Articles by

<Andrew Schenker>

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

09/01/10 4:30am

Our Beloved Month of August
Directed by Miguel Gomes

“I don’t want actors, I want people,” director Miguel Gomes tells an impatient producer in an early scene from his masterpiece Our Beloved Month of August, which itself lies somewhere uncomfortably between documentary and fiction. Frustrated by Gomes’ decision to jettison the project’s massive script and simply start shooting around the Portuguese countryside, the burly producer challenges his recalcitrant charge: “Find them.” And so Gomes does, as the film’s lengthy first half serves not only as a casting call among the non-professional locals, but a portrait of a region, focusing both on individual lives, and the local music, ritual and legends that dot the north-central Portuguese landscape.

Intercut with these glimpses of local life are (fictionalized?) scenes of Gomes and his crew struggling to overcome budgetary restrictions and inertia, playing quoits to kill the time between forays into the culture and character of the region. A work exploring the complex interaction of life and cinema, August gives way in the second act to the locally cast fictional film. While this film-within-a-film seems to follow at least partially the premise of the original script—an unsavory love triangle between a father, daughter and cousin who all play in a familial rock band—it derives an unforeseen richness from our understanding of the real-life genesis of the shoot and the ways in which subtle details drawn from local custom creep into and fundamentally shape the emergent work of art—a piece of work which, for all its high level of execution, represents only a fraction of Gomes’ stunning achievement.

Opens September 3

08/04/10 4:00am


Directed by Nicolo Donato

Brotherhood is being publicized—and is likely to be reductively referred to—as that “gay neo-Nazi drama”, an accurate enough descriptor as far as it goes, but one that implies an easy irony that director Nicolo Donato and screenwriter Rasmus Birch largely avoid. Sensitive to the complexities of human behavior—even if they fail to shed too much light therein—the filmmakers push the paradoxical premise of two men finding love together while belonging to an organization that “doesn’t like faggots” to its inevitable conclusion. And yet, the picture takes us little beyond this set-up, registering some of the anguish of the pair’s untenable situation, but settling for predictably melodramatic conclusions.

Denied a promotion in the Danish army because of accusations of coming on to his troops (which he angrily denies), Lars (Thure Lindhardt) finds himself adrift, so when he befriends a group of neo-Nazis, despite disagreeing with their central racial assumptions, he joins the organization. As Lars shacks up in a beachside resort with fellow member Jimmy (David Dencik), the pair move from initial distrust through macho horseplay to eventual intercourse (shot as a tender chiaroscuro of tangled bodies, the darkness of the framing intended to recall the pair’s other secret nighttime activity—attacking Iraqi refugees—which is filmed with a similar lack of light). The slow crescendo of the middle section, the gradual surrender to love, is the film’s high water mark. From there it’s a rapid fall to a dramatically unsatisfying climax, a conclusion both overdetermined and sentimental where the rest of the film scrupulously avoided just those qualities.

Opens August 6 at Cinema Village

07/14/10 4:00am

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno
Directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea

Had Henri-Georges Clouzot completed his 1964 psychodrama L’Enfer, its altering of our understanding of film history would probably have been minimal, but what exists of his expressionistic departure from such well-crafted suspensers as Wages of Fear contains enough strikingly bizarre imagery to rate the director’s belated engagement with post-Nouvelle Vague modernism a footnote in the cinematic annals. For Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, filmmakers Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea draw on the 185 extant reels from the lost film, intercutting a generous sampling of original footage with scenes of contemporary actors reading from the script and interviews with original crew members, providing viewers with both the troubled backstory of the disastrous shoot and an approximation of what the finished film might have looked like.

Inspired by Fellini, a “kinetic art” exhibition he attended and an unlimited budget, Clouzot staged an exhaustive series of experimental tests to find the best way of representing the deteriorating mental state of the film’s fiercely jealous protagonist. These endless reels contain instances of both the weirdly sublime (Romy Schneider’s face being bombarded by a range of colored lights) and the datedly banal (dozens of eyes superimposed to fill the screen). How effectively these bits of business would have fit into the film’s narrative—and there’s the sense that the visual trickery may have proved exhaustingly disproportionate to the character’s relatively simple state of mind—is something Bromberg and Medrea’s movie can’t answer. But it’s not every film-related documentary that simultaneously forces a reconsideration of a major cinematic figure and opens up new areas of cinephiliac speculation.

