Articles by

<Justin Stewart>

03/27/15 12:32pm


In case you missed it, Welcome to New York, one of Abel Ferrara’s two 2014 productions (the other being Pasolini), opens March 27 from US distributor IFC Films on VOD and in select cities though not, apparently, curiously, in New York, where most movies open and where its infamous action is set. According to reports on Flavorwire and elsewhere, the IFC Center canceled its run due to threats of violence from or inspired by Ferrara. (His reply: “Those comments were metaphorical. I am an artist and a Buddhist so firebombing theaters is not on my agenda.”) They’d planned to show the same R-rated version edited by worldwide distributor Wild Bunch and disowned by Ferrara that will be available on VOD. Anthology Film Archives reportedly declined an offer to show the director’s uncut version, which premiered at Cannes and is available on Blu-ray in Europe (and online, where Ferrara encourages you to steal it).

Wild Bunch’s replayed trump card is that Ferrara signed a contract guaranteeing an R-rated version, and since he has refused to provide one (“I don’t make R-rated movies,” he says), Wild Bunch feel they were within their rights to slice as they pleased. The fury of Ferrara’s response—comparing the players from IFC and Wild Bunch to Charlie Hebdo shooter-esque assassins of freedom—has to do with the extremity (17 minutes) and unapproved manner of the edits, which, in his view, suggest that a chambermaid’s account of a hotel rape, shown in flashback during a police interrogation, might be fabricated. While Ferrara, never afraid to self-mythologize and manufacture dust-ups, should always be taken with a grain of salt (remember his Werner Herzog-Bad Lieutenant pseudo-dispute?), he has a case, and a comparison of the two versions shows that Wild Bunch went beyond mere trimming of naughty bits to subtle manipulation of authorial intent and political content, if falling short of Ferrara’s claim that their version “condones rape” (it does not).


07/02/14 4:00am

Me and You
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

If anyone’s surprised that Bernardo Bertolucci is still around making films, it’s worth remembering that he started young, making his directorial debut in 1962 as a kid of 21, and the masterful Before the Revolution only a couple years later. Me and You is his first since 2003’s The Dreamers, and it finds him as besotted with youth as he was in that outrageously earnest paean to 1968, sex and cinephilia. Hints of incest remain (a recurrent interest in Bertolucci’s filmography), but any eroticism is only suggested, significantly dialed back from The Dreamers’s NC-17 explicitness. That film’s shoot-the-moon bravura and emo carnality are a little missed in Me and You, in which the director’s modest ambitions yield modest dividends.

Adapted from a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, the film is light on plot. Lorenzo (newcomer Jacopo Olmo Antinori) is a moody fourteen-year-old who lies to his mother about being on a school ski trip, when really he’s holed up in their building’s storage basement, soon to be joined by an older half-sister, the intimidating, heroin-addicted Olivia (Tea Falco). That’s about it—Olivia attempts to go cold turkey (providing the film’s gruesomest moments) and the duo make a few furtive journeys out of their cave, while their closeness allows the two budding narcissists to feel empathy for someone with a different variety of damage. Me and You’s stifling staginess receives a jolt with an Italian-language singalong of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and when a silver-haired creep, invited by Olivia, appears, enflaming Lorenzo’s jealousy.

In Last Tango in Paris, Besieged and The Dreamers, Bertolucci confirmed that expansive drama can thrive in confined spaces, but Me and You never seems to push beyond the claustrophobic environs of the basement. Lorenzo has an ant farm, an on-the-nose metaphor that unmissably announces that Themes are being explored, but this little character study’s concerns rarely rise above the microcosmic. Antinori, with his age-appropriate acne and froglike features somewhat resembling a young Michael Shannon, is a refreshingly non-traditional screen presence, but his troubles and schemes, like Olivia’s, are all too ordinary and, frankly, uninteresting.

Opens July 4 at Lincoln Plaza

04/17/13 9:30am

The Mortal Storm Frank Borzage Jimmy Stewart

The Mortal Storm (1940)
Directed by Frank Borzage
This great American director worked under the influence of F.W. Murnau; from the German émigré he learned how Expressionist lighting and a moving camera could be used to show sweethearts uniting against a dangerous encroaching outer world. Storm unfolds in Nazi Germany, where “non-Aryan” Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) proclaims the value of personal freedom as his grown children choose their paths. His two sons become National Socialists while his daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan) and her darling Martin Breitner (James Stewart) follow him in resisting the Party. Storm’s release led to all MGM films being banned in Germany, with good reason. The film’s chief villain is Fascism, to be defeated by love. Aaron Cutler (Apr 20-21 at MoMA, part of its The Weimar Touch)

03/13/13 4:00am

M (1931)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Opens March 15 at Film Forum for two weeks

This doesn’t hold up as a so-called thriller, contrary to received wisdom—it feels old and clunky next to sleek machines like the director’s own 1959 Hollywood nasty The Big Heat, or even 2009’s Orphan. But it’s not just great “for its time,” because its achievements transcend its innovations, which include genre-fying the police procedural and adapting to film the Wagnerian trope wherein a character is identified by a specific song (Lang as Peter Lorre whistling Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”).

Eight years before his Fury, Lang, with wife and screenwriter Theo von Harbou, identified the dangerous and depressing aspects of frenzied public consensus, personifying its victim as a seeming perpetrator—a pathological child murderer named Hans Beckert. This almost unprecedented empathy is its boldest legacy. Lorre was so good as Hans that once in Hollywood, after fleeing the Nazis, he never shook the persona of a shifty and alien villain. Massaging his jellied face and bugging out his incomparable eyes, Lorre was, per Lang, playing against the type of the emaciated psychopath, embodying what David Thomson called his “stricken childishness.”

Because while at large Hans brings scrutiny on the underworld, the crime world wants him caught even more than the police do, and Lang relishes cross-cutting between cops and criminals to emphasize ironically their similarity. As “The Safecracker,” in ankle-length leather jacket, Gustaf Gründgens is effectively malevolent, and the actor would go on to enjoy success during the Nazi era. Along with Lorre and Otto Wernicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann, Gründgens contributes to the posterity of great German acting that might also be M‘s greatest legacy.

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03/06/13 4:00am

The Girl from Nowhere
Directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau
March 10 at Lincoln Center, part of its Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Quiet, small and mostly sexless, this isn’t at all what you’d expect from France’s horniest director. Brisseau’s last three films—especially 2002’s scandalous Secret Things—were extravagant, rococo productions full of model-hot women in variedly orgiastic situations. All balanced the tits with articulation and high-culture-minded (detractors would say “pretentious”) ambitions, reflecting the full unrepressed range of the writer-director’s preoccupations. The Girl from Nowhere (whose five-figure budget is a fraction of its predecessors’) retains the philosophizing, but its libido is restrained, making time only for one scene of hallucinated girl-on-girl groping.

The man himself plays Michel, a retired math teacher who one day finds a girl, Dora (Virginie Legeay), being beaten in his Paris apartment-building’s stairwell and decides to take her in. He’s writing a book, and this ethereal, stubborn homeless woman becomes his muse—and a void-filling presence for a man who “made solitude a companion” since the death of his wife decades ago. The bearish Michel seems honest when he tells his friend that his designs on Dora are innocent, but her arrival sparks a series of strange paranormal activities in the apartment that end up convincing Michel that she might be possessed of the spirit of his dead wife. (There’s even a trying-on-her-dresses montage, sans bouncy rom-com music.)

That Dora is less sexualized than the typical Brisseau female makes her no less of a male fantasy; her role here is as the attractive young waif who magically materializes to bring significance to an aging intellectual’s lonely twilight years. (That’s an observation, not a criticism.) Dora’s unreality, combined with Michel’s old age and jadedness, makes their relationship unrealistic in a way that’s in keeping with the movie’s fairy-tale feel. This is a ghost story, haunted by the dead and Michel’s awareness of his own dying artistic drive, which concerns him more than bodily death. It’s a horror movie, with one or two genuinely terrifying scares, and the terror is effective despite or because of how humdrum the video photography and the airy, sunlit apartment look. And it’s a personal movie: when an ex-pupil greets Michel on the street and thanks him for teaching her “so much about Psycho and John Ford!,” she implies that he wasted his talents teaching mainly math. It feels like Brisseau the filmmaker (and film studies teacher) is here also confessing a guilty feeling of something wasted.

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01/30/13 4:00am

The Fun Stuff
By James Wood

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The lighthearted cover and title of Wood’s latest collection suggest a self-conscious turnaround from its starkly jacketed, arrogantly named 2008 predecessor, How Fiction Works. And the opening title-piece is an homage not to one of the eminent literary critic’s writerly pet favorites but to Keith Moon, whose drumming, writes Wood, was entirely the improv between phrases—the fills, the fun stuff. All signs point to a midlife-crisis makeover for Wood, but despite the profanity and iffy attempts to recreate the excitement of The Who’s music, the essay is the collection’s humblest (“sometimes one despises oneself, in near middle age, for still being such a merely good student.”) Save one other, it’s also the only one not about literature, though even it finds space for Lawrence, Gogol and Georges Bataille.

The title and opening piece might lead you to expect only positive essays on Wood’s cherished books, but the majority of the book is the writer’s usual balance of pro and paternalistic con, examined with stylistic criticism at the micro level while shunning literary theory, which is what he’s known for. The essays—first published in
The New Yorker, The London Review of Books and The New Republic—include a championing of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland that doubles as another of Wood’s confrontations with Zadie Smith, and an unabashed slobbering over the novelist Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home), which, by the end, finds Wood giving up: “it is all the critic can do not to catch from it, as in this review, the contagion of ceaseless quotation, a fond mumbling.”

Those “ceaseless quotations” are a Wood trademark, and in a long, excellent essay on the great man of letters (and New Yorker book critic) Edmund Wilson, Wood criticizes his forerunner’s preference for the alternative of paraphrase, which he feels Wilson used to squish and flatten works to fill his own calcified personal tastes. (Wood is quick to praise Wilson’s well-readness and brilliance with historic-biographical portraiture.) Wood’s criticisms of Wilson’s stodginess (impatience with the “ironies and veils” of modern lit) echo those often leveled against himself, which are rebutted less by the “rockin’” Keith Moon detour than by fresh, incisive pieces like a funny and acidic takedown of Paul Auster’s “shallowness” and by fine passages like this, from an intelligently prevaricating deconstruction of Orwell: “it is easy to gloat over Orwell’s contradictions… contradictions are what make writers interesting; consistency is for cooking.”

12/12/12 4:00am

Capone (1975)
Directed by Steve Carver
December 16 at Anthology Film Archives, part of its Ben Gazzara retrospective

With 57 IMDB credits, the character “Al Capone” is one of film and television’s most recyclable, most recently seen in Boardwalk Empire, played by the talented Stephen Graham, who also squeezed tommy gun triggers as Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies. Lacking the blocky-butch gravitas of previous inhabitors like Paul Muni (unofficial Capone riff Scarface), Rod Steiger (Al Capone) and Neville Brand (The Untouchables TV series and The George Raft Story), the late Ben Gazzara makes up the physical difference with theatrical exaggeration and cotton wads stuffed into his scarred cheeks in this 1975 crack at the life of America’s most notorious career criminal. Like all of director Carver’s early films, it was produced by Roger Corman, who himself directed 1967’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which Jason Robards was Al. Typical of Corman’s shoestring budgets, the chintzy Chicago sets of that earlier film were reportedly reused here, robbing Carver’s movie of any sense of urban authenticity.

Though it might also have been true of Capone the life, Capone the movie is leadenly repetitive: the first half is made up of different variations of racketeer mentor Johnny Torio (Harry Guardino) pleading with the fiery “Alphonse” to simmer down, the second half a succession of shootouts. That said, Howard Browne’s funny, crass screenplay is consistently amusing (lots of talk of “turlets” and people having “shit for blood”), as is feral-eyed Gazzara who, like Steiger, seems intent on deglamorizing the mobster. This is especially so in the last scene, as a post-Alcatraz, syphilitic Capone raves by his Palm Island pool about “fucking Bolsheviks!” For a bonus, Gazzara chum John Cassavetes drops by as Brooklyn gangster legend Frankie Yale—and kills it.

11/28/12 4:00am

Raw Meat (1973)
Directed by Gary Sherman
November 28 at 92YTribeca

In Victorian England, as a detective here tells it, there was a cave-in underneath the British Museum that trapped several humans working to finish the London Underground. The bottom-liners in charge chose to just leave them buried and presumed dead. But they didn’t all die—by cannibalizing each other, and then moving on to stragglers pinched from Russell Square and other platforms, some of the race lived until the film’s present day (the early 1970s). It’s a fine monster-movie shock-em setup, but the conceit is also loaded with social commentary, the forgotten cavepeople in their private underground hellscape standing in for the exploited, neglected proletariat who form the foundation that makes aboveground life and corruption possible.

We enter the story through young couple Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (the sexily snaggletoothed Sharon Gurney). He’s a callous American; approaching an unconscious OBE Officer on the subway steps, she’s concerned, while he says “in New York, you walk over these guys.” Both will end up tangling with the abscess-ridden “Man” down below, who we learn is something of sentimental old fluff when he moans over the death of his pregnant captive wife and adorns her with knickknacks swiped from victims (the first of many “wives” he’s lost). It’s telling that these serial killings aren’t investigated until a Man of Import falls victim.

Robin Wood was not wrong when he raved about Raw Meat (he’d seen the slightly different earlier cut called Death Line in England) in the Voice in 1973, seeing it as significantly more than a cannibalism frightmare. American and first-time feature director Gary Sherman’s sense of atmosphere is virtuosic, as it would be in 1982’s Los Angeles street-sleaze minor classic Vice Squad, especially in this film’s omniscient unbroken take that first reveals the gory but strangely cozy underground lair. The film is also hilarious, as written by Sherman and Ceri Jones (the latter’s only screenplay), and performed by Donald Pleasence as lead Inspector Calhoun. The masterful turn came just one year after his tour-de-force in Wake in Fright. The more Pleasence performances I see, the more I realize what a unique and cunningly gifted artist he was. Fussily wiping his nose with a large handkerchief, arriving at work hungover and wisecracking, charmingly half-scrupulous, Pleasance’s Calhoun is the prize of the picture.

09/26/12 4:00am

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
Sunday, September 30, at the Museum of the Moving Image, part of its Hoberman-curated Film After Film series

Whatever vogue Tsai Ming-liang enjoyed at the turn of the millennium may have faded, but the power and relevancy of this, one of his best and most popular pictures, have not faded. The director’s epically long takes with zero movement—not a style he invented but one he made his own through exaggeration—have since been echoed in certain quadrants of the New Romanian Cinema and cheapened by hollow British hack Steve McQueen, but they remain mesmerizing in his hands, and his care for composition (with cinematographer Pen-jung Liao) is matchless among his extended-take contemporaries.

If 2001’s What Time Is It There? is Tsai’s Truffaut film, this is his Tati film, each scene a drawn-out set piece leaning more toward either tragedy or comedy. The setting is always somewhere in or around the giant Fu-Ho Grand movie theater in Taipei, once proud and flourishing and now on the brink of “temporary” closing, during the last 80-something minutes of a screening of King Hu’s 1967 swords-and-eunuchs wuxia film, Dragon Inn. The “laughs”, as in Tati, are slow-burning, and revolve around one male patron (Kiyonobu Mitamura) who can’t seem to concentrate on the movie for the loud sucking and crunching eating sounds the oblivious patrons make around him (though it turns out he’s there mostly to cruise). Meanwhile, a dead-legged ticket seller (Chen Shiang-chyi)’s longing for the projectionist is less sweaty, and not farcically lightened.

A rapt child viewer and two old men, played by actual King Hu vets, in the audience are Tsai’s effective shortcut to full-circle, multi-generational poignancy. In one of the film’s dozen or so lines of dialogue, one of the elders laments that “no one goes to the movies anymore”, while a five-minute take of the desolate empty theater, post-showing, unsubtly underlines the feeling of something lost. A lovely 60s Cantonese pop song injects unexpected warmth at the end, but there’s irony there, too—onscreen, the box office girl is hobbling home, alone, in the rain.

09/05/12 4:00am

Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
September 9, 12 and 16 at Anthology Film Archives in 35mm, part of “From the Pen Of…

Sturdy journeyman Dmytryk does the best he can with some fairly cheap material—though I haven’t read the Nelson Algren source novel, I’d guess that most of the flaws reside therein. The story of a New Orleans brothel, and the romantic melodrama between Texan drifters passing through (Laurence Harvey) and those ensnared by its vice (Jane Fonda, French model-actress Capucine) stinks of trying-too-hard Southern social realism. It comes across phony. Even the character names (Dove Linkhorn, Kitty Twist, Miss Precious) overreach. Attempting to cross-pollinate Tennessee Williams with Carson McCullers, Dmytryk and company create an unsatisfying, neutered facsimile. At least it doesn’t reach for Gone With the Wind bigness—the director had already tried that five years prior with Raintree County. Other close cousins from the era include Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer and John Huston’s dull McCullers adaptation Reflections in a Golden Eye.

There was no lack of talent in the kitchen. Among the writers who reworked the Algren novel (adding then-groundbreaking lesbianism to the mix in the form of brittle house madam Barbara Stanwyck, looking Margaret Thatcher-ish) were the legendary novelist John Fante (Ask the Dust) and an uncredited Ben Hecht. But Harvey and Fonda’s attempts to play poor are unconvincing. Fonda looks amazing, but her dialogue (much of which she reportedly added herself) is some of the phoniest in the film. Harvey and Capucine hated each other on set, and it’s palpable, no matter how much his Dove clings to a vanished vision of his fallen angel, the woman he calls his “religion”.

Walk on the Wild Side is still of interest, and its bleakness is surprising. Capucine’s Hallie must be one of the most depressed romantic leads in history, and the ending is brutally downbeat. Stanwyck’s Jo has fun, sinister chemistry with her psychopathic hired muscle Oliver (a cheerless and scary Richard Rust). Elmer Bernstein’s score, including the famous title song, is bluesy and beautiful. But the highlights are Saul Bass’s surreal, sorta-sexy opening and closing credits sequences, which follow a black tomcat (camera down low) as it slinks through New Orleans streets, and gets into a violent cat-scuffle with a white-furred rival.