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04/22/15 6:15am
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

Far from Men
Directed by David Oelhoffen
April 24, 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival; Opens May 1

Far from Men is a film about a man trying not to take sides in the Algerian war; likewise it balances two distinct cinematic heritages. Its setting, in 1954, positions it at a watershed moment for the postwar generation that redefined Francophone cinema and political engagement, but in charting a journey across a widescreen landscape whose wide open spaces stand in for territory unclaimed by any governing moral authority, the film also showcases the ideological flexibility of the Western.

These days, if you’re going to make a neo-Western, it also helps to have Viggo Mortensen, whose multilingualism and counterculture aura make him a good fit for all sorts of postcolonial transpositions (Far from Men did the festival-circuit rounds at the same time as Jauja). Here, he speaks French and some Arabic as Daru, a fatherly teacher who plays football with his Algerian enfants when not drilling them in the geography of France, a country they’ll only see, if ever, as immigrant laborers.

Seen in long shot at the bottom of a dusty valley with a single green tree in its yard Daru’s one-room schoolhouse, where he also lives, is an oasis of civilization. It’s breached, inevitably, when he, like the homesteader of 3:10 to Yuma, is pressed into the duty of escorting a condemned prisoner to the nearest town.

The Paris-born actor Reda Kateb, who plays Mohamed, the only initially nonverbal murderer, has a wonderful face for a Western, a sun-baked, Warren-Oatesian face. The sparse gestures of both actors fit Morocco’s Atlas Mountains (standing in for the Algerian desert) as seen in writer-director David Oelhoffen’s frequent long shots, in which Daru and Mohamed are like specks of dust kicked up amid the arid brown rockscapes. Variously on foot and horseback, with each in turn in chains, the two overcome mutual resentment, filling in their backstories for each other as they meet obstacles: heavy weather and, instead of cavalry and Indians, French colonial soldiers and Algerian rebels (though the territorial ranchers need no find-and-replace). Everyone has their reasons, but Daru’s encounters with imperial and frontier justice (which echo forward as well as backwards in time in their consideration of the means and ends of violent uprisings) compel him to confront his own past. His ethnic heritage, we eventually learn, is similar to that of Camus, whose short story “The Guest” provides the film’s setup; similar also is his anguish at a conflict from which he has remained virtuously but impossibly uninvolved. As a man simultaneously disgusted at violence and capable of its execution, Daru’s actions ultimately take on the gravity of moral instruction (though it was this premise that was tweaked so effectively in another Western update starring Mortensen, A History of Violence).

Far from Men has a pace to match Daru’s rectitude, the better to appreciate the rhyming of each spare detail. After Mohamed is dropped off at the schoolhouse, Daru starts a fire for the night with a newspaper reporting on the war. Daru’s decency is shown in the food he sets out for his guest; that night, the host grabs his gun when Mohamed rises from his cot and walks outside, but relaxes after he relieves himself and returns to bed. The film is almost wholly unoriginal, but gathers a certain force of purity from its well thought-out pastiche of evergreen elements, like a really good farm-to-table restaurant.

04/08/15 6:31am
Photo courtesy of Brett Jutkiewicz

The Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 15–26 this year, features a lineup which, like the city itself, can be all things to all people to an almost daunting degree. Beyond the corporate money and celebrity flash in the top-billed panels and special events this year, the eclectic programming of Tribeca’s humbler precincts has, also like the city, become a reliably supportive showcase, in particular, for young, local artistic talent—including a number of a familiar faces from the city’s independent film scene.

 One such face is Kate Lyn Sheil, the microindie muse-turned-House of Cards supporting player-turned-who knows what next, who appears as a Southern belle at a ball in Men Go to Battle, playing in Tribeca’s World Narrative Competition. Sheil wrote the film with director Zachary Treitz, who makes his feature debut with a story of two brothers, Henry and Francis Mellon, scuffling farmers in Kentucky in the first year of the Civil War. Though Henry, the more inward of the two, braces at Francis’s rash decision-making and poor task management skills, it’s he who gets drunk, humiliates himself with a bookish, middle-class potential sweetheart played by Rachel Korine, and runs off to join the Union army. Despite its archetypal story and familiar historical milieu, the film takes nothing for granted, rediscovering the base interactions—physical, social, economic, emotional—at the heart of everyday life, and sustaining a tone of intimacy.

