Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wendy and Lucy

It’s the rare movie Q&A where the director has to contend with a dog. But such a canine intrusion can be tolerated when the mutt (Lucy) belongs to the director (Kelly Reichardt) and shares top billing in her latest film, Wendy and Lucy. Reichardt recently spoke with Star critic Marshall Fine at the Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck. And despite a rambunctious Lucy (“She’s clearly not trained”, Reichardt explained, making the dog’s finely calibrated “performance” all the more impressive), the director shed light on her critically-appraised (and suddenly topical) feature.

Wendy and Lucy is a minimalist movie. The barebones plot—girl (Wendy, played by a subtle Michelle Williams) loses dog (Lucy, starring as herself) on her trip north to Alaska—is unaccompanied by music and goes for long stretches without dialogue. Reichardt shot it in two weeks and hunkered down in her Queens apartment for six months of editing. But there is a warmth to the film that belies its precise production. Cinematographer Sam Levy bathes the woods outside of Portland in an amber glow. A nighttime scene with a group of runaway teenagers and their pierced, prematurely weathered faces illuminated only by a bonfire is particularly effective.  The friendship Lucy strikes with a security guard (Wally Dalton) is her lone (human) beacon; just about every other character she meets represents a roadblock. 

                Reichardt wanted to make a movie about people “without a net.” Wendy doesn’t have a family, education or savings account to fall back on. “You can’t get a job without a job; can’t get a house without a house,” says the guard.  While these limitations can be tragic (the film was inspired by Hurricane Katrina and the brutal class divide it exposed), they also allow Wendy to fall off the grid in an America where it is increasingly difficult to do so.  Reichardt explained that the Portland of the film is meant to look anonymous; its superstores stand as oases in massive parking lots just as they do in every other town.  The big box strip mall ennui of the modern road trip (what would Kerouac think?) compels Lucy to keep running toward an unknown future until she’s practically out of land. Wendy might be rootless, but is there anything out there worth being rooted down to?

                It’s hard to ignore the relevance of a film with a broke, homeless heroine who just scrapes by on the quest for a better life. But Reichardt (who shot the film a year before the credit crisis left all of us couch-diving for nickels) shudders to think of her movies as soapboxes. The director omitted character exposition (an injury that left Wendy’s ankle in a brace is unexplained) and Psych 101 lecturing (“I’m going to say I didn’t hear that,” she responded to a question about the lack of maternal figures).  

                While unsentimental, Wendy and Lucy is affecting. Reichardt has empathy to spare—she spoke of the movie’s “gutter punk” transients like a worried mother—but does not romanticize Wendy’s struggle.  She has made a lean movie for lean times, refusing to prey on audience emotion. Even despite that adorable dog.  

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hey Mickey, what's my line?

Mickey Rourke disappeared from the public eye years ago. And for a half hour, the packed house at the Times Center on December 8th thought he’d pulled a similar act on his talk with New York Times reporter Lynn Hirschberg and director Darren Aronofsky. But he eventually made an entrance in a pinstriped suit and purple John Lennon shades that he wore despite the dimmed auditorium setting. There’s serious Oscar buzz for Rourke’s turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Despite his bad boy image, Rourke wouldn’t blow this shot at career redemption with a missed appearance.

Rourke all but shoved the moderator off the stage as he entertained the crowed with expletive-laden self-deprecation. But mostly Rourke offered effusive praise for the director who inspired what he called the best work of his roller coaster career. He’d never seen Aronofsky before they had a meeting in the Meatpacking District (“Uh-huh. I’ll always call it the Village.”). Despite Aronofsky pulling up on a green bicycle and wearing a yellow helmet, Rourke “could just tell he had a huge set of balls.” Initially reluctant to do a wrestling movie with a director “whose only exercise comes from buttoning his suit,” Rourke came to see him as “one of the greats who only come around every thirty years. To me, he’s the new Coppola.”

He needed the help. The years Rourke spent boxing hindered rather than prepared him for the role. Boxers look down their disfigured noses at wrestlers. The broad, theatrical fighting moves of WWE matches are anathema to the hunched stances and quick, intricate jabs required of successful boxers.

Six grueling months of training humbled him. His trainer, a former member of the Israeli army (who would “put that cap thing on” whenever they hit the gym during Shabbat) had to push him up and guide him down the stairs of his TriBeCa walkup. He bonded with the wrestlers he met and learned the business, for better (a backstage camaraderie that brightens the often bleak film) and worse (life-altering injuries, a dependence on “vitamins” that Rourke mentioned with a wink).

Rourke has not seen The Wrestler. He won’t for “a few years” He never looks back on his movies until they’re long gone from the theaters since he only looks for their flaws. As Aronofsky said, “he is a man who is absolutely impossible to compliment.” The actor even tried to leave the stage when Hirschberg announced she would be showing a clip from the film. After the moderator shot him down (perhaps out of fear he would never return) he compromised by sticking his fingers in his ears and closing his eyes.

Whatever confidence Rourke lacks in his performances has not changed the work ethic behind them. A graduate of New York’s Actor’s Studio, the Times called him “one of the few true method actors of today.” Aronofsky noted the rewarding challenge of such an understated actor playing a character whose trade demands hamming it up. “Anger is easy,” Rourke said of the Ram’s wrestling scenes and tempter tantrums. It was the longing and regret called for in scenes between Randy and his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) that took an emotional toll. The actors met on camera. Aronofsky explained that “the daughter is a woman who only knows her celebrity father through imagery and that’s just how Evan knew of Mickey.” It’s the kind of authenticity that permeates the film and has made its star an awards season frontrunner.

Whatever praise that Rourke continues to receiving on his comeback tour is unlikely to go to his head. A member of the audience recalled that Rourke had once said in an interview that he could teach anyone to act in fifteen minutes. “Sorry, I was all messed up when I said that,” he admitted. “I think had a court date the next morning.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

City by the Fay

There’s a tension between the political and the personal in Milk that is shared by director Gus Van Sant and the man his compelling film brings to life. Milk begins in a New York subway station in 1970, with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay, closeted 40 year-old, picking up the cherubic Scott (and endearing James Franco). The pair head to the Castro, San Francisco’s burgeoning gay enclave. Milk has no plan, but quickly finds himself at the forefront of a revolution.

San Francisco’s, and the Castro’s, place in the contemporary imagination make it hard to believe that just forty years ago, working-class old-timers made the city inhospitable towards gays. But Milk is surrounded by resistance and brutality that inspire him to start a movement in his modest camera storefront. He becomes the first openly gay man elected to major office. From there, he battles conservative foes on the national stage (Anita Bryant, orange juice spokeswoman-cum-Patron Saint of Bible Belt Bigotry) and municipal halls (family values champion Dan White, played with an effective mix of creepiness and vulnerability by Josh Brolin).

Van Sant’s recent films have been restrained exercises in style (Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, Paranoid Park) that abandoned traditional narrative for sometimes gorgeous and sometimes ponderous lyricism. With Milk the director is tempered by three timeworn genres—the biopic, the docudrama and the Issue movie—that often mute their subjects, reducing them to textbook blurbs. Milk avoids this fate and provides an engaging portrait despite a first half that is too reliant on archival footage and Penn's gratuitous voiceover narration.

The director’s occasional trademark flourishes (slow motion, freeze-frames, loooong tracking shots) distract in on an otherwise staid film, but solid, straightforward storytelling triumphs. Penn also dials down his usual histrionics in a subdued, poignant and at times funny performance—is Milk his first character since Jeff Spiccoli to have a sense of humor?

Milk’s political insights comprise some of its most absorbing moments. But Van Sant does not spell out why Harvey Milk tirelessly threw himself into the machine. He was a successful politician, but not a natural. (He lost his first three bids for office.) He was well-liked (with a few glaring exceptions) but not above getting down and dirty and trading favors. But the big question is whether Milk’s political career owed a greater debt to a moral calling or sheer ambition.

This dilemma makes Scott one of the film’s most intriguing characters. Milk could be swayed by a suicidal gay teenager calling from across the country. He mentions that three of his four boyfriends killed themselves rather than step out of the closet. There are emotional reasons for him to seek change. But Scott delivers an ultimatum: me or the campaign. And despite years of longing after the split, Milk lets him leave without an argument. It’s a testament to Franco that his performance elevates Scott above romantic lynchpin. What could have been a peripheral character winds up exposing Milk’s emotional handicap, putting a welcome/humanizing dent in the halo.

Harvey Milk brought progress. But Milk’s closing credits remind the audience of the AIDS epidemic that shortly followed his death. And Proposition 6, the legislation proposed in the film that would prohibit gays from teaching in public schools, brings Proposition 8 to mind. Milk used to open speeches with the line “I want to recruit you.” Hopefully the film will do the same and usher in a new generation of change.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Houston Street

The recent closure of Avenue A’s Pioneer Theater set off another round of hand-wringing over the sorry state of indie film and the diminished audience appetite—even in New York!—for avant-garde cinema. The Pioneer is a major loss. Eccentric retrospectives focused exclusively on Luis Guzman flicks and 42nd Street Smut Films of the Late 70s. And it might be the only movie theater in the world to lay claim to both a Robert Altman Q&A and a recurring double bill of Poultrygeist and Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie. But there are still a number of venerable arthouse theaters that endure. And a number of them are located right along Houston Street, just a stone’s throw from the Pioneer’s old stomping grounds.

The Landmark Sunshine (Houston between Eldridge and Christie) is a spiffy newcomer to the New York indie scene. It opened in a converted vaudeville theater in 2001. Landmark screens relatively mainstream independent movies (current options include Synecdoche, New York and Happy-Go-Lucky) for mind-bogglingly long runs. (Man on Wire has been there since July.) This theater stands out in the Houston Street crowd for remarkably tush-friendly stadium seats, perhaps explaining its frequent red-carpet premieres.

Across Houston Street on 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street is the Anthology Film Archives. Founded in 1970, it has operated out of its distinctive brick home (a former courthouse) for thirty years, seemingly without a single cosmetic touchup. The theater emphasizes experimental (very) early cinema, shorts, foreign film and avant-garde work of the 60s and 70s. Recent repertories examined the New York vigilante genre, the Polish director Andrzej Wajda and contemporary Turkish cinema. Anthology sates the most obscure cinematic appetites. Chomping at the bit for Paraguayan Hammock, the 160 minute long movie about, well, little more than a Paraguayan hammock? Anthology is the place for you.

The Angelika (Houston and Mercer) opened in 1989 during the heady days of the American indie explosion. It’s defiantly 90s: a coffeehouse monopolizes the entire ground floor and its marquee makes it seem like a Miramax annex. These days the Angelika runs the most mainstream fare of the Houston crew and skips the retrospectives and midnight movies that set its peers apart from the multiplex herd. Still, the Angelika is an institution and a uniquely New York one—don’t fret over the shaking floor; it’s just the 6 train rumbling down below.

In 2005, the IFC Center replaced the Waverly Theater on 6th Avenue just above Houston Street. The IFC runs shorts before all of its screenings—sometimes a blessing and sometimes a fate worse than Fandango commercials. Its slate of new movies consists of festival favorites that otherwise would not have seen the light of day. (This is New York’s House of Mumblecore.) The midnight movie is religion here—Buffy: The Musical and El Topo are perennial favorites. You can also count on the IFC reviving either a Lynch or a Bergman movie on any given weekend. Another Lynchian quirk: the concession stand serves a roast trademarked by the master of the surreal himself.

Walk west down Houston and you’ll find Film Forum, the granddaddy of New York arthouses. As with actual granddaddy’s (which many of its patrons are), Film Forum’s programming can smell a little musty, but God you’ll miss it when it’s gone. Like the Met, this is where you go for the European masters: Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Bergman. It’s not all repertory though; the theater was the first outside the festival circuit to screen Lou Reed’s Berlin and will soon run Wendy and Lucy, Kelly’s Reichardt’s hotly anticipated collaboration with Michelle Williams.

Whether you’re looking for subtitles or sexploitation, animated shorts or Renoir marathons, the Houston Street crawl will likely deliver.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Danny Boyle has a flair for the apocalyptic. Trainspotting’s junkies famously dived into a scummy toilet for a hit. 28 Days Later conjured an eerie, strangely beautiful London depopulated by all but rats and zombies. And the scientists in Sunshine were on a mission to blow up the sun to save an ailing earth. Slumdog Millionaire, the director’s latest, has plenty of misery to go around, but it’s wrapped up in a tidy (albeit clever) romantic bow that makes its characters’ tribulations feel a bit contrived. Still, Slumdog Millionaire is an unabashed epic and a compelling one at that, so viewers can forgive its genre conventions.

Slumdog Millionaire has been described as Dickens transplanted to millennial Mumbai. Jamal is eighteen years old and about to hit the jackpot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But he’s not after the money. Rather, he hopes that his performance wins over Natika, the girl of his dreams. Jamal’s life story (abject poverty and time spent in a seriously deranged “orphanage”) and his budding romance with Natika are related via flashbacks that explain how a lowly chaiwalla (tea server) knows answers that have stopped even the country’s upper-crust lawyers and doctors in their tracks.

Boyle’s movies alternately revere and subvert or modernize tired genre tropes. 28 Days Later was a zombie movie, but its zombies didn’t lumber; they hauled ass. Slumdog Millionaire alludes to Bollywood, India’s gargantuan and often garish movie industry, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle employs the same vibrant color palette. But Boyle doesn’t shy away from the country’s underbelly. (Indian censors are expected to have a field day.) Audiences pulled in by Fox Searchlight’s sunny advertising campaign—“A buoyant hymn to life!”—will be shocked by much of the film’s violence and despair.

The rags portion of this Horatio Alger tale is more compelling than the riches that Jamal and his malevolent brother Salim (a complex character well-played by Madhur Mittal) acquire. Their progress parallels Mumbai’s transformation into a modern, skyscraping metropolis where luxury glass towers replace filthy, destitute slums. (Jamal, in a funny bit, works at a call center.) Boyle takes an ambivalent view on the city’s evolution. Does it owe more to Jamal’s good-hearted pluck and fortunate destiny (“It is written”) or Salim’s criminal ruthlessness? In the end it is a composite of the two, but Boyle is more interested in the painful means that accompany such a metamorphosis than the end.

Slumdog Millionaire has many joyous moments and such likeable characters that the audience winds up rooting for them. But you can’t help but think that Boyle is a bit hesitant about a happy ending.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I've Loved You So Long

It’s been seven years and the French are still trying to live down Amélie. At least that’s what some of the country’s more successful recent imports suggest. I’ve Loved You So Long is the latest in a string of decidedly unsentimental Gallic films (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2 Days in Paris, Dans Paris, Tell No One) that serves as a corrective to the glossy, whimsical Parisian postcards American audiences consistently lap up.

Kristen Scott Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine, a middle-aged woman fresh out of prison. She struggles to readjust to civilian life with the help of her altruistic sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) in the sort of high-ceilinged, tastefully appointed home only the French can muster. The movie is no charm offensive—bear in mind Amélie came out in the autumn of the Freedom Fry—but its insightful performances and intimacy compensate for the absence of boulangeries and Eiffel Tower shots.

Writer and director Philippe Claudel moves things along at a pace just above glacial, but that restraint is necessary to appreciate the depths of Thomas’ portrayal. Juliette is first shown in close-up, weary and sans makeup. Lea’s attempts at even the most diminutive small talk are met with painful indifference. Juliette can’t be bothered to ingratiate herself with Lea’s husband Luc (a convincingly hesitant Serge Hazanavicius) or warm to the couple’s adorable daughters. But things gradually change: Juliette picks up a would-be Don Juan at a bar; she visits museums; enjoys swims with Lea and teaches her niece to play the piano. Claudel wisely avoids a lecture on the role prisons or a society play in rehabilitating its criminals. Juliette’s rebirth is inspired by culture, by an outward aesthetic that nonetheless penetrates.

Juliette’s change is a moving thing to watch, but it’s undermined by a bit of manipulation from Claudel. The audience knows from early on that Juliette was doing time for the murder of her young son. But she is so fragile. Her progress is elegant. Her intelligent sister loves and nurtures her. Because we root for Juliette, we wait for the twist we know is coming.

Some critics have said the reveal is a letdown, but I’ve Loved You So Long would not have benefited from a Shyamalian gotcha ending. It’s the structure that is a bit grating; the movie’s psychological depth would not have been compromised had the details of Juliette’s crime been known from the start. As it is, the dramatic ending seems histrionic compared to the subtlety that preceded it.

Still, witnessing Juliette’s thaw makes up for the off-key denouement. There’s a moment when she enters the quiet, darkened house and fears she is once again alone. The relief and gratitude on her face when she finds her surrogate family says it all: she’s come home.

Friday, November 14, 2008

F U Tube

It didn’t take long for The New York Times to move beyond conventional election analysis into the murky waters of the trend piece. But here it is, leading the first Sunday Styles section of the post-November 4th world: Generation O. “More 18-29-year-olds went to the polls this year than in any election since 1972…These younger voters…may forever be known as Generation O,” posits Damian Cave. Never mind that percentage-wise the youth turnout was not quite as a robust as had been predicted (and only a smidgen higher, at 52%, than in 2004 when John Kerry galvanized the young imagination).

The Styles section has long prided itself on coining (or popularizing already antiquated) inane catchphrases—think metrosexual, drunkorexia, bromance, the man date. But its breathless coverage of this generational love affair ignores an ironic twist in the 2008 race: the internet, that great agent of the young, was just as important to John McCain’s stodgy campaign as it was to Obama’s slick machine. Only whereas the president elect harnessed the internet’s elusive power, McCain sat by as it led to his undoing.

Grassroots was to the Obama campaign what maverick was to the McCain/Palin candidacy. The first-term Illinois senator was not supposed to win. He was up against the indomitable Clinton establishment and its reservoir of experience and deep pockets. But Obama and his people were clued in to the power of the internet in a way that stubbornly eluded older politicians. There were fundraising websites. Facebook groups. Emails and text messages seemingly from the candidate himself (convincing no more a discerning political pupil than Scarlet Johansson of a personal correspondence).

Obama built an online community that realized the internet’s best potential. He created a savvy, coherent forum that met practical goals (spread the word; raise money, even incrementally) but also realized the loftier ambition of empowering (and flattering) his devotees. Hope and change are intangible. But the internet and its infinite tentacles made them seem within reach.

John McCain did not steer the internet his way and the result was the inverse of Obama’s: a burlesque of disgruntled supporters tragically out of synch with their candidate. An elderly woman at a town hall meeting told McCain she could not trust Obama. Her reason, after a moment’ hesitation: “he’s an Arab.” When McCain mentioned his opponent’s name in speeches he was routinely meet with jeers of “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” A sheriff introducing Sarah Palin at a rally made sure to address the Democratic nominee by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama. You can guess where he placed the emphasis. An Obama volunteer asked a crowd of Pennsylvania Republicans why his friend, under Palin’s policy, should have to pay for a rape kit. “She should pay double,” bellowed a man in the crowd.

McCain hardly enabled this pettiness. He quickly removed the microphone from the elderly lady and clarified that Obama was “a good man. A family man.” (He did not clarify that Obama is a Christian, a seemingly gratuitous revision in light of earlier campaign controversies.) He winced at the caterwauling. But the damage was done. The internet is often lauded for its immediacy, but rarely for its permanence. Witnesses posted clips of these unfortunate incidents on the web, bloggers had a field day and millions of people sent them to the inboxes of family and friends. A picture emerged of a listless candidate surrounded by a lynch mob.

The 2008 election was a modern one, but it exposed some dissonant, primitive truths about the internet. The web creates communities, but also encourages cliques. It enables universalism, but also preposterous niches. Facebook might unite you with a fellow stamp enthusiast, but the time spent ogling each other’s collections via online photo albums can potentially take you away from your family or that next door neighbor you’ve never met. And as McCain ruefully learned this year, the internet provides unparalleled access to information, but also occasional unwanted exposure to the noxious and loathsome (incessant penis enlargement spam being the proverbial, disconcertingly small tip of the iceberg). It wasn’t just the internet that did McCain in, but the subset of ignorant, bigoted McCain supporters that found their way on to the screen and at once appalled and appealed to the admittedly baser instincts of smug liberals and undecided voters alike. To borrow some internet lingo, the internet plagued the McCain campaign with a bad case of TMI.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Let The Right One In

Sociologists take note: accidental exposure to Abba is no longer the greatest threat facing Sweden’s teenagers. For starters, there is the child murderer on the loose in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. The killer’s peculiar method of draining his victims’ blood serves an even higher evil: feeding his vampire daughter, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Don’t dismiss the thriller as schlock with subtitles. Let the Right One In is a tender, gracefully shot coming of age tale with a slasher veneer. Its genre elements subside as Eli befriends Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), an outcast neighbor whose struggle with the local bullies is so extreme as to make bloodsucker company a relief.

The running joke here is that Oskar suffers more acute isolation than his undead companion. Eli, forever twelve, has practical, immediate concerns (fresh blood, heavy curtains, impatiently waiting to be invited into homes she visits) and is spared the pubescent speed bumps (divorced parents, idiot teachers, schoolyard thugs) that confront frail Oskar. The young vampiress meets Oskar as he fantasizes about the revenge he might have on his tormentors and coaxes the same violent defense mechanisms out of him that she yearns to suppress in herself. But both child actors imbue their characters with a sweet vulnerability and longing that elicit the kind of audience empathy rarely found in horror films. A potent scene in which Eli makes an unbidden entrance into a sullen Oskar's home (and the searing aftermath) illuminates the emotional heft that the movie offers as an antidote to the usual featherweight character development in current horror cinema.

Let the Right One In’s vampire story might serve as adolescent parable, but the movie respects its genre roots. The lighting is austere, alternating pitch black fright scenes with stark white, snowy landscapes. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography eschews gruesome close-ups for elegant wide shots. And Johan Soderqvist’s score spares viewers the cheap musical jolts that so often cue horror fans to jump in their sets. Still, Alfredson and writer John Lindqvist (upon whose novel the movie is based) do not take their film too seriously and include gleefully dark comic moments (particularly a school ice-skating trip gone fantastically awry) to lighten the somber mood.

Things only fall apart in the final scene, a tacked on coda that spoils what would have been a subtle conclusion. Let the Right One In is a horror film with few scares, a black comedy with few outright laughs. What kept it ticking until its very end was the fragile bond between Eli and Oskar and the fortitude Oskar’s supernatural friend inspired in him. But the movie ends not with a triumph of humanity but of the supernatural. It is a lame concession to genre norms, at its hoariest going so far as to hint at a sequel.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sulk Mania

Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the hulking over-the-hill prizefighter in The Wrestler, is not the film’s only player looking for redemption. Star Mickey Rourke and director Darren Aronofsky also aim to revitalize their careers with the unassuming drama. Robinson’s floundering career in the ring has left his personal life a shambles; his estranged daughter Stephanie (Rachel Evan Wood) detests him and his only love interest is the reluctant stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, in another role with a single digit costume budget). After a heart attack and failed attempts at stability with both women, Randy enters the fray one last time. But Rourke’s and Aronofsky’s naturalistic performance and direction suggest that neither career will burn out anytime soon.

The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s first feature to deal with human destruction working from the outside in. Pi, Requiem for a Dream and the misguided The Fountain all examined the effects a ravaged mind could have on the body. But Randy’s punishment begins externally. It comes in the gruesome, hard-to-watch form of body slams, folding chairs and staple guns. Fans that had to turn away from Requiem’s close-ups of track marks and plunging hypodermic needles: you have been warned. Fittingly for a movie about the physical, The Wrestler is the least cerebral of Aronosfky’s films in tone and production values. Robert Siegel’s dialogue is restrained and straightforward, its more emotive moments tersely distilled to their cores. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography provides a bleached palette to match Randy’s weariness and the film’s forlorn Jersey Shore setting. And gone are the flashy editing techniques—split screens! Time jumping! Hyperkinetic montages!—that defined Aronofsky’s earlier efforts.

The Fountain, despite its intellectual and visual ambitions, flummoxed many critics and alienated all but Aronofsky’s most avid fans with its muddled time travel story arc. Ann Hornaday called it an “earnest, magnificent wreck” in The Washington Post. Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times was less kind, saying that enduring it was “a pretty decent case for euthanasia; here is what it’s like to long for a swift, merciful end.” With The Wrestler, Aronofsky and Rourke (no stranger to career frustration himself and, by the weathered looks of him, a man who could identify with the Ram’s pathological self-abuse) find success by scaling back their ambitions. Rourke withdraws further and further into himself over the course of the film. At its conclusion he is an empty shell, spurned by the two women who were his last hopes. “That’s the only place they love me. Out there,” he says of the ring—displayed here as more of a fraternity than a deathtrap—before his ill-advised final brawl. And so he flings himself back into the embrace of the community that had lost faith in him. Aronofsky and Rourke have done the same and famously forgiving Hollywood is sure to provide a warm welcome back.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"The Roaches Wave Hello"

Mars Bar does not blend. Its exterior is caked in evolving neon murals and graffiti, “Dive In” scrawled above the glorious dive bar’s rickety front door. But its outward brazenness betrays a dark, dank inside whose patrons want nothing more than anonymous bender. Recently, both sides have taken a hit. The Mars Bars windows have been cleaned. Timid passersby can finally look in and the customers, reluctantly, can see out.

