Articles by

<Michael Joshua Rowin>

07/15/15 9:55am
photo Courtesy of Sundance Selects

Directed by Christian Petzold
Opens July 24

One of the major themes in the work of German director Christian Petzold (Barbara, Yella) is personal repression, and subsequent awareness, of the disturbing historical past. Addressing regeneration through intense suffering with more than just its title, Phoenix marks not only an apotheosis of Petzold’s career-long examination of memory in relation to national cataclysm, but also a critique of the mind-easing revisionism offered by mainstream depictions of genocidal oppression, whether serious (Schindler’s List) or facetious (Django Unchained).


07/07/15 7:00am
photo courtesy of Film Movement

Stations of the Cross
Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann
July 10-16 at Anthology Film Archives

As narrow-minded as the religious oppression it seeks to condemn, Stations of the Cross masks a lurid fascination with martyrdom behind a façade of empathy. German director Dietrich Brüggemann (who co-wrote the 2014 Berlinale prizewinner with his sister Anna) has fashioned a well-orchestrated exercise in minimalism, but it also an airless and manipulative one which is a shame, really, considering the talent and skill on display.


06/17/15 8:17am
photo Courtesy of Cinema Guild

The Princess of France
Directed by Matias Piñeiro
Opens June 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

33-year-old Argentinian director Matias Piñeiro is fast becoming a name on the art cinema circuit. That’s a real feat considering how lightly he allows his stories to unfold, how intricately he plays with narrative structure, and how mischievously he situates the Shakespeare comedies at the heart of three of his five fiction films. Like Twelfth Night-influenced Viola two years ago, the new The Princess of France subverts its inviting atmosphere with an oblique style, proving Piñeiro that rare director who can wed the shambolic and the meticulous, the unpretentious and the weighty, the strange and the quotidian.


06/03/15 8:01am
images courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

The Nightmare
Directed by Rodney Ascher
Opens June 5

Director Rodney Ascher is responsible for controversial 2012 documentary Room 237, which proved simultaneously fascinating and preposterous in ceding large sections of analysis to the tinfoil hat contingent of Stanley Kubrick Studies. His latest blend of fact and speculation, The Nightmare, proceeds along the same lines: there’s virtually no way not to be engrossed by the film’s subject—sleep paralysis—but also no way not to remain somewhat skeptical of its anti-scientific flights of fancy.

For The Nightmare Ascher interviews eight victims of persistent sleep paralysis, a condition in which the sleeper remains fully conscious while unable to move his or her body. Like many, the film’s subjects suffer paralysis via demonic dream manifestations ranging from corporeal shadows to Communion-esque aliens. Ascher stakes his film on recreations of his interviewees’ stories, and the results are lamentably silly—you’d think that as a fan of The Shining Ascher would know a thing or two about what makes for original screen horror, but his depictions of haunted slumber merely recycle the most predictable genre clichés, including jump scares and distorted voices. Some expressionistic lighting schemes and slow tracking shots look purty, but overall The Nightmare’s visual raisons d’être play like show-offy shots from a cinematographer’s demo reel.

More than that, the film refuses to counter its subjects’ estimations of paranormal or supernatural forces as the factors behind their paralyses and visions. Not that such estimations are inherently laughable—the nocturnal realm invites such ponderings—but The Nightmare dismisses any rational understandings of consistently disturbed sleep in less than three minutes, and the word “neurological” isn’t uttered once. A lack of authoritative sources beyond briefly glimpsed Wikipedia entries places Ascher’s project under deep suspicion, and when the film concludes with tales of the ghoul-vanquishing power of prayer and the return of deceased relatives one can’t help feeling deceived and manipulated. If you’re going to go the new age route then by all means take up fiction filmmaking like that bastion of profundity, M. Night Shyamalan—otherwise leave mysterious phenomena to pros like Werner Herzog, whose truth-bendings at least take more complex, entertaining, and well-researched form.

