Articles by

<Andrew Schenker>

06/06/12 4:00am

Tahrir: Liberation Square
Directed by Stefano Savona

As a nose-to-the-ground document of a historical event in the making, Stefano Savona’s Tahrir: Liberation Square certainly has its value, but don’t go expecting revelations. Bringing his camera into the eponymous revolutionary hotbed as protestors demand the abdication of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, Savona captures the anger, passion and uncertainty of the hundreds of thousands of diverse men and women who thronged the Square in early 2011.

As the Egyptian revolution was a peaceful one, much of the film is given to the endless reverberating chants that represented the voice of the people and there’s an angry, hypnotic power in the continuous repetitions that form at least a third of Savona’s doc. In between, there are anguished, but hopeful testimonies of Egyptian citizens of all ages and more sober discussions about what form the revolution might take.

These last segments, however brief, offer the most retrospective interest, as the euphoria of the revolution has, in the year-plus since Mubarak stepped down, given way to uncertainty, leading up to the now ongoing election. While a young, secular liberal expresses his support for the Muslim Brotherhood, others are more concerned with the direction the country might take should that group seize power. Youthful activists debate the importance of dissolving the constitution, while others simply delight in the diversity of voices joining together for some vague conception of freedom.

And it certainly is stirring. Overhead shots of the Square giving an idea of the sheer numbers alternate with scenes of police firing on the crowd and a determined people refusing to give up. But it’s in the stray discordant moments—an agent provocateur being questioned by the protestors, a young woman troubled by the question of “what’s next?” in the film’s closing moments—that Tahrir hints at the questions that often get ignored in the excitement of revolution. Savona’s film, ever more experiential than analytical, certainly captures that initial thrill; it only fleetingly addresses what might happen when that initial euphoria wears off.

Opens June 11 at the Maysles Cinema

02/15/12 4:00am

Directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin

Proving that inspirational sports stories are not solely the province of fictional films, Undefeated, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s doc, chronicles a season-in-the-life of an inner-city high school football team as they make an improbable run to the playoffs. Actually, the filmmakers go relatively easy on inspirational excess (a few sentimental touches notwithstanding) and, for all the team’s accomplishments, the Manassas Tigers of impoverished North Memphis don’t achieve the unmitigated triumph promised by the movie’s title, but the formula is well enough in place.

Compelling enough in its behind-the-scenes footage of coach Bill Courtney rallying the troops, Undefeated doesn’t delve deep enough into the lives of the young football players who carry the team, even as it singles out three for special attention. Similarly, the on-field action barely registers; sparse game footage is always supplemented by musical cues and sportscaster voice over, without which we’re not given enough information to follow the arc of any given game.

But more troubling is the problematic relationship between the white middle-class coach and his poor black charges. The film gives Courtney due credit for turning around a beleaguered program and instilling pride in a group of young men who don’t have too much to look forward to in life. But Lindsay and Martin too often portray the coach as a beleaguered Caucasian constantly deflecting the intransigent behavior of his all black team or as a saint-like figure who gives up his own family life to serve as a surrogate father for a bunch of underprivileged teens. In the end, Courtney is free to retire from coaching to the comfort of his lumber business and family, and two of the three players profiled move on to college via scholarship or beneficence, but the fate of the rest of the kids is ignored. Any deeper racial issues—such as criticism leveled at a coach for taking in a star player as a temporary house guest/tutee because of his on-field talent—are summarily dismissed, the better to laud the final moral, if not on-field, victory engineered by Coach Courtney.

Opens February 10

10/17/11 2:24pm


Alexander Payne’s The Descendants was the Closing Night film of the 49th New York Film Festival, which concluded last night. Fox Searchlight will release the film theatrically on November 18.

The Descendants suffers from George Clooney syndrome. No matter how ethically compromised the character played by the Oscar-winning actor—whether it’s the corporate downsizer specialist in Up in the Air or the assassin in The American—good-guy Clooney always embodies a sense of moral redemption, the actor’s innate benevolence beaming from his rugged, wrinkled face. In the new Alexander Payne movie, the Clooney character, lawyer Matt King, is nowhere near as inherently loathsome as in some of his other recent roles; the worst that can be said of him is that he has neglected his family to focus on his career.

