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 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.”

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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

SUN KISSED: A Documentary Explores a Fatal Skin Disorder Killing Navajo Young

Native American author —he prefers to be called an American Indian— Sherman Alexie was on the Leonard Lopate Show the other day talking about his new book, Blasphemy, and he said he thinks the U.S. still practices colonialism in respect to American Indians. “When you lose centuries of tradition,” Alexie said, “you’re in incredible existential pain.” Yet another source of pain for one tribe, the Navajo, and its connection to the genocide of the American Indians is powerfully revealed in the documentary Sun Kissed, airing this Thursday (Oct. 18) on POV at 10pm.

“Sun Kissed” tells the story of Dorey and Yolanda Nez, a Navajo couple living on a reservation in New Mexico. Both of their children were born with Xeroderma Pigmentosum —or XP— a genetic disorder that makes exposure to sunlight fatal. The disease is so rare it only occurs one in a million in the general population. Their son passed away at age 11 and when the film begins Dorey is the full-time caretaker of his 16-year-old daughter Leanndra, who is paralyzed by the neurological degeneration that can also be caused by XP. Read more

HERMAN’S HOUSE directed by Angad Singh Ballah

Anyone who cares about social justice surely knows about the sad story of the Angola Three. A new documentary, “Herman’s House“, which is having its New York premiere Wednesday night at the Harlem International Film Festival, powerfully states the case against prolonged solitary confinement and how one activist made a huge difference in the life of Herman Wallace. Wallace has been in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola prison for 40 years, longer than anyone ever has been in the U.S. There are doubts about his guilt–the widow of the guard he is charged with murdering even has her doubts. And one can’t help but suspect that his involvement in the Black Panther chapter at the prison is why he still remains in solitary, rather than being in the general prison population.

“Herman’s House,” directed by Angad Ballah, tells the story of New York artist Jackie Summell’s unique artistic response to Herman’s fate. She began writing and phoning Wallace and asked him to imagine the type of house he would like to live in instead of the six-by-nine-foot cell he has been in since 1972. This communication was the basis of an art installation she built, which included a life-sized model of his prison cell, plans and models of the dream house he imagined, and a timeline of his life. (You can see more documentation of the show at her website.) “The best activism,” Jackie says, “is equal parts love and equal parts anger.” Her outrage is matched by her rich friendship with Herman and her devotion to his cause extended after the installation (which she put on twelve times in various countries); she moved to New Orleans and began working to realize Herman’s dream of a house built to help troubled children. Read more

GREEN Directed by Sophia Takal

In the opening scene of filmmaker Sophia Takal’s fascinating debut feature “Green” some young New York hipster types have a ponderous discussion about author Philip Roth. Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine) insists that “even as a technician the guy’s amazing.” He teases his girlfriend Genevieve’s (Kate Lyn Sheil) ability to evaluate a Roth novel of which she’s only read thirty pages. No, she corrects him, she’s read all of it. The remainder of this short film (it times in at 72 minutes) concerns the emotional and intellectual dynamics of this couple, yet everything we will learn —or need to know— about their characters is revealed in this one brief exchange. Sebastian is very opinionated but he’s not a snob; he doesn’t take himself too seriously nor is he shy or hesitant in the way Genevieve is. She’s less outspoken but she’s as competitive as he is in her own way. They laugh and smile tenderly at each other during the hipster gab and trade shorthand looks and gestures; they’re obviously in love and comfortable with each other.

The next scene is a wide shot of the couple arriving at a house in the country. The location is never identified but with some observation one notes that all the cars have Pennsylvania plates. Takal employs these long exterior wide shots several times in a similar, mysterious fashion: we have to scan the frame–”where’s Waldo” style–for the origin of the voices we hear. The sound design by Weston Fonger is supple and rich. Nature and ambient sounds are combined with Ernesto Carcamo‘s spooky, almost sci-fi soundtrack (think of the soundscapes Giovanni Fusco created for Antonioni). Partnered with the lush, sylvan exteriors the film almost feels at times like a trippy, environmental installation. Read more

COMPLIANCE Directed by Craig Zobel

True story.  I recently heard a young woman —shaken, on the verge of tears— tell some friends about how her thuggish bar manager accused her and a co-worker of theft the night before. After the place closed, he locked the door and wouldn’t let them leave until one of them confessed. Frustrated when both pleaded their innocence until early in the morning, he fired both of them. “Can he do that?” she asked. No, he can’t. It’s called illegal imprisonment. And he probably broke any number of labor laws as well. The susceptibility of people who don’t know their legal rights, of underpaid workers afraid of losing their job, and our ingrained fear of and deference to authority–this is at the heart of Craig Zobel’s brilliant film “Compliance.” It is easily the most radical American film of the year.

