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01/28/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Milestone Films

Losing Ground (1982)
Directed by Kathleen Collins
February 6-12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Thirty-two years years after its completion, Kathleen Collins’s comedy-drama Losing Ground enjoys a week-long engagement as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s revelatory “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986” program. This perceptive, rousingly feminist study of a strained relationship between philosophy professor Sara (Seret Scott) and her mercurial painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn) was never theatrically released. It screened once on PBS’s American Playhouse, before effectively disappearing, while Collins sadly died from cancer in 1988 at just 46 years old. Like everything else in FSLC’s extraordinary collection of films—including work by William Greaves, Amiri Baraka, Jessie Maple, and Gunn himself—its day in the sun is more than overdue.
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01/14/15 12:36pm
Photo courtesy of Universal

 

Blackhat
Directed by Michael Mann
Opens January 16

 

In his new thriller Blackhat, Michael Mann has taken a gamble by asking: is the world ready for a techno-reboot of 48 Hrs., with the wisecracking Eddie Murphy figure replaced by a strapping, 21st century alpha male equally adept at fiddling with laptops, staving villains’ heads in, and making sweet, tender love? Time, and box office receipts, will tell, but he’s found an engaging figure to play said dreamboat in Chris Hemsworth, whose hacker bro Hathaway—in a slick opening passage—is sprung from prison by a small, reluctant FBI-Chinese coalition in order to assist in the pursuit of a faceless global terrorist with cloudy motives and an appetite for destruction. Hathaway’s re-immersion into the hacking game precipitates a gratuitously globetrotting game of cat and mouse.

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01/14/15 12:06pm
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

 

Black Sea
Directed by Kevin McDonald
Opens January 23

 

Kevin McDonald’s disjointed submarine thriller Black Sea focuses on the efforts of a ragtag band of Brits and Russians, led by Captain Robinson (Jude Law), who riskily trawl the eponymous expanse in search of hidden Nazi gold. It’s a hodgepodge of styles and influences which, though intermittently fun, fails to cohere into a satisfying whole. There are hints of The Treasure of The Sierra Madre’s epic sweep, Alien’s claustrophobia, and Southern Comfort’s macho angst, but McDonald’s pacing is way off; tempers flare before any tension has been allowed to simmer, while characters consistently behave in forehead-smackingly implausible ways (like Robinson smashing up the sub’s radio—their only form of contact with the outside world). There are early hints of social realism, with Dennis Kelly’s script broaching the very real issue of declining industry and mass unemployment. But this element is handled perfunctorily, and swiftly subsumed by sentimentality.

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10/22/14 4:00am

Force Majeure
Directed by Ruben Östlund

Merriam-Webster lists two distinct but complementary definitions for the French term force majeure, which is also the apt title of the latest feature by Swedish director Ruben Östlund.

1. Unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract.

2. Irresistible compulsion or greater force.

In the film, which opens in New York on October 24, the “unforeseeable circumstance” is a spectacular avalanche which threatens to assail a bunch of lunching families on the deck of a French ski resort. The “irresistible compulsion,” meanwhile, is the blind panic which grips Tomas (Steven Dorff-a-like Johannes Bah Kuhnke), compelling him to flee the scene—leaving his cowering wife and two young kids behind—but not before grabbing his beloved iPhone. Priorities, right?

The fallout from this incident provides the basis of a surgical, wincingly funny study of male pride and its lamentable role in the slo-mo implosion of a middle class marriage (or, to return to our dictionary definitions, the “contract”). Force Majeure’s central, bitter joke is that Tomas singularly refuses to take responsibility for his actions, going so far as to craft an alternate version of events in collaboration with his increasingly uncomfortable wife Ebba (the excellent Lisa Loven Kongsli) upon which they can both agree, and peddle to fellow guests at the ski lodge.

The 40-year-old Östlund is frequently compared to Michael Haneke, and there were certainly hints of the Austrian’s trademark formal rigor, sharp social observation and outright cruelty in his prior film, schoolboy bullying drama Play (2011), which I watched through my fingers. Yet I find nothing forbidding about the director when we meet for a brief chat in midtown Manhattan. Roguishly handsome, tanned and sporting an impeccably set, golden-toasted coif, Östlund laughs when I tell him my reaction to Play. “I think it was a very funny film!” he beams. He thinks the same—somewhat more convincingly—of his latest, which has been receiving raves on the festival circuit since premiering at Cannes in May this year. “It’s more universal, I guess, the men-women theme.”

