Articles by

<Benjamin Strong>

10/18/10 8:55am


BAM’s comprehensive Olivier Assayas retrospective continues today with his postmillennial whatsit demonlover; excitingly, Assayas will be on hand following the evening screening, for a Q&A moderated by Kent Jones, probably the American critic most attuned to the filmmaker’s sensibility. Last winter, as L film critics assessed the aughts in film, Benjamin Strong went out on either a very short or very long limb, depending upon your perspective, and named it the movie of the decade:

Heckled at its 2002 Cannes premiere, and dismissed ever since as arthouse Eurotrash, demonlover, Olivier Assayas’s sleazy, globe-trotting corporate-espionage thriller, wasn’t a film that this decade wanted; instead, it was the film the aughts deserved.

The story of mendacious, back-stabbing Parisian lawyers negotiating a deal to secure an international monopoly on pornographic anime, demonlover goes off the rails—way off the rails, according to admirers and detractors alike—near the one-hour mark, spiraling thereafter into violent incoherence. And yet the pileup of narrative gaps and contradictions that emerge in the third act were part of the point. Though Assayas lifted his more lurid conceits from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), the critic Charles Taylor pointed out at the time that the film’s real precursor was Howard Hawks’s foreboding, famously nonsensical The Big Sleep (1946).

Released here in September of 2003, many of demonlover’s principle themes—the circulation of rumor, cyber escapism, office politics, torture and rendition—were already, or were soon going to be, our own. From the Kubrickian first shot of passengers asleep in an airplane’s business-class cabin to the final turn-of-the-screw scene set in an American suburban bedroom, demonlover examined the breakdown of the boundaries that used to separate our working hours from our private lives, indentifying the myriad ways by which late capitalist technology has colonized our hearts and minds along with our bodies. If that doesn’t sound wildly entertaining—which demonlover resolutely is—how about a bloody catfight between protagonist Connie Nielsen and an American executive played by Gina Gershon? (The casting of the latter, who first appears wearing an “I Heart Gossip” t-shirt, should tip you off that Assayas is channeling Verhoeven here instead of his usual Feuillade and Rivette.)

Assayas’s most recent picture, the genteel family drama Summer Hours, was selected as the best movie of 2009 in indiewire’s poll of more than one hundred film critics, and it came in at number six on the L’s Top 20. Pretty obviously, it was a smart career move for Assayas to ditch the disreputable subjects that have preoccupied him throughout this decade (see also the junkie redemption pic, Clean, and the S&M cum business thriller Boarding Gate). But in returning to the stately bourgeois realm of his earlier work, and in abandoning the cinema of what he has called “maximum risks,” Assayas has disappointed those like myself, who still believe that the gaudy excesses of demonlover are a truer representation of the way we live now than a thousand tasteful Summer Hours.

09/29/10 4:00am

The Heist

All one needs to make a film, Jean-Luc Godard has famously said, is a girl and a gun, but he might have added something or someone from whom the lady can steal. Because, as Film Forum’s sweeping new series devoted to the heist picture demonstrates, of all the fantasies we go to the movies to indulge in, perhaps none is more elemental than our dream of the big score.

The cinema of theft has been with us from day one, or at least since The Great Train Robbery (1903), but it wasn’t until the Eisenhower era that the modern heist picture took shape. Against the economic growth and sunny optimism of that period, films like John Huston’s b&w The Asphalt Jungle and Richard Fleischer’s Technicolored Violent Saturday gave voice to the workaday futility of those who felt left behind, as well as to those veterans repressing their acquired wartime savagery—such, Brian Keith’s PTSD victim, who in Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House, plots to get his piece of the pie by filching from a Reno casino.

By 1955, when Jean-Pierre Melville made Bob le flambeur, the quintessential aging-crook-with-one-last-job-to-pull-before-retiring picture, the heist tradition had grown both more stylish and more pessimistic. The French were copying our noirs, as they called them, and we began to copy theirs—a cross-cultural dialogue that inspired the work of several auteurs in Film Forum’s series, including Jules Dassin, a blacklisted American director who shot and co-starred in the classic jewel caper, Rififi, while exiled in France; Godard himself (Band of Outsiders), who had a thing for Hollywood gangster movies; and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino. Mired in their own respective postwar doldrums, French and American audiences must have felt a shared affinity for the safe-crackers and the fences, the gunmen and the getaway drivers, all the loners and losers, who populate these movies.