Sheil and Treitz are a couple, and according to Sheil, worked together on outline for the film, and then took turns writing individual scenes, and revising the other’s scenes; when not fulfilling her responsibilities as a producer, Sheil was on set “helping with blocking, giving notes and that sort of thing as well.” The two filmmakers, who live in Chinatown, answered a few questions of mine over email. (For much more Tribeca coverage, see thelmagazine.com throughout the festival.)


One thing that struck me about the film was how detached the characters seem to be from what we might today consider the arc of history, despite the Civil War setting. Francis and Henry are illiterate; aside from a book another character is seen to read, and a prop issue of Harper’s Weekly, there’s very little connection to any kind of wider culture, and aside from a number of folk songs which the characters sing, and a single daguerreotype portrait, no real interaction with any kind of recorded history. Did this make the characters feel closer, or further away from you, as you were writing the film and conjuring them into existence?

Sheil: The movie is set against the backdrop of an encroaching Civil War but we did our best to make it an immersive experience about the lives of these two isolated, self-obsessed, ignorant brothers. I think with historical fiction we have a tendency to make heroes or villains of the characters and that tendency serves its purpose but it’s a little dangerous because it gives them an untouchable quality. I wanted to explore the weakness, the casual destructiveness and lack of engagement of these two men because, yes, that does make them feel closer to me. I wanted to take a look at two flawed, bumbling idiots during a time when tidal shifts were happening in American history. I have a great deal of love for them but they also at spurts depress and disturb me. We specifically set the movie during the first year of a war that would last for nearly five. We didn’t want any of the characters to have prescience of any kind.

TreitzI feel close to the main two characters, Henry and Francis Mellon. They have traits and sensitivities I can identify with, but they were also specifically written for the two people playing the parts. It would be hard to care or write about characters with whom you have no sympathies, but the Mellon brothers are both exaggerations of qualities that Kate and I wanted to focus on. The setting of the story helped us distance ourselves, as well as the research we did into unpublished firsthand accounts from this time and place. We wanted the characters to feel like they are firmly rooted in the world we wanted to create and capture, which is this small town in rural Kentucky in 1861 where the war is slowly encroaching.

We tried to be as painfully literal and specific with our location and timeline as possible. The story takes place over the first year of the war, and very few people at the time – at least in our reading from the voices who were there and experienced it—thought it would last as long as it did, or become as brutal as it was. So we tried to tell the story from the eyes of the characters as they would see it. The Mellon brothers, at least at first, are not engaged with the politics or events outside of their farm. But when they venture into the wider world, politics and current events are in the conversations of the people all around them. We liked the idea that the world around the brothers is increasingly on edge, and that no one knows what is to come.

Henry and Francis are relatively uneducated, so we imagined that their experiences with outside culture come from the songs they have heard, the people they talk to in town, and maybe some traveling theater they might have seen when they were younger. Songs had a different and I think greater significance to everyday life at that time, and singing was a more public form of expression. Songs were little snippets of information that were easily transportable and easily remembered. This takes on a new significance as the Civil War brought groups of people from all parts of the country and even the world together, and later in the film you see this transmission and even perversion of popular songs from all over.

For the Small family, who are worldly and educated for that region, their cultural palette is different. They are highly literate, they own a piano (which was a big deal), and the songs we hear them sing are either popular chamber music from the time or more political and current “pop” songs of the day. We worked with a brilliant musicologist, Nikos Pappas, who had just finished a project on popular dance music from the mid-1800s and he selected and arranged these songs written by mostly forgotten Kentucky composers, which were based on popular romantic and classical music. And of course it was all centered around dancing, which is its own cultural, social, and sexual ball of yarn.

The recorded history is ingrained in as many parts of the story as possible, but hopefully it’s so deeply buried within the specific story and environment that it does not stand out and shout at you. The culture, the politics, the social stratification, they’re built into the everyday discourse, fashion, and actions, just as they are today. We wanted to level the big and small events so that they all fit together. This makes it more entertaining to experience, at least for me.

Did you do much research into the time period in order to figure out how to stage social interactions and customs, get speech patterns down? Or for any other purposes?

