Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women

Acknowledging the influence of Fellini on his work and name-checking conceptual artists like Hans Haacke in his soft California drawl, Berkeley-born Mike Mills has clearly embraced the “art fag” label that his alter ego, young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), struggles to come to terms with in 20th Century Women. A multimedia artist who’s designed CD covers, clothing, and skateboards as well as directed music videos, commercials, and feature films, Mills filters life through an art-school lens, and if he’s better than most of us at being unapologetically himself, perhaps it’s because he had good role models.

Mills’s last film, 2010’s Oscar-winning Beginners, was based on the unexpected ways in which his relationship with his father, Paul Mills, deepened after Paul came out in his mid-70s, relaxing into himself and opening up to his son in ways he never had before. In 20th Century Women, a loving tribute to his mother and the other young women and girls who helped raise him, Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a gallant soul with a healthy contempt for conventional wisdom and a creative talent for carving her own path through life. As the film’s title implies, it’s essentially a character study of several people, but the stories of the five main characters are layered together in a nonlinear pastiche that shifts in perspective as well as in time.

In a conversation earlier this month at the A24 offices in Manhattan, Mills talked about why it was easiest for him to understand his mother by thinking of her as a trans man, how art school opened up his conception of what a movie can be, and why the ‘70s was a feminine decade in America.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 8, "Hearts Still Beating"

This season's start was as bleak as any in The Walking Dead's history, but the show's midseason finale closed on a major note of hope. Tested by the fire of Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sadistic dictatorship, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and most of his core group wound up stronger than ever, determined to stand up to their tormentor—and to do it together. “Hearts Still Beating” ends on a shadowy figure who's spying on our survivors, the close-up of his (or her?) boots establishing that it's the same person who shadowed Aaron (Ross Marquand) and Rick on their supply run earlier that day.

Hidden Figures

Director Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures sheds light on a little-known corner of history by outlining the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s. When the story begins in 1961, NASA doesn't yet have electronic computers, so it has to rely on people to calculate the mathematical data needed to successfully launch space missions. The open and unapologetic sexism of the time is reflected in the gender-stratified jobs: All the so-called “computers” are women, while only men get the more prestigious and better-paid jobs that involve using the numbers crunched by the women to launch rockets into space. And, since this is the Jim Crow South, the African-American computers all work in the same room, behind a door labeled “Colored Computers.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

Top 10 Movies of 2016

Here's my top 10 list for the year...
  1. Fire at Sea
  2. The Handmaiden
  3. O.J. Made in America
  4. Moonlight
  5. Happy Hour
  6. Manchester by the Sea 
  7. 13th
  8. Cemetery of Splendor
  9. 20th Century Women (my interview with Mike Mills)
  10. Fireworks Wednesday
... and my honorable mentions
Aferim!, Cameraperson, Captain Fantastic, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Lobster, Mountains May Depart, No Home Movie, Sworn Virgin, Tower

And here's Slant's list of the year's 25 best, which I contributed to.

Fire at Sea

The quietly intense Fire at Sea captures life and death on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which serves as a crucial waystation for refugees due to its location between Africa and Europe. Director and cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi penetrates deep into the world of 12-year-old Samuele, a fisherman’s son whose daily life, which runs along a path laid down generations ago, seems almost completely untouched by the tragedies playing out a few kilometers away. When Rosi isn’t watching Samuele do things like make and master a slingshot or head into the brush for a tender encounter with a wild bird, he’s observing the process by which refugees enter a fenced-off holding camp on the island, shooting close-ups of loss-ravaged faces and vignettes about some of the trials they’ve endured. The bifurcation between their world and Samuele’s, a metaphor for the gulf between the dispossessed and the rest of us, might feel too on-the-nose if only it were not the awful truth. Written for Slant Magazine

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Founder

Michael Keaton has used his jittery intensity to play sympathetic villains in the past, in films such as Beetlejuice and Desperate Measures, but he's never been as odious as he is in director John Lee Hancock's The Founder. Keaton's Ray Kroc is an aw-shucks avatar of American capitalism, the kind of guy who will reach out to shake your hand and then rip your arm right out of its socket.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

TV (including serial shows on platforms like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon) has been nipping at the heels of theatrical feature films for a while now, but this year it surpassed them. It's always hard to come up with just 10 movies for my top-10 year-end list, but it was way harder this year to come up with the top 10 TV shows. Thank goodness for honorable mentions.