But the need to vindicate this occasionally prickly character necessitates an unnecessary if structurally significant plotline involving the character in a decision on whether or not to sell a large and valuable plot of ancestral Hawaiian land to developers. (Guess which choice Clooney’s character makes?) And yet, this easy bit of moral reckoning is foreign to the rest of Payne’s film, a work that often veers into questionable directions only to perpetually right itself by uncovering unsuspected layers of complexity in its characters and situations.

Essentially a coming-to-terms-with-grief family drama, The Descendants focuses on patriarch King and his two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), both undergoing their own forms of teen and preteen rebellion in the wake of a freak motor boat accident that has left their mother a vegetable. Mining edgy, somewhat vulgar humor that sometimes verges on the sort of cruel caricaturing that made notorious such earlier Payne efforts like About Schmidt, as well as a surprising vein of earnestness in its attitude toward the struggles of family life, The Descendants follows Matt as he discovers and investigates his wife’s past infidelity, tries to connect in a more meaningful way with his girls and makes frequent visits to his soon-to-be-deceased spouse’s deathbed.

As in many a film dealing with tragedy, grief exacerbates existing tensions and Payne is shrewd in the way that he uses the mother’s limp, brain-dead body as a sounding board for everyone’s angers, grievances and regrets, an easy receptacle for feelings whose real aim is always a less passive target than the dying woman. Treading such treacherous grounds, aiming for grace and humor in equal measure, the director commits his share of missteps, such as the introduction of an obnoxious teenage stoner who often feels like little more than a target for sneering laughter. But while that character’s presence is never fully justified, even he’s granted his moment of humanity—as is the film’s most vicious presence, Matt’s reproachful father-in-law. Only a final ill-advised one-two punch that follows up the inevitable morality play with an off-note of sentimentality tips the scales away from the delicate balance that the film had managed so skillfully to maintain throughout the rest of its running time.

10/17/11 11:22am


Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist played this weekend at the 49th New York Film Festival. The Weinstein Company will release the film theatrically on November 23.

A project of such stupefying irrelevance as The Artist doesn’t come around often. Conceived as a pastiche of silent film, presumably covering the years 1927-1933 in which the mute movie breathed its last and in which the action of the current project takes place, Michael Hazanavicius’s failed experiment in retro-stylizing achieves a sleek pish-posh look that seems to reflect less a knowledge of how late silent films looked and behaved than a desire to cook up a glossy stylistic stew. There’s a little German Expressionism, an iris-out here and there, a lengthy snippet from the Vertigo soundtrack. None of it matters; it’s all completely dehistoricized and grab-bag random.

Telling once again the story—in its dullest, least inspired form—of a silent film star (Jean Dujardin) unable to make the adjustment to the talkies and a younger ingénue primed for success in the new format (Bérénice Bejo), The Artist punts narrative and characterization in favor of style, but as a pure exercise in look, it’s more or less worthless. Technically skillful and handsome enough as an object, the film has little understanding of, and nothing to say about, movie history or the nature of the cinematic medium. Hazanavicius employs intertitles, shoots in academy ratio, and, with the exception of one dream sequence and the film’s ending, fills the soundtrack with nothing except a persistent musical score. But as quickly becomes evident in watching The Artist, it takes far more than a facility at mimicking the most superficial aspects of classic Hollywood to capture the essence of what made the films from one of the cinema’s most productive periods worthy of lasting memory.

09/29/11 2:32pm


Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre plays Sunday, Monday and Wednesday at the 49th New York Film Festival; Janus Films will release the movie theatrically on October 21.

The first two scenes in Le Havre, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s latest deadpan fable, conjure an air of menace and frustration—but most of the rest of the film is refreshingly good-natured. Wizened shoeshiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms), who plies his trade in the eponymous French port town, is introduced blackening the boots of a customer when sinister figures emerge at the corners of the screen, the director cutting in to their comically expressionless faces. After these men carry off Marx’s customer, they offer him a pittance for his business losses, which is more than he gets in the second scene, when he’s rudely booted from his perch in front of a department store.

In just a few minutes of screen time, the film establishes that specifically Kaurismäkian world of sad-sack losers, humorously incongruous but uncommented-upon presences, and the director’s trademark careful attention to visages, generally shot straight on and accented by exaggerated lighting. In fact the world of Le Havre can be said to consist of a succession of friendly faces and comically sinister figures—one of whom, in a film heavy with allusions to French literature and cinema, is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. But positive vibes dominate this go-round as Marx takes an African refugee, a young boy escaped from a shipping crate at the docks, into his home, helps him elude the authorities (represented by an ever-present police inspector in black hat, black trench coat, black leather gloves, and a grey moustache) and escape via boat for London. Along the way he’s helped by a community of friends and sympathetic companions as well a few surprising turns of fate (whose lack of narrative credibility Kaurismäki has fun with).

