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.