A series of Avalon luxury buildings have enveloped Mars Bar’s block in a cloak of hastily constructed glass mediocrity. Down the street you’ll find Blue and Gold, a high priced boutique imported to the East Village from East Hampton, the neighborhood’s spiritual antithesis despite the shared geographic moniker. Also on the block is Bowery Wine Company, co-owned by Bruce Willis (who honed his chops as a restaurateur with the highly regarded Planet Hollywood franchise) and easily among the most generic bars an unlucky soul might stumble upon in Manhattan. Across Houston is a behemoth Whole Foods store, saved from complete yuppie oblivion only by the marvelous, cheap beer store at its northeastern corner. True, Mars Bar does have a neighbor in debauchery with The Cock (nee The Hole), the notoriously louche cesspool of a gay bar just an eightball’s throw away. But gone are the days when Mars Bar was the rule of the area and not the exception to it.

As one of the ever-dwindling holdouts of the East Village’s CBGB heyday, any sign of a Mars Bar cleanup or, heaven forbid, renovation is greeted with consternation by it grizzled, stumbling clientele. Rex, the Dee Snyder look-alike who does not appear to have left the bar in eleven years, says the cops (who have busted into the place on the few occasions I’ve found myself there past New York’s 4am closing time) have it in for the joint. But with a set of customers like Rex, Crazy Dave (thrown out of the bar an average of twice a day) and Handsome Eddie (whose Lazy Boy chair occupies a corner), you can rest assured that one of New York’s great bastions of sleaze and grime will not go gently into that good night. Where would East Villagers drink when the sun comes up if it did?

Friday, October 24, 2008

George Washington

“He just wanted greatness.” That’s how Nasia (Candace Evaofski) describes her friend George (Donald Holden) in David Gordon Greene’s George Washington. The same could be said for the wunderkind director himself, just 25 when he made the ambitious, lyrical film. George Washington depicts one summer in the lives of impoverished youths in a decayed North Carolina town. Tragedy and triumph bookend the season and catapult the protagonists into complicated, compromised adulthood.

Greene flaunts his influences. The film is uncannily reminiscent of Terrance Malick’s masterful Days of Heaven. This means lush cinematography (by Tim Orr) of pastoral landscapes threatened by (and dependent on) modern industrialism. Evaofski’s stirring voiceover narration, packed with plainspoken childhood wisdom (“The grown-ups in my town, they were never kids like me and my friends. They had worked in wars and build machines.”) also recalls Malick. But unlike Malick’s seemingly effortless beauties, Greene’s film, while an ascetic delight, occasionally falters under the weight of its artistic flourishes.

Editors Steven Gonzales and Zene Baker’s provide an elliptical structure that compliments the film’s dreamy tone, but negates Greene’s naturalistic dialogue and simple plot. Moments of ethereal grace—George visiting his friend’s burial place (“No one will bother you here”), Nasia telling George, “I hope you live forever” — rub against stalled narrative asides and Orr’s overdependence on slow-motion.

George Washington suggests a literary horror film. Characters are challenged by their own mortality. “I’m not a very good person. I didn’t feel anything,” says Sonya (Rachael Hardy) after witnessing a friend’s death. Viewers will not say the same of Green’s fitfully transcendent debut. Thankfully, the young director is unlikely to face his own mortality any time soon.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hack to School

The few compelling scenes in Antonio Campos’ Afterschool occur within its first thirty seconds and do not belong to the movie itself. Robert (Ezra Miller) watches You Tube clips from his boarding school dorm. There are cackling babies and sleeping kittens. The bits grow ominous: a skateboarder crashes onto concrete; Saddam Hussein’s is hanged; a young girl is debased in a needlessly protracted porn outtake. Sadly for the audience, it only gets worse. When Robert starts shooting his own videos, his camera catches the drug overdoses of two popular students. The memorial video he is assigned to produce details the school’s and his own unraveling.
Afterschool mistakes formal pretension and glacial pacing for art. Cinematographer Jodie Lee Lipes favors spare wide shots and reluctant pans. This refinement suggests a corrective to crude viral videos. But the framing is still an amateurish debacle. The images lack the beauty and foreboding intrigue found in Elephant and Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant’s deliberately paced studies of teenage disaffection. Some good will come out of Afterschool if You Tube amateurs realize they can save their money and skip film school.

Campos’ dialogue is similarly muted and unadorned, realism at odds with the clinical photography. Characters betray zero emotion and lack a plot that might have mitigated these flaws. But there is no narrative arc or climax to supplement the contemplative stillness; the film is all reaction. A cheap last minute twist excels only at audience manipulation. Afterschool is a joyless lecture on How We Live Now. It suffers from the same shortcomings of the Web 2.0 culture it means to critique. Only here, artifice compounds banality. Stick with the sleepy kittens.

Iowa Lineman

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell is named after one of the titular musician’s songs, but it also describes the relationship between the Iowan teen runaway and the 1970s downtown New York counterculture he helped define at its multicultural, pansexual peak.
Russell was a beguiling composite of divergent traits: shy, yet forceful; avant-garde with pop sensibilities; a perfectionist who never met a deadline and painfully insecure about his talents despite genius. His reticence and transmutability—he struggled to accept his homosexuality—formed a charisma that drew people in just as his stubborn work ethic repelled them. The most heartrending moments in the film are the interviews with those who never questioned their allegiance to the complicated, difficult man: his overwhelmingly decent parents— have Kleenex ready for their segments—and his boyfriend, Tom Lee.

Russell’s music imbues Wild Combination with hypnotic grace. The documentary’s most vivid moments feature how-did-they-get-this footage of ecstatic dancers at legendary downtown clubs like The Loft. Russell drew on the orgiastic ferment of the 1970s New York underground with nods to disco, soul, folk, spoken word and the ambient “echo noise” that later defined the New Wave movement. The movie expertly captures that dynamic, bygone time that claimed Russell, who died of AIDS in 1991, as a victim.

Wild Combination is the rare film chronicle of art that registers as art itself. It is a compliment to say that the films more esoteric shots—wake from the Staten Island ferry, spasmodic bursts of monochrome synced to the music, lyrical shots of farmland—are reminiscent of the gorgeous, calculated randomness of Russell’s work itself.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mister Foe

Daniele Radcliffe is not the only British child star coming of age this fall. While Harry Potter grabs headlines for dropping trow in the Broadway production of Equus, Jamie Bell, star of 2000’s Billy Elliot turns up in the decidedly adult Mister Foe, giving an emotionally and physically bare performance of his own. Bell plays Hallam Foe, the type for whom the term arrested development was coined. Hallam is a sexually confused young man who mourns his mother’s death by dressing up in her clothes and makeup. The shady circumstances of his mom’s passing- this being a Scottish film, she drowned in a loch, but how?- have Hallam constantly looking where he shouldn’t. These investigatory impulses extend into the perverse when he becomes the reigning Peeping Tom of the Highlands, ogling passersby engaged in the coital bliss that evades him.

Hallam winds up homeless in Edinburgh after his exasperated stepmother Verity (whom he suspects of killing his mom) kicks him out of the family’s turreted palace. He encounters the hardships that often accompany a movie hero’s arrival in a strange city- drunk hobos, leering old men looking for a trick, overzealous cops and pounding rain- before gazing upon, Kate, a not-so-dead ringer for his mum. The stalking commences, followed by a faintly believable love affair straight out of Sophocles.

Early in their relationship, Kate tells Hallam that she “likes creepy guys,” a dubious harbinger if ever there was one. Kate’s sentiment must be shared by the viewer if he hopes to love the film, for its characters taken together could fill a new volume of the DSM. The abundant flaws on display- there are gold diggers, adulterers, stalkers and suicides, to name a few- make for narrative conflict and comic absurdity, but keep the audience just as removed from the characters as they are from each other.

Despite many luscious shots of Edinburgh, the film’s photography has a clinical grey-blue coldness about it that keeps its characters and their many quirks at arms length. For an off-putting character to be endearing, he must be placed in an off-kilter setting. Stanley Kubrick and Tim Burton movies excel at this; loathsome as A Clockwork Orange’s Alex is, he represents perfectly the dystopian environment that Kubrick’s film conjures. And would audiences sympathize with Edward Scissorhands if he did not offer a comic contrast to his Technicolor suburban nightmare? Foe’s application of war paint and animal skins is an amusing diversion, but a shallow one that feels out of place in a movie otherwise grounded in realism.