Melville, above all, devoted the remainder of his career to character studies of supercool thugs, and Film Forum will be screening his final pictures, Le Cercle Rouge(1970) and Un Flic (1972). Both were vehicles for star Alain Delon—who along with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura, Harvey Keitel, and Sterling Hayden, is an axiom of the series—but Un Flic is notable mostly for what may be the sloppiest use ever of rear-screen projections, not to mention a comically shoddy action sequence involving a model train and toy helicopter.

Stateside, though, the 1960s was a time when the heist tradition petered, arguably because political engagement was considered cooler than alienation. The most iconic crime picture of that decade—Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—was not so much a heist movie as a pander to the counterculture, and it is correctly missing from this series. But when our economy hit the skids again in the 1970s, amid the disillusionment of Watergate and Vietnam, the heist picture enjoyed a renaissance, as evidenced by Film Forum’s inclusion of Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes (1971), Don Siegel’s bewilderingly overlooked Charley Varrick (1973), and Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 (1974).

In some sense, the heist picture found its fullest expression in Paul Schrader’s bleak Blue Collar (1978), the very title of which foregrounds the class struggle that was always at the heart of this tradition. (The original Steve McQueen Thomas Crown Affair , the story of a tycoon who robs for kicks, is the outlier of the series and a fraud.) In Blue Collar , a trio of disgruntled Detroit auto workers—Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor, in a rare dramatic performance—are caught between late-night visits from the taxman and an F.B.I. agent who wants them to rat out their corrupt union bosses. They decide to steal not from the factory but from the union coffers, only to find themselves having fucked with the wrong racket.

In the immediate years following Blue Collar , the heist movie once again lost its cultural traction. The 1980s—with their patriotism and capitalist imperatives—were a particularly fallow period, represented in Film Forum’s series by a mere two titles, Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and Charles Crichton’s A Fish Called Wanda (1981). Bruce Goldstein’s programming is as creative and knowledgeable as ever, but for the post-1970s era he might also have included The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and the escape-from-New York cult favorite Quick Change (1990).

Of course, Tarantino was able to revive our interest in the heist picture during the 1990s, but Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown are conspicuous for their throwback wardrobes and soundtracks, their knowing dependence on our familiarity with the milieux of Melville and Godard and Huston and Kubrick. Same goes for the neglected Dead Presidents (1995) and for Bottle Rocket (1998), both of which might also have fit into this series.

Some pretty decent new heist pictures have appeared in the aughts—Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You Are Dead (2007) and last year’s little-seen Armored—but ask anyone what late model heist pictures they’ve seen and they are most likely to cite Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean‘s trilogy. Now, Soderbergh’s fourth feature, The Underneath (1995), is an underrated heist movie—yet another title I wish could be included here—but the smug, triumphant Ocean ’s franchise represents, for now, the bottoming-out of this once popular subgenre. With their happy endings and slaps on the back and jobs well done, the Ocean ’s films betray the one core maxim we have all learned from our years of viewing heist pictures: If the big score sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Octoer 1-21 at Film Forum

09/15/10 4:00am

Easy A
Directed by Will Gluck

Do kids today even know who John Cusack is? I sure hope not, since they’re more likely to have seen Hot Tub Time Machine than Say Anything . And yet it’s a question I have to ask apropos of Easy A, a film ostensibly about the sexting generation but so thick with allusions to the youth culture of the 1980s it actually seems pitched to the Gen X parents in the audience.

