Articles by

<S. James Snyder>

08/05/09 4:00am

It took only two scenes in Knocked Up for Charlyne Yi to become an instantly recognizable movie personality. Even for those who have never seen the name surely remember the face: A stoned, giggly brunette, squinting through her glasses, asking a pregnant Katherine Heigl if she ever gets mad that her baby steals her food.

She was a hilarious supporting player back then, and now Yi is back — a little less stoned and even more likable — opposite Michael Cera in the trippy docu-romance Paper Heart, opening August 7. A quirky audience favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Paper Heart begins as a purported documentary, following Yi — a stand-up comedian by trade — as she hits the road, questioning people’s beliefs about true love. But her life quickly comes to parallel her art, as she develops a crush for Cera and their relationship emerges as an integral piece of the movie.

Ever since its debut, speculation has swirled: How much of “Paper Hearts” was staged? How much was real? Are Yi and Cera a real couple (the celebrity rumor mill says they just recently broke up)? The L Magazine put these pressing questions to Yi herself.

The L: Your film premiered at Sundance way back in January; what has it been like to live with this movie for the better part of a year?

Charlyne Yi: I’m in the middle of the press tour now, and it’s a little daunting. I almost feel on the verge of a nervous breakdown — hearing my own voice for 12 hours straight, giving the same answers. I almost wish I could change my answer each time, just to spice things up.

I’ve actually been living with this film since February of 2008, and then we re-edited the film after Sundance this February, so it’s like we never left it. It’s exciting, though, because we have no idea where the future of this film is headed. Originally, we thought the film would go straight to DVD, maybe showing at two theaters, like most independents. But then from there, we made it into Sundance, and Overture picked it up, and now suddenly we’re going from two to sixty theaters. It’s pretty exciting.

The L: I’ve actually started reading several online rumors about you and Michael Cera being romantically connected. True?

CY: I think that’s sort of weird. He had the same thing with Ellen Page, with Juno, because there was that romance on the screen. But no, we’re just friends. To see “Charlyne and Michael” printed places, and then to see us in the movie, it makes things even more confusing and weird. People literally don’t believe me when I say it’s not true. But then, I’ve also read things online that said I was a cougar and 33 years old. Michael sent that one to me, which was hilarious: Carlyne’s a 33-year-old cougar. So there’s obviously a lot of BS out there.

05/29/09 6:00am

Now here’s a horror film that gets points for creativity.

In Pontypool, a virus sweeps across a Canadian city, spread by the English language and a certain set of words that set off a ghastly mental reaction in the minds of the infected. Set entirely in a church basement — which is serving as the temporary base for an Ontario radio station — the movie is a case study in information and isolation. As morning show host Stephen McHattie starts fielding calls from people all over town, who talk of bloody mobs attacking one another in the streets, it becomes clear that anarchy is being unleashed in this provincial burg.

The L Magazine talked (riskily, in English) with director Bruce McDonald about his smart and scary thriller.

The L: It’s such a peculiar premise, what made you think that this would work as a feature film?

Bruce McDonald: The whole notion behind the infection of a language — it’s such a smart, neat idea. We found ourselves brainstorming as to how this could be done, setting all of the action in a small box. The first incarnation of the script was to do the whole movie with one shot, to just have one shot of a guy in a radio booth. Eventually we decided to loosen that up a bit, but from the beginning, I loved the thought of being in a radio station, and having the sound of the outside world as a secondary character.

The L:So from the beginning, you wanted to keep this story confined to the basement, all taking place on a single set?

BM: Like so many other independent films in Canada without any movie stars, financing is always hard, and we’re so used to trying to make a lot out of nothing. So it was partly a financing concern. But once we decided to structure things this way, it became more of an artistic challenge. When you talk about films like My Dinner With Andre or 12 Angry Men, it’s all about putting characters in a room and managing the tension. That was a directorial challenge that weirdly appealed to me.