But despite the film’s feel-good tone and its staging of a few rather spectacularly humorous sequences (Marx intimidating a refugee center director, the detective entering a bar carrying a pineapple while he draws stares from the locals), the specter of death and detention hangs perpetually over the proceedings. The former emerges via Marx’s terminally ill wife and her anguished face, which Kaurismäki honors with a conspicuous zoom-in early in the film; the latter comes courtesy of the refugee storyline and provides the film with one of its most haunting moments. When the police open the crate by the docks to reveal a population of Africans, the director cuts out the music, and picks out a succession of close-ups which simply stare back at the camera. But it’s the convergence of the two storylines—via a meeting of the refugee boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) and Mrs. Marx at the latter’s hospital bed—that provides the project with its sentimental highlight. Suddenly, Idrissa goes from being a black cipher in a white person’s story to a young man of precocious understanding and a natural generosity matching that of Kaurismäki in crafting his irrepressible latest.

08/17/11 4:00am

Two By Milton Moses Ginsberg

August 22 and 23 at BAM

Cult director Milton Moses Ginsberg’s first and best-known film, 1969’s Coming Apart stars Rip Torn as Joe Glazer, a caddish psychiatrist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “I like to photograph things as they happen,” he explains to one of the stream of women who enter his posh Manhattan office cum sex lair over the course of the film. “I’m into… reality.” True to his mandate, the not-so-good doctor sets up a hidden camera, his “kinetic art object,” to record his interactions with clients, lovers, and client/lovers from a single fixed vantage point: a couch positioned in front of a giant mirror. But whether or not he captures reality—or what exactly reality consists of—is a question the film leaves tantalizingly open. Reflected images abound as the giant piece of glass serves as an all-purpose metaphor for alienation, fractured identity, or anything else you like. Eventually, Glazer starts to lose it and, as in Persona, when he starts to break down, so does the film—in this case it’s the Doc’s own audio/visual equipment that goes on the fritz.

Drawing on the aesthetic rigor of the era’s structuralist films, the free love ethos of the late 60s and its dark flipside of sexual aggression, and the impulse to self-document definitively chronicled two years earlier in Jim McBride’s classic fake documentary David Holzman’s Diary, Ginsberg’s film stands as the conjunction of a specific set of time-bound influences and as a result probably hasn’t aged as well as some other of the more radical films of the era. Lacking the sense of perpetual self-critique that fueled McBride’s film as well as the precision and satirical thrust of the video art segment from Brian DePalma’s soon-to-be-released Hi Mom!, Coming Apart still has its share of unmissable moments: Rip Torn discussing a friend’s sexual antics involving a toy duck and a dresser drawer, an orgy in which a sad transvestite dances around in a grotesque clown mask and, above all, an astonishing scene in which a lover absolutely rips Glazer apart for leaving her unsatisfied and then trying to kick her out, even if the exchange tends to paint the unhappy woman too close to the stereotype of the hysterical, man-hating bitch (“I hate men” she says).

Ginsberg’s follow-up, the 1973 satirical horror film Werewolf of Washington, is probably no less a product of its times than its successor; indeed it aggressively evokes not only the paranoia of the Nixon era, but exhaustively chronicles the political specifics of the age. But through its shrewd reworking of George Waggner’s 1941 The Wolf Man, to whose template it adheres more or less faithfully, Ginsberg shows that classic material is always ripe for fresh applications, in this case to paint a portrait of our government (then as now) as a rotten, corrupt thing.

Brilliantly condensing the opening of Waggner’s film in which Lon Chaney, Jr. meets a comely young lady, purchases a wolf-headed cane, runs across a gypsy camp and is bitten by a lycanthrope, Ginsberg carves a shimmering chiaroscuro of flamboyant colors out of the Hungarian (actually Long Island) darkness, playing on our knowledge of the legend in order to present the events in heavily elided form. Seeking self-exile after a too cozy relationship with both the United States president and his daughter, reporter Jack Whittier (Dean Stockwell) finds himself undergoing the same trajectory of woman, cane, gypsies and werewolf attack. The difference from the Universal classic, however, is clearly signaled: after being bitten, Whittier immediately suspects a commie plot.

