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12/02/09 4:00am



Serious Moonlight



Directed by Cheryl Hines

The romantic comedy’s entertainment value stems from the comforts offered by its predictability, idealism and unambiguous sympathies. It’s easy to distinguish the “bad” guys from the “good.” People act selfishly and do crazy things, but are ultimately forgiven—after all, they’re in love. As the script blithely carries us to a satisfying conclusion, we never have to worry whether things will work out for the main characters. And when it’s all over, we rise from our seats as if waking from an afternoon nap, ready move on to something else, still feeling happily numb.

Serious Moonlight would seem to fit this mold, but it fails to offer any of the genre’s usual pleasures. Meg Ryan plays Louise, a ball-breaking Manhattan lawyer who arrives at the country house she shares with her husband Ian (Timothy Hutton) to find a trail of rose petals leading to the bedroom. Unfortunately for Louise, Ian’s romantic gesture was meant for another, younger woman; she interrupts him while he is writing Louise a Dear Jane letter. Unwilling to give up so easily on their marriage, she knocks Ian unconscious with a flowerpot, duct tapes him to a chair, and refuses to free him until he falls back in love with her. This setup might promise a round of silliness and a neatly tied-up conclusion, except for a few problems. For starters, Ian is a monster of a husband. His anger at Louise for ruining his getaway plan is frightening and he spews really hateful, awkward potshots at her, like “you’re ugly.” It’s hard to root for Louise to reunite with such a mean and selfish man.

Louise is hard to root for in general. Her plan, which at first seemed like a bout of lighthearted hysterics, quickly morphs into a not-kidding hostage situation: she eventually duct-tapes Ian to a toilet with his pants around his ankles. While Ian pumps out grotesque remarks and Louise flits around in full makeup and an evening gown, the gardener (Justin Long) shows up and courts a few precious giggles (as Justin Long is wont to do). But soon, we discover that he too is a despicable human being as he robs the couple’s electronics, bashes Ian’s face and molests an unconscious Louise. (I still haven’t been able to shake the image of Justin Long cupping Meg Ryan’s boob.)

Beneath the film’s odious characters and surprising brutality, you can see glimmers of a decent movie. Given the talent involved, it should have been better: Serious Moonlight was written by the late Adrienne Shelley, who wrote and directed Waitress, an incredibly sweet film received just about as well as an indie film can be. It’s also the directorial debut of Cheryl Hines, who starred in Waitress and plays Larry David’s wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm. And yet in Serious Moonlight, moments of comedy are rare and moments of romance are even rarer. It’s hard to see the good in characters this grating and it’s hard to forgive them for being mean and spiteful. Things eventually work out between Ian and Louise, as we knew they would. But it’s hard to see that as a happy ending.


Opens December 4

10/21/09 4:00am

The Wedding Song
Directed by Karin Albou

Set in German-occupied Tunis during WWII, The Wedding Song follows the tumultuous friendship between two teenage girls: Nour, a Moslem (Olympe Borval), and Myriam, a Jew (Lizzie Brochere). In introducing their friendship, director Karin Albou lingers on scenes of the two girls dressing one another, washing each other in the traditional hammam and speaking with a level of intimacy that only childhood innocence affords. They’ve clearly been friends since they can remember and up until now, nothing has been able to threaten their bond. But, as the war progresses and the girls enter the first difficult stages of adolescence, their lives are driven in different directions. This is the second feature-length film from director Albou, and it’s an incredibly beautiful, emphatic ode to feminism.

At the film’s outset, obstacles to their friendship have already been set in place: Myriam’s mother, Tita (played by director Albou), is struggling financially after losing her job as a seamstress, and Nour is preparing to enter married life with her handsome fiancé, Khaled (Najib Oudghiri). When the Germans force heavy reparation payments on the Jews, Tita must trade Myriam’s hand in marriage to a wealthy, middle-aged doctor in exchange for their security. Khaled, out of work and unable to marry Nour without employment, takes a job as a translator working for the Germans. In the midst of war and now among men who place a cap on their freedom, Myriam and Nour see each other less and less, and their intimate conversations quickly devolve into conflicted glances on the street.