The L: There’s a hint of War of the Worlds here, this time with the people at the radio station getting caught up in these horror stories coming in from the field…

BM: The project actually started as a radio play. I got a call from CBC Radio, and they were looking for radio dramas, and Tony Burgess and I had been working for about 10 years on this adaptation of his book Pontypool Changes Everything. For the purpose of a radio drama, we set most of the adaptation aside and instead focused primarily on this idea of language being infected. The radio drama never happened, but our work there helped us to tighten up this much more focused idea, which eventually became the movie. The whole project helped us to identify what was most interesting in our original script, and then streamline the rest.

The L: So there was a whole other script that you tossed aside?

BM: Yeah, we still have it. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a sequel, and we’ll have all the material ready to go.

The L: How did you workshop the film? The story starts in a very casual, reserved place, but by the end, there’s a whole lot of chaos going on here. How did you get the actors into the mindset?

BM: We were very lucky that all these actors have worked in the theater, so they were comfortable with longer takes. We shot the film on location, and were also able to shoot it in chronological order. That helped a great deal. For our two main actors, Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle, early on they spent time with the writer and about a month before shooting we went through readings of the script to really work on the details of the characters, and to discuss how they would react in these various situations. By the time we finally got to shooting, we were able to experiment with these longer takes, and I think they appreciated that — that unlike most films, where things are so short and chopped up, we let the drama play out.

The L: Something about the film seemed very retro to me — that we’re dealing with a radio station, and that the secret weapon is something as simple as language. This is a very low-tech affair…

BM: Even the look of the radio station is a little retro, being in the basement of a church. I might have leaned more towards 70s exploitation films for the aesthetic, but I think we decided at the outset that we wanted to make a scary movie, but we didn’t want something like Hostel with fountains of blood. We wanted something more like Polanski. And that led us back to this world before cell phones. I think today we’re writing out our words more than ever, when it comes to e-mails and text messages. But we wanted to pull that technological rug out from under everyone, to take us back to that time when the spoken word was king.

The L: What sort of exploitation movies were foremost in your mind as you set out to make this?

BM: Polanski’s The Tenant for sure, and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — these weird, suspenseful and creepy movies. I even look back to the Planet of the Apes franchise, where this weird subverting was going on. You thought you were in one movie, and it became about something else entirely, and it had this weird atmosphere to it like a Pink Floyd album or something, this atmospheric and unpredictable quality. I like it when you’re not quite sure how it’s all going to play out; if the hero might just die.

The L: Given that it’s such an unusual film, have you been surprised at all by how it’s been received?

BM: What’s surprised me most is that there was a sale of the film out of nowhere to South Korea — they’re releasing it on 50 screens. We were all kind of like, “What?” And it turns out that there are a lot of people taking English classes and learning English, and it’s very frightening to them — this challenge of mastering the language. So there are all these weird cultural shimmers, this notion of English language being dangerous. That kind of paralleled the French-English conflict that Canadian audiences notice. But we were just laughing as we were writing it — every Canadian kid has to decide which foreign language they’re going to take in high school and we loved this notion that if English became this destructive thing, there would be all these Canadians saying: “Oh, if I’d only taken that elective in high school!”

07/16/08 12:00am

Unless you follow the Hollywood trade publications, you may not yet recognize the name Courtney Hunt. But with her new movie, Frozen River, ready for its August 1 debut in area theaters, arthouse fans across the city are going to start hearing an awful lot about Hunt’s quintessential too-good-to-be-true New York story.

She studied filmmaking at Columbia, where she pursued her MFA, before successfully submitting a short film, also called Frozen River, to the New York Film Festival. She was then able to leverage that short — and the NYFF buzz — into a feature film, using the momentum to keep the same acting talent (Melissa Leo and Misty Upham) involved with the project. Her editor encouraged her to submit the film to Sundance, the crew rushed to get a rough cut in by the deadline and the film was chosen as one of the 16 official competitors in this year’s “dramatic competition.”

On January 26, mere days after the film was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, it was chosen by the Sundance jury as best in show, walking away with the Grand Jury Prize.

