Articles by

<Henry Stewart>

06/23/14 4:00am

Radio Free Albemuth
Directed by Gillian Robespierre
Opens June 27 at the Quad

If I told you there were a science fiction story in which god is an alien satellite that beams information to a cabal of alternate-America dissidents with instructions on how to take down a Nixonian tyrant whose initials are FFF—as in 666—who’s in fact a Manchurian Candidate-esque sleeper agent for the Communist party, and that they do so by writing books and releasing subversive records with subliminally revolutionary messages, well, you might ask me, where would I find such a batshit amazing story? And I would say: in the pages of Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth, the paperbacker’s posthumously published semiautobiographical first attempt to deal with his peculiar late-70s religious awakening, which consumed the rest of his writing life: three novels known as the VALIS trilogy, starting with VALIS.

VALIS, an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, appears in Radio Free, and Radio Free appears in VALIS: Dick condensed the former’s plot to create the latter’s movie-within-a-book. So it makes sense for fans to turn it into a film, and anyway, good luck adapting VALIS for the screen, with its blocks of bolded exegesis and its imaginary characters; this yarn is packed with crazy ideas and tight sci-fi plotting, pitting “alien-controlled subversives” against a fascist USA crushing dissent post-Soviet collapse. The radical politics and far-out Gnostic theology—like, the Roman Empire never ended; it’s holding us all prisoner, and the passage of time is an illusion—is transmitted via pink light to Nicholas Brady (Jonathan Scarfe), a record-store clerk turned corporate exec, who exhausts his wife (Katheryn Winnick) with his theories but intrigues his old pal, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigham). Alanis Morisette turns up to sing a song in a VALIS vision, then as a secretary who introduces them to the underground resistance.

The problem is that the movie is notable only for its source material—not for what it does with it. Dickheads will find it a curiosity, while outsiders might have their interest piqued by the peculiar politico-religious dystopia. But everyone ought to be flummoxed by the chintzy special effects, reminiscent of computer graphics of the late 80s—think of a more primitive version of the Treehouse of Horror episode “Homer³”—and the garish visual “progress” they promised. (The film has been in the works for a decade, finished four years ago, but just now getting a proper theatrical release.)

They’re so awful you have to suspect it’s intentional, that it’s supposed to evoke the time period in which the film is set, though that doesn’t explain the anachronistically modern indie music that has 1980s record companies so excited. (Seriously, the Robyn Hitchcock-penned “Let’s Party,” the film’s “hit single” supposed to take down the president, might be the most morose, least fun party song ever.) Also anachronistic is the underlying ideology, Dick’s cosmic, godlike intelligence conspicuously born of post-Watergate paranoia and late Cold War outerspace anxiety. Refreshingly, though, Dick did something almost no baby boomer ever has: he put his faith in the next generation, maybe because he had to—because he recognized that his had failed.

06/18/14 4:00am

Directed by James Ward Byrkit
Opens June 20 at Village East

Agatha Christie meets theoretical physics in this strange and gripping mystery in which universes are colliding—or, more aptly, multiverses are overlapping. The trouble begins innocently enough when Emily Foxler’s iPhone screen spontaneously shatters on her way to a dinner party, attended by her Angeleno-type friends: actors, dancers, empaths, a little less recognizable and thus a little less sympathetic than the best genre-film protagonists. (It’s hosted by the lovable Nicholas Brendon, playing a fictionalized version of himself as the former star of, uh, Roswell.) The same fate will befall another cell phone, as well as a wine glass; no one has service, the web is down, and then the electricity goes out. Blame it on the unknowable space power of celestial objects: it’s all the fault of a passing comet, which, one character explains, have historically been known to cause not just mechanical but psychological disturbances when they pass too close to Earth.

It gets worse than a little cracked glass and malfunctional electronics, though. In last year’s wonderful +1, an asteroid magically caused doubles disjointed in time to crash an epic teenage house party, with characters running into versions of themselves from 20 minutes ago. This movie makes a nice companion piece to that philosophy textbook thought experiment, except it approaches something closer to +5,000,000, as every choice the characters make, even the tiniest ones, opens up an alternate reality, into which they then pass unwittingly or not through a patch of darkness outside. It’s like Schroedinger’s Cat if the possible realities didn’t collapse into one actuality when you opened the box, instead continuing to exist simultaneously when that should be impossible—and then multiplying! Or, as one character explains (to simplify it for everyone), it’s sort of like that Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors.