Treitz: The axiom is “write what you know,” and on an emotional level with the characters that’s where we started, but one of the adventures of this film was the challenge of writing what we didn’t know. For us that meant trying to dig into the conversational and social palette of the time, so we spent a fair amount of energy exploring unpublished diaries and journals from a few different archives. There is an especially strong collection in Louisville at the Filson Historical Society that we mined for unpublished firsthand accounts. We went through a lot of diaries from teenage girls, letters home from soldiers, remembered sermons, sheet music, and random scraps of paper, like what some guy spent on a horse that day.

This gave us a whole wealth of material and ideas for the language, and pushed us further into the quotidian treatment of our story. We would read whole pages of a girl’s diary devoted to the visitors of their house, what they were wearing, who she is courting, and the weather—so much about the weather—and that was followed up by one sentence about a pivotal battle that had happened nearby. We got a sense of how evenly people take major and minor things in life. Sometimes a fight with your sister is more important to you than the war raging outside.

The language in the script and in the performances was chosen so that nothing would feel superimposed, so that we’re not winking to the camera from the present day. Manners and style of the time were even more different from now than language. Our devotion to the research had less to do with being historically accurate and more to do with creating a framework that serviced the story and characters. We don’t pretend to be historians. Every detail we used from a source was one fewer that we had to invent, and the sum total was about creating the illusion of being in another time and place without it feeling strange. We wanted the characters and even the world offscreen to feel alive, and the research provided us with a rich texture more than anything else, which happens to be visually and intellectually stimulating.

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A question for Kate Lyn Sheil: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is your first credit as a writer (though I know you’ve improvised scenes and dialogue at various points in your career). I’m curious about that—especially because the main female role in the film is played by another actor, Rachel Korine. How is it different, writing for other performers? When you’re setting down words for other people to say, does your own experience interpreting characters help you to bring characters to life on the page, or do you have to stop yourself from writing the character as you would play it?

Sheil: This is the first of this nature, I think. I don’t have much of an interest in writing for myself. I’ve only got one life and one brain so, yes, I was mining some of the same territory in writing this as I have in acting but there was also a lot of research involved, a lot of first hand accounts, diaries and letters, that were drawn from to help create the characters. I love actors. I love watching them work, so writing material for other people to perform was a pleasure. There were moments when I would think we had written a scene that was difficult and fun to play, and then feel a kind of elated relief that I wasn’t the person who was going to have to do it. We were so lucky to have Rachel. She seemed to find the character and tone and to make it her own so effortlessly. She’s an amazing actress.

For that matter, does it change anything as an actor to be playing in scenes that you wrote, in a movie you’re producing? Or have you always approached scenes with a conception of your character’s role in the overall construction of the film?

Sheil: I mean, yes, I was probably far more aware of the utilitarian purpose that my character served in this movie than I have been in others. There were periods of time during the writing of the script when we had included a lot more material with the Small family which we later cut out in favor of focusing more heavily on the brothers, but because of all those deleted scenes I felt, as an actor, like I had secrets, which was nice. But, normally when I act I want (don’t ask for or get but want) take after take and in this, I knew when we had accomplished the task. Less ego maybe. The part is very small and I was more excited to watch other actors do their thing.

I was struck by the visual language of the film, which seems to line up with contemporary modes of American independent realism: a handheld camera; and the use of strictly natural sources to light scenes (though I suppose the frequent low-light situations are also evocative of a pre-electric past). Would you say you were searching for a “neutral” aesthetic for a story set 150 years ago—or that you sought out a visual scheme that would rhyme with our sense of how the past looked (which is really more a sense of how the past was photographed)? Or a bit of both?

Treitz: We spent a lot of time debating, preparing, and refining the look of the film. For us that did not mean pondering over the perfect composition. It was more about the interaction of the camera with the actors. We wanted a visceral closeness to the actors and to do this we needed to be able to move around with them in the spaces. Much of the story takes place at night, so it was an endless challenge to get the right amount and quality of light. When you’re filming at night way out in some cabin that has no electricity, the fact that everything is supposed to be candlelit becomes an asset (at least visually… comfort-wise it was freezing cold unless you were right on top of the fire). But the lighting is deliberately stylized. Just because you’re using candles does not mean it is “natural” in the aesthetic sense. Brett, our cinematographer, created these candle panels that we could mount anywhere inside the cabin to amplify the firelight and give it the necessary illumination and softness. We burned through a lot of candles. The floors were covered in wax by the time we were done.