“It was a bit surreal,” Hunt now says from her upstate New York home. “It was strangely calm after that. We win the award, and it’s very much, ‘Ok, what happens now?’ It wasn’t so obvious and instantaneous, but little by little, as we’ve gotten closer to the release of the film, things suddenly have gotten very busy. We’ve toured a lot of festivals, audiences have responded strongly to the film, and now we’re ready to see what a larger audience thinks.”

In the film, Leo plays Ray, a blue-collar woman in upstate New York coping with the chaos of a missing husband, a growing pile of bills and the possibility that her new home, which is to be delivered via semi truck in a few days, might be turned away if she cannot come up with the final payment. Upham plays Lila, a resident of a nearby Native American reservation who is also down on her financial luck. Making a quick buck here and there by running illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States, packing them in her car and driving across a frozen St. Lawrence River, she is a human trafficker not out of choice but of necessity.

It’s when the community’s elders discover Lila’s illegal activities that they take away her car. When she happens to cross paths with Ray, who is equally desperate for money but who also has access to an automobile, the two passionate, independent women pair up and set about breaking the law.

It’s a timely story in its address of the hot-button election-year topic of illegal immigration. But Hunt says that the feature, and before that the short, have been in the works for years, and any notion of timeliness is coincidence. “It wasn’t something I really set out to do, but it’s definitely given us an additional level of attention. We’re in the middle of a national conversation about immigration right now and we offer a different angle, a look at immigration though another person’s eyes,” Hunt says, referring to the film’s focus not on those being smuggled but those doing the smuggling. “But strangely enough, we screened at New Directors/New Films [earlier this year at MoMA] and no one asked a single question about the issue. I think people get so into the story that the immigration aspect of it only occurs to them later. The way it’s written, it’s not written to scare people but written to look at the point of view of these characters in an extreme situation.”

Hunt, who lives in Columbia County, about three hours north of New York City, says she  wrote the script for Frozen River based on what she knows: it’s essentially a rural story about whites co-existing with Native Americans, both groups struggling to pay the bills. In a similar fashion, she says her next project may reflect her earlier experiences living in New York City: another story about immigration, but this time filtered through the lens of turn-of-the-century life in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Consider it the next chapter: “I think an artist writes about what she knows. Frozen River was about the border situation, and this next story comes out of where I’ve been. Living in the East Village, it’s impossible not to walk about New York City and look at and appreciate the wave of immigrants who came through here. The relatives they left and the neighborhoods they built and the reason they look the way they look — it’s curiosity that leads you through the story. It’s fascinating.”

06/04/08 12:00am

There is truly no singular New York experience, so when Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou first set out, five years ago, to make the quintessential New York story, they had little idea of just how complicated that quest would become. “We started off wanting to make a movie that was a postcard for the city. We wanted to capture New York in the same way that so many films in the 70s captured it, whether we’re talking about the films of Martin Scorsese or something like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three or Bad Lieutenant,” recalls Baker, co-director of the new drama Take Out, on the eve of his film’s June 6th opening at the Quad Cinema. “We spent a lot of time thinking about it: ‘How can we best show New York? Through whose eyes?’ At the time we were working above a Chinese restaurant, and that’s when we realized: Of course — through the eyes of the delivery guy.”

But as the two filmmakers began their research, touring Chinese restaurants throughout Manhattan and interviewing a number of deliverymen, they quickly realized that plans to craft a soft-and-sentimental New York vision were about to make an abrupt detour. “The more we talked to these guys, the more obvious it became that we had to change our focus,” Baker says. “The story was no longer going to be about the city, but instead the city would serve as a backdrop for a far more devastating story about one of these men, and the struggles he endures to just make it through the day.”

The finished product is an emotional work of neo-realism, a rough-around-the-edges narrative that elicits comparison to the films of Ramin Bahrani, whose Man Push Cart told the story of an immigrant who spends his days pushing a food cart through the streets of Manhattan, and whose Chop Shop took the story to the sprawling junkyards of Queens.