With a recent NYFF screening of David Fincher’s acrid Gone Girl loitering in my mind, I ask Östlund if he sees Force Majeure as the latest addition to the deliberately provocative battle-of-the-sexes canon (think Fatal Attraction, Oleanna). But he immediately takes a philosophical tack. “Men are primed to be heroic from a young age, socially speaking. They’re fed stories of war and manliness,” he says. “So what happens when that goes wrong, as with Tomas?” As a comparison, he cites the infamous 2012 Costa Concordia ship disaster, in which the Italian captain, subsequently dubbed “Captain Coward” by a hostile media, abandoned the vessel before all the passengers had been evacuated, resulting in the loss of 32 lives. “A reflex action,” Östlund says. Tomas’s faux pas isn’t quite so severe, but it’s clear that Östlund has empathy with his character, even as he portrays him as an increasingly wheedling, howlingly pathetic figure. Tomas’ prolonged, animalistic crying jag, late in the film, is particularly memorable. “I wanted the kind of crying that doesn’t just elicit sympathy from the viewer; instead, they go ‘What the hell is that?’” Östlund chuckles, with eyebrows raised for effect.

Östlund began his career making snowboarding videos, and he’s a veteran of skiing holidays, which he describes as characteristically “kitschy…absurd.” He’d been keen to make a film about the experience for a while, but his eureka moment arrived when he had the idea of the catalytic avalanche. The effect itself was achieved through a combination of studio-built decking, a massive green screen, and the blowing of smoke up onto the actors. “We wanted the best avalanche ever seen on film!” Östlund enthuses. It’s not quite that—I didn’t have the heart to bring up Vertical Limit in our interview—but it’s impressive nonetheless. And Force Majeure is indeed exceptional from an aesthetic standpoint, its clean lines, icily detached widescreen panoramas and transitional white-outs all contrasting beautifully with the roiling emotional turmoil of the characters. Östlund’s use of classical music (a repeated excerpt from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, in particular), meanwhile, is both jarring and inspired, offering an unorthodox aural counterpoint to the eerie silence in the sterile lodge and the unsettling sounds of the creaking ski equipment.

Just before our time runs out, Östlund speaks passionately about the importance of “time and space” when filming—Force Majeure is notable for its long takes, which are simultaneously luxurious and, given the relentless atomization of this family unit, excruciating. “If [the actors] make a mistake, that’s ok,” he says, soothingly enough for me to temporarily dispel any notions of Haneke-esque autocracy. But there’s a glint in his eye that seems entirely of a piece with his cruel, wickedly entertaining film.




10/08/14 4:00am

Dear White People
Directed by Justin Simien

“Racism is over in America,” harrumphs the president of the fictional Ivy League college where Justin Simien’s complex, witty debut, Dear White People, is set. By the time this line—a recurrent Obama-era fantasy—is spoken, Simien’s film has exposed the claim as utter bunk: the sole all-black residential house is under threat of dissolution for reasons of “diversification” (read: divide and conquer), while institutional discrimination has resulted in the stagnation of promotional opportunities for black staff, and enabled the unedifying spectacle of a blackface Halloween party. This horrifying event, which is based on a number of real-life cases, provides the film’s climax (that’s no spoiler, by the way: it’s revealed in the opening scene).

Though Dear White People boasts a vast ensemble cast of vividly drawn characters, the narrative coalesces around four figures. There’s Sam (Tessa Thompson), an outspoken film student who is unexpectedly elected president of the under-threat, all-black residential house. Sam’s rival and ex-lover, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), meanwhile, is in favor of integration, and yearns to join the staff of the school’s all-white humor magazine. The furor over the election becomes a career-defining opportunity for the majestically afro’d, gay misfit Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), who is requested to join the school’s (white) newspaper staff to cover the controversy, even though, as a Mumford & Sons fan, he’s hardly au fait with received notions of “black culture.” The paper’s coldly utilitarian placement of Lionel—which he’s smart enough to recognize—is complicated by the frisson of attraction he feels for the paper’s editor. Lastly, there’s Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), a dark-skinned, weave-wearing sharp-talker whose aim is to make it as a reality TV star.

Dear White People’s narrative splinters in so many directions that it almost assumes the properties of a multi-stranded Twitter argument. That it never becomes overly diffuse is down to Simien’s adoption of two distinctly (Wes) Andersonian tropes: chapter titles for that story-book feel; and a precise, rigorously color-coded aesthetic rife with strikingly symmetrical framing. One of the more ravishing aspects of Dear White People lies in Simien’s giddy indulgence of his evident cinephilia. It’s no coincidence that the key character, Sam, is a filmmaker, and the film is most alive when she’s onscreen: through Sam, Simien makes pointed references to the history of black representation on film, from Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind to Spike Lee and Tyler Perry. Later, in a delicious slice of discursive dialogue, one character unexpectedly proclaims his love for Robert Altman (“Motherfucker goes in!”). Unfortunately, Simien occasionally echoes Altman’s tendency to treat his characters with condescension. The vapid, spiteful Coco comes off worst here; even so, a less daring film would have had her reality TV consort be a vulturous white dude: here, he’s a rapacious black capitalist, hyper-aware of what works in the marketplace.

Ultimately, Simien’s film boils the thick soup of identity politics into a vapor so dense that the viewer might need more than one crack to fully appreciate it. One thing’s for certain, though: Dear White People, rather rousingly, winds up aligning itself with the outsiders: those marginal figures either unwilling, or unable, to tether themselves to a tribe.

Opens October 17

09/26/14 8:30am

Retro Metro
September 26-October 5 at at BAM

The Retro Metro film season at BAM takes “a 16-film ride through the history of the New York City subway, from dreamy visions of modern city life in the 1930s to the glory days of graffiti art in the 1970s when there was still a K train and rides cost less than $1.” Though the city’s subway has a long, proud and occasionally smelly history, it’s those latter days of graffiti art which constitute its most iconic era in terms of cinematic representation. Subway graffiti was ubiquitous from the early 1970s to the late 80s, and showcased a variety of tags and designs from local, mostly black and Latino youngsters with tags like TAKI 183, Stay High 149, DONDI, and Lady Pink. These artists were either lauded in hipper circles for their artistry (see Norman Mailer’s floridly pro-graffiti 1974 book The Faith Of Graffiti), or derided by the establishment as vandals. Capturing the artwork’s contradictions, hip-hop scholar Fab 5 Freddy—in his foreword for Bruce Davidson’s classic Subway photography book—describes it as “a tornado of multicolored, mural-like extravaganzas on the outsides, while interior signatures became an abstract of Jackson Pollock-like drippy calligraphic madness.”

The explosion of subway graffiti in NYC began in the early 1970s, and quickly became a political issue: by 1971, the city was spending $300k per year to erase it. Mayor John Lindsay saw graffiti as a pathological problem—the New York Times reported his belief that “graffiti writing is related to mental health problems”, and his description of the writers as “insecure cowards” seeking recognition. By 1973, a new anti-graffiti task force had been installed, and spending rose dramatically. In spite of Lindsay’s fulminations, and the rise in popularity of the art form, subway graffiti had yet to fully impose itself on cinematic representations of the city. The carriage interiors in Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974), for example, are conspicuously spotless: it’s the glowering human scum, to be vanquished by Charlie Bronson’s resourceful Paul Kersey, that are dirtying up the trains.

The use of subway graffiti as a visual place-marker in cinema rose under the consecutive tenures of firstly Mayor Abe Beame—who was forced to slash the struggling city’s budget in a bid to stave off bankruptcy—then Mayor Ed Koch, who was sworn in in 1978. Yet some filmmakers transcended the use of subway graffiti as simply local coloring. In John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977), graffiti is used as a poetic backdrop for its characters’ psychological states. Consider the scene in which white-suited jiver Tony Manero (John Travolta), in a maudlin mood, languishes in a carriage. A huge, claret splurge of paint suggestively haloes his head. In another shot, the scrawled black tags hover over his bouffant like jagged thought bubbles. There’s a similar moment in Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979)—perhaps the ultimate NYC-subway-as-narrative-function movie—when a group of peppy prom kids hop on the train, and sit opposite our dirtied, exhausted lower-class antiheroes. In the absence of dialogue, all we have to go on are charged glances and the hieroglyphics on the wall, which speak to characters’ difference in class and status. The scene echoes Fab 5 Freddy’s observation that “the graffiti on the trains began to decode itself when people sat in front of it, like Medusa coming to life.”

In the Beame and early Koch eras, there had been little press coverage of graffiti in the media, which reflected the city government’s reluctance to publicize its continued failure to control the phenomenon. Yet this blackout ended in 1980, when the Times Magazine published a feature on three writers: NE, T-Kid and SEEN. SEEN is a key figure in Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s Style Wars, a thrilling documentary which premiered on PBS in 1983, but was filmed from 1980 to 1981. Ostensibly a study of the three pillars of hip-hop culture (graffiti, breaking, and hip-hop), Style Wars lasers in on the taggers and bombers. Its title is a model of punchy multivalency, referring to the simultaneous battles between youth and establishment (Mayor Koch, who dubs graffiti a “quality of life offence”, and ramps up anti-graffiti spending, is the film’s arch-villain); parents and children; and various intra-subcultural rivalries. Like Jennie Livingstone’s study of the drag ball scene Paris Is Burning (1990), Style Wars is a rare example of a formally interesting documentary which somehow manages to capture the texture and entire arc of a subculture. One thrilling sequence sets a rapid montage of SEEN’s vibrant, large-scale train art to the rollicking swagger of Dion’s 1961 rock n’ roll hit “The Wanderer”, effectively melding an aural signifier of one generation’s subculture with the visual of the next.

Style Wars shows how graffiti writing was fetishized by the artists, who were attracted by the elements of danger. One artist almost licks his lips when speaking of “live rails, crazy cops, the smell of trains”. The film also broaches the racial element: consider the telling moment when a dweeby white tagger in a Van Halen shirt admits to a love for robbing paint, but perspicaciously confirms that it’s harder for black and Puerto Rican kids to get away with it. Notable, too, is the inclusion of footage from cringeworthy, ingratiating anti-graffiti PSAs starring boxers Hector Camacho and Alex Ramos (“Take it from champs, graffiti is for chumps!”), and Fame stars Irene Cara and Gene Anthony Ray (“Use your head, or your voice, but don’t waste your time making a mess!”); the co-option of mainstream cultural stars to quash a subculture is frequently a sign of its impending doom.

The film ends on a double note of ruefulness. Firstly, it spotlights the early days of the commodification of street art, with graffiti easing from the subways into Manhattan’s art galleries. Then there’s Mayor Koch’s announcement of a $1.5m program to provide barbed-wire fences and German shepherd watchdogs for the Corona rail yards. (Months later, Koch announced that the city would increase the city’s contribution to the MTA by $22.4m in order to fund the installation of similar fences at 18 other yards.) Yet Style Wars‘s spiritual denouement is a stunning, uninterrupted left-to-right pan of an entire subway train daubed in colorful murals, tags, anti-war slogans, and personal pleas. If people wanted to know what the youth responsible were thinking, it was all there, on the trains, plain as day.

09/24/14 4:00am

Jimi: All Is By My Side
Directed by John Ridley

With All Is By My Side, a deliberately low-key study of guitar hero Jimi Hendrix, writer-director John Ridley shares the approach of Daniel Algrant, whose Jeff Buckley film Greetings From Tim Buckley (2012)—about another musical star who burned out young—also spent a short spell in the company of its enigmatic subject on the cusp of stardom, rather than at the peak of his powers.

Playing like a riff on some superhero origin story, Ridley’s film spans a one-year period from 1966 to 1967, beginning with Hendrix’s move from New York to London, a city whose essence is rendered with comically lazy shorthand: from the red Routemaster bus to archival footage of cheeky East End Cockneys (despite Jimi’s West London residence), no visual cliché is left unmolested. We’re party to Hendrix’s gradual absorption into the British music scene, a transition handled with similar cack-handedness. In lieu of conjuring an idiosyncratic feel for the era (consider the Coens’ frost-bitten take on the 60s Village in Inside Lleywn Davis), Ridley goes for remedial-level exposition and namedropping: “I tire of being The Rolling Stones’ manager,” proclaims the Rolling Stones’ manager, moments after his name and job title have been caption-plastered across the screen. (I had thought the caption gambit to be wholly unnecessary, until a prancing, fresh-faced posho was identified, laughably, as Keith Richards.)

All Is By My Side is broadly structured around Hendrix’s dalliances with three women. There’s plummy initial benefactor Linda (Imogen Poots, vowel-stretcher nonpareil), then spunky red-headed Northern lass Kathy (Hayley Attwell) and, finally, seductive Milwaukeean expat and Black Power movement affiliate Ida (Ruth Negga, whose insouciant, drawly turn is the best thing here). Throughout, Hendrix—played in distractingly mannered fashion by OutKast’s André Benjamin—remains little more than a vaporous semi-savant, spouting childlike aphorisms in a machine-gun mutter. Such is the vagueness of his characterization, it remains unclear as to whether Ridley is aiming to demystify the man (he was normal!), or reinforce his enigma (What was he ever going on about?!).The film momentarily sparks to life when broaching the subject of race, and specifically Hendrix’s dismayed response to the suggestion, made by charismatic Brit-based Black Power maven Michael X (Adrian Lester), that he needs to embrace his black audience because he is being exoticized by everyone else (the media, women, his fans). Hendrix’s outsiderness is earlier hinted at when a female fan likens him to the “Wild Man of Borneo,” and made clear when he is accosted by racist white police. The brief scene with X is didactic—Ridley is a dab hand at didacticism, as anyone whose clapped eyed on his horrifying jeremiad “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger” can attest—but opens up some crucial space for the viewer to glimpse how Hendrix may have seen himself as transcending notions of “race.” Intriguingly, later editing patterns suggest an associative link between Hendrix’s growing awareness of his “otherness” and—however ideologically debatable or factually contestable—his impending descent into domestic abuse and drug use. Though it’s hardly Othello or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in terms of the race/psychosis intersection, Ridley at least adds a layer of psychological complexity missing from the rest of the film.

Finally, thanks to the film’s limited chronological span, the major elephant in the room—the absence of Hendrix’s actual music (his estate repeatedly refused requests)—is not as deeply felt as it might’ve been. The music we do get—mostly widdly, fiddly, fabricated guitar noodlings bolted to cringeworthy pseudo-60s avant garde editing—is apposite to a work which feels semi thought-through, at best.

Opens September 26