My Top 10:
  1. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
  2. Atlanta
  3. Bojack Horseman
  4. The Americans
  5. Jane the Virgin
  6. Happy Valley 
  7. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
  8. Narcos
  9. Transparent
  10. One Mississippi

My honorable mentions:
Fleabag, Girls, Insecure, Lady Dynamite, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Orange is the New Black, Silicon Valley, Togetherness, High Maintenance, Westworld, Black Mirror, The Middle, black-ish, The Crown, The Good Place

And here's Slant's list, which I contributed to.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7 Episode 7, "Sing Me a Song"

The Hitchockian opening scene of tonight's episode of The Walking Dead, “Sing Me a Song,” makes clever use of Michonne's (Danai Gurira) inscrutability. Walking down an initially empty country road and whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” to attract her prey, Michonne is the epitome of the existentially alone western hero she personifies more than anyone else in Rick's group as she sets a walker-lined trap whose purpose is disturbingly opaque. The close-up of the sword and walkie-talkie she leaves behind as she drags a body down the road is a particularly unsettling bit of misdirection: Is she planning to commit suicide by walker? And even if she's doing something else, like setting things up to make it look as if walkers got her so she can go underground, how long can she survive without that sword?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7 Episode 6, "Swear"

The beginning of “Swear” echoes the ending of “Go Getters,” in which Jesus and Carl exchanged a long look in the back of the Savior truck they'd separately boarded, in a faceoff between the old and new world order. This time, Cyndie (Sydney Park) is the pragmatic but pacifist adult trying to play by the old rules, while Rachel (Mimi Kirkland) is the child young enough to have adapted without question to brutal post-apocalyptic survivalism. As in the last episode, the child's point of view seems to be in the ascendancy. Cyndie's status as an adult and the granddaughter of one of her group's leaders would have made her an undisputed authority figure in the pre-walker world, but when Cyndie and Rachel find Tara (Alanna Masterson) on the beach, Cyndie's humane impulse to spare Tara's life just barely prevails over Rachel's grim insistence on shooting the stranger on sight, as instructed.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7 Episode 5, "Go Getters"

One of the things that has kept me loyal to The Walking Dead over the years is its matter-of-fact feminism. Some of the best fighters and most strategic thinkers in Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) gender-neutral meritocracy have always been women, and they were usually toughened up by the kinds of trials that all too often turn women into skilled survivors, like the spousal abuse Carol endured or the loss of an adored child that galvanized Michonne (Danai Gurira), a somewhat passive and subordinate housewife, into becoming a latter-day ninja. Even Paula, the Savior who captured and nearly killed Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Carol in season six, gained our respect—and a soul-sister acknowledgement from Carol—for her focused ferocity after we learned that she had been a mousy, abused secretary in the pre-walker world who seized on the apocalypse as her chance to stop eating so much as one more morsel of paternalistic shit, even from her own men.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rules Don't Apply

Like Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard, Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply pairs an elderly, reclusive Howard Hughes with a much younger person who's far from wealthy. But while Melvin and Howard's umami mix of poignant sweetness and pungent unpredictability accentuate both the complicated, often comic humanity of its main characters and the increasingly desperate unreality of the post-post-war American dream, Rules Don't Apply turns nearly every one of its characters and situations into tropes. Perhaps because Beatty grew up in the mid-century Hollywood the film is set in, his portrayal of Hughes has the overly polished feel of an anecdote that's been told too often.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Asperger’s, the MTA, and the Criminal Justice System: Interview with Off The Rails director Adam Irving

Off the Rails, which opens November 18 at the Metrograph, is the story of Darius McCollum, a winningly friendly New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. McCollum’s obsessive love of the the subway led him to learn all about how its trains and buses operate. At times, he even managed to get behind the controls of one, happily and conscientiously guiding it through its route until he was caught and arrested for impersonating an MTA employee. At first the documentary appears to be a quirky imposter story, but it turns out to be a bit of an imposter itself. You might think of it as a case study, illuminating our educational and criminal justice systems’ tragic inability to provide properly for people with special needs by tracing one of the lives that has been permanently derailed by their hamfisted mismanagement.

I caught up by phone last month with director Adam Irving, an LA-based filmmaker with a master’s in cinema studies from NYU. Irving talked about what makes New York City a worse place than most to get arrested, why he and his editor decided not to include any discussion of the role Darius’ race likely played in the criminalization of his neurological condition, and the gratifying reaction to his first feature.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7 episode 4: "Service"

“Service” approaches war and other forms of carnage, which appear more and more to be the true subject of The Walking Dead, from a new direction, focusing on the stockpiling of weapons. Its two parallel themes, exploring who controls those weapons and the shifting allegiances within Alexandria, may explain the extra length of this episode, which actually felt less repetitive than many hour-long episodes from the show's past seasons that have pounded home the same point one or two times too many.

Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) saunters through the gates a graceless winner, still marinating in douchebag brio, bullying and terrorizing his opponents, in part by issuing constant threats of violence—though thankfully his only victim this time around is a walker. Ever the sexual predator, he slavers after Maggie, and he spews casually entitled hate speech like his homophobic aside to Rick: “In case you haven't caught on, I just slipped my dick down your throat and you thanked me for it.” All the more reason to root for Rick's diverse group to win their inevitable war with The Saviors—especially if they have the sense to entrust that inclusive, humanist, and surprisingly chill black guy (I mean Ezekiel, of course) with the day-to-day governing.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Interview: Isabelle Huppert on Elle and Things to Come

Isabelle Huppert was hours into a series of back-to-back interviews when we met in New York’s Regency Hotel earlier this month, yet there was no hint of exhaustion in her intelligent, lively gaze, or the precise, often detailed answers she offered up between sips of coffee and bites of food. Like most of the characters she plays, she was magnetic in part because she appeared to be so self-possessed, forming opinions about other people without much caring what they may think of her. At the same time, she was kinder and warmer than her characters usually are, and her sly sense of humor hinted at an ironic perspective that may keep her from taking anything—including the hype that’s been heaped on her over the years—all that seriously.

The hype has been piled high for good reason. One of her generation’s greatest female actors, Huppert is also one of the most awarded in her native France, where she has been nominated more than any other for the César, the country’s national film award. In a career that spans well over 100 films, she’s played a wide range of characters, but nearly all share the quiet, near-feral intensity and steely resolve that have led many of the best directors of her time to cast her in their films—and often, as she pointed out on the day we met, to make her character the center around which the entire plot turns.

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 3, "The Cell"

The latest colony explored on The Walking Dead is Negan's dispiriting dictatorship, a world of gunmetal grays and muted greens and blues whose residents exude an air of beaten-dog obedience. Angela Kang's screenplay efficiently establishes both the riches that are available to the Santuary's elite and the price paid by one and all for their relative safety and comfort.

The stage setting starts with the opening scene, in which Dwight (Austin Amelio) moves through the compound to build a sandwich, taking bread from a group of chefs in a big kitchen, adding mustard so unnaturally yellow it can't be homemade, and passing by a bunch of chickens to get tomatoes and lettuce from a garden. The room where Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) receives people is a time capsule from the pre-walker world, with its comfy armchair, bookshelf, and matching kitchen cabinets. Luxuries like booze and cigarettes appear to be plentiful, at least for Negan and his inner circle.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Interview: Melanie Lynskey and Linas Phillips on Rainbow Time

Rainbow Time is about Shonzi, a developmentally delayed middle-aged man who spars and sparks with his neurotypical brother Todd (Timm Sharp) and Todd’s girlfriend Lindsay, challenging them and their relationship by crossing boundaries in ways that are sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny, and sometimes both at once. The film opens today at Brooklyn’s new Alamo Drafthouse, where I talked with writer-director Linas (prounounced LINN-us) Phillips, who plays Shonzi, and Melanie Lynskey, who plays Lindsay. The film is executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass, and Jay plays a small role in it.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 2: "The Well"

Given The Walking Dead's fondness for settling every conflict with a bloody fight to the death (or undeath), I suspect the show's creators arranged for Carol (Melissa McBride) and Morgan (Lennie James) to encounter the Kingdom mainly so its residents can team up later with Alexandria and the Hilltop against the Saviors in a war to end all wars. But even if that's the ultimate goal, watching the two most pacifist members of Rick's group explore this seemingly humanistic new world provided a much-needed respite from the nihilistic violence of the seventh season's premiere episode—and a welcome change of focus, from how to merely survive in a post-apocalyptic world to how to live.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Gimme Danger

As uninterested as usual in preaching to the uncool, Jim Jarmusch aims Gimme Danger straight at the hearts of those who already love, or at least appreciate, his good friend Iggy Pop. The filmmaker declares at the start of the documentary that Iggy and the Stooges were “the greatest rock and roll band ever,” but makes little effort to back up that claim, never interviewing critics or other musicians for officially sanctioned opinions or offering much in the way of analysis about what made the group's music so special.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 1, "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be"

My husband used to fret that I was convinced civilization was about to collapse because I watched zombie movies, but he had it backwards. Having grown up in 1950s and '60s Detroit, I saw firsthand how fragile even apparently solid social infrastructures can be, and ours seem particularly vulnerable these days. To pick just three existential threats out of a very large hat, hackers are poised to shut down the Internet, a foreign dictator plays chicken with nukes while an American presidential candidate keeps asking why we don't use ours, and a global refugee crisis makes homelessness in New York City look manageable by comparison. That's why I love stories about the zombie apocalypse: They're a safe way to explore my fears about the breakdown of society, and to imagine how we might rebuild our lives and create communities after a major disaster.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New York Film Festival 2016 Interview: Laura Dern

Laura Dern likes to tell the story of how, when she was a teenager, Martin Scorsese complimented her for having already started to build a body of work—a feat, as he pointed out, that directors often accomplish but actors rarely do. Since then, she's built an impressive portfolio of complicated women who experience life deeply. She's probably best known for Jurassic Park's highly competent Ellie, but her most memorable characters are those, like Amy Jellicoe from HBO's Enlightened, whose volcanic inner lives keep spitting up burning lava onto the character herself and anyone who gets close to her.

I spoke to Dern earlier this month about her latest role in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, a quietly bubbling cauldron of subterranean emotion that follows three tangentially related female characters. One of those women is Dern's Laura Wells, a lawyer with a troubled client (played by Jared Harris) whose life goes completely off the rails after he suffers an on-the-job injury his employer won't compensate him for. 

In person as on screen, Dern's warm, expressive voice conveys layers of feeling. She takes her time as she answers questions, her alert attentiveness a form of grace that makes the person across the table from her feel fully engaged with. She talked about, among other things, why she loves playing “difficult” women, what has changed in her personal and professional lives since she turned 40, and how Reichardt helped her overcome the challenge of playing a character whose emotions are hidden even from herself.

I read or watched a lot of your interviews in preparation for this. You always give very thoughtful answers and even seem to enjoy yourself.
That's nice to hear! Thank you. I've never had anyone say that to me. You know, I love movies, and my parents [Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd] love movies, and I was raised with a real love of being able to connect on a love of film. Some of my parents' dearest friends have been journalists and film critics. Sheila Benson at the Los Angeles Times was one of my first godmother-advocate supporters of the choices I was making and of my staying true to loving filmmakers and participating in a vision.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Miss Hokusai

“This life is nothing special, but we're enjoying it,” says O-Ei (voiced by Anne Watanabe), a young woman who apprenticed under her well-known painter father in early-19th-century Japan, at the end of the animated biography Miss Hokusai. That sentiment is probably true of most of us, yet when we're telling stories, we tend to magnify the more sensational bits. Not so with Keiichi Hara's quietly lyrical film, which condenses everyday interactions, memories, and dreams in O-Ei's life into a potent mix of all the major ingredients of a well-lived life, including family love, companionship, humor, sex, work, natural and manmade beauty, and sorrow.

New York Film Festival 2016: The Unknown Girl

The Unknown Girl plays October 12 and 13 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Sundance Selects will open the film theatrically in 2017. 

An excellent doctor, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) pays close attention to her patients, treating them with a respectful warmth that puts them at ease. What’s more, she’s unafraid of standing up to disreputable patients who try to bully her into falsifying medical records so they can shirk work. The same skills that make her a good doctor also make her a gifted amateur detective when an African immigrant who had knocked at her clinic door after hours one night turns up dead the next day.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Interview: Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass

The four-film deal Mark Duplass and his brother, Jay, made last year with Netflix is just one indication of how successful the prolific brothers have been at cranking out and marketing smart, talky, emotionally honest and sneakily funny movies and TV shows, in collaboration with an ever-expanding cohort of equally talented youngish actors and filmmakers. Blue Jay, directed by Alex Lehmann and written by Duplass, is the first of those four movies.

Improvised from a detailed but very short treatment and shot over just seven days, the black-and-white two-hander is about a reunion between two former high school sweethearts, Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson), and the distorting magnetic pull a lost love can exert on a person's life. Throughout the film, Paulson's centered warmth and slightly goofy humor make Jim's enduring infatuation plausible while showcasing a loose-limbed, charming side the actress has never quite unloosed before on screen.

At a Four Seasons restaurant in New York to publicize the film on the day of its theatrical release, the two exhibited the same chemistry they exude in the film, watching each other intently as they spoke, occasionally leaning into one another for a hug and often cracking each other up.

So, Sarah, Blue Jay was your first experience with improv. Do you want to do it again?

Sarah Paulson: Yes! Yes! And I didn't know that I would feel that way when I started.

What did you like about it?

New York Film Festival 2016: Julieta

Julieta played October 7 and 8, and will play again October 16, as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film theatrically beginning December 21. 

Alice Munro, the author of the three stories on which he based his latest film, “inspired me to a different way of telling a story,” said director Pedro Almodóvar at the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening of Julieta, later adding: “I tried to make a drama, not a melodrama, which is my natural inclination.” No kidding. Almodóvar’s attempt to channel Munro may be in keeping with the shift visible in his work since 1999’s All About My Mother, as his female characters become more complex and less cartoonish, their inner lives almost as well-rounded as his pulchritudinous leading ladies’ tightly encased curves. Still, the flamboyant Spanish king of baroque plots and peacock exteriors is one of the last people you might expect to adapt the understated Canadian master’s realistic stories about resolutely ordinary people.

Monday, October 3, 2016

New York Film Festival 2016: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

Steve James displays his usual savvy for picking culturally resonant topics in his latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. This time it's the oddly underreported story of Abacus, the eponymous family-owned Chinatown business, which is the only U.S. bank ever indicted for fraud in connection with the subprime mortgage scandal of the late 2000s. The rest of the film's title comes from journalist Matt Taibbi, who explains that the banks actually responsible for the crisis were all deemed “too big to fail,” so none were prosecuted for their crimes. “Too big to fail translates to small enough to jail, and Abacus is small enough to jail,” he says.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

New York Film Festival 2016: 13th

13th was the Opening Night film of the 54th New York Film Festival. The film is now available to stream on Netflix.

The past couple years have seen a creative outpouring of works, mostly by African Americans, that anatomize the systemic discrimination and violence perpetrated against black people since this country’s inception. These include books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad; TV series like OJ: Made in America and the remake of Roots; and movies like 12 Years a Slave, The Central Park 5, The House I Live In and Ava DuVernay’s majestic Selma. DuVernay’s latest film, the feature-length documentary 13th, is an important addition to that lineup.

New York Film Festival 2016: 13th

13th was the Opening Night film of the 54th New York Film Festival. The film is now available to stream on Netflix.

The past couple years have seen a creative outpouring of works, mostly by African Americans, that anatomize the systemic discrimination and violence perpetrated against black people since this country’s inception. These include books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad; TV series like OJ: Made in America and the remake of Roots; and movies like 12 Years a Slave, The Central Park 5, The House I Live In and Ava DuVernay’s majestic Selma. DuVernay’s latest film, the feature-length documentary 13th, is an important addition to that lineup.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


Ever since he debuted with 2004's cultishly adored Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess has been cranking out broad comedies about loveable losers whose ineptitude is magnified to the point of absurdity. As in his other films, the humor in Masterminds often curdles into reverse-snobbish condescension toward its too-dumb-to-live characters. But this one spends more time than its predecessors in a comic sweet spot, thanks to a gifted cast that milks moments of inspired slapstick, goofiness, and pathos from a script whose thin, generic arc seems engineered to encourage improv.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Nos Amours

We first see Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire, in her first starring role) rehearsing the main part in a summer camp play. Though the screenplay doesn’t belabor the point, the play is the story of a young woman who, taught by her embittered elders to mistrust love, abandons her soulmate to live unhappily ever after. That, in a nutshell, is Suzanne’s story and the narrative arc of A Nos Amours, a brilliant work of fatalistic realism that views even its youthful love scenes through a scrim of melancholy. Bonaire is mesmerizing as a strong willed young woman whose instincts are continually undermined by her borderline incestuous father and brother and her neurotically resentful mother.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Dressmaker

In Jocelyn Moorhouse's The Dressmaker, the first words we hear from childhood bully magnet turned fashion plate Tilly (Kate Winslet) come after she steps off a bus into her one-horse hometown, lights a cigarette, and coolly surveys the façades on a street that brings to mind the set for a 1950s western. “I'm back, you bastards,” she hisses. After that brashly meta opener, you might expect a smartly constructed Tarantino-style black comedy of retribution, but the film fails to deliver on that promise, devolving instead into a dispiriting tonal mishmash of mean-spirited revenge fantasy, girl-power romantic fantasy, and comedy so broad it tips into caricature.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Meet Me in St. Louis

Judy Garland is at her soft-eyed, honey-voiced, urgently empathic best in this story of an upper-middle-class Smith family in St. Louis in the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. But the film’s greatness comes mainly from its detailed and relatable depiction of the emotional ups and downs of three of the family’s daughters: Rose (Lucille Bremer), a proper beauty on the brink of marriage; the emotionally labile Esther (Garland), who’s nursing an enormous crush on the boy next door; and young Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), a strongwilled tomboy who gives the film its most wrenching scene when she knocks the heads off all her snowmen, heartbroken by the thought of the family leaving their beloved city (Dad’s been offered a promotion that would involve a move to New York). Director Vincent Minnelli dances nimbly on the line between comedy and drama, keeping the camera and the story moving as he cuts from one member of the family to another.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Hollars

In John Krasinski's second feature as a director, no sooner have we met Hollar family matriarch Sally (Margo Martindale), her perpetually verklempt husband, Donald (Richard Jenkins), and Ron (Sharlto Copley), the grown son living in their basement, than Sally collapses and is diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. John (Krasinski), the Hollars' other son, a depressed graphic novelist trying to make it in New York, is summoned home and soon joined by his very pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick). The rest of The Hollars observes the family members as they coalesce around Sally or splinter into smaller groups or pairs to conduct charged conversations about their work lives, their love lives, and their relationships with one another.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hands of Stone

Considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, the Panamanian-born Roberto Duran punched so hard that he earned the nickname Manos de Piedra. The man was known for his iron will, never quitting and almost never losing, yet he infamously blew his hard-won reputation by walking away in the middle of a fight to defend his welterweight title. His story has all the makings of a fascinating film, but Hands of Stone isn't it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Interrupters

The Interrupters will screen on August 19 for opening night of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Kartemquin Films retrospective; Steve James will be on hand for the 162-minute original cut of the film, which was never released theatrically.

In the five years since I first saw Steve James’ indelible documentary, I’ve never heard about another killing in Southside Chicago without thinking about The Interrupters’ stars, Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. Former gangbangers who abhor the violence they perpetrated and bear the scars of the harm done to them, they are now “violence interrupters” with a program that treats violence as a socially transmitted disease rather than an individual failure. The interrupters aim to disrupt the vicious cycle of shootings in their city by helping their neighbors manage their emotions and learn new patterns of behavior, choosing not to react to insults and attacks with more of the same. James’ tiny crew (three people, including him) anatomizes Chicago’s violence pandemic close-up and from many angles, attending monthly meetings where the interrupters strategize and compare notes, learning about the three leads’ backgrounds and the paths they found out of the mayhem, and tracking their fitful progress and their enormous outpouring of effort and love as they work with several of their cases. If Chicago’s violence epidemic is ever cured, it will surely be largely through the heroic interventions of people like these. Written for Brooklyn Magazine

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins was a mid-20th-century New York socialite who became known for her generosity to musicians and musical institutions, then grew notorious for the abysmal singing voice she insisted on sharing, through concerts and recordings, with an increasingly amused public. Florence Foster Jenkins, the latest take on her life (the most recent before that being Marguerite), is the story of a long con told from the point of view of the perpetrator and her enablers. That technique worked well in Penny Lane's recent Nuts!, where it set up a second-act reversal that revealed the dark truths behind the triumphal myth that film's subject had created around himself. But director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Nicolas Martin construct a suspiciously simple and sympathetic story about Jenkins (Meryl Streep) and play it straight through (though not entirely straight, as a streak of broad comedy runs through the film), leaving audiences to wonder about the very things that make Jenkins's story intriguing in the first place.

Monday, July 25, 2016


Writer-director Sian Heder's Tallulah has an impressive set of genes on the matriarchal side. Header was a writer and story editor on Orange Is the New Black, and co-stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney play roles much like the ones they so memorably embodied in Juno—Page as a sardonic young woman grappling with unplanned motherhood and Janney as the no-nonsense mother figure who helps her. But Tallulah, a kind of neofeminist Lifetime movie, is high drama writ in black crayon, lacking either Orange Is the New Black's moral complexities or Juno's sweet-and-sour sass.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pootie Tang

Part goofily spoofy turn-of-the-20th-century biopic, part hip-hop Spinal Tap with the absurdist knob up turned to 11, Pootie Tang is not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen. Whether because of the self-described cluelessness that got writer-director Louis C.K. fired while the film was being edited or the voiceover-narrated frame that was then imposed by the studio, this parody of a star vehicle meanders a bit before sputtering to a stop, but it delivers plenty of pleasures along the way.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Infiltrator

A strenuously sold yet inert string of anecdotes from a nonfiction book about a high-stakes undercover DEA operation, Brad Furman's The Infiltrator is all revving engines and no momentum. Interpersonal dynamics that might have helped propel the plot wind up in cul-de-sacs: When suburban dad and DEA undercover agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) gets paired up with scruffy, fast-and-loose Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), their odd-couple friction might be expected to lead to clashes over strategy or execution, but aside from the unstable informant who Emir refuses to cut loose despite Bob's qualms, their differences never seem much more than cosmetic. Similarly, the sexual tension between Bob and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), the inexperienced but savvy agent who's the third participant in the sting operation Bob is heading, plays out more as a Hollywood trope than a lived-in reality, though it's apparently enough of a threat to Bob's wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), to contribute to her decision to temporarily leave her husband.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Neither Heaven Nor Earth

Neither Heaven Nor Earth is screening tomorrow at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City.

Set among an encampment of French soldiers stationed atop a couple of barren hilltops in Afghanistan in 2014, Neither Heaven Nor Earth injects strains of the supernatural into a realistic war story to highlight the eerie disorientation of modern warfare. As members of the troop begin to disappear, the soldiers lose their emotional footing, their relationship with the civilians in a nearby village transitioning from tense to toxic. The eerie green light that illuminates parts of the soldiers’ faces as they patrol at night underscores the dehumanizing effects of technology, as do the ghostly white silhouettes they see through their infrared scopes. Meanwhile, the nervous sheep the villagers tie to stakes in the dangerous open land create a growing sense of dread, their fate becoming mysteriously entangled with that of the missing soldiers.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Parallels between the controversial self-styled doctor John R. Brinkley and Donald Trump pop up with startling frequency throughout Penny Lane's lively Nuts!, which opens just under a century ago, as Brinkley is starting to treat impotence by surgically implanting goat gonads in men's testicular sacs. That and other Brinkley “cures” soon become wildly popular as Brinkley masters the most promising new media of his time, broadcasting a call-in show from a powerful radio station that he built so he could counsel callers nationwide about their sexual problems and prescribe treatments.

Interview: Penny Lane

One of Filmmaker Magazine's “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012, writer-director Penny Lane exudes a winning blend of intellectual curiosity and sheer effervescent humor that shapes her films as well as her personality. In arty DIY shorts and two feature-length documentaries, 2013's Our Nixon and this year's Nuts!, Lane often investigates science or history in weird and wonderful ways, imbuing subjects like space travel, Nixon's presidency, and the use of goat glands to treat impotence with sly humor and unexpected emotion. In Nuts!, she also encourages audiences to explore their own susceptibility to charlatanism by first telling her conman subject's story as it's laid out in his authorized biography, then revealing the lies that story was built on and the price people paid for believing those lies. I spoke to Lane about why it's best to make art for an audience of one, the pros and cons of using animation, and what makes so many of us want to believe the whoppers spun by people like Donald Trump and John Brinkley, the self-styled doctor Lane anatomizes in Nuts!

Let's get the name out of the way. Were your parents hippies?

No. They were just teenagers with the last name Lane. It wasn't that thought out. Lois Lane was another option, so all I can do is be happy that they didn't go with Lois, from the depths of their 15-year-old stoner minds.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Call Her Applebroog

The possibilities and limitations of art as a route to self-knowledge are on display in Call Me Applebroog, Beth B's gently incisive portrait of her mother, Ida Applebroog. For much of the documentary, Applebroog, now in her 80s, culls through her conceptual drawings and self-published books, many of which incorporate handwritten-looking, Dada-esque snippets of thought or observations, in what she calls “a mass excavation of myself and my mind and everything that's pertained to me over the years.”

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Interview: Amy Heckerling

Fresh out of film school, director Amy Heckerling hit the ground running in the early '80s. Her first feature, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, remains a classic for its delicate balance of absurdity and pathos and the way it treats its characters with bemused-older-sibling affection laced with comic incredulity. Her next few features were more uneven, the humor generally broader and the emotional stakes often less engaging, but they also had their moments, reflecting the director's quick wit and love of larger-than-life characters, and they never sold their female characters short. In 1996, Heckerling returned to form with Clueless, another brilliant high school comedy—this one written as well as directed by her—that deeply respects and understands its female characters at the same time that it laughs at their, well, cluelessness. This week, I had a chance to speak with Heckerling, who was promoting a retrospective of four of her films by the Metrograph theater in the Lower East Side. Quick to laugh, with a sense of mischief and a lack of interest in mincing words that may explain why she's so drawn to young characters, the filmmaker discussed gender inequality in Hollywood and what movies have in common with the economy.

Fast Times and Clueless are great in so many ways, but what I especially love about them is how well they get American teenage girls, and in such a fun away.
In a fun way is the different thing. There were so many movies about teenage girls. It's a scary, depressing time for a lot of people, and a lot of movies capture that brilliantly. But they may not be as happy. When we came out [with Clueless], there was this movie Kids...

The Larry Clark one?
Yeah. And people were saying, “Oh, you've captured American kids,” and I'm going, “Well, that one did too. It's just, I chose those kids.” [laughs] There are a million stories in the naked city, and I gravitated to the happiest one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

100 Words On ... Clueless

The first, and still one of the best, of the now numerous movies to transpose the plot of a Jane Austen novel (in this case, Emma) to a modern context, writer-director Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is a fizzy SweeTart of a pop culture time capsule. It’s also a classic female coming-of-age story, echoing both Austen’s older-sister appreciation of her headstrong heroine’s good qualities and her bemused eye-rolling at her misplaced priorities and callow confidence. Young Emma’s early-19th-century version of entitlement and her appealing, if often delusional, self-confidence translates seamlessly to Cher’s (Alicia Silverstone) brand of 1990s alpha-girl California high-school cool.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Being Charlie

“I know what you're thinking. I do. Who is this kid with the silver spoon in his mouth and why does he keep cooking heroin in it?” says Charlie (Nick Robinson), doing stand-up at a halfway house's talent show. It's a good line, particularly because it's Being Charlie's first and only indication that its titular character, who's apparently spent most of the last couple years cycling in and out of pricey rehab facilities, has any awareness of how whiny and self-martyred he might appear to audiences.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tribeca Film Festival 2016: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople is told from the point of view of a chubby, self-confident orphan, Ricky (Julian Dennison), with a rich inner life who composes haikus for fun. As the film begins, he's delivered to the last foster home willing to take him in, a small farm carved out of the edge of New Zealand's bush country. Ricky has a bit of trouble in his past and fancies himself an outlaw, but he's really a goodhearted kid, as his enthusiastic and intuitive foster mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), sees from the start.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Meddler