Immersing themselves in their subject matter, Baker and Shih-Ching set up camp in a Chinese takeout joint on the Upper West Side, witnessing the rhythms of the average day over the span of several weeks — from the regular customers who float in and out at all hours of the day, to the way the hours disappear in a flurry of orders and take-out assignments. 

Watching the film, it’s clear they did their homework. There is an assured and knowing air of authenticity to Take Out, a confidence in its pacing that suggests its makers know a thing or two about the world. In the kitchen, they film the hands, but not the faces, of the chefs who work in this country as illegal aliens. In the front of the shop, they survey the interactions among the restaurant’s owners and the shop’s returning crowd of regulars. Out on the bustling streets, the duo not only capture the deliveryman in action (played by a wholly believable, utterly sullen Charles Jang) but also his rushed interactions with apartment-bound New Yorkers. Posting ads on Craigslist, Baker was able to secure agreements with everyday residents, getting permission to film the story on location, in actual New York apartment buildings.

The movie opens, though, on perhaps its darkest note. Beyond the workplace, Baker and Shih-Ching interviewed illegal immigrants about their living conditions and their unlikely journeys to America. The answers they received were startling, painting the picture of overcrowded apartments — the movie actually journeys to a two-bedroom flat that houses eight people — and towering “smuggling debts” that must be paid back in full by those who have just arrived in the city. To put it another way, they are indentured servants.

“It was mind-blowing, really,” Baker says. “They have grueling schedule, 12-plus hours a day for six or seven days a week, usually with very little time for breaks, working on small tips and dealing with hundreds of people a day while barely knowing English. To make matters worse, they’re walking around with money on them in very dangerous situations, so you have muggings and attacks… it’s an impossible situation that’s hard to hear about. It leaves you looking at the city a little bit differently.”

05/21/08 12:00am

It was in 2004, with a story about a marriage of convenience between two unlikely, displaced lovers, that German-born Turkish director Fatih Akin launched to international acclaim. While some had known him previously through his 2000 road trip film In July, it was instead the apathy and the angst of Head-On — pairing the frustrated, isolated Cahit with the secluded, suicidal Sibel — that captivated both audiences and critics around the world. It was a portrait of anger and loneliness, accentuated with flecks of love.

But with his latest effort, The Edge of Heaven, Akin has brightened his color palate considerably. Which is not to say that he has left all that pensiveness or pessimism behind him, but rather that Heaven is optimistic enough to suggest that there may indeed be a light waiting for us at the end of this long, grueling tunnel.

“I was in a much different mood this time around,” Akin recently said on the phone from Turkey, shortly after Edge of Heaven cleaned up at the German Film Awards, taking home top prizes for best picture, director and screenplay. “With Head-On, I had the opportunity to put in a lot of the anger I had at the time, but I feel different now, and so I’m not surprised that my characters feel differently.”

Unlike Head-On, which operated within a narrow range of emotion, Edge of Heaven is a mosaic of characters of varying ages, ethnicities and emotional states, all tripping over each other in their search for a real connection. In particular, the movie centers around two characters, Nejat and Ayten, who never meet but instead stand at the center of their distinct worlds.
Nejat is a Turkish native teaching at a German university and caring for his homesick father, while Istanbul activist Ayten, whose own mother lives in Germany, forges unexpected bonds with an idealistic German student and her mother.

The movie takes flight when Ayten’s mother has a chance encounter with Negat’s father. A death begets remorse, which then leads to a cross-country journey for all involved — a journey that is all about the nature of searching. Nejat is searching for his life’s purpose. Ayten’s quest is of a more political nature. Nejat’s father is searching for the peace of home, and Ayten’s mom for economic stability.

 But it is in Nejat’s decision to return to his homeland that we sense something different in Akin’s worldview. Chucking his college education out the window and deciding instead to buy and operate Turkish bookshop, Edge of Heaven is really about his attempts to reintegrate himself into the place he left, building up to a calm and tranquil denouement in which Nejat tracks down his estranged father at his seaside home and sits on the beach, waiting for dad to return from his daily fishing trip.

