02/12/14 4:00am

Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1968)
Directed by Alain Resnais

Perhaps the most successful rendering of memory ever to grace the silver screen, this time-travel film makes for a cinematic experience quite unlike any you’ve ever had. Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) is scarcely out the door of the mental hospital where he’s been recovering from a suicide attempt when he’s intercepted by a pair of impeccably dressed representatives from an enigmatic and anonymous corporation. They pitch Claude on participating in an experiment, and our depressive hero goes along with it for lack of anything better to do. Soon, he’s loaded into a mollusk-like vessel where, plopped atop a fleshy beanbag with only a mouse to keep him company, he’s transported back a year to relive a single minute from his life.

Quelle surprise: the experiment goes terribly awry, and Claude finds himself dropping in and out of scenes from his agonized seven-year relationship with the beautiful and opaque Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot). Fragments of episodes from their romance—firmly in l’amour fou territory, complete with bouts of tenderness and smothering melancholy, explosive arguments, infidelity, etc.—hurtle by in a scrambled chronology (segments of which are sometimes repeated, complicating things further), making it all but impossible to find your footing. (Resnais does give the viewer an onscreen surrogate: the corporation’s scientists, who also have no idea what Claude is going through, and their nervous hypotheses about whether he’ll return to the present long enough to be rescued mirror our confounded attempts to figure out
what’s happening.)

You wouldn’t be wrong to read all this as Resnais’s ultimate dissertation on time. But, as with the better-known Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel, the past is nothing without the emotions that structure it and create the memories by which it becomes accessible. If Je t’aime, je t’aime were only its engrossing conceit, it’d still be one of the profoundest sci-fi flicks ever made, but because Resnais uses the narrative’s temporal gimmickry as an instrument by which to examine love and its psychic consequences unsentimentally, the film is a monumental achievement, as heady as it is overwhelmingly moving.

Opens February 14 at Film Forum

10/23/13 4:00am

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Directed by Sophie Fiennes

Slavoj Žižek, the philosopher frequently referred to as the “Elvis of cultural theory,” returns to the screen—and in a sequel, no less! Director Fiennes’s film quickly establishes that it will be working within the same aesthetic parameters as its precursor, 2006’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Žižek explicates his Lacanian-Marxist perspectives on a host of topics pertaining to ideology (here understood in its Marxist formulation as what people don’t know they’re doing but are nevertheless doing) by commenting on clips from films while also appearing as a figure in various tableaux styled to replicate sets from the films being discussed.

As with the Cinema guide, Ideology aggregates many of Žižek’s favored examples of pop-cultural phenomena that evidence his critique of capitalism—Coca-Cola as the commodity par excellence, John Carpenter’s They Live as illustrative of what happens when someone comes to see the world along Althusserian lines—in an effort to somehow make it more accessible to the non-grad-student public than his hilarious lectures already do. Rehash is the name of the game: if you’re familiar with Žižek’s spiel, Ideology likely won’t advance any arguments you haven’t already heard. Žižek wearing a priest’s habit and pontificating within a re-creation of the convent from The Sound of Music is doubtlessly amusing, but some of his claims, like the one about Rammstein’s allegedly successful transformation of aspects of Nazi aesthetics into “pure elements of libidinal investment” to be enjoyed in their “pre-ideological state,” remain as unpersuasive as the first 10 times he made them.

But hey, he mostly hits the theoretical nail squarely on the head, and anyone who calls a Carpenter film a “forgotten masterpiece of the Hollywood Left” or convincingly links Lindsay Anderson’s if… to atrocities at Abu Ghraib deserves a couple hours of any self-respecting, desiring subject’s time.

Opens November 1

08/14/13 4:00am

Short Term 12
Directed by Destin Cretton

This contemporary Social Problem Picture, guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings, opens with a group of battle-tested guidance counselors recounting a tale in which one of them fearfully shat himself when faced with the possibility of getting stomped by a teenager who busted out of the foster care home where they’re employed. For the remainder of the film, writer-director Cretton locates pathos somewhere a little further away from such humor—for better or worse. The result is a handsomely crafted, modestly scaled melodrama that occasionally feels overly calculated in its attempts to elicit sympathy but is more often than not too earnest to dismiss.

Grace (Brie Larson), a senior staff member at the aforementioned foster care home, lives with her boyfriend/coworker, the shaggy and easygoing Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.). An especially troubled resident, a budding rapper named Marcus (Keith Stanfield), is about to turn 18 (which means the State will no longer pay for his room and board), and Grace and Mason are worried that the majorly glum MC won’t be able to hack it on the outside. Meanwhile, a self-abusive girl (Kaitlyn Dever) who seems to have been sexually abused arrives at the home and instantly triggers some discomforting déja vu for Grace, who then delves into her own traumatic past while clashing with the home’s administrative powers-that-be and with her anxieties about getting hitched and having babies. The proceedings are suffused with equal parts weight and levity, although the plot’s twists and conclusions are rarely surprising.

Short Term 12 inserts itself into a tradition of filmmaking that deals with the plight of troubled youths living in clinical environments. It never approaches the affective intensity of Allan King’s children’s-psychiatric-hospital-set cinema-verité-as-horror-film Warrendale, nor does it seem to emanate from a mind with as strong a grip on the inherent expressivity of mental unrest as with Cassavetes’s A Child is Waiting. This isn’t to suggest that Short Term 12 fails within the parameters of what it tries to do. On the contrary: it is rich enough with both compassion and technical competence to impress viewers, even if it doesn’t push the envelope. 

Opens August 23 at the Sunshine

04/17/13 4:00am

Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (1974)
Directed by William Klein
April 19 at the Museum of Art and Design, part of its William Klein retrospective

A masterful study of a man so mean he makes medicine sick, Klein’s portrait of Ali persuasively argues for its subject’s status as one of the key cultural figures of his time. But Klein is not content to merely glorify the three-time undisputed heavyweight champion of the world (described by one interviewee as “the independent hipster, the jazzman turned boxer”); through an exhilarating medley of press conference performances (themselves syntheses of spoken word, stand-up comedy and old-fashioned shit-talking) and invaluable fly-on-the-wall footage, Klein bobs and weaves together a doc that miraculously manages to attend to nearly everything Ali represented.

Focused exclusively on the lead-ups to and aftermaths of three of Ali’s defining bouts—the two fights with Sonny Liston in 1964 and 65, and the “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in 74—Klein reveals himself to be as concerned with the sociopolitical climate surrounding Ali as he is with the champ himself. Footage of the three fights is largely omitted in favor of a more concentrated engagement with their historical contexts: Klein associates Ali/Liston I with LBJ’s electoral victory over Barry Goldwater; Ali/Liston II, with the assassination of Malcolm X (making a remarkable cameo, filmed shortly after his break with the Nation of Islam, in which he weighs in on Ali’s revolutionary potential); and the “Rumble,” with Mobutu and his astonishing cult of personality. (A French newspaper’s top headline after Ali’s upset victory over Foreman: “Une nouvelle victoire du Mobutisme!”) The black-and-white footage from 64-65 tonally anticipates Dont Look Back, the cinéma verité profile of Ali’s rock-and-roll equivalent, Bob Dylan; the footage from Zaire 74 is vividly colorful, rich with dirt, sweat, foliage, pro-Mobutu propaganda and Foreman’s Funkadelic overalls.

But apart from all the feats of physical and rhetorical prowess and all the star power—The Beatles!—Klein does take care to problematize the mythology of Ali by spotlighting both the (white) Louisville Syndicate that bankrolled and profited from his ascent as well as the sports betting interests that might have determined the results of some of his most seminal victories. Call it “A Portrait of the Pugilist as a Cog in the Machine (Despite Himself).”

04/17/13 4:00am

In the House
Directed by François Ozon

“The mother, the father, the son… is this Pasolini?” asks high school literature professor Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini, channeling some of the wide-eyed bewilderment he flashed as a denim-draped twerp in Claire’s Knee) in Ozon’s latest. Relatively dense with literary references, In the House continues Ozon’s exploration of the boundary between the artistic imagination and “reality,” perhaps most satisfyingly pursued in the 2001 Charlotte Rampling vehicle Swimming Pool. This film finds Ozon, a cinematic classicist who seems totally convinced as to the profundity of his rampant condescension, effectively owning up to the extent to which he has taken his cues from that much-celebrated French icon, the Woody Allen of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Cassandra’s Dream. (Indeed, when the protagonist and his wife go on a date to the movies, it’s to see Match Point!) Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself leaving the theater and yearning for the older, funnier ones.

Germain, a self-described failed novelist married to loaded-for-bare gallery director Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, not half-bad clad in Annie Hall-approved vest and tie, fretting over the possibility that she’ll be axed by her philistine employers), plays mentor to Claude (Ernst Umhauer), his prodigious pupil at the Lycée Gustave Flaubert. Claude’s obsessive mission, undertaken on the pretext of literary research, is to infiltrate and wreak havoc upon his stereotypically bourgeois friend Rapha’s stereotypically bourgeois family, triggering a morally wrought chain of events whereby fact and fiction become indistinguishable, or something like that. Potentially fertile themes and points of reference flit into view—the writer as con; the relation between despotism and Eros; Terence Stamp’s destabilizing performance in Teorema—only to vanish just as quickly. Ozon’s characters speak of literature’s fundamental inability to teach its audience anything; you wonder whether the director doesn’t feel similarly about his own medium.

Opens April 19

04/10/13 9:00am

CB4 Chris Rock

CB4 (1993)
Directed by Tamra Davis
It throws you headlong into the gonzo antics of aspiring middle-class rappers who have to cop the criminal persona of a nightclub owner who fears they’ve double crossed him in order to achieve superstardom. Few films that appeared on the scene in the midst of the early 90s hood-cinema craze have the staying power of Davis’ second feature, a Guestian gangster rap mockumentary cowritten by Chris Rock (who also appears in his first starring role) and perpetually dissatisfied black cultural critic Nelson George. The film has aged well, even if N.W.A.’s music hasn’t; beyond featuring Charlie Murphy’s finest performance this side of the Chappelle Show and the late Phil Hartman’s most subversive work, it has a legitimately intoxicating soundtrack of faux hits, “Sweat From my Balls” being the album’s cri de coeur. Brandon Harris (Apr 12 at 92Y Tribeca)

03/27/13 4:00am

Mode in France (1984)
Directed by William Klein
March 29 at the Museum of Art and Design, part of its Klein retrospective

Former Vogue photographer Klein revisited the haute couture scene that launched his star with Mode in France, a free-associative not-quite-doc that warmly examines its fundamentally superficial subject while also suggesting a certain ambivalence about it. Come for the obnoxious and adamantly 80s synth score (composed by Serge Gainsbourg), stay to watch Grace Jones perform a play by Marivaux in a g-string (in the section on Azzedine Alaïa).

Apparently inspired by the sheer force of will to stand out shared by the film’s most famous onscreen presences—Jean-Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, agnès b., etc.—Mode in France is marked by a gaggle of stylistic gambits that evidence Klein’s status as a post-Godardian documentarian. What would have been unremarkable footage of a fashion show is analyzed through a stuttering effect (a reworking of the slow-motion and strategic pausing used by Godard in Sauve qui peut (la vie)) that undermines and decomposes the fluidity and determination of runway models at work. Vérité footage of French preschoolers playing dress-up and fighting among themselves is juxtaposed with non sequitur staged scenes of models clad in Gaultier get-ups caricaturishly engaging in la vie de la rue. The virtuosic lateral tracking shots used during these segments simultaneously recall the supermarket long take from Tout va bien and anticipate the tableaux vivants of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (in which Gaultier’s designs are similarly crucial to Peter Greenaway’s fussy mise en scène). Fashion effectively calls attention to the inherent artifice of all appearance, and Klein does an admirable job highlighting this fact with playfulness and formal rigor.

The section on Chantal Thomass, presented as a series of confessionals performed by individual models, is an investigation of surface, but it’s just as much about the superficiality of interiority. “The Me you see here doesn’t really exist. And so I began modeling to exist more fully,” one Sartre-influenced mannequin opines. Jean-Charles de Castelbajac compares the designer’s vocation to pimping, and Klein explores this notion by visually unpacking the political, moral and existential dimensions of the fashion industry. Indeed, Mode in France works because of its maker’s innate ability to wring ideas (and unintentional comedy) from the ostensibly insubstantial.

03/27/13 4:00am

Night Tide (1961)
Directed by Curtis Harrington
April 1, at 92YTribeca

Director Harrington—a former avant-gardist, Maya Deren disciple, and Kenneth Anger collaborator—launched his feature filmmaking career with this deeply romantic and genuinely unnerving slab of B-movie brilliance. A sort-of noir, Night Tide stars a relatively fresh-faced (that is to say, not yet totally psychotic) Dennis Hopper as Johnny Drake, a naval officer whose shore leave takes a turn for the macabre on Venice Beach, where he meets and falls for boardwalk performer (and professional “mermaid”) Mora (Linda Lawson). Johnny disregards numerous indications that something murderously fishy is afoot: the fact that Mora’s previous two boyfriends died while dating her; her ex-sailor-turned-carny boss’s drunken assertion that she’s a siren; the menacingly silent old women who stalks after her during an otherwise bumpin’ luau; Johnny’s own paranoiac nightmares, in which Mora is associated with mythical sea monsters—while single-mindedly struggling to figure out what exactly his beloved’s deal is.

This mystery/fantasy/beach party hybrid is marked by Harrington’s personalized take on the gracefully graceless American International Pictures house style, yielding a gem of low-budget film poetry composed under the sign of Anger, Deren and Harrington’s future employer, Roger Corman. (Indeed, AIP distributed the film in 1963, two years after its completion.) If nothing else, Night Tide merits a look due to its status as a key transitional work for Hopper—a step out from the shadow of James Dean, away from his intensely wrought rapport with Nicholas Ray, and toward the genre-defying, convention-obliterating madness that became his stock in trade in the latter half of the decade.

03/13/13 4:00am

Philip Roth: Unmasked
Directed by William Karel and Livia Manera

This doting bio-doc, profiling one of American literature’s most polarizing figures, seeks to debunk several received notions about its subject—that he’s an over-psychoanalyzed horn-dog; that his singular brand of Jewishness is little more than a provocative composite of stereotypes; that he must be the progeny of an overbearing mother—while also anointing Roth the heir apparent to the likes of Joyce, Kafka and Céline. But in refusing to engage with many of the most salient criticisms of Roth’s work, filmmakers Livia Manera and William Karel have mistakenly appointed him a master beyond reproach. Simply put, this uncomplicated analysis of a profoundly complicated man often feels more immoral than any of the kink described in Portnoy’s Complaint.

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Philip Roth: Unmasked is primarily concerned with glorifying the recently retired novelist. (It is, after all, the upcoming episode of PBS’s uniformly reverential “American Masters” series.) Talking head after talking head—Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss, Mia Farrow, etc.—spews hot air about the significance of his place in the history of international letters. (“To speak of Roth is to speak of…”) But Roth’s most persuasive advocate proves to be… himself: the extended interview that provides most of the movie’s substance reveals him to be genuinely funny and, yes, self-deprecating—a far cry from the Mailer-esque macho man many presume the author of American Pastoral to be.

Other choice moments include extended shots of Roth at work (a southpaw, he writes longhand while standing up) and countless opportunities to admire his wildly bushy eyebrows (a stray one of which dangles in front of his left eye throughout, undoubtedly a manifestation of his much-discussed id). At one point, Roth declares that “shame isn’t for writers.” Truth be told, the same could be said of portraiture as monotonously devotional as this.

Opens March 13

02/27/13 4:00am

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)
Directed by William Klein
March 1 at the Museum of Art and Design

The Museum of Arts and Design begins “Without Compromise: The Cinema of William Klein” with this, the best-known of the photographer-turned-filmmaker’s three fiction features. (Klein’s documentaries will comprise the rest of the two-month retrospective.) A sneering satire by a Paris-dwelling expat with multiple axes to grind, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? finds Klein transitioning to a new medium and skewering mid-60s sartorialism along the way. It’s a high-style hatchet job as influenced by the radical politics and formal experimentation of his contemporaries on the Left Bank (namely Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda and Chris Marker) as it is by the proto-MTV poetics of Richard Lester.

Brooklyn-born Vogue cover girl Dorothy McGowan stars as Brooklyn-born Vogue cover girl Polly Maggoo, a budding supermodel who becomes the object of obsession for both the lonely Prince Igor (Sami Frey, wearing a black turtleneck and entering his castle astride a horse) and documentarian/armchair psychoanalyst Grégoire Pecque (Jean Rochefort). Igor’s castle is a groovy pad fit only for a prince, boasting an assortment of nonsensical knickknacks (including a robot and a stereo that plays canned applause to punctuate his Schmaltz-speare soliloquys). A Serious Intellectual, Grégoire declares that all models are “androgynous Little Red Riding Hoods and Itty Bitty types.” Whose romantic overtures will win our titular heroine’s heart?

A much-stalked, soft-spoken and freckly waif, Polly is an haute couture Candide. “Every time they take a photo of me, there’s little bit less of me. So in the end, what will be left of me,” she wonders aloud during a TV interview. However, Klein is less concerned with teasing out the existential consequences of a life spent in front of (or behind) the camera than with orchestrating a runway showcase of the silly and the grotesque. Sight gags and stylistic libertinism abound as Klein presents one lavish, ridiculous set-piece after another. (A personal highlight is the revelation of the fact that Polly has authored a book entitled “Polly Maggoo Par Polly Maggoo.”) In a letter to Klein, Stanley Kubrick supposedly said that Polly Maggoo was 10 years ahead of its time. Maybe, but the film is also unmistakably of an aesthetic piece with the zeitgeist investigations undertaken by Klein’s French idols and peers.