In Easy A , Emma Stone (Superbad, The House Bunny, Zombieland ), a young actress whose husky voice is as preternatural as her timing, finally gets her star turn. She’s Olive, an ironical teen bored enough with unpopularity so as to spread rumors about herself with the goal of acquiring a reputation. It’s a nasty little premise—in one early scene, Olive pretends to bang a classmate’s brains out at a kegger—and Will Gluck, who directed last year’s underrated and equally raunchy Fired Up! , runs with it. He’s abetted capably by Stone holding her own against Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her oversharing, totally with-it California cool parents.

But as satires of born again piety go, Easy A is no Saved! Which is another way of saying that Amanda Bynes, cast as Olive’s New Testament-toting nemesis, has nothing on Mandy Moore. In striving to be a throwback John Hughes clone, an update of The Scarlett Letter , and tres Juno , all at once, Easy A is too broad in its humor, too reliant on its quotation of other films, to have an identity of its own.

Opens September 17

09/08/10 1:00am

An offbeat drama about a woman knocked up, filmed while its lead actress was herself preggers, Hideaway, François Ozon’s typically idiosyncratic new feature, concerns a young Parisienne named Mousse (Isabelle Carré), who is utterly nonchalant about, even indifferent to, the child growing inside her.

Mousse learns she’s got one in the oven only after awakening in a hospital from a coma having survived the heroin bender that killed her boyfriend. Hideaway (Le refuge is the original title) takes place during the summer weeks late in her term when Mousse, staying by herself at her parent’s beach house, receives a visit from Paul, her dead lover’s brother (played by Francophone pop chanteur Louis-Ronan Choisy). Naturally, the two develop a friendship, but Paul, younger and for obvious reasons less encumbered, still indulges in the nightlife Mousse needs to give up.

Hideaway‘s gimmick is not unprecedented—Demi Moore was carrying Rumer during the filming of 1988’s otherwise forgettable The Seventh Sign, for starters—but as on-screen expectant mothers go, Carré’s performance is. Ozon, shooting in rich saturated HD for the first time, encourages us to take in the actress’s lovely distended belly, her rounded face, her appealingly swollen feet. And we’re not alone in our admiration—to Mousse’s annoyance, strangers keep approaching her to tell her how beautiful she looks, and in one case to pick her up. Ozon has consciously objectified his protagonist, but it’s to remind us that she’s unknowable, that we don’t really understand what’s going on inside her head.

Opens September 10

08/25/10 1:00am

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet

Mesrine: Killer Instinct—the first installment of a two-part biopic about the notorious bank robber and jailbreaker—debuted at Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in 2009, along with the concurrently shot sequel, Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1. (The latter will be released here next month). Together they make for a stylish, distinctly Gallic take on the American gangster picture.

In Killer Instinct, future P.E. Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), discharged from the Algerian War, returns to the cool Paris of Breathless and Bob le flambeur. Though Mesrine’s father has arranged a steady position for him, he’s drawn instead to the underworld, and is soon doing heists and hits for a mobster (Gerard Depardieu, thriving in a small but stately role).

In these early scenes especially, director Jean-Francois Richet (Assault on Precinct 13) apes his share of Scorsese—the gliding Steadicam shots, the garish wardrobes, the ironic soundtrack. Much the way Goodfellas and Gangs of New York portrayed violence as a dimension of the American character, Killer Instinct posits crime as inextricable from French identity. Mesrine’s proclaimed political convictions were mostly horseshit (e.g. his support for Quebecois secessionism), but as Richet shows, his wartime service and xenophobia are crucial to understanding the development of his criminal mind.

As an epic about a self-styled insurgent from the middle class, the Mesrine cycle bears more than a passing resemblance to Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che. But whereas Soderbergh’s films were joyless, Killer Instinct (if not the darker Public Enemy No. 1) has the lightness, the flair, and the sense of humor of an old-fashioned swashbuckler. Near the end of Killer Instinct, Mesrine breaks into a prison he has recently escaped. Ostensibly he’s there to rescue some buddies, but the impish look in Cassel’s eye suggests he’s doing it because he can.