Since the story takes place in pre-electric times, there were fewer illusions to hide behind. We couldn’t pretend there was a nearby streetlight, or unseen electric signage. We were left with the basics: sun, moon, fire. But rarely was the lighting natural by any means, because of the properties of photography and the aesthetics we had in mind. Outside at night we used big lights. There is nothing natural about the Arri M40 HMI. When you’re near it it’s like standing next to the sun. We had at most a two-man lighting crew so the throughline with other independent films is just being as resourceful as possible to produce the desired effect. The exception is the battle reenactment scenes, where we had no control over the lighting except for telling everyone to get painfully close to the fire at night.

We didn’t want sweeping tracking shots or to pornographize the scenery. We were often in really stunningly beautiful locations, and turned our back on the “perfect” frame in favor of the one that served the characters and the story. And to me this makes the footage so much more beautiful.

In terms of production design, it’s kind of funny to see bushy beards and straight razors and work shirts and suspenders restored to a 19th century context, but given that this must have been a pretty low-budget film, I’m curious about how you create a period atmosphere without slipping into feeling like you’re playing Frontierland dress-up, a doing the kind of micro-indie genre movie that’s more like a genre-movie re-enactment, where you’re trying less to suspend disbelief than to create this meta-discourse about the fictionality of art-making and history and life and whatever (to be clear, I really like a lot of these movies, like Impolex and Wild Canaries). What were the discussions you had about creating the Civil War environment in the production design; and what if anything did you do on set to keep everyone rooted in the past?

Treitz: I love period pieces of all shapes and sizes, but we were trying to avoid the uncanniness of many period pieces without giving in to the irony of making it all a joke. It would have been a lot easier to tear open the artifice and pretend that is contributing to a discourse on the creative process or something like that. That would be the cool thing to do. Fuck that. We went for sincerity. There is a healthy amount of levity and absurdity in the characters and their situations, but its not self-referential irony.

We talked a lot about the PBS look and how to avoid it, and it’s an elusive alchemy. It was a line we walked from the writing to the acting to the camerawork to the production design and into the sound design. Any time we looked at something and thought “old timey,” it had to go. For Jacob Heustis, our production designer, the basic formula for success was making everything feel new—the buildings at that time would be new with fresh paint, the ladies would be in the latest fashions—while keeping everything dirty. Dirt was a verb. Everything got dirted. We dirted the roads, we dirted the store, we dirted the actors. Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch was a beacon of dirtiness and roughness in a period piece. You watch that movie and you feel like his sister is going to spit blood on your shoes.

Did the shape of the film change a lot in the editing, versus what was on the page? I’m curious if the somewhat oblique plotting was something you set out for in the writing, or something you found in production and postproduction?

Treitz: When we were writing, we wanted it to feel like we were dropping in and out of these characters’ lives. Expository dialogue was the enemy. The story should tell itself, rather than the characters having to drag it along. We wanted the edges to be jagged and sharp.

When we shot it, we left out any establishing shots so that on a scene-to-scene basis, the audience was starting in medias res. There are so many visual cues in the shots (in the lighting, the location, the characters, the clothes), it felt like we could stand to lose some of the baggage of narrative filmmaking in favor of a more alert and caustic stance. So by the style of the storytelling, we gave ourselves room in the editing to change the flow of events and the dynamics between characters when we found a new or more powerful combination.

The story didn’t change, but as in any movie, characters and events were emphasized or cut out, relationships between characters were altered or enhanced. We liked the idea that the film could follow any character we see and he or she would have their own interesting story to tell, and in the final film you can see a fair amount of characters who seem important for a minute and are never seen afterwards. But there were many more moments and characters we loved because they ultimately weren’t serving the greater good of the narrative.

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The plot charting the rising and falling fortunes of the brother who goes to war, and the brother who stays home, is pretty classic. I’m curious about what you felt was worth revisiting about this story, what you felt you could bring to it?

