06/12/15 11:00am

You Know They Want To Disappear Hell's Kitchen as Clinton - algorithm killed

This weekend, Anthology Film Archives shows three shorts programs by Stephanie Gray, a poet and Super 8 filmmaker (and former AFA publicist). In certain hands, Super 8 is a format that looks like the concrete aesthetic equivalent of the ephemerality of memory: its handheld wobbliness and volatile surface textures of Super 8 create the impression of a conditional subject, open to layers of misremembering and unexpected connections.

Gray’s films continue in that tradition. In black and white and color Super 8, close-ups of buildings, or of balloons in trees, come in and out of focus, and the sun shines into the lens. Gray frequently focuses on the marginal aspects of NYC (a teddy bear trapped in a chain-link fence, rundown old buildings), and gentrification is very much her explicit subject: some of her films focus on neighborhoods institutions going out of business.

Most of the films are silent, though some have a voiceover track; at Anthology this weekend, there will be live musical performances by some of Gray’s collaborators to go along with some of the films, and live readings of poetic texts over others. Gray answered a few of my questions over email.


06/04/15 9:00am

we are still here

We Are Still Here, which opens tomorrow at Cinema Village and on VOD, is a horror film that begins in an atmospheric mode, and ends up somewhere very different. Shot in the heart of winter, in and around a small town in far upstate New York with the right vibe for the wood-paneled, cold-linoleum 1979 setting, the film follows a middle-aged couple, grieving the sudden death of their son, as they try to start over in a house that’s been empty for 30 years. (They invite up a couple of friends, played by Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie, to investigate its mysterious energies, after a Scotch-guzzling neighbor, played by TV vet Monte Markham, tells them about the house’s local-legendary first inhabitants, the undertaker Dagmar and his family.) With classical compositions, creepy music and strange noises in an old house, the film initially seems to be developing a storyline about haunting as a metaphor for grief (a la Babadook). By the end, we’re in a much different place, in terms of plot, tone and style. Writer-director Ted Geoghegan explains that he wanted “to pay tribute to the methodical pacing of 70s Eurohorror cinema”—the film has been compared to Lucio Fulci in particular. “Unlike the genre fare of today, viewers of that era’s films were rarely certain where a movie would end up,” he says. Indeed, the restraint of the set-up gives way to the release of the climax, which is executed, if that’s the word, as lovingly as the house’s interiors have been decorated with hi-fi sets and bottles of J&B. Geoghegan, who lives on the Upper West Side, answered a few questions of mine over email (note that the fourth question and answer are arguably spoilers).


05/27/15 9:00am


With summer arrives a new season of Rooftop Films, bringing new indie features, docs, animations and shorts to rooftops across Brooklyn and Manhattan, along with Q&As, live music and receptions. The first feature of this year’s program, 7 Chinese Brothers, screens on Saturday night at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus; bands play before the movie, which is followed by a party and Q&A with filmmaker Bob Byington and star Jason Schwartzman. The film, which takes its title from track 2 on Reckoning, has something of the underachiever’s charm of 80s and 90s indie rock. Schwartzman stars as Larry, fired from a restaurant in the opening scene for stealing booze, and over the course of the movie growing sputteringly dissatisfied at his own half-assed efforts in most things—learning Spanish, romancing his boss (Eleanor Pienta) at the lube-job place where he finds work, visiting his equally borderline-alcoholic grandmother (Olympia Dukakis)—though not in his ownership of his dog Arrow (Schwarzman’s real-life dog, playing himself). The writer-director is the Austin-based Byington, whose last film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, was more overtly absurdist, but similarly drily funny and well-acted in surveying the efforts of the lazy Sisyphuses who populate his film. Byington answered a couple of questions of mine over email.


