit of a curmudgeon. In the words of Matt Groenig, one of several semi-underground art stars who contribute funny, insightful quotes, he’s “A little Zack Galifianakis, a little Snuffy Smith, a little Unabomber.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Girl Model

Most of us think we know a thing or two about the modeling business, regardless of whether our first thoughts are of bulimia or Bulgari. But Girl Model cuts through our preconceptions of the industry, following a painfully young Russian girl and the talent scout who finds her, documenting one round in an endless dance of seduction, betrayal, and emotional and financial abuse.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Side by Side

Where did longtime production manager and novice director Christopher Kenneally get the cojones to turn so many masters of the art of cinema (Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, David Fincher, Ellen Kuras, Vilmos Zsigmond, Walter Murch…) into uninterestingly shot talking heads for his visually prosaic, narratively clayfooted film? Well, thank goodness he did. His frank, sometimes funny, and always knowledgeable subjects say enough interesting things to make this documentary worth seeing—if only just, and probably only for those of us with an unhealthy interest in movies.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Talking to Mike Birbiglia: Why Comedy is the New Punk Rock

Sleepwalk with Me, a first movie by comedian and now writer-director Mike Birbiglia, seems at first to be a string of funny anecdotes about his (or his alter ego’s) early slog as a stand-up comic and this really weird thing he’s had to deal with: a form of sleepwalking that has caused him to do some serious damage to himself while sleeping. But it turns out to be a pretty heartfelt and very likeable story about holding onto a relationship longer than you should because you really, really like each other, even if you aren’t quite in love. I talked to Mike this week at the Crosby Street Hotel, where he was promoting the film, about movies versus other formats, what dreams are really like, and why comedians make great directors.

I have this theory that times of great technological changes make for periods of creativity in filmmaking, because a lot of people start playing with the new toys before things have time to solidify into a rut. And one trend I see coming out of how cheap and easy it is now to shoot and edit something and get it out there, if only on the internet, is that there’s a groundswell of comedians making really good movies and TV shows. I’m thinking Bernie Mac and Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham and Tina Fey and Jon Stewart on TV, and Judd Apatow and the people he’s helped spawn, including Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, in the movies. Do you feel like that’s a trend you’re part of?
Yes, I do. That’s really true what you say about technology. But comedians have always made movies—back to Buster Keaton, Woody Allen.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Disney draws a big fat bullseye on the fast-growing infertile-couple demographic with this airless misfire.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Talking to Spike Lee: We Had the Crystal Ball in Do the Right Thing

Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee’s latest movie, is the most recent entry in what this often great and always interesting director calls his “chronicles of Brooklyn,” which also includes She’s Gotta Have it, Do the Right Thing, Clockers, Crooklyn, and He Got Game. I talked to Spike this week about his new movie and more in his Fort Greene production office.

What they say about journalism, that it’s the first rough draft of history, could also be said of most your films. Plus, you’ve popped up as a sort of an expert witness on black history in other people’s films, like Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, and Brooklyn Boheme.
[laughs] Yeah, I’m trying to cut that down. Can’t talk on every documentary. Can’t do it!

How much of that comes from having a conscious desire to correct the record because so much of black history has been pretty much swept under the rug, and how much is it just that these are the stories you are interested in?
I think artists reflect who they are, their culture. That’s what it is. I mean, Kurosawa, what’s he gonna do? He’s not gonna make a movie about Eskimos. What did Fellini do? Visconti? Satiyajit Ray? Artists tend to do stuff about what they know, who they are, how they grow up, their environment.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Red Hook Summer

The flaws I attributed to little experience and less money in Spike Lee’s often brilliant feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It, have turned out to be hallmarks of this sometimes great but wildly uneven director’s work. Some of them—the wooden acting; the overlong amateurishness of set pieces like that earnest dance segment—are jolting but forgivable lapses in judgment from a filmmaker whose work is generally distinguished by enormous style and life. But the tendency for some of his characters to harangue each other and us has gotten harder to shrug off over the years.

When people in Red Hook Summer go on about the evils of gentrification or the links between poverty and childhood asthma, I get that antsy feeling I got as a child when some humorless teacher lectured the class about something we already knew. I feel bored. I feel patronized. I feel like Spike doesn’t trust me.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My All-Time Top 10 Movies

It’s probably just coincidence, but the most creative periods for the movies seem to occur about every 30 years, usually triggered by some new technology. First came the short burst of experimentation by people like Georges Méliès during the last few years of the 19th century, right after the medium was invented. The latest is the digital revolution that started around the turn of this century, making it possible for almost anyone to make a movie (and enabling a whole new level of intimacy between filmmaker and subject) by eliminating the need for expensive film processing and slashing the cost and size of professional-quality cameras. But my favorite golden age is the one that stretched from the late ‘20s to the early ‘40s in Hollywood. Old pros who’d cut their teeth on countless shorts showed us what could be done with silent film while upstarts like Howard Hawks and the Marx Brothers played with synchronous sound, that shiny new toy, in movies crammed to the brim with fast, funny talk. That probably explains why half of my 10 favorites were made during a 14-year period that ended as WWII began.