Sheil: I wanted to engage with film history and play with a somewhat familiar framework but strip its main characters of any sort of heroism. I was curious to see what it would look like if you took the sweeping landscape of that period in American history and within that told a very suffocating story about two people who are not admirable, who exhibit some of the traits and tendencies that I fear in myself, carelessness, laziness, lack of engagement—things that the protagonists of many postmodern stories have grappled with but to see what that looked when it was couched in an epic setting. I wanted to create a feeling for the fragility, the loneliness and the failings of these two men through an exploration of the details of their lives. Maybe I wanted to create an expectation and then dash it. But it’s a brother story, yeah. Either it works for you or it doesn’t.

Treitz: I never felt like we were operating in overcrowded territory because so much of the dynamic between Henry and Francis came from my own experiences and knowing the actors playing them, who felt like brothers. If I had to pick a “classic” relation to the plot, it would be an inverted Cinderella story where the abused stepchild goes to the ball and everything goes to hell.

04/08/15 6:21am
Photo courtesy of Bond/360

In Country
Directed by Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara
Opens April 10 at Cinema Village

In Country begins like a teenager’s backyard war movie, with guys in Sharpie’d battle helmets (“Sock It To Me”) stalking the Viet Cong in a forest standing in for jungle. Even before one of them turns to the handheld digital camera to improvise a clichéd monologue about two tours and “no end in sight,” the film has already discovered a cache of raw data on personal and historical trauma and memory, reenactment, catharsis, and the movies, in parallel with more recent counterinsurgency campaigns. Though In Country’s first five minutes are more a teaser than a formal gambit sustained by filmmakers Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara, their documentary about a group of Vietnam War re-enactors in Oregon puts so much into play, perhaps never moreso than when the one actual ‘Nam vet of Company Delta 2/5(R) praises his younger cohorts as “Hollywood quality.”

One weekend warrior, a military gear collector, describes old soldiers sniffing his vintage DEET and flashing back to the rice paddies, and the filmmakers, with itchy Proustian-trigger fingers, cut away frequently to Vietnam newsreel films, and helmet-cam videos taken by re-enactors during active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The jumps from simulacra to source are literal but evocative, especially as veteran re-enactors pick at scars left by battle—and the passage of time itself. One, who fought in his native South Vietnamese army for five years, cries at the familiar sound of raindrops hitting his poncho, telling O’Hara, “I don’t know why you say ‘bad memories.’”

Though the filmmakers struggle to keep up with life changes occurring over production, and with their battlefied coverage, they fit shades of color into In Country’s 80 minutes, via live-action RPG logistics and fourth-wall-breaking, and a battalion as motley as any backlot’s. The memorabilia hound gives a wiki-cribbed scene-setting lecture on the eve of battle (“the peace and love movement wasn’t all that bad”); a Portlandian brewery manager is the unit’s designated fuck-up. The latter’s frank excitement over playing soldier makes an uneasy slant rhyme with the veterans of the Middle East, who return to a sense of camaraderie and purpose otherwise missing from their homefront (and with the film’s closing images of a parade, with parents waving flags and children playing dress-up in fatigues). Ultimately, In Country leaves unanswered the question first posed by John Rambo: “Do we get to win this time?”

03/25/15 7:37am
photo courtesy of IFC Films

The Riot Club
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Opens March 27

In The Riot Club’s centerpiece, the ten young men of the titular Oxford semisecret society have rented out the private back room of a country pub. “Fucking Reservoir Dogs!” one exclaims as they roll up, decked out in velvet-collared tailcoats, and pose for photos; as a hush falls around the sound of the shutter clicks, director Lone Scherfig imbues an uneasy sense of consequence into their self-mythologizing. Because they are mythic—the photo restages a famous 80s group portrait of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and the assorted barons and billionaires of the real-life Bullingdon Club.

Despite changing times, the ancient Riot Club tries to live up to its hedonistic legacy: champagne, barf bags under each seat, sexual conquests more boasted-of than actual, a little noblesse oblige and a lot of condescension towards the red-faced landlord of the Bull’s Head. Screenwriter Laura Wade brings together class-wide and individual resentments that are not exhausted by the dialogue, which sees the “no politics” bylaw increasingly ignored as the action escalates from imitative debauchery to blind rage, the characters channeling a history of privilege, and a wolfpack mentality, to access supra-individual reserves of entitlement.

