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01/22/13 11:20am

The crowd. Can you spot John Wray?

  • The crowd. Can you spot John Wray?

For those unfamiliar with the monthly reading series Fireside Follies—which, you shouldn’t be, after our sister publication Brooklyn Magazine’s inclusion of founders Mike Lala and Eric Nelson in their Indie Lit Impresario round-up—it goes a little something like this: a few out-of-town and local Brooklyn writers walk into a bar, Bushwick’s Brooklyn Fire Proof East to be exact, and read—one right after the other, sans any highfalutin introductions that some other shall-not-be-named reading series dwell in, with a little time built in to sneak to the bar and mingle with the literati, of course. This past Saturday featured the dreamy line-up of Rebecca Wolff (The Beginners), Scott McClanahan (Stories V! and the forthcoming Crapalachia), Kathleen Alcott (The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets and one of our Five Breakout Brooklyn Book People of 2012) and newcomer Jacob Kaplan, who more than held his own with an excerpt from his short story “Sayonara, Sad Sack”—he was a highlight of an already exceptional evening.

12/07/12 11:35am

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Something seriously magical occurred at 61 Local on Wednesday night. The inaugural reading series for The Atlas Review, an as-yet unpublished literary journal (it’s expected in February), featured all of the elements a seasoned event could hope for: a packed house; young, strong talent (poet Justin Boening and writer/Brooklyn Magazine contributor Catherine Lacey); a unique element (exquisite drawings based on the texts accompanied each reader); a dynamic “it” poet (Camille Rankine, in one of her three readings this past week); an engaged audience; and the candid, practiced elocution of star talent (Kathleen Ossip and Eileen Myles). Hosted by the gorgeous and effusive duo of Natalie Eilbert (cofounder/editor of The Atlas Review) and poet/Atlas Review reader/event coordinator Monica D’avila McClure, the night retained the comfort of an intimate and naïve DIY affair while tossing talent upon talent into the mix. If all of this sounds a bit gushy, it’s only because it left me giddy to have found a series more informal and encouraging than anything else 2012 has had to offer. Not to mention The Atlas Review‘s stellar policy of blind submissions—despite making a few solicitations, all submissions come in sans an attributing author. Plus, the art…

12/07/11 4:00am

I Melt with You
Directed by Mark Pellington

At least according to the grand scheme of gender stereotypes, there comes a time in every man’s life when youth must be grasped before it is too late, when young girls and fast cars become essential compensation for dreams gone astray. I Melt With You is a spectacularly failed attempt to turn this typical mid-life crisis tale into a genre-mashing thriller. What was probably meant to be daring and new instead piles cliché after cliché so thick that even the distractingly pseudo-experimental cinematography can’t save the film, which serves to push only one painfully clear message: it’s all downhill from here.

The film features four college friends who meet once a year, this time up at the cinematically perfect Big Sur, to briefly return to the past. Here, then, is supposed proof of life’s ugly truths: Richard (Thomas Jane) is a one-time wild-child writer who has now been reduced to a bitter and quippy high-school English teacher. Ron (Jeremy Piven) is the smarmy businessman who has turned corrupt simply out of the satisfaction of providing for his family. Jonathan (Rob Lowe) is an unscrupulous doctor, a depressed divorcee with a young son he never sees, who passes out prescriptions in exchange for cash. Tim (Christian McKay) is the poetic homosexual haunted by a sordid past which is never properly explained; his entire role is to set up the other characters with pointed questions such as, “Did your life turn out as you wanted it to?” Obviously not.

Through far too many scenes scored to blaring 80s nostalgia songs from the Pixies and the Bauhaus, we are introduced to the dudes’ hard-partying ways. Young college kids, picked up from a local bar by Richard, are brought to the house to party for some in-your-face juxtaposition by Pellington,in case it wasn’t clear in the one hundred other ways it was mentioned, these men were young once too, so full of idealism and hope for all of the possibilities the future could hold, only to finally realize, in their mid-forties, what most realize as soon as they graduate with a bachelor’s degree: life is pretty fucking disappointing.

The tone changes when Tim revives an idiotic, likely drug-induced pact from their past that only proves these men had set themselves up for failure long ago. Unable to imagine a life that didn’t encompass all of their wildest hopes and dreams, they make drastic decisions in a drug-fueled haze of despair. Despite the barrage of reminders that these men are past their glorious prime, a time when supposedly all they did was enjoy the fruits of hedonism, it’s hard to sympathize with a quartet of wealthy and healthy white men, especially when all of their supposed hardships seem self-inflicted. If all 40-somethings are still harboring these unrealistic fantasies, there is a lot to be concerned about in the years to come.

Opens December 9

11/17/11 1:26pm

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Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours screens tonight at BAM. The film was selected, intriguingly, by Michael Imperoli.

Maurice Pialat valued eroticism and naturalism; his 1983 À nos amours exemplifies both in excess. The film stars an incredibly striking Sandrine Bonnaire as Suzanne, a 15-year-old sexpot who escapes from her family troubles into the arms of countless men. While her teenage friends float aimlessly and unabashedly through their own sexual encounters, it is Suzanne’s numb seductions that show sex for what the unsentimental Pialat posits it to be: a selfish and unfeeling quest for power that leaves little joy behind.

The film takes sex and love as its subject matter to an almost overwhelming degree, while also, more subtly, observing how the separation of Suzanne’s parents affects her mental state, through its nuanced juxtapositions of family arguments and passionate love affairs. Her dalliances are presented as vignettes, each new conquest—each new step in Suzanne’s emotional education—presented sans any sort of contextual introduction. Her stabs at maturity—seducing men beyond her years, talking bluntly to her parents as equals, an ill-advised marriage—come off as childlike, for Suzanne never seems happy or self-assured despite her boldness. She is shown to be self-aware about her escapist sex drive, commenting nonchalantly, “I’m only happy when I’m with a guy,” but her naivety is apparent in her compulsive behavior.

Suzanne is an unlikeable protagonist, and her family is erratic, violent, and even less deserving of the audience’s sympathy, though Pialat’s style is less overbearing than his worldview. His observations are communicated less through obvious dialogue (the above quote is a rare instance of straightforward self-analysis) but through the realism of the gestures, glances and costumes as revealed in patient camerawork. There is little to like in most of the characters the film presents, but its dour viewpoint suggests that this may be as good as humanity gets.

11/11/11 4:14pm

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As MoMA’s To Save and Project continues this weekend, Elaine May’s long-elusive Mikey and Nicky plays on Sunday afternoon.

Elaine May is not one to shy from disreputable characters, and Mikey and Nicky, her homage to the directorial style of the film’s star John Cassavettes, certainly features a few. Cassavettes plays the wimpy and erratic Nicky, who stole money from his Mafia boss and is desperately trying to escape the hit that has naturally been called in on him. Peter Falk plays Mikey, his childhood friend and fellow mobster, upon whom Nicky calls for salvation.

Despite their personal history, Mikey and Nicky greet each other with palpable (and ultimately warranted) skepticism, as both men prove to be cowardly, selfish beasts. Throughout the course of an evening, Mikey takes Nicky from one supposedly safe spot to the next while Nicky’s paranoia gets the better of him. Alternately cocky and unsure, Nicky brashly wields a gun yet sobs about his fear of death, while Mikey checks in regularly with his wife Annie (Rose Arrick), who seems both understanding of and purposefully oblivious to the murder plot her husband is enmeshed in.

May’s female characters here are despicable in their own way—in their subservience to these shameless, immature men. There are no moral standbys to be found here. Nicky stops by his girlfriend Nellie’s (Carol Grace) apartment, only to cut off her discussion about politics and literature with frequent groping. Despite her supposed worldliness, she is easily swayed, as is Nicky’s wife (Joyce Van Patten). She tries to kick him out, but after a few sweet words admits to loving him. May’s portrayal of this Philadelphia underworld is one plagued by insecurity and doubt, where men run their lives into the ground with false bravado and the women shamefully follow.

Mikey and Nicky is a gritty, expertly tense contribution to 70s cinema, though it requires some strong willpower to withstand the purposefully banal dialogue and despicable actions of the film’s protagonists. Yet what May does borrow from Cassavettes is a harsh and humane look at some ugly-hearted people, men and women alike. Both Falk and Cassavettes were free to improvise in a manner similar to Cassavettes’s own cinema-verite aesthetic (though Micky and Nicky doesn’t quite hold up to his own Husbands or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). As long as one is willing to leave the theater feeling unsettled, this film is worth a shot merely for its laudable portrayal of the lawless life and its ability to lead even the closest friendships awry.

11/09/11 4:00am

The Love We Make
Directed by Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan

If anything is clear from The Love We Make, the newest Albert Maysles documentary, it’s that Sir Paul McCartney could be the most successful politician the left has ever known. The film itself chronicles the creation of The Concert for New York City, a benefit concert following the attacks on the World Trade Center, that promptly materialized in the month following. McCartney had been taxiing out of New York on that fateful day in September, but his plane never took off. In response to the tragedy, McCartney gathered his famous friends to honor the NYFD and NYPD and raised money for The Robin Hood Relief Fund, which provided financial assistance to families of the victims.

Maysles captures McCartney as he is escorted about town, from interview to interview to intimate rehearsals with his band. It is hard then, despite the wealth of material gathered here, to see McCartney in a light one might want —namely, as the man he is “off-duty,” out of celebrity mode. Glimpses can be seen as McCartney politely declines autographs, gets noticeably uncomfortable with caked-on makeup, and requires assistance from his staff regarding his own personal schedule. There are scenes in which McCartney asks his driver, George, to get some “distance” from his more diligent adoring fans, that evoke a certain offscreen longing for privacy that the cameras just can’t grab.

What the film does expertly include is a myriad of gorgeous performances by McCartney himself, including “I’m Down” and “Let It Be,” a valuable asset for any fan. The Love We Make also includes performances by David Bowie, James Taylor, Jay-Z, The Who, and Mick Jagger and Keith, just to name a few. In fact, an entire segment of the film could simply be titled “Paul McCartney Hangs Out With Celebrities” for the plethora of boldface names who stop by the greenroom to chat (Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, Jim Carrey, and Steve Buschemi are just the first few names that come to mind).

It’s strange now to see the immense amount of support that was given just ten years ago to our very own NYFD and NYPD, the passion behind the rallying cries of “Freedom” and “America,” and the sheer number of flag pins, when juxtaposed with today’s “Occupy Wherever” mentality. Leave it to McCartney to once again remind us what a country we were, when struck by a threat to our safety and peace of mind not so long ago. The Love We Make can often feel like a long-form commercial for a political candidate, as McCartney’s many virtues are espoused again and again. He’s sure to have the audience’s vote.

Opens November 9 at Film Forum

11/02/11 11:30am

Tower Heist
Directed by Brett Ratner

Can an $85 million Hollywood film actually stand up for the little guy? Unsurprisingly, the answer is no. Tower Heist is the 1%, turning the frustrations of the masses into an all-star action/comedy hybrid moneymaker under the guise of empathy, and tossing a few comic crumbs to those of us willing to suspend a little disbelief.

Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) is our modern-day Robin Hood, a Queens resident born and raised (and therefore, a good guy, a card-carrying member of Hollywood’s venerable, morally infallible small-town boys club). He’s the expert building manager for The Tower, a gold-plated monstrosity just off of Columbus Circle. When penthouse resident Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is placed under house arrest for an alleged Ponzi scheme, the pension plans of the Tower staff are considered lost thanks to Kovacs’s naïve trust in Shaw’s abilities. The clouds part when terribly written FBI Agent Claire Dunham (Tea Leoni as the unbelievably, passionately uncouth government agent) drunkenly hints at a large safety net that Shaw is hiding, and Kovacs decides to assemble a team and seek retribution. Cue the music.

Naturally, the humor comes to a head when Josh, Charlie (Casey Affleck), Enrique (Michael Pena), Mr. Fitzhugh (a nebbish and finally enjoyable again Matthew Broderick) recruit experienced thief Slide (Eddie Murphy) to help them rob Shaw. Quick cuts alongside a gang of naïve, mismatched personalities is an easy recipe for success—director Brett Ratner is lucky that it actually holds up here. Gabourey Sidibe lends her talents as the safe-cracking Odessa, and while it’s disheartening to watch her play along with cheap fat jokes and force a weak Jamaican accent, she somehow manages to be one of the film’s few highlights, for the energy and palpable verve she inserts into this all-too-measly part. Murphy, too, makes more than anticipated of his rote role as the crazy-ass con man. His fast-talking schtick goes far against Stiller’s straight-man routine.

The gaps in the heist plot only get wider as the film progresses, but to think too much would defeat the purpose. Best not to question the entirely unethical and implausible relationship between Special Agent Claire Dunham and Josh Kovacs, or why we’re meant to root for these one-dimensional characters in the first place. Perhaps if the lower-class characters were defined by quick wits instead of broad racial stereotypes, by backstory instead of cultural symbolism… but there’s no time for that here. In this 104-minute race to redemption, it’s the rich versus the poor, which is all you need to know.

Opens November 4

10/13/11 3:27pm

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Yesterday afternoon, Steve McQueen’s Shame had its third and final New York Film Festival screening—a late-breaking addition to the schedule. The film has been acquired for distribution by Fox Searchlight.

Sex addiction is an easy term to take lightly, what with celebrities claiming its afflictions at each and every caught indiscretion. Leave it to British artist Steve McQueen to follow up 2008’s brutal Hunger with an equally emotionally wrought take on its perils.

Brandon, the protagonist, is so clearly slick, attractive, and successful that it’s hard to imagine his promiscuity as anything other than the norm. The camera captures his daily rituals—masturbating in the office bathroom, mining a prestigious collection of dirty tapes and magazines, live web chats and random street sex—all of which seem commonplace in this porn-soaked, shallowly connected world. It is with a deft eye that McQueen subtly places Brandon somewhat out of the action, close-ups revealing how removed he is from the present—during meetings and out at bars—seeming above it all. Yet as Brandon’s carefully crafted and isolated existence unravels with violence, it is clear that his desires are beyond his control.

The arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) illuminates Brandon’s inability to properly connect. Their odd relationship is somewhat muddled by her clichéd storyline as the girl with a troubled past and an uncertain future. Here, Mulligan is cast out of character, no longer the glowing timid beauty but a fiery, unstable, and frankly badass piece of work. Luckily, Mulligan handles with far more aplomb than skeptical viewers would fear, making Sissy a woman with a complex, believable past, rather than the type of melodramatic female seen so often in lesser films.

This is McQueen’s first (and hopefully not final) film to be set in New York. To see a filmmaker encapsulate the energy, anonymity, and range of our fair city (sans obligatory establishing views or overt post-9/11 commentary) is always a treat. Brandon’s unrelenting need to fulfill his desires while remaining wholly alone is most served in the city that never sleeps. Though Shame was originally set in London, McQueen has said that “the wind carried us here,” resulting in a film that truly belongs nowhere else.

10/12/11 4:04pm

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Sara Driver’s 1981 short (48 minutes) narrative feature You Are Not I screened last Thursday in the 49th New York Film Festival’s “Masterworks” sidebar.

When exploring the cinema that emerged from the Lower East Side DIY boom of the late 70s and early 80s, you will most often be treated to drug-fueled ramblings, killer soundtracks and some gorgeously minimalist cinematography of young ruffians slumming around New York. Thank god, then, for Paul Bowles, who stowed away his copy of Sara Driver’s You Are Not I, an adaptation of his own short story of the same name and one of the few films to take the No Wave aesthetic outside of the scene.

At Thursday’s screening, the packed house included Driver, star Suzanne Fletcher, cinematographer Jim Jarmusch, and unaffiliated fan Steve Buschemi. Copies of the print had been destroyed in the early 80s, and the film hadn’t been seen since. Mysteriously preserved, most likely by insecticide, this masterful work was all but lost until 2009, when University of Delaware librarian Francis Poole discovered a cardboard box containing the reels among Bowles’s old belongings.

Fletcher hauntingly portrays a young woman who has escaped from an asylum. As the film opens, she is wandering through one of the most masterfully shot car crashaftermaths this reviewer has ever seen (and which features an appearance by Nan Goldin, as a cadaver) only to be taken back to her sister by the one and only Luc Sante (playing a random passerby). The eerie and ambient compositions by Phil Kline are accompanied by a blasé voiceover that allows Fletcher to use only her outrageously expressive eyes to convey her unstable madness. Now that the film has properly been restored and debuted, here’s hoping it finally gets the repertory play it deserves. MoMA, pay attention.

10/12/11 10:37am

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Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse had its sole New York Film Festival screening this past Sunday afternoon. Cinema Guild is its distributor.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s fateful encounter with a horse, here is what you should know: Turin, Italy, 1889. Nietzsche emerges from his apartment to find a cab driver beating a stubborn horse that refuses to budge. Distraught, Nietzsche attempts to stop the violence, but instead is taken home inconsolable by his landlord. Hungarian master Béla Tarr has decided to explore the unanswered question: whatever happened to the horse?

Is there a story here? Probably not, but as Tarr himself has said, “If you’re talking about storytelling, I’m not your man.” Instead, he focuses on the daily routines of the cab driver (Ohlsdorfer), his daughter, and of course the horse in the week following their encounter with the famous philosopher. Naturally, it is brilliant.

Long long long long shots (no surprises here) follow this small, poor family at their country estate as they layer up each morning, dredge water from the well, eat their daily way-too-hot potato, and go about their lives. The ingenious and fitting somewhat-off-key score illuminates the haunting isolation of this small family within a storm. A steady decline faces the protagonists- the horse refuses to eat, their water disappears, the lamps won’t stay lit, the storm worsens. Throughout it all shines Erika Bok, whose portrayal of Ohlsdorfer’s daughter is thoughtful and enrapturing.

The two are visited by a neighbor, who with the slightest prompt pontificates on the nature of man to “acquire, then debase” whatever he can, and by a gypsy clan who tries to take their water and must be chased off their land. The gypsies leave behind a book, written by the film’s writer László Krasznahorkai, that serves as an anti-creation story from a church that builds things up only to bring them down.

Tarr’s final film may not be his finest work, but it’s fitting, as was his final answer at Sunday afternoon’s Q&A: “You do everyday the same [sic], but every day is different. Then you just disappear. There is no apocalypse…this is all I wanted to say with this film. The work is done, so there is no reason to repeat.”