Articles by

<Benjamin Strong>

03/30/11 4:00am

It’s rush hour in Bay Ridge and three men on skateboards are pushing quickly but cautiously through traffic. They are led by a fourth, more flamboyant skater whose greater speed suggests that he is unconcerned by the glut of cars and the pocks in the road. Tony Soto, 23, one of Brooklyn’s finest underground rippers, is taking the three of us—his regular videographer, myself, and a photographer for The L Magazine—to a spot near 86th Street.

The place turns out to be a house overlooking the northbound lanes of the Gowanus Expressway. Skirting the base of this house is a bank of stone tiles that were probably flush once, but which have since been warped by age and tectonic shifts. Above the bank, about five feet high, sits a narrow ledge that’s maybe three inches wide, if that. Tony intends to taildrop from ledge to bank—to free fall into this steep, uneven mess of rock and ride away from it.

He needs our help just getting up there. Several times, after we already have boosted him onto the ledge, he loses his footing while turning around and trying to situate himself, and he has to jump back down in order not to fall. Whenever he actually does get into position, one of us has to climb the bank halfway and place the board for him underneath his rear foot.

The first five attempts are unsuccessful and sort of unpleasant to watch. Tony is driving himself straight into the sidewalk. Though his filmer, Chris Miller, captures this series of slams with the calm and dispassion of a seasoned cameraman during wartime, I wince each time our subject hits the pavement. The sixth attempt is a make, at last, but Tony isn’t happy with the roll away, it was too sloppy. He insists on doing the trick one more time in order to get better footage, or “footy.”

Good footy isn’t just a record of an accomplishment. It’s a calling card and a currency, proof of one’s value as a marketable commodity. Footy is how an amateur like Tony Soto becomes a pro.

Say that you are in your twenties. You are young and healthy and at your athletic peak. And say that you can hit a baseball as well as any professional baseball player. If that is the case, then chances are that you are a professional baseball player. That’s because even if your skills are slightly less than that—almost as good as a professional, but not quite—Major League Baseball has a place for you in its vast minor league system. What you are not likely to be, if you can really hit the ball that well, is undiscovered.

Skateboarding is different. For one thing, it is an art and an alchemy as much as a sport, and although there are big money contests like the X Games and the Maloof Cup, proficiency is as difficult to judge as style. More importantly, while the skateboarding industry continues to prosper even during the recession, its revenues are sufficient for supporting only a few hundred professional skaters at a time. There are thousands more around the world who can skate as well as, if not better than, these chosen few. Tony Soto is one of those people.

Tony, who grew up in Park Slope and now lives in Bensonhurst, insists that he does not care whether he ever goes pro. “Pro, it’s just a label,” he says. “It’s hard to get sponsored these days. A lot of these kids are good and they’re never going to be able to be seen because who the fuck has the money to buy a camera like that?” Indeed, to the kids who would dream of such a thing, he has this advice. “Stop trying to be sponsored. Stop trying to be seen. Do it for the main reason you started, and it’s to have fun, man.”

01/19/11 4:00am


Directed by Gregg Araki

In Kaboom, sexually “undeclared” freshman Smith (Thomas Dekker) lusts after Thor, his surfer roommate, but has to settle for no-strings-attached booty calls with a girl who likes boys who like boys. Oh, and Smith also has to figure out why some dudes wearing animal masks want to kill him. After a pair of comparatively mainstream features—Mysterious Skin (2004) and Smiley Face (2007)—underground queer maestro Gregg Araki returns to his lowbrow roots with this surreal goofball comedy about free love and murder on a SoCal campus.

AIDS and gay-bashing jocks used to be the primary threats to Araki’s protagonists, and it’s a measure of how far our society has come that Kaboom‘s characters are not only out, but are humping indiscriminately like it’s 1969. What hasn’t changed, however, is the sardonic nature of Araki’s alterna characters. Whereas Clinton-era contemporaries like Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman focused on a milieu of privileged, clean-cut post-collegiates, Araki—in films like The Doom Generation (1995)—looked at working-class misfits who still lived at home and who had sex, drugs and music as their only outlets. The rutting youths of Kaboom may be better off financially than their predecessors, but they retain an essential contempt for mass culture, expressed not only in their category-defying sexualities but in their hilariously anomic banter and hedonism.

In a lunatic plot line that reads like a poor man’s Southland Tales, Smith stumbles into a cult conspiracy to end the world involving both his new fuckbuddy and his absentee mom (Kelly Lynch). But you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at Kaboom‘s satisfyingly stupid final shot, a tribute to Ed Wood and Stanley Kubrick all at once.