The action is set entirely in and around a single house, its confinement approaching theatricality; it’s low-budget, a sci-fi not of spectacle but of complex plotting, twisty and surprising in the tradition of 2004’s time-travel twister Primer. “We can’t trust ourselves,” one character says, as the ones who aren’t slipping into other realities without noticing are spying on those that are. It’s doppelganger against doppelganger, the number of universes approaching the infinite as their inhabitants become increasingly paranoid. This is the film’s most damning idea: if we’re afraid of our “alternate” selves, isn’t it just because we know ourselves—and the awful things we’re capable of?

06/04/14 4:00am

The Montrose
47 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope

The duke is dead! Long live… his dukedom? The Duke of Montrose opened almost a year ago, a sister bar to Isle of Skye in Williamsburg and daughter to Caledonia on the Upper East Side, together a trio of Scottish pubs with serveral styles of Belhaven on tap and an impossibly thorough selection of Scotch, almost 200 bottles from every region across the land of Robert Burns and William Wallace. But the owners picked the wrong spot in Park Slope for their last outpost: two short blocks from the Barclays Center, from which streamed throngs of thirsty postgamers, too many of whom were put off by the hyperspecialized menu. So, not unlike O’Connor’s before it—the dive bar a block away that was shut down, retooled and recently reborn as the unrecognizable but arena-friendly McMahon’s Public House—the owners reworked it: they replaced most of the Scotch with a full, familiar offering of Bombay Sapphire, Stoli, Captain Morgan, etc.; they lost the Belhaven for craft brews like the Bronx, Brooklyn and Bell’s; and they scrapped the “Duke,” reemerging as the Montrose—just the Montrose.

The owners retained the black-stone aesthetic that the bar shares with its North Brooklyn sibling, and its wood ceiling is awesome, textured as though assembled from extra-large Lego blocks. The bartender was very friendly, offering enthusiastic, unsolicited but helpful (if unheeded) recommendations, and on a recent humid and blustery evening—just in time for the tail end of a reasonably priced happy hour—the almost-floor-to-ceiling windows of the corner spot had been tossed wide open, a blessedly cool breeze sweeping across the room.

So, this is a nice little spot, bearable post-Barclays (with a row of five flatscreens above the bar all tuned to sports) and kinda lovely before the sun sets on off-game nights in spring. But it still seems a shame that the Duke of Montrose didn’t open several blocks farther down Fifth Avenue, outside of the Mandated Barclays-Friendly Zone. A specialty Scotch bar would’ve been a nice addition to the neighborhood; “yet another flatscreen-and-Sixpoint joint,” as one blog commenter called it, less so, as they’re ubiquitous along Fifth Avenue, from the arena to the cemetery. You can’t really fault the owners for trying to repair their flawed model to save the business. But you can blame that damn arena for claiming another victim.

06/04/14 4:00am

Willow Creek
Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

The centerpiece of this found-footage Blair Witch redux is destined for inclusion in horror movie textbooks: an uncut, fixed-position, no-budget 18-minute shot of two characters in a tent, out in remote wilderness, listening to the peculiar noises of the forest at night, or maybe something worse. We hear knocked-together wood, and we hear hooting somewhere between that of an owl and a loon, those sounds far off and then much closer, the characters moving from amused fear to abject terror, their voices moving from low whispers to so soft they’re practically just mouthing words to each other. In between shrieks.

That couple is played by Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore: he’s a Bigfoot enthusiast shooting a DIY doc in northern California, and she’s his girlfriend, a Sasquatch skeptic there for moral support and to hold the camera. Structurally, the movie borrows Blair Witch‘s template wholesale: the first half of the movie includes interviews with townsfolk about the legend, both believers and skeptics, mixed with the couple’s disagreements, often filmed from the dashboard’s POV. (The two encounter a considerable amount of Sasquatch kitsch, from burger joints to motels, which inspires some legitimately funny banter.) The second half heads into the woods, navigating the trail that Bigfoot-footage pioneers Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin traveled almost 50 years before.

