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04/23/14 4:00am

Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film
Directed by Hanly Banks

There’s no instrument in contemporary rock music quite like Bill Callahan’s voice: a carefully modulated speak-sing drawl that treats each word like an unfamiliar object, picking it up, fondling it, weighing it and setting it down gently. Over the course of 23 years, Callahan has recorded 15 records, 11 under the moniker Smog and four under his own name. His earlier recordings progress from raucous, tape-recorded electric guitar workouts to slightly tidier, noise-laced lo-fi rock. In the mid-90s, he started to develop a songwriting model—spacious, patient, evocative, sparsely ornamented—that he’s been refining ever since.

Bill Callahan: Apocalypse, an hourlong documentary directed by Hanly Banks (now Callahan’s fiancée), follows the singer through his 2011 North American tour. Banks wisely chooses not to chop up the seven long performances included here, and keeps her camera fixed on the musicians with one misguided exception: a squirm-inducing montage layered over “Riding for the Feeling” of trailer park residents, county-fair patrons, skateboarders, children, and athletes that risks treating its subjects as shorthand signifiers of Rural American Values. As a performer, Callahan is rarely given to grand gestures or showy effects. He stays planted more or less in place, mouth close to the mic, subtly stretching every muscle in his face to give his voice the proper texture.

Callahan’s lyrics lean toward the cryptic, and his brief voiceovers between each performance suggest that he’s more comfortable crafting striking images than speaking directly about his working methods. His observations, often drawn out with pauses and delays, range from the vague (“I really like… traveling… especially by… a vehicle”) to the inscrutable (“A year or two ago, I decided that symbols are everything, and that’s all we have. That’s all we communicate. Everything’s just a metaphor for something else”). That the movie lingers on these sorts of lines, usually paired with footage of the band driving around, setting off fireworks, or gazing out of car windows, is telling. We see almost nothing of the band’s setup, rehearsals, technical difficulties, or, with a few exceptions, their audiences. For better or worse, the film rarely gives us the option to regard Callahan—on and off stage—from any perspective other than that of a fan in the crowd.

Opens May 2 at reRun

11/20/13 4:00am

Detroit Unleaded
Directed by Rola Nashef

We don’t see much of downtown Detroit in writer-director Nashef’s debut fiction feature, but we don’t need to. We hear it, for starters: a medley of car horns, fragments of conversation, fuel pumps and tire squeals. And we see its people; the gas station convenience store where most of the film takes place acts as a cross-section of the city with its endless stream of passing motorists, rowdy teens, bashful middle-schoolers and lost suburbanites. Nashef spends the movie’s first third studying the setting’s internal rhythms, collecting data, making observations, and getting her bearings. And even after the film locks into its principle narrative, about the puppy-love between two young, cooped-up Arab-Americans, it stays rooted in the details of the community—or at least Nashef’s imaginative re-creation of it.

Sami (E.J. Assi) runs the establishment in question, a 24-hour gas station in a high-crime area; ever since his father was gunned down in a holdup, he’s manned the counter from behind a cage of bulletproof glass. Naj (Nada Shouhayib) sells phone cards there on behalf of her possessive, controlling brother. There’s little keeping them together beyond their evident mutual attraction—their conversations rarely move beyond why she doesn’t like red Skittles—and many of the movie’s best scenes find the two of them stuck together inside his glass-walled booth, nerve-rattled, tongue-tied, frightened by their close proximity to one another while fumbling around to try to prolong it.

This kind of wordless attraction—made up equally of terror and excitement; stiff, ritualized behavior; and hasty improv—presents a huge cinematic challenge, but Nashef, with the help of her two gifted stars, usually overcomes it. At their best, these scenes have a delicate, suspended quality that sets them strikingly apart from the rest of this often bustling movie. (Take the shot of the two sweethearts lying on the shelves behind the checkout counter: she on the upper tier, staring into space; he on the lower, gingerly playing with the folds of her shirtsleeve.) Sometimes they feel a little unconvincing or over-determined, but why nitpick? This is a patient, well-observed, and admirably scaled-down film from a director with promise to spare.

Opens November 22

04/24/13 4:00am

Mud
Directed by Jeff Nichols

In the opening minutes of director Nichols’s third feature, his first since Take Shelter, a modern-day Tom Sawyer leaves his family’s houseboat at the crack of dawn to the strains of crickets and parental bickering; meets up with his Huck; and steers a motorboat into the widest branch of the Mississippi. Landing on a wooded island, the pair stumble upon a boat lodged high up a tree—and, within it, Matthew McConaughey’s titular stowaway, who spends his days pining over a fickle love and hiding from a shady past.

Mud wants the same things as the kids who discover him: a woman to call a girlfriend, and a place to call a home. The film considers both desires in tandem, but ends up so focused on the desiring men themselves that we’re left with an incomplete, superficial understanding of whatever they actually desire. Which, at least in the case of love, is completely appropriate, since neither Mud nor his new pal Ellis can conceive of the objects of their affection except incompletely and superficially. They pine over, long for, and vent at their beloveds, but the women themselves barely get a word in: we never see them except through the eyes of their admirers, either as long-legged angels or heartless betrayers.

In the same way, for a film that places such a high premium on home as an ideal, Mud rarely suggests what it’s like to feel attached to a place; it rarely imagines the Mississippi region as anything more than a catalog of quirks. There are plenty of recognizable deep-South signifiers—ramshackle houses and casually drawled y’alls—but not much signified. The characters do understand, at least, that their home is defined by more than well-affected accents, Walmarts, poisonous snakes, cut-off jean shorts, houseboats, and nicknames like “Neckbone.” But they can only be as richly developed as the places they inhabit—full of intriguing details, but somehow centerless, unbounded, unmoored. It’s only in those rare moments when Mud places its characters in the service of its setting, rather than the other way around, that the film really opens up: I never felt closer to Ellis than in the pair of scenes that find him riding in the back of his dad’s pickup, watching his town’s gas stations and diners vanish into the dusty late-afternoon air.

Opens April 26

04/03/13 4:00am

The Face You Deserve (2004)
Directed by Miguel Gomes
April 6 at the Museum of the Moving Image, part of its Celebrating a Decade of Reverse Shot

Francisco is having a bad day. He’s a bitter grownup trapped in a candy-colored, costumed kid’s world—an elementary school during carnival. He has five stitches in his head, he’s jealous of one girlfriend’s 13-year-old stalker, and he spends the night of his 30th birthday serenading a second girlfriend’s answering machine while fretting over his approaching death. The next morning, he wakes up with the measles. And then, in the space of a cut, he’s laid up in a wooded house, watched over by seven dwarves.

From that point on, director Gomes’s debut feature becomes many things: an illustrated storybook (complete with hand-drawn title cards), a Chinese box of interlocking narratives, an elaborate game governed by its own tongue-in-cheek rules (“it is forbidden to read books without pictures or with small print”), and a deeply conflicted defense of moviemaking. The adult, full-sized dwarves are stuck in a sort of perpetual childhood, a world of petty bickering and pettier vengeance, talking lice, magic coins, tooth fairies, floating paper boats, irrepressible appetites and invisible monsters. For Francisco, it’s a regression to childhood that doubles as a chance to overcome childhood’s demons. For Gomes, it’s a defense of cinematic artifice that can’t quite free itself from doubt: why revisit, let alone recreate, the past when the present is so dear and the future so short?

The film climaxes in an extended nightmare packed with betrayals, lost identities and unseen threats, all suggestive of Gomes’s fear that there is no magic—not even the movies—capable of stopping time. Time might not stop at the end of The Face You Deserve, but it does manage, in a sense, to start over again. The night is darkest just before dawn.

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03/20/13 4:00am

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
March 21 and 24 at IFC Center, part of its The Films of Stanley Kubrick

The received wisdom on Kubrick is that he could recognize the stirrings of desire, passion, and guilt in others but could never feel them for himself—that he was a great choreographer of bodies who rarely saw in them any signs of life. That might well be true, yet it risks overlooking how often Kubrick himself acknowledged, challenged and resisted his aversion to the flesh.

Eyes Wide Shut is set in one of Kubrick’s most beguiling invented-worlds: a New York City built on a soundstage and lit with perfectly proportioned yellows, reds, and blues. It’s a murder mystery without a murder; a story of marital jealousy, guilt, and forgiveness in which neither party manages to be unfaithful; a dream seen through a dreamer’s eyes. Its hero is suave doctor Bill Harper (Tom Cruise), whose impersonal attitude toward women mirrors the director’s own; its central sequence, a masked ball in which human sexuality is filmed as an alien ritual: chilly, anonymous, mechanical. The defining image, though, comes much later in the film: Harper staring down a beautiful corpse and finding there the only possible source of true aesthetic perfection—and by extension, the fulfillment of the only desire he’s ever known.

This film, Kubrick’s last, was the work of a perfectionist at odds with his own perfectionism; it found the director confronting the absence in his own cinema of any desire that might stabilize or ground him in the physical world. What’s left is a labyrinth with no center, a fleshless, bloodless rabbit-hole down which, if you’re not careful, you could keep on falling forever.

02/19/13 1:05pm

Full disclosure: Max Nelson works as an intern for Film Comment, the magazine which curates this film series at Lincoln Center.

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Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights with Theodore, which screens this month as part of the 13th annual Film Comment Selects series, opens with an unexpected history lesson. A female narrator muses on the legacy of Paris’ sprawling Parc des Buttes-Chaumont over a montage of archival prints, drawings, and film clips, her train of thought chugging from the park’s origin in the utopian dreams of Napoleon III to its sinister significance for modern-day occultists. It’s a left-field introduction for a film that seems then to veer into more conventional territory: young and attractive Parisians, Theodore and Anna, hit it off at a party and end up spending the night together in one of the park’s secluded sylvan getaways. They come back the next night and the night after that; the park starts to exert a strange hold on them, and the film veers off again—this time for good.

Nights with Theodore’s young heroes end up conferring so much of their passion, curiosity and sensitivity onto the park itself that those jungle-like canopies, fairy-tale grottos, and candlelighted pavilions eventually start to look like the inside of a lover’s head. In films less wily than this one, such instantly evocative background markers might serve as convenient substitutes for actual character psychology; Theodore’s punchline is to make that substitution literal. Once we get to a talking-head interview with an “environmental psychologist” who suggests that the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is capable of physically siphoning away the life-energy of its inhabitants, we’ve forgotten all about Anna and Theodore’s puppy love—the real amour fou here is between a person and a place.

02/06/13 4:00am

Night Across the Street
Directed by Raul Ruiz

There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment midway through this movie that ranks for me as one of the most wondrous in recent filmmaking. Elderly clerk Don Celso stares proudly at his handmade “impossible bottles”—miniature clipper ships encased in thin-necked glass, the sort of dusty, handmade curiosities that Ruiz has always viewed with a child’s sense of wonder. He runs his hand over each bottle, and we hear—thanks to some canny sound editing—the faint cawing of gulls and the crashing of waves. In a flash, Celso’s magic trick becomes Ruiz’s: the magic of cramming a world into a bottle replaced by the magic of bringing it to life.

Night Across the Street was the late Chilean filmmaker’s final work, and it plays like an impossible bottle itself: a lifetime’s worth of unfilmed stories, stray ideas, childhood memories, and verbal puns packed into two unhurried hours. In theory, Night cycles between Celso’s present musings and his imagined youth; in practice, it’s an especially loopy—and pleasurable—tour through Ruiz’s fertile imagination, stumbling repeatedly on certain games (mock-sparring, marbles, dominoes), words (“Rhododendron,” the director’s favorite, which ends up taking on more meanings than it has syllables), and places (drawing-rooms, cinemas, greenhouses, and docks, all seen through the yellow-orange haze of memory), with just enough time for a murder plot, too.

The film’s quietly triumphant ending only proves Celso’s maxim that “you can’t kill yourself, [only] lend yourself to death”—which for Ruiz meant lending himself to the movies. His wise, playful swan song is no monument or testament. It’s something much less showy and much more private: something of Ruiz himself, hosting radio shows, playing with marbles, and dreaming of Beethoven from beyond the grave, in the flickering light of the screen.

Opens February 8