With summer arrives a new season of Rooftop Films, bringing new indie features, docs, animations and shorts to rooftops across Brooklyn and Manhattan, along with Q&As, live music and receptions. The first feature of this year’s program, 7 Chinese Brothers, screens on Saturday night at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus; bands play before the movie, which is followed by a party and Q&A with filmmaker Bob Byington and star Jason Schwartzman. The film, which takes its title from track 2 on Reckoning, has something of the underachiever’s charm of 80s and 90s indie rock. Schwartzman stars as Larry, fired from a restaurant in the opening scene for stealing booze, and over the course of the movie growing sputteringly dissatisfied at his own half-assed efforts in most things—learning Spanish, romancing his boss (Eleanor Pienta) at the lube-job place where he finds work, visiting his equally borderline-alcoholic grandmother (Olympia Dukakis)—though not in his ownership of his dog Arrow (Schwarzman’s real-life dog, playing himself). The writer-director is the Austin-based Byington, whose last film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, was more overtly absurdist, but similarly drily funny and well-acted in surveying the efforts of the lazy Sisyphuses who populate his film. Byington answered a couple of questions of mine over email.
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Opens March 27
Taking more than one cue from the George Lucas “Just strangle a kitten!” school of tension-building, Kornél Mundruczó’s Un Certain Regard-winner White God straddles studio-canvas tentpole filmmaking with remarkable assuredness. The film winks on occasion in naturalism’s direction (albeit a more Greengrassian type than Bressonian, despite White God having received many comparisons for animal suffering, I guess, with Au Hasard Balthazar). The plot follows Lila (Zsófia Psotta), a preteen girl coping with her parents’ divorce in a gloomy, permanently overcast Budapest, and her friendship with—and inevitable separation from—her Mom’s dutiful mutt Hagen. A special tax on “mongrels” (mixed-breed dogs) sees Lila’s father summarily kicking the animal to the curb; his lack of awareness of what makes Lila happy sure sucks the dramatic air out of their myriad later scenes, with him angrily trying to communicate with her. If Hagen is Lila’s reason to live, she’s lucky to even know that, while the dog is meanwhile adopted by derelicts and mobsters, soon drugged into training as a prizefighter.
This is a movie pitched directly at kid-level reasoning, even if the savagery of its grown-ups is for adults’ eyes only. In White God’s inevitable narrative cul-de-sac of separation and reunion, Hagen losing his sense of compassion and, for a time, being “broken” is its most intriguing passage; whenever these savage beatings and starved nights are intercut with Lila storming out of her junior orchestra classroom or being led around by an unmistakably abusive older boy, the film dilutes itself by half. If the canine rebellion—with unleashed dogs flooding the city’s abandoned boulevards, leaping through the air, punching their human masters in the face with their own faces—comprised more than about ten minutes of its runtime, Mundruczó’s Disney-grade screenwriting would ring less obvious. That the film is a parable for illegal immigration (a tectonic issue in contemporary Hungarian politics) can’t excuse its heavy-handedness; in many ways, it makes it an even further-missed opportunity.