Opens August 27

08/25/10 1:00am

The Last Exorcism

Directed by Daniel Stamm

In the summer of 1977, four years after its predecessor had landed with the impact of a meteor on American culture, John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic floundered at the box office so badly that it looked like curtains for the entire franchise. But instead, since 1990, there has been one more official sequel, two versions of the same prequel by different directors, various low budget knockoffs, and 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose
, a combination Exorcist rip-off and courtroom drama. And this despite the fact that, as the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin
has pointed out, “the only theatrical release of an Exorcist movie that’s made any money since 1973 was 2000’s re-release of William Friedkin’s original.” Thirty-seven years on, The Exorcist endures, not because it’s the flagship of a proud brand but because it’s the ur-text for a whole subgenre, the Nosferatu of what we can now safely call exorcist movies with a lowercase e.

Directed by Daniel Stamm, and produced by Eli Roth, The Last Exorcism is a respectful but forward-looking attempt to rewrite Friedkin‘s rules, to establish new mythologies. Jettisoned for the first time ever in an exorcist movie are Catholics, absentee parents, and distracting subplots set in Africa and the Middle East. Gone are the celibate priests. And while knowing winks are made both to the Friedkin (“Catholics get all the press because they got the movie”) and to the underrated Boorman (drawings of a man on fire that foreshadow later events), the style and updated mockumentary conceit are very post-Blair Witch. (So is the movie’s killer viral marketing campaign utilising Chatroulette.)

A Baton Rouge-based Elmer Gantry (Big Love‘s Patrick Fabian) plans to come clean and expose the rampant fraud in the exorcism trade. He invites an indie documentary crew—one camerawoman, and one sound man who, ingeniously, we never see—to shoot his final sham performance in a backwoods hamlet that in production design terms is three parts Flannery O’Connor, one part Deliverance. Zoltan Honti’s handheld camera can be unnecessarily jerky in places (it’s an amateur documentary, we get it) but he’s skilled at light and shadow and makes beautiful impressionistic use of video’s blurry attributes during The Last Exorcism‘s climactic nighttime bonfire scene.

Younger horror fans weaned on the Roth oeuvre or the Saw series may be disappointed by The Last Exorcism‘s relative visual reticence, its frequent refusal to show us too much too soon, although there will be blood soon enough. Anchored by judicious pacing and strong performances (in addition to Fabian, Ashley Bell stands out as the requisite demonically possessed teenage girl), The Last Exorcism isn’t so much groundbreaking as classical. And that’s a compliment.

Opens August 27

07/30/10 12:00pm

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Directed by Brigitte Berman

I might as well cop to it: I have been known to read Playboy, though for the articles of course. Playboy was once among the most literate and leftist of general interest magazines, a combination New Yorker and Harper’s, but with boobs. But beginning around 1980—with the election of Ronald Reagan, the coincident sudden encroachment upon the centerfold of fake breasts, and the murder of film actress and reigning Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten— the glossy began the long decline from which it has never recovered. Today, Playboy Enterprises is rumored to be for sale.

Too bad then that Stratten’s death gets short shrift in Brigitte Berman’s oft-fascinating documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel. Too bad also that only twenty minutes of the film’s two-hour runtime are alloted to the years since 1971, when the Chicagoan flew west on Big Bunny, his black stretch DC-9, and set up shop in a Holmby Hills mansion-cum-zoo and grotto.

Granted wide access to her subject beyond the typical one-on-one interview, Berman presents us with artifacts of juvenilia, snapshots of high school reunions, even home movies of Hef’s 50th birthday party (there’s Warren, there’s Jack) and 1989 wedding to his second wife, complete with paparazzi helicopters circling audibly overhead. But this access, though it’s what makes Playboy, Activist and Rebel so compelling, had to have come with strings attached, and in any event, Berman’s portrait of America’s greatest pornographer never risks making him look bad, except maybe for a brief mention of a one-time addiction to Dexedrine, though that too is explained away as the function of a workaholic spirit.

