Sunday, December 20, 2015

Interview with Walter Goggins

With a great white shark of a grin and a maniacal laugh that's at once infectious and chilling, it's no wonder that Walton Goggins so often plays shady characters. As Justified's Boyd Crowder, the actor was first seen as a white supremacist bombing black churches in an episode that was meant to be the character's last gasp, but Goggins's performance was so mesmerizing that his death scene was reshot. Crowder made it to the last scene in the series as Deputy Raylan Givens's main antagonist and ally, a complex, charismatic and surprisingly sympathetic man who's at least as much victim as perpetrator.

Goggins is now co-starring in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, an Agatha Christie-esque mystery in the guise of a western, in which a motley collection of shady individuals trapped inside an enclosed space spin stories, spar, and kill one another as the question of who's behind the murders and other mysteries are gradually revealed. Chris Mannix is another of Goggins's antiheroes turned unlikely hero, a vigilante who's just been appointed sheriff of Red Rock, Wyoming, and a proud but defeated Confederate who forms an initially reluctant alliance with a former Union officer—and a black one at that (Samuel L. Jackson's Major Marquis Warren).

When we spoke earlier this month, Goggins was analytical, witty, and sincere as he talked about having come to terms with playing “that guy,” being grateful for the opportunity to play smart, complicated characters for the past few years, and the Zen of discovering a new character.

Thursday, December 17, 2015


Sisters may be too formulaic to pose a challenge to the status quo and too silly to be mistaken for a manifesto, but it’s more than just another party-to-end-all-parties bromance with women in the starring roles. The plot (childishly furious that their parents have sold their childhood home, two 40-ish sisters throw one last wild party, hoping to scotch the deal, and spurring a series of epiphanies) may be as predictable as the sunset, but its strong girl-power vibe and steady thrum of rueful early-middle-aged self-awareness keep it from degenerating into the knee-jerk misogyny and mean-spirited outsider-shaming that often turn this kind of comedy into a cinematic bullying session.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Best Movies of 2015

Here is Slant's list of the top 25 films of the year, which I contributed to.

And here are my picks

Top 10
Mad Max: Fury Road
Coming Home
Son of Saul
We Come as Friends
Salt of the Earth
Diary of a Teenage Girl
45 Years
It Follows

Honorable mentions:
The Look of Silence, Spotlight, Carol, Joy, Of Horses and Men, In Jackson Heights, Madame Phung’s Last Journey, Mustang, What We Do In the Shadows, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Best TV Shows of 2015

Here's Slant's list of the top 25 shows of the year, which I contributed to.

And here are my picks:

Top 10
The Knick
The Americans
Jane the Virgin
Mad Men
You’re the Worst
Master of None

honorable mentions (too much good stuff to stick to just 10):
The Leftovers, Jessica Jones, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Mindy Project, Episodes, Bojack Horseman, Black Jesus, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Silicon Valley, South Park, Veep, Homeland, The Middle, Playing House, Girls, Doll & Em

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Lady in the Van

Maggie Smith carries herself like a countess in this “mostly true story” about a homeless woman in London, while hinting at a deep well of remorse and shards of panic beneath her grand froideur. In a kind of literary bait and switch, however, The Lady in the Van isn't really about the supercilious Miss Shepherd (Smith), but the fastidious, somewhat timid, and reclusive playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), the author of this screenplay, in whose driveway Miss Shepherd parked her van for more than 15 years.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Interview: Christopher Abbott

With roles in Nurse Jackie, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and A Most Violent Year already under his belt, not to mention his most famous part to date, as Marnie's initially lovesick, then over-it boyfriend Charlie on Girls, Christopher Abbott appears to be as talented at picking interesting projects as he is at acting in them. His latest film is writer-director Josh Mond's James White, an astute character study of a young man pushed to his limits, for better and for worse, by the death of his father and the rapid decline of his cancer-stricken mother. In his first starring role, Abbott runs a gauntlet of emotions as the title character, who lives, as his mother warns him, too much on the high or low end of the emotional scale and not enough in the middle. I met up with him this week to talk about the film, which he calls a “personal project” for both Mond and himself. Low-key but engaged, he talked about his work and his interest in what makes people tick with unpretentious sincerity.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

100 Words on ... Moana (with sound)

The measured pace and muted drama of this partly staged 1926 documentary mirror the rhythms of the lives it observes. In a probably somewhat idealized snapshot of an obsolete culture, co-directors (and husband-wife team) Robert and Frances Flaherty structured a loose story around the everyday activities of a few photogenic residents of a small Samoan island town. Depicting some recently abandoned customs and costumes as if they were still in use, the Flahertys and their Samoan collaborators capture in fascinating detail things like snaring a wild hog and creating a garment from a strip of mulberry bark. Dialogue and ambient sound recorded by the Flaherty’s daughter Monica on the island five decades later was seamlessly integrated into the originally silent film in this newly restored version, augmenting the vitality of the unshowily beautiful and enviably well-balanced way of life it depicts. Written for Brooklyn Magazine