This single-location sequence, so self-contained in its allegory of the English caste system, is obviously transplanted from Wade’s 2010 play Posh. The movie gives us a before and after, building up the character of Miles Davis Richardson (Max Irons), at the expense of ensemble dynamics—ten undergrads is a lot for a bladder-length feature film, though most of the assembled Brit Pack efficiently project their dominant traits (upper-class twit, City boy, nouveau riche Mediterranean, latter-day Wilde…). Miles’s seduction speaks to the allure of the Club’s elitist charisma and ritual—which, naturally, is “massively homoerotic,” but marked by cruel wit, crueler cheekbones, and rakish excess—the better to set up the past-life Cleopatras in the audience for a violent reversal.

Wade and Scherfig (whose An Education likewise played bait-and-switch with youthful pretensions to greatness) also elaborate on how the other half lives. Holliday Grainger, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Natalie Dormer, all familiar faces from TV upper-crust fantasies, play, respectively, a middle-class girl, a working-class girl, and a working girl, who each in turn refuse to the Club’s money, in scenes whose firsthand sense of female pride breathes a little fire into this sometimes didactic dissection of the Old Boys network.

03/25/15 7:16am
photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Apartment Troubles
Directed by Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler
Opens March 27 on VOD Platforms

Cowriters, codirectors and costars Prediger and Weixler, familiar microindie supporting actresses both, dump their anxieties—about art-making, about personal relationships, about the state of the earth—into 75 appealingly messy minutes of self-parody and catharsis. Out-of-work actress and cat fancier Olivia (Prediger) and allergic, unrepresented artist Nicole (Weixler), who works mostly with sand, to highlight the ephemerality of all things, are yin-yang childhood friends about to lose their sweltering illegal East Village sublet (where the electricity is turned off, they claim by choice, though it makes it hard for them to charge their phones; when they can’t buy food, they start a “cleanse”). So they head out to LA to try out for That Special Something, a reality-talent show judged by Megan Mulally, as Nicole’s wine-stained aunt, and Lance Bass, as himself; the transcontinental structure is just enough of a framework to allow them to face up to their own hunger for acceptance. Though the movie is enlivened by cameo comedy (notably Will Forte as self-confessed mama’s boy popping Adderall like Altoids), it’s most of all a study of friendship as the kind of codependency that makes life both totally unbearable for long stretches, and worth living at all.

03/11/15 7:03am
Image courtesy of Cinema Guild

Jauja
Directed by Lisandro Alonso
Opens March 20

In Jauja, Lisandro Alonso renders a colonial-era setting with techniques from the beginning of cinema right up to its bleeding edge, so that watching it is at once like being transported to the past, and standing on a precipice over a thunderously onflowing (alternate?) future.

The film is shot in an archaic 4:3 aspect ratio, the corners of the picture rounded like a faded postcard; the blocking is stagy, with characters planted in the middle of a landscape for extended dialogues, or else with shots or scenes didactically timed to their movement from one edge of the frame to the other. But subtle reframings and more fluid pans, from a stationary
camera position, subvert the proscenium staging, revealing the flexibility of Alonso’s film grammar, while his use of extreme depth and offscreen space is sometimes snort-out-loud funny. Jauja set in real Patagonian locations—stunning beaches, plains, deserts and lava fields—and yet Alonso and DP Timo Salminen often shoot in tight quarters, before natural backdrops that hide the sky; characters’ faces are brightly and artificially lit, creating a halo-like effect which, along with the artificial contrasts of the spot-lit nighttime scenes, makes the film seem to be unfolding in a backlot of the mind.

The narrative is an appropriation of The Searchers, in which a father tracks the unbottled genie of his daughter’s sexuality across a wild frontier, but Jauja is a Western in the sense that the terrain it traverses tests the ideal of the Western rational man. Viggo Mortensen, speaking his native Danish and Spanish, plays Dinesen, an engineer accompanying a Spanish army unit at an underpopulated, end-of-the-world Argentine outpost during the 1880s ethnic cleansing of the region’s indigenous people. Though he’s fusty and civilized in his interaction with the rougher Spanish speakers, Dinesen’s buttoned-up affect is strained by his indolent teenage daughter; when she and an angel-faced soldier sneak out of the camp, he takes sword and six-shooter, mounts horse, and follows her.

The specter of primal violence looms via a legendary bloodthirsty native bandit leader—though when this rumor is finally confirmed by celluloid, it feels like, like everything else in the movie, languorous, hushed and ghostly, as if even at this remote date already an apparition from the land’s vanquished past. But as other characters drop away, Mortensen has nothing to play against but nature and himself. Sweating through layers of bulky long johns, his mustache drooping and weeping, Mortensen’s human grumbling and surprised, rageful brutality convey the sense of a nervous, basically average man caught on a journey into his own heart of darkness.

Alonso is easily lumped in with the slow-cinema auteurs of the international fest circuit, and indeed, though following a strong narrative line, Jauja does so at a pace given over to the elements and random chance—part drawn-out, ravishing landscape shots taken from a distance, part deliberately static accounts of fumbling behavior. But though slowed down, the movie is hardly stripped bare: as Mortensen picks his way across a landscape growing increasingly jagged and volcanic, he and the disintegrating plot eventually arrive at some pretty far-flung metaphysical precincts. Alonso’s evocation of a particular historical time and place, always so exquisitely wobbly, topples in a jumble, and the presence of a shaggy dog becomes increasingly symbolic, in a couple of different senses.

03/11/15 5:46am
Image courtesy of Cinelicious

Of Horses and Men
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
March 11–17 at MoMA

Metalhead
Directed by Ragnar Bragason
March 18, 20 at Scandinavia House;
Opens March 20 at Cinema Village

The Icelandic cinema began, after a few one-offs, in 1979, with the formation of the Icelandic Film Fund, and its first major production, Land and Sons, an adaptation of Indriði Þorsteinsson’s novel about a young man who sells the family farm. Two Icelandic films from 2013, both playing in New York City this month, continue to work through Iceland’s ambivalent relationship with a rural heritage long since altered by the mass urban migration of WWII and after, but still heavily present in the national self-image, especially in a current economy based around the saleability of nature and a millennium-long history of hardy homesteaders.

Image courtesy of MoMA

Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men, a compendium of vignettes with an overlapping cast of neighboring horse farmers and their animals, peaks, as it were, in its first scene, with the social humiliation of Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, the country’s most respected actor, in a gag featuring some all-time animal-wrangling degree-of-difficulty. As the film continues, photogenic, pint-sized Icelandic horses (mascots of the country’s new tourism-based economy) remain on equal footing with their human scene partners—though that’s not to say that the horses are personified. The film’s Icelandic title, Hross í oss, translates as “horse in us,” though both the noun and pronoun are archaic words out of use in modern Icelandic. Indeed, the tales the film spins are both bawdy, in their focus on animalistic lusts—more than one species is seen to copulate outdoors, gruntingly—and at times pleasingly legendary, with incidents of retributive blindness, unexpected visions, and land disputes as vicious as in the times of the Sagas. The film gets laughs at backwards folkways—blind clear-booze drunkenness, naked lust, general venality—but the humor is also nostalgic in its passed-down broadness. The final shot is a frankly elegiac picture of community ritual.

More oblique, but more searing, as a meditation on country life, is Ragnar Bragason’s Metalhead. Ragnar is a city mouse now: his previous credits include Children and Parents, Mike Leigh-influenced ensemble films made with the alternative theater group Vesturport, and the TV sitcom Nightshift and its subsequent spin-offs, with comedian-turned-Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr. Here, though, he returns to the eternal theme of growing up as Getting Out, shooting on farms tucked between glaciers and ocean on the island’s south coast, in a wintry palette evocative of thrifty, clenched emotion. Newcomer Thora Bjorg Helga plays Hera, scarred at an early age by her older brother’s accidental death, and grown into the titular corpse-painted wild child, taking late-night drunk joyrides on tractors and railing against the rectitude of grange-hall dances and Sundays at a church a half-dozen pews deep. (The film is set around the 1980s and 90s, but, as in Of Horses and Men, the cosy farmhouse interiors have a free-floating later-ish-20th-century timelessness.) With its treatment of rustic Nordic isolation and boredom, misfit adolescence and trauma beyond words, this would be a totally metal movie even if Slayer and Priest did not become Hera’s headphone sanctuary and the voice of her anger against God. Structurally, Metalhead is more mixtape than album. But individual scenes, of Hera blasting on her dead brother’s guitar in the barn, or of her battles of wills with the hip local priest and her repressed parents, are mounted with simple life-or-death conviction in the writing, performance and, auðvitað, soundtrack, and play like majestic, doomy riffs.

