Tribeca Film Festival Review: Flower

FLOWER“Flower”’s credits boast an executive producer credit for Danny McBride. Erica Vandross —the film’s 17 year-old protagonist played by Zooey Deutch— has a bit in common with McBride’s signature character, Kenny Powers. Both are hyperactive, hypersexual iconoclasts with a talent for instigating conflict. Despite this outward abrasiveness, Erica and Kenny often prove to be sensitive at heart. On the surface, McBride’s involvement with the latest from director Max Winkler (“The King of Central Park”, “Clark and Michael”, “Ceremony”) seems apparent. Read more

Tribeca Film Festival Review: The Reagan Show

TFF17_The_Reagan__Show_3“The Reagan Show” —the latest from directors Sierra Pettengill (Producer of “Cutie and the Boxer”) and Pacho Velez (“Manakamana”)— is a patchwork quilt of a film. Network news broadcasts, rally footage, home video, and more come together to tell the tale of Ronald Reagan’s two terms as President of the United States. The filmmakers compile what amounts to the president’s greatest hits, with iconic lines like ‘Trust but verify’ and ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ making appearances. Using clips that have often been rerun over the past 30 years shines a spotlight on the clean, crisp video transfers that Pettengill and Velez use throughout the film. Read more

New Directors/New Films Review: PENDULAR

Pendular. 2017. Brazil/ Argentina/ France. Directed by Julia Murat. Courtesy of Still Moving.

Pendular. 2017. Brazil/ Argentina/ France. Directed by Julia Murat. Courtesy of Still Moving.

A dilapidated industrial space in Rio de Janeiro houses buckets, tables, carts, and more strewn between its pillars, white on top and green on bottom. A wooden, asymmetrical sculpture sits at the center of the frame. From the camera’s perspective, it appears to be a plank cutting through the center of a cube. Within seconds, we will witness another bisection. We hear it before we see it; the sound of tearing tape leads to a man and a woman working their way across the room with orange tape. He peels it, and she stamps it into the ground. Once the task is complete, they run back and forth across the line in an impromptu game of tape ball soccer.

This opening to Júlia Murat’s relationship drama “Pendular” —executed in one static shot— sets the stage for a film where its titular couple creates boundaries and transgresses them constantly. Ele (‘he’ in Portuguese) is a sculptor working in wood as well as industrial materials like wire and aluminum; Ela (‘she’) is modern dancer whose work veers into the abstract. The tape demarcates an area for each artist’s studio. Read more

New Directors/New Films Reviews: BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK, QUEST & THE FUTURE PERFECT

By The Time It Gets Dark

By the Time It Gets Dark. 2016. France/Netherlands/Qatar/Thailand. Directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong. Courtesy of KimStim.

“By the Time it Gets Dark”, the new feature from Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong, is the narrative equivalent of a leisurely stroll through an unfamiliar landscape. Characters from all walks of life in Thailand —from chamber maids and students to film actors and revolutionaries— appear, disappear, and reappear at random in scenarios centered around a female filmmaker’s research for a script about an aging female revolutionary. While this exploration of identity and roleplaying creates a surplus of vantage points for a colorful survey of Thai culture and history, Suwichakornpong uses the same tactics as an icon of Nordic cinema in crafting this journey.

The film’s dreamy pace recalls the work of Nicolas Winding Refn. The Danish director’s films about criminals are contemplative, preferring to explore the moments when these psychopaths brood as opposed to whenever blood is shed. Think of “Drive”’s long shots of Ryan Gosling–captured from the front passenger’s seat–driving his car to the strains of pop music as neon colors bathe his face, and you will have a pretty good idea of how Suwichakornpong appropriates Refn’s pacing for a more pacifist film. In one scene, Suwichakornpong follows a lone woman as she arrives at her home. When she prepares to fry a single egg, the camera’s interest focuses on the wok more than the woman. This choice forces the viewer to follow the action of the sequence via the small breaks in the ambient noise soundtrack. The film in turn demands an understanding of a character’s surroundings in order to understand the character. This same deliberateness charmed audiences at Cannes in 2010, winning the Palme d’Or for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterpiece “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Just like in that classic from a countryman, slow, methodical action in “By the Time it Gets Dark” lures and eventually charms viewers into following its unpredictable turns until the screen itself gets dark. Read more

New Directors/New Films Review: STRONG ISLAND

Photo credit: 8SP - Simon Luethi © 2016

Photo credit: 8SP – Simon Luethi © 2016

A simple disagreement with a mechanic about fixing his girlfriend’s car led to the shooting death of William Ford Jr. on April 7, 1992. After the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office on New York’s Long Island showed more interest in investigating the African American victim than the white defendant, a grand jury declined to indict. William Ford was treated like another black body destroyed and discarded by a prejudiced justice system.

Screening as a part of New Directors/New Films, “Strong Island” —a documentary from William’s sibling Yance Ford— explores the circumstances surrounding the terrible evening. In an attempt to put some attention on his brother’s story, Yance lenses his own black body in ways that brings William’s murder back into focus.
 
Yance’s face —round with a small scar stemming from the left side of the bottom lip— often faces the camera in a close-up. The background is dark black, and little below the director’s chin is visible, isolating his face in the frame. This stance is confrontational, setting the tone for a story seeking to challenge an authoritative account of events. In a statement at the start of the film that gives us a pretty solid understanding of what’s to come, Yance lets the audience know, “If you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.”

Read more

New Directors/New Films Review: ARÁBIA

Arábia

Arábia. 2017. Brazil. Directed by Affonso Uchôa and João Dumans. Courtesy of Katasia Films.

The city of Ouro Preto is an historic site known throughout Brazil for its decadence. A gold boom in the 18th century bolstered its initial growth, which led to several famously ornate churches dotting the horizon. During my year on a Fulbright Fellowship in the country, many Brazilian Millennials fondly remembered the city as the site for class trips admiring gilded Baroque architecture. João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s “Arábia” steers the Ouro Preto narrative away from the city’s opulence, drawing to the forefront the tough lives of laborers in the state of Minas Gerais.

Dumans and Uchoa begin their film with teenaged Andre’s struggles caring for a sick brother in place of absentee parents. Early in the film, he discovers the journal of laborer Cristiano. When Andre opens the book and the title card appears 20 minutes into the film, we start following Cristiano as he bounces from job to job. The framing device is largely unnecessary; we could have gained just as much insight on Cristiano’s experiences in the working class from his narration without ever introducing the Andre character. Considering the fact that Andre’s one reappearance after the narrative device begins is fleeting, basing the film in Andre’s discovery distracts the viewer more than it gives the viewer a point of entry to Cristiano’s life. Read more

Olivier Assayas’ Ghost Story PERSONAL SHOPPER is a Pale Imitation of Previous Triumphs

IMG_4642

Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in Olivier Assayas’s PERSONAL SHOPPER. Photo by Carole Bethuel. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Kristen Stewart’s characters in Olivier Assayas films tend to keep friends, family, and colleagues at a distance while doggedly pursuing an agenda. She continues this trend established in 2015’s “The Clouds of Sils Maria” into their most recent collaboration “Personal Shopper”. Another film in the former film critic’s oeuvre making a statement about the way people produce and consume media, “Personal Shopper” attempts to use its bully pulpit to rail against the impulse to mediate experience but fails through its reliance on clumsily executed set pieces.

Stewart’s Maureen and her twin Lewis are mediums, communicating with the dead. After her twin’s passing, Maureen remains in Paris to attempt post-mortal contact. In the meantime, she works an unfulfilling job for a demanding boss (Nora von Waldstätten) as a fashion buyer. Like most Stewart characters, her inner conflict manifests itself through a twitchy restlessness tightly packed into the actress’ small frame, which is gaunt, hunched, and wrapped in a leather jacket throughout most of the film. Stewart’s performance perfectly portrays someone more comfortable exploring a land of spirits than making her way in the land of the living. Read more

Filmwax Radio Live with D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus

May 20th • Doors at 6:30, event begins at 7:00, no entry after 7:30

DCTV, 87 Lafayette, NYC

DCTV and Filmwax Radio cordially invite you to a special live podcast event, a conversation with filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, one of the most respected teams of documentary filmmakers working today, about their longstanding careers and new documentary feature, Unlocking the Cage.

Unlocking the Cage follows animal rights lawyer Steven Wise in his unprecedented challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans, by filing the first lawsuits that seek to transform a chimpanzee from a “thing” with no rights to a “person” with legal protections.

Unlocking the Cage opens May 25th at New York’s Film Forum, and nationally in June.

This event is a part of DCTV Presents, DCTV’s signature screening and event series that highlights innovative and provocative work from the independent filmmaking community.

Back at South By: Hunter Gatherer, The Arbalest, Tony Robbins, and the Death of the Theatrical

Hunter GathererSomething was in the air this year at South by Southwest. A number of people I hung out with complained that the films weren’t as good as last year. I didn’t have that experience. As many times as I promise myself I’ll leave time for wildcard screenings (spontaneous choices), I always end up going with my planned selections. This year I reached about half the movies I intended to. That’s not terribly surprising considering I also do a lot of podcasting at SxSW and this year I also attended a few panels and ran one myself. More on that in a bit; first the films. One of my favorite films which had its world premiere was “Hunter Gatherer”, directed by Josh Locy and which stars Andre Royo, Bubbles on the HBO series The Wire. Royo, who won the Special Jury Award for his performance, is unforgettable as Ashley, a recently released ex-con who is ceaselessly hustling in his own benign way to make a few bucks. The movie opens with Ashley’s elderly and cantankerous Mom  setting up a birthday party for him while he fruitlessly calls friends to invite them over. Even though he’s middle aged there’s something innocent, almost childish about him, despite his having served three years in the slammer (reasons which are never quite explained). What we do learn relatively quickly is that he harbors a deep love for the woman he was involved with before he went into prison and who has since moved on to another relationship. Ashley doesn’t stop hustling and when he meets Jeremy (George Sample III), another innocent, the two make unlikely friends. Read more

Review: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead — The Story of the National Lampoon

Nat Lamp blog photoI remember the first time I encountered an issue of National Lampoon, sometime in the early 1970s in North Carolina, where I grew up. I noticed it in the news stand of a neighborhood drug store. Thumbing through it, I was amazed by the edgy cartoons and humor and in particular a racy story with a raunchy illustration. When I bought it, the uptight, middle-aged clerk gave it and me a scolding look. I feared, for a moment, that he would tell me it was for sale to adults only. Fortunately he didn’t and it became the newest element (Mad magazine preceding it, Monty Python and Creem magazine soon to follow) of my introduction to the hip, irreverent culture I was eager to be immersed in.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon” (Magnolia Pictures, 2015) is a hilarious new documentary, directed by Douglas Tirola, about the ground-breaking, influential humor magazine published between 1970 and 1998. It’s named after Lampoon contributor Rick Meyerowitz’s 2010 book, a coffee table anthology of work from the publication, organized by contributer. The book is an excellent way to revisit some of the Lampoon’s best art and writing, but it doesn’t tell the complete history of the magazine. Read more

Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear” Documents Patterns of Abuse by Scientology

GoingClearPostercopyHBO’s documentary division has had a great two months. First, “CITIZENFOUR,” the documentary they produced about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden won an Oscar and was broadcast on the channel the day after the ceremony. Then, the critically acclaimed six-part true crime series “The Jinx” ended with new evidence (and a possible confession) that got its millionaire subject Robert Durst arrested again, giving the series enormous publicity and probably many new non-appointment viewers. And now, premiering in a theatrically limited release  as well as on HBO this Sunday, March 29 at 8pm ET/PT, Alex Gibney’s documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” has garnered a huge amount of buzz from both festival screenings and an attack campaign conducted by the film’s controversial subject: the Church of Scientology. The film is based on Lawrence Wright’s similarly titled 2013 book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.” An investigative reporter for New Yorker magazine, Wright is also the author of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” which was also turned into a documentary for HBO. The book and film tell the story of L. Ron Hubbard, a man with a colorful background, made even more colorful by his constant confabulations; a man who holds the Guinness World record for the number of books published by a single man (over a thousand), who wrote a huge bestseller called “Dianetics” in 1950 which inspired a movement ultimately called “Scientology.” Read more

New Directors/New Films Series at Film Society of Lincoln Center Opens

christmasagainArriving soon after the Oscars, in the first two weeks of Spring, the 44th edition of the “New Directors/New Films” series remains an excellent way for New York film lovers to warm up to a fresh year of film discoveries. Co-curated by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the series of 26 international features and 16 short films is ripe with debuts, as well as new titles by promising directors. As always, the selection amounts to a expertly-informed survey of audacious world cinema today: five of the feature films are from the U.S., six from France, two from Argentina, and one each from the UK, Italy, Colombia, South Korea, China, India, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Israel, Jordan, Belgium/Netherlands and Hungary.