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The 33

The saga of the Chilean copper miners trapped when the Mina San José collapsed in 2010 was mesmerizing for the millions who watched it unfold. Not only did all 33 of the men who were working nearly half a mile underground survive there for more than two months, but, in a miracle of sorts, an international team of engineers managed to drill a narrow hole through tons of rock to hit the sweet spot where the men were hidden, without further destabilizing the precarious mine. The machine that hauled the men up to the surface looked endearingly crude, like a man-sized vacuum tube or a clunky Dr. Who time-travel machine, and their reunions with their thrilled loved ones supplied a whole gaggle of blockbuster-worthy happy endings.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words

Stig Björkman's Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words highlights the potent dichotomies—a deep-seated sense of melancholy and an equally strong joie de vivre, watchful shyness and magnetic charisma—that, combined with the Swedish-born Ingrid Bergman's relatively unmediated beauty, made the actress luminescent both on and off screen. It also anatomizes the contradictions—a determination to lead an authentic, earthy life versus a love of Hollywood-style glamour, and a strong nesting instinct contrasted with a compulsion to uproot herself every decade or so—that made her a dearly loved, but mostly absent, presence in her own family life.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

What I want to see ... December 2015


A Royal Night Out

Before: Because if this is half as charming as Roman Holiday, it will be worth seeing. And because Bel Powley, who plays Princess Margaret, was wonderful in Diary of a Teenage Girl, and the rest of the cast looks good too. After: Oh well, so much for that. It's mildly entertaining, if you're in the mood for something light and sweet, but Roman Holiday it ain't.

What I want to see in... November 2015

When people find out that you write about movies, the first thing they want to know is what's playing now or opening soon that's worth seeing. So I often find myself scrolling through a couple of lists I keep in Evernote: one of movies I've seen, the other of upcoming films that look interesting. I create the second list each month when Ed Gonzalez at Slant asks his reviewers which movies they'll want to write about for the month starting six or eight weeks out.

I thought I'd start posting my list of upcoming movies here, as a way of keeping track of the movies I expect--or hope--to like. This month’s list is long, since a lot of good stuff always gets rolled out at this time of year, and it all opens here in NYC.  If I review one of these, or interview someone attached to it, I'll link to my piece from this list when it's published. If I don't write about it, I may add a sentence or two about the movie after I've seen it.

Hope this helps you figure out what you're interested in seeing. Are there other movies you're looking forward to?

In Jackson Heights

Ok, I've seen this now, and I'm glad I did. I wanted more on some of the cultures that make Jackson Heights one of the most multicultural neighborhoods not just in the city but in the nation (where were the Indians and Pakistanis?), but it's very good on Jackson Heights' LGBT history and on what immigrants bring to this country, the price they too often have to pay to get/stay here, and how the real estate investors behind so-called Business Improvement Districts are attempting to gentrify and homogenize this area just as they have other parts of New York. As always, Frederick Wiseman documents things that would have happened without him, and he finds plenty of evidence of a strong neighborhood with a proud history, which a lot of smart activists are fighting to keep affordable and livable for the people who made it what it is.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sand Dollars

With the plaintive ballad that bookends Sand Dollars, bachata singer Ramón Cordero could be speaking for seventy-something Anne (Geraldine Chaplin). She's fallen for a young Dominican girl, Noeli (Yanet Mojica), who makes her living from the gifts and tips she gleans from tourists like Anne, engaging in a less overtly mercenary version of the “girlfriend experience.” As Anne wanders the streets of Las Terrenas, a Dominican seaside resort town, pining for her elusive love, Cordero croons: “I live in grief because I don't see you here.” Meanwhile, Noeli and her boyfriend, Menor (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), suffer the pain of another kind of thwarted love, more often triggered by seeing than by missing one another: Any time they run into each other in their favorite nightclub, Noeli is almost sure to be with one of her meal tickets, around whom the two pretend to be brother and sister.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

100 Words on ... The House of the Devil

Set in the mid-80s, with pitch-perfect clothes, hair and props, The House of the Devil earns its screams with integrity, building slowly to a strobe-lit, blood-slimed, twist-ending final few minutes. Except for those last few minutes and the first shocking event, which happens about halfway through, our growing sense of dread is fed mainly by relatively subtle cues, like a camera that keeps pushing slowly in to pick out a suspicious detail; the creepy voice of Tom Noonan on the phone; or his even creepier behavior in person. Other than that, this is a largely realistic slice of likeable college student Samantha’s (Jocelin Donahue) life, culminating in the night when her loyal best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her far into the country for a babysitting gig Sam doesn’t think she can afford to say no to, though no-bullshit Megan keeps begging her to. Written for Brooklyn Magazine

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is a bad-boy chef trying to make good. You can tell he's bad because of his six-pack abs, movie-star shades, and leather jacket—and because we're forever being told about all the drugs, drinking, and women he used to do. As for the good part, he's clean and sober as the movie opens, determined to take over the kitchen of a fancy hotel restaurant and win his third Michelin star. (I wonder if he'll succeed?) But first he must round up his staff, recruiting a series of flattered and eager young men and one recalcitrant beauty, Helene (Sienna Miller).

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Women are still far from having achieved equal rights almost everywhere in the world, but think how much worse we would be without the right to vote—those of us who have that right, that is. We make up half of the world's population, yet some of us are still denied the vote, and those who have it won it only through great struggle—and, as title cards at the end of Sarah Gavron's Suffragette point out, shockingly recently in many nations.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Interview: Sebastian Silva

Writer-director Sebastián Silva makes smart, funny movies about the messy business of human relationships, putting his characters into complicated situations that often feel both deadly serious and slightly absurd. His films explore the rifts caused by money (or the lack thereof) and social class, from the upper-middle-class urban Chilean family and their quietly rebellious servant in The Maid, to the happily scruffy, arty/intellectual aging parents and their resentful, more materialistic daughter in Old Cats, to the obnoxious American tourists in search of an exotic high and the rural Chileans who tolerate them graciously in Crystal Fairy.

Shot in Silva's apartment in Fort Greene, and featuring his own furnishings and cat, his latest, Nasty Baby, concerns a happy couple, Freddy (Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe), trying to have a baby with their close friend, Polly (Kristen Wiig). For much of the film, their main problem seems to be Polly's inability to conceive. Then a running battle Freddy wages with The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), a mentally unstable neighbor, escalates into a shocking third-act showdown, and a charming comedy of manners—albeit an unusually perceptive and realistic one—warps into a deeply unsettling morality tale.

On the eve of Nasty Baby's release, I spoke to a warm, seemingly unguarded Silva about how he manipulates his audience, what makes Wiig's sense of humor so special, and why it's hard to kill a hipster. Read the interview in Slant Magazine

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead played in this year's New York Film Festival.

Like the unruly spawn of The End of the Tour and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Miles Ahead is a fictionalized biography of a real artist that pairs its subject with a journalist turned sidekick of sorts. Unlike The End of the Tour's logorrheic David Foster Wallace, Miles Ahead's Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) is tight-lipped and enigmatic, too cool to ever spill his guts—except maybe literally, in one of the comically inept gunfights he keeps getting into. Instead of talking to Rolling Stone freelancer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), he makes him his wingman on a series of quixotic quests, pursuing a tape of the only music he's recorded during a long fallow period; the $20,000 he says his thuggish producer, Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg), owes him; and the mounds of cocaine that fuel his erratic, often violent, possibly paranoid behavior.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Like the novel on which its screenplay is based, Lenny Abrahamson's Room is a fictional high-wire act. Filtered through the viewpoint of an intelligent five-year-old boy, a story that might easily have been sensationalized or made saccharine—the imprisonment of a kidnapped, sexually enslaved young woman and the son she bore and is raising in captivity—becomes a tough but tender tribute to the creative power of maternal love.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Brooklyn played in this year's New York Film Festival.

A sentiment-rich, resolutely life-sized portrait of a relatively unexceptional young woman, director John Crowley's Brooklyn, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, concerns the random twists and turns that can determine the course of an ordinary life. It's also a timely reminder of the fact that a life is shifted off its axis whenever someone is forced to emigrate to a foreign country.

The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man played in this year's New York Film Festival. 

Like last year’s Two Days, One Night, The Measure of a Man is a triumph of realistic cinema, and a dirge for a blue-collar European worker left stranded after a once-solid job has melted away. Co-writer/director Stéphane Brizé often thrusts us into situations without any prior exposition, then gives the scene plenty of room to unspool as we figure out what’s going on and soak in the atmosphere and emotions. He starts the film in the midst of an intense session between a frustrated Thierry (Vincent Lindon) and an apologetic job counselor. Thierry, we learn, is running out of both money and employment options after being out of work for more than a year, and he has just found out that he wasted months on training that the counselor now admits was useless.

Monday, October 5, 2015


Based on a true story, writer-director Afia Nathaniel's Dukhtar is an unsentimental tribute to the transformative power of maternal love. A tribal leader in the northern reaches of Pakistan agrees to marry his 10-year-old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref), to Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), the middle-aged head of a neighboring tribe, in order to settle a feud. Zainab is far too innocent to comprehend what's in store, but her mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), knows what kind of wall her vivacious daughter is about to crash into, since her own marriage at age 15 was, she says, when “my story ended.”

Friday, October 2, 2015

Don't Blink: Robert Frank

Don't Blink: Robert Frank played in this year's New York Film Festival.

