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.