Opens January 28 at IFC Center

01/05/11 4:00am

Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century

January 7-18 at Anthology Film Archives

Abel Ferrara’s documentary Mulberry St. (2009) is nominally about B-, C-, and D-list Italian- American celebrities at the annual San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. Danny Aiello, for example, is in there discussing his role as a Bed-Stuy pizza maker in Do the Right Thing (“minstrelsy”). But like most of Ferrara’s films, the real subject of Mulberry St. is the director himself, and there’s far more talk about “the business” than about Tony Danza (whom we glimpse in vintage boxing footage). “Did you see Spielberg just got sued and lost?” Ferrara says in one of his several raspy-voiced bitch sessions. “So if Spielberg ain’t going to win, what the fuck is going to happen to me?”

The answer to that question, in the last decade, has been obscurity. And that’s the occasion for “Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century,” a series at Anthology Film Archives that includes all five of the movies the Bronx-born director has made since he decamped for Europe after September 11, only two of which have ever been released here. Ferrara began his career in the Koch era as a porn and exploitation filmmaker, but by the latter days of the Dinkins administration he had emerged as a kind of lo-fi Martin Scorsese, transforming his cheaply made stories of Catholic sin and redemption—and lots of T&A—into arthouse successes (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant). Then a pair of underappreciated studio failures followed (Body Snatchers, Dangerous Game) and suddenly Ferrara was an underground flavor all over again. He has found it necessary to seek inspiration—never mind funding—abroad, and the results are the two brilliant features and three exasperating, self-mythologizing documentaries at Anthology.

The documentaries—Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Napoli Napoli Napoli(2009), and the aforementioned Mulberry St.—are logorrheic affairs, sometimes compelling in their constant chatter, sometimes tiring. Indeed, it’s exhausting just to think of the peripatetic conditions under which this trilogy was made, with Ferrara and way-too-young-for-him girlfriend Shanyn Leigh living on location (the Hotel Chelsea, Naples, Little Italy) in each circumstance. “I feel like a puppet, or a monkey in a zoo,” says Leigh, who, along with fellow Ferrara cronies Frankie Cee and Matthew Modine, is a recurring figure in the series.

The fictional movies, the ones where Ferrara has to take his ego and disappear with it behind the camera, are, by contrast, lean and immediate. Mary, which was completed in 2005 and which was intended as a postmodern laugh at the expense of The Passion of the Christ, was released here only in 2008. In it, Modine plays the writer-director-star of the smuggest Jesus picture ever, and Marion Cotillard plays Gretchen Mol. More depraved and even funnier is Go Go Tales, which premiered at Cannes in 2007, then bounced around the festival circuit for two years without finding a distributor. (Anthology’s series marks the film’s stateside theatrical premiere.) Shot in exile in Italy but set in what looks like Giuliani’s Manhattan—the city of Ferrara’s commercial peak—Go Go Tales is the story of a strip club on the verge of bankruptcy. When club owner Willem Defoe finds himself too broke to pay the rent or his dancers, he keeps on squeezing every dollar he can from his hairdresser brother (Modine) to keep his XXX dream alive—not to mention his gambling addiction. If there’s a more apt metaphor for America in the 21st century than that, I haven’t seen it yet at the movies.

12/22/10 4:00am

Blue Valentine

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

When it premiered at Sundance at the start of this year, Blue Valentine was noted for, among other things, the casual nudity of its young and attractive leads (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams). But now that I’ve actually seen Derek Cianfrance’s debut melodrama, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about, and the MPAA seems to have come around: following a plea from Harvey Weinstein, the film’s rating was downgraded from NC-17 to R, bringing it in line with Love & Other Drugs, its mainstream competition.

Blue Valentine concerns a couple who got married too young and who will, over the course of the film, split up. The reasons for this split are doled out in an elaborately conceived, overdetermined backstory, shot handheld and grainy in contrast to the careful and often handsome compositions of the present-day sequences, and largely set in nondescript Williamsburg locations.

The real backstory to Blue Valentine, however, is its hype, which emphasizes the number of years (12) and sacrifices it took Cianfrance and his stars to make this passion project. (Purportedly, Cianfrance moved the shoot from California to Pennsylvania so that Williams could return home to her daughter every night.) Gosling and Williams, together and by themselves, have moments of emotional authenticity throughout, but too often they make showy choices. But even without knowing how hard they worked at these roles, their sweat is visible on the screen, in all the ways in which they are trying so hard not to seem vain or pampered or famous. To seem just like us. Gosling—a la Christian Bale in The Fighter—even pretends to be balding. And then the closing credits come down over a series of glamour shots of the two leads groping each other, and you’re reminded just how phony that conceit is.