Opens July 16 at IFC Center

06/16/10 4:00am

Stonewall Uprising
, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
8: The Mormon Proposition, directed by Reed Cowan

Call it the ecstasy and the agony. In honor of gay pride month, a pair of queer-themed docs hits New York theaters. Taken together, they serve as both a testament to how far gay rights have come and a sobering reminder of the provisional nature of those rights. In Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s rousing Stonewall Uprising, the participants in the titular event recount their experiences of that fateful night in June 1969 which they fought back against the police, while ultra-grainy footage and subtle recreations capture a tense feeling of possibility. As background, the filmmakers evoke the public antipathy toward homosexuality and the clandestine nature of gay life in the 60s. “Before Stonewall,” one participant explains, “there was no such thing as being ‘out.'” Horrifying propaganda films characterizing homosexuality as a mental aberration or a sinister force threatening the American family alternate with footage of police rounding up gay men and women, while veterans of New York’s 60s queer scene tell stories of fucking in crowded, reeking meat trucks. In such a climate, even a Mafia-run shithole like the Stonewall became a rare oasis of open same-sex affection—and an unlikely site for the beginning of the gay civil rights movement.

Of course, no sooner are rights granted than they can be brutally stripped away. Reed Cowan’s 8: The Mormon Proposition begins by profiling a glowing same-sex couple, one of many who married in California in 2008 only to find the union nullified by the state’s Proposition 8. Drawing on rarely publicized documents, Cowan shows how the Mormon Church, whose members constitute just 2 percent of California’s population, bankrolled nearly 80 percent of the funds to propagate the ballot measure, issuing “divine” decrees directing their members to contribute large amounts of money, wiping out many a savings account or college fund in the process. Much of this money went to a widespread, factually inaccurate propaganda campaign which eerily echoes the 50s and 60s stock footage on display in Davis and Heilbroner’s film. Naturally, the supreme irony of a people long persecuted for their marriage practices inflicting the same damage on others is not lost on Cowan: his is not a subtle film, but an anguished cry, alternating tear-jerking personal accounts with homophobic proclamations from church elders. Moving beyond the Prop 8 campaign, the film’s second half relates the untenable position of queer Mormon teens who frequently end up committing suicide, living on the streets, or, as related in one wrenching anecdote, being subjected to brutal “cures.” But it’s far from just the Church’s members who suffer. When powerful groups with deeply entrenched discriminatory attitudes use their influence to shape American politics, no one’s civil liberties are safe.

Stonewall Uprising opens June 16 at Film Forum; 8 opens June 18

04/21/10 10:00pm

Behind the Burly Q

Directed by Leslie Zemeckis

An oral history of that once great American pastime, burlesque, Behind the Burly Q draws on the testimony of a handful of ex-performers—as well as the relatives of those who’ve passed on—as they recount their experiences during the art form’s 1930s heyday. As we learn early on in Leslie (wife of Robert) Zemeckis’ fond memory piece, burlesque was about more than the women. Hitting its popular and artistic stride during the lean years of the depression, the form offered a cheap down-market variety show for working-class patrons, consisting of comic sketches (“the main thing in the burlesque,” says one subject), singing, dancing and novelty acts in addition to striptease.

But it’s this last mode of performance that stands out in the public imagination and, despite some side trips into other aspects of the burlesque (touching not only on the comic acts, but such bits of business as the running of the concessions and the merits of the various theaters), it’s to the women that Zemeckis always returns. Supplemented by archival photos and video, the aging beauties talk about their hard-luck backgrounds (a number came from broken homes) and the pleasures and difficulties of the circuit, while the relatives of deceased performers fill us in on the often tragic ends that the strippers met and enthusiasts discuss the on-stages personas and signature acts of the various women.

By conceiving her film as a collection of reminiscences, Zemeckis offers a loose enough structure to allow a number of fascinating anecdotes, both amusing (the son of a Dallas burlesque owner recalls how Jack Ruby threatened his father for not closing his theater on the day of Kennedy’s assassination) and horrific (one stripper was beaten up 19 times by fellow-performers and ended up in a psychiatric hospital) to emerge. But the flipside to this approach is that it lends to the project a distracting scattershot quality in which we’re confronted with whole reams of decontextualized information.

