07/15/15 6:19am
image courtesy of Kino Lorber

A Hard Day
Directed by Kim Seong-Hoon
Opens July 17 at the Village East

A Hard Day’s title is somewhat misleading: the 24-hour period in which homicide detective Go (Lee Sun-kyun) kills a man while speeding, possibly under the influence, away from his mother’s funeral and back to police headquarters, in order to hide evidence of his unit’s corruption from Internal Affairs, is over within the first thirty or so minutes of Kim Seong-Hoon’s black-comic thriller. But the film maintains its momentum thereafter, with a finger-trap murder inquiry and blackmail scheme, cleverly interwoven and made constricting moment-to-moment with recursive obstacles—it’s the kind of movie in which a character who must load a gun must first, invariably, decide whether or not to retrieve the bullet he’s just fumbled away. It plays like a feature-length version of Robert Walker losing Farley Granger’s cigarette lighter down the storm drain in Strangers on a Train.


07/01/15 5:12am
photo by Adam Uhl

Mala Mala
Directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles
Opens July 1 at IFC Center

“I want to see you at the march,” trans activist Ivana Fred calls out her car window to a streetwalker. Earlier that night, she’s visited one of San Juan’s nightclubs, drumming up the turnout for the next day’s rally between drag acts. The documentary Mala Mala understands the link between performance and activism: for the trans-identified Puerto Ricans profiled by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, presenting an identity is a political act.


07/01/15 5:05am
photo courtesy of Still Rolling Productions

Stray Dog
Directed by Debra Granik
Opens July 3 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Stray Dog begins with leather-clad, grizzly-bearded bikers line-dancing in a strip-mall parking lot, and then picnicking, chopping up cheese with a hatchet while bantering in voices like James Gammon’s “Fisherman’s Greek” bit in Cabin Boy. The air of crusty cuddliness never quite dissipates, but the loving tone of Debra Granik’s documentary portrait of Ron “Stray Dog” Hall—a nonprofessional actor whom she recruited to play a backwoods kingpin during the location shoot for her Winter’s Bone—deepens into a heartening, sometimes melancholy portrait of Americana’s tattered fringes.


06/17/15 8:25am
photo courtesy of Good Neighbors Media

Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous takes place in a future with many familiar aspects, both social (extreme wealth stratification, unrest among the politically powerless) and technological (privately owned surveillance drones, nonhuman tech-support operators). The most speculative aspect of the film is grounded in similarly resonant circumstances. Star and cowriter Jacqueline Kim plays Gwen, a corporate-exec single mother about to be let go by her bosses at the “Center for Advanced Health and Living” just as she’s struggling with the costs of educating her world-weary but fearsomely gifted daughter Jules (Samantha Kim)—the right private schools are the only way anyone knows of setting a kid up for an adulthood of material self-sufficiency, let alone happiness. Gwen is, however, presented with the option of becoming the first public face of the Center’s new product, a consciousness-transfer into a donor body (without giving too much away, the big-eyed actress Freya Adams is identified as a face of the future as Gwen leafs through an album of head shots). An affecting mother-daughter indie drama with an engrossing philosophical hook and dystopian details, Advantageous plays at BAMcinemaFest on June 21, and opens at Cinema Village on June 26. Phang answered some questions of mine over email.


06/17/15 8:10am
photo courtesy of IFC Films

Directed by David Gordon Green
Opens June 19

Three times in Manglehorn, supporting characters deliver monologues about the titular small-town Texas locksmith: Though our aging protagonist is a shuffling sad-sack, they all remember a fierce, mercurial, patriarch, a man with “magic” in him, down to his fingertips. Looking at Manglehorn now—like Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, he can’t even convince his cat to eat, implore as he might—the only way these descriptions seem creditable is as fellow actors expressing their awe of the man who plays him, Al Pacino. But though Pacino does work magic here, it’s magic of a subtler, stranger kind.


06/03/15 8:31am
Portrait by Harvey L. Silver

“One constant is certainly a need for chaos,” wrote Nathan Silver, when I interviewed him about his two newest films. “I love to have things shift and get rerouted as we go; if this doesn’t occur, I get bored. Basically, if I’m not stifling laughter behind the monitor, something’s off.” In Uncertain Terms, now playing at Cinema Village and streaming at, a handyman whose marriage is in crisis decamps to a secluded home for pregnant teenagers, overseen by his aunt (played by Silver’s formidably frank mother Cindy). Set in 1990 and shot on vintage video cameras, Stinking Heaven, which plays at BAMcinemaFest later this month, follows group singalongs and psychosexual power dynamics at a house in Passaic where several lost souls “live together and choose to be sober” (and brew a fermented tea drink in the tub of their shared bathroom). These are the fourth and fifth features directed by the 32-year-old Silver, who lives in Crown Heights; his untitled sixth is in preproduction and he hopes to shoot his seventh, The Perverts, this winter.


06/03/15 8:12am
photo courtesy of NM Rao

The organizers of the Film component of the Northside Festival—some of whom are named on the masthead of this very magazine—sought to build a higher platform for emerging local filmmakers with this year’s program, which runs June 8–10 around Williamsburg. That meant a greater emphasis on the shorts programs—plus the new, unique “episodics” category, meaning web series and pilots—as well as a pared-down feature program, with six independent titles in competition, alongside three showcase titles, including a number called Devil Town, which is exactly the sort of curious, hyperlocal work Northside is engineered around.

Written and directed by one Harvey Mitkas, the film stars the filmmaker and actress Sophia Takal, a member of Northside’s Features jury. She plays orphaned Eve, who comes to New York to locate her walkabout older sister Isabel, and is drawn into the vortex of her life, particularly her association with a cult predicated on crunchy rituals and sinister secrets. The film riffs on the Val Lewton-produced “cult” classic The Seventh Victim (1943), with the original’s Greenwich Village subbed out for the organic cafes, boutique distilleries and summer rooftops of contemporary Brooklyn. As the first-time writer-director explained to me via email, Devil Town proceeded, out of sequence, from a scene-by-scene outline replicating the Lewton film’s plot (with one significant alteration); performers improvised dialogue knowing only their character’s biography and, for the cult members, the cult’s cosmology.

The film’s overall structure is cruelly objective: flashbacks reveal more of Isabel and the cult as Eve takes wrong turns on her search. Yet the hazy visual style—a drifting camera, and subjective interludes with superimpositions and double exposures—maintains a mood of uncertainty, portent and transference. According to the filmmaker, Devil Town was an “experiment,” conducted with a cast of local microindie luminaries—actresses Brooke Bloom, Lindsay Burdge and Jennifer Kim apparently proved more adaptable to the “purposefully ambiguous” process than filmmakers like Lawrence Michael Levine, Caveh Zahedi, and Alex Ross Perry (himself also a member of the Northside jury, alongside Crystal Moselle, whose The Wolfpack is reviewed elsewhere this issue).

The film is Eve’s “coming-of-age” into the knotty, manipulative world of adult relations, per the director; it’s a story about a young woman dealing with the confusions and dangers of new people and experiences in the big bad city. Some of the strongest scenes recall Takal’s previous work: her real-life husband, Levine, plays an intriguing former connection of Isabel’s, and, as in his lighter Wild Canaries, the two investigate trust via the romance-thriller genre. “Larry and I joke that both of these movies are about fear of marriage and we made both of them right around our wedding,” Takal said via email. She also allows some similarity between Eve and the protagonist of her debut feature Green: “I feel vulnerable all the time and I’m constantly struggling to assert myself in tense situations. I really related to her.”

A sense of dread, social and personal, permeates the film, making the cult’s concerns—ecological disaster, self-doubt—all the more outwardly sympathetic. The filmmaker researched “religious groups and New Age-y therapy” with which family members were involved, and readily admits to finding many cult beliefs “persuasive.” But the real spiritual cleansing seems to have been the making of Devil Town: in our interview, the filmmaker ranted, tangentially: “Movies are such bullshit these days. Everyone is hedging their bets. Fuck money. I was inspired by Mailer’s Maidstone and Warhol films. I mean, people don’t punch each other, they just complain on Twitter.”

