01/14/15 12:10pm
Photo courtesy of MetaFilms


Joy of Man’s Desiring
Directed by Denis Côté
January 16-22 at Anthology Film Archives


Denis Côté’s essayistic work, both nonfiction and narrative, most immediately recalls that Patti Smith imperative of belonging, “outside of society they’re waiting for me.” The subjects of his films, whether junked vehicles, on-the-lam females or animals on display, exist in that liminal space right outside public perception but still within an existing framework of semi-normalcy; blink and you miss them. This philosophical underpinning can also be applied to his newest, fascinating work, Joy of Man’s Desiring.


12/03/14 4:00am
Photo courtesy of Criterion


Robert Altman

December 3-January 17 at MoMA

Cinematic retrospectives are the original mode of binge-watching. Fassbinder famously “discovered” Sirk in this manner during a 1970 Viennese series, serving as the catalyst for some of the German enfant terrible’s best work. Before Netflix series-drops at midnight or torrents, art consumption in bulk required significantly more dedication and interest. And while cases can clearly be made for the 21st century brand of insta-everything, there’s still something to relish about a survey course as grand and exhaustive as MoMA’s Robert Altman series, presenting all of the irascible maverick’s work from his early days as a hired hand on Alfred Hitchcock Presents to the cinematic groundbreaking of masterworks as diverse as Nashville, 3 Women and Gosford Park. Perhaps more than most directors, Altman’s kalaidescopic tapestries of American modernity are best shown on the big screen, where his signature long shots and voyeuristic, observational style can creep into the viewer’s psyche the way it was meant to, subtly and without incidence.


11/05/14 4:00am

Burroughs: The Movie (1983)
Directed by Howard Brookner

During a taping of Saturday Night Live, supermodel-cum-actor Lauren Hutton introduces legendary author William S. Burroughs as “America’s greatest living writer.” The man himself then reads from his novel Nova Express to a spattering of nervous laughter and chatter from the assembled audience. It’s an ostensibly strange scene, where a man in his 60s sits at a table to do a dramatic reading during a live taping of a sketch comedy show. But this is no ordinary man, and to get him to do such a thing was probably quite a boon for the popular late-night show.

Newly discovered, augmented and restored after decades of unavailability, Burroughs: The Movie is the kind of documentary that most documentaries wish they could be: it proceeds with full cooperation from its exalted subject without veering into hagiography, eschewing voiceover narration in an attempt to seamlessly guide the viewer through an existence.

Shot mostly in and around 1981, it’s easy to see the film now as a seminal document of one of America’s greatest artists. Documentarian Howard Brookner mostly avoids the pitfalls of biographical filmmaking due to Burroughs’s unerring candor and contextualization of himself amidst historical realities (the Depression then WWII) and literary movements (the Beat movement).

Many of the titular iconoclast’s contemporaries make memorable appearances to wax anecdotal about his genius, but the film succeeds most when it lets Burroughs do his thing. By reading from his vast collection of writings, and traveling to his childhood home, Burroughs creates an environment that mandates reflection. His childhood home, like all of ours, was filled with trials and tribulations, and as he narrates his history by reading from the prose it subsequently inspired, it’s easy to see that this titan of the written word merely used a gift to the best of his ability, the same as any of us would. The fact that he lives in a self-described “bunker,” impenetrable by natural light and perfect for writing, is the most arbitrarily fascinating thing you’ll learn about a person whom you already know from an intensely intimate body of work.

November 13-19 at Anthology Film Archives

08/27/14 4:00am

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

The first thing you’ll hear about The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is that it “follows in the giallo tradition,” which is both a gross understatement and lazily reductive, depending on your knowledge of and interest in that underground cinematic tradition. As with directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s previous aesthetic undertaking, Amer, the irrefutable goal here is to stimulate the senses, and in that respect Strange Color is a masterful exercise. A loosely woven murder mystery allows the creators to exploit the myriad macabre circumstances that masquerade as a narrative, but there’s no mistaking that in this film the devil really is in the details.

Imagine a 90-plus-minute funhouse visit and all its attendant thrill and exhaustion, and that’s what’s in store here. Dan (Klaus Tange) returns home from a business trip only to find his wife Edwige missing and his apartment chained shut from the inside. He embarks on a mission to uncover answers, along the way encountering creepy neighbors and a host of wildly flourished environments. Action flits between surrealistic dream sequences and Dan’s fantasy world as he tries to piece together, with little actual information, what may have happened to his beloved.

For the audience, it becomes immediately apparent that that Strange Color is nothing more than a hyperbolic exercise in aural and visual splendor. Shots rarely last for more than a few seconds, thankfully; the dizzying repetition of close ups, zooms and askew angles narrowly produces motion sickness in its frequency. The problem for the uninitiated, which will be most, is that even though there is beauty it is gradually obscured by diminishing returns. Though each frame is architectural and magnificently composed, there’s little to no narrative connective tissue to retain the audience’s attention.

The film’s gruesomeness doesn’t do it any favors, nor does its casual misogyny. There’s only so many times one can see a knife rip into someone’s skull, albeit artfully, and have it make much of an impact. Which is a shame, really, because if there were a smidgen more attention to story then Cattet and Forzani could transcend (escape?) their subcultural ghetto.

Opens August 29 at IFC Center

05/07/14 4:00am

God’s Pocket
Directed by John Slattery

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sudden death unavoidably looms over this movie. Featuring one of the celebrated actor’s final performances, it’s hard to see as anything other than a melancholy tribute—which is perhaps best for director John Slattery (best known for his role as Roger Sterling on Mad Men), as his directorial debut is a despondent mess full of miscalculations and grossly implausible scenarios.

The problems, with both story and direction, begin almost immediately, when Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a racist, foul-mouthed, twentysomething laborer, is killed at work by an elderly African-American man whom he had been bullying. Misplaced morality consistent with small-town insularity becomes manifest when the coworkers cover up the murder as a workplace accident. Leon’s mother, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), is obviously distraught by this and given virtually no support by her husband Mickey (Hoffman), a drunk who supports the family through various activities such as stealing and gambling.

God’s Pocket is the blue-collar neighborhood in South Philly where all this takes place, a small community predicated upon close-knit ties and a seeming inability to transcend rank. Slattery directs this plodding melodrama accordingly: each character amounts to nothing more than a sad-sack of regrets, the audience given virtually nothing or no one to root for. Hendricks is stuck in weepy-mom mode most of the movie, and so too are the other characters arrested in an ill-advised state of misery and one-dimensionality. Her character rightly suspects foul play, and the film, mostly, follows this line of reasoning. One silly plot contrivance after another ensues, including, believe it or not, an extended scene in which Leon’s embalmed body is carted around in a meat truck.

Slattery assembled a dynamite cast, rounded out with Eddie Marsan, John Turturro and Richard Jenkins, but the overwhelming joylessness of the direction precludes any one actor from excelling. Even Hoffman barely registers, forcing you to wonder if it’s from a fault in Slattery’s direction or the ongoing addiction he was battling off camera. Either way, God’s Pocket is best tucked out of sight.

Opens May 9

04/09/14 4:00am

The tenuous relationship between cinema and nonfiction can be traced to the inception of the medium. The earliest films were themselves a documentary progenitor pioneered by the Lumière Brothers and referred to as “actuality films,” consisting mostly of static shots of people doing everyday things, as seen in the brothers’ first 1895 film “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.” The sheer newness of the technological wonder fascinated audiences, whose rapt attention was likely not predicated upon a desire for storytelling or characterizations but rather with the then-unprecedented and complex relationship to an image that was in motion. Like a game of telephone, a movie becomes a living document from the moment it’s first captured.

Film Society Lincoln Center’s series “Art of the Real” (April 11-26) is a documentary festival for cinephiles, presenting a welcome respite from today’s homogenized nonfiction marketplace in which films default too often to talking heads and infographics in a quest for Truth. Through a well-culled and dynamic collection of formally inventive, intellectually stimulating nonfiction films (new and repertory), the FSLC programmers repeatedly show that documentaries can and should be held to the same filmmaking standards as narrative films, namely by championing the symbiosis of form and content, and by interrogating the notion of epistemological certainty. Documentaries need not be devoid of artistic license; the most challenging art is often the most rewarding, and this series presents a grand selection of it. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.

Directed by Robert Greene

Brandy Burre achieved modest success as a regular cast member on HBO’s The Wire, but, as with so many women, motherhood and suburban domesticity sidelined a promising career. Brooklyn director Robert Greene picks up with Burre as she attempts professional reemergence while also going through a separation from her longtime partner (for which her own infidelity is the catalyst) and the often competing demands of being a working mom. In a key shot establishing the film’s central theme, Burre is filmed from behind while washing dishes in her home: in voiceover, she says, “I tend to break things.” The line originates from Burre’s television character, but it’s increasingly clear that its application extends far past the confines of scripted drama. Is she talking about her dissolved family? Her career? Actress is that rare piece of meta nonfiction filmmaking that incorporates the subject’s medium of choice, acting, into a structural framework in an effort at character-driven world-building. Like so few documentaries, it’s satisfying both emotionally and discursively. The challenges Burre faces as a modern woman necessitate an omnipresent artifice, an inescapable ability to navigate complex roles. You’re never quite sure if she’s attempting a comeback or if this movie is the comeback. In the end you feel like you know a little more about her, and a lot more about the countless unnamed women like her. (Closing Night Film Screening, Apr 26)

Time Goes By Like A Roaring Lion
Directed by Philipp Hartmann
An intensely personal and associative visual poem, this movie looks at time and our relationship to it, achieving an often ineffable effect. Director Hartmann takes as his jumping off point his own middle-age status and the chronophobia it inspires to try and process both tangentially and finitely his past and the experiences that shaped his understanding of it. For each year of his life Hartmann presents a corresponding analog: memory (his own or someone else’s); an existential theorem; and fascinating and revelatory historical contexts of people dealing with the strain of mortality. The free-form approach culminates in a resoundingly coherent closing sequence in which Hartmann, riding a mountainside chairlift, films his undulating shadow as it zooms in and out against nature below. Viewers ruminate on all that Hartmann has presented and focus, for a time, on their own mortality. (Apr 18-19)

Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez
2013 was an exciting year for nonfiction filmmaking, thanks in large part to Leviathan, the immersive, bombastic sonic and visual onslaught from Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, instructors at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Art of the Real highlights six of the collective’s other works, including this new release. (Apr 12) (Also see our review.)

Directed by Derek Jarman

This is a rare 35mm screening (introduced by the artist Carolee Schneemann) of Jarman’s melancholy swansong, which was filmed after the groundbreaking queer director lost his eyesight in the throes of late-stage AIDS complications. Consisting of a single frame of blue, the film features narration from Jarman, longtime collaborator Tilda Swinton, and other actors revisiting the director’s life and work. (Apr 25)

02/26/14 4:00am

Directed by Valeria Golino

“Honey” is a euthanasiast, which is to say that to make a living she helps people kill themselves when they no longer wish to fight an incurable or debilitating disease. The clandestine nature of her work necessitates a double life; residing outside Rome, she’s Irene, dating a married man and lying to her family about being a medical student. To those around her, the frequent trips she takes to Padua are for discussions with a thesis advisor; in actuality, she’s flying to Mexico to procure illegal barbiturates—canine painkillers to be precise—which facilitate the taking of life without leaving traces. The morality of her actions remain unquestioned until she learns that one of her “patients” is a quite healthy but incessantly bored older man who has no interest in life’s trivialities. She faces a quandary: is it wrong to help him? Or is his depression no less an illness than, say, terminal cancer? She attempts to convince the man, played by Carlo Cecchi, to rethink his position, and in the process forges an intimate relationship that produces unintended revelations.

First time director Valeria Golino is best known as an actor (Rain Man, Frida, The Indian Runner) but her debut behind the camera is no less entrancing than her performances in front of it. She has a keen eye for composition, often framing Honey in majestic static shots that help explicate the character’s motivations; she thinks she’s doing a service to her “clients,” and, watching Jasmine Trinca’s nuanced lead performance, it’s hard to argue that she isn’t. What stultifies both the film’s power and intrigue, though, is an over-determined script that needlessly spells out Honey’s thought process. Her unlikely friendship with Grimaldi needs little adornment to become a unique character study, but unfortunately Golino disallows viewers the privilege of this journey without a bit of hand-holding.

Opens March 7 at Lincoln Center

01/15/14 4:00am

Directed by Jillian Schlesinger

Whatever you were doing as a 14-year-old pales in comparison to what Laura Dekker was doing: sailing around the globe by herself. She began the trip when she was 14, and more than 500 days and 27,000 nautical miles later, she’d become the youngest person in history ever to do so. But record-breaking wasn’t her inspiration: she just wanted to know if she could do it. She made headlines all across the world while people argued the legality of her trip without even taking into consideration the fact that she already had a decade’s worth of experience. One of these headlines was Prospect Lefferts Garden-based director Jillian Schlesinger’s New York Times op-ed, “How Young Is Too Young To Sail Around The World?” But still the most fundamental question remained unanswered: how does Laura feel about all this? Schlesinger tracked her down, equipped her with cameras, and the result is Maidentrip, a video diary of extraordinarily globetrotting proportions.

One of the first things you learn about the nautically intrepid teenager is that Holland, where she then lived, took 10 months in court to try and end the parentally approved journey before it’d even begun—attempting, among other things, to get Dekker thrown into a psych ward and to revoke her parents’ custody. Born in transit in New Zealand to parents who were themselves in the middle of a global sea voyage, Dekker had wanderlust coursing through her veins from infancy. Through her exhilarating footage, you see an adolescent struggling with the things we all did at that age, namely resenting authority and searching for a still nascent identity. The film’s charm and success rests squarely on Dekker acting her age throughout, even though she’s ultimately doing something very dangerous, trying, and heroic. It’s a mostly smooth trip, except for a stormy stretch through the Indian Ocean, when it appears Dekker might be in crisis mode. Thunder rolls and the ocean crashes on, alongside, and into the 38-foot boat, Guppy. Dekker’s response? “It’s really cool to see how the boat figures its way through the waves.”

Opens January 17

12/04/13 4:00am

Some Velvet Morning
Directed by Neil LaBute

Multi-hyphenate provocateur Neil LaBute goes back to basics with this film, which deals in the pernicious gender politics and interpersonal turmoil in which the director most gleefully revels. In many ways Velvet feels like the foregone, tongue-in-cheek conclusion to a trilogy that chronicles misogyny vis-à-vis male identity anxieties, beginning with LaBute’s debut black comedy In the Company of Men and continuing through The Shape of Things. A word to the uninitiated: LaBute is a master of the slow burn, especially here; he doesn’t really get dirty until the film’s explosive final minutes. But give yourself over, and it’s worth the wait: LaBute’s objectives crystalize into something delightfully maniacal.

The titular textile is actually a nickname: Velvet (Alice Eve) unexpectedly, begrudgingly welcomes Fred (Stanley Tucci) into her home one morning. He arrives with luggage in tow and a glint in his eye; he’s left his wife of 20 years and is ready to commit to his relationship with Velvet, which has fallen off in the past year. Roughly twice her age, Fred is a handsome, rugged A-type, a lawyer whom she met while she was dating his son and moonlighting as a prostitute.

LaBute lets their dynamic unfold with churlish delight, creating an increasingly discomfiting environment as each bares their teeth. Velvet has the transgressive feel of an off-Broadway play: it’s set in one location, a small, claustrophobia-inducing apartment; and through lots of coy, circuitous dialogue, the couple’s relationship becomes clearer as they poke and prod one another about past failings and the potential problems moving forward. Still, the details revealed offer few explanations, and the he said/she said repartee quickly descends into grisly bickering.

Tucci plays against type and is, as usual, fantastic. But it’s Alice Eve’s roller-coaster performance that stands out: she travails the emotional terrain with ease, delivering one of the year’s best performances. If you’re pissed off at the end then LaBute has likely accomplished his goals. Some Velvet Morning is his best film in a decade.

Opens December 13