Near the film’s conclusion, for example, we’re suddenly informed that the mafia controlled many of the theaters and kept the women in line by not letting them go out with customers. But since we’ve already been told that the performers sometimes did date customers, this new revelation leaves us thirsting for more information. Did the mob control all the theaters or just certain types of establishments? Was their influence limited to a certain time period or did they reign throughout the entirety of burlesque’s heyday? But no sooner has this question of mafia influence been teasingly raised than it’s summarily dropped. And despite a few bits of contextualizing background provided by a handful of scholars—mostly at film’s beginning—that’s pretty much the strategy for the entirety of the work.�‚ 

Still, Zemeckis’ film does serve as a valuable first step toward reclaiming a lost moment of Americana (even if, as she fails to acknowledge, burlesque—or is it “burlesque”? —has recently made something of a comeback). It just requires that the viewer follow up with his own research in order to account for the movie’s gaping ellipses.

Opens April 23

03/10/10 4:00am

The Exploding Girl
Directed by Bradley Rust Gray

The Exploding Girl looks a good sight better than a Joe Swanberg movie, but it is any less vacuous? The life and loves of the young and inarticulate make up Bradley Rust Gray’s chosen subject—in this case a pair of longtime Platonic friends returning home to their outer borough neighborhood during a college break. While epileptic Ivy (Zoe Kazan) worries over her (unseen) boyfriend’s unavailability, Al (Mark Rendell) parties hard, and the two haltingly stumble their way around the possibility of their own long-deferred hook-up. Stumble is right. The film’s conversations proceed with a great deal of self-conscious difficulty, slogging through their share of pregnant pauses, “like”s and “um”s. But for all their spurious realism, these exchanges don’t ever feel like actual people interacting, rather like a stylized conception of what modern youth are supposed to sound like.

And what youth. Kazan and Rendell make a handsome hipster-y pair (pigtails meet facial scruff), and Gray offers a cursory stab at suggesting a wider scope of interest for the two (Ivy teaches a dance class to a group of black children, Al is interested in Tesla and evolutionary science), but there’s finally little inner life to these self-involved dullards. Similarly, while setting them off in middle distance against Brooklyn streets creates a series of pleasing compositions, Gray offers little sense of any meaningful correspondence between character and environment. A late scene set at a rooftop pigeon roost attempts to correct the balance, but this last bit of contrived prettiness finally rings as false as nearly every character interaction in the movie.

Opens March 12

02/12/10 11:24am


The Atomic Café plays tonight at 7pm and tomorrow at 1pm at MoMA, as part of their 40th anniversary celebration of Film Forum’s first-run documentary programming.

As a compilation film, The Atomic Café is no revelation, but given the quality of the footage being compiled it hardly needs to be. A skillful audio/visual assemblage of newsreels, army training movies, television spots, radio broadcasts and novelty pop songs, Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty’s 1982 film offers a startling cultural record of the atomic age as seen through the official rhetoric leveled at the average United States citizen. Proceeding in roughly chronological order and avoiding much in the way of their own rhetorical flourishes—excluding a final recreation of a domestic nuclear attack which allows the filmmakers to display their editing chops but which seems an unnecessary bit of speculative drama—Loader, Rafferty and Rafferty let the material speak for itself, and when your holdings include such outrageous items as Burt the Turtle advising children to duck-and-cover, a newsreel announcer positing the suburban shopping mall as the crowning achievement of capitalism (take that Soviets!) and a U.S. Army film that compares the risk of atomic energy to that of cooking on a stove or showering (what with that slippery soap), that’s probably not such a bad strategy.

Still, those who laugh at the quaintness a bygone era—and admittedly there’s a grim humor to be found in the sight of schoolchildren being told to drop to the ground and cover their heads as a ward against nuclear attack—do so at their own risk. Much of the rhetoric on display will be eerily familiar to those who haven’t stricken the Bush II administration’s public idiom entirely from their memories. LBJ calls USSR the “enemy of freedom” while Truman invokes God’s guidance to justify his use of the A-bomb. The politics of fear are well in place (newsreels advising children to be constantly vigilant for a flash in the sky) as is an insensitivity to the destruction being visited upon foreign civilians (one radio wag compares Hiroshima to “Ebbets Field after a double-header with the Giants”). Watching this footage today, it’s easy to see how little the rhetoric has changed; it may have gotten a little more sophisticated, a tad subtler, but we’ve simply replaced one enemy with another, while nuclear war remains every bit as much a threat as it was in the 1950s.