What Robert Frank's The Americans did for the nation, presenting the post-war United States with an X-ray of its soul, the free-form, intensely personal films he started making a few years later did for New York City. Watching a charismatic character in one of those movies in Don't Blink: Robert Frank, the photographer-filmmaker says, “I don't know people like them anymore.” Maybe not, but he seems to have known just about every artist who passed through mid-century New York, and he distilled the rebelliously ragged genius of people like a young Allen Ginsberg and a skeletal William Burroughs in films like Pull My Daisy and One Hour. As a result, Laura Israel's documentary is a portrait not just of the Swiss-born artist, but of his adopted city, especially during the Beat era that was his heyday.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Interview: Ramin Bahrani

Ramin Bahrani's films marry a strong social consciousness with a sensitive outsider's empathy for people and cultures, especially those that have been marginalized. A fan of the neorealist tradition, the first-generation Iranian-American cast his first three features almost entirely with non-professional actors, often basing the characters largely on the people who played them, but his last two star well-known professional actors in the main roles. His latest, 99 Homes, is an intense American horror story. Like the rest, it's a fictional story with its roots deep in the truth of Bahrani’s extensive research—in this case, on the foreclosure epidemic that's ravaged the U.S. in recent years. The main characters are Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a stony, semi-legit real estate investor who's making a killing in foreclosures in Orlando, and Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father who goes to work for Rick after his contracting work dries up and he's evicted from his own home. I spoke to Bahrani about gun-toting real estate agents, the importance of not blaming his characters for the moral dilemmas they find themselves in, and what he learned from Ernst Lubitsch about how to upend an audience's expectations.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


A sitcom about the magnetic push-pull of messy, sticky familial love, Black-ish includes some of the most thoroughly fleshed-out kids on television. Ironically, those kids are much more comfortable in their skins than the father who’s so worried about molding them. The series centers around volatile marketing exec Andre “Dre” Johnson’s (Anthony Anderson) obsessive attempts—which often involve facing off against his sweetly conciliatory, biracial, raised-by-hippies wife, Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross)—to ensure that his children experience various aspects of being African American in exactly the same way he has.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Gotham Season Two

What's bad for the city of Gotham is good for the viewers of Gotham, as bullied nerds, budding bad girls, and psycho killers who promise to develop into the supervillains of DC's Batman franchise loom into ascendancy. The villains have always provided most of the pathos in this prequel: The show's ostensible main character, future police commissioner Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as a youngish and stubbornly honest cop, feels like a minor character in his own story, while charismatic criminals like Penguin-in-the-making Oswald Copperpot (Robin Lord Taylor) and his former boss turned nemesis Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) dream, scheme, and commit outrageous acts. The villains are surprisingly relatable, a vivid illustration of Jean Renoir's observation that "The real hell of life is everyone has his reasons." Watching Oswald, a cheekily passive-aggressive geek with a suffocating and delusional mother (Carol Kane), dig his way out of trap after trap in season one to triumph over his tormentors and become the unlikely new king of underground Gotham, it was impossible not to root, at least a little, for this resourceful, sardonic outsider.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Prophet's Prey

Another documentary about institutionalized sexual abuse from writer-director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil, An Open Secret), Prophet’s Prey shines a light on secretive sociopath Warren Jeffs, the self-appointed prophet who heads up the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a fast-growing polygamist sect that broke off from the Mormon Church in 1890. The film pays tribute to the dogged investigators who uncovered enough evidence of Jeffs’ serial rape of children—including the many girls who were among his 60-plus wives—to get him convicted in Texas, where he is serving a life sentence plus 20 years, but Prophet’s Prey is no comforting, trial-heavy procedural about a bad guy being brought to justice. Instead, it’s far more unsettling: the story of a criminal despot who, like some Mafia don, rules his fiefdom from behind bars, with the help of a trusted lieutenant, as surely as he did when he was free. In fact, as Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven and one of the film’s main talking heads, explains, Jeffs’ status was only enhanced by his incarceration, which fits perfectly with the paranoid contempt and distrust he has always preached for “gentile” society and its laws.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Sleeping With Other People

Perhaps more than any other type of movie, a romantic comedy depends on the charisma and chemistry of its lead actors. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie may be a little low on chemistry as a couple: They seem more comfortable when their characters in Sleeping With Other People are spooning than when they’re having sex. But individually they’ve got charisma to burn, and they fit snugly into the well-worn rom-com slots writer-director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) has created for them. As Jake, a laid-back ladies’ man whose game is on the cusp of curdling into cynical shtick, Sudeikis fully commits both to Jake’s romance and to his roguishness. One moment he’s reeling off Headland’s raunchy banter with masterful nonchalance; the next, he’s gazing at Brie’s Lainey, the girl he loves too much to make love to, with awestruck tenderness. Playing a self-sabotaging neurotic, Brie is just as versatile. Toggling between the kind of buttoned-down, “adult” serenity she projected as Mad Men’s Trudy and a wide-eyed, nervous energy that makes her seem almost like one of the preschool kids Lainey teaches, she’s believable as a gorgeous man magnet who is, as Jake puts it, so vulnerable that she “might as well be wearing a sign that says ‘Solve my problems with your penis.’ ” But it takes more than a pair of magnetic actors to keep a rom-com’s engine purring.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Meet the Patels

In this picaresque documentary, the lightly comic musings of a likeable, somewhat nerdy Indian-American actor go surprisingly deep, becoming an honest exploration of how a strong ethnic identity can be both a cradle and a trap, especially when it comes to picking a mate. The movie's co-director, co-writer, and subject, Ravi Patel is in the market for a wife after dumping his girlfriend of two years. He's very close to his parents, but he never told them about the girlfriend, certain that they would disapprove of his dating a white American. But at age 29, he's ready to settle down, so he agrees to enter the Indian marriage market.

A Brilliant Young Mind

As autism sheds its stigma and diagnoses keep tumbling out of the closet, stories about people on the spectrum are starting to multiply too, and for every brilliant work of imaginative empathy like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, there are bound to be at least a couple of clayfooted duds like A Brilliant Young Mind. If it weren’t for the considerable talent of its principal actors, there would be nothing noteworthy about this film. Unfortunately, even they can only occasionally breathe life into this pastiche of tired tropes.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Falling

Set in a boarding school, centered around a close friendship between two teenage girls, and featuring an oddly dreamy revolt against adult authority figures, The Falling evokes trippy classics like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Heavenly Creatures. But while cinematographer Agnes Godard's lingering close-ups of emotion-charged faces, evocative shots of trees and water, and quick cuts to disturbing abstract imagery create an intensely emotional, sometimes vertiginous tone that mirrors the girls' inner lives, the script is less assured. It starts out strong, as the watchful, brooding Lydia (Maisie Williams) shadows her adored best friend, Abbie (Florence Pugh), a lively and charismatic beauty. The two have the kind of boundary-dissolving, semi-romantic bond that adolescent girls often have with their besties, but Abbie is starting to move into the world of sex with boys, leaving Lydia feeling angry and abandoned. Then Lydia loses Abbie altogether, in a development as baffling as it is tragic, and Lydia's moodiness and alienation blow up, making her act out in ways that affect the whole school.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

American Ultra

Like history, movies have a way of repeating themselves, first as tragedy, second as farce. A Bourne movie turned just askew enough to be funny, American Ultra trains a bemused eye on a trope ripe for a ribbing. Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), an ur-slacker convenience-store clerk and stoner, is happily stuck in the slow lane, worried about little more than the panic attacks that prevent him from taking his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), to Hawaii—or, for that matter, anywhere other than their small West Virginia town. But, as we learn long before he does, which lets us laugh at his growing befuddlement rather than sharing it, Mike is actually a deactivated CIA operative. Trained as a fighter for a secret program, he's been targeted for extinction by a new boss (Topher Grace as a silky, dead-eyed sociopath) who wants to get rid of all remaining evidence of the now-discontinued program.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Interview: Hupert Sauper

In the resonant, multi-layered documentaries Hubert Sauper has shot in Africa—including his latest, We Come As Friends—people suffering the effects of colonialism, capitalism and corruption are not presented as objects to be pitied or patronized. Instead, prostitutes, street kids, and sad-eyed Ukrainian pilots talk to the camera, laying out both the roots and the specifics of the problems they face, the experts who help us understand what is going on and why. Sauper, who flies into the sometimes precarious situations he films in a small plane he built himself, talked to me by phone earlier this month from his home in Paris.

You opened both Darwin’s Nightmare and this film with plane’s-eye views of Africa, where people are the size of ants—or where you are actually looking down at ants. Does that, for you, typify the perspective most Europeans have of Africa?
You know, that’s a really good question. I’ve asked myself that question and I have no answer. I find things in my films that reoccur and I just watch the film and I see it. But it’s just because my brain works that way; I didn’t necessarily make the connection, you know?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Interview: Jemain Clement

Never taking himself—or the rest of us—too seriously, the brilliant Kiwi multi-hyphenate Jemaine Clement is best known as the touchingly hapless musician he played on Flight of the Conchords and the preening cockatoo in the animated Rio movies. His vivid gallery of painfully self-conscious or unjustifiably self-confident characters includes a socially awkward vampire with roommate issues in What We Do in the Shadows, an even more socially awkward video store clerk in Eagle vs. Shark, and a smarmy self-styled artist and sex guru, Kieran Vollard, in Dinner for Schmucks. Now, in Jim Strauss's likeable, low-key rom-com People Places Things, Clement plays another variation on the well-meaning, shabbily loveable beta male he has so often portrayed—but with a twist. This time, his character is sharp-witted and reasonably good at life, with twin daughters to whom he's a devoted father and an interesting career (he's a graphic novelist and a beloved teacher on that subject at the School of Visual Arts). He even gets the girl—after being humiliatingly dumped by the twins' mother—when one of his students, played by Jessica Williams, sets him up with her mother. We talked to him yesterday at the Crosby Street Hotel, where he was quick to laugh, graciously responsive, and allergic to self-aggrandizement.

 This was your first time doing a straight dramatic role. How did that feel?

Um, I still thought of it as a comedy. Or something somewhere in between.

But your character was more—

More real.

Right. Not so goofy.

Hey, no need to be mean. [laughs] It was good. It was more relaxed, in a way, because it was real, so I didn't have to be intense.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

100 Words on ... Heartworn Highways

Shot in the mid-70s, Heartworn Highways is a bittersweet amble down memory lane for lovers of the “outlaw country” movement. Mumblemouthed good ol’ boy Mack McGowan provides a little perspective, explaining that the Grand Ol’ Opry had “gotten a little bit snobbish” and the outlaws got back to the basics. But mostly, the film sidesteps explication—the musicians generally aren’t even identified until the final credits—to deliver a nearly nonstop stream of songs, interspersed with anecdotes and observations, from the likes of Guy Clark (soulful), David Allen Coe (hitting the bad-boy chord a tad too hard) and Townes Van Zandt (sweetly funny and searingly poetic).  

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Call Me Lucky

A workmanlike mix of talking heads and contrast-y old performance video, Call Me Lucky is the story of Barry Crimmins, a standup comic who didn’t suffer fools, the American government, or the Catholic Church gladly. Always seemingly as interested in exposing political lies and corruption as he was in getting laughs, Crimmins went public in the early 90s with his memories of horrific childhood sexual abuse, then began to focus his attention on fellow survivors and on children currently being abused. Around that time, as David Cross observes, he pretty much stopped worrying about being funny and started “just yelling at the audience.”

Monday, August 3, 2015

Shaun the Sheep Movie

The situations may not be as wildly imaginative as they usually are in the Wallace and Gromit films, but this sweetly silly little-sheep-in-the-big-city cartoon has generous lashings of Aardman Animations' trademark warmth, visual inventiveness, and satisfying Claymation tactility. Settings, machines, and props are always finely detailed, down to the texture of a painted wall, while faces and bodies are highly stylized and exaggeratedly expressive. And the fixes the characters get into are endearingly goofy.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Staten Island Summer

Produced by Lorne Michaels, written by Saturday Night Live head writer Colin Jost, and featuring SNL stars new and old (among them Cecily Strong, Fred Armisen, Bobby Moynihan, and Will Forte), this subtlety-free mash-up of American Graffiti, American Pie, and pretty much every other American celebration of—and farewell to—adolescence puts a whole new spin on the phrase "summer camp." Introduced as a collection of stereotypes, the characters never develop enough to become relatable, and the humor is pretty much all on the level of an ice sculpture of a woman on her back with her legs spread, or a crooked cop who brays about the contraband he's peddling in a voice so loud it hurts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Interview: Ian McKellen

A Royal Shakespeare Company veteran who is equally at home in Gandalf’s long, pointy hat, Ian McKellen wears his greatness lightly. When we spoke this week at the Lowell Hotel, he started by raiding the sandwich plate and eating with enthusiasm while interviewing me a bit about how Slant makes money. Exhibiting a skeptical curiosity, a talent for close observation, and a healthy if self-mocking ego, all of which must serve him well as an actor, he was a delightful conversationalist, peppering his remarks with playful gestures and tart or mischievous asides.

McKellen was in town to promote Mr. Holmes, a lovely character study in which he plays an aged Sherlock Holmes who struggles with memory loss and the dimming of that great mind while trying to solve the mystery of his own prickly personality. He also talked about being a grand marshall of last month’s historic gay pride parade here in New York and about the art of finding a character’s DNA through the way that he moves.

So this was just your first time as grand marshal for the New York gay pride parade?
Yeah. I have done it before in San Francisco and Oslo. And next month I’m going to do it in Manchester, for the second time. But this was the first time in New York. This was a biggie. Actually reminded me of San Francisco, which, you can imagine, is a big one.

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

The Act of Killing, documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, jump-started a national dialogue about an atrocity that had been a toxic secret for decades. Largely unknown in the rest of the world, the killings were actively celebrated in Indonesia, where the perpetrators, who are still in charge of the government, described their gruesome deeds in heroic and triumphant terms.  After something more transformational than merely revealing buried truths or eliciting the easy sympathy of moviegoers for victims from a far-off time and place, Oppenheimer sought out perpetrators, not victims, to tell the story of the genocide, inviting them to reenact their crimes for the cameras. It is deeply unsettling to watch mass murderers matter-of-factly act out some of their more horrific deeds, often enlisting terrified locals to reluctantly reenact the tortures, rapes and murder they are still traumatized by.  It is even more disturbing to get to know the perpetrators well enough to see ourselves in them.

In The Look of Silence, the second of his films about the genocide, Oppenheimer switches to a victim’s point of view.


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

Monday, July 13, 2015

Interview: Laura Linney

One of the best actresses of her generation, Laura Linney has a knack for making cool, even somewhat icy characters seem sympathetic. Her latest is Mrs. Munro, the beleaguered housekeeper to Ian McKellen's Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes. In the film, an elegiac tale about the detective toward the end of his life, Holmes struggles with the steady disintegration of his magnificent memory and tries to put his emotional affairs in order, finding unexpected inspiration in a friendship with Mrs. Munro's precocious son, Roger, played by Milo Parker. Meanwhile, her pained absorption of his high-handed, unintentionally rude treatment helps trigger a primal memory that haunts Holmes for reasons he struggles to understand, giving him one last mystery to solve.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