05/20/15 8:06am
photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

I Believe in Unicorns
Directed by Leah Meyerhoff
Opens May 29 at IFC Center

Writer-director Leah Meyerhoff understands that the selfie is a poignant symptom of self-searching adolescence that predates the digital camera, and styles her debut feature as a scrapbook, with her montage encompassing varied film and video formats, stop-motion animation, still photo poses, time-lapse effects, subjective inserts, dream sequences and diaristic doodle-poetry voice-over. Davina (Natalia Dyer) yearns for life outside of the near-silent long-shots depicting the home she shares with her degenerative illness-stricken mother. On her birthday—the day her art teacher (a cameo-ing Amy Seimetz, talking over her audience’s heads) gives the class a self-portrait assignment, and the day Davina’s best friend gives her a camera—she meets longhaird skate punk Sterling (Peter Vack), who sings her “I Was Born a Unicorn” on his guitar, and whose ripped t-shirts fall over his shoulders just so. There’s so much beauty in the world but it’s so tainted by reminders of the older generation’s disappointments, and so the two drive off, to a world of food-fights in diners and cartwheels through fields (the two leads’ faces become visibly sunburned).

Sterling can be distant before or after sex, or tickle Davina and make goofy noises; he shoplifts, but he lets her paint his fingernails; he hates the abusive father who abandoned him, and thinks about him too much. Within the film’s collage, and its evocation of all Davina’s feels, he’s a familiar kind of archetypal indie love object—though “manic pixie dream boy” isn’t quite right, because the gender-reversed version of that kind of story is inevitably much darker. One thing the film does very right, thanks to the actors’ and the story’s first-time guilelessness, is that it gets Sterling early, where his push-pull of vulnerability and control seems still unconscious, even surprising to him.

I Believe in Unicorns feels at times as fragile as Dyer’s age-appropriate lead performance, with the unapologetic girly-goth transparency of its symbolic imagery: not just white unicorns and black dragons but also fireworks, angel wings, and fantasies of drowning. This is like the movie Jena Malone’s character from Donnie Darko would make, and it’s about time she did.

05/06/15 6:07am
photo courtesy of Special Affects Films

L For Leisure
Directed by Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn
May 15-22 at Made in NY Media Center by IFP

The characters in L for Leisure wear Ray-Bans and horn-rims, the girls in oxford shirts and the guys in tank tops; title cards are handwritten in pastels reminiscent of the Drive font, or early MTV programming; the music sounds a little bit like the 8-bit Out Run theme, and a little bit like shoegaze. Shot in grainy, sun-blessed 16mm, the film consists primarily of privileged, pretty people hanging out and chatting; watching it is like living inside an Instagram filter.

Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s microindie festival favorite is set over the 1992–93 school year, on beaches and in family homes from Great Neck to Baja Mexico. The vibe of laid-back affluence, and focus on social minutiae, is played up on the film’s website with the critic-courting tagline, “Find out what happens when people stop being real… and start being polite,” as if the Sally Fowler Rat Pack had moved into the Real World house.

Kalman and Horn’s friends and peers play a loosely knit social network of graduate students; the filmmakers shot where, when, and with whom was possible over the course of a few years. Each sequence takes place on a specific school holiday, hence the characters’ constant descriptions of themselves as “mellow.” On these lacunae in the academic calendar, the grad students take verbal ambles along the scenic route of their research (one student’s dissertation involves speaking through mediums to various tree spirits, a project which her friend describes as “very interdisciplinary”; the anxiety she later confesses about her aptitude for research is very touching and has an air of truth). Interspersed in scenes of waterskiing and wine-drinking are long passages of gauzy, brightly colored visual beauty, encompassing nature (the forests of NoCal; the wheat fields of Provence), consumer kitsch (painted toenails on a Merrill Lynch promotional golf towel; crumpled-up Capri Sun packets under streetlamps in a fast-food parking lot), and pointedly dated bougie signposts (rollerblading). During the occasional “makeout sesh” or flirtation with high schoolers, they relax their boundaries and backslide into a warm bath of youthfulness and inconsequence.

“If this is the end of history,” as one character posits, then the characters really do have all the time in the world. Yet the student studying the apocalypse reads Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance amid the ice age of an Icelandic winter; dreamy, smoke-filled laser-tag games go down at a place called “Future Warz.” (Kalman and Horn were both born in 1982: maybe too young to wear all the clothes the first time around, but just right to come of age between the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Twin Towers.)

This self-awareness is also established through the distancing affect of the deadpan dialogue, delivered with Warholian artlessness by the nonprofessional cast (“So that’s wonderful, you’re on a co-ed, naked basketball team”). But the film’s retro-chic textures are so au courant and luxuriant—for fetishists of both fashion and of cinema—as to dissipate any airquotes we might try and put up as we wallow in our low-risk memories.

In an earlier version of this piece, I called L for Leisure “the movie of the century so far.” A little hyperbole’s a great way to blow off steam, but I did mean it, in one specific way. Luring us into feeling effortlessly savvy about the very recent past, L for Leisure is a perfect metaphor for everything we know so far about right now, from our insinuatingly knowing failsafe corporate entertainment to our social-media habits. Enjoy it at your peril. 

05/06/15 5:54am
photo courtesy of Alan and Susan Raymond

The Seven Five
Directed by Tiller Russell
Opens May 8

The Police Tapes (1977)
Directed by Alan and Susan Raymond
May 12 at IFC Center

You can extrapolate how staggering the contents of The Police Tapes were for WNET’s audience in 1977 from the amount of screentime filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond give over to the sociological mini-lectures of police commander Tony Bouza, who reassures liberal viewers about the systemic causes of urban crime rates in language that will make you wonder why MSNBC hosts don’t have him on speed-dial.

Over three months of ridealongs in the 44th precinct—one of multiple station houses nicknamed “Fort Apache” during the Bronx-is-burning era—the Raymonds gathered footage of little old ladies brought in for axe assaults, the splayed-out victims of unsolvable shootings, strung-out rapists and all manner of tweakers. It’s indeed enough to stretch the empathy of others than the exhausted, mustached Nixon voters in blue—whose responses range from bemusement or callousness, to an aggravated “Aw, shaddup” at the crowd gathered at the scene of a stabbing, or a sinister “Nobody did nothing” when a detainee’s boyfriend asks about her bruises. When the cops describe the “animals who are out there,” their sense of their own worldliness, and the suggestion of nobody-understands ranks-closing, makes the film timely all over again.

The Police Tapes, photo courtesy of Sundance Selects

A more emotionally involved heir to Wiseman’s Direct Cinema masterwork Law and Order, The Police Tapes traded 16mm for Portapak—it was a pioneer of the rough-and-ready digital look that would become shorthand for immediacy and trustworthiness in subsequent nonfiction and “reality” media. As another effect of the technology at its disposal, the movie straddles the watershed when unmediated image capture transformed from an undertaking and a revelation into a cultural and cinematic presumption. The new doc The Seven Five is not a pure compilation film, but its scene-setting relies on plentiful archival footage, taken with slightly more advanced cameras than those used by the Raymonds, of another recent urban “war zone”: this time, East New York during the crack epidemic.

In the interviews conducted for the film, disgraced ex-NYPD officer Michael Dowd comes off as another Jordan Belfort, someone who takes his nominal rehabilitation as license to dine out on tall tales from his more debauched days, when he graduated from lifting drug money off crime scenes to selling intel to dealers. (The time he pulled up to the station house in a red Porsche, shit, man!) Director Tiller Russell gives plenty of rope to digressive, self-mythologizing anecdotes from Dowd, his former partners (in uniform, in crime), and sleazy-funny former dope kingpin Adam Diaz. They’re good enough storytellers that Russell thinks he’s making Goodfellas, complete with classic-rock cues, cocaine paranoia, temptation, and masculine codes of friendship and omerta. But Russell (who actually layers canned gunshot sounds over Diaz’s smirking nonresponse to a question about a disappeared adversary) misses the big picture: not just about the era’s widespread police corruption, but about its significance. In Dowd’s testimony before Mayor Dinkins’s Mollen Commission, intercut throughout the film, he emphasized that cops, who have to trust each other when venturing out together in areas the cops of The Police Tapes would agree are jungles, don’t rat on other cops. That’s not a homily about personal honor, it’s the mindset of an institutional culture that looks after its own at all costs. A title card emphasizes that Dowd didn’t name names, not that multiple international investigations into him were dropped before his eventual arrest. For a documentary about the lack of accountability within a hermetic urban police force, this feels pretty irrelevant to the current context.