Don’t get me wrong, the lord of bunnies deserves all the props this film throws his way. In print and practice, Hefner was an early advocate for civil rights, gay rights, contraceptive rights, a woman’s right to choose, and the legalization of marijuana. Dude even received an award from the NAACP, and how many white guys his age—he’s now 84—can say that? But Hefner was also a pied piper of capitalist hedonism and male prerogatives. He filled Playboy‘s pages with bachelor pads and hi-fis, sports cars and single malt Scotch. And naked women, lots of naked women. (“Girls” is what Hefner called them, as one of his critics points out.) It was a lifestyle hippie radicals and Mad Men alike could aspire to.

Yet contradictions like these in the “Playboy Philosophy” (the title of a regular feature in the magazine) go unacknowledged in Playboy, Activist and Rebel, along with any serious consideration of Hef’s personal, political, or professional failings. Berman seems content to let him off the hook with ribbing from longtime secretary Mary O’Connor and some rather feeble attacks from dated feminist Susan Brownmiller, who tut-tuts the “misogynist” in vintage Dick Cavett episodes and then all over again in recent conversation.

Berman’s interviewees, with the exception of Jenny McCarthy, are mostly out-of-touch Baby Boomers like Brownmiller, and in some cases even older. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this-—nd while the director, to her credit, elicits a trove of inadvertent money quotes from Pat Boone, Gene Simmons, and George Lucas (“I create fantasies, Hef creates fantasies”)—Hefner the man would have benefited from the critique and praise of voices younger than Tonys Curtis and Bennett. Because Berman’s senior cast only serves to remind us of the codger we know from The Girls Next Door, not the jet-set rake of old. Sad but true, a giant of the print era is hanging on at the margins, harmless and slow as the medium that made him famous.

Opens July 30

07/07/10 3:45am

Around a Small Mountain
Directed by Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette’s new comedy opens on a damsel (Jane Birkin) in distress. Her car has broken down, and to her rescue, behind the wheel of a Porsche, comes a handsome stranger (Sergio Castellitto). Without a word he approaches, repairs her engine, returns to his convertible, and drives off. The scene&#8212a miniature pantomime shot mostly in a single long take&#8212looks like something out of the silent era.

How refreshing old-fashioned filmmaking values can seem. Released stateside in the midst of the summer season, Around a Small Mountain is positively classical, especially as compared to its popcorn competition. It’s also more compact. Once known for marathon runtimes and inaccessibility in general (he’s the only nouvelle vaguer considered more avant-garde than Godard), Rivette, who’s now 82, has toned it down in the last decade. But the ambition is still there, as is the penchant for games and fourth wall breaches, and in just 84 minutes Around a Small Mountain gives us a fictional world larger than what we see on screen.

Following a 15-year absence, Birkin’s tightrope walker, Kate, has just returned to her family’s traveling circus when Castellitto’s Italian man of leisure, Vittorio, helps her by the roadside. Intrigued, Vittorio postpones whatever vague business he has awaiting him in Barcelona and begins following the circus, attending each night’s performance and eventually joining the troupe as a clown.
When their revels are ended, the feeling is bittersweet. Like the Shakespeare plays the film pays homage to, Around a Small Mountain is so immediately satisfying as a comedy, that its philosophical mysteries emerge only on repeated viewings. The movie’s original French title translates as “36 Views of Saint Loup Peak,” but the new name suits its sense of mortal consequence better. Rivette’s latest may be small, but it’s mountain alright.

Opens July 9 at IFC Center

06/23/10 5:00am

The finishing touches were still being made to New York’s newest public skatepark just minutes before the opening ceremony on a muggy Friday afternoon in Queens in early June. What this involved was applying wavy green letter Ms to selected ledges, using spray paint and stencils. Jocko Weyland, the author of The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World, was in attendance, and he pointed to one of these Ms, an emblem for an energy drink. “I’m glad they got the logos affixed in time,” Weyland said.

New York’s latest skatepark—a 16,000-square-foot concrete plaza, built at the cost of $1.5 million and located at Flushing Meadows—has been donated to the city by the entrepreneurs Joe and Gavin Maloof. The Maloof brothers are the scions of a West Coast family who own and operate the Sacramento Kings and the Palms casino in Las Vegas. And since 2008, the brothers have also overseen the Maloof Money Cup, a contest, as its name suggests, with the most lucrative purse in professional skateboarding.