Despite contending with the violence of the war and the physical turmoil of adolescence, Myriam and Nour strive to remain forgiving and compassionate. Their friendship is a rare one—one that is found almost only in stories, but one that is representative of a greater bond found among women. Albou’s ambivalence toward men and marriage is transparent: both Nour and Myriam long for loving relationships with men and, at times, the male characters show kindness and integrity, but overall, it is the girls’ female bond and the strength of women that carries them safely through poverty and war. The film never pits women against men—rather, Albou chooses to celebrate women and to give voice to their quiet endurance. Though the film is titled The Wedding Song, the depth of Myriam and Nour’s friendship suggests that Albou may be referring to a different kind of union.

Opens October 23

09/09/09 4:00am

The Painter Sam Francis
Directed by Jeffrey Perkins

The Painter Sam Francis, billed as an intimate look at the artist’s life by longtime friend and fellow artist Jeffrey Perkins, would seem to belie its own title, delving past the façade of the artist and into the life of The Man Sam Francis. However, while we learn much about both his art and his life, the documentary remains true to its title. Francis’ life and art turn out to be one in the same; the man Sam Francis cannot be severed from the painter Sam Francis. His unique relationship with art is perhaps due to his belief in its restorative properties (Francis’ first painterly experiments occurred while he was bed-ridden with spinal tuberculosis, and he never relented in his belief that it was art that saved him). Throughout the rest of his life, whether it was his keen attention to his dreams, a second round of painting through sickness — this time a urogenital strain of tuberculosis which instigated his “Blue Ball” period — or the destructive influence of fame on his personal life, art would serve as both a sustaining force and an ever-present drain.

Perkins takes great care in unfolding this complex relationship giving ample freedom and discretion to his interviewees who, in turn, maintain a respectful deference to the artist. By the end of his life, Francis had married and re-married five times and fathered several children. His strengths and shortcomings as a husband and father are stated outright during some interviews, alluded to in others. Throughout, his paintings serve as a record of his life’s vicissitudes: the timid, optimistic “white paintings” of his early years transform into grave, plodding, paint-heavy compositions late in his life. To a certain extent, the documentary merely reiterates what Francis had already put down on canvas. But aside from the privileged recordings of the artist’s lyric brush strokes, an affecting sight indeed, The Painter Sam Francis cannot reveal much more than the paintings do themselves, and that limit is not a dead end, but a revelation.

Opens September 11 at Anthology Film Archives

09/09/09 4:00am

No Impact Man
Directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein

In November of 2006, author Colin Beavan, fed up with having to carry around his upper-middle-class liberal guilt all the time, decided to embark on a project to help the environment. Titled “No Impact Man,” the project stipulated that Beavan, his wife Michelle and their two-year-old daughter attempt to live for one year without impacting the environment. A series of progressive steps, the undertaking evolved from buying locally to eventually shutting off the electricity in the family’s New York City apartment. In the now-established tradition of non-experts writing about topics best handled by experts, Beavan blogged about his amateur forays into extreme eco-practices and wrote a book that was published at the project’s end. The new documentary No Impact Man is the film leg of this media coverage trifecta, and despite the obvious indications of a homegrown publicity stunt, the film, at its core, shows an earnest attempt by Beavan to simply do something good.

That’s not to say that the project doesn’t cause problems for Beaven and his wife, both professionally and at home. Beavan’s wife Michelle, a writer for BusinessWeek, is a caffeine-addicted, reality TV-obsessed shopaholic, but she agrees to give up her most sacred comforts, less for their negative impact on the environment than for the equally kind-hearted goal of supporting her husband’s life choices. Beavan, for his part, receives the brunt of a heavy, abrasive round of criticism delivered by way of an unexpected deluge of media interest in his work. While never on the brink of ill-health or starvation, living without electricity in the heat of summer and the cold of winter is really not fun for anyone in the family, especially when their compost box explodes with flies and “The Pot in the Pot”, a natural refrigeration method, fails miserably.