“Now that was really an important moment for me,” Akin said. “I’ve never made a film out a novel, but this last shot is based upon the very last line of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, which is about waiting and hoping — hope not only for Nejat, that his father appears, but the hope felt by so many of these characters. That sort of parallels my position right now, one of waiting and hoping.”

Given the critical acclaim the film has already enjoyed in Europe, and the early buzz it is receiving from American critics, it’s clear that these sentiments of patience and optimism are connecting with people around the world. And Akin said that in today’s increasingly globalized society, where borders no longer matter as much as they once did, his stories of nation-less people, struggling with issues of identity and connection, are tapping into a timely sentiment.

“It’s very a much a story about leaving and then returning to your roots and I think now, more than ever, it’s the reality that a lot of people are overrun and beaten down by globalization,” Akin said. “But I wanted to make a movie this time that was more about people coming together, about these people on a quest who find themselves uniting. It’s a sign of being human to have dreams and to chase them — my dream was always to become a director…

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Akin’s characters are thinking more positive, and that his films are becoming brighter. If the dreams of this German-born Turk have come true, then why not those of the next guy?

Opens May 21 at Film Forum

04/16/08 12:00am

I couldn’t even think about making movies anymore,” says Harmony Korine, on the phone from Nashville. “Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was make movies and to be a director, but once I started making movies, all I wanted to do was quit.” 

And so he did.

Audiences will have a chance to rediscover the artist starting May 2, when his Mister Lonely is released here. But Korine has been missing from the film scene for so long that some have no doubt forgotten his tale.

Thirteen years ago, as an eager 22-year-old, he exploded onto the scene with the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids, then followed that up with two directorial efforts which have both since become cult classics: 1997’s Gummo and 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy, the former a scattered story about two disaffected teenagers living in rural town ravaged by a tornado, and the latter about a very strange family as seen through the skewed eyes of schizophrenic son. 

From the outset, Korine was a lightning rod. The New York Times dubbed Gummo the worst movie of the year, while Roger Ebert’s jaw dropped at the sight of Julien Donkey-Boy: “Korine, who at 25 is one of the most untamed new directors, belongs on the list with Godard, Cassavetes, Herzog, Warhol, Tarkovsky, Brakhage and others who smash conventional movies and reassemble the pieces.”

It would be eight years until anyone saw a film from Korine again. 
“Yeah, I went and lived in Europe for a while, hanging out with a friend of mine who’s a pimp, and then I couldn’t remember anyone’s phone number,” the director, now 35, recalls. “I started writing people’s phone numbers on the wall, and they were all six or seven times longer than they actually were — I’d have someone’s number on my wall, but then it would go 212, and then there would be 40 or 50 digits. And I thought: ‘Man, something’s going on, I need to get healthy.’”
His circuitous eight-year journey to health saw Korine working as a lifeguard at a Jewish community center, mowing lawns to raise cash, working as an intern for a Russian cobbler and abandoning the United States altogether to visit Panama, where he wound up living with what he calls a “cult of fisherman.”
At one point, he says, he wrote a script about a guy who rides about on his “humongous giant pet pig.” But two separate house fires destroyed the script. “Eventually, I just said, ‘Ok, something’s going on here, and someone doesn’t want to me to write this movie.’”

In truth, the central conceit of Mister Lonely is every bit as a bizarre as a humongous pig. The film concerns a Michael Jackson impersonator who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in Paris; “Marilyn” convinces “Michael” to come away with her to the remote commune where she lives with a veritable army of celebrity impersonators — from Charlie Chaplin and Abraham Lincoln to Sammy Davis Jr. and Buckwheat.

Opening to a full frame of pastel blue, Mister Lonely is softer in spirit, and often lighter in tone, than either Gummo or Julien Donkey-Boy. “I see it as a movie about faith, and hope, and wanting to be someone other than who you are,” he says. “It’s about the potential of magic in the world.”