05/28/15 10:57am

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne Fontaine

Gemma Bovary
Directed by Anne Fontaine
Opens May 29

Forgettable and false, Gemma Bovary is the second movie adaptation of a Posy Simmonds graphic novel following 2010’s Tamara Drewe. Both films star beautiful yet bland Gemma Arterton in their title roles, and both feature polite takes on their 19th century literary classic-inspired source material: Tamara nods to Far From the Madding Crowd, while Gemma explicitly references the work of a certain French author who could have taught Simmonds, screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer, and director Anne Fontaine a thing or eight about transforming tawdry melodrama into something sublime.

Because its debt to Madame Bovary is placed at the narrative forefront, Gemma attempts—the operative word—a commentary on our innate desire to spin stories and life’s uncanny ability to imitate art. Blissfully ignorant of coincidence, Gemma and her husband Charles (Jason Flemyng) move from Britain to the provincial French village where Flaubert wrote his masterpiece. Local baker and literature fanatic Martin (Fabrice Luchini) not only sees something of Emma’s repressed longing in Gemma, but also notices that the English woman begins walking the same ill-fated path as her quasi-namesake when she meets younger, more handsome Hervé (Niels Schneider), a law student living alone in the family manse. Due to boredom, unrequited lust, and a need to make Flaubert’s tale come alive, Martin secretly intervenes in events, which—only partially because of his machinations—end in disaster.

And that’s the main problem with Gemma. The film says nothing any great modern or post-modern work hasn’t already said about the confluence of fiction and actuality—indeed, Madame Bovary itself made this point—even as its mores remain antiquated. For all its clever allusions and wryly expressed psychology, Simmonds’s work is sheepishly moralizing: rather than receiving punishment from their noble counterparts, her philanderers and adulteresses are instead eradicated via ridiculous deus ex machina devices. (According to the story’s bizarre ethical system Gemma cannot be forgiven her transgressions, while the equally suspect Martin is unconvincingly absolved of his.) Like Tamara, Gemma concludes with a deceptive narrative trick to veil a musty message, but an otherwise MOR presentation (postcard cinematography, tasteful T&A) renders its core values readily transparent.

05/06/15 6:13am
photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

In the Name of My Daughter
Directed by André Téchiné
Opens May 15

In his last several films, arthouse mainstay André Téchiné has explored the deceptions that unravel tight-knit families and communities; Lifetime Original Movie-titled In the Name of My Daughter continues the trend in depicting the filial betrayal of a young divorcee at the behest of her manipulative seducer. Adèle Haenel plays impulsive Agnès Le Roux, a casino heiress whose financially inept mother Renée (Catherine Deneuve) is withholding her father’s inheritance. Seeking revenge against Renée for refusing to make him casino manager, playboy attorney Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet) sleeps with Agnès and then encourages her to use her shareholder’s vote to oust the matriarch from the casino board. A gangster takes over the business only to dissolve it as part of a real estate scheme; meanwhile, Agnès rejects any reconciliation with Renée and subsequently becomes obsessed with the emotionally distant Maurice. When Agnès goes missing after a suicide attempt a ruined Renée suspects Maurice of financially motivated murder.

Téchiné is an unpretentious dramatist who employs unobstrusive camerawork and editing—only an alternatingly lush and desaturated color scheme stands out here—so that his actors may tell the tale. As regal as ever, Deneuve moves from stubborn to wounded to broken with poignant grace, and Haenel—so terrific in Water Lilies as a mere teenager—effortlessly conveys the desperation within Agnès’s ostensible longing for independence and love. Canet, however, steals the show with his crafty interpretation of a highly mysterious character. In the Name of My Daughter is based on true and unresolved events occurring on the French Riviera in the mid-70s, and Canet portrays Agnelet as an ambiguous shyster who sells his exploitation and abandonment of Le Roux the younger as a charming case of caveat emptor.

The film gradually unveils Agnelet’s sociopathy even while refusing to outright accuse him, though the last act feels rushed and forced: representing only one of the three trials brought against an exiled Agnelet starting in 2006, Téchiné attempts to dig deeper into the lawyer’s villainy and Renée’s suffering but ultimately must resort to summarizing the convoluted vagaries of the law in a series of
on-screen texts.