In the end, the project’s message — that you too can make changes to help save the environment — takes a back seat to the trials of the family itself. Beavan’s constantly furrowed brow and lighthearted messianic complex, mixed with his wife’s exquisite sarcasm and punctuated by their daughter’s excited toddler outbursts, is actually extremely entertaining — like a cerebral sort of reality TV for the upper-middle-class. But, you don’t have to feel guilty about watching it. Just remember to bring your canvas bag to the grocery store and hopefully everything will be okay.

Opens September 11

08/19/09 3:39pm

The office from The Apartment

People who work in offices are usually together at least nine hours a day, five days a week. And that doesn’t count time spent at the Sixpoint beer tent at Summerscreen or at the Heineken room at Northside or in the shadowy depths of 68 Jay Bar… at least in our case. Out of this wealth of shared experience among office workers, a certain vernacular will often arise; a site-specific language used and understood only by those who work in a particular office. Recently, I polled The L Magazine office to find out what everyone likes to say around here. Turns out, our office vernacular is actually pretty rich and isn’t just about drinking. Inspired, I asked some other New York media offices what kinds of stuff they say. So, in honor of our special Office Issue, I give you…

The (Abridged) Dictionary of New York Media Slang

(Obviously, you will want to add slang from your own office. What better place to do it than in the comments section?)

The L Magazine
Let’s take a walk around the block = Let’s have a meeting.
Bins = An exclamation synonymous with above term, originating at the old office, where there were a bunch of bins piled up outside the door and people would conduct meetings next to them.
Let’s have a meeting = Let’s have a drink at the bar.
Cold rockin’ = Wearing, holding or associating oneself with something in a cool way. Example: “I’m cold rockin’ last night’s leftovers for lunch today.”
Sent from my iPhone, bitch = An emphatic tack-on to a verbal insult.
Exercise your right = To have a drink in the middle of the day.
Word is bond = An extra-fancy phrase signifying that a pledge has been made. Example: “So you’ll water my desk plants while I’m gone?” “Word is bond.”

The New York Times

The Ones = Calls from the Times show up on caller ID as a series of ones. The person answering the call will sometimes use this expression when picking up the phone. Example: Ring ring. “Oh, excuse me. It’s The Ones.”
Toe-touching = A practice which has ceased post Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg where a reporter remains at a location briefly just to establish the dateline, but does most of his/her work from another location.

Popular Mechanics

Let’s take this off-line = An expression used to get back on track when an unrelated conversation topic comes up during a big meeting. Example: “Hey you guys, I was thinking about going by my middle name from now on. What do you think?” “Well, I think—” “Ok, let’s take this offline.”
Wall Walk = When magazine pages have reached the final stages of completion, they are tacked up and displayed on a large wall in the Mechanics office. The editors and designers involved will walk the Editor-in-Chief down the wall and review their progress.

Urlesque.com

Internuts, Interwebs, Intertubes, etc. = Slang for ‘internet’. So as not to be repetitive.
Epic = A big post
Mini = A small post
Meme-ish = Usually said with cautious uncertainty, as in, “But, isn’t that a bit meme-ish?”
We’re Big in Russia! = Editor Stephen Lenz’s exclamatory response to overseas pickup.
IRL = Meeting an Internet friend in Real Life.

Ink Publishing

Recycling trip = When a few people band together to carry big, awkward cardboard boxes down the block for recycling. This is necessary because their landlord hasn’t organized that particular service for the building.

The Observer

Meeps = A vocalization of the acronym for MEP, or ‘multiple entry points’, which refers to the little boxes containing little stories that accompany larger pieces, especially in the arts sections. Also, a very cute name for a little box with a little story in it.

Newsweek

Wallendas = The term for top editors at Newsweek; after the trapeze-artist family of the same name, because, as the saying goes, they’re always pulling off high-wire acts. Also known as wallies for short.

ABC

The Rim = The name for the top producers at ABC’s World News Tonight. When scripts are being turned in for review, one might say, “I’m going to rim it.”

The New Yorker

The Book Bench Blog = This section of The New Yorker’s website was named after an actual bench that is used to hold the book department’s leavings. When a load of books comes in, word spreads around the office and everyone from senior editors to fact checkers goes to the book bench to try and find free books. Unlucky interns usually have the task of carting the load from the book department and unloading them at the bench.

08/05/09 4:00am

Late in his life, Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) found himself deep in debt from a number of misguided business investments, principally with the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company. In order to recoup his financial losses and save his good name, Clemens embarked on a world lecture tour to Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand and South Africa, departing in 1895. In The Report of My Death, a one-man show starring Michael Graves that runs through August 22, this trip serves as the narrative material to which writer-director Adam Klasfeld has added aphoristic fragments of Twain’s previously censored and unpublished writing.

Like many productions this summer, the play is staged outdoors. However, Klasfeld’s intent in this regard is not to recast the world of the play within the modern confines of the city. It is precisely the opposite: to leave the rumbles, shouts and small enclosures of urban life, to escape both land and time out upon the open sea. Or at least that’s what you might imagine as you sit aboard a ship docked on the Hudson River.

Our adventures aboard the S.S. Lilac, the Craigslist-advertised vessel rented by Klasfeld for the New York run of the production, begins before we even set foot upon the ship. Pier 40, the S. S. Lilac’s home port, is a large sports and recreation facility located on the river near Houston Street. As we approach the massive, sprawling complex, it quickly becomes clear that finding the dock will be a preliminary test in its own right. First, we peer into an enclosed soccer field, then stumble upon a strange sort of lobby, empty but for one solitary lounge chair and smelling of old paint and dust, then we spot a crowd of well dressed people sauntering toward… could it be? Yes! The dock. The groups of people turn out to be members of a boat party embarking from the same pier, and as we walk through the crowded entrance and onto the weathered dock, it suddenly becomes very quiet, save for the rhythmic bumping of things against the wooden pier. The sun is just beginning to set across the river. New Jersey never looked so lovely.

The S.S. Lilac is a small old boat, rusted and discolored in a charming way. Its tall mast is a testament to its former seaworthiness and the walkways that encircle its frame bring to mind the many crewmembers that have spent their days and nights aboard. As the play begins, however, Klasfeld seems determined to remove audience members from any pretensions of authenticity evoked by the setting. An actor dressed in late 19th century garb welcomes audience members by enthusiastically reciting philosophical maxims and cows them into a timid and uncomfortable state by encouraging some light participation. We sit down in the theatre of folding chairs and find that our playbill also serves as our “boarding pass.” Festive pirate music plays. We, the “passengers,” are somewhat apprehensive about the journey ahead.

08/05/09 4:00am

I Sell the Dead
Directed by Glenn McQuaid

I Sell the Dead
, a delightfully goofy scary movie by Irish writer-director Glenn McQuaid, begins with the execution of Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden), one half of a scrappy 19th century grave-robbing team. While awaiting the same fate in the town chokey, the other half of the duo, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), is visited by a priest (Ron Perlman) who offers to take his confession. What follows is a feature-length flashback of all the spooky, silly events that got Willie and Arthur into this mess in the first place. They were your typical 19th century grave-robbing team, scraping together a living unearthing corpses to be sold to a mad scientist and afterwards drinking away most of their earnings at the local pub. While the drinking part certainly never changed, the grave-robbing took an unnatural turn when Willie and Arthur discovered a corpse belonging to the ranks of the undead. These unique specimens turned out to be more lucrative than ordinary corpses, so the boys set out to be the go-to-guys in town for digging up zombies, vampires and all manner of unusual remains. Things take a turn for the worse when the the two set out on a particularly dangerous mission and have some unfortunate dealings with the House of Murphy, a gang of ghoulish villains after the same loot.