As a sober reminder of the danger of such fear-mongering propaganda, the filmmakers cut in newsreels of angry, ignorant citizens demanding the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, (“Don’t fry them,” reads one sign, “they’ll stink to [sic] much. Hang them.”) having been sufficiently whipped into hysteria by the press. While documents later surfaced revealing Julius’ probable guilt, no evidence exists to suggest Ethel’s involvement and, either way, the execution based on questionable testimony helped pave the way for McCarthy’s witch hunts and is shamefully symptomatic of the era’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to Communism (or, in our age, Arab terrorism). In the movie’s most stirring moment, the filmmakers cut to a teary newscaster reporting on the couple’s execution. As he relates the grotesque circumstances of Ethel’s death—her initial turn in the electric chair failed and she had to be electrocuted a second times—stumbling unbearably over the word “stethoscope”, the glowing oval of his face emerges from the surrounding darkness of the set, making him seem nothing less than a grim prophet of death, come to deliver a final warning against the politics of hysteria.

02/03/10 4:00am

Falling Awake
Directed by Augustin

By night, Jay (Andrew Cisneros) works as an attendant at a Bronx gas station; by day he bangs out lame covers of Blind Melon in a downtown park. Dim-witted dichotomies are the order of the day in Falling Awake (along with moral platitudes and grammar school symbolism), a film that asks, among other pressing questions, “is folk music the way out of an impoverished lifestyle?” If that music in question is of the nauseatingly earnest order purveyed by Cisneros both in the park and at an open-mic night where he gets an inexplicably warm reception from a round of giddy-faced girls, then it seems unlikely, no matter how many times his new non-ghetto girlfriend tells him how talented he is. Allesandra (Jenna Dewan), by contrast, may in fact offer a way out, what with the snug Brooklyn brownstone she’s inherited from her grandmother and which she seems willing to let Jay share, but can our boy first shake the petty beefs and violent confrontations of his Bronx block? Stay tuned.

For a film built around an uptown/downtown split, Falling Awake seems to have a poor feel for both worlds, with the former rife with stock ghetto characters and set-ups and dialogue that betrays a suburbanite’s tin ear for street talk, and the latter imagined as a place where an acoustic strummer can bring a smile to all passersby. But the split is the meat of the matter and in case you didn’t get it, director/co-screenwriter Agustin obliges with a shot of the Manhattan skyline followed by a rack focus back to Jay standing across the river looking on or, later, that same character bluntly declaring downtown to be “so different than where I come from.” Apparently so, since his increasingly violent Bronx life, marked by the escalation of a tiff with a rival crew, gives rise to more and more ham-fisted scenes of “high” drama, fitted with an aesthetic hysteria to match. Still, the film’s unquestionable low point comes early on when, in a half-hearted bid at political relevance, Agustin stages a dinner table discussion of the Iraq War in which Jay’s father employs the old “freedom” rhetoric while his son shrilly informs him that the conflict is all about oil. The observation comes only about seven years too late.

Opens February 5

12/23/09 4:00am

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Directed by Terry Gilliam

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is rife with talk about the ability of the imagination to alter the world, and eventually Terry Gilliam’s cinematic imagination succeeds in transforming a film predicated on bland, unfocused plotting into a thing of nutso, surreal beauty, but it takes some time. After a brief tease of the wonders to follow, Gilliam basically wastes the first hour of his film, following its central family of itinerant showmen through standard-issue intrigue, static strategizing sessions and one scene of dull-minded mock-the-rich satire. Struggling to find its rhythm, Parnassus comes alive only in its detailing of the gypsy-like lifestyle of its characters and on those rare occasions when these struggling performers secure an audience, leading them through a magic mirror into the fucked-up CGI mindscape of the titular doctor (Christopher Plummer).

But once through the looking glass, the film never looks back. This desire-refracting dreamland dominates the film’s magnificent second half as the central plot (a race to win souls between paterfamilias Parnassus and his eternal rival) plays out against an astonishing background of ladders leading ever skyward, sinister charity events and dances with the devil (Tom Waits!) reflected in shimmering glass shards. Along the way, Parnassus’s factotum Heath Ledger transforms into Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, while Gilliam movingly locates the hard weight of eternal life in Plummer’s weathered visage and his character’s increasing decrepitude. If, per one of the film’s conceits, the continual telling of stories is what sustains the universe, then it’s not so much the director’s narrative gifts that carry his latest project, as his transformative visual imagination.

Opens December 25