Opens December 29

12/16/10 4:00pm

How Do You Know
Directed by James L. Brooks

Early reports of How Do You Know‘s greatness have been somewhat exaggerated. Which certainly says something about the critical goodwill James L. Brooks has accrued over the last forty years with his small but unique filmography (this is only his sixth feature) and as the producer of a ridiculous number of television landmarks (The Mary Tyler Show, Taxi, The Simpsons). The problem is that it also says something about the quality of romantic comedies out there, just how low the bar How Do You Know has cleared currently sits. If Brooks’s latest deserves to be hailed as the studio romcom of the year—and it probably does—it’s worth remembering that 2010 is the same year that gave us Valentine’s Day.

Like last winter’s It’s Complicated (directed by Brooks’s longtime friend Nancy Myers) How Do You Know is not as half good as I wish it was. But also like that film, Brook’s sixth feature is knee-deep in a generosity of spirit and an emotional authenticity that’s lacking in the crap studio pictures it superficially resembles. I mean that last point literally. If it weren’t for the opening credits, you’d never guess How Do You Know was shot by ace cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a go-to lenser for Steven Spielberg. The movie has that harsh, slightly orangish lighting that’s typical of movies like Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You, and it does nothing for the ill-advised spray-on tans worn by several of the cast members. But once you settle in-once that is, the old-fashioned Brooks milieu kicks in, with its off-kilter dialogue and excellent sight gags-it’s possible to look past the movie’s cosmetic flaws.

Reese Witherspoon—in a variation on her usual type-A mode—is Lisa, a veteran softball player living in Arlington, Virginia, who is cut from the national women’s team as the film opens. At the same time, across the Potomac, George (Paul Rudd), a man with whom Lisa will soon go on a blind date, learns he is under federal investigation for some vague white-collar crime actually committed by his boss and father (Brooks stalwart Jack Nicholson). Nicholson’s character, in turn, lives in the same swank high-rise as Matty (Owen Wilson), a star pitcher for the Nationals. Matty has the usual issues with monogamy associated with being a famous athlete, but nevertheless he’s trying to make a go of it with his fuck buddy, whom he asks to move in with him. The fuck buddy is, of course, Lisa, and in less than 120 minutes she will have to decide between Wilson’s shallow alpha male and Rudd’s sensitive schlemiel.

Lisa’s decision is not going to surprise you. The boilerplate love triangle—self-plagiarised from Broadcast News (1987), still Brooks’s best movie—is perhaps the least interesting aspect of How Do You Know. Which is fine, because the movie isn’t about romance so much as how individuals find themselves in the company of others, how our identities emerge only when we connect. Though George’s relationship to his father is underdeveloped, in the realistically awkward scenes between George and Lisa and between Matty and Lisa, Brooks gives us an honest portrait of modern love with all its uncertainties. In one particularly insightful sequence, Lisa storms out of Matty’s apartment claiming to be through with him, goes out and gets drunk with George, and then, at the end of the night, goes back to Matty after one nice phone call. The course of true love has never run smooth, but it’s the rare film that depicts our false starts and detours as part of the process. The indecisions, equivocations, and outright mistakes Lisa makes before falling for George aren’t obstacles, but necessary steps she has to goes through first. How Do You Know may not be Brooks’s best work, but it’s hard not to see what is best in it.

Opens December 17

12/01/10 4:00am

All Good Things

Directed by Andrew Jarecki

For the first hour of All Good Things, you might be wondering what attracted director Andrew Jarecki—whose previous film was the barnstorming can’t-make-this-shit-up documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003)—to such shopworn material, the true story of a New York scion (Ryan Gosling) who may or may not have murdered his wife (Kirsten Dunst) in 1982. But much the way Friedmans gradually unveiled the perversity behind its prosaic subject, All Good Things largely withholds the crazy until the third act, and then flies the freak flag a mile high.

Gosling is positively chilling as a slow-boil stoner psycho who abandons his dream of running a Vermont health food store with his “nice blonde shiksa” and returns to Manhattan to work for his politically connected, real-estatemogul father (Frank Langella). The actor’s uncanny feel for kink doesn’t completely emerge, however, until the later scenes, when his character, in middle age, is on the lam in drag and playing off Philip Baker Hall’s equally batshit accomplice.

Jarecki has bitten off more than he can chew in this ambitious but ultimately shallow period piece. In order to cram it all in, he relies on hackneyed devices like voice-over narration and a sound design that telegraphs any upcoming violence. He also outright steals his most striking imagery from Dressed to Kill. Still, this is one idiosyncratic genre movie and there hasn’t been a more unexpectedly funny moment in American cinema all year long than when Kristen Wiig—as friend to Dunst’s aggrieved homemaker—steals back-to-back scenes with her lush delivery of the lines “Eat your salad!” and “Motherfuckers!,” respectively.

