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Festival Films

Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

May 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220905:43129:0[/embed] Abacus: Small Enough to JailDirector: Steve JamesRating: NRRelease Date: May 17, 2017 Thomas Sung seems like a model for the Asian-American immigrant experience. He helped found the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown during the 80s to serve the local community. He knows his customers, he does right by them, and the bank has given his kids opportunities for success. His two eldest daughters, Vera and Jill, help run the bank and will eventually take over. Here's a healthy slice of promising Americana served in Chinatown. But then, Murphy's Law: a handful of Abacus employees commit loan fraud, and then the housing crisis strikes, and then the great recession. Rather than go after Chase, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office throws the book at Abacus. Even though Abacus cooperated fully with authorities for a loan fraud investigation and did everything ethically and by the books in the aftermath, they were considered easy prey. At the beginning of the documentary, Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin, are watching Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. James returns to that yuletide staple again and again, finding parallels between George Bailey's savings and loan and the Thomas Sung's Abacus. Similarly, the Sungs come across as Capraesque heroes--the set-upon optimists, the embattled idealists, everymen and everywomen always trying. This might be why the film doesn't feel like most other Frontline documentaries. Abacus is in many ways a character-driven film. I feel odd thinking about real people in documentaries as characters, but the Sung family is comprised of memorable personalities. Thomas, Hwei Lin, and their daughters are strong in their own ways. They're admirably resilient, to put it politely. (At a certain point, the resilience turns into take-no-shit toughness, especially from the Sung daughters.) James films the family alone and in conversation with one another. The interactions can get nervy and uncomfortable as so many family interactions can, but they're all well-picked given how well they reveal the family's dynamic. James offers another compelling thread in his exploration NYC's Chinese community. Chinatown residents (Abacus' primary clientele) tend to be tight-knit and insular, which goes back to the formation of family-based support groups. The representatives from the DA's office interviewed in the film are baffled by what goes on there. Jurors on the case similarly don't understand how Chinatown operates. I worried that this confusion from non-Chinese people would affect the case. There's such a fascinating contradiction at play. The closeness of the Chinese community gives them a collective strength that they wouldn't have otherwise as a minority group, but the foreign nature of these cultural practices and their minority status make the residents of Chinatown more vulnerable. I mentioned that a sense of Capraesque optimism pervades the film, and yet I couldn't help but read a larger brand of pessimism into the proceedings. The little guy can always get picked on. While it's nice to see the little guy fight, there's a knowledge that this won't be the last time it happens. What about the major banks, who really should have been held accountable somehow for what they've done? But the world isn't so kind to those that are easily trampled. And yet. This reminds me of one the great lines about disillusionment in film: "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown."
Review: Abacus photo
Mr. Capra Goes to Chinatown
Steve James may be incapable of directing a bad documentary. His films includes Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Life Itself. With Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, James continues his record as one of America's most relia...

Review: The Circle

Apr 28 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221468:43538:0[/embed] The CircleDirector: John PonsoldtRating: PG-13Release Date: April 28, 2017 Mae Holland (Emma Watson) lucks into a customer support job at The Circle, a Bay Area tech giant. The company has a sprawling campus full of cush employee amenities, much like the many corporate-capitalist Xanadus that dot the Silicon Valley. They're so flush with cash and a belief in work-as-play that they hire Beck to play a show on campus, which really does make this feel like a technological thriller from 2006. Jeez, guys, was Haim busy or something? ("They also have cooks for their employees, Hubert!" "Yeah, I know. More gravy, Uncle Bill?") Silicon Valley did it better. The company's co-founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), is a mix of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and a benevolent dictator. He uses utopian-sounding names to introduce dystopian technological innovations. While the dialogue may be wooden, the screenplay at least has an ear for the grammar of corporate-ese. The new Circle innovation is SeeChange, which basically means putting GoPros on everything. Mae buys into the corporate culture quickly, becomes a model employee, and some other stuff happens that leads to a pseudo Truman Show redux (Truman Show Vista) with live tweets. Black Mirror did it better. The Circle's a bit all over the place, with ludicrous stuff happening just because. For instance, Mae goes kayaking without a life jacket in the middle of the night in San Francisco Bay to... I honestly don't know. To clear her head? Beats me. Most seasoned kayakers would choose a less foggy place to go at night if they wanted to clear their heads. Kayakers would probably just go for a walk, come to think of it. John Boyega's character seems like Mae's love interest. Well, no. He's only got ten lines in the entire movie and doesn't really do anything except offer a bottle of white wine, show Mae some servers, and help obtain some info for the final act. The end. The film seems to set him up as a Circle employee gone rogue, a square peg who doesn't buy into the corporate speak and who stands outside the system possibly to undermine it. The higher ups are smart enough to keep tabs on everyone else in the company except for the guy who doesn't really hang out with everyone else in the company. It's like if The Village from The Prisoner decided to leave Number Six alone. ("Oh, that's a reference I get!" "Yeah, Uncle Bill. I thought you would." "Pass the asparagus.") Director and co-writer James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) feels oddly out of his depth with this film. He can't pin down the tone or build out a sustained mood, with scenes unfolding flatly, one after another as if joined by a series of monotonous and-then's. For a paranoid thriller, the film seems almost chipper about being monitored at all times. Scenes breeze by to convey exposition, carry the plot forward, and nothing more. The Circle feels so weightless and rushed and empty, peopled with vessels for plot and decade-old critiques of the modern world. Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood fumbles through a role as one of Mae's old friends. An unplugged luddite, he's angry that she buys into the Circle culture wholeheartedly. She used to do fun things and real stuff, like, man! He comes back in a pivotal scene later in the film that would be a nightmarish indictment of our loss of privacy if it wasn't also an absurd slapstick pursuit in the Benny Hill mode. ("I love Benny Hill." "I know you do, Uncle Bill.") I can't really blame the cast for this debacle. Not even Hanks can elevate this material. He was affable enough in last year's middling Dave Eggers adaptation A Hologram for the King (aka Eat, Pray, Love, Sell IT Solutions), but that only gets a movie so far. I'm not sure I bought America's Dad as Big Brotherberg. Watson can't carry a film with a flimsy character written like she just fell off the turnip truck; in a lot of ways Karen Gillan's overworked supporting character Annie makes for a more compelling protagonist. ("Turnips! We left your Aunt Sandra's turnip green salad on the kitchen counter!" "Oh, we sure did, Uncle Bill. Gosh. Let me get that in a sec, I'm almost done here.") The Circle is like a bad tech startup. There's talent behind it, a pitch with potential, but there's nothing there except buzzwords and BS. Behold: Cinematic Juicero.
Review: The Circle photo
A mobile-ready platform for Dreck 2.0
The Circle is the paranoid techno-dystopian thriller of 2006 released in 2017 and based on a Dave Eggers novel published in 2013. The film's concerns about technology and social media are so dated and quaint, like the stuff a...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Gilbert