02/25/15 9:22am
photo courtesy of Sundance Selects

Wild Canaries is the third collaboration between husband-and-wife team Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal, following Gabi on the Roof in July (written and directed by Levine), in which they played a brother and sister, and Green (written and directed by Takal), in which she plays the potential other woman in his relationship. Here, they play Noah and Barri, an engaged couple, who find themselves fighting over money, work, real estate, and their relationship when Barri (but not Noah) begins investigating the possible murder of their elderly neighbor. Perched on the edge of reality and fantasy, Wild Canaries brings out intimate anxieties via low-budget screwball pastiche: a polished, effervescent riff on Manhattan Murder Mystery, transposed to Young Brooklyn, where the couple lives—for now. Wild Canaries opens February 25; Levine answered a few questions over email.

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02/25/15 9:16am
photo courtesy of Factory 25

In Bluebird, like a quieter, humbler The Sweet Hereafter, a school bus tragedy has reverberations all up and down the fault lines of a small, snowbound town, beginning with bus driver Lesley (Amy Morton) and her logger husband (John Slattery). Writer-director Lance Edmands lives in Brooklyn and went to NYU, but he grew up in Kennebunk, in southern Maine, and to make Bluebird traveled north to Millinocket, an old paper-mill town struggling to move forward. Over email, I asked him about the allure of the place—and time—Bluebird takes him back to. Bluebird, Edmands’s first commercial feature after work as an editor (Tiny Furniture) and an award-winning Maine-set student film Vacationland, opens February 27.

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02/11/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Honora

Hits
Directed by David Cross
Opens February 13

“[O]blivious or unaware characters” are David Cross’s “trademark,” according to his IMDB bio—fair enough, but several octaves separate the touchingly sunny self-delusions of blue, body-ashamed Tobias Fünke and those of the characters in Hits, Cross’s debut as a feature-film writer-director. Hits is casually comprehensive in its revulsion at a selfish, malignantly dumbed-down, celebrity-obsessed culture. It’s also very nearly convincing, and quite funny.

In a low-budget everything-is-connected way, Hits bounces between blue Brooklyn and red upstate, over the course of a summer week or so. Townie teen Katelyn (Meredith Hagner) pores over tabloid weeklies’ coverage of reality stars with engrossed outrage, holds Ellen interviews in her head, and cajoles money for her The Voice audition tape out of her Alex Jones-listening dad, Dave (Matt Walsh), whose repeated disruptions of town meetings (the three-minute time limit is a violation of his liberty, the pothole on his street still hasn’t been filled) gain him a YouTube following, including Donovan (James Adomian) of the Greenpoint-based “activist collective” Think Tank, who ZipCars north to take “A Dave That Will Live In Infamy” viral. These elements build a climactic melee over the blind need for validation—via love, civic respect, and especially, per the title, views and Likes.

On this point and others, Hits is about as bracingly unsubtle as Lily Allen’s “The Fear,” its end-credits song. Cross and his sketch-trained cast have that alternative-comedy itch for the next absurdist punchline, and the unmodulated characterizations, when extended over 100 minutes and juxtaposed with Hits’s ultra-specific milieus, are hyper-realistic, both funny and damning. Best in show is Walsh, so good with Dave’s not-ready-for-prime-time quavering formality and unraveling syntax (“You have blood on your hands of a dead dog.”).

But Cross also leavens his horror with pity, at least for characters farther from himself: witness Dave and Katelyn’s halting daddy-daughter bonding, or the pathos of Donovan’s girlfriend, who sells “feminist theory onesies” on Etsy, and assuages her womb-ache by baking cookies for her weed guy (Michael Cera). No such heartstrings, though, are pulled for Donovan, the ineffectually angry, paternalistic but emotionally evasive hashtag activist. It gives some legitimacy to Cross’s misanthropy that he does not second-guess his contempt for a Brooklynite of moon-faced middle age, with distinctive facial hair and designer eyeglasses, who is sometimes seen in jean shorts.