Opens December 3

11/10/10 4:00am

Every Man for Himself (1980)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Every Man for Himself was greeted upon its initial release as a comeback for Jean-Luc Godard, who for eight years prior had been making difficult political essay films no one wanted to see. The director himself cemented this view by calling it his “second first film,” the Breathless of a next wave. That wave never rolled in. Thirty years later, Every Man for Himself—a dark but cheeky, slightly surreal sexual comedy of manners about the existential chasm separating men and women—still causes the heart to leap. It’s just that it’s beginning to look less like the start of a second act than a particular highpoint in an ongoing continuum. The truth is, Godard never left us; it was we who left him.

Let the reappraisal begin. A month ago, Godard’s challenging new feature, Film Socialisme, screened at the New York Film Festival to surprising acclaim. And now, a day before he is scheduled to receive an honorary Oscar at a Los Angeles ceremony he refuses to attend, Film Forum opens a timely two-week run of Every Man for Himself in a beautiful 35mm print. It’s a perfect opportunity not to reevaluate the film itself, enthralling as ever, but to reconsider the larger JLG project, his singular way of tinkering with and reinventing our basic film grammar.

There are no title cards bearing ironic political slogans, no disquisitions on Vietnam played across disjointed imagery. The intertwined stories of a divorced television newsman (Jacques Dutronc), his girlfriend (Nathalie Baye), and a hooker he hires (Isabelle Huppert), are told straightforwardly and without authorial interruption. But even gone mainstream, Godard keeps the technical innovations in place (using slow motion, for example, to make violence look erotic and vice versa), and his dialectical thinking is apparent in his signature themes of prostitution and commerce, more appropriate here than ever.

Opens November 12 at Film Forum

11/09/10 11:02am


The underheralded SoCal folk-rock drug drama Cisco Pike screens at the Walter Reade tonight; it’ll be followed by a live set from country rock’s D. Charles Speer and the Helix, and then an afterparty with open bar.

In Cisco Pike (1972), former Janis Joplin paramour and songwriter (“Me and Bobby McGee”) Kris Kristofferson, in his first starring role, plays an unemployed L.A. rocker who enjoyed his fifteen minutes in the 60s but whose uncompromisingly laid-back sound is now deemed too experimental for FM radio. Or that’s what director Bill L. Norton’s script calls for, anyway. To these ears, the four Kristofferson originals on the soundtrack—maudlin acoustic guitar numbers, reminiscent of the Leonard Cohen songs used a year earlier in McCabe & Mrs. Miller—would have been right at home on the airwaves in 1972. Indeed, what’s supposedly an anti-commercial style sounds a lot like the countrified folk rock of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, and the Eagles, local acts that had all recently signed to Asylum Records, David Geffen’s new label for just this sort of SoCal thing.

Exploitation films are usually, by definition, clueless about their subjects, but in the case of Cisco Pike, a laughable effort by Columbia Pictures to cash in on the sex, drugs, and rock and roll generation, I’m not sure it matters.


Because beneath the promise of countercultural voyeurism, Cisco Pike is a highly entertaining genre picture about an ex-con who tries to go straight only to get pulled back in. Cisco has a five-year sentence hanging over his head for marijuana dealing, and the crooked narc who arrested him twice already (Gene Hackman) has just offered to change his testimony for a favor. Hackman’s cop, in one of the film’s many outrageous plot contrivances, needs money to meet a margin call (“you wouldn’t understand”) and he wants Cisco to move the 100 kilos of Mexican grass he’s just stolen from the least scary-looking drug trafficker ever to hit the big screen (Chuy Franco). If Cisco doesn’t agree, Hackman and his Popeye Doyle moustache will arrest him all over again.

The middle hour of the film concerns Kristofferson’s reluctant return to dealing, as well as his unsuccessful attempts to hide this fact from Karen Black, his tirelessly patient, yoga-practising “old lady.” As our hero pours through his little black address book and works the payphones (in some nicely assembled montages) everywhere he goes, people are more interested in his drugs than in the demo tapes he’s also carrying. Kristofferson is magnetic in these scenes. He plays the character as a luckless but unflappable hippie, a Tramp for the Age of Aquarius, a Dude abiding. “I saw you guys at the Forum in what was it, ’68?,” asks one A&R exec (Allan Arbus, ex-husband of Diane) who’s trying to lowball Cisco on the price. “Shrine, ‘67,” Kristofferson corrects him.