Korine says everything changed for him when he finally left Panama to return to America, and was handed a leash by the wife of one of the fisherman, a leash supposedly attached to an invisible dog. “And then I returned to Nashville, and put this leash up by a desk where I used to sleep, and after a few weeks late at night I woke up because of a dog barking, and the sound was coming from the leash, and it sort of cleared my mind,” Korine says, matter-of-factly. “I started to think again in terms of images and stories, and I started to dream of nuns jumping out of airplanes, and then had this idea of a commune full of impersonators.”

03/19/08 12:00am

They say you never appreciate what you have until it’s gone, but, in an ironic twist, fans preparing for this year’s New York Underground Film Festival know exactly what they have — and precisely when it’s going to go.
    About a month ago, as the long-outdated web site of the 2007 Underground Film Festival (UFF) was finally updated with info about this year’s event, it became a point of both celebration and mourning: “15th and Final…” the site read, indicating this would be the event’s last year. That said, the 2008 festival — running April 2-8 at Anthology Film Archives, and featuring some 14 features and more than 100 shorts — looks to be packed to the brim with promising projects. (The lineup and schedule can be found at
    Heavy Metal Baghdad, a documentary by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi about Iraq’s only heavy metal band trying to keep the music alive in the aftermath of the American invasion, will open the festival on April 2. The Juche Idea, the latest from NYUFF regular Jim Finn, has been selected as the festival’s closing night film.
While talking to Finn about the challenging, genre-bending, explicitly political nature of The Juche Idea — a movie about a South Korean video artist who finds herself pushed to make propaganda during a visit to North Korea, her story told through an array of supposedly found footage — he explained that the UFF, throughout its history, has been something of a safety net for filmmakers setting out to push their material beyond the mainstream.
    “What I love about the Underground Film Festival, and what’s sad about its going under, is that, no matter what I was doing, no matter what choices I was making as a filmmaker — if I was pushing my work in a challenging direction or making conceptual decisions I hadn’t made before — I knew there would be a sympathetic festival,” he said. “That my work would get a fair hearing, and get access to an audience that would similarly approach it with open minds.”
    Finn is just one of many directors to relish the open minds of the average UFF audience. Ben Coonley is another. One year, he fused together a 3-D project with a live, in-theater performance. In other years, he created video projects designed in part to replicate and appropriate the audience experience of being in a big-box movie chain — designing Power Point slides featuring “underground trivia” prior to the feature presentation. This year, he’s turned his focus to movie previews, crafting a faux trailer featuring “beloved icons of subway advertising.”
    Coonley has delighted in the community that comes together every year for the UFF. “What’s always struck me is that this isn’t a group of people trying to get a deal for their work”, he said, “but that the festival itself is the goal. Each year, you see teachers who just want to share their newest projects and guys like me who just want to take risks and see if they work.”
    Jeanne Liotta, who has appeared before in the New York Film Festival — and at the Whitney Biennial — returns to the UFF this year with Observando El Cielo, a 19-minute film crafted over seven years as Liotta traveled the country filming the night sky (“you could call it astrophotography”). She also enjoyed the unique perspective of sitting on the UFF jury a few years ago. “Some people hear ‘underground’ and think that it means ‘trashy’ or describes films that are low-fi, or made on the fly,” she said. “But serving as a jury member, you realize the wide mix of movies this includes, basically anything that’s underserved or underrepresented. It includes documentaries and installations and experimental films — the underground is a bigger place than some might think, and it needs a festival like this to bring it to the people.”
    With many left wondering where these filmmakers and audiences will turn once the festival is over, two of the UFF’s co-directors, Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry, have devised what they think is a promising Plan B: A new initiative that will continue organizing underground events across the city. Their new non-profit organization, Migrating Forms, “will continue to produce a film and video festival in the spring, with the addition of year-round programming,” says McGarry.
    Some see the transition as nothing more than simple evolution — the natural shift away from what things were in the past century to what they will be in the here and now. “The nature of film, of filmgoing, is changing,” Coonley said. “So why would underground film be any different? Or the underground filmmaker, or the underground festival? It makes sense that things change, especially in this city.”