The untamed nature into which they hike is scary enough without a possible Bigfoot afoot—nothing underscore’s humanity’s vulnerability like heading into inescapable territory without weapons. The couple manages to make it through their night of tent terror, that virtuosic scene of sound-designed fear, just to get lost in the woods the next day (again, just like Blair Witch!) and spend another night listening to more nocturnal whooping. That the first night features a failed marriage proposal encourages a reading of the Sasquatch as the predatory manifestation of their clearly doomed-to-fail love, but Bobcat Goldthwait’s unforced direction equally encourages you to sit back and enjoy the surprising tension squeezed out of a few strange sounds.

Opens June 6 at IFC Center

06/04/14 4:00am

Our parent company’s darling Northside Festival (June 12-19) celebrates its sixth birthday by expanding, highlighting even more of the films and technology produced by the creative community in Brooklyn and beyond. Music, though, remains its defining aspect—and its beating heart. Four hundred bands will soon swarm Williamsburg and beyond from all over the world (or just a couple subway stops away). For four days we’ll spread out over more than two dozen venues and three outdoor stages, creating a general state of happy chaos. For four more, we’ll take over almost every movie theater and screening room in the area.

You could walk into most any venue in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, confident that something rad is about to happen. And, seriously, it’s fine with us if you put this down and go give that a shot. But for those who’d like to plot a more precise path into the madness, here’s our rundown of the most anticipated sets, the most compelling films, and the most enterprising entrepreneurs. See you on the streets!

Music Recommendations

Film Recommendations

Film: Interview, Fort Tilden

Innovation: Interview, Mario Schlosser

06/04/14 4:00am

Trust Me
Directed by Clark Gregg

Hearing that an actor has turned director should raise any sophisticated cinephile’s red flags. Just as the skills that make a good reporter rarely make a good editor, or the talents of a line cook don’t necessarily translate into those of a head chef, neither does the great actor’s craft align with the great filmmaker’s. You can’t fault performers for wanting to try: they work watching others exert creative control, and who doesn’t want to be the boss? You just wish producers would be more discerning about whom they hand out money to.

Clark Gregg, though, is different. He’s reached new levels of visibility thanks to the Avengers franchise—from the first Iron Man to the starring role on ABC’s Agents of SHIELD series, not to mention a featured part in Joss Whedon’s inbetweener, Much Ado About Nothing—but Trust Me isn’t his first time behind either the typewriter or the camera: he wrote the screenplay for Robert Zemeckis’s Harrison Ford thriller What Lies Beneath, and he wrote and directed 2008’s Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke. (He was also one of the students who with David Mamet and William H. Macy founded the Atlantic Theater, for which he’s directed several plays.) Both movies have rotten ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, but his latest ought to break that streak: it’s as wry, witty, and lovable as its writer-director-star.

Gregg plays a former child star turned agent to actors too young to vote; he knows not just the industry but also the personal toll it takes, making him uniquely adept at the requisite ego management. His Hollywood is a town of the powerful and desperate, everyone mugging with a confidence that can vanish at the nod of an executive’s head, and his is a self-deprecating performance, unafraid of spotlighting the pathetic and undignified demands of show business: the begging, the genuflection, the wretchedness.

Tinseltown emerges as an embodiment of pure capitalism, wherein money and business always trump human relationships—it’s a racket governed by profits over people. Gregg and Saxon Sharbino, playing a promising actress who sticks with him as her agent after they meet randomly at an audition, become the only two people trying to defy that ethos, to do right by each other without getting lost in the cynicism. Before its surprise twist into unhinged melodrama, its third act takes a turn into family drama, the focus on contracts and negotiations fading into background. That’s because, though Trust Me is a sly, subtle and smart Hollywood satire, at root it’s not about business—it works so well because it’s about recognizable, sympathetic people.

Opens June 6

06/04/14 4:00am

The Sacrament
Directed by Ti West

Indie horror maven Ti West has succeeded by not sticking to any subgenre: he adopts well-worn varieties and reinvigorates them—that is, the setups are familiar, but the execution is exhilarating: his stripped-down reworking of Deliverance, Trigger Man; the grimy, 70s-style occult slasher, The House of the Devil; and the classical/Spielbergian ghost story, The Innkeepers. His latest plays with a more recent trend in scary movies, found footage, with actors playing Vice reporters who visit a hippie commune carved out of remote jungle; the movie is structured like an episode of the media company’s HBO series: explanatory titles fill in gaps in the shakily shot footage, as does direct-camera narration by 21st-century-horror ubiquity AJ Bowen. Journalism is the perfect medium for West to adopt here, as the film’s frights are from the real-world: he eschews Devil’s supernaturalness and Innkeepers’ paranormality, focusing instead on the potential evil of mankind itself.