The film also features appearances by Warhol associate Viva—who invites Cisco into a briefly glimpsed Beverly Hills threesome with actress Joy Bang (yep)—and Harry Dean Stanton, billed here as “H.D.” and playing a bandmate and friend with a doomed heroin habit. More than these folks, though, and more than the eponymous singer himself, Southern California is Cisco Pike’s main character. From the shabby chic Venice canals, with their graffiti-covered bridges and the ruins of Pacific Ocean Park visible in the distance, to the historic stage at the Troubadour and the late-night automats that no longer exist downtown, Norton captures the authentic vibe of a city still reeling from the Tate-LaBianca murders, the Sylmar earthquake, and the general post-60s hangover afflicting the entire nation. Dig it, man.

11/05/10 11:48am


Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car plays at Anthology Film Archives on Saturday, in a program with Jack Smight’s The Sound of Jazz (1957), and —- ———- (“short line long line,” 1967), an early Andersen short co-directed with Malcolm Brodwick.

About a minute into Get Out of the Car—Thom Andersen’s new short about the semiotics of the Southern California cityscape—an off-screen pedestrian pushing, by the sound of things, a shopping cart, comes upon the filmmakers. Andersen and his crew, who are also off-screen, are shooting a pair of billboard skeletons bereft of any advertisements. “What are you making?” the man with the cart asks.

“It’s a documentary about signs,” Andersen says.
“But there’s nothing there. It’s empty.”
“It’s kind of a film about houses.”
“When you make a film about something, call me.”

Nobody walks in L.A., huh? Yeah, right. Though they are invisible to the drivers hurling past them, and though they are unseen by us in the movie, Get Out of the Car gives voice to, among other things, the sidewalk passerby, an omnipresent but largely ignored feature of SoCal life.

Described in a series of opening title cards as a “city symphony in 16mm,” Get Out of the Car is composed of footage of commercial signs, bodega wall murals, buildings, and ruins depicted at street level, and set to snippets of ambient noise and an eclectic range of American vernacular music. Andersen’s most recent film, the near four-hour Los Angeles Plays Itself (2004), was a gigantic, scholarly feat of historical excavation, but his latest is the opposite, a modest 34-minute triumph of compacted meaning, a breezy and lighthearted tour on foot through a Southland no one riding in a car would ever see.

Rebuking the dystopian tradition (and giving an implicit finger to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, a similarly themed picture Andersen derided in Los Angeles Plays Itself), Get Out of the Car manages to be hopeful even in its despair. Standing before the site of a legendary drive-in burger joint in Downey that was demolished illegally by its owner in 2007, the director grumbles bitterly about the crime, until another lookie-loo shows up and asks what it is he is filming. “We’re just trying to document what is left,” Andersen explains. Fortunately, that’s quite a bit. If Get Out of the Car tells us anything, it’s that there’s a whole other side to Los Angeles still waiting for the cinema to discover it.

10/27/10 4:00am

Inspector Bellamy

Directed by Claude Chabrol

When you’ve been directing movies for half a century, often at a clip of two per year, there are going to be some clunkers. But Claude Chabrol, the New Wave past master who died last month at 80, had long ago weathered the inevitable mid-career slump. Since 1995’sLa cérémonie—a droll prole revenge fantasy and an unanticipated return to form—Chabrol was on a tear, and with Inspector Bellamy, his final film, he went out on top.

Ostensibly a procedural about a Parisian detective who, while vacationing in Nimes, gets drawn into an unexplained murder, Bellamy (the original French title) is a quirky, uniquely Chabrolian black comedy. The director intended the movie as an homage to novelist Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series, but also as a tribute to the on-screen persona of his lead actor, Gerard Depardieu, with whom he had never before worked.

As the famous flic whose best-selling memoirs everyone seems to have read and memorized, the hulking Depardieu is bumbling and absent-minded most of the time (in one scene, he nearly falls into a manhole), though he can turn shrewd and brutish on a dime. While investigating a case that’s not even his just for kicks (and while repeatedly mocking the inept and off-screen local police chief), he must also grapple with an unwelcome visit from his sweaty, dipsomanical kid brother (Clovis Cornillac).

What really elevates Bellamy, however, is its unusually sexy portrayal of middle-aged marriage. Over and over again, we see Depardieu raise one of his lusty, meaty paws to make another grope at his younger but entirely age-appropriate wife (Marie Bunel) as if he were suddenly seeing her for the first time. It’s a nice metaphor for how Chabrol himself, to the end, approached the familiar task of filmmaking.

Opens October 29 at IFC Center