09/10/14 4:00am

The Zero Theorem
Directed by Terry Gilliam

After a decade and a half of misfires (The Brothers Grimm), abandoned projects (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), and plagued productions (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), The Zero Theorem marks Terry Gilliam’s return to a comfort zone, of sorts, in its proximity to the themes and style of his greatest triumph. Indeed, there’s no mistaking his latest effort’s similarities to Brazil: both take place in an information-overloaded/deadened future in which an alienated hero increasingly confuses fantasy and reality in the search for emancipation. But Brazil possessed a unique sensibility and attitude; Theorem, in contrast, feels empty, underdeveloped, and unintentionally self-parodic.

The new film stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a computer programmer for a mammoth information company presided over by Big Brother-esque Management (Matt Damon). Haunted by countless phobias within a shrill and vapid society, Qohen requests to work from home—a burnt-out cathedral—in order to answer a long-delayed phone call that will ostensibly relate the meaning of his life. He receives his wish, but only by heading Management’s insanity-inducing project to discover nothing less than the purpose—or purposelessness—of the entire universe.

Unsurprisingly, Gilliam’s approach toward such lofty existential material (as scripted by Pat Rushin) emphasizes art direction and broad performances over coherent storytelling. A marvel of set design (Qohen’s pad is conceived as an architectural mash-up of the sacred and profane), Theorem also drowns key narrative and character details in a din of visual jokes that only reinforce an obvious point: that the world has forsaken spiritual and emotional depths for the technological surface. The unresolved “Is It All Just Happening in the Character’s Head?” ending remains ambiguous not for its complexity but for being rushed and confusedly executed.

As if aware of its derivativeness, Gilliam packs his film with rote wink-nudge references to his own past work; more egregiously, he also attempts to deflect any charges of pretension by transforming a talented supporting cast (David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton) into a carnival of grotesques. This proves especially painful in the case of a fetishized Mélanie Thierry as Qohen’s love interest—without a relatable human connection at its core Theorem undermines the very values it purports to champion.

Opens September 19

08/13/14 4:00am

Abuse of Weakness
Directed by Catherine Breillat

Whatever its ultimate worth, Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness is notable for devoting the most screen time to check-writing since the opening of Tout Va Bien. And just as Godard and Gorin depict movie financing as a Faustian bloodletting, so does Breillat compare the monetary transactions necessary for the production of art to an excruciating physical depletion. Debilitated by a stroke, filmmaker Maud (Isabelle Huppert) becomes infatuated with arrogant hustler Vilko (Kool Shen), impulsively cast as the lead in her next movie and gradually made recipient of her bank account—so he can subsidize shady business deals and so she can keep him on board. As Maud’s health deteriorates the psychological manipulation increases: rich, insulated Maud uses the uncouth ex-con to condescendingly experience how the other half lives; Vilko, meanwhile, employs guilt to not only bully Maud out of her cash but also to win her undivided attention—a born actor (and author of a myth-inflating memoir), his deceptions demand an audience or else might as well cease to exist.

In the past Breillat has largely specialized in warmed-over art house shock about perverse sexuality. Instead of transgression, Abuse traffics in autobiography, but Breillat remains too insignificant and too rudimentary a filmmaker to create compelling meta-commentary—the parallels between Maud’s planned film, about the violent relationship between a movie star and a secret lover, and her real life (and Breillat’s real real life) go largely unexplored. If taken as a straightforward portrait of soul-sucking codependence, however, Abuse proves disturbing in its moral inscrutability. Huppert is brilliant as usual, moving beyond rote awards-craving imitations of physical distress in order to render Maud a victim deserving of both scorn and sympathy. When at the film’s end she claims it was both herself and not herself who made so many naïve, self-destructive decisions, we know exactly what she means.