The opening night film, a sensation at this year’s Sundance Festival, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”, is based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s much-loved semi-autobiographical graphic novel about her sexual awakening in 1970s San Francisco. British actress Bel Powley delivers a remarkable performance as Minnie Goetz, an aspiring cartoonist/illustrator whose debaucheries start by sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). Writer/Director Marielle Heller, who previously adapted the book for the stage, is a perfect match for Gloeckner’s story. Never moralistic, the film is tender, funny and wise, with great period locations and gorgeous animations that perfectly adumbrate the narrative. Kristen Wiig gives a standout performance as Minnie’s free-spirited mother. Read more

NYFF52: Hollywood Kids Makin’ Movies Of Themselves

Filmwax Radio blogger Herbert Gambill’s 4th dispatch from the New York Film Festival press & industry screenings. The Festival runs from Friday, September 26th through Sunday, October 12th.

NYFFMaps to the Stars” has a long development history. Bruce Wagner wrote the screenplay twenty years ago, adapted it into a novel, and now David Cronenberg has updated this satire of Hollywood excess to reflect the TMZ/celebrity meltdown dramas of today. It’s a caustic critique of family life in an era of so many over-medicated children sexualized at increasingly younger ages and parents who indulge in desperate, sometimes cultish solutions to their own battered, often sexually-molested pasts. We’ve seen such satires before but this one is refreshing for two reasons: first, unlike pandering fantasies like the TV show “Entourage” a show that encourages you to love and identify with moronic celebs (or at least indulge them), the subjects of “Maps to the Stars” have their indulgences called out constantly in the film. They all seem to have at least some idea of how unsustainable their lifestyles and attitudes are. And they suffer dearly for their bad actions; secondly, the performances are all so entertaining that, no matter what you think of the subject matter, it is compulsively watchable.

Mia Wasikowska plays Agatha Weiss, a burn victim (from setting her own house on fire) recently released from a sanatorium, who returns to her family in Los Angeles. Her father (an unforgettable John Cusack) is now a famous psychotherapist and self-help guru. Her mother (Olivia Williams) manages the movie career of her 13-year-old son Benjie (a terrific performance by Evan Bird of the TV show “The Killing”), who is about to star in the latest of a hugely successful series of bad babysitter films. Shunned by her family because of her pyromania, and because of a family secret of which she’s privy, Agatha finds work —via a Twitter friendship with the real-life Carrie Fisher— as a “chore-whore” for Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a once A-list actress now desperate to land the role playing her own dead mother, herself a once famous Hollywood actress. Havana is also a patient of Agatha’s father, who is trying to help her overcome years of abuse she claims to have suffered at the hand of her mother. Agatha also pursues a romance with a limousine driver and struggling actor played by Robert Pattinson who spent most of Cronenberg’s 2012 film “Cosmopolis” riding in the back of a limo. Read more

NYFF52: Due Maestri Italiani

NYFFFilmwax Radio blogger Herbert Gambill’s 3rd dispatch from the New York Film Festival press & industry screenings. The Festival runs from Friday, September 26th through Sunday, October 12th.

The plot of Eugène Green’s “La Sapienza” brings to mind Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy.” In that 1954 film an estranged couple’s visit to Pompeii provided something of a rekindling of their love. In Green’s film a successful middle-aged French architect, Alexandre (played by Fabrizio Rongione, who also stars in the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night,” another film in this year’s NYFF main slate), depressed by changes ordered by a client, travels with his wife Alienor (Christelle Prot Landman) to view the works of one of his heroes, the Roman Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. The couple, whose relationship has been running cold for many years, first visits Borromini’s birthplace, Ticino, in the Italian-speaking southern part of Switzerland, by Lake Maggiore, where they meet two teenage siblings who make a huge impression on them. Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) wants to study architecture himself; his sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) suffers from dizzy spells perhaps induced by her fear of being separated from her brother. Though Alexandre gives Goffredo a chilly initial reception, his wife talks him into proceeding to Rome with him, leaving her to tend to an ailing Lavinia. Read more