Stations of the Cross
Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann
July 10-16 at Anthology Film Archives
As narrow-minded as the religious oppression it seeks to condemn, Stations of the Cross masks a lurid fascination with martyrdom behind a façade of empathy. German director Dietrich Brüggemann (who co-wrote the 2014 Berlinale prizewinner with his sister Anna) has fashioned a well-orchestrated exercise in minimalism, but it also an airless and manipulative one which is a shame, really, considering the talent and skill on display.
Directed by Carlos Marques-Marcet
Opens July 10 at IFC Center
The 23-minute-long shot that opens 10.000 KM is an unshowy tour-de-force that accomplishes its aim with impressive economy, introducing us to an attractive young couple and setting up their coming separation without ever feeling contrived or expository. It starts with Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) in mid-fuck, capturing the intensity of their physical connection and the teasing ease of their banter as well as the important fact that they’re trying to get pregnant. Then they get out of bed and the camera follows them through their cosy Barcelona apartment as their comfortable morning routine is disrupted by big news: Alex has been offered a year-long photography residency in LA. Initially supportive, then resentful, Sergi sulks while Alex apologizes, tries to justify her desire to have a rewarding career as well as a family, and finally concedes to Sergi’s wishes. By the time he relents, urging her to go, we have a visceral sense of their dynamics.
When Alex and Sergi’s relationship goes long-distance, the film switches to short scenes with frequent cuts to mirror the change in their relationship. But it continues to focus solely on the couple and to show them almost entirely inside their apartments. Those parameters may have been chosen partly to minimize the cost of the film, which director Carlos Marques-Marcet shot on the cheap. But they also keep the focus on the relationship, and on the technology that both keeps the two close and pulls them apart.
Frequent texting, occasional phone calls, and lots of Skyping initially give Alex and Sergi the illusion of living together, kibbitzing as they do domestic chores or falling asleep while gazing at each other’s faces on their laptops. But a sense of melancholy and increasing distance soon seeps in through the cracks, surfacing in her plaintive request that they jump-start a stalled Skype session by talking about “something other than our relationship” or his pique when she drunk-Skypes him giddily, eager to show off her new salsa moves, and forgets to ask about an important exam he took the day before—and failed. The mechanical limitations of the technology can be frustrating too, as their images on each other’s screens freeze, break up into abstract collections of pixilated bits, or disappear altogether with a sad “whoosh.” These failures feel realistic while also functioning as metaphors for the gap between them that, once opened, just keeps getting wider.
The final shot plays over “Veinte Anos,“ a beautiful song about the pain two lovers experience after one falls out of love with the other. With its poignant delicacy and respect for both parties’ feelings, the ballad is a fitting end to a tenderly insightful modern romance.
A Poem Is a Naked Person
Directed by Les Blank
Opens July 1 at Film Forum
“I seem to gravitate to those things which I felt were beautiful and valuable that I guess a lot of people took for granted because it was all around them. The songs, the way people interrelate with one another, the sincerity of feeling, and people being true to themselves and not being hypocritical… In a family, the feeling of love among various family members. I wanted to document it, record it, in case it changes in the future.”
That was Les Blank in an interview with me a few years ago, on the occasion of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective of his work. And that was Les Blank’s films, celebrations of life in sound and image which—he said in the same conversation while eating squid—became a whole new medium when combined. But that didn’t happen with just anyone shooting, and upon the death of Blank in 2013, film lost another invigorating, original voice, comparable to two other virtuoso cameramen of the moment, Ricky Leacock (who’d passed two years earlier) and the late Albert Maysles. If Leacock and Maysles were better known for photographing better-known performers, Blank was drawn to food, music, and people that maybe didn’t have a high profile, and to fellow feeling wherever he found it.
Directed by Asif Kapadia
Opens July 3
Many music documentaries tend to take a wistful perspective on an artist’s life and work—a sort of good-person-despite-it-all tack that privileges creative genius over complex experience. (It only matters what they say about you, not how you got there.) The subjects in these sorts of films tend to come off as Teflon saints, their flaws rationalized, their edges sanded. Much of this has to do, surely, with interviewees and others not wanting to speak ill of the dead. Yet being raised to the level of a god often does the artist a disservice, leeching them of their humanity, hollowing them out by making them easy sells.
Magic Mike XXL
Directed by Gregory Jacobs
Opens July 1
Your favorite male strippers are back with the same chisel—but not quite the same sizzle. Magic Mike was one of 2012’s surprise hits, so a sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s unexpectedly incisive socioeconomic skin flick was inevitable. That film’s advertising campaign targeted the female gaze, luring in its audience with the promise of oiled-up abs, and delivered alongside them an existential exploration of the relationship between profession and identity as well as a commentary on business ethics. This time, the semi-retired Soderbergh is relegated to cinematographer and editor, and his longtime assistant director Gregory Jacobs takes the helm.
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.
Directed by Ken Loach
Opens July 3
The latest from Ken Loach, UK cinema’s working-class hero of long standing, takes a misty-eyed look back at Ireland’s Pearse-Connolly Hall, a rural community center that was for a few brief moments in the 1920s and 30s an unlikely oasis of political activism and progressive ideas. Its founder, homegrown communist leader James Gralton (played by Barry Ward), twice found himself in exile for his activism: first to escape the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in 1922, and again in 1933, after being deported for his political activities, never to return.
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.
I know how I feel about the comedy of Seth MacFarlane. Even without watching Family Guy in over a decade, his foulmouthed teddy-bear movie Ted pretty much got me up to speed, and it was only my indifference to that movie that allowed me to like his follow-up perhaps just a tiny bit more than some people (though still not very much). So: MacFarlane and me, we’re pretty much sorted, far as the likelihood of me getting more than a few laughs out of his feature films. What I found myself wondering during Ted 2, which opens today, was how MacFarlane feels about that same work.
Just last year, I would’ve said he must feel great; smugness radiates from the MacFarlane oeuvre (not least when he’s casting himself as an on-screen romantic lead, even when he’s kinda-sorta making himself the butt of a joke). But two things happen during the opening minutes of Ted 2: first, the opening sequence drops us into the wedding of Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and his beloved Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), which includes a reception, which includes a velvet-voiced wedding singer… who is somehow not played by MacFarlane himself, which must have taken near superhuman strength considering that the man has fashioned a side career for himself as a crooner (and, due credit: despite the recycled Boston accent he provides for Ted, the man has an impressive vocal range as a voiceover artist). Second, the opening leads into an opening-credits musical number, which not only doesn’t feature MacFarlane either (Ted is silent and uncharacteristically merry-looking through the whole thing), but doesn’t feature any jokes at all.
Directed by Pete Docter
Opens June 19
Not every great Pixar movie is about parenting. In fact, several of the movies in their most astonishing run (that would be 2007-2010, though it has some competition) aren’t about parenting at all: Wall-E is about environmental adaptation, Ratatouille is about the nurturing of creativity, and Up is basically about how to live your life. But Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Brave, and the Toy Story trilogy all have parenting allegories of one sort or another, so it’s not surprising that Pixar’s don’t-call-it-a-comeback Inside Out would return to that thematic ground. But it gets there from a wonderfully inventive and literally internal point of view: much of the movie takes place inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl.