05/06/15 11:30am
photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Saint Laurent
Directed by Bertrand Bonello
Opens May 8

For the vast majority of people who don’t give a shit about fashion, it’s easy to assume that Saint Laurent is a tedious hagiography about an intentionally vapid, disposable industry. Yet Bertrand Bonello’s film shares more DNA with Olivier Assayas’s Carlos than the September Issue (magazine or documentary), and prioritizes action, energy, and form over lengthy explications of history or psychology. This approach—in addition to being the exact opposite of 99% of all biopics—allows the latter elements to be explained by the former, and creates a multifaceted, artful portrait that can be enjoyed without previous knowledge of or vested interest in its subject.

Chronology thrown out the window, events from the French designer’s life shift around like Mondrian’s contrapuntal and abstract color tiles. The film begins with a giant “1976” imposed onto the frame as Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) checks himself into a hotel under an assumed name (Monsieur Swann, a nod to Proust). With the Eiffel Tower looming in the foreground, he begins a frank telephone interview with a journalist about his mental health, military service, and addictions; with a cut, Yves lies unconscious in a dusty pit. After the opening titles, we’re transported back to “1967” and the clean space of his Paris atelier, where dozens of women in white lab coats dash about measuring models and almost come to tears over failed stitch work. These opposing years are also opposing sides of a single creative talent: the collected, driven, detail-oriented Yves of 1967, and the cracked, insecure Yves who’s about to release the 1976 Fall/Winter “Russian collection.” This type of collision—which hits at the emotional reality that two different things can be true at the same time—is further complicated later in the film when we’re given glimpses of the designer as a despairing, senile old man undisclosed years later.

While there is a killer soundtrack for all the awesome, scary 1970s partying that goes on (in one scene, the sound of Vietnam War helicopters bleeds into a coked-up sex soiree at Karl Lagerfeld’s boy-toy’s pad), the film also works to undermine the “singular genius” understanding of history. Most of the actual work of fashion is shown being done by Yves’s inner circle of assistants, seamstresses, and his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier), who has to keep cranky American stockholders at bay, continually expand the YSL empire, and oversee quality control. The flowing garments of the Russian collection, the film’s visually spectacular climax, are realized entirely from Yves’s sketches while he convalesces in a hospital; he appears backstage shortly before its premiere, doing a cursory inspection of models and then taking a bow on the catwalk. Whereas a lesser film might suggest this is Yves Saint Laurent’s crowning achievement, Bonello suggests it’s really the house of YSL. This formulation—“vision + divided labor + industry = art”—connects fashion to filmmaking as much as painting. Even stalwart Old Navy shoppers will have difficulty restraining themselves from standing and applauding at this group triumph.

01/28/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

Hard to Be a God
Directed by Aleksei Guerman
January 30-February 8 at Anthology Film Archives
In Sedmoy Sputnik (1968), Aleksei Guerman’s first (co-directed) feature, two former members of the Tsar’s army imprisoned by the Bolsheviks discuss Tolstoy on the occasion of his birth. One murmurs, “Russia’s great writer.” “What’s that?” the other ruefully asks. “Another century… another planet.” Although Guerman, who died in 2013, would later disown it for being trite propaganda, many elements of Sedmoy Sputnik are oddly echoed his final film, a cannily warped adaptation of a Strugatsky Brothers short story, just now being released here. Hard to Be a God begins in medias res, a voiceover explaining how a group of scientists discovered the planet Arkanar, an identical copy of Earth where the Renaissance never happened: All of the intellectuals, artists, and skilled craftsmen are being systematically killed off. (In an early scene, a wise man is lowered headfirst into a public toilet.) The ever-present protagonist—only known by his pseudonym, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik)—traveled to the planet to observe and not interfere with society’s development, and lives as a nobleman descended from divinity.

12/03/14 5:00am
Photo courtesy of Wrekin Hill Entertainment


Miss Julie
Directed by Liv Ullmann
Opens December 5 at the Landmark Sunshine

Let’s be clear for the uninitiated: Miss Julie’s acid dialogue and sardonic twists burn down to the bone of costume drama’s fattened arm, its darkness closer to original-series Upstairs Downstairs than to polished one-percenter porno Downton Abbey. Adapting Strindberg’s classic naturalist play, Liv Ulmann transposes the Swedish setting to rural Northern Ireland: amidst the bacchanalia of midsummer’s eve, the baron’s daughter Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) aggressively flirts with her father’s handsome valet Jean (Colin Farrell); initially resistant, Jean escalates these exchanges, and their mutual transgression blurs the boundaries between master and servant. The “perverseness” of this act is underscored not only by their subsequent cruelty towards each other, but by Jean’s pious fiancée Christine (Samantha Morton), who is repeatedly told to go to bed (like a good little doggie) or locked away in a room while overhearing everything. (She eventually gets out and gives them both a stern but futile talking to.)


06/04/14 4:00am

Obvious Child
Directed by Gillian Robespierre

Earlier this year, San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film released its annual “Celluloid Ceiling” study, which revealed that the number of women working in key behind-the-scenes roles had fallen to a mere 16 percent, less than in 1998. Although CSWTF’s sample is the 250 top-grossing domestic films of the previous year, the absence of women above and below the line is a problem that’s endemic to the medium: 15 out of the 49 films at Cannes this year were directed by women, and, despite all the thinkpieces Girls generates, a similarly paltry number of women are working on indie productions, evinced by any number of year’s best lists—or by doing a headcount while walking past a street shoot.

These numbers are easy to gloss over, and just as easily copy/pasted into a series of tweets that bolster your “callout queen” brand. A more concrete solution beyond raising awareness would likely involve financial incentives, but so would an increase in films that are actually representative of women’s experiences. (The pervading notion that only men go to see movies is perpetuated by movies geared toward men, while the content of romantic comedies are infrequently emotionally truthful or funny.) Obvious Child, which has the dubious honor of being the world’s first “abortion comedy,” dismantles the usual dynamics of women onscreen as well as pervading myths about unwanted pregnancy. Donna (Jenny Slate) is a stand-up who has a regular open mic and not much else—so when she gets laid off and finds out her boyfriend has been cheating on her, she goes into a tailspin that involves a lot of drinking (but only one one-night stand). When she finds out that she’s pregnant, there’s no question what she has to do—there’s no Juno or Knocked Up fantasy of “pulling up your bootstraps” and becoming a suitable parent. Instead, much of her agonizing comes from how to tell different people in her life about her decision, including her fratty “sperm donor.”

Aside from the fact that abortion is rarely presented as even an option in popular film, when it is present, the actual procedure is often punctuated by the death of the mother (for pure dramatic effect). Abortion is therefore always tragedy, never relief—an implicit moral judgment. The humor in Obvious Child never trivializes its characters’ feelings, but instead provides a balance (as once character notes, there are much worse things happening in the world) and the ability to explore more nuanced emotional situations. One of the most genuinely moving moments is between Donna and her mother (Polly Draper)—a rarity for films about aimless Brooklyn twentysomethings. Further, the humor allows a character who would be otherwise the sexless, harmless “sassy best friend” instead to be the leading lady: she’s genuinely funny and (most amazing of all) guys are attracted to her because of it. (And, as that last bit might hint at, Obvious Child has actual men, not overgrown man children, in it.) Here’s to the end of four hour waits at Planned Parenthood, shitty rom-coms, and no women behind the camera.

Opens June 6

06/04/14 4:00am

Obvious Child, which opens on June 6, stars Jenny Slate as Donna, an aspiring standup who quickly finds herself single, broke and with child. We talked with director Gillian Robespierre, who lives in Greenpoint.

This was originally a short film. What made you decide to make it into a feature, and how did you go about it?
It was kind of seamless. We had an urgent desire to tell this story in this way, so when publications like Bust and Jezebel and Feministing started writing articles about it, and putting the Vimeo link in those articles, it just got bigger and bigger. I would read through the comments and get really excited about the conversations that these men and women—mostly women, but there were dudes there, too—were having, and it was really encouraging. And it inspired me to make it a bigger thing because not too many people really watch shorts.

All of the actors in the film have a really great rapport. Was it mostly improvised, or did you do a lot of rehearsals?
I think it’s really flattering when people ask, because it says a lot about the actors, who are taking words and making them seem natural. There was a script, including Donna’s standup, but the way those scenes were done was a lot looser. I did not make Jenny stay on point—I’m not a standup, I’m just a fan, and I have been since I was little because my parents were. I’m just someone who studies it from the peripheral. Jenny knew the beats she had to hit and the places she had to go, and she really went there on her own. Some of it was taken from the page, and some of it was taken from being in the moment, which is why you feel like you’re really in a comedy club, watching somebody perform rather than an actor saying lines they’ve said 45 times in a row. I would love to give a shout out to Casey Brooks, the editor of Obvious Child, because we had a lot of options for the standup, and for the whole film really, and he helped us make it work.

She’s also good at faltering onstage: when she messes up a joke, it seems painfully real. This is a film about many different women’s real-life experiences. Can you talk about how you approached Donna’s character?
We approached all of the characters and their backstories—and “future stories”—as straightforwardly as possible. There’s no reason for us to explain when or why Gabe Liebeman’s character came out of the closet. It’s just a slice of life in Donna’s world. There’s no fat to the story—we just wanted the audience to be a fly on the wall of this woman’s life and be entertained by it and not worry about all the sort of setups that tend to be kind of boring.

Everything is just a given: even though she’s aimless or struggling in certain ways, she has a great rapport with her parents.
Yeah, I like that—it’s just a given.

05/07/14 4:00am

Accept a basic truth: cities change, for that is their nature. So while you may love or hate the fact that CBGB is now a multivenue corporate music festival (which is certainly an upgrade from its stretch as a shitty photo gallery/perfumery), you can’t deny it no less accurately fits the times than it did during its grimy heyday. The Bowery itself—the street and the neighborhood—is among the oldest and most important geographical features of Manhattan. Originally a Lenape footpath that spanned the island north to south, the Dutch built their farms (“Bouwerij”) around it. As the colony grew, was taken over by the British, and then became America proper, the Bowery boasted stately homes, which in turn gave way to music halls, beer gardens, and whorehouses in the early- to mid-1800s. This bustling hotspot was frequented by single, middle class men—dubbed the Bowery Boys, or simply B’hoys—who dressed as dandies but were (arguably) kind of punk for being into unwholesome entertainments. The top-hatted B’hoy was a regular comic figure in plays across the country in the 1840s, though in the 1850s the real-life, pugilistic version—the gang cum political machine called The Bowery Boys—came into power, brawling with the Five Points’ Dead Rabbits.

This “ghoul gang”-riddled milieu is where most film depictions of the Bowery begin. Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration, one of the first feature-length gangster films, sketches the life of Owen (Rockliffe Fellowes), an Irish-American gang leader who is moved to renounce his life of crime after meeting a beautiful upper-class reformer. Fellowes, who looks like an off-model Marlon Brando, is shown at one point sipping a beer while watching a vaudeville performance, which is then superimposed with an image of himself as a child greedily licking an ice cream cone. This quite literal assertion that the men of the Bowery really aren’t men at all echoes throughout many of the films in Anthology’s series From Mae West to Punk: The Bowery on Film (May 16-19), be it in the childish, brazenly racist antics of Chuck Connors in The Bowery, Mae West’s pathological search for someone to pleasure her in She Done Him Wrong, or the patronizing voiceovers about alcoholics in The Street of Forgotten Men and The Naked City episode “Goodbye My Lady Love.”

Though the Bowery’s status as “the saddest and the maddest street in the world” persisted through most of the 20th century, Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking On the Bowery sought to humanize its residents—and, in turn, revolutionize cinema. Half-documentary, half-improvised fiction with actual (semi) homeless men and women, Rogosin’s film shows their rhythms, conversations, varying morals, and faces, a work that’s unburdened by didacticism or a three-act structure. While many pining for the New York of the past feel that an essential component was vice and human misery (as does Scott Elliot’s Slumming It: Myth and Culture on the Bowery), another, more reasonable perspective on our current state of hyper-gentrification comes from Jen Senko and Fiore DeRosa’s The Vanishing City, which clearly lays out the tax loopholes and leadership that seek to luxury brand out the poor and middle class. Though all the films in this series are engaging and historically relevant, The Vanishing City, screening May 18, should be seen by all New York residents before it’s too late.

01/15/14 4:00am

Directed by Sebastián Leilo

The conceit isn’t unlike a mumblecore movie’s: a woman who wears vintage 80s frames and works a crappy office job faces an existential crisis, which she tries to work through with dancing and some casual sex. But the pivotal difference is that the titular Gloria is a middle-aged, divorced mother of two adult children—someone who’s done a lot more living and has a lot more to lose than a twentysomething. (She does however empathize with the struggles of Chile’s youth, and several street scenes include students protesting economic equality.) Eschewing the “wacky old people” clichés of the The Bucket List or Tough Guys, the story achieves lightness and believability in its many small details—checking how much hair she got on her hot-wax strip before a date, softly singing pop songs to herself in the car, smoking a cigarette after yoga class—which are given as much weight as the more dramatic scenes with her family or boyfriend, Rodolfo. This balance also subtly conveys the realities of someone who lives alone, a fact that is usually either screamed or omitted in cinematic depictions of the elderly.

As is true of any character study, much of Gloria’s naturalism is attributable to the cast, here in terms of both performance and dialogue, which they improvised and reworked during rehearsals. But what truly makes the film riveting is Paulina García’s performance as the title character—and she appears in nearly every shot. With a wide, truly contagious smile, García exudes a lived-in confidence and control with every movement. Undoubtedly the most memorable scene of the film comes when Rodolfo, an Irish goodbye-prone sexagenarian who’s still very much stuck in the past, wants to abandon a romantic weekend after his ex-wife gets into an accident. The intensity with which García walks to the door as if to leave in frustration, then turns around and disrobes (revealing a perfectly manicured strip of pubic hair) is truly electric. You can keep your foul-mouthed Betty White—this is what the Red Hat Society should be toasting.

Opens January 24

01/01/14 4:00am

Beyond Outrage
Directed by Takeshi Kitano

When an artist is talented enough, sometimes “selling out” yields a vibrant departure rather than a calculated product. Cases in point: David Cronenberg’s History of Violence, David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express, or Takeshi Kitano’s 2010 film Outrage, an inventively gory, labyrinthine tale of deceit within yakuza families. But that cash-grab has now begat Beyond Outrage, another cash-grab that unfortunately wears its cheapness on its sleeve. Using the final betrayal in Outrage as a stepping-off point (the murder of the Sanno family’s chairman by his underboss), the sequel focuses primarily on the clan’s internal politics, namely rewarding the highest earners, regardless of age, instead of following traditional yakuza codes of honor and respect. However, this intergenerational conflict is played out in scene after scene of rather dull conversations, spat out in an almost identical macho cadence. In many ways, this is the yakuza version of Downton Abbey: two characters talk about their situation, followed by another two (or three) characters talking about their situation, the cycle only broken up by glossy exterior shots. As such, either is only appealing to diehard fans of Japanese crime syndicates or prewar English aristocratic life, and are likely equally unrealistic.

While Outrage’s lack of comedic digressions made it stand out from Kitano’s previous work (such as the existentially brilliant Sonatine), Beyond Outrage feels heavy due to a serious lack of variety in setting, character, or tone, in and of itself or in relation to its predecessor. For the first third of the film, the only person moving the plot forward is Detective Karaota (Fumiyo Kohinata), a corrupt cop trying to push the families to all-out war; when the story shifts to reluctant-to-return-to-the-game Otomo (Kitano) and Kimura (Hideo Nakano), the pace and unsurprising turn of events (i.e.: the domino effect) remain the same, regardless of how many digits get unnecessarily chopped off. Even the deliciously malicious Ishihara (Ryo Kase)—the dark-glasses wearing, English-fluent gangster who repeatedly manipulated an African diplomat to great dark comedic effect in Outrage, stealing the show from Kitano—seems diminished in badness, reduced to barking orders to his subordinates. Here’s hoping that Kitano uses the money from this to return to his roots—or do a radical shoujo adaptation.

Opens January 3

09/25/13 4:00am

Don Jon
Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

In terms of disposable, enjoyable entertainment, you could do much worse than this. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as an online porn addict/conflicted Roman Catholic from Joisey who gives up digits-hunting in nightclubs for a “10” in the shape of Scarlett Johanssen. However, he soon discovers the real downside to monogamy isn’t having sex with one person—it’s putting up with them when they don’t leave in the morning. With her relationship expectations twisted by syrupy Hollywood romcoms, Barbara (ScarJo) is disgusted by pornography and insists that Jon (JoGoLev) only “not lie” to her, despite actually wanting his soul. Jon, similarly warped (just by years of silicone tits and randy babysitters), is disappointed to discover his ideal woman isn’t a perfect BJ-giving machine, and, after swearing that he’s the one man on earth who doesn’t look at pornography, he covertly gets his smut fix on his phone. (You can guess how long this lasts.)

the accents are wonky, some of the subtext gets spelled-out in the dialogue, and the social and media critique is rail-thin, there’s still plenty of truth and humor to be found in the movie’s portrayal of hookup culture. Jon, Barbara, and their circle of Skrillex-loving friends may be one-dimensional Jersey Shore extras, but they aren’t presented as inferior, morally bankrupt idiots either. Blessedly, the film goes very light on the requisite third-act maturation-redemption, not overstating the importance of an older woman (Julianne Moore) who teaches him that what’s sexy rarely has anything to do with actual sexuality.

As a director, Gordon-Levitt is infatuated with breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect with extreme close-ups, overtly stagey lighting, and sub-Pino Donaggio musical cues. (The film-within-the-film, a dopey rom-com starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway, is undoubtedly Don Jon‘s crowning achievement.) His quieter naturalistic moments, such as a verité sequence in Washington Square Park during magic hour, are no more visually remarkable than something you’d see in a credit card commercial, but they still land better than the work of most other stars-turned-writer/directors. Unlike Ben Affleck directing himself in Argo, he doesn’t include a shot of his abs. 

Opens September 27

07/03/12 4:00am

The Amazing Spider-Man
Directed by Marc Webb

Everyone loves an origin story. And some such stories are so familiar and sacred—be it the nativity and passion plays or Superman’s life in Smallville and the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents—that their repeated retellings, aside from being acts of devotion, allow the faithful to focus on the differences between the original and new versions. (While this may seem like borderline blasphemy, Stan Lee was really onto something when he referred to his readers as “True Believers.”) Each offering is potentially a delightful affirmation or a profane bungling, though even the most “perfect” retellings have moments that fail.

I belabor this point because, when the announcement was made that they were “rebooting” the Spider-Man franchise after an unbelievably bad third installment (see also Batman & Robin in 1997, and Batman Begins eight years later), I wasn’t terribly surprised—if even non-nerds got that upset, it had clearly hit epic status. Until ten years ago, Spider-Man (and his origin) wasn’t nearly as well known as the aforementioned capes. Speaking as someone who grew up a comic book fan, the difference before and after Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man was striking: chumps who’d easily derided “that shit” for “being gay” previously now proudly wore Spider-Man Under Armour shirts; girls who listened to Moz idolized Peter Parker, the emo hero. It inaugurated this century’s endless onslaught of superhero movies, proving that they really could be for everybody.

With a terrible script that contains very little of Peter’s trademark humor, this tedious reimagining is undoubtedly for the fan class of 2002. He’s persecuted being a nerd as Peter Parker, he gets bitten, gets persecuted for being a vigilante as Spider-Man, the whole city of New York rallies to help him defeat a mad scientist/giant lizard. In between, he kisses a doe-eyed Emma Stone and tries to avoid Aunt May’s persistent ball-breaking.

Most of the new variations seek to downplay Spider-Man’s eccentric origin—what makes him charming and unique—and align it with what an action movie “should” be like. In an over-long sequence on the Williamsburg Bridge, Spider-Man saves a small child from a burning minivan with dialogue so ickily touchy-feely that Mother Teresa would cringe; Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard, a classic villain from the comic, is British in the movie because… the accent carries natural, evil gravitas? Even the more inventive alterations to the original story ultimately lead nowhere revelatory: instead of delivering the classic “with great power comes great responsibility,” Uncle Ben leaves Peter a long-winded voicemail; Gwen Stacy is swapped out for Mary Jane as love interest, but Gwen’s character is so underdeveloped that it doesn’t matter; Spider-Man takes his mask off to win over a police captain who formerly wanted him shot on sight—and the captain is immediately won over.

Apparently, only heroes who are in The Avengers get decent writers. The plot holes are numerous, my favorite being the question of how the one-armed Doctor Curt Connors managed to move his entire lab down into a sewer. Or power it. (Also: after transforming into The Lizard, he can summon fellow reptiles a la Aqua Man… though he never has them do anything. Are they his new interns?) All that said, however, Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spiderman gives an impressive performance. With great lightness, his small gestures and subtle verbal tics he create an authentic teenage presence that you want to be around—even some of the jokes seem slightly less flat. Truly, what he did was so little was amazing. Can someone call George Lucas and get him digitally inserted into the original trilogy? That pudding-faced turd Tobey Maguire never did it for me.

Opens July 3