Opens August 15 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

07/16/14 4:00am

Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater
Directed by Gabe Klinger

Gabe Klinger’s documentary is a portrait of a couple of cinematic outsiders, James Benning and Richard Linklater. Aside from their camaraderie and mutual admiration (Benning was the young Linklater’s first choice for visiting filmmaker when the latter founded the Austin Film Society in the mid-80s), it’s initially difficult to discern what commonalities the two possess: Benning is a hardcore avant-gardist best known for static, ultra-slow long take studies of landscapes and quotidian actions (13 Lakes, Ten Skies, RR, Twenty Cigarettes), while Linklater has situated his formal experimentation within the parameters of dialogue-heavy bohemian anti-narratives (Slacker, Before Sunrise, Waking Life). Klinger reveals points of convergence, however, as he follows JB and RL during the former’s latest Film Society visit as well as in a series of free-flowing conversations, editing suite drop-ins, and athletic sparring sessions—if you’ve ever wanted to see the director of One Way Boogie Woogie take a spill while attempting to snag a fly ball, you’ve come to the right place.

Ideas, plans, and reminiscences bandy between Benning and Linklater as casually as the unfolding of their films. What aligns them, we discover, is autodidacticism: not only did both master cinema outside film school, but both found movies relatively late after non-artistic beginnings (Linklater dropped out of college and worked on an oil rig, Benning studied mathematics and engaged in social work). Their shared interest in non-traditional storytelling—or, often in the case of Benning, non-storytelling—was never sullied by early industry indoctrination, and Klinger provides insightful film essay-esque examples of surprising overlapping themes and motifs from their work: Benning’s perception-expanding patience and Linklater’s long view on aging in his three Before films and the recent Boyhood; a melancholic appreciation for the national pastime in the former’s American Dreams (Lost and Found) and the latter’s Bad News Bears (both filmmakers went to school on baseball scholarships). Experimental purists may chafe at comparisons of Linklater to Benning, while indie fans may remain miffed by Benning’s oblique strategies, but that’s not Double Play’s fault: if this gently illuminating doc proves anything it’s that different corners of the cinematic universe can be easily bridged, especially through friendship.

July 18-24 at Anthology Film Archives

05/21/14 4:00am

The Dance of Reality
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

This is cult surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film in 24 years, but those expecting that epic gestation period to have finally yielded a cosmic opus—like the unrealized project at the heart of recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune—will be disappointed: Dance instead stands in a tradition of oneiric autobiographical art films such as The Mirror and especially Amarcord in its blending of feverish childhood memory and mythopolitical critique. As such, the film admirably succeeds, though you miss the desert-of-the-mind psychodrama that made Jodorowsky’s signature works (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) so singularly delirious.

Despite some ham-handed metaphors (townspeople extras donning featureless masks) and contrived whimsy (a mystical guru named the Theosophist), the first half of Dance poignantly depicts the contentious relationship between sensitive prepubescent Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) and his overbearing father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s son—Jodorowsky himself intermittently plays onscreen narrator/spiritual guide). The action takes place in the small port city of Tocopilla during Chile’s Ibáñez dictatorship, and this backdrop —as seen through Alejandro’s hyperbolic imagination—fosters complex connections between the rising tide of totalitarianism, classism, and anti-Semitism and the intimate brutalities of family life.

Whereas the central domestic unit of Fellini’s Amarcord provided unambiguous comic relief from the reign of Mussolini, Dance depicts the home as both safe haven from and continuation of the terrifying outside world. On the one hand, young Jodorowsky’s big-bosomed, constantly singing mother (Pamela Flores) protects her son from local bigots and bullies with nurturing lessons in spiritual magic; on the other, Jaime’s socialist allegiances and selfless acts of charity are undermined by a penchant for disciplining his son through violent, emotion-suppressing manhood rituals.

Jaime’s plan to kill Ibáñez by becoming a horse handler initially appears a silly digression, but it actually begins a second act that charts papá Jodorowsky’s own rite of passage from small-scale Stalin (whom he resembles) to humbled martyr. It’s here that Dance shifts from magical realist bildungsroman to tragicomic morality play with surprisingly powerful results. Making an absurdist’s sense of the sins of the father, Jodorowsky redeems his past and restores hope for the future—a truly cosmic trajectory after all.

Opens May 23 at the Sunshine