The gratuitous murder mystery at the periphery of the film also contributes to its scattershot mood. I never bought into it anymore than the cynical cops or adults of the film. Mister Foe already flirts with lazy pop psychology. Foe’s fitful investigation into his mother’s death seems like little more than a pragmatic justification of his arrested development and oedipal urges.

Like its titular Peeping Tom, Mister Foe observes some intriguing characters, many of them up to no good fun. But the audience is beset by the same limitations of the peeper, denied any intimacy with the quirky people it glances.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bowery Hums

Is it fair to say that Keith McNally has fallen behind the curve when the curve has ceased to exist? The restaurateur has finalized plans to open a brick oven pizzeria on the corner of Bowery and Houston. As if on cue, neighborhood preservationists got in a lather, with the jeremiads about the death of yet another New York neighborhood coming fast and furious. But the hand-wringing over the Bowery, until recently an iconic preserve of downtown derelicts, comes a day late and a dollar short. In the last year or so, the strip’s restaurant supply stores, flophouses and methadone clinics have come to stand beside a Whole Foods monstrosity, the gleaming New Museum of Contemporary Art and chic Bowery Hotel.

McNally is renowned for restaurants that open in “frontier” neighborhoods, quickly giving them a respectable polish. Tribeca, SoHo, the Lower East Side, the Meatpacking District: all once-bohemian enclaves turned into real estate, shopping or nightlife meccas. Of course, McNally alone cannot be credited (or more likely blamed) for gentrifying these hoods: the Lower East Side had already ceded much of its skuzzy charm to slumming uptowners when Schiller’s set up shop and pioneers like Florent Morellet ran Meatpacking strongholds before Pastis made the area’s cobblestone streets safe for stilettos. Whether you view a McNally opening as an expiration or certification of cool, it signals a change.

Lately though, McNally’s Midas touch has lost its luster. Morandi opened in 2006 on a firmly established stretch of 7th Avenue in Greenwich Village. Its rustic Italian menu and interiors represented a departure from his patented French bistro formula. It generated the inevitable Page Six mentions and opening week excitement. But reviews were lukewarm at best- Frank Bruni’s Times takedown of the restaurant and its chef, Jody Williams, caused a minor kerfuffle, with McNally accusing the critic of sexism- and the restaurant never became quite the destination that previous McNally entries had.

I suspect McNally will be fine. He is alone among the A-list or New York restaurateurs for claiming a roster of spots-The Odeon, Lucky Strike, Balthazar, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, Pastis- where the buzz generates itself, unmoored to celebrity designers or chefs. The spaces are handsome but restrained, the decor unlikely to induce the acid flashbacks of a Jeffrey Chodorow dinner. The chefs are competent but unfussy, serving straightforward bistro fare- burgers, steak frites, croquet monsieur’s- to customers seeking a respite from occasionally pretentious greenmarket hegemony on one end and molecular Petri dishes like deep-fried mayonnaise on the other.
McNally may not be the first member of the establishment to colonize the Bowery. But it’s tough to fault him for not putting a new neighborhood on the map when, at this point, the Manhattan map is very clearly drawn. Given McNally’s track record and the genial buzz his restaurants often produce, the imminent pizzeria will likely add to the bustle of the new Bowery, even if it doesn’t create it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

LES Artistes

As the New York gallery scene slowly migrates from West Chelsea to the Lower East Side, Beautiful Losers arrives in theaters as a documentary portrait of Alleged Gallery, the groundbreaking exhibition space that opened on Ludlow Street in1992. With a graffiti-laden bodega exterior that telegraphed the roughhewn street art found inside, Alleged introduced a motley cru of young artists including Barry McGee, Ed Templeton, Mike Mills, Harmony Korine and Spike Jonze to the mainstream. Director Aaron Rose, Alleged’s curator, offers incomparable insight, but his intimate ties to the gallery and its artists result in a hermetic and fawning appraisal.

Beautiful Losers assumes a familiarity with the subject that neglects the uninitiated. Watching it does not inspire the unmitigated terror that an in-law’s home movie would. But the film does leave the less savvy viewer like me with a feeling of being on the outside looking in. The losers in questions are a charismatic bunch; it’s a shame we don’t get to know them better. Part of the problem might be that while the artists did share a gallery, they did not cohere around a particular genre. Inspirations ran the gamut from skate culture to advertising to graffiti to comic books to punk rock. The documentary teaches you a little about all of these muses, but would be stronger if it taught you everything about one. Of course, a more myopic background would give many of the Alleged artists short thrift.

Another solution to the film’s scattershot feel would have been a closer examination of the gallery itself. Participants attest to the cult-like loyalty that Alleged inspired in its artists and audiences: painters slept beneath their portraits rather than in hotels; exhibitions and their showcased artists shuttled between New York. Los Angeles and Tokyo and Rose ran the space for years despite the enormous financial burden it imposed. But just as it falls short of illuminating the art itself, Beautiful Losers struggles to put the gallery in its context. I had hoped to hear more about the pre-gentrified Lower East Side- what attracted a pioneer like Rose to this frontier and how the bohemian charge that Alleged sparked paved the way for the stiletto-choked nightlife destination the LES has become.

Glossing over the Disneyfication of the neighborhood is one thing; giving a free pass to the artists regarding their own commercial embrace is a larger failure. Alleged alumni quickly graduated from the scruffy gallery scene to Pepsi and Apple contracts. And while their advertisements might have gone against the grain aesthetically, they still fattened the pockets of those grey flannel suits. The co-opting of such an anti-establishment crew deserved a more thorough if not critical analysis.

Beautiful Losers is like a reunion between exceptionally quirky and talented college friends. It is a pleasant and endearing celebration. But it only touches the surface, offering a perfunctory crash course on a formative time and place while looking past the occasional bald patch or spare tire.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Some American Broads

Movie critics are in the midst of yet another frenaissance with New York icon and cinematic expatriate Woody Allen. After releasing seventeen Manhattan-centric movies each year for the past 62 years, Woody decamped for London with Match Point in 2005. The film won Allen his best reviews in years, with many declaring the hop across the pond just the breath of fresh air he needed. However the next two anglophiliac exercises, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream, fell short of Match Point’s promise. So now the director has gone in search of the exotic once again with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, set in the titular Spanish city.

The film follows the exploits of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (current Allen muse Scarlett Johannson), two young Americans whose summer abroad is disrupted by quintessentially suave Spaniard Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem sans mop top). A love triangle emerges and eventually expands into a square with the introduction of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s crazed ex-wife.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona excels as a meditation on Allen’s own wanderlust. Cristina bemoans the “puritanical and materialistic” America she’s left behind. Allen, no stranger to sordid tabloid speculation and perpetual Hollywood outlier, didn’t have to strain too hard to write such a character. Vicky’s bland fiancé Doug (Chris Messina) is the sole connection to New York in the film. If Doug-a corporate lawyer and a prude in pleated khakis- embodies contemporary New York for Allen, the city might be waiting a long while for the return of its prodigal son. For now though, Barcelona, or at least Allen’s version of it, provides the articulate bohemian café culture that millennial Manhattan lacks. But the bevy of tourist snapshots in Vicky Cristina suggest that Allen does not know the city all that intimately. And that hazy sense of place rubs off on the characters who inhabit it.

Stacked up against Allen's ouevre, his latest lacks both the (arguably overcooked) pathos of tragedies like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Interiors and Match Point and the belly laughs of Annie Hall or Bullets Over Broadway. The director is capable of a happy medium- Hannah and Her Sisters, my favorite Woody movie, incorporates elements of both genres- but Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels muddled, not confident of what it wants to be. This problem boils down to underwritten characters. Allen, via the film’s narrator, hammers us over the head with the philosophical schism between pragmatic Vicky and impetuous Cristina. (Voiceover narration is rarely a good sign in movies. Directors might as well send a telegraph describing their characters’ motivations.) Allen even provides glimpses of how the pair might turn out if they slavishly adhere to their divergent paths: conventionally successful but emotionally stilted Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and passionate but deranged Maria Elena.

But the friends are held at a curious distance from each other over the course of the film, denying any sort of synthesis or evolution of opinion. I wish Vicky and Cristina really went at it. Not in a darkroom, as Cristina and Marie Elena do, but over dinner or a drink. So many of Woody’s characters have engaged in emotional combat like this: the sisters in Hannah, Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack in Husband and Wives, Mariel Hemingway and Allen himself in Manhattan. Exhausted and furious and incorrigible as they may seem, their only salve is bitter, profane, intelligent conversation. It might be the languid Catalonian sun that makes Vicky and Cristina soft. Perhaps a sequel could find them in baggage at JFK, enjoying the kind of barbed confrontation Woody always provided at top form.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


The opening night of the All Points West Music and Arts Festival in Jersey City coincided with another set of opening ceremonies in Beijing. While music fans were deprived of that televised event, they nevertheless displayed Olympian endurance leading up to the performances. The thousands of concertgoers who bypassed the costly ferry service endured packed PATH trains from Manhattan to Jersey City followed by light rail service to the park itself. This might not sound so bad until you consider that once deposited at the park’s main entrance, another twenty or thirty minutes of hoofing it awaited you. All of this was a minor imposition on the way to the concert. But returning to the city with the full crush of dazed concertgoers fleeing at once- feet swollen and consciousness in various states of compromise- was another story.

Getting a drink was another significant hurdle. Upon having my ticket scanned and crotch massaged by security, I entered the grounds to find another line for 21+ wristbands. The grumbling increased as I approached the ID table and read the rules: Five Drinks per individual; Last Call 8:30. Huh? Wristband applied, I then discovered that drinking was only allowed in two designated holding pens on the periphery of the field. You heard it everywhere: “Fucking Jersey.” Where else were people to direct their anger than that timeworn punching bag?

Luckily, Radiohead was there to save the day. Attendees had already lightened up after the initial cattle calls. A mélange of hipsters, club kids and elderly dropouts swaying through dance acts Underworld and Girl Power quickly gave way to a determined crowd closing in on the main stage in anticipation of the already-iconic British rock quintet. Thom Yorke and company took the stage just a few minutes after their scheduled start time as the sea of people amassed and crowded closer to the front. The set that followed relied heavily on In Rainbows, their latest album and a mellower one. Despite the deliberate pace, the crowd was entranced. You could hear a pin drop during the down tempo tracks ("How to Disappear Completely", "Reckoner", "House of Cards") while the more anthemic, older songs ("Just", "Street Spirit") got the crowd revved up but never too raucous.

Radiohead is not given to chatter; aside from a few quips from Yorke, they tore through their set with a cool efficiency. But who needs talk when you have that catalog to mine? Some fans are disappointed that the band has veered away from its traditional rock roots. Each of its albums shows Radiohead at a different step in its sonic evolution, from The Bends’ wailing guitars to Kid A’s moody electronic beeps to In Rainbows’ somber synthesis of sounds old and new. But over a two and a half hour set (five hours if you were lucky enough to catch both nights), the guys miraculously make it all coalesce. It’s the most richly textured concert performance I’ve ever seen, with the band- and audience- enjoying its more conventional early work just as much as its subsequent experimental forays.

As Radiohead played past their allotted timeslot and the tens of thousands who had come to see them faced a midnight journey back to New York, the band concluded its set with “Everything in Its Right Place” off of Kid A. It was a testament to the group that despite less than ideal conditions leading up to its show, the choice of closer was appropriate.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shilling in the Name of...

There is irony in the Republicans holding their upcoming convention at Minneapolis’ Xcel Energy Center. As Paris Hilton and gas pumps remind us, the energy crisis is one of this election’s most pressing issues. It’s certainly an issue that 90s political rockers Rage Against the Machine might howl about when they hit the Twin Cities on September 3, smack in the middle of the GOP’s confetti-clogged nominating process. The band will rage against the evils of war, oppression and greed ten miles from the convention itself at…the Target Center? Target- the rich man’s Wal-Mart- may not have the abysmal public relations record of that other retail behemoth. But Rage playing under the banner of a corporation that lacks a living wage contract and labor unions should still raise some brows. And in a move that budget-minded Target shoppers would reject, tickets to the concert will sell for $60.

It’s true that a dwindling number of stadiums in this country have escaped the corporate branding iron. And $60 is a paltry price to pay for a big name band in this day of extortionate ticket prices. But things have not changed that drastically from eight years ago when Rage Against the Machine put on a free show at a public site across the street from the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Granted, that event erupted into a skirmish between cops and attendees that involved rocks, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Then again, the average Rage Against the Machine fan likely isn’t looking for concerts to end with a Kumbaya medley.

There is risk involved in tying ostensibly counterculture events in a corporate bow. Who can forget Woodstock ’99? Thanks in part to $12 pizzas and $4 bottled waters being sold at the sponsor tents, that wan facsimile of the original Woodstock ended in arson, vandalism and rape. Rage guitarist Tom Morello- who played the event- later said the melee “suggested an affinity between the looters and rapists at the event and the corporate entities that sponsored it.” Rage Against the Machine is looking for a reaction by playing down the street from the Republican convention. But the reaction that such pronounced dissonance between artist and venue might provoke is questionable. Some Rage fans might look at being pepper sprayed as a badger of honor, a way of sticking it to the man. But what does it say when you pay the man for that privilege?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Go West

Tonight Radiohead headlines the inaugural All Points West Music & Arts Festival in Jersey City. They will be preceded by British electronic duo Underworld on the stage set up at Liberty State Park. This is a lineup to celebrate, but might also inspire consternation among superstitious New York area music fans, at least those who recall that the same two bands were scheduled to open the ill-fated Field Day festival five years ago. Field Day will long be remembered as a calamitous disappointment: a stellar roster of performers was set to perform on Long Island’s North Fork before local law enforcement, government officials and environmentalists put the kibosh on the event. People who had purchased tickets could opt for a refund or a relocated “field day” revolving around the Meadowlands parking lot in New Jersey. (Torrential rain put a damper on that already-underwhelming substitute.)

New Yorkers want and deserve a solid festival in their own backyard. Austin holds two venerable festivals each year- Austin City Limits and South by Southwest- that practically engulf the city. This summer, Chicago hosted both Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival. And each summer music fans from across the country descend on Manchester, Tennessee and Indio, California for their respective Bonnaroo and Coachella festivals. Of course, New York does present organizers with a substantial roadblock: too many people and not enough land. But the city’s incalculable contributions to music over the years and its ceaseless creative energy should outweigh logistics.

Despite the ominous weather forecast for the weekend, All Points West has successfully avoided the metaphorical gathering clouds that doomed Field Day. Let’s hope the event is a success and becomes a mainstay. New Yorkers shouldn’t have to travel to points further west than Jersey to get their festival fill.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

In a summer where the average American cannot afford a vacation, the movies have provided a climate-controlled alternative. The Dark Knight is the biggest audience phenomenon since Titanic;. it will likely gross upwards of a half billion dollars. Iron Man and the latest Indiana Jones installment have joined the rarefied $300 million club. Few movies that were expected to do well disappointed. However, the market lacks a summer stalwart: the sleeper hit, that elusive, modestly-budgeted, out-of-the-blue smash that owes its success not to Burger King tie-ins, but to word of mouth.

Recent buzzed about independent films like The Wackness, My Winnipeg, Savage Grace and Brick Lane have landed at the box office with a resounding thud; none has taken in over a million dollars. Compare these results to those of summer sleepers past: Napoleon Dynamite ($45 million), Little Miss Sunshine ($60 million), March of the Penguins ($77 million), Fahrenheit 9/11($120 million), The Blair Witch Project ($141 million) and, however inexplicable, My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($251 million).

There are commercial reasons for this summer’s dearth of indie surprises. The film release calendar has grown increasingly schizophrenic; prestige pictures clamor for winter’s awards season buzz (and its attendant box office bump) while shoot 'em ups dominate summer. The recent writer’s strike wreaked more havoc on small films vying for a summer release date than on event movies that had already begun their lengthy post-production schedules. And sadly, several independent distributors including Tartan, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse have either folded entirely or merged with the major studios that funded them. (The indie authenticity of such subsidiary outfits is another debate.)

Another explanation for the lack of event indies is that independent-minded directors now funnel their energy into blockbusters. Just a few years and a few films after bursting onto the scene with quirky fare like Swingers and Memento, Jon Favreau. and Christopher Nolan helmed Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Guillermo del Toro applied the same lush visual imagination to Hellboy 2 that he did to Pan’s Labyrinth, only with a larger budget and ad campaign. Sam Raimi was one of the earliest examples of the current auteur career projection, graduating from the blood-soaked Evil Dead trilogy to the Spiderman series. Raimi’s evolution took nearly twenty years; the younger crop of directors seems to make the leap to the big leagues the moment their debut film takes a prize at Sundance.

Despite the void this trend creates in the low-budget market, a benefit is that long-reviled summer event movies are actually garnering critical praise: Iron Man and Dark Knight both rate above 90% on and the Oscar buzz surrounding Heath Ledger’s role as the Joker is building. Directors like Raimi, Fav and Nolan have kept their artistry intact. They’re still make cult movies, just for much bigger cults. With quality movies playing in the multiplex next door, people may feel less incentive to track down the nearest art house.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Reprise begins with Erik (Espen Klauman Hoiner) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie), two twenty three year olds standing in front of a mailbox. They are aspiring authors, manuscripts in hand. After dropping their novels in the mail, a fanciful, sped up montage looks into their (imagined) futures: critical adoration, rabid cult audiences, fierce academic debate, doomed romances, African street revolutions triggered by their prose. It’s an amusing aside. But the choppiness that this diversion introduces to the film lingers. These flashy, New Wave indulgences of debut director Joachim Trier threaten to ironically evoke the strained pretensions of the young literary set his solid film gently mocks. Thankfully the pace settles, resulting in a nimble exploration of youth forging an artistic (and adult) identity.

Phillip’s fate briefly approaches the grandiose daydream by the mailbox. His novel is published to some acclaim and decent sales. Erik’s book is rejected, though he harbors little ill will towards his friend. (An Americanized version of this movie, and most likely American writers, would surely revel in such animosity.) Of course, it is a universal truth that fame and success are mixed blessings, so Phillip spirals into a profound depression that ends in a suicide attempt. His fleeting success over and his health on the mend, Phillip returns to Erik and their core group of friends. The film is strongest when examining twentysomething male camaraderie. There is vulgar machismo posing- incapable of healthy relationships, the gang dismisses women as intellectually bankrupt sex objects, cultural one-upmanship (the obscure references come fast and furious), naïve hero worship (of a reclusive, depressed cult author) and relentless binge drinking. There is also their utter dependency on one another, for reasons of sanity and inspiration.

Fortunes shift as Erik writes a book that becomes the latest victim of the publishing hype machine. A vapid talk show host says it is “about madness,” suggesting that Phillip was no small inspiration. Ultimately, neither young writer quite realize their marvelous ambitions. Reprise settles into a minor key as it shows its young characters stumble into adulthood and its attendant compromises: modest goals, quiet accomplishments, generic but happy relationships and the occasional business suit. In short, all the bourgeois trappings the film’s characters initially spurned. Reprise, like the literary strivers it documents, has its faults. There is occasional audience manipulation; several scenes forecast Phillip checking out for good. And a climactic party montage verges on John Hughes territory. But for the most part, Reprise succeeds as a bittersweet homage to youthful talents and indiscretions. It mirrors the success of its protagonists in distilling a lifetime of passions and references into a coherent whole.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dive Alive

Dejectedly surveying the NYU-strewn wreckage at Botanica, my friend Dan and I decided to hop over to Milano’s next door. After navigating one of the narrowest bars we’d ever encountered (made all the more treacherous for Dan by his yoga mat, which ran perpendicular to the bar both physically and philosophically), we found a mellow, amber-lit back area with a smattering of two-tops. Initially thrown off by the Shania Twain song blaring over the speakers, we ordered drinks and quickly remedied the music situation with Pixies and Joy Division tracks via the Rolling Stones-laden jukebox.

Milano’s is a classic dive, with grizzled old vets who have likely been glued to the same barstools long enough to function as art installations, a cash-only policy, pungent, saloon-style bathrooms and practically sepia-toned photographs of legendary patrons (and requisite Irish flag) festooning the walls. It's the type of place where you'll hesitate to order anything more "refined" than a whiskey, though eye-rolling was kept to a minimum when Dan asked for a Pinot Noir. Located in boutique-ridden Nolita, it’s an old warhorse that has defiantly bucked the relentless gentrification that has engulfed the area. Drinks are cheap ($5 a pop with additional discounts during happy hour) and are served from 8 a.m. (!) through 4 a.m.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Babies Everywhere

Following in the wake of Knocked Up, that other pregnancy movie, two newish releases have been riding different waves of hype: Juno (to Oprah, blockbuster status, the Oscars) and the Romanian 4 Months, 3Weeks and 2 Days (to the Palm d’Or, Film Comment dissections and sustained runs at Los Angeles and New York arthouse showcases).
The former tells the story of quirkily named, sixteen year old Juno (Ellen Page), who discovers she is pregnant after a tryst with Bleeker (Michael Cera). Antics ensue as she befriends the uber-yuppie couple (played by Jennifer Garner and a creepy Jason Bateman) that wishes to adopt her unborn child.

Juno has been lauded for its “freshness” and its convincing hipster dialogue. But I found the “hip,” “young” dialogue strained and cloying and off-the-mark. Despite an ever-widening gulf between me and my teen years, I am virtually certain that the adolescent parlance on display in the film resonates with few of its teenage viewers. Slightly less offensive but nearly as irksome is the incessant use of folksy alternative guitar-strumming throughout. There is nothing wrong with this kind of music, but it is best enjoyed in moderation and makes for a dull soundtrack when there are no alternatives to be heard.

The (strangely unheralded) strength of the film to me was its quiet moments, particularly those involving Jennifer Garner, who, frankly, stole the show from Page. Garner’s reaction to Juno telling her character she’s lucky not to be the pregnant one is priceless, as is the scene in the mall when she desperately wishes to feel the baby kick. I wish there had been more of these scenes. There were plenty of opportunities for their inclusion: the scene in which Juno reveals to her parents that she is pregnant is one of them. Instead, it struck me as false and oddly truncated. Also disappointing and unrealistic is the lack of focus on the torment and unease that a pregnant sixteen-year old would undoubtedly feel at the hands of high-school peers. Juno has enough bright moments to make it a worthwhile rental, but is wholly undeserving of its praise (especially that egregious Best Picture nomination) and media-dubbed “importance.”

Veering in the opposite direction of Juno is Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months…. It has no soundtrack or cheeseburger telephone to promote. The dialogue eschews showiness and is often purposefully banal. And the film itself is alternately bleached and murky. Most strikingly though, it does not revolve around an accidental pregnancy’s coming to fruition, but rather its agonizingly deliberated termination. As Otilia, Anamaria Marinca is in nearly every frame of the movie as she loyally aids her friend Gabita Laura Vasiliu in obtaining an illegal abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania. She is phenomenal. In one sustained shot we see her at a dinner party, surrounded by inane conversation, with an agonized, shell-shocked expression as she ponders the fate of her friend, and her own choices, after leaving Gabita alone in a seedy hotel room.

While strenuously unsympathetic and apolitical (it could easily fuel the fires of both sides of the abortion debate), 4 Months... does not treat its characters or milieu with kid’s gloves. Dr. Bebe, the abortionist, is a monster. Gabita is not particularly bright. And the communist society portrayed within is overwhelmingly bleak, with everything (from cigarettes to sex to abortion) is commoditized in a brutal barter economy. Despite an ambiguous ending that would never have passed muster with the Juno test audiences, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days nonetheless stays with the viewer far longer than its Hollywood counterpart.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Vampire Weekend

I checked out a show by this endlessly buzzed-about quartet at the Bowery Ballroom on Tuesday night. A couple of worrisome signs preceded the show. Though I’m unaware of the opening act’s history, their derisive introduction of Vampire Weekend implied an understandable frustration over the endless press ink that’s been spilled over the fresh-faced band, whose members have been out of college (Columbia) for eighteen months. Then there were the four camera jockeys planted all over the venue filming the show for posterity, confirmation perhaps that Vampire has read their own, largely euphoric press and swallowed it whole. As it turns out, the band will probably end up shelving this footage. At most, they’ll look back at it nostalgically as a memento of their incipient touring days, before they cohered as a live act.

I’ve no interest on jumping on the inevitable and tired backlash bandwagon against this group. I was wholly unaware of the blogosphere having built these guys up as the Next Big Thing over the past year. And I can only shake my head at the same engine now gleefully ripping them to shreds. It’s a tired cycle: “underground” act is anointed new indie darling; group attracts fans outside of the Williamsburg-Lower East Side axis of hip; group is abandoned by blogging hipsters who have their homepages set to Pitchfork.

Their debut contains five very good-to-great songs: despite the band wearing its influences (Afro-pop, Graceland and, as they are less eager to admit, the Strokes) on its sleeve, the music is catchy and light. But all four members are undeniably green when it comes to performing. Chris Tomson threw his drumstick straight into the air a minute or so into the first song and spent much of the set hunched over and grinning maniacally when not playing. Also appearing slightly autistic was keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij who, along with frontman Ezra Koenig, busted out several spastic dance moves during the course of the gig. Such movements can actually amplify a performances (see: David Byrne in Stop Making Sense or Ian Curtis channeled by Sam Riley in Control), but came off studied and self-conscious in this instance. Ultimately, I appreciated the show as an opportunity to see a band on the cusp of what may well become major stardom and to appreciate the endearingly novice antics of a competent group still working out its kinks.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Atonement, director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s fine novel, makes clear at the start that it share’s little of its source’s regard for subtlety. “England, 1935” is scrawled letter by letter across the screen, each stroke accompanied by the clang of a typewriter. A series of too-quick jumpshots then follows Briony Tallis (played by Saorse Ronan as a child, Romola Garai as a teenager and Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman) as she gracelessly plods through her English country home. Thankfully, things calm down after that. The narrative is set in motion when Briony witnesses what she naively misinterprets as an act of cruelty by Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of servants who lives on the grounds) towards her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). She goes on to read a pornographic letter that Robbie had entrusted her to deliver to Cecilia (he having mistaken it for a later, revised draft) and interrupt a tryst between the fledgling couple in the library. Given her earlier fears, she naturally sees this as a physical attack and the culmination of Robbie’s sexual deviance. After yet another wrongful accusation by Briony, Robbie is sent away to jail, then to war, effectively dislocating the family (Cecilia cannot forgive her sister’s ignorant machinations nor her parent’s for taking the child’s word) and leading Briony to atone for her mistakes for the remainder of her life.

The film is not without considerable strengths: the cinematography is lush, the actors are all competent (a few are stellar) and a fair amount of the dialogue lives up to McEwan’s perceptive, eloquent repartee. But certain scenes are handled clumsily: there is really no need for the close-up shot of “cunt” being typed across the entire width of the screen as Wright tell us, for the third time, the contents of Robbie’s letter. Nor is it clear why Wright changed McEwan’s poetic description of a single corpse lying at, and intertwined with, the base of a tree into a score of neatly arranged dead children with bullets through their heads. Furthermore, several of the novel’s most indelible (ant not exactly extraneous) sequences are curiously omitted.

In fairness, Atonement is a difficult novel to adapt. Its strength, in my mind, lies more in its psychological acuity than in its romance or period detail. There is also that unconventional structure to tackle: the first and third part of McEwan’s work (as well as its epilogue) focus on the evolution of Briony and her writing, while the middle section abruptly shifts to a World War II narrative, with Robbie as its center. It might be the fault of a baffled marketing department or a deliberate re-imagining of the source material. But Atonement is being sold as, and too often feels like, a conventional romance rather than an intricate look at the mental and creative development of a writer from her confused, fanciful adolescence to wise, measured and mournful old age. When the movie focuses on Briony’s maturing consciousness (as it does when she correctly reinterprets the events of that last idyllic summer via flashback and in Redgrave’s wonderful concluding monologue) it is a success. But there are too many mawkish bits, including a ridiculous postscript showing Cecilia and Robbie frolicking along the cliffs of Dover, that ultimately do a disservice to McEwan and the intentions of his novel.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Despite the fact that Hollywood releases only one or two major musicals each year, the genre constantly seems to be at the forefront of critics’ minds. The scarcity of musical offerings is at once a cause for concern (for those wishing the genre was not perpetually on its deathbed) and excitement: they’re still being made, after all! And because so few musicals are produced, those that do make it down the pipeline are often backed by big names and bigger budgets, resulting in crowds and Oscar-baiting spectacle. Along with the Western, the musical is a largely forgotten relic of the bygone studio days that evokes nostalgic reverence among much of a public that constantly hopes for a revival. I recently saw two musicals: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in movie theaters and Spring Awakening, on Broadway. Both struck me as strenuously unorthodox entries in the genre that, while trying to subvert the clichés of the form, sacrifice much of its joy.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway musical) goes against the cheery musical grain by cloaking itself in darkness and spilling buckets of fire-engine red blood. The plot sees Sweeney (Johnny Depp) seeking vengeance on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who years earlier kidnapped his wife and daughter and sent him into exile. Along the way, he meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), baker of the “worst pies in London.” Sweeney hones his skills for an eventual confrontation with Turpin as a maniacal barber whose customers, once he has slashed their throats, find their way into said meat pies.
The plot is devious fun, and tailor-made for the quirky Burton, who once again excels at lending an eerie gothic edge to his films. The Victorian London of the film may hew closely to the grimey and depraved version seen in countless other movies and books, but it is an ambience that, for me, never tires. But for a musical to work, the music has to be good. And Sweeney Todd’s music mostly left me cold. This might be symptomatic of the production essentially being an opera: the music is not intended as a flashy diversion from the story, but is rather how the story develops, with few speaking scenes to break it up. Amateurish singers (particularly Bonham-Carter, whose voice is distractingly bad) compound the problem, leading me to appreciate the set design and occasionally successful dark humor and little else.

Spring Awakening flouts Broadway convention with raunch. Adapted by Duncan Sheik from a 1891 German play about burgeoning sexuality amongst repressed teenagers, it features simulated masturbation and sex and fair amounts of exposed young flesh. As with Sweeney Todd, the musical frame momentarily casts this sensual frankness in a shocking light. But modern audiences have undoubtedly seen far lewder content not only in movie theaters and sordid computer downloads, but on their own televisions on daytime soap operas. Spring Awakening does not attempt to be puerile or even titillating. It is a tragedy. But its tragic story of doomed young love has been recycled endlessly. The score is competent though it contains only a handful of great tracks. The formula is stale: there are unrequited crushes; squirmy homosexuals and melodramatically severe, one-dimensional authority figures. Appropriate to the simplistic material are frequently amateurish (if musically talented) actors. By trying too rewrite all the rules, Spring Awakening focuses too much on the flesh at the expense of the heart.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson transposes his preferred themes of avarice and dysfunction onto the California desert during the early 20th Century. While not technically Anderson’s first period piece (a write-up in the current New Yorker argues that Boogie Nights, his electrifying look at the San Fernando Valley porn industry of the 70’s and 80’s, remains his finest film), it is surely the most self-consciously epic and refined. And despite stretches where it takes a bit too much of its own time to develop, it ultimately engrosses, with both its grand images and narrative intriciacies seared upon the viewer's mind. It is the rare movie in which all the elements come together both forcefully and seamlessly. The acting, particularly Daniel Day-Lewis’, is volcanic, but saved by the tremendous scope of the film from being overbearing. Johnny Greenwood’s mesmerizing score complements the action onscreen rather than intrudes upon it. The lush camerawork and exacting production detail recall Days of Heaven and the movie itself could qualify as a continuation of that Terrence Malick classic, detailing what happens after the pastoral idyll is corrupted by man and machine.

Anderson traces the rise to fortune (and, in a nutty epilogue, subsequent drunken decline) of Texas oilman Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis). With his son, H.W. (Dillon Fraesier) in tow, Plainview traverses the expansive and largely undeveloped California landscape (stunningly rendered by Robert Elswit’s cinematography) convincing various townspeople to sell him land for drilling. During one of these stops, he is visited by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who tips him off about the oil bubbling beneath the surface of Litte Boston, his hometown. Upon Plainview’s arrival there, the plot kicks into high gear, introducing an adversary in Paul’s brother, Eli Sunday (also played by Dano). Eli is an evangelical minister and self-professed faith healer whose surface spirituality is at odds with Plainview’s transparent (and his own, thinly veiled) greed.

This conflict is the American binary of pious self-improvement and blind capitalist ambition made manifest. Only here, the piety is fraudulent and, were it ever pure, fully tainted by the prospect of oil riches. Daniel and Eli are both duplicitous salesman, with more in common than they would ever like to admit. This is not a story of good versus evil; all intentions are muddled. Even the normally solid family structure is compromised. As in his earlier works, the family Anderson depicts here is a surrogate one. Plainview masquerades as H.W.’s father, using him as a “sweet face to buy land,” after the real father, a fellow driller, is killed in a well. A stranger appears on the scene who claims to be Plainview’s half-brother, a dubious claim whose ficition is quickly exposed, its author swiftly dispatched. All is suspect. We first see Plainview in a dark abyss; neither he nor his many adversaries ever emerge from it to see the light..

Manhola Dargis, in the Times, interpreted the movie as a metaphor for George W. Bush: a rich, Texan oilman who will stop at nothing, including blood, to get his way. She might be onto something: “I want to rule and never, ever explain myself,” says Plainview. But perhaps the contemporary contextualization is a narrow one. There Will Be Blood is a timeless American fable in which the drive to succeed often lays waist to those individuals and institutions both behind the wheel and trying to slam on the brakes.