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

Review: 20,000 Days on Earth

20-000-days-on-earth-posterAt age 56 (he’ll turn 57 this Monday), Australian musician, screenwriter and novelist Nick Cave has been alive more than “20,000 Days on Earth“, which is also the title of Iain Forsyth’s and Jane Pollard’s immersive, subject-participatory film about the life and work of the multi-talented artist. Forsyth and Pollard are UK visual artists who have previously made videos and audio books with Cave and began their careers doing some very innovative re-staging of musical performances. There are exciting performance sequences in the doc but most of it is taken up with Cave talking about his life, sometimes directly, and other times employing various conceits: questioned by a therapist (not his own in real life), or chatting with celebrity friends (Kylie Minogue, Ray Winston) as they ride with him in his Jaguar. (Yes, he’s not an impoverished artist these days.) When it comes to record-keeping, Cave is refreshingly old-school, typing away on a manual typewriter and perusing old diaries (his junkie days, the dreadful ‘80s), and the accretion of these primary sources gives the film a rich texture. Cave rehearses songs with his band mate Warren Ellis and these sequences will be a boon for fans interested in instrumentation and process. (Ellis uses the popular mini-Korg to accompany Cave as he plays piano.) Even if you’ve never heard of Cave, as long as you’re interested in the creative process or what it’s like to be an artist on the far side of his 50s, this film could very well cast a spell on you. It’s one of the best films about a musician I’ve ever seen.

Currently screening at Film Forum through Tuesday, September 30th.  Directors will appear at select shows this weekend; check link for details.

The 52nd New York Film Festival Main Slate

NYFFKent Jones’ 2nd time at the helm of the New York Film Festival is an impressive one, with two major American world premieres opening this fall, a host of U.S. premieres of notable world auteurs, and 1st time appearances by several New York indie filmmakers. The 52nd festival runs between September 26 and October 12.

Opening the festival is “Gone Girl,” David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. Ben Affleck stars as a bar owner in Missouri who becomes the prime suspect after his wife goes missing on the day of their fifth anniversary. Rosamund PIke plays the wife, seen in extensive flashbacks detailing their crumbling marriage. It will be interesting to see how Fincher treats the sometimes unreliable narration that was used in the book. Some surprising choices round out the cast, including Neil Patrick Harris as the wife’s ex-boyfriend, Tyler Perry as a superstar attorney and Emily —the model made famous by the “Blurred Lines” video— plays a coed who has an affair with Affleck’s character.

Paul Thomas Anderson is the first director to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel but he’s chosen one of the reclusive author’s more approachable creations. “Inherent Vice,” Pynchon’s 2009 book was a comical noir set in 1970 Los Angeles concerning a pothead private eye named Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello. Anderson again casts Joaquin Phoenix, this time in the role of Doc, Josh Brolin as a police detective and Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) as Sportello’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth. (Pynchon loves colorful names.) The Manson trial going on at the time underscores the story’s paranoid mood. The Festival’s centerpiece feature also stars Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Owen Wilson, and Jena Malone. Read more

Fandor Announces New Initiatives

fandor_icon_large-69dca41db64bdeea4368976e6a0d1335Online film community and streaming service Fandor.com announced two new products today: FIX, and Fandor | Festival Alliance.

FIX “will enable filmmakers to feature both their current work as well as upcoming projects, through new, dynamic webpages at Fandor.com that facilitate interaction between filmmakers and their audiences.” The project launched today with five notable filmmakers debuting 30 new works on Fandor:

  • Caroline Martel (her documentary Wavemakers)
  • Hal Hartley (debuting The Girl from Monday, Ambition and Theory of Achievement)
  • Barry Jenkins (making available numerous short films including My Josephine and Little Brown Boy)
  • Marie Losier (premiering nearly all of her short films and her feature-length documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye
  • Mark Rappaport (debuting his earliest feature Casual Relations and the short Postcards, rounding-out the availability of nearly all of his work on Fandor)

About 100 other filmmakers are also participating in the project. Go to http://www.fandor.com/fix for more information.

Fandor | Festival Alliance uses Fandor’s technical platform to “spotlight dynamic film festival pages for F|FA partners, offer structured membership incentive packages and provide national promotions for partners through advertising and social reach.”

Rooftop & BAMcinemaFest Announce Summer Lineups

RooftopRooftop Films kicks off their 18th season next weekend at Industry City with back-to-back evenings showcasing the best of independent cinema. Friday, May 16th will pick up Rooftop’s long standing tradition of opening their season with a night of short films, an event they call “This is What We Mean by Short Films.”  On Saturday, May 17th, they will screen Gillian Robespierre’s very funny first feature “Obvious Child” which is already the buzz of the festival circuit and which will have its theatrical run later this summer. All said, 45 features will be screened in this summer’s festival at various outdoor locations. Here are some titles we are most anticipating: Read more

Review: THE DOUBLE

double poster“The Double” is set, much like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” or Godard’s “Alphaville”, in a fantasy world that is part future and part past. There are televisions, copy machines and elevators but the devices and sets are gray, cumbersome variants of their contemporary versions, inflected by the style and paranoia of Stalinist bureaucracy. Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a shy, ineffectual clerk hopelessly in love with a blonde copy girl (a winning performance by Mia Wasikowska). A new employee, James Simon, turns out to be his doppelgänger. James looks just like Simon (though he has a hard time getting people to acknowledge this) but James is a confident, popular, swaggering cad who quickly wins over everyone he meets including the copy girl and the boss’s goth-punk daughter. The funniest scenes in the film involve James coaching Simon on how to get girls. This dual role performance by Eisenberg is a thrilling example of his acting skills. Simon’s frustration at his lookalike’s grand reception —cheerfully waved through by the same security guard who always challenges Simon’s credentials— keeps building as he is cuckolded by his bolder self.