At first, everything seems pretty nice. “Eden Parish” is like heaven on Earth; sure, it’s a little creepy—and is far more sinister as midnight approaches, with the appearance of terrified dissidents—but for much of the movie it’s an attractive community: put-together, self-sustaining, freed from poverty, racism and violence. West spends the bulk of the film building up the place and its lifestyle so he can tear it down; he’s a master of mounting tension, establishing character and atmosphere before the long-deferred snap. Here, that inevitable break is particularly horrifying, and involves a whole bunch of people drinking the Kool-Aid—you know, literally.

The villain is a conspicuously Jim Jones-like leader, known as Father, played larger-than-life by Gene Jones. (The rest of the cast is a familiar roster of indie hotshots: Joe Swanberg, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil. Even the crew: I don’t think I’ve ever before blurted out “oh, he’s awesome!” after reading the sound designer’s name; it’s director-in-his-own-right
Graham Reznick.) Jones proves a terrifying brand of boogeyman, more pernicious than any monster with a knife: he can kill dozens if not hundreds of people using his words, without ever lifting a weapon. The creepiest thing of all is humanity’s capacity for madness: not the armed psychokillers hidden in shadows but the twisted leaders right out in the open—and those troubled and desperate enough to follow them.

Opens June 6

05/30/14 12:02pm

Jesse Eisenberg in Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymonds movie Night Moves

The director Kelly Reichardt, with her writing partner Jon Raymond, makes movies that capture the cultural moment. Since 2006’s Old Joy, the filmmakers have fashioned 21st-century specific political parables, tracing the historical arc of the Bush years and their transition into the Obama era, with which they grapple in their latest, Night Moves (opening today).


Old Joy depicted the deeply divided country into Bush’s second term: not that its characters were some sort of Dennis and Mr. Wilson matchup of Republicans and Democrats—it was simpler, more subtle. As I wrote in 2007:

The American populace is polarized, and the macrocosm of that opposition is boiled-down into two avatars, one, Will Oldham, representing the free and peripatetic spirit of the West, and the other, Daniel London, a settled family man with a baby on the way; in the process, the two come to vaguely encompass not only the red-state/blue-state divide but something that runs much deeper. While shooting an airgun in the middle of the film, London sums it up elegantly: “aiming with two hands is responsible shooting; one hand is renegade shooting.” It’s the modern American family man vs. the mythical American spirit, once interconnected and now deeply alienated.

Reichardt and Raymond’s followup, Wendy and Lucy, boasted a “bleak but hopeful outlook… serendipitously tailor-fitted to its pre-Obama days of both promise and despair,” I wrote in 2008. “It’s a simplistic and symbolic story, a portrait of this mean old country and its economic disparity.” That is, it was so, so 2008. So was their next film, Meek’s Cutoff, though it wouldn’t come out until two years later. In it, a group of westward-bound 19th-century settlers are lost and low on supplies, ultimately faced with a choice: follow their leader, an archetype of American cowboyism, or go with a dark-skinned Indian they’ve captured, a clever metaphor for the McCain-Obama election. “You follow a man like Meek, a man who embodies the reactionary, only at your peril,” I wrote at the time. “Better to take your chances with The Stranger and see where it gets you.”

That was back before we found out Obama was collecting all of our phone data and subpoenaing journalists’ phone records. You could define his two terms however you’d like (and the last one’s not even over yet!): by partisan gridlock, by reform of the healthcare system, by foreign policy imbroglios, by the expansion of gay rights—or by the amplification of the post-9/11 surveillance state put in place by the president’s predecessor. It’s this that Reichardt and Raymond focus on in Night Moves.