The General (1926) Buster Keaton
The world was a much slower place in 1926, and filmmakers tended to draw things out far longer than they do now. But Buster Keaton's pacing, which probably felt breakneck at the time, still holds up four generations after its debut. The General opens with a sweetly funny, narratively economic setup that moves at a deceptively leisurely pace until we know everything we need to understand about our hero and his situation. Then we hurtle into the almost nonstop action of the rest of the film, which Buster co-wrote, co-directed, and co-edited. There's great comic timing in these edits, along with a genius's understanding of his still-new medium.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

We’re all wise to the tricks the media is trying to play on us by now, but that kind of self-awareness was still pretty new when Monty Python started deconstructing every medium they worked in, weaving spoofs of TV or movie conventions into the fabric of almost every scene and transition.

Those spoofs were just part of a grab bag of gags in their first theatrical feature, And Now for Something Completely Different, an often hilarious but jerkily disjunct collection of skits that plays like a longer than usual episode of their TV show, with a few nods to the new medium tossed in here and there. But with their second feature, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Pythons took a great leap forward, creating a jokily self-aware narrative that keeps interrupting itself yet somehow manages to feel seamless.

Friday, July 13, 2012

To Rome with Love

In To Rome with Love, Phyllis (a resplendent Judy Davis, looser than I can remember ever having seen her before), the sardonically supportive wife of Woody Allen’s Jerry, tells her husband he hates being retired “because you equate retirement with death.”

A former music producer, Jerry is different from Allen in several significant ways, starting with the fact that he never achieved the fame Woody has lived with for years—and, judging by the many comic variations on that theme played out in this movie, learned to appreciate without taking it too seriously. But Jerry’s dread of retirement may well be something Woody shares. After all, if the old dog can produce a trick as neat as this one and make it seem so effortless, after close to half a century of making about a movie a year, why on earth would he want to stop?

Friday, July 6, 2012


Collaborator promises at first to be pleasantly loaded with subtext. Slow tracking shots make even luxurious environments look ominous as well cared-for while slightly haggard-looking people move languidly through stylishly spare homes and offices that might have come straight from the pages of Dwell. But it turns out to be merely ponderous, packed full of somber symbols and meta metaphors.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


In this comedy of bad manners, writer/director brothers Mark and Jay Duplass position their zoom-happy handheld camera, as usual, on the thin line between ridiculous and real.

This time, the subject is sibling rivalry. Like Jeff Who Lives at Home, Do-Deca-Pentathlon is set in the brothers’ hometown of New Orleans, centered in a friendly-looking slice of middle-class America full of cozy houses and convenience stores, gas stations and strip malls.

Friday, June 29, 2012


At end of Kumaré, an internal-journey-lite documentary that plays with the question of what constitutes true enlightenment the way a Boy Scout pokes at a campfire with a stick, New Jersey native Vikram Gandhi reveals his true identity to a small but devoted band of followers. For several months now, these people have been looking to Gandhi’s alter ego, Kumaré, for spiritual guidance and emotional sustenance, taking him at face value as the Indian-born, Apu-accented guru he’s been pretending to be. But it’s all been an elaborate ruse, set up to prove Ghandi’s thesis that “Spiritual leaders are a hoax.”

Initially announcing that he’s a skeptic when it comes to religious leaders of any kind, Gandhi seems to be setting us up for a tiresome, Religulous-style screed. His first encounters with middle American spiritual seekers, in his guise as the apparently guileless Kumaré, are generally played for laughs at the expense of the people he encounters, who look absurd as they chant his nonsense mantras or distort their bodies to mimic his made-up yoga poses.

Friday, June 15, 2012


An Alien prequel with almost none of the original’s relentless suspense or scrappy irreverence, Prometheus plays a lot like one of those bloated costume dramas from the ‘50s in which people like Laurence Olivier swanned about in togas, making lots of declamatory speeches.

Granted, it’s considerably better looking than those films ever were. But even the visuals, which usually knock you out in director and art-school grad Ridley Scott’s films even if nothing else is working too well, are often disappointing here. Prometheus is consistently handsome and occasionally gorgeous—especially in the first few minutes, during which a montage of soaring aerial shots makes Earth look both beautiful and forbidding, familiar and yet alien. But it also looks ploddingly predictable, even prefab, at times.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Requiem for Detroit?

Requiem for Detroit? will screen Thursday, June 14 and Sunday, June 17 at Anthology Film Archives's "Sometimes Cities: Urban America Beyond NYC"

As this post on Changing Gears notes, “we seem to hear every week about a new documentary film being made about Detroit”—-and they all tell pretty much the same sad-with-a-dash-of-hope story. Julien Temple’s 2010 addition to the roll call, Requiem for Detroit?, earns a D for originality, but I’d give it a B for presentation.

Salaam Dunk

Salaam Dunk is screening June 16-18 as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Shot in Northern Iraq in 2010, Salaam Dunk follows the women’s basketball team of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, through their second season. A title card (these pop up with annoying frequency in the beginning, but soon thin out) informs us that the team lost every game its first year, but “this season will be different.” But this is no triumphal sport doc about an underdog team coming from behind to sweep a title.

In fact, though we hear a lot about how much several of the players love the sport and how much they’re all improving—none had ever played organized sports of any kind before they joined the team, and some turned up for the first practice in high heels—none of them look very good. As even their sweetly supportive American coach, Ryan, puts it: “This is not U Conn.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

“So what’s your story about?” a government agent asks a reporter as this strenuously wistful rom-com winds to a close. “Oh, the story. I don’t know any more, actually,” the reporter replies. Meta moments like that, which may well have helped Derek Connelly’s screenplay win the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance this year, keep popping up like self-conscious party guests, blurting out things that may sound terribly significant but rarely turn out not to mean much after all.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Dictator

At his best, Sacha Baron Cohen knocks us off balance with blitzkriegs containing nearly every possible kind of joke, from gross-out physical humor to searing political satire. His joyful, often slapstick absurdism and random potshots at pop culture are to comedy what chum is to fishing, luring us close enough to feel the force of his anarchic rejection of both individual and institutionalized cruelty, violence, and prejudice of all kinds. He interacts with real people in his Borat, Brüno, and Ali G incarnations with a tenacity so relentless some read it as cruel, exploiting the kindness of strangers as he gets people to drop their guard, shed the social niceties, and reveal some of the ugly truths we try to bury under pious platitudes.

Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), the leader of the fictional “rogue North African nation” of Wadiya and the title character of The Dictator, at first seems to be a classic Baron Cohen character. His cluelessness exceeded only by his self-confidence, he sports a ridiculous beard, a stiff, pelvis-first strut, and a generic Middle Eastern accent that makes him sound oddly like Adam Sandler doing schtick. But this time around, everything is scripted (by Baron Cohen and Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, who worked with Dictator director and frequent Baron Cohen collaborator Larry Charles on Curb Your Enthusiasm). The screenplay is clever enough, but it’s also airless and a little unfocused.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Metal and Melancholy

Thursday, May 31 at New York City's Spectacle Theater

Flowing like a wide river of pleasure and pain, Metal and Melancholy examines late-20th century Peru through the eyes of Lima cabdrivers. Most had other, often white-collar, jobs before the collapse of the economy forced them to put the family car to work, and many were piecing together a patchwork of part-time jobs to supplement what little they earned behind the wheel when writer-director Heddy Honigmann talked to them in the early ‘90s, yet none waste any time on self-pity or bitterness. Instead, they draw on what appear to be deep reserves of fatalism and tenacity to do what it takes to support themselves and their families.

The documentary starts with a montage of shots of Lima’s streets as seen through the windshields of a series of makeshift cabs, the sound of energetic radio broadcasts, the chaotic clamor of the Lima street, and the rattles and ragged purrs of aged engines introducing us to a world in which nearly everything seems to be held together with duct tape and faith.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dark Shadows

An awkwardly stitched-together collection of mismatched parts, Dark Shadows is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, a vampire love story-slash-family reunion played out as a half-funny spoof.

Portraying another in a long line of chivalrous freaks for director Tim Burton, Johnny Depp is Barnabas Collins, an early-American English immigrant turned vampire. But while Depp’s soulful eyes draw us into the torment of Barnabas’ eternal unlife, everything else pushes us away, telling us not to take his story of lost love and unswerving family loyalty seriously. If the tragic Goth hero of Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s first feature and his first collaboration with Depp, could have strode straight out of the mists of mythology, Barnabas would be more at home in a sitcom, where he would be cast as one of those well-meaning weirdoes who’s calibrated to activate the viewer’s maternal instincts.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

In the blog that provides a cozy canopy of voiceover truisms to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) writes that India is like a powerful wave. Resist and it will mow you down, but go with the flow and it may take you someplace delightful.

That turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for the movie itself. A fable for the AARP generation, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel provides just enough reality to conjure up the age when people’s options start to really narrow (if you thought 30 was scary, this movie implies, just wait until you hit 70), then assures us that we’ll always have more than enough options as long as we’re brave enough to keep trying new things. To make that point, it layers on the clichés so deep in every direction—from the characters and their relationships to the cinematography to the carpe diem aphorisms—that you may be tempted to make a beeline for the shore. But if you can relax into a leisurely dogpaddle, you’ll soon settle comfortably into the cinematic equivalent of a nice warm bath.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Patience (After Sebold)

If it’s hard to adapt an artfully written traditional novel, imagine the challenge facing director Grant Gee (Joy Division) when he tried to make a movie about W.G. Sebald‘s elliptical, near-plotless The Rings of Saturn. A loose anatomy of a pilgrimage billed as a novel, Sebald’s book traces the shadows cast on our fragile, disintegrating world by the Holocaust and other man-made catastrophes. And as if that weren’t already abstract enough, he does it by hopping from one seemingly unrelated concept to the next, like a frog ping-ponging through a pondful of lily pads.

But Lee acquits himself honorably. His Sebaldian pastiche includes passages and images from the book itself, moody black and white footage of some of the places Sebald wrote about, and a slew of insights into his work from a sometimes thrillingly articulate group of his fans, most of them artists or writers themselves.

Where Do We Go Now?

Where Do We Go Now? director Nadine Labaki likes to create a sense of family when she works, collaborating with people she loves and creating an on-set atmosphere that is “very open and free,” as she put it in a Q and A after the opening night screening at Tribeca Film Festival. Her cowriters are close friends of hers, her sister did the makeup for the film, and her husband was the musical director. And her actors in her latest film, as in her first, Caramel, are mostly non-professionals. Labaki keeps things loose and comfortable for her cast during her shoots, aiming for a kind of “organized chaos that allows me to keep them very spontaneous” and leaves plenty of room for improvisation. “The fact that I’m acting with them also allows us to become very close,” she said. “I’m able to create the rhythm of the scene from the inside.”

So it’s not surprising that her socially conscious chick flicks radiate a cosy and welcoming vibe. Caramel, which centered around a Beirut beauty salon, was about female bonding strong enough to transcend macho brutality and homophobia. Where Do We Go Now? tackles the tensions between Christians and Muslims that have been tearing Lebanon apart for decades.

Friday, May 4, 2012


In a nation that gets more homogenized every day, Texas still feels, as its ad slogan says, “like a whole other country.” That’s partly because of a commitment to individualism that runs so deep it almost amounts to a cult of personality, though it’s a cult with many leaders: Texans celebrate just about any personality big enough to step forward and declare itself. It’s also because of the metaphor-studded, pomposity-puncturing, laugh-out-loud richness of the language. A true Texan, like a prototypical Irishman, can turn almost anything into a good story.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


A cocky Norwegian headhunter with a Napoleon complex (“It doesn’t take a PhD to see I’m overcompensating for my height,” he informs us early on) gets caught up in a web of industrial espionage, mistaken identities and murder in this well-paced thriller.

Aksel Hennie, looking like a cross between Steve Buscemi and a young David McCallum, is quirkily charismatic as our flawed hero, Roger Brown, who likes to lecture his clients on how to succeed in business by pretending you’re not really trying. Even his illegal sideline—stealing and selling famous works of art and replacing them with copies so good the owners never know they’ve been ripped off—is all about playing off people’s tendency to focus more on appearance than reality.


Elles played in this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

A loose collection of half-baked ideas that even the great Juliette Binoche’s magnetism can’t pull into a coherent whole, Elles reworks the oft-drawn parallel between housewife and hooker without saying much of interest about either one.


Headshot played in this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

This “Buddhist film noir,” as writer-director Pen-El Ranaruang calls it, is surprisingly slow-moving and soulful for a film full of double-crosses and cold-blooded killing. Zigzagging back and forth in time, it follows cool-guy Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam) from a fairly mindless life of instinct and action to that Zen state Cesar Millan calls “calm submissive.”

Talking Texas with Richard Linklater

In Bernie, Richard Linklater tells the true story (based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth) of a man in a small East Texas town who is so beloved that he almost gets away with murder—literally. I talked to Linklater, who grew up in East Texas himself, while he was in town this week promoting the film he calls “the most purely Texas thing I’ve ever done.”