04/15/15 6:29am

full moon in paris

Full Moon in Paris (1984)
Directed by Éric Rohmer
The fourth and most emotionally tumultuous of the elder statesmen of the nouvelle vague’s “Comedies and Proverbs” series leans closer to the moralistic than the humorous half its thematic epithet. An at times uncomfortable look at the nuances and negotiations inherent to romance, the film follows Louise (Pascale Ogier) and Rémi (Tchéky Karyo), an unmarried couple whose plan for living together grows complicated when the former chooses to keep her Parisian apartment as a pied-à-terre for nights of metropolitan partying. Meanwhile, Louise’s best guy and girlfriend (Fabrice Luchini and Virginie Thévenet) are both harboring secrets related to the couple which slowly tug at the seams of an already fraying relationship. Shot in Rohmer’s typically unadorned style, with an emphasis on dialogue and situational irony rather than decorous mise-en-scène, the film arrives very subtly at a climax all the more devastating for its inevitability. Jordan Cronk (Apr 17-30, showtimes daily at the Film Society of Lincoln Center; new DCP restoration part of “Éric Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs”)

01/22/15 7:17pm


The characters in L for Leisure wear Ray-Bans and tortoiseshell horn-rims, oxford shirts for the girls and tank tops for the guys; title cards are handwritten in pastels reminiscent of the Drive font, or early MTV programming; the original songs that make up the soundtrack, by John Atkinson of Brooklyn’s Aa, sound a little bit like the 8-bit Out Run theme, and a little bit like shoegaze. The film is shot in grainy, sun-kissed 16mm and follows mellowed-out, privileged, pretty people hanging out; watching it is like living inside an Instagram filter—basking in the authored, self-contained textures of the fairly recent past.

Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s film, which plays at Videology on Friday night (having made a very well-received run ‘round the fest circuit last year), is set over the 1992-93 school year, specifically over the various school vacations, on beaches and in family homes in SoCal, Great Neck, Baja Mexico, and other photogenic locales. The laid-back, uninflectedly affluent vibe, and focus on social minutae, is played up on the film’s website with the very film critic-friendly tagline, “Find out what happens when people stop being real… and start being polite,” as if the Sally Fowler Rat Pack had moved into the Real World house.


01/08/15 1:00pm

alex_screen_testThe title of La Ultima Pelicula, which plays for a week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a week starting Friday, can be translated as The Last Movie, a la Dennis Hopper’s legendary/notorious Heart of Darkness-ish Easy Rider follow-up, an experimentally, elliptically achronologically edited and expressionistically photographed film starring Hopper as a cowboy stuntman who stays on in Peru after a Western shoot, and ends up starring in a postcolonial passion play shot with wooden cameras. (The film’s troubled postproduction is addressed obliquely in Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson’s rare Hopper doc The American Dreamer, including much drug-addled rambling, nude massage, and target practice; American Dreamer also screens at the FSLC, on Saturday.) The title could also be translated as “The Last Film.” Indeed, the film stars filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (of NYU, Mondo Kim’s, Park Slope, the New York Film Festival, and many features in these pages), as a denim-clad director in unfamiliar Mexico to shoot a feature film on all the world’s remaining celluloid film stock, on a shoot coinciding with the purported Mayan apocalypse of 2012. Perry will be on hand to introduce the film on Friday the 9th and Saturday the 10th, and he answered a couple of questions from me over email earlier this week.


12/31/14 9:00am
Photo Courtesy if Selfreliant Films

Something, Anything
Directed by Paul Harrill
Opens January 9 at the IFP’s Made in NY Media Center

Something, Anything begins with scenes from a catalogue-pretty marriage: the proposal, the wedding-registry barcode scanning, the chummy speeches alluding to “babies, lots of babies!” But the mournful piano-driven score suggests an alternate interpretation of Peggy‘s (Ashley Shelton) speechlessness when fratboyishly handsome Mark (Bryce Johnson) pops the question in front of her friends. When Peggy miscarries, it’s a dramatic “inciting incident” that feels credible: Peggy is living the kind of life in which motherhood would have delayed introspection for a decade or more. Instead, she gets her own apartment. Her parents help her move in, presumably indulging a temporary hiccup.

The title of writer-director Paul Harrill’s Knoxville, Tennessee-shot feature debut is the answer, never spoken, to the question hanging over Peggy’s suddenly tense interactions with old friends (you get the feeling they were all cheerleaders together) at baby showers. It’s also present in Peggy’s new life: an hourly gig shelving books at the library; photocopying swathes of the New Testament; divesting herself of TV, Crate and Barrel furnishings and red bedsheets (half “Simplify, simplify” and half subcultural redecorating—she holds onto Catch-22); and corresponding with a serious-minded boy from high school who has joined a monastery. The film creates some perhaps inadvertent, but effectively searching suspense over what sort of belief systems—Christian, ascetic, secular-artisanal—Peggy will end up following to her bliss.

Before she starts at the library (by then going by Margaret, the name on her birth certificate), Peggy quits her real estate job—within her allegedly enviable, suddenly unwanted life, her vocational restlessness, repopulating bubble-built Sun Belt McMansions, gestures towards a more national conversation about values. Harrill’s easy shorthand for identifiable types does backfire when the monk (who, in contrast to the shiny-shirted estranged husband, sports both a scruffy beard and glasses) is finally found hanging out with a 90s-vintage college rock band. But Something, Anything has overall the welcome sense of familiar strands of life transposed to cinema with minimal embellishment. Bryce Johnson is good as a man vacillating between writing off his wife as a flakey disappointment, and taking her leaving as a ding on his status. In fact, the less sympathetically his character is written, the more believable Peggy/Margaret’s indecision over her marriage becomes—her non-acknowledgement of his objective low-level paternalistic douchebaggery reads as one symptom of an ingrained and lifelong set of imposed expectations.


12/17/14 4:56pm
Photo courtesy of Adopt Films

Winter Sleep
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Opens December 19

Among the great, perhaps not entirely incidental pleasures of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s cinema are the middle-aged male faces which linger in his forbiddingly long takes—a Rushmorian array of stoic, weather-worn handsomeness, exhausted mustaches, wind-thinned hair. Haluk Bilginer, who plays Aydin, the retired actor-turned-country squire at the center of Winter Sleep, has the ragged continental hairline, charcoal eyebrows and deflated cheeks of a very late-period (and, y’know, Turkish) James Mason. A former stage star returned home to Anatolia to run a hotel and maintain his father’s property holdings, write a column for a local newspaper, and research a definitive history of Turkish theatre, Aydin is most often found in his study, where gold lamplight pools on rough stucco walls, amid piles of books, play posters and artifacts.


11/05/14 4:00am

Brooklyn resident Josephine Decker has previously made shorts and documentaries, acted in features from Joe Swanberg among others, raised awareness of environmental issues through her performance art, played with the all-female Main Squeeze Accordian Orchestra, and taken her clothes off in front of Marina Abramovic at The Artist Is Present. Her feature films, last year’s Butter on the Latch and this year’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, will both open on November 14 at DUMBO’s Made in NY Media Center for weeklong runs. In the former film, shot at a Balkan folk art workshop in the woods outside of Mendocino, California, an edgy meditation on female friendship gives way to a surreal psychodrama as the banalities of art-making—workshops, social niceties with collaborators—begin to cohere and transform into a full-scale exotic performance. In the latter, a farmhand (played by Swanberg) is drawn to the farmer’s daughter (Sophie Traub), in an atmosphere whose moodiness (courtesy D.P. Ashley Connor’s uneasily rapturous images, and Robert Longstreet’s insinuating, old-goatish pappy) portends another quasi-Lynchian psychic break.
Decker answered some questions of mine over email.

A bajillion years ago, I interviewed you briefly about your short film Squeezebox, which you said came out of some dreams you’d been having around that time. (You also said that the idea of a character “waking up” to magic was something you hoped to explore further in a feature…) Do dreams remain important to your creative process?

I think that movies are basically dream spaces. My next feature is going to be such a dream. I’ve been studying my favorite films and have started to realize that the films I love most are films with a structure that is a container for a dream. The Shining and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are both films that live in the subconscious—but are structured in such a way as to allow entering and leaving that subconscious to heighten the tension instead of throw the story out of whack. I really aspire to this in my films—to allow the dreamspace to be the dominant forward motion in the structure as well. To find ways to meld fantasy and reality and the turning of a face and the twisting of a hand—almonds rumbling with tile floors and the black magic Madonnas we always fall for… Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is certainly an exploration of dreamspace. That film really came together once I allowed the dreams to be the meat and structural essence of the film. They set the tone that the film is built on, and I am so grateful to editor David Barker for guiding me to trust my instincts on that. I don’t know that every film in the world needs to exist in a dreamspace, but the movies I make generally tend to….
Butter on the Latch was just one long descent into a dream. Originally, the ending was much more in the “real world,” but we followed our instincts during, and went down the female-friendship-power-dynamic rabbit hole. The redwoods and our incredible cast inspired a descent into madness that someone recently called “the female version of Fight Club.” I was very very honored to have even a remote allusion to my movie and that movie in the same sentence. I loved loved loved Fight Club.