In Lorene Scafaria's The Meddler, the recently widowed and adrift Marnie (Susan Sarandon) tries to fill the hole in her life, first by launching an extreme invasion of her daughter's privacy, and then by offering random acts of generosity to near-strangers, who subsequently become her friends. Perhaps to embody Marnie's penchant for running from her own problems, Sarandon pumps the character full of raw, aimless energy, never walking when she can trot along briskly and talking fast in a broad, supposed-to-be-Brooklyn accent. The actress's frenetic need to keep busy betrays the loneliness and rootlessness underlying Marnie's impulsive acts, but even Sarandon's innate warmth and the sympathy she generates for her character can't make some of Marnie's stunts come across as anything other than unintentional cruelty.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tribeca Film Festival 2016: Don't Think Twice

Writer-director Mike Birbiglia condenses years of experience in live comedy into this smart, affectionate take on the rivalry, love, ambition, and creative juices that fuel the lives of professional comedians. When one of members of a New York City improv group called The Commune gets hired at Weekend Live, an SNL-like kahuna of a TV show that represents the ultimate in ticket-punching success for a professional comic, his coup sends most of the other members into a frenzy of self-doubt, frustration, or attempts to ride his coattails into the limelight.

But Don't Think Twice isn't about success or failure as much as it is about the creative life, as experienced by a group of youngish comedians who've achieved a certain level of success, but still need day jobs or indulgent parents to support their comedy habit. As thirtysomething Bill (Chris Gethard) puts it: “I feel like your 20s are all about hope, and then your 30s are all about leaning how dumb it was to hope.” And most of the group's members are in their 30s.

Read the rest on The House Next Door

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tribeca Film Festival 2016: The Family Fang

There are a lot of surface similarities between The Family Fang and Arrested Development, another tragicomedy about an extravagantly dysfunctional family in which Jason Bateman's character reacts against his parents' high-handed neglect by trying to become a model of emotional health and stability. But where Arrested Development used a light dusting of sorrow to add shading to a gleefully absurdist romp, The Family Fang is an earnest story of redemption with a wacky veneer that doesn't quite fit.

Girls recap: Season 5 Episode 10: "I Love You Baby"

Several characters make significant psychological progress in tonight's season finale of Girls, which begins and ends with Hannah (Lena Dunham) jogging. The first instance is played for laughs, as she plows doggedly up and down her block, in workout clothes that couldn't be less flattering, while her parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari), camped out on her stoop, try to get her to acknowledge them. The second is played straight, with a determined Hannah running toward the camera in the great outfit her mom bought for her reading at the Moth's creative writing slam. But whether it's presented as comedy or drama, the jogging is another sign that Hannah is learning how to take care of herself.

Girls recap: Season 5 Episode 9: "Love Stories"

The first half of Girls' two-part season finale includes several kinds of love: romantic, platonic, and that sparkly feeling somewhere in between that can spring up in the glow of a new friendship, like the one between Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her old classmate and nemesis, Tally (Jenny Slate). It's surprising to see Hannah connect so deeply with a new potential friend, especially someone whose success used to trigger such jealousy in her. Maybe it helps that Hannah hasn't been writing—or doing much else—for so long that she no longer feels as if she's in competition with Tally. As she says, when she accepts her offer to hang out: “I'm not really headed anywhere particular at the moment.”

Then again, maybe being open to Tally is another sign of the emotional maturity Hannah's fitfully tumbling toward. Or maybe she's just open to a new friendship because her old friends have been busy or evasive lately. Whatever the reason, Hannah and Tally do some serious bonding, confiding in one another, dancing to Beyoncé, and getting so high on falling-in-friendship endorphins that they briefly consider making love before dismissing it with a mutual “nah.”

Read the rest on The House Next Door

Tribeca Film Festival 2016: Adult Life Skills

If it had bigger stars and a less quirk-dependent plot, Rachel Tunnard's Adult Life Skills would be right at home at the multiplex, probably starring someone like Kate Hudson. The romance here is relegated to comically awkward background, sparing us the trope of the hapless heroine whose messy life is all tidied up by the love of a good man, but the rest is dispiritingly predictable. Anna (Jodie Whittaker) is a kind of English Zoe Deschanel, a wide-eyed free spirit who doesn't realize how loveable she is. She lives in a shed in her mother's backyard, which she has crammed full of artsy detritus like pinwheels and homemade tinfoil rocket ships. When she's not working at a community center, she likes to draw a rudimentary face on each of her thumbs and then shoot video of them having a conversation.