The film is highly stylized, but its varied aesthetic directions are sometimes difficult to synthesize. Like a haunted house on Halloween, it is heavy on atmosphere, with billowing clouds of mist from fog machines and monsters with pale skin, wild hair and deep-set, dark-rimmed eyes. Yet it also taps into the comic-book-turned-blockbuster trend, rounding out a number of flashbacks with a graphic still image, ostensibly drawn from the comic that, perhaps ironically, was first adapted from director Glenn McQuaid’s original movie script. However, one combination, that of goofy comedy and scary thrills, works wonderfully. McQuaid has great timing in this regard, and even though some jokes are almost too silly (upon discovering his first vampire, Willie repeatedly awakens and kills the demon by pulling a stake from its heart and thrusting it back in), overall the effect is highly amusing. This silliness also helps to alleviate some of the ills no doubt caused by a low budget — inconsistent accents for one — and fits well with the story of regular grave-robbing Joes and their heroic foils in the Gang of Murphy. This film might have its faults, but it makes up them in laughs.

Opens August 7

07/29/09 4:00am

Not Quite Hollywood
Directed by Mark Hartley

Near the end of Not Quite Hollywood, a thoroughly researched, crisply edited documentary about Ozploitation films of the 70’s and 80’s, interviewee Quentin Tarantino points out one of the most enjoyable aspects of Australian genre cinema: that inevitable moment when the events occurring onscreen culminate in such a bizarre, over-the-top ridiculous climax that the viewer can barely believe what he is seeing. Not Quite Hollywood is chock-full of just these types of scenes — the wackiest, goriest, most over-sexed moments in Aussie cinema — presented back to back in rapid succession. But this playful retrospective is only half the fun. Between the clips of blood-spurting severed limbs, roaring explosions and unnecessary nudity, the people behind the films prove themselves subjects as entertaining as the work they put forth, relaying their recollections of the era with dry humor and an ironic indifference toward life-threatening stunts and sex spectacles. (One producer/director is interviewed in front of a backdrop of dancing female strippers.)

Ozploitation, a distant relation of that other creatively misspelled genre, Blaxploitation, officially began with the institution of the R-certificate in Australia. Given this new, uncensored stage, Aussie filmmakers began pushing the limits of filmmaking, displaying violence, sex and all-around grotesquery with enthusiasm and, eventually, nationalistic pride. The first part of Not Quite Hollywood documents the rise of the genre and discusses the motivating forces behind it. The prevalence of nudity, for example, was due in large to the sexual liberation and the growth of feminism in the 70s (though many were divided over whether the gratuitous onscreen sex was representative of sexual freedom or Australia’s collective horniness). Surprisingly, the documentary also attributes the genre’s development to its popularity in foreign regions, where viewers became fascinated with the Other-ness of the vast Australian outback. While films like Long Weekend (which features nature exacting its revenge on a couple of litter-prone campers) held little interest for native Australians, it ignited the curiosity of viewers abroad. In turn, Australian filmmakers were prompted to reflection; eventually, this consciousness helped propel their own cultural exploitation.

The second half of the film narrows the focus to include only the most successful and treasured members of the canon, pausing to reminisce upon, among other things, Dennis Hopper’s drunk driving escapades during the filming of Mad Dog Morgan, actor Jimmy Wang Yu’s habit of eating flies before kissing his onscreen love interest in The Man from Hong Kong, and the many devastating injuries incurred by stuntman Grant Page. Aside from Dennis Hopper, a number of A-listers are featured for their B-moments in Australian cinema, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Stacey Keach in a movie about a murderous semi-truck driver, Nicole Kidman wearing elbow and knee pads in BMX Bandits and, of course, Mel Gibson in the gearhead fetish flick Mad Max.

Not surprisingly, Not Quite Hollywood‘s director, Mark Hartley, is a huge fan of Australian genre cinema. However, he is also the man behind the DVD release of several of the Ozploitation films featured in the documentary. Certainly, Not Quite Hollywood functions as a very convincing endorsement for the rental and/or purchase of these films, kind of like a feature-length preview for the release of the “Ozploitation Collection.” After seeing the film, I immediately filled my Netflix queue with Aussie genre films. All the same, I was glad for the suggestions. And, I never would have seen so many dazzling acts of sex and violence, or been introduced to so many quirky members of the film industry had I not seen the documentary. It’s a tiny, underrepresented niche of the film community, but Hartley brings it back to theaters with the mix of fanaticism, raw humor and lighthearted debate it deserves.

Opens July 31

07/20/09 5:55pm

bb37/1248126409-moonlanding09.gifEveryone is really excited about it being forty years since we landed on the moon. Google, apparently foregoing their usual logo embellishment (I was sure I’d see a moon in one of those O’s), has prepared a special map of the lunar surface complete with landing sites and fun facts. The NY Times has a whole mess of interactive features including a cool collection of reader-submitted photographs from the year 1969. Gawker simultaneously celebrated the day and reminisced about the heyday of print, posting images of the yellowed front pages of various newspapers that announced the event.

Not to be outdone, the History Channel is premiering a new ‘docudrama’ about the moon landing entitled Moonshot. The creators, however, have taken certain liberties in mixing fact and fiction. Cuts between archived footage from the actual event and reshot fictional scenes are so quick that it’s difficult to differentiate between the two. AND some of the more important audio clips from the shuttle transmissions have been substituted for the actors’ voices, so that when their mouths move, a static-y recording comes out. What? Click here to check out a clip from the TV movie.

07/15/09 4:00am

Homecoming
Directed by Morgan J. Freeman

In this mildly entertaining teen slasher, Mischa Barton stars as Shelby, a crazy ex-girlfried who tries to sabotage her former boyfriend Mike’s new relationship by holding his girlfriend hostage. Shelby and Mike had enjoyed a typical small-town romance: he was the high school football star, she was the resident hottie. But, when Mike left for Northwestern University in the fall, it came at a bad time for Shelby, whose mother had recently died from cancer. Now, upon Mike’s return home with his Abercrombie-wearin’, luxury-car-drivin’, monogrammed-luggage-totin’ new girlfriend, Shelby — who thought she and Mike were still together — is out for blood.

To those readers who enjoy a bit of blood splatter and think the first season of The O.C. was exquisite, this premise probably sounds ridiculously amazing. And it is — to a certain extent, though Homecoming falls short of so-terrible-it’s-entertaining territory. Much of the beginning is comprised of a series of events, each more implausible than the next, which land the new girlfriend in Shelby’s creepy dead mother’s bedroom with a debilitating ankle injury. After that, the principle plot mechanism is the girlfriend’s half-baked escape attempts and the painful punishments she incurs from Barton when she inevitably fails. The entertaining parts of most horror movies — gore, suspense, jumpy surprises — are curiously absent or aesthetically sloppy (bone crunches sound exactly like celery being snapped in half). At some point, however, after the third or fourth escape attempt, Barton starts to get really pissed and really crazy. This is when the movie gets good. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I will say that someone’s achilles tendons get sliced with gardening shears and that, later, Barton rips off pieces of meat from a leftover rump of pork to make a post-kill sandwich.

The film also hyperbolizes a classic horror trope which pits the upper middle class against the “silent majority” of rural, small-town America. Mike’s return home essentially sparks a battle between his trashy past, Shelby, and his sparkling upper-class future, the new girlfriend. In this battle, Shelby, like a backwoods witch, uses prescription meds and household items to subdue her enemy while the new girlfriend, helpless without her cellphone, ends up using Mike’s football helmet, a symbol of the scholarship which propels his upward mobility, to bludgeon Shelby.

It was true of The O.C. and it’s true of Homecoming: whenever Mischa Barton goes completely off the rails, it’s fun for everyone. It takes a while for her character to get to that point and I wouldn’t say it’s entirely worth enduring the first half of the movie. But, if you bring the right friends and a full flask it might be a really terrific way to spend a Thursday night.

Opens July 17