Both films explore rural settings—both their pastoral beauty, and some strange undercurrents. The best I seem to be able to come up with is “ominously unresolved spiritual energy,” but maybe you can help me a bit by talking about what sort of tensions or dichotomies you see at work in the forest of Butter on the Latch and the farm of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely?

I firmly believe that mood and tension are as powerful storytellers as a film’s characters. I think one reason Steinbeck’s novels are so effective is that they let the land tell the story as often as the characters do. The vistas and worlds in those books are as alive and bristling—with wildlife, terror, tragedy, small perks, strange interactions—as any character’s life, and it just serves to reveal the wildness inside all of us. I try to let nature speak her truth. And in return, she takes me on some crazy journeys.

Sex and violence are commingled in the climaxes of both films, but before that as well, through foreshadowing like subliminal-speed insert shots. Does sensuality in your films threaten a kind of rupture in the logic and balance of the world?

Yeah, you know… it was only during sound mix that I was like: Wow. Sex NEVER appears in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely without violence. In both states, you’re incredibly vulnerable. I guess I try to honor that vulnerability in my films… There’s a kind of deep submersion that can happen during sex—you’re sort of blind and deaf and powerless and yet super strong and totally alive—so, in my films, I make those sensual moments deeply immersive as well. I definitely learned something about myself regarding sex and violence in rewatching Mild and Lovely—I saw how deeply ingrained one is in the other for me… I should ask my therapist about that.

How was the process of production similar, and how different, between the two films? The actors in Butter on the Latch get a dialogue credit, unlike those of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely—was the script indeed more set, and if so, why did you decide to go in that direction?

Although I loved the fluid and spontaneous energy of Butter on the Latch, I remember wishing during editing that I had had more control over the arc of each scene—so that a scene could “turn” at the moment that I proscribed instead of the actors slowly discovering it. We didn’t shoot two cameras on Butter, only one—so, when editing around a long dialogue scene, you have to get very creative… On Mild and Lovely, I did a better job asking for help and creating more structure around the making of the film—we had an AD and producer and production manager, and… a script! And that allowed me to focus much more on the performancesa thamselves. I love the spontaneity of improvisation and collaboration from Butter on the Latch; that goes so deep it’s hard for anyone to extract their contribution to the film in one little credit. But I also think that having a clear structure and more solid schedule and intention makes it much easier for me as a director to focus in on details instead of worrying about the big picture all of the time. But—I think filmmaking is a process of growth, so I doubt I’ll ever in my life feel like: “Aha! This is my process.” Every film is a discovery.

Perhaps along those lines, I’m curious about your collaboration with your DP, Ashley Connor, who seems to have quite a bit of freedom to do things like shoot things evocatively out of focus or in low light, or to move the camera via breathless, shaky handheld. How clearly do you see the movie before you get onto the set?

Ashley and I always do quite a bit of planning beforehand—and then throw everything out the window once we get on set… I think it always helps to know your influences and general style, so it’s great that we do spend the time conceiving in advance—but we love to improvise, to allow intuition to guide our choices and not feel constrained or committed to a shotlist. I think it becomes clear to us once we’re in the room with the actors how the scene needs to feel. We developed a shorthand for this kind of spontaneous camerawork during Butter on the Latch. We call it “Ashcam,” which basically means: Ashley takes the camera and does whatever she wants. I think it’s vital for a director to really believe in and trust her DP.
Ashley and I started working together five years ago when Ashley shot my short film Me the Terrible. I had budgeted to pay her, and she said she would rather shoot on film than get paid… but, when you shoot on film, you don’t get to see how the shot looks, so I storyboarded pretty heavily ahead of time, and then when we were on set, occasionally, I’d look through the lens, but—mostly, I let her do her magic. I was insanely happy with the results. Since then, I know that my job is to direct the actors, to really always be thinking of the story as a whole and communicate with Ashley about that—but also, my job is to know that Ashley spends her life holding a camera and deeply understands how to make a scene work (especially on low-budget films like this when our lighting options are nyeto). We have our arguments, but mostly, she and I have built a lot of good connection.