The mentorship sours quickly, though, as James steals Simon’s research to get promoted and turns into a monstrous lothario  dragging countless women back to Simon’s apartment (including  a crabby, aging waitress, played by Cathy Moriarity. Based on a Dostoevsky novella and adapted by director Richard Ayoade (“Submarine”) and Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother), “The Double” is a hugely entertaining parable of paranoia and self-loathing, set in an allegorical world that anyone working in a cube farm today will relate to at once. Read more

Review: PALO ALTO

palo_alto-poster-new-palo-alto-new-movie-posterGia Coppola’s debut feature “Palo Alto” is based on four short stories by actor James Franco, who grew up in that Northern California city. The cultural and financial center of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is home to mostly white, upper-middle-class, highly educated families. African-Americans make up less than two percent of the population; the only black person seen in the film is a cop.

Emma Roberts plays April, a shy high school student but who is years wiser —certainly nicer— than her peers. She is mockingly outed by her girlfriends as a virgin yet she’s secretly having sex with her soccer coach (Franco). Conflicted about this affair April also has a secret crush on Teddy. Teddy is a sweet, but petulant, non-communicative pothead played by Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer. The senior Kilmer appears briefly in the latest of what is a series of odd but memorable performances. Teddy’s best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) is combative and  impulsive, putting both of them in bad, sometimes dangerous situations. Jack is not verbally sophisticated enough to keep Fred in check and both he and April are too socially insecure to advance their mutual attraction. Meanwhile, Emily (Zoe Levin), a girl with a bad reputation, easily seduces both Jack and Fred. Emily is sexually precocious yet still wears silly bandz (the ones pre-teens collect) on her wrist. The film is full of wonderful, subtle details like this. Even the privileged children of smart, liberal, resourceful parents must wrestle with the awkward transition toward adulthood. Read more

An Online Chris Marker Retrospective

CA.0822.secondlookAvailable this May from the SundanceNow Doc Club, an online documentary subscription service programmed by Thom Powers, is “Chris Marker and His Legacy,” a series of films either by, about or influenced by the prolific French filmmaker. Many admirers know Marker, who died in 2012 at the age of 91, for his haunting 1962 short “La Jetée,” a sci-fi story composed almost entirely of still photographs. (It would later be adapted into the Terry Gilliam-directed feature “12 Monkeys”.) But documentary was his principal genre and he made dozens of them over his long career. Many of them took the form of personal essays and his much-loved 1982 doc “Sans Soleil” is considered a masterpiece of the sub-genre. That film is available in an excellent edition from the Criterion Collection, but most of his films are difficult to find.

The five Marker films in the Docs Club series display his wide range of interests. He was a political activist, and in “Sixth Side of the Pentagon”, co-directed with François Reichenbach, he captured the 1967 anti-war protests that Norman Mailer wrote about in his “Armies of the Night.” For the political Marker, I also recommend “A Grin Without a Cat,” a fascinating portrait of the rise and decline of new left politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s, available on DVD from Icarus Films.

Marker excelled at portraits of artists and the creative process. He filmed Akira Kurosawa shooting “Ran” and Andrei Tarkovsky fans will want to check out “One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich,” his portrait of the great Russian director at work on his last film, “The Sacrifice.” Read more

In Praise of Older Women

L-R: Moderator Anna Merlan, Rosie Perez, Brooke Shields and Daphne Rubin-Vega

L-R: Moderator Anna Merlan, Rosie Perez, Brooke Shields and Daphne Rubin-Vega

“When you get older the sex gets better,” actress Rosie Perez observed yesterday in a discussion held at Manhattan’s NeueHouse work collective space. However, she and three other female stars related, the same is not always true for a woman career in the film industry.

The second annual First Time Fest opened with a panel on “Women in Entertainment” featuring panelists Carol Alt, Rosie Perez, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Brooke Shields. Moderated by Village Voice writer Anna Merlan, the four women talked about the sexism, racism and agism still prevalent in Hollywood.

Model, actress and nutrition activist Carol Alt, who, at 53, “can’t fit into sample sizes anymore,” talked about the careful negotiations for her Playboy December 2008 issue shoot. No retouching was allowed for the cover and fold-out of the then 49 year-old, who calls herself “the Babe Ruth of modeling.” (One thing I learned about her I didn’t know before that we have in common: we were both in Army ROTC!)

Brooke Shields lamented the unfortunate reputation her protective mother got just trying to enforce regulations like the California Child Actor’s Bill, also known as the Jackie Coogan Act. After finishing college Shields says she was horrified to find that four years at Princeton hurt instead of helped her career. Compare that with James Franco’s hiatus at Columbia. Read more