If Waggner’s film charted a tension between belief in werewolves and a skepticism based on science, Ginsberg’s central ploy is to replace the second item in the equation with the need to scapegoat political subversives and minorities. There is no longer any question of rational, scientific explanations for the series of murders that newly lycanthropized Whittier begins committing once he returns to Washington and accepts a job as White House assistant press secretary. (The film’s view of science is limited to a sole representative—a sinister little person who performs Frankenstein-like experiments in the bowels of a government building and seems to wield an immense amount of power over the president. Not surprisingly he’s named Dr. Kiss[inger].)

Instead, for an administration under siege, dealing with the “south east Asian situation” abroad and the threat of “current subversive trends” like hippies demonstrating, at home, all the while trying to manipulate the press into supporting an upcoming judicial nomination, the blame must be shifted elsewhere. Whittier describes his hero, the president, as a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ, but mostly the POTUS comes off as ineffectual, his liberal tendencies counteracted by the more militant voices in his administration. After an early killing, an influential cabinet member declares it to be the work of the “Panthers” and immediately picks up an innocent black bystander for the crime. When the killings continue, talk of Communist brainwashing begins to flow across the inner circles of Washington.

But, as in the Waggner, the wolf is very much real. Just what that creature is supposed to represent is another question. Clearly, the figure is meant to invoke some essential rottenness at the heart of the governmental/journalist enterprise. And yet, the contagion was picked up, not at home, but behind the iron curtain, transmitted by a foreign creature. Similarly, there is no particular rhyme or reason to Whittier’s killings. Although a good number of them are attacks on powerful, middle-aged woman, he seems just as likely to kill anyone with whom he comes into contact. Interpretative coherence, though, is clearly not what the film is after; it relies instead on a totality of vision, one intensely attuned to a specific set of political circumstances, but suggestive of a general putrefaction. The film can be overwhelming in its relentless stockpiling of detail, in DP Bob Baldwin’s lovely, textured camerawork and in its all-purpose sourness of vision. Significantly, Ginsberg did not direct another film for 26 years.

08/03/11 4:00am

Cold Fish

Directed by Shion Sono

If the title Eros Plus Massacre hadn’t already been claimed by Yoshinge Yoshida’s 1969 classic, it might have well served in place of Cold Fish, the moniker given to a current offering by his countryman Shion Sono. The second part of Sono’s so-called “hate” trilogy—the concluding chapter, Guilty of Romance, screened at this year’s Cannes—Cold Fish has more than its share of both of the constituent elements of Yoshida’s title’s arithmetic, the sublimation of the life instinct (“eros”) resulting in several rounds of the younger director’s trademark bloodbaths. More specifically, Sono’s film illustrates, in always exacting, alternatively hot and cold detail, the ways in which frustrated masculinity tends to burst forth in desperate bursts of aggression, how a passive moral cowardice becomes an active moral turpitude.

The exemplar of passivity in question is Nobuyuki Shamato (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), the proprietor of a modest tropical fish store on the outskirts of Tokyo, husband to a younger, second wife who rebuffs his sexual advances and father to a teenage daughter who runs off in the middle of dinner to join her boyfriend. Unable to control either woman’s sexuality, Shamato is further distressed to learn that his daughter has been caught shoplifting.

The way out for the teen-girl-in-trouble comes via a charismatic if vaguely sinister fellow tropical fish seller (the eye-filling neon hues of the man’s store conveying both intrigue and sickening menace) who agrees to hire Shamato’s daughter for a live-in position at his shop and takes the other man in on some increasingly shady business deals. Before long the pursuit of profit leads to murder and gruesome dismemberment (the natural endpoint of rampant capitalism?) while the wide-eyed Shamato can only look on and vomit. It’s a grim—and queasily graphic—view of human nature, but it’s one that Shamato ultimately embraces, learning the only way to recover his sense of manhood in a fish-eat-fish world is by outbrutalizing the competition. And it’s fitting that one of the most memorable images in Sono’s sickening howl of a film should be a woman clutching a severed penis, since Cold Fish so clearly understands the fear of emasculation (both literal and figurative) as the driving force behind the increasingly desperate acts of brutality it depicts.

Opens August 5 at the reRun Gastropub Theater

02/16/11 3:00am

Putty Hill

Directed by Matt Porterfield

Putty Hill is American regionalism done (mostly) right—the region, in this case, being the eponymous lower-middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Baltimore where writer/director Matt Porterfield grew up. Centered on the family members and acquaintances of a recently deceased (fictional) twentysomething, this docu-fiction hybrid jumps from character to character, observing the youthful locals—most of whom are embodied by non-professionals enacting versions of themselves—as they play paintball, watch television or do nothing in particular. Opening up new lines of inquiry, Porterfield acts as an offscreen interviewer who conducts a series of partly improvised Q-and-As with each character, both establishing the nature of their relationship with the deceased and probing their personality through the litmus test of abstract questioning.

Putty Hill is a film that’s genuinely interested in hearing what its characters have to say, even if it isn’t very much. But it’s also a scrupulously unpresumptuous movie, modest in the sense that it doesn’t pretend to know any more about its characters than any perceptive observer might glean. Still, while every scene feels precisely observed, some seem a little too exactly so, as if the actors are at great pains to mime the speech patterns the director feels signify the behaviors of his demi-monde. And for a film as much about location as character, the frequency of blurred backgrounds and use of available light have the negative effect of displacing the film’s young men and women from their surroundings. Thus while eschewing the sort of gawking horror-show presentation that even such well-intentioned films as Winter’s Bone can’t entirely avoid, Porterfield leaves us with the slightly underwhelming sense of being kept at an occasional—and often unproductive—distance from its subjects, whether human or environmental.

Opens February 18 at Cinema Village

01/12/11 4:00am


Directed by Zhao Liang

Although it has its clear literary antecedents in Kafka and Bleak House, Petition‘s look at the arbitrary and corrupt nature of authority is of a specifically Chinese variety—not to mention the authentic stuff of actuality. A case of life imitating art—or rather art documenting life imitating art—Zhao Liang’s non-fiction film continues the director’s dissection of petty Sino-officialdom begun in his first film, Crime and Punishment. While that movie recorded the power abuses of soldiers policing the Chinese-North Korean border, Zhao’s latest film moves to Beijing to document the bureaucratic nightmare known as the petition system.

Over a decade in the making, Petition focuses on the semipermanent citizenry who set up temporary housing in a makeshift village near the central petitioner’s office. Braving inclement weather, the threat of random arrest and the vicious assaults of thugs known as “retrievers,” these justice-seeking pilgrims trek daily to the agency to press their cases, seeking redress for wrongs suffered in their provincial hometowns, almost always the result of bald-faced local corruption.

Because of the camera-unfriendly policies of the Chinese government, Zhao stays largely on the outside, recording events secondhand from the petitioners’ mouths. What this approach lacks in immediacy, it gains in empathy, particularly when focusing on a ridiculously determined woman who, like Richard Carstone in Dickens’s Bleak House, spends decades awaiting the outcome of her hopeless case. When Zhao does manage to sneak his recording device inside the office, the results are astonishing; with a seconds-long glimpse of petitioners being dismissed with a few terse words and dragged away by police, the film effectively demonstrates how authoritarianism best thrives on a combination of Byzantine bureaucracy and systemic cruelty.

Opens January 14 at Anthology Film Archives

12/22/10 4:00am


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

With his latest effort, Alejandro González Iñárritu, having parted ways with longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, scales down from the globe-hopping monstrosity of his last feature Babel. In Biutiful, the director confines his interests in globalization to the multi-national activity within a single city (Barcelona); focuses on a sole principal character; and limits himself to two main themes, one social (cheap immigrant labor), one metaphysical (death). As Uxbal (Javier Bardem) prowls the mean streets of the Catalan metropolis, overseeing contracts for illegal Chinese and African workers, he gets some bad news from the doc: All that blood he’s been pissing means he’s got terminal prostate cancer. The realization of oncoming mortality leads this essentially moral man to look for redemption in both his labor practices and his personal life, even as his best efforts often lead to tragic consequences.

If we take seriously the claims of González Iñárritu’s films to enlarge our understanding of the world, then Biutiful is as useless as its forerunners, its focus on the horrors facing immigrant laborers dropped halfway through, leaving their residue in a single character who seems to exist merely for Uxbal’s moral deliverance. In the end, it seems only possible to praise the film in negative terms, which is to say it’s not Babel, though the director makes as insistent use as ever of a maximal aesthetic—perennially whipping camera, heartbeats worked into the dense soundtrack, aspect ratios switching up mid-film, mismatched eyelines—replacing texture with empty flash. But when all you’ve got is a brooding Bardem endlessly awaiting his demise, you’ve gotta do something.

Opens December 29