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.