The inaugural 2008 Maloof event, and the 2009 follow-up, were both held at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, California. But because the O.C. Fairgrounds refuse to house permanent structures of this scale, both courses were promptly destroyed following competition. A third annual contest is scheduled there in August, and the same fate awaits this year’s park.

The big money involved in these events has drawn the Maloof brothers the ire of those hardcore skaters who prefer their skateboarding free of the trappings and crass commercialism of major league sports. The Maloofs are aware of their critics, and that’s why the Queens plaza will remain intact for public use, as will the street course and vert ramp they plan to construct in 2011 in South Africa.

“It’s really a travesty [to tear down parks],” Joe Maloof admitted, when I interviewed him after the opening ceremony. Still, he was proud of the Queens course. Designed with the input of local pro Steve Rodriguez, the park is a simulacrum of NYC street skating, featuring obstacles that pay homage to specific spots across the five boroughs.

Joe was also pleased that his events have attracted a number of purist street skaters, guys who usually eschew contests. “We listen to the skaters,” he said. “We didn’t come in like we were know-it-alls.”

Just as Joe and I finished talking, the former X-Games champion Eric Koston arrived to survey the course. At 35, he may be old for a pro, but he’s still one of skating’s premiere stylists. I asked Koston what made the Money Cup different from other contests, like the X-Games or the Dew Tour.

“Not a whole hell of a lot, really,” Koston said. “There’s more dough?”

The following day, I saw the future of skateboarding, and it was foam fingers.

At 11am, two hours before the start of the competition, the stands were already teeming with excitable pubescent groms, many of whom were brandishing navy blue foam fingers advertising CCS, the of skateboarding.

CCS was one of several Maloof sponsors that had set up a booth adjacent to the skatepark, at the Vendor Village. It was there that one could acquire foam fingers, eat funnel fries and fried Oreos, listen to Blink-182 knockoff bands, and purchase items that in some cases had something to do with skateboarding (Vans sneakers) and in other cases nothing at all (Oakley sunglasses, Skull Candy headphones, MetroPlus health insurance, Vitamin Water “water”).

In addition to the Vendor Village, a large white media tent had been put up at the periphery of the skatepark. I found myself returning to it repeatedly, because, in addition to the succor of water and air-conditioning, this tent offered a behind-the-scenes view of the extreme sports industrial complex. There were several flatscreens inside the tent, all of them but one displaying Fuel TV’s live coverage of an event that was happening a mere 50 yards away. The other television was connected to an Xbox 360 and was devoted to Electronic Arts’ SKATE(tm) 3 game, which now offers a “Maloof Queens” level as a downloadable update.

06/23/10 4:00am

South of the Border
Directed by Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone’s laughable, naïve documentary about the rise of democracy in Latin America plays like a student film made by an undergraduate recently inducted into the cult of Che Guevara. The revolutionary who launched a billion T-shirts gets namechecked over and over again in South of the Border, both by Stone, who narrates, and his subjects. But the more immediate object of the director’s affections is Hugo Chávez.

Stone spends the first half of the 78-minute runtime chumming it up on camera with the Venezuelan leader, and the second half hanging out with neighboring heads of state. These interviews—shot handheld by the great Albert Maysles—are uniformly embarrassing. When Stone talks with Bolivia’s Evo Morales, he says he knows the difference between processed cocaine and the raw coca leaf, before asking el presidente to show him the correct technique for ingesting the latter. (The ubiquity of narcotics in the Stone oeuvre, combined with the director’s own struggles with addiction, make for an unavoidable subtext.) Hopped up on coca, Stone insists on a quick game of soccer.

By portraying the U.S. government and media as ill-informed and duplicitous, and by offering a barrage of clips from CNN and Fox News as evidence, South of the Border is shooting fish in a barrel. Taking his cues from Michael Moore (who appears in one of those clips ripping Wolf Blitzer a new one), one of our most dynamic mainstream filmmakers has come up with a movie that’s disappointingly inert—successful neither as entertainment nor agitprop.

Opens June 25