04/25/12 4:00am

Whores’ Glory
Directed by Michael Glawogger

Opens April 27

Like starring in a feature film, the world’s oldest profession involves more waiting around in costume than actually performing. How this waiting takes place—behind glass with numbers pinned to clothes, on a drab bed in a barely lit room, or in a doorway on a chilly night—economically details the similarities and differences between the trade as practiced in Bangkok, India and Mexico.

Or at least that’s the winking one-liner that can be taken away from a viewing of Whores’ Glory. Staunchly adhering to direct cinema’s credo of showing and not telling, the cameraperson doesn’t even cast a shadow on Michael Glawogger’s matter-of-fact glimpse at How Things Really Are. Aside from the title, there is no evidence of any larger argument or editorializing; “good,” “bad,” “funny” (hands-down winner: the “fake fuck” as explained by a retired Mexican hooker) and “slightly terrifying” moments are tightly stitched together.

Yet where some will seek out and find intimacy in Glawogger’s tactics, others may simply feel like voyeurs. Various working girls have their stories half-told in medias res, complaining about boyfriends, bills, or each other. Certainly, this level of access reflects Glawogger’s three years of immersion in the daily realities and rhythms of his subjects. There’s only one scene of a john getting serviced, but whether or not this had to do with censorship (or possibly propriety—the Indian whores are trained to refuse to give blowjobs absolutely) is unclear. Regardless, it’s unfortunate. There’s something to be said for the roughness and uneasiness of onscreen, unstaged sex; when Glawogger follows two Thai prostitutes to an open-air market where they talk about shirts, it’s an irrelevant bit of “Whores! They’re just like us!” equivalence, more surface fluff than authentic understanding of who these women are.

This is not to say that the film isn’t a masterful piece of documentary filmmaking; in fact, given the legacy of European men pointing cameras at little brown women, Glawogger does a good job of avoiding oversimplifications, exoticism, or pity. But for a film with such fraught subject matter, Whores’ Glory feels ultimately empty. Whether or not that’s the ultimate comment on these lives is unclear.

04/18/12 4:00am

The Moth Diaries
Directed by Mary Harron

Bereft of suspense, character development, or actual scary shit, American Psycho director Mary Harron’s latest is unfortunately a middling J-horror outing. Eschewing the unreliable narration (and by extension, nearly all the ambiguity) of Rachel Klein’s source novel, the film is ruled by a petty, dull paranoia. After her poet father commits suicide, 16-year-old Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is sent to Brangwyn Hall, a haven for sylphen sapphic rich girls. But since everyone at Brangwyn’s got their own sad story, easy access to some pot, and their own clique, life is good for Rebecca and her bestie Lucy (Sarah Gadon)- —until new girl Ernessa (Lily Cole, the most interesting face in film since Dietrich) shows up. Some weird stuff happens-—fetid smells, girls walking around gardens in bare feet in floor-length nightgowns, nosebleeds, exchanges of blank stares-—but never really goes beyond what a thousand other gothic horrors have done before before. There’s little point revealing the secrets of Ernessa’s past since it is obvious that from the moment she walks onscreen she has one; rest assured, it is suitably silly for the genre.

However, there are elements of verisimilitude amidst the gothic hollowness. The intensity and fragility of teenage girl friendships is agonizingly authentic, as is the feeling of being left behind as friends move on (in this case, die) throughout high school, and the nuanced damned-if-you-do, damned-if-don’t implications of eating or not eating when surrounded by other teenage girls. Though I’m still waiting for Harron to return to the heights of I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho, The Moth Diaries transcends both films visually: expertly blocked, the action is rendered in dizzyingly perfect tones that beg to be watched, even if the story is negligible.

Opens April 20

03/15/12 4:00am

Casa de mi Padre
Directed by Matt Piedmont

Is it really possible to parody a genre already distinguished by its excessiveness? The Bond films so frequently go over the top, either with certain moments and characters (Max Zorin in View to a Kill) or for entire films (Moonraker), that things like Johnny English and Austin Powers seem redundant. Built on histrionic closeups and rib-jamming sight gags, these two spin-off franchises also suffer from being not very sustainably funny—like Casa de mi Padre, Will Ferrell and producer Adam McKay’s big screen telenovela parody.

That’s not to say that Casa doesn’t have its moments, but somehow the amount of time I spent laughing totaled less than the time I spend laughing during a Funny or Die short. It’s just not economical. Ferrell stars as the second-favorite son of a perpetually outraged Mexican rancher, whose brother (Diego Luna) brings home the drug war when he takes a hot bride and attempts to take over rival narco Onza’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) territory. (There’s also a negligible subplot involving scheming DEA agents, included for no other reason other than to put Nick Offerman, Parks and Rec‘s Ron Swanson, into a movie. His heavily accented Spanish is convincing enough to send you back to freshman year.) The perpetually smoking Luna and Garcia Bernal frequently transcend the limits of the roles they’ve been given, and it’s a shame that their performances are limited to focus on Ferrell’s now-standard swagger. Again, there’s not much depth that could (or should) be brought to these one-dimensional characters, but there’s a lot of mediocre filler here. The shot/reverse-shot drama has no punch; the bug-eyed gazes on real telenovelas are far superior and funnier even without subtitles.

So if it’s not funny, is this gringo-written and directed take on Mexico offensive? There’s singing, sexy maids, ostentatious crosses, Jarritos, and Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite—not progressive, but certainly not Lento Gonzalez. Like Napoleon Dynamite, Casa is anachronistic, at moments taking on aesthetic and technical elements of some late-70s/early-80s production despite being narratively grounded in the present day: all the animals are stuffed, the film breaks and warps at moments, Hot Wheels and poorly painted models are used for an exterior street shot. This is unfortunate, because even the most low-rent telenovelas now use bad CGI instead, and, speaking as someone who came of age along with this technology, poorly-rendered CGI is far funnier than any model. The end of Joe Black? All of Spawn? That form of self-important melodrama begs to be lampooned. Some pinche gueys purposely messing up continuity? That’s for old men.

Opens March 16

08/10/11 4:00am

The Help

Directed by Tate Taylor

There seems to be an inverse relationship between the giddiness of any movie trailer’s voiceover and the humor extant in the actual movie. Case in point: The Help, which, in addition to not eliciting any laughter, swerves into jolly, paternalistic racism. This is sort of a given, considering its premise: a plucky, college-educated Southern white lady gets a book deal by recording the stories of black maids in the early 1960s, specifically their feelings around raising white babies. (Spoiler alert: they love the babies.)

Emma Stone’s benevolent Miss Skeeter (who has some serious mommy issues, which serve as motivation for this project) assures the women that this is a public service. Yet despite the emphasis on the interviewees’ very credible fears of being lynched for airing their white employers’ dirty laundry, the stories told here are hardly shattering. Awareness about the deplorable conditions under which black southerners live won’t be achieved, apparently, by marching in the streets, boycotts, or legal action, but instead with a book of gossip that tears down other women. The snippets of stories shown are brief, told by a parlor of anonymous, interchangeable black women, in rapid succession. Of course, these ladies tell a few stories of “good whites,” but even the most degrading vignettes shy away from the level of actual racism at the time, which can be found on the pages of Ellison, Wright, or a dozen other black writers whose books haven’t been adapted for the Hollywood screen. Sexual abuse by employers? Who wants to hear about that?! Tell us about the time you made a chocolate pie with shit in it and watched your bitchy boss eat it. (Segregated bathrooms figure prominently into this story, so it’s not a total non-sequitur; just kind of childish and ineffective resistance.)

Director Tate Taylor spends most of the movie following Skeeter and her white friends’ standard-issue dysfunctional, upper-middle class lives, relegating the maids’ personal lives to a b-story. (Yes, the interiors and clothes are just fabulous! It’s like Almadovár directed an episode of Mad Men while on Xanax.) To Michelle Bachmann’s chagrin (and likely contrary her warped understanding of history),complete black families are noticeably absent, save for Minny, who fulfills the obligatory role of “the fat, sassy one” and gets routinely beaten by her off-screen husband. She finally finds the strength to leave him when her white employer cooks her an exceptional meal.

With a plodding pace and a nonexistent emotional core, this dull attempt to deal with a past wound instead does a disservice to it. There is racism in this film, so afraid to stray from stereotypes on both sides. This time and topic deserve complexity, and instead we get two factions of women—ones who work all day and then go home to care for their families and do housework, and ones who do charity work and must behave as passive trophies—bickering. The one thing this movie does have is a big, sassy black woman who shouts something sassy and then chomps a piece of fried chicken, which—oh, that’s been done before? Well never mind, then.

Opens August 10

06/22/11 4:00am

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Directed by Rodman Flender

Opens June 24

Despite the multimillion dollar contract buyout (and similar if significantly less sweet position landed a few months later), Conan O’Brien’s battle with his bosses seems uniquely resonant in our current financial moment. Though the majority of people outraged by NBC’s treatment probably couldn’t quote one of his jokes or cite a character that’s been on his show in the past five years, the betrayal felt universal. Thankfully, so does the pleasure to be had in this documentary.

Very little of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop‘s briskly paced 89 minutes dwells on his departure from the Tonight Show or the motivations behind the nationwide tour he launched immediately after, film crew in tow. It turns out the answer is in the title, but O’Brien’s compulsory need to create, perform and be funny rings true in the sweetest, most unpolluted sense. Be it in a room with his writers, demanding that everyone speak into a banana or have their comments ignored, or in some weird Midwestern concert hall in front of thousands, he brings the same blend of absurdist and incisive humor, all the while transmitting a great deal of kindness and intelligence.

Like in any good roadshow movie, there’s a lot of musical performances, and peeks behind the scenes with assistants, friends, fans, and fellow celebrities, hearkening back to verité classics like Gimme Shelter in self-contained snippets that beg to be shared with the uninitiated. (Though they’re far too numerous to mention, a particularly choice moment is when he plays “Dueling Banjos” while making fun of Jack McBrayer.) There are also frequent instances where the frustration and exhaustion of such a commitment becomes evident. But in an age where cynicism and puerile irony runs unchecked, it’s kind of beautiful to see someone love something so much he could do it until he drops dead.

06/17/11 4:18pm


On Saturday evening, 92YTribeca’s Overdue series presents a couple of music time capsules: the vintage concert film The Cure in Orange, and Belly, directed by Hype Williams.

In the late 90s, Saturday Night Live had a recurring sketch wherein Jim Breuer played a half-goat, half-human hybrid host of a fake MTV show called Hey, Remember the 80s?, which showcased has-been musical stars of that decade. Goat Boy’s appearances on the program were always marked by the Punch n’ Judy-style payoff of Goat Boy being tasered by scientists, and by his trademark way of bleating “ei-i-i-i-i-i-i-ghties” like a goat. Arguably, these predictable turns are what made the sketches work, but there was a second level of delight in seeing pop culture that wasn’t that old yet, but was somehow painfully dated. If you remember Goat Boy, or if you just want to remember the 90s, then Belly is worth (what I’m guessing a first) viewing.

Shot on glorious 35mm, Belly is the crowning achievement of the music video director who introduced us all to the shiny-suited rapper. Like some sort of hip-hop Ken Russell, Hype Williams glides his camera through New York, Omaha, Atlanta, and Kingston, Jamaica with juicy visual aplomb, following the criminal conquests and personal revelations of lifelong thugs and pals since childhood Tommy (DMX) and Sincere (Nas). Sincere thinks he’s had enough of the game; Tommy on the other hand devoutly espouses a blend of nihilism and consumerism belying his origins in the projects. Alerted to a new type of super-potent heroin by an MTV News report (read by the droopy Kurt Loder), Tommy expands into the midwestern drug racket, taking the obliging Sincere with him. But as is typical in cinematic tales of criminal swan songs, everything is going great until it isn’t: their self-destructive and selfish behavior catches up with them, spiraling out of control.

But you wouldn’t know how awful everything is from the visuals: nearly every scene (not location, scene) has its own mono- or dichromatic color scheme that fails to reflect anything except its own excess. Shirtless extras smeared with glitter and/or Vaseline strut and shake their asses slow-motion under blacklights with confidence for your pleasure. There’s an inverted Scarface assassination of a druglord, as carried out by a mute Jamaican dominatrix and her crew. There’s also a message of hope (however forced) in the dénouement. Yet somehow more engaging than all of these are the performances—each rapper seamlessly translates his style of rapping into his role, be it the aggressively bouncing DMX, authoritative Nas, or goofy yet deadly Method Man (who does a few Will Smith-inflected “ha-ha”s while infiltrating the whack Omahan syndicate who set up Tommy and Sincere). T-Boz of TLC also really delivers in her small but pivotal role, injecting some everyday feminine power into Belly’s world of overblown machismo. So put away your American Apparel short shorts and oversized tee and slip on your JNCO’s and different, more 90s oversized tee: Belly is very much worth the trip down memory lane.

06/08/11 4:00am

Viva Riva!
Directed by Djo Tunda Wa Munga

The fact that one of the most vivid, ambitious cinematic offerings of 2011 comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a country that never had an indigenous film industry and hasn’t had a movie theater in at least a dozen years––should inspire more filmmakers than any self-congratulatory tale that Tarantino or Rodriguez ever spun.

A viciously tragic spin on the traditional trickster narrative, writer-director-producer Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s Viva Riva! adopts Nollywood’s bombastic swagger and preoccupation with everyday problems from corruption to power outages, but without its typically slack acting or evangelical denouements. Riva (Patsha Bay) returns home to the DRC after ten years in Angola, pockets fat with cash he got from stealing a barge of crude in the midst of a nationwide fuel shortage. During his multi-evening homecoming party, he sets his sights on the one prize that could possibly top his last conquest: the impossibly sensual Nora (Manie Malone), kept woman of gangster kingpin Azor (Diplome Amekindra). But while Riva’s busy thinking with his dick, club-hoping and antagonizing Nora with his macho romantic overtures, a much more sinister threat to his livelihood is pursuing him: the mercurial Angolan gangster Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) and his cronies, who Riva ripped off. With the Commander, a blackmailed Congolese lesbian, as their guide, the gangsters mercilessly burn, beat and shotgun their way back to Cesar’s oil.

The ease with which brutality comes to most of the characters—with the notable exception of the Commander––speaks to the DRC’s continued reality of roving militias. During one interrogation, the owners of a roadside cafe turn up the radio as a trucker is beaten to death by Cesar’s men, but are still horrified by what they’re witnessing. Similarly, the freedom with which xenophobia flows cynically belies the myth of pan-Africanism: despite wearing a diamond-encrusted medallion in the shape of the continent, one of Cesar’s cronies routinely slurs the DRC, as does Cesar himself: “Your country is the worst shit pile I’ve ever seen. Maybe you should’ve stayed colonized.” (This comes after he’s been stripped and imprisoned in a flea-bitten cell by local police, simply for being Angolan.)

But as a counterpoint to all this violence is something rarely glimpsed in African film, past or present: sexuality. Bouncing waistbeads are unapologetically on display, shown without any sense of leering voyeurism; Munga’s camera hints at scent and touch, a rarity in any language. From the Commander’s prostitute-lover to nightclub gyrations to cunnilingus through a window grate (absurd, yes, but a turning point in Nora’s feelings for Riva), it’s sensual panoply that’s just as affecting and genuine as the violence. When’s the last time you saw oral, not as a joke or merely hinted at, in Hollywood?

Opens June 10

05/25/11 4:00am

United Red Army (2007)
Directed by Koji Wakamatsu

The panicked refrain “This isn’t revolution!” echoes throughout Koji Wakamatsu’s expansive, 190-minute docudrama about the student movement in 1960s and 70s Japan. In each instance it’s shouted by a different character, but always far too late to turn things around. It’s obvious, today, that these socialist militants failed; neither glowing hagiography nor glowering condemnation, United Red Army is about the why of that failure—in exacting detail, and with plenty of time to think it over.

Wakamatsu never gives the film over completely to one stylistic impulse. Beginning with a fast-paced history of the events leading up to the formation of the URA, blending stock footage of student protests against the US-Japan Security Treaty with reenactments of intercine battles with two-by-sixes, United Red Army becomes a more conventional, character-driven narrative of the group’s paramilitary training exercises in the Japanese alps. Tinkly, sentimental music plays as the corpses of those beaten to death during the party’s many purges pile up, honoring melodramatic tradition. Yet, a la Carlos, there’s a just-the-facts approach to characterization, extending from performance and costume to the voiceovered backstories and onscreen bios. While Wakamatsu avoids editorializing, the ages of the characters, flashed on screen at during their first appearances and at their deaths somehow becomes incredibly affecting. Nearly everyone is under 24, driving home the pointlessness of the deaths of 15 radicals, all executed for age-reflective, insgnificant ideological infractions. They destroy themselves before the outside world gets a chance, and for no good reason. This impotent self-destruction and eventually becomes darkly comic, with the URA leadership insistingupon endless “self-criticism”sessions for members perceived as threats to their authority, for doing things that people in their early 20s do, like wear makeup and have sex. Radical student leader Hiroko Nagata’s (Akie Namiki) propensity to stare icily out of windows is eventually reminiscent of the evil queen from Disney’s Snow White: half cartoon, half psychopath.

After trawling through the endless brutality of these sessions, defections and the infamous Asama-Sanso shootout, a 10-hour standoff at a mountain vacation lodge), the movie becomes a rapidly scrolling, text-only timeline that follows the URA’s activities from the mid-70s to today, from hijackings in the Middle East to the arrests of long-wanted ex-radicals. Finding another movie that emanates such complete cruel absurdity is rare; finding someone who believes United Red Army is essential viewing is probably rarer. It’s difficult viewing for even the staunchest Marxist, and not just for the excruciating sit time: pathology is rarely palatable. With extremely low-lit shots, it’s often difficult to discern what’s going on—but even that, ultimately, wouldn’t make the URA’s actions any more intelligible.

Opens May 27 at IFC Center

03/30/11 4:00am

Directed by Quentin Dupieux

Not unlike some bacon-wrapped date, Rubber flawlessly incorporates opposing tastes with its gorgeously photographed opening salvo: a cop car slowly crawls down a dirt road, sideswiping a line of wooden folding chairs. After toppling the last chair, the cop exits and delivers a speech directly to the camera about how in movies, as in life, so much of what is, is that way for no reason. But rather than descending into nihilism, it’s clear Rubber will celebrate the unified field as the list of examples quickly slide into absurdity: “Why was E.T. brown? No reason… Why did a perfectly talented pianist like Adrian Brody hide in a dumpy apartment for years? No reason!” As the cop drives off, the camera pans to reveal a group of people with binoculars who stare impatiently into the surrounding desert. For a while we watch them, and then we are treated to what they are trying to view, though not as they see it: a tire. Inexplicably, it picks itself up, and, like a drunk or a child, wobblingly rolls through the scrub, occasionally falling. Eventually it bumps into a discarded beer bottle, and, with a power as inexplicably as its sentience, explodes the empty with its mind It then goes on to explode a tarantula, a crow, and a man’s head. The formula-malevolent semi-consciousness, dusty signposts of Americana, explosions-remains amusingly absurd throughout. Or will, at least, for those connoisseurs of the Adult Swim-style comedy of bludgeoning repetition. (There’s no such thing as guilty pleasures, just pleasure, people!) In between each paroxysm of tire-fury are moments of expansive silence, which exists somewhere between Kiarostamian meditation on landscape and pregnant pause.

While all this is going on, the audiences showcase a range of impulses — to anthropomorphize and gender the tire; to shush their fellow-viewers’ commentary and insist upon silence; the one guy who tries to videotape it for his wife — in short, things you may very well be doing as you watch it. Preoccupied with getting their money’s worth (and what they want out of the viewing experience), they fail to notice the nonexistent physical boundary between their world and that of “the story” or their suspicious viewing conditions, with fatal consequences. These layers transform Rubber from complete waste of time to more nuanced medium-fuckery, a la Week-end. The lead cop’s consistent breaking of the fourth wall (which occurs because he’s lazy and wants to go home) also seems to beg this comparison, sans solemn self-importance. Rubber may not be everyone’s comedic go-to, but certainly it’s a sui generis indie that doesn’t portend to be anything more than its 86 minutes — except, of course, for the sweetly brilliant Kraftwerk-influenced score, composed and produced by the director himself.

Opens April 1

03/11/11 12:09pm


Overdue,” a new film series at 92YTribeca curated by L contributors Nicolas Rapold and Nick Pinkerton, is a tribute to “olden times, back when people gave a hoot, [when] video stores would set aside certain movies on an altar to refined, idiosyncratic expertise called ‘Employee Picks.'” It begins this Saturday evening with an Eddie Furlong double-feature. After James Gray’s debut Little Odessa, stick around for Brainscan.

There’s a very fine line between terror and humor. From screams to the guffaws Z-grade special effects induce, both emotions are highly physical and cathartic. And, as any fan of horror will tell you—from the casual viewer to Fangoria back-issue hoarder—moreso than gore or final girls, a modicum of humor is an essential component of the genre. Given that Brainscan‘s techno-fears reached obsolescence long ago, it would be easy to believe it’s nothing but retro-junk comedy unworthy of screening outside of a lazy Sunday afternoon. However, there’s something timeless—and effectively creepy—about its premise that elevates it above the average late 80s/early 90s horror fair.

Like a Tales from the Crypt issue or Twilight Zone episode, Brainscan‘s plot revolves around someone who is punished with the very thing he loves the most. Eddie Furlong, in all his hooded-eyelid glory, plays Michael, an emotionally bruised teenager who loves heavy metal, horror movies, and technology (his bedroom is like Blank Check meets Spencer Gifts: a sassy, voice-activated phone/TV/computer surrounded by blacklight posters). Looking for the next great immersive CD ROM/virtual reality experience, he buys the newly released “Brainscan”, and, after a series of epilepsy-inducing flashes from the TV, enters the game and successfully hacks someone up in under an hour. However, it turns out that the murder was real, and Michael is forced to commit subsequent crimes to cover it up. Guiding him through all of this is the thoroughly Baudrillardian computer sprite Trickster, essentially Freddie Krueger in punk clothes. After Michael’s initial crisis of conscience, Trickster reassures him: “Real, unreal. What’s the difference if you don’t get caught?” Like Freddie, Trickster can also bend time and space for grotesque displays of power (ie: mediocre s/fx grossout moments) and to loosen Michael’s grip on reality.

Without parents (his mother died in a horrific car accident, his father’s always away on business) or his best friend (he gets murdered about halfway through the movie, I’ll let you guess how), Michael is left to fend for himself, and manages to always make the worst choice with the best intentions—early adulthood in microcosm—making for distinctively claustrophobic plotting. Other touches, such as Michael’s relationship with the girl next door (which manages to be equal parts exploitation, true love, and imagination) or the final twist on the denouement, complicate standard horror movie identification and verisimilitude.

Brainscan is a rare treat that explores genre conventions and a key transition point in our collective relationship with technology. At the very least, it will remind you——with the power of terrible haircuts, terrible music, and CD ROM mind control——why 90s nostalgia is a very, very bad idea.