Let’s do “the influence question” because it’s a good way to orient people going into your films. What films and filmmakers were helpful to you in figuring out how to bring these two movies into existence?

I tend to recognize my influences after the fact. I don’t know that I ever usually think: I better go watch this movie because I want my film to feel like that film. I usually just want my film to feel like my film. After the fact, I saw that Butter on the Latch was pretty deeply influenced by Darren Aronofsky and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was coming from a Lars von Trier-influenced exploration of my darkness. I love that those men don’t pull any punches. They are going to fill you with wonder and then hit you all the ways to the guts, and while that’s sometimes uncomfortable, that’s an experience…

11/05/14 4:00am

The Better Angels
Directed by A.J. Edwards

When Lincoln takes center stage in the movies, the tone is one of wonderment that our country could have produced even one such man as him—even Spielberg and Kushner’s realpolitik couldn’t resist the spectacle of Honest Abe as spellbinder, his anecdotes staged with the same time-freezing magic as his cameos in other films. The Better Angels takes the same route as John Ford in Young Mr. Lincoln, returning to the icon’s unformed backwoods early days to scrounge for crumbs of insight into the person, and the land, that made a national monument.

This is the avowed intention of The Better Angels from its outset, as it opens with Lincoln’s widely circulated, almost certainly spurious quote, “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother” (scholars tend to agree that the line is more accurately attributed to Pinterest). Set beginning in 1817, Lincoln’s ninth year, and continuing through Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s death from milk sickness and Thomas Lincoln’s remarriage to Sarah Bush Johnston, the film places young master Lincoln (Braydon Denney) in an episodic texture-of-childhood narrative anchored like Tree of Life, but with two Jessica Chastains (Brit Marling smiles at a grasshopper alit on her finger in the pouring rain; Diane Kruger wanders through meadows trailing a hand behind to caress the tall grass), and a softer-focus hard-but-loving dad (Jason Clarke, with heartland-dad lockjaw).

Indeed, Writer-director A.J. Edwards makes his feature debut after an apprenticeship on Terrence Malick’s last several films; Malick is a producer here, and, like Lincoln, a conspicuous object of veneration. There is a homely voiceover (from Lincoln cousin Dennis Hanks), and a camera that rarely if ever stops moving, circling the characters, often from dramatic low angles, as they themselves twirl through field and forest in a ballet of remembrance. Many of cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd’s images—wet leaves, inked-outline bare winter trees—have an inspiring sense of natural beauty, but equally often the decision to shoot in black and white widescreen seems to provide picturesque cover for a reliance on rustic cliché. The silveriness of wheat and sky and skin passes as a reference to Matthew Brady, but, especially when pretty boys wrassle shirtless in the wheat fields, the more relevant antecedent seems to be Hollister ads. (Previous movie-god Lincolns Henry Fonda and Daniel Day-Lewis have embodied the world-historical grace of a man who poked fun at his own ugliness throughout his life; funnily enough, Ellar Coltrane, star of the year’s most successfully miraculous-seeming coming-of-age story, has a Lincoln-esque look.)

Shooting for transcendence in every shot, Edwards aims to evoke a life marked for moral greatness, in hard-won loving harmony with the best of its surroundings. But without Malick’s daring leaps of chronology, geography, and structure, with consecutive shots linked by nothing save their essential Emersonian inner beauty, The Better Angels ends up projecting its luminosity onto some fairly pedestrian stuff. Young Abe is dreamy in a rough-hewn world, an unpolished rural genius crying out for the polish of book learnin’. His alleged profound sensitivity comes through mostly by association with Marling’s whispering, ethereal mother and Kruger’s infinitesimally more worldly model; Edwards relies heavily on wordless reaction shots of delicate-featured newcomer Denney, juxtaposed with his lives-of-the-saints biographical symbols: father splitting rails, slaves in chains, an American flag. When a log-cabin schoomaster asks his charges what Jesus did when he was young, it’s less mystery than homily. And that little boy grew up to be…

Opens November 7 at the Landmark Sunshine