Ostensibly a thriller, the story is very simple. On a busy Friday night at an Ohio fast food restaurant called ChickWich, middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a call from a police officer telling her that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker) is suspected of theft. Sandra diligently follows the policeman’s instructions, taking Becky to the back, questioning her, subjecting her to a strip search, even asking her construction worker fiance Van (Bill Camp) to help as she juggles the demands of the front counter and the man on the phone. We know the caller (Pat Healy) is a sadistic prankster, trying to see how far he can push people beyond their ethical boundaries. It’s easy to think we’d catch on quickly if this happened to us, yet this is inspired by a real incident, one of 70 such pranks that happened over a decade. (For a fascinating document of them, see the Wikipedia page on the “strip search prank call scam.”) Read more

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS Directed by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud

After his demanding wife smashes his beloved violin, gifted musician Nasser-Ali Khan decides it can not be replaced. No other violin will produce the beauty that has led to his stellar musical career or help him forget his unhappy marriage. After rejecting a number of conventional suicide methods, Khan announces that he will die in eight days, simply by laying down and giving up. Each day, memories from his past gradually tell the story of how his love of life diminished and the significance of this particular violin.

The old technique of deathbed flashbacks is enlivened here by a wealth of narrative devices (live action mixed with numerous styles of animation, theatrical re-enactments and multiple film stock simulations) as well as some Oscar-worthy art direction and sound editing. The setting will also be novel for most audiences: Tehran in 1958, a time when Iran was more westernized than it is now. “Chicken with Plums” is adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name.  She and her co-director, Vincent Paronnaud —also a graphic novelist— made the acclaimed 2008 animated version of her graphic novel “Persepolis.” Read more

CRAIGSLIST JOE directed by Joe Garner

Every morning, Justin, a young Chicago man juggling dozens of part-time jobs and activities, goes on Craigslist and follows the same routine. First he checks the “personals: strictly platonic: women seeking men” section. Then he goes to “jobs: general labor” and clicks on “Transport” and “ETC.” Within the “Gigs” section, he browses listings in “labor”, “event,” “crew,” “domestic” and “talent.” Finally he heads over to the “pets” section in “community.” Justin is one of the self-described Craigslist addicts whom filmmaker Joe Garner meets on a journey to see if the free, online forum begun seventeen years ago is actually enabling a sense of community for its users. “I’m going to use technology,” Joe declares, “the very thing that is supposed to be isolating us — to connect with others.”

His mission?  For one month he will have no access to money, friends or family, carrying with him only a laptop, cellphone, passport and toothbrush. He will rely totally on Craigslist to find food, shelter, rides and company. Sure, some might suggest that a  healthy, young, attractive white male pretending to be homeless for a month is not the riskiest example of participatory journalism. And then there is the matter that he is being accompanied the whole while by a camera man (Kevin Flint) whom he also found on Craigslist. Still, it’s an interesting idea and Garner is an earnest, genial pathfinder. A boyish 29-year-old (he looks a bit like Kevin Connolly of “Entourage”), he’s good at staying in the the background and letting people tell their stories. Read more

KLOWN directed by Mikkel Nørgaard

Early in “Klown,” a Danish sex comedy released in the U.S. last week, the slow-witted, geeky, thirty-something Frank (Frank Hvam) confesses to his horny, always scheming pal Casper (Casper Christensen) that he hasn’t read the assigned text for their all-male book club meeting. But neither has Casper. “I didn’t join the book club to read,” he snaps back. “I come here to hang out with the guys!” Not a typical venue for male-bonding councils, yet that is exactly what it turns out to be. The other men give Frank mischievous advice on how to court favor with his girlfriend: masturbate on her while she is asleep. (He later tries this in a boundary-pushing, outrageous scene.) When another member also confesses to not having read the book (the novella, “Heart of Darkness”), the club leader punishes him (Jørgen Leth, star of “The Five Obstructions”) by giving him what he calls a “schnozzle”–the kind of nose crimpings Moe routinely dealt Curly and Larry.

The club is led by Bent, an octogenarian made rich and famous for writing one song (“Alley Cat”) and who also runs a very exclusive brothel, one Casper hopes to visit during a canoeing vacation with Frank. (A funny bit lost for most non-Danish audiences is that Bent is played by Bent Fabric, the actual Dane who wrote the silly piano standard that won a Grammy in 1962 and which also appears on the film’s soundtrack a couple of times.) For family man Casper, the trip down the river promises to be a wild, lecherous “Tour de Pussy,” one almost ruined when Frank kidnaps a 12-year-old nephew, Bo, and brings him along to disprove his pregnant girlfriend’s understandable doubts about his potential for fatherhood. Read more

film review: MELANCHOLIA

While the planets may not have aligned so well for director Lars Von Trier at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where he was made persona non grata, his new film, “Melancholia” seems to be faring much better. An end of days tale, the film plays out in two distinct sections. After an otherworldly extended prologue (which has garnered an occasional ovation at festival screenings), the movie moves on to its first chapter, the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) with Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The wedding is extraordinarily lavish taking place at the sprawling mansion and grounds of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy husband John (a very good Kiefer Sutherland). A small bright celestial entity appears and disappears in the night sky.

Over the course of the wedding, a clinically depressed Justine sinks further and further into a state of despair. Her circumstances are not helped by her cold removed mother (Charlotte Rampling), her clownish removed father (John Hurt) or her morally corrupt boss, Jack. Jack (Alexander’s Dad, Stellan), the deviously ambitious owner of an advertising firm where Justine works, pursues her throughout the wedding for a hook line on a new ad campaign. Justine is surrounded by toxicity and feels compelled to sabotage her own wedding. Read more

film review: Littlerock

If not for actress (& co-screenwriter) Atsuko Okatsuka, “Littlerock” might have still been an average to above-average indie film.  However. Ms. Okatsuka’s performance is so seemingly effortless, it’s downright deceptive.  I can guarantee you you’ll be thinking about her and the indelible character she creates in Mike Ott’s second feature long after you finish watching.

The synopsis is pretty straightforward: a la “Mystery Train” —comparisons to the Jarmusch 1989 classic are inevitable—, Japanese siblings Atsuko and Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are playing tourists in the States.  They’ve ended up in the dusty So Cal hamlet of Littlerock (there is no reference to that other Little Rock).  Intending to stay in a motel just for a night or two before heading up to San Francisco and to the former Japanese interment camp and current National Historical Site, Manzanar, the two fall in with a group of local townies and it is Atsuko, at first reluctant, who decides to stay behind while Rintaro goes to northern California on his own for a couple of days.   In the time on her own and despite not knowing a word of English (Rintaro does all the translating), Atsuko becomes friendly with outcast and wanna-be model Corey (Corey Zacharia) and has a brief fling with the earnest Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes).

There’s not much more to the story then that.  A few other local beer swilling doofuses that round out the rest of the cast are somewhat menacing as is Francisco (Roberto Sanchez), a Spanish speaking kitchen worker who works in Corey’s father’s restaurant.  Nothing mounts up to anything near violence though it’s suggested that that’s where things are heading.  That things don’t necessarily go where you expect provides both the film’s tension (and prevents it from being too lightweight) as well as its relief.  The film’s tone is even and well paced thanks to editor David Nordstrom and looks great thanks to cinematographer Carl McLaughlin. Though I’ve not seen Mike Ott’s first film, “Analog Days”, it seems like he is yet another to watch for in what seems to be a new crop of remarkable low budget indie filmmakers.  In these dog days of summer amidst the usual banal line-up of comic book movies, “Little Rock” serves those looking for something subtle but more full-bodied.