10.000 KM

The 23-minute-long shot that opens 10.000 KM is an unshowy tour-de-force that accomplishes its aim with impressive economy, introducing us to an attractive young couple and setting up their coming separation without ever feeling contrived or expository. It starts with Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) in mid-fuck, capturing the intensity of their physical connection and the teasing ease of their banter as well as the important fact that they’re trying to get pregnant. Then they get out of bed and the camera follows them through their cosy Barcelona apartment as their comfortable morning routine is disrupted by big news: Alex has been offered a year-long photography residency in LA. Initially supportive, then resentful, Sergi sulks while Alex apologizes, tries to justify her desire to have a rewarding career as well as a family, and finally concedes to Sergi’s wishes. By the time he relents, urging her to go, we have a visceral sense of their dynamics.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Stray Dog

"I was put in a leadership position when I was far way too young to be in a leadership position. I made decisions that haunt my ass and always will," says Ron Hall of the time he served in Vietnam in Debra Granik's Stray Dog. Hall may be right, but it's easy to imagine why his commanding officers made him a leader. A tattooed mountain of a man who exudes empathy, honesty, and strength, he has shoulders broad enough for nearly everyone he comes across to lean on.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Batkid Begins

On November 15, 2013, the Make-A-Wish Foundation turned parts of San Francisco into Gotham City so five-year-old leukemia survivor Miles Scott could live out his fantasy of being Batman. Since Miles was too young to save the city on his own, acrobat and former stuntman Eric Johnson volunteered to play Batman, leading his mini-me to each of the foundation’s three staged scenarios, then gently guiding the boy through his part of the action. Dana Nachman’s documentary anatomizes the extensive planning and social-media heat lightning that turned the day into a global phenomenon, after a Facebook plea for volunteers to play grateful Gothamites went viral.

It’s a promising premise for a movie: no wonder Julia Roberts is developing a feature version of the story. We’re hard-wired to root for the title character, a round-cheeked little farm boy who had battled leukemia for years by the time he entered first grade, as we learn in an opening sequence that tells his story in comic-book form, in what turns out to be a rare flash of visual creativity. The live-action Miles we see in footage taken before, during and after the event also has scene-stealing moments, especially after he dons his costume and channels his hero, walking “like he weighs 200 pounds,” as one of his parents puts it. But as the story of his big day unfolds, any hope of meaningful reflection or insight is doused by a steady drip of often redundant and banal observations, mostly about the unprecedented size or cooperative spirit of the crowd that showed up to cheer him on.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Even fans of Nina Simone will likely learn some new things about her in What Happened, Miss Simone?, and those who had never heard her name will have a hard time forgetting it after seeing this slow-burning documentary.

As honest as its subject, the film captures the ferocious talent and charisma that was the subject of Simone’s husband and manager Andy Stroud’s documentary, Nina Simone Great Performances: College Concerts and Interviews. But, unlike Stroud’s film, this one also explores the dark side of Simone’s story. The bipolar disease with which she was diagnosed late in life no doubt accounts for some of the violence and paranoia that caused her to become a bitter and angry recluse, but director Liz Garbus also surfaces the role played by racism. Trained from early childhood as a classical pianist when black people were unheard of in that field, Simone grew up a social outcast, out of place among both blacks and whites. Then the career for which she had sacrificed so much rejected her and she was forced to sing and play popular music, a form she considered inferior.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

100 Words On ... The Wanted 18

The Wanted 18 is part of the 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. It screens on June 13 in New York City.

Scored to a lovely, plaintive soundtrack by Benoît Charest (The Triplets of Belleville), The Wanted 18 tells a true story with the deadpan surrealism of a classic fable. The cows of the title were first bought by a Palestinian collective looking to establish independence from Israel during the first intifada in part by producing and distributing their own milk, then hunted by Israeli troops for “undermining Israeli security.” The film combines animation, live-action reenactments, archival footage and simple but elegant visual metaphors, like a paper airplane folded by a pair of hands in one shot and thrown to the talking head in another to symbolize the clandestine flow of information. Its point of view shifts between a mordantly funny voiceover by co-director and illustrator Amer Shomali, beautifully shot interviews with many key players, and the cows themselves, whose increasingly hopeless situation (“We’ve been betrayed--by both Israelis and Palestinians!” says one) becomes a metaphor for the plight of the Palestinians. Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Wild Horses

Robert Duvall's Wild Horses consists mainly of a series of conversations, some stiff and unconvincing, that never quite coalesce into a plausible story, but it shows periodic signs of life. Those exchanges become magnetic whenever Adriana Barraza is on screen, especially in a climactic scene that she and Duvall build toward a wrenching emotional crescendo. And while the nonprofessional actors intended to add authentic local color sometimes freeze the action in its tracks with wooden line readings, Duvall distills the flavor of rural West Texas in scenes like the gentle taming of an unbroken horse, a midday bonding between brothers at a dark, no-frills bar, and a backyard barbecue at which a band plays "Cielito Lindo" while a bearded cook works a grill made of a halved oilcan.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Interview: Andrew Bujalski