I lived in Texas for 7 or 8 years, including three different times in Austin, because whenever I had no reason to be anywhere else when I was young, I kept going back there --
Well, of course! Where else to be young and lost but Austin?

Exactly. So anyhow, I love Texas, which is a lot of why I loved this movie.
Yeah. It’s the most purely Texas thing I’ve ever done.

There’s this language Texans use that’s descriptive and inventive and creative and funny, and you really captured that.
This is my mom and her friends. I just sit around and die laughing. I’m like, what a great turn of phrase! No writer could capture this; it’s so perfect! So it was fun, as a filmmaker, to use that in a movie.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Chicken With Plums

Chicken With Plums played in this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

A fable about the damage done when a young couple is forced to part, Chicken with Plums is deeply melancholic, yet so full of humor and humanity that it pulses with life even while tracing the trajectory of a slow suicide.

Close to the beginning of the film and repeated again near the end is a chance encounter between aging violinist Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) and a beautiful woman about his own age. The encounter leaves Nasser-Ali deeply shaken—but then, this is a man who appears to become easily verklempt. (Amalric makes a thoroughly convincing Iranian artiste, with his sadly expressive black eyes and poetic air.)

The Girl

The Girl is playing on April 24 and 28 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

A better but still flawed version of the story told four years ago in Frozen River, The Girl uses the perils of immigrating to this country without papers as a backdrop for a poor white American woman’s bumpy path to enlightenment.

Abbie Cornish projects the same ferocious girl power and impressive range as she did in Bright Star, this time as a ragefully resentful young mother in Texas who blames everyone but herself for having lost custody of her son to the state (he’s living with a foster family.) Over the course of the film, Ashley comes to understand the forces that have made her into a self-pitying, unreliable drunk. Cornish makes that awakening clear without emotional grandstanding, conveying her character’s intense and mostly repressed emotions through small but seismic shifts in expression and posture.

Friday, April 20, 2012

2 Days in New York

2 Days in New York is playing on April 26, 27 and 28 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

A comedy of manners paced like a classic French farce, Julie Delpy's 2 Days in New York keeps the entrances, exits, and misunderstandings rolling while rooting the action in emotions and character traits that are only slightly exaggerated for comic effect. Framed as an origin story about their family told by Marion (Delpy) to the daughter born to her and Mingus (Chris Rock) as the story ends, 2 Days in New York picks up a few years after 2 Days in Paris left off, pulling us back in as easily as an old friend after a years-long absence.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

All In

All In is playing on April 20, 21, 23, 26, and 27 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Daniel Burman's oddly weightless All In revolves around a recently divorced family man who gets another shot at winning the lost love of his youth as they both uneasily enter early middle age. The film's plot goes down more blind alleys than Uriel (Drexler) and Gloria's (Bertuccelli) on-again, off-again relationship: As it ping-pongs with attention deficit from one episode to the next, one can sometimes feel the filmmakers straining to inject a sense of intrigue or emotion or just plain life into the manic busy-ness, like when too much is made of the fact that Gloria's usually impeccably dressed mother goes out in a tracksuit every Monday.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


It took prodigious talent, drive, and creative vision for Bob Marley to turn what amounted to ghetto music from a marginalized nation into a global phenomenon, so it would be lovely to see a documentary about him that approached that level of genius. Martin Scorsese, who was originally scheduled to make this one, is as good a bet as anyone to have pulled that off. But director Kevin MacDonald, who wound up with the project, seemed like a smart fallback. MacDonald’s brilliant 2003 documentary, Touching the Void, wove in painfully realistic reenactments with talking heads and archival images to play like a first-class thriller. So the ploddingly linear parade of talking heads that is his Marley lands with a particularly sodden thud, reducing a life on the frontier of a pulsatingly vital art form to a deadening recital of biographical facts.

Friday, April 13, 2012


Like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, another film whose main character has what appears to be Asperger syndrome, Footnote runs the risk of alienating viewers with a stony-faced hero who has few social graces and a severely limited capacity for empathy. Extremely Loud (over)compensated for that potential handicap by banging on huge chords, like the events of September 11 and a child’s loss of the father who was his emotional lifeline, but Footnote keeps its content as prickly as its protagonist, focusing on the kinds of nit-picky academic differences that seem huge to the people involved and slightly ridiculous to the rest of us.

Yet writer-director Joseph Cedar (Beaufort), an American-born Israeli who seems most at home as a filmmaker when he’s straddling a fault line, does such a good job of surfacing the suppressed emotions driving the resentful, withdrawn Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his well-loved, outgoing son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) that anyone who has ever gotten drawn into a family feud or felt the death-by-a-thousand-cuts sting of rejection by an in-group should be able to relate.