A thriller about ecoterrorists in Oregon who plan to blow up a dam and then act on that plan, the movie has some other Obama-era undercurrents: about being progressive but fed up with the pernicious status quo (I mean, has anyone done anything about carbon emissions?!), turning to some form of radicalism even if it turns out to be misguided just because you’re starting to get a little desperate here!! (See the haphazard redress that was Occupy.) It also touches on how much easier it is to kill once you’ve already killed, perhaps explaining the drone program.

But most of all, it’s a movie about paranoia, its colorful end-credits backgrounds redolent of the 70s, evoking cynical post-Watergate political thrillers. Its final shot (I’m not really spoiling anything here), of Jesse Eisenberg peering into a store’s shoplifting mirror, is only the last of the film’s many such shots: its most recurring image is a dead-on shot of Eisenberg looking off into the distance, because he heard the sound of approaching tires, or noticed some other tiny detail that could indicate the arrival of police. In almost every shot, he’s looking in a different direction than all the other characters in the frame. It’s a movie full of panic—that someone’s watching, that someone’s coming, that someone knows. This is how Reichardt and Raymond define our present moment: Obama as the new Nixon.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

05/29/14 12:15pm

The Raven, a new vocal work by Toshio Hosokawa, based on the Poe poem, presented by Gotham Chamber Opera

  • Jim Dine

I didn’t even know there would be another piece of music. The main attraction in last night’s program at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater was The Raven, a relatively short new vocal work by Toshio Hosokawa based on the Poe poem, part of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial celebration (presented by Gotham Chamber Opera). But it was overshadowed by the work that preceded it, Andre Caplet’s nonvocal Conte fantastique: Le Masque de la Mort rouge, also after an Edgar Allan work.


Caplet is best known as Debussy’s orchestrator, but based on this work he’s also an excellent composer: published in 1924, the piece (arranged for string quartet and a mesmerizing harp, played by Sivan Magen) features melodies that are twistedly Romantic—eerie, plaintive and melancholic, at once and at turns. It’s like some implosive admixture of impressionism and expressionism in its wordless narrative, the quiet mystery of Debussy approaching the terrifying atonality of Penderecki but stopping at the aggressive creepiness of Bernard Hermann (albeit stripped of his Hollywood accessibility).

The Raven moved a lot closer to Penderecki, its siren-like strings softly wailing. It was often monomelodic, the poem’s first stanza spoke-sung over dissonant orchestration, a curiously arrhythmic adaptation of such rhythmic verse. The music nailed the poem’s inherent despair, and you could appreciate the challenge of having to orchestrate such an iconic refrain, but each “nevermore” stung in its own way—including the final whispered one. The most interesting aspect, though, was director Luca Veggetti’s accompanying choreography. As an excellent Fredrika Brillembourg sang, a physically similar and identically dressed Alessandra Ferri moved around her, adding a layer of physical desperation in movement. It was an athletic performance for both, the interaction becoming an expression of the Raven, of Lenore—the narrator’s tortured mind made manifest.

This program will be performed again Friday and Saturday evenings. Get more info here.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

05/28/14 11:52am

“I was at your daughter’s wake,” a customer tells a bartender dozens of times in this fascinating and unusual play (through Saturday), each time reading it a little differently, maybe cutting it off in the middle, eliciting a variety of responses—about the food, the flowers, the nature of verbal communication—that approach the infinite, from fuck off to full engagement.


For this circular tête-à-tête, the Bushwick Starr has been re-created as a dive, its usual risers/proscenium setup replaced by tables for the audience around the edges of a showspace bar; they’ll drink before the show (and during, if you were smart and bought two!) from the same taps and bottles the actors will. Free food is served. (The Times reported it was vegetarian, but it changes: on our visit, it was pork and mac n’ cheese.) It comes to feel like a buffet at an Irish wake, that wake the bar patron keeps talking about. Was he her boyfriend? Did she die in an automobile accident? Was she drunk? Or just not wearing her glasses? Did she only have one arm?

All of these might be true; it’s almost like seeing a glimpse of the multiverse theory played out before you, the actors resetting, seeing where it takes them this time. Playwright William Burke, one of Mac Wellman’s Brooklyn College MFA graduates, gets to something moving about the way people try and try to get out what they mean (and not just create more “noise pollution”) but fail, exposing the meaninglessness of our words, the emptiness of conversation, and the hollowness of ritual—from bartender-customer banter to funeral ceremony.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart