Friday, December 19, 2014

Talking to Tim Burton

If style is substance, Tim Burton is a very substantial director indeed. From his first feature, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Burton visually inventive style has done much of the work of gothacizing his humanist narratives, often through comically exaggerated costumes and sets, matter-of-fact dollops of surrealism, and wide-eyed, well-meaning misfit protagonists. Burton's latest, Big Eyes, is about another alienated innocent marooned in a middle America that's nowhere near as calm and comfortable as it's pretending to be. But in many other ways, the film feels strangely un-Burtonesque. Margaret Keane, its main character, painted the lookalike portraits of sad children with enormous eyes that spread like kudzu throughout the U.S. in the 1950s and '60s. But the more popular her work became, the more isolated she felt, forced as she was to keep a secret that had been cooked up by her husband, who wanted the world to think he was the artist behind her "big eyes" paintings. I spoke with Burton last week about what Keane's story has to say about the suburban American dream of the Cold War era and why he opted for a more subdued visual approach in telling her story.

I guess you must like Margaret Keane's paintings, since you own a couple of them.

Well, yeah. But "like" is a funny word. I grew up with them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big Eyes

Director Tim Burton and the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, a tale of extreme weirdness hidden under the manicured surface of two middle-class American lives, were made for each other. There’s even something Burtonesque about the Keane paintings that give the film its title, portraits of children with sad, deadpan faces and eyes so huge and flat that one of the film’s characters compares them to “big stale jellybeans.” After all, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice or Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands as Keane kids in Goth getups. But this “based on true events” tale is a Burton film without much Burton, its costumes, settings and sometimes on-the-nose dialogue all disappointingly straightforward.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best Movies and Performances of 2014

Happy happy, merry merry, and welcome to list time.

First, here's Slant Magazine's 25 Best Films of 2014 list, which was compiled from the lists contributed by about 20 of us regular Slant contributors.

Next, Slant's 20 Best Film Performances of 2014, which I also contributed to.

And here's my personal Top 10 list for 2014, plus 10 runners-up.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Night and Fog, another great film about the Holocaust, warns of the danger in treating the Shoah as a one-time event buried safely in the past, perpetuated by evildoers who were fundamentally different than our presumably humane and civilized selves. “Are their faces really different from our own?” its narrator asks. Ida uses an investigation into the annihilation of a fictional Jewish family in Poland to pose the same question, contemplating the horrible helplessness of the ordinary citizens caught in the maws of the Nazis’ murderous totalitarianism. With minimal dialogue, luminous black and white cinematography and penetrating performances by open-faced Agata Trzebuchowska as the contemplative title character and sharp-faced Agata Kulesza as her gallant but cynical aunt Wanda, Paweł Pawlikowski's quietly devastating film limns one family’s losses with delicate precision.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Color of Time

By submitting nearly everything he creates for public approval, regardless of whether it's substantial enough to hold up to that kind of scrutiny, James Franco does no favors to not-ready-for-prime-time works like The Color of Time. The multihyphenate gathered students he had taught at New York University's film school to write and direct this fictional imagining of the life of poet C.K. Williams, which, despite stellar performances in the main roles, feels nearly weightless and painfully derivative.

Friday, December 5, 2014

100 Words On ... In Bloom

The Georgia of In Bloom, which is set in 1992, is no country for young women. Life is relentlessly bleak for 14-year-old Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria), who are surrounded by joyless, mean-spirited adults, ignored or hectored at home, and harassed after school, Eka by bullies and Natia by a macho suitor who refuses to take no for an answer. But Natia’s incandescent courage, Eka’s quiet self-reliance, and both girls’ fierce loyalty and love for each other keeps a flickering ray of hope alive in this ferociously well-acted story of life in the struggling post-Soviet republic. 

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Concerning Violence

Less a documentary than an illustrated essay, Concerning Violence begins with a mini-lecture by a Columbia University professor on the significance of Frantz Fanon’s classic critique of colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth, which the film sets out to elucidate.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

With its meandering pace and frequent cutaways to plants or animals, Mami Sunada’s documentary about Japan’s Studio Ghibli in some ways mirrors the studio’s animated features. But while there’s greatness in the nonsense and nonsequiturs of soulful films like Spirited Away and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which touch on nearly everything that really matters in human existence, Sunada’s goals seem far more modest. Providing a fan’s-eye view of the studio with an emphasis on director Hayao Miyazaki, she shadows Miyazaki as he goes about his daily routines and films business meetings and press conferences. And, in voiceovers she reads in a girlishly enthusiastic tone of voice, she fills in details about Miyazaki’s long, often complicated relationships with director and cofounder Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, the two other main creative forces behind Studio Ghibli.

Despite the director’s fan-girlish gusto, the documentary is no hagiography. The studio seems cool at first, reminiscent of a tech startup given the calisthenics the staff do every day at their desks and the in-house cat (which Sunada often cuts to) and daycare center. But then an animator says many of her colleagues have been worn down by trying to meet Miyazaki’s demands, losing their motivation and their hope. “If there’s something in you that you want to protect, you may not want to be with him too long,” she says carefully. You sense the chilling effect of Miyazaki’s dark side in the halting precision with which she chooses her words, and in the diffidence nearly everyone but Miyazaki’s young assistant, Sankichi, shows around him. In one telling scene, Miyazaki completes the script to The Wind Rises and Sankichi urges the staff to come celebrate in his studio. A few people tentatively enter, stand around awkwardly for a few moments without saying a word, then sidle back to work.

Meanwhile, a portrait emerges of Miyazaki as an artist who finds creative freedom by adhering strictly to routines. Sunada repeatedly shows him climbing the stairs to his studio, where he works, six days a week, from precisely 11 in the morning to nine at night. Part of every Sunday, his one day off, is spent cleaning up the local river that he and a group of fellow nature lovers took on as a cause years ago. Sunada’s admiring questions and Sankichi’s bubbly enthusiasm bring out a playful looseness in the director, who confesses that even he doesn’t know “what was going on” in Spirited Away, and who talks about the horrors of WWII and the nuclear disasters that helped shape him as a pacifist and a passionate ecologist. He also expresses serious reservations about the future of the planet and the work to which he has devoted his adult life. “How do we know movies are even worthwhile?” he asks. “If you really think about it, is this not just some grand hobby?”

Unfortunately, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is hesitant to show the great work that resulted from that “grand hobby.” Apparently assuming that her viewers are familiar with all of Studio Ghibli’s films, Sunada never includes any clips from the classics she refers to, and only rarely shows bits of The Tale of The Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises, the films Takahata and Miyazaki were completing during the making of this documentary. More than once, music swells and people tear up on screen after they’ve watched climactic scenes of which the audience is shown only snippets. A film about filmmakers should leave one wanting to see the fruits of their labor, so as to better appreciate what makes them so special, but Sunada’s doc becomes talky and static in ways that Studio Ghibli’s work never are.

Written for Slant Magazine

Friday, November 7, 2014

Getting On Season 2

Unlike the American version of The Office, which turned the original BBC show's odious main character into a loveable goofball, Getting On closely follows its British progenitor's lead. The series features cringe-inducingly self-deluded, insensitive characters, focusing on their awkward relationships and borderline incompetent care in a farcical depiction of the frustration, stagnation, and unlikely moments of grace at a hospital geriatric ward. But like the American Office, its take on its characters is ultimately forgiving, a kind of bemused acceptance.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

100 Words On... The Man Who Came to Dinner

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who wrote the play this film was adapted from, set a whole cupboardful of plates spinning in this madcap comedy. Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a razor-tongued metrosexual writer, falls during a visit to a bourgeois Midwestern couple and commandeers their home for the Christmas holidays while he recovers. Holding court in their parlor while his exiled hosts cower upstairs, Sherry receives famous visitors and outré gifts, hatches convoluted plots, and issues outrageous orders with the blithe assurance that they’ll be followed to the letter.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Braddock America

Another portrait of a former manufacturing giant hollowed out by the global economy's race to the bottom of the wage scale, Braddock America revisits depressingly familiar ground for anyone with an even cursory knowledge of the rusting of the Steel Belt. Films on this subject constitute a genre of their own, and this one stays mostly on well-trodden ground, contrasting present-day images of abandoned houses gone to seed, near-empty churches, and dynamited buildings with archival footage of the enormous steel mill that once offered the men of Braddock, Pennsylvania and their families a ladder to the American dream. Braddock America may lack the humor, creativity, and rib-jabbing cheekiness of classics like Roger & Me, but it's also mercifully free of the ruin-porn shots that turn so many contemporary films about struggling cities into self-consciously arty exercises in the romanticization of decay. Its goal is relatively modest: to capture the story of one town as it was experienced by a number of its residents. The stories they tell, usually addressing the camera directly, form an oral history of a golden era for America's working class—especially those who were white and male.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya

A magnificent cherry tree in bloom, the ultimate Japanese symbol for mortality, exudes a striking emotional resonance in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, an adaptation of a Japanese fable by Studio Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata. The soft colors, graceful movements, and clean lines that depict the animated figures and their environments, and the frequent close-ups of beautiful flora and fauna, embody the ineffable beauty of life on Earth that is one of the film's main themes. Meanwhile, the title character's transformation from the giddy, near-perpetual motion of her childhood to the mournful stasis of adolescence is a potent illustration of its feminist critique of what is traditionally supposed to constitute a happy life for a girl.

Monday, October 13, 2014


Citizenfour screened on October 10 and 11 at the New York Film Festival. It opens in theaters on October 24.

Huddled in a Hong Kong hotel room, Edward Snowden and the three journalists he handpicked to release his incendiary evidence about the massive spy networks used by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to gather information on everyone in the United States and millions more abroad discuss how to get their news to the public. Snowden wants to come out publicly as the source of the information, he says, to show the NSA "I'm not going to let you bully me into silence, like you have everyone else." Yet he doesn't want to enable the media to turn away from the damning information he compiled to make him the story, focusing on who he is and why he blew the whistle. In Citizenfour, Laura Poitras shows how Snowden and his print collaborators, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, succeeded in doing just that. As the third of the journalists chosen by Snowden, the one documenting his story on camera as it unfolds, Poitras also teaches by example, providing a privileged insight into Snowden's personality and motivation while keeping the focus on government spying.


Birdman screened on October 11 at the New York Film Festival. 

Like the self-serious director in Sullivan’s Travels, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu has seen the light, but where it took a stint in a chain gang to show Sullivan the pretentiousness of his highminded ideals, Iñárritu just had to hit middle age. In the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening of Birdman, Iñárritu said turning 50 made him do a lot of thinking about how his ego has been a “huge” driving force in his creative life, telling him one minute that he’s great and the next that he’s nothing, in what he described as “a constant bipolar process.” The film that thinking inspired him to make, a lightfooted cautionary tale about the perils of selfishness and ambition, is a welcome change from meretricious bummers like 21 Grams and Babel, which attempted to improve our moral fiber by rubbing our noses in melodramatic misery.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

St. Vincent

From the moment boozy misanthrope Vincent (Bill Murray) agrees to help his new next-door neighbor, struggling single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), by babysitting her bully-magnet son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), St. Vincent's outcome feels preordained. But the rusty familiarity of the premise is consistently enlivened by Vincent's prickly but humane sensibility. A vein of mostly verbal, often mildly sardonic humor imbues the film, even in places where Vincent never goes, like Oliver's classroom, whose kind but firm teacher (Chris O'Dowd) bombards the students with a cascade of bemused one-liners. Meanwhile, the contrast between Vincent's world-weary rebelliousness and the earnest middle-class world around him provides a few nicely gonzo sight gags, as in Maggie finding Oliver diligently pushing a gas mower in tight circles around the patch of dirt where Vincent lies in a plastic chaise longue, his ever-present drink on a nearby table and his old Walkman cranked up to blast '70s rock. "I'm teaching him the value of work," Vincent explains faux-innocently.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner played this weekend at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film theatrically beginning December 19 in New York City.

“When I peruse myself in the glass, I see a gargoyle,” the great English artist J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) tells Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), his kindhearted landlady. Mrs. Booth, from whom Turner rents a room when he visits the seaside town of Margate, deflects his self-criticism, saying she believes him to be a good and sensitive man. In fact, according to writer-director Mike Leigh’s engrossing biopic, they’re both right. A man of artistic genius and enormous feeling, Turner was capable of behaving with great sensitivity. He could also be an unfeeling lout.

100 Words On ... The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga plays October 15-21 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Frequent subtitled voiceovers and title sequences crowd this film with theories, by the likes of Bruno Bettelheim, that sometimes feel underdeveloped. But its main premises—that we seek to overcome fear of the unknown and the darkness within us by imposing order on the chaos of nature, and that our most primal fears are encoded into the traditions and stories we pass down—are evocatively embodied by a mix of impressionistic 16-mm footage of Eastern European life in modern urban and rural settings and archival footage from the likes of the town deserted after the Chernobyl disaster (above), all intercut with the gory Russian fairy tale of the title. The fable is illustrated with sepia and black drawings over which the camera swooshes and pans, magnifying the dread embodied by the forest-dwelling witch.

Written for The L Magazine

Friday, October 3, 2014


Timbuktu played at this  year's New York Film Festival. Cohen Media Group will release the film theatrically early next year.

A haunting warning cry from a great North African director about the jihadi invasion of Mali, Timbuktu is a message the rest of the world can’t afford to ignore.

As he did in Bamako, which was about the World Bank, writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako highlights the harm done by an institution (in this case, the arm of jihadism that is bent on creating an Islamist state) by focusing on its effect on one family. Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle farmer, and his beloved wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) live on the outskirts of Timbuktu, in a peaceful stretch of the desert. They don’t have much—Kidane’s herd consists of just eight cattle, and they go everywhere on foot. But they don’t seem to want for much of anything either, except the peace of mind, and the neighbors, that fled as the jihadists advanced.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Time Out of Mind

Time Out of Mind is playing on October 5 and 9 at the New York Film Festival

Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind wants to boost our awareness of the homeless and make us think about the way that homelessness can erode a person's sense of worth and make him feel invisible. Throughout, we simply walk a few miles in the shoes of George (Richard Gere), a New Yorker who's just lost the last of a series of tenuous perches. The film isn't preachy, but its indie-movie artiness sometimes get in the way of its noble mission, making us think more about the techniques being used than the effects they're meant to create.

Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night is playing October 5 and 6 at the New York Film Festival

“Uplifting” is one of those words, like “unique” or “compelling,” that has been so abused that it has come to mean almost the opposite of what it once did, but it should be dusted off and restored to its dictionary definition for the Dardenne brothers’ movies. In presenting a marginalized character with a complicated moral choice and then watching closely to see what he or she does, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne un-didactically school us in what makes the personal political. And by having their main characters start out feeling alone and then learn that not only are they part of a community but redemption can be found only by joining that community with an open heart, they illustrate the strength that can only be found in unity. As bleak as things sometimes get for the Dardennes’ troubled protagonists, they always make the connections they need to pull through their crises. And because we have seen them earn that grace, step by arduous step, the result is—well, uplifting.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Last Hijack

Last Hijack is playing on October 3 at the New York Film Festival.

A recent wave of films about Somali pirates cleaves to the pattern one culture usually follows when incorporating stories from another into film. The first generation of features dramatizes a phenomenon from the point of view of the culture that produces the films; the second looks at it from the perspective of the culture in which the story is rooted. It usually takes years for that cycle to play out (just think how long it took mainstream American movies to explore race relations from an African-American perspective), but the Somali pirate movies emerging from the West have condensed it into just a couple of years. In 2012 and 2013, A Hijacking, Captain Phillips, Stolen Seas, and The Project adopted the perspective of white people, most of them Europeans and Americans, who were being held hostage by, negotiating with, or trying to outwit pirates. This year's Last Hijack, like another 2014 documentary, Fishing Without Nets, constructs its narrative around one of the pirates, focusing not so much on what he does as on why.


Whiplash played September 28 and 29 at the New York Film Festival.

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher at a prestigious Manhattan music school, is a sociopath with a mission. Obsessed with the story of how drummer Jo Jones supposedly inspired a young Charlie Parker to practice harder by throwing a cymbal at his head after he messed up onstage, Fletcher casts himself in the role of mentor as tormentor, bullying his students ruthlessly in the belief that shaming them into relentless practice is the only way to bring out whatever greatness they may possess. Or so he tells Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a drum student whose hunger to excel has become tied up in a need to win Fletcher’s approval, making him particularly vulnerable to the teacher’s taunts and mind games.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Homeland Season 4

The death of Damian Lewis's Nicolas Brody at the end of the last season left Homeland's creators free to reboot, and its fans free to hope that it would ditch the melodrama—from Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody's doomed love affair to the tiresomely detailed travails of his wife and daughter—that had turned the series into a high-class soap opera. Sure enough, like a le Carré novel once again, Homeland grants what feels like an insider's perspective on espionage and the politics behind it, offering up characters whose often shifting or hidden loyalties make it hard to know who to trust and exploring complicated issues that muddy the morality of the decisions made by Carrie and her colleagues.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Wonders

The Wonders is playing on October 3 and 4 in the New York Film Festival.

Alice Rohrwacher returned to her hometown for The Wonders, an emotionally rich tale about the countryside between Umbria-Lazio and Tuscany and the people who live there. Strong forces, epitomized by an annual TV contest called "Countryside Wonders" that awards people who "represent traditional values," want to turn the region into what amounts to an Etruscan theme park, encouraging farmers to conform to an image of the past as constricting as the campy wigs, gowns, and headdresses worn by the contest's hostess, Milly Cantena (Monica Bellucci). But people like the freethinking family of beekeepers at the center of the story have other ideas.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Misunderstood is playing on September 27 and 29 in the New York Film Festival.

In her directing as in her acting, Asia Argento exudes a wounded intensity that brings to mind a very young child who doesn't know how to get the attention she craves except by acting out. Misunderstood, her third feature as a director, is only slightly dependent on the self-pity that informed her last effort, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but it feels similarly airless. You never question the authenticity of the emotions, but you may get tired of the operatic way in which they're expressed, and of the solipsism that exempts the main character from any attempt to understand others while bemoaning the fact that no one loves or understands her.


Pride is an act of reverse alchemy, turning something beautiful and rare into depressingly ordinary dreck. In 1984, a handful of gay people in London formed a group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), to raise money for striking miners in the Dulais, Wales during Margaret Thatcher's icily anti-labor reign. It was a visionary response to a grave threat—both to the miners and, as an LGSM member noted in a documentary made at the time, all the other unions the Thatcher regime would surely go after if they beat this one—yet the film it has spawned is as formulaically cheery, didactically "uplifting," and fundamentally false as a Disney sports movie, bloated with swelling music, healing hugs and hearty handshakes, suspiciously eloquent impromptu speeches, and tight-lipped expressions of bigotry smacked down by smugly delivered liberal pieties.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My Old Lady

My Old Lady is basically a three-character play without a single character you can believe in. Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a penniless failed novelist and three-time divorcé, arrives in Paris to sell the stately apartment his father has just bequeathed to him. But he can't take possession, he learns, as long as Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), his elderly tenant, is alive, because she sold the apartment to his father under France's viager system, in which a buyer gets a property in exchange for a low down payment and a commitment to pay the seller a monthly fee for the rest of his or her life. Mathias makes an uncomfortable and highly unlikely arrangement with Mathilde, settling into an empty room in the apartment to wait for her to die. When he's not learning about her past or haranguing her about his, he's selling Mathilde's furniture piece by piece behind her back to finance his stay, or trying to find a way to dislodge her and her daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), a tart-tongued woman who takes an instant dislike to him.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Starred Up

Starred Up opens in a dark anteroom where 16-year-old Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is being processed into a prison for adults, a status he earned (the Brits call it being "starred up") due to the violence and the frequency of his crimes. O'Connell plays Eric as a near-feral survivor of abuse and neglect; his movements economical and confident, he carries himself like a cat, quick to react to a threat and prone to bursts of ferocity. Soon after arriving, Eric nearly kills a fellow prisoner who's done him no harm and then battles the guards who try to subdue him, creating a standoff by taking one man's penis in his mouth through his pants and threatening to bite it off. Though this preemptive strike is presumably intended to keep the other prisoners at bay, it has the opposite effect, earning Eric the enmity of powerful alpha dogs like one of the guards who runs the prison and the suave prisoner who unofficially runs Eric's unit and doesn't want some crazy kid causing trouble on his turf.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Are You Here

When TV weatherman Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) asks for his job back after quitting in disgust following years of bad behavior, he’s startled to be welcomed back—and given a promotion. “Jeez, what do you have to do to get fired around here?” he asks.

You might ask the same thing of Matthew Weiner, the writer/director/producer of this rambling, tedious film, which keeps going and going but never gets anywhere. Stumbling from unfunny “comedy,” like an icky, overlong sequence in which Steve kills a chicken, to drama that’s generally either unconvincing or overplayed, Are You Here can’t settle on a tone.

Monday, August 11, 2014


There's a certain kind of fantasy, appealing to teenagers, that involves imagining yourself in a situation harsh enough to justify the alienation and rage flooding your soul. The attraction is the perverse satisfaction of enduring nightmarish scenarios, no matter how high the deck is stacked against you. Coldwater has the feel of one of those fantasies, from its melodramatic mixture of grandiosity and powerlessness to its view of the world as a torture-chamber crucible for an angry young man who has to grow up too fast. So it comes as no surprise that writer-director Vincent Grashaw wrote the film's first draft soon after graduating high school.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

In The Hundred-Foot Journey, the Kadam family—-doe-eyed Hassan (Manish Dayal), a chef who learned all he knows from his mother; his bullheaded father, referred to only as Papa (Om Puri); and Papa's four other children—-leave India when their family restaurant is torched. The fire, a hate crime that incinerates Hassan's mother, is described only as the result of "some election" and quickly dismissed, as there's no place for grief in this upbeat dramedy. Instead, as Hassan tells the family's story to a customs officer, a brisk mix of exposition and flashbacks sets the lightly comic, surface-skimming tone that the film will stick to as the nomadic clan briefly touches down in England, then moves to France.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

100 Words On ... Annie Hall

Annie Hall was supposed to be a murder mystery and a psychological anatomy of Alvy Singer, the first of Woody Allen’s alpha neurotics. But when the footage proved lifeless in the editing room, the filmmakers reworked it radically, focusing on Singer’s relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The result is one of cinema’s great love stories, a funny, tender tribute to one very specific, goofily lovely woman that also speaks to all the loves we’ve ever lost, thanks to a built-in running commentary (including jokes and asides Singer delivers to the camera) on everything from the nature of love to the perils of living too much in your head.

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Master Builder

“I would like to tell you a very strange story—I mean, if you’d be willing to listen to it,” title character Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) says in A Master Builder, a production headed by Shawn (who wrote the screenplay from his own translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play) and his longtime collaborator Andre Gregory (who adapted it for the stage and plays another of the main roles), with the help of Jonathan Demme, who the two recruited to direct. Halvard’s line, which could easily have come from either of the two old friends’ other films, is spoken early enough to feed our hopes that A Master Builder will follow in the nimble footsteps of My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, deftly exploring human nature and the nature of language—both the stories we tell and the things we leave unspoken. Unfortunately, this film is as flatfooted as the others are agile.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Land Ho!

The industrial-strength whine of an unseen engine dominates the opening moments of Land Ho! What could it be? A plane getting about to take off for some exotic place? A chainsaw preparing to rip through something--or someone? Nope, it’s a vacuum cleaner, wielded by Mitch (played by Earl Lynn Nelson, co-director Martha Stephens’ second cousin). Mitch, we soon learn, is a recently retired surgeon who’s cleaning up a bit before his favorite ex-brother-in-law, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) comes over for dinner.

That aural punch line is a nice introduction to this deadpan but lively film, which presents everyday situations and encounters with just enough of a twist to focus our attention on them. And you’ve got to savor the small stuff, as Land Ho! gently reminds us, because those seemingly inconsequential moments make up the warp and the weft of our lives.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014: The Supreme Price

The recent kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram highlighted many of the problems that are corroding civil society in Nigeria, including a brutal and growing disregard for women's rights and a government that is as ineffective at protecting its citizens as it is adept at punishing them. Those are the problems that Hafsat Abiola, the heroine of The Supreme Price, is devoting her life to addressing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

100 Words on ... Elena

An homage to the beloved older sister cowriter-director Petra Costa lost when she was 7 years old, Elena is a detailed anatomy of grief—-and a poetic tribute to life, love, and the transformative power of art. Costa combines family video, photos and testimonials from her sister with new footage of herself and New York, the city where she retraces the contours of Elena’s life and explores its effect on her own. Her entrancing, beautiful footage frequently features blurred images, soft colors, slow pans, slow motion, and scenes involving water, which set the stage for her concluding metaphor for the healing power of time: “Little by little, the pain turns to water, becomes memory.”

Written for The L Magazine

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

Part of the fun of movies like To Catch a Thief and Ocean's Eleven is identifying with famous actors playing thieves, thrilling at their inventiveness and insouciance. But as The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne reminds us, it's more than just lack of nerve or poor bone structure that keeps most of us from a life of heisting. Doris Payne used that Hollywood trope as a template for her life, remaking herself as a glamorous jewel thief. She plays the part well, fooling countless sales clerks over the years and always looking great—even in her mug shots. There's a backstage-pass kind of thrill in learning just how she ripped off so many high-end jewelry stores, but this somewhat hamfisted doc is strongest when exploring the flip side of that fantasy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

We Are the Best!

A humanist with a rare sensitivity to the inner lives of children, Lukas Moodysson is one of the best living directors of young people, and he’s especially good with girls and young women. As he did in Lilya 4-Ever and Together, he gazes at the young people in We Are the Best! eye to eye even when they are all but invisible to those around them, capturing the awkwardness and innocent sincerity of youth without a trace of condescension or sentimentality. But, like all true humanists, he knows that loving human frailty and finding humor in it are not mutually exclusive. Even as we empathize with the protagonists of We Are the Best! we also laugh at them--and the laughter is energizing, because there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. It’s just another way of acknowledging the humanity we share with three teenage girls in 1982 Stockholm.

100 Words on Rock, Rage & Self-Defense

This documentary by first-time filmmakers feels as rough-edged and sometimes unwieldy as Home Alive, the Seattle collective it documents, which initially made decisions only by consensus (“a gigantic pain in the ass,” says one of the founders). It also relies a bit too much on talking heads. But, as those talking heads point out more than once, violence comes in all kinds of forms, and people—-particularly women—-are victimized by it with numbing regularity. So it’s interesting to hear from a handful of women who just said no to the status quo by founding a cooperative that provides affordable and accessible self-defense training.

Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Horses of God

Inspired by five suicide bombings that took place on the same day in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, Nabil Ayouch's Horses of God lets us see how young suicide bombers—-"horses of God," as the man in charge of their mission calls them—-might deserve our pity. When we first meet sensitive Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachid), his charismatic big brother Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid), and his vulnerable friend Nabil (Hamza Souidek), they're more or less raising themselves and each other in Sidi Moumen, a slum just outside Casablanca.

Monday, April 28, 2014

More Than the Rainbow

The photographers featured throughout Dan Wechsler's More than the Rainbow are a pretty scruffy, competitive bunch, sometimes supportive of one another, but often critical too-—and not just of its main subject, New York City street photog Matt Weber. Julio Mitchell, for instance, says he doesn't find most of Cartier-Bresson's moments decisive—-just trivial. "Maybe that's why he's so popular," he sniffs. Their jostling opinions make for some interesting exchanges, as a handful of photographers, plus a few critics and other tastemakers, talk about things like the merits of film versus digital and the importance of finding one's voice. Most people are interviewed one-on-one by the filmmaker, but segments are edited deftly together to make the film feel like a good conversation, moving seamlessly from one topic to the next with the unselfconscious ease of a good dinner party.

The One I Love

The One I Love, which played at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, is a likeable falling-out-of-love story with a clever but somewhat underdeveloped premise. Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are trying to salvage their marriage, though all the talk just seems to be making things worse. Then their therapist (Ted Danson) sends them to an idyllic retreat in Ojai, where the grounds are gorgeous, the weather is sunny, and Sophie and Ethan have a beautiful main house and a guest house all to themselves. At first, the place seems to be rejuvenating their relationship, but they soon realize that all the fun they thought they were having together actually wasn't with one another; it was with two other people who look and act almost exactly like they do, only a little better.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Human Capital

Paolo Virzì's Human Capital, which played at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, gives the tired trope of cutting between overlapping stories a welcome shot of adrenaline, using it not just to compare and contrast tangentially related stories, but to show how people caught up in their private dramas can overlook or misinterpret the people around them—especially those who have less power, whether because of their gender, their class, their age, or some combination of the three.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The German Doctor

"He thought I was a perfect specimen—except for my height," says Lilith (Florencia Bado) in voiceover, describing the reaction of the eponymous character (Alex Brendemühl) when he first encountered her as a beautiful 12-year-old whose stunted growth made her look much younger. The doctor's assessment is a fitting introduction to this film, in which things always feel off balance even as the plot points click all too neatly into place.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Getting Down and Dirty: Q&A with the Director of Manos Sucias

Manos Sucias, which screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is the story of two young men from Buenaventura, an impoverished town on Columbia’s Pacific coast, who pair up to take a fishing boat on a perilous drug run for a ruthless drug lord. I talked to director Josef Kubota Wladyka for The L Magazine about the film and the true stories it was based on.

Every time someone in your movie talks about moving to Bogota, someone else reminds them that there are no black people there. Do Afro-Colombians tend to be pretty invisible in most parts of Colombia? And if so, is that part of what made you want to tell this story?
Yes, definitely. I believe Afro-Latinos in South America in general haven’t been well represented in film, especially in Colombia.

If you travel to Buenaventura, it doesn’t take long to see that it’s a place that’s been sort of forgotten by the government. It’s the richest port city in Colombia—it has the most imports and exports—but the people who live there don’t participate in that economy. It’s under siege by a lot of things, especially narco-trafficking.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Director Alonso Ruiz Palacios is aware enough of his place in Mexican cinema's new wave to include a couple of jarringly meta references in his otherwise fourth-wall-preserving debut film, Güeros, first popping into the frame to ask one of the actors what he thinks of the screenplay and then giving another character a speech about "fucking Mexican movies." But if most of the art films to come out of Mexico over the last couple decades "grab a bunch of beggars," as the character who complains about Mexican cinema goes on to say, to score points about social justice or the disintegration of the social fabric, Güeros follows in the footsteps of movies like Y Tu Mamá También and Duck Season. The film's social commentary unspools quietly in the background while the narrative focuses on the ennui, free-floating anxiety, and inchoate longing for meaning experienced by two or three privileged young people from the middle- to upper-middle classes.

Friday, April 11, 2014

100 Words on... Trouble in Paradise

One of the sleekest, slyest and most sneakily subversive of the many brilliant rom-coms that tumbled out of Hollywood in the ‘30s, this Lubitsch classic is a sinuous cascade of silkily delivered double entendres. Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a match made in paradise, may be thieves, but then so is the patrician board chair of the company whose owner, Mme Colet (Kay Francis), becomes first their target, then Lily’s rival as Gaston falls for the stately but down-to-earth beauty. “If you behave like a gentleman,” Lily promises Gaston, as she leaves him with Mme Colet for the evening, “I’ll break your neck!”

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Unknown Known

At the end of The Unknown Known, director Errol Morris asks his subject, Donald Rumsfeld, why he agreed to be interviewed. But it’s easy to imagine why Rummy bit down on the bait he devours with such evident pleasure, making what he clearly sees as an irrefutable case in his own defense. The more interesting question is: what did Morris hope to achieve in giving him that platform?

Call it the fog of Rumsfeld.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Return to Homs

Talal Derki's Return to Homs is a testament to the power of video to document resistance to corrupt and abusive regimes—in this case, that of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. It's also a witness to the limits of that power.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Who is Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge), the title character of writer-director Joel Potrykus's darkly funny Buzzard? His regular phone calls to his mother and the clumsy lies he tells her about how well he's doing ("I don't ever act like that anymore. I'm happy now. Everyone really likes me") make him sound like a mixed-up kid, while his sardonic contempt for rules seems comically heroic at first: As he searches for new ways to rip off the soul-sucking bank where he temps for $9.50 an hour, Buzzard feels like a downscale variation on Office Space—one whose hero doesn't think big enough to come up with a way to make hundreds of thousands (he just skims off $20 here or $50 there).

This is a study of an interesting character—hard to like, harder to dismiss, and impossible to pigeonhole.