Like a character from one of his movies, writer-director Andrew Bujalski has a self-effacing style of speech and a habit of making a thoughtful observation, then promptly second-guessing it. He also seems to be motivated in large part by conquering his own fears, which he acknowledges so freely that he used the word "fear," "frightened," or "terrified" in answering about a third of my questions as we discussed moviemaking in general and his latest feature, Results. Where Bujalski's early films were about people feeling their way through life after college, and his last feature, Computer Chess, was an affectionate and bemused look back at the infancy of computer-nerd culture, Results is a charmingly meandering, brainy rom-com set in the adult working world. As always, the director finds gentle humor and emotional truth in the bumpy road traveled by his main characters: Trevor (Guy Pearce), the owner/manager of a gym; his star trainer, Kat (Cobie Smulders); and their new client, Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a newly minted millionaire who's a schlubby stranger to the world of fitness. He also scores some interesting points about how the work we do—or, in Danny's case, don't do—both reflects and affects who we are.

Your movies don't seem strictly autobiographical, but they do seem to be at least partly about whatever stage of life you're at. I wonder if you're thinking about doing anything about parenthood, since you've been very open in interviews about how being a father has transformed your life.
I don't know. The problem is it would be such a big undertaking that I'm a little nervous about the idea. You really have to direct kids. Not that the directing would be so scary, so much as coordinating and organizing and the rest of it. Like with everything, there would be ways, but you strike fear into my heart. [laughs] Like you say, nothing I've done is strictly autobiographical, but it's all very personal. My life feeds into what I do in a kind of back-alley way, in terms of perceptions and wondering what we're doing on this planet. So, yeah, the thought of doing a movie about parenthood has crossed my mind. I've imagined what I'd like to say about that, but it would be kind of frightening to try to actually pull it off.

Interview: Guy Pearce

In town to promote Andrew Bujalski's Results, Guy Pearce was articulate, seemingly unguarded, and quietly enthusiastic as we talked this week at the Crosby Hotel. Pearce's character, a gym owner and manager named Trevor, is one of three main characters who spar, spark, and bond throughout the film, which Slant's Chuck Bowen praised as the "rare romantic comedy that's hopeful without resorting to condescending, deadening platitude, temporarily lending respectability to the phrase 'life-affirming.'" A fan of his director's "slightly odd, asymmetrical rhythm," Pearce spoke of finding just the right balance between sharpness and cluelessness for Trevor, and about why it was a relief to play the part in his own Ozzie accent. He also had plenty to say about why Tom Hardy is the new Brando.

You usually play characters who are very self-aware and smart and capable, but Trevor is pretty clueless, in a sweet and funny way. Was it fun to play a bit of a dim bulb for a change? Or did you not think of him that way?
Yeah, yeah, I do. [laughs] Andrew said, "I don't want him to be too dumb." I said, "No, but in all my years of going to gyms and seeing gym junkies and trainers, there's a real sharpness to them, there's a real confidence about spreading the word about fitness and stuff, but there's a slight blind spot. And I'm interested in that blind spot." He said, "So am I," so that was great.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

100 Words On ... Mutual Appreciation

Uneven lighting and musical performances recorded on what sound like on-camera mikes bolster the sense of scrappy DIY creativity in early 21st-century Brooklyn that is the subject of Mutual Appreciation, a low-budget indie about the kinds of people who might make a low-budget indie. A cast gifted at offhand delivery and squirmingly funny body language brings writer-director-editor-costar Andrew Bujalski’s smart script vividly to life. Good with women, as always, Bujalski puts his most insightful and forthright character Ellie (Rachel Clift), the center of a tentative romantic triangle, at the center of the movie as well. The dialogue sounds improvised, thanks to Bujalski’s deftness at capturing that millennial way of talking that manages to be both self-effacingly diffident and disarmingly direct. Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Japanese Dog

The Japanese Dog
has the look of a thoughtful arthouse character study, with its generally still camera, long, deliberately paced takes, and habit of artfully framing characters through doors or windows to make a painterly tableau of quiet, everyday actions. But while classics of this genre, like Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, weight quotidian household routines and family relationships with great meaning and suspense by laying bare the emotional fault lines underlying the status quo, The Japanese Dog never quite cracks the surface.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Farewell Party

A neatly balanced tragicomedy about the easily blurred line between assisted living and assisted death, The Farewell Party follows a group of friends in an Israeli assisted living community as they help each other cope with the ravages of aging, including the agony of slow, painful deaths from the likes of cancer and dementia's rapid diminishment of the self. Scenes like one in which they're stopped for speeding on the way home from a comrade's deathbed inject the kind of relief you might find in a joke shared at a wake. The cocky young traffic cop starts off condescending to Yehezkel (Ze'ev Revach), the "Gramps" at the wheel, but he loses his composure when Yana (Aliza Rosen), the dead man's wife, starts to weep and Yehezkel says it's because of the cost of the ticket. ("We live on Social Security," he says sorrowfully, playing the "old" card deftly). The rest of the group starts to cry, too, triggered by Yana's tears, and the discombobulated cop brusquely announces that he's letting them off.