Apr 26 // Hubert Vigilla
GilbertDirector: Neil BerkeleyRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD The fact that Gilbert Gottfried is happily married, has two great kids, and leads a relatively idyllic domestic life is so bizarre. He admits as much, comparing it to an episode of The Twilight Zone. His wife, Dara, is so supportive; at one point we watch Gottfried pack school lunches for his kids, complete with notes that say "I love you". Several times he appears on camera wearing a white bathrobe. His voice is a much finer grain of sand paper. His eyes, the squint relaxed, are soft and compassionate. He visits his sister in New York City often, and is there for her whenever he can be. So much vulnerability is disarming, especially all in a feature film and particularly when it's Gilbert freakin' Gottfried. And then Dara calls during an interview. He tells her to go fuck herself, gently, caring. He hangs up and laughs that Gilbert Gottfried laugh. Berkeley doesn't linger too long on the particulars Gottfried's life at home. He follows the comedian on the road, which reveals the many eccentricities a stable marriage can't erase. It's a hustle and a slog, and it's a major part of who Gottfried is. The guy in the bathrobe and the cheapskate at the hotel and the filthy joke maestro are all the same person. He also happens to be Iago in Aladdin. Somehow it all fits. Eventually, because it's necessary to understand Gottfried, they talk about his "too soon" 9/11 joke and the Japanese tsunami jokes that led to the loss of his AFLAC duck gig. I mentioned earlier that Gottfried elevates bad taste to an art form, though his brand of bad taste is an acquired one. People in Gilbert mention time and again that offensive jokes can sometimes serve as a defense mechanism. When kindness alone can't alleviate pain or sadness, irreverence might help people get beyond their hurt. A willingness to bomb on stage and to offend and to persevere with perversity--those might be Gottfried's most admirable human qualities.
Review: Gilbert photo
The kindness of dick joke artists
Before sitting down to watch Gilbert, I was afraid the documentary would take away from Gilbert Gottfried's mystique. I always loved his impersonations and appearances on Howard Stern, and his dirty jokes have such craft behi...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Shadowman

Apr 26 // Hubert Vigilla
ShadowmanDirector: Oren JacobyRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBD Hambleton's best known works were his fake murder outlines and his black shadow figures, each preying on fears of violence and urban decay that were endemic during the 1970s and early 1980s. Director Oren Jacoby uses the sinister nature of Hambleton's street art to explore the rough, dangerous art/punk scene of New York City, a creative explosion amid the junk heaps and rubble. Hambleton, seen in old footage, conceals a bucket of paint in his coat as he climbs atop a dumpster and quickly brushes out a shadowy murderer before skulking away. There's a Television guitar riff that comes up a fair amount in the film--it's either "Glory" or a song that sounds a lot like it--which notes the glory days of that particular art/music scene while dismantling some of the romance that surrounds it. Then again, "dismantling" might be the wrong word. The legend and the bent reality can co-exist, much like Hambleton the artist and Hambleton the man. As we see him age and somehow survive through poverty and heroin and a life in freefall, the man is a mix of aesthetic hero and selfish junkie prick. Whether they're art dealers, old girlfriends, or fellow artists, the people interviewed in Shadowman care about Hambleton and his art, though there's a palpable sense of betrayal in their voice. The man can make some exquisite art--the change in his aesthetic at his lowest point is remarkable--but he's just as good at ruining friendships and his own health. At one point in Shadowman, they bring up the importance of death in an artist's life. Death is where the big bucks are, and the same goes for apotheosis. One art dealer says people ask her if Richard Hambleton is still alive, not out of concern but because the price of his art will skyrocket once he kicks the bucket. In a heroic narrative about Richard Hambleton, he'd still be alive just to piss those people off like he's pissed off everyone else in his life. In the real world, though, he's alive only somehow and just because.
Review: Shadowman photo
Portrait of the artist as a total prick
There's a familiar narrative about the self-destructive artist, or maybe it's one that we want to see borne out in real life and in narratives about artists as characters. The brilliant artist is ignored but persists in their...


Tribeca Capsule Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
The Death and Life of Marsha P. JohnsonDirector: David FranceRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD  Gay rights have come a long way in 50 years, but trans rights have lagged behind. The film looks back to the Stonewall riots to offer context for the LGBT struggle while also considering how members of the trans community felt excluded from the mainstream part of the struggle. Speaking at a gay rights rally in Washington Square Park during the 1970s, Sylvia Rivera is booed while she delivers an impassioned and derisive rant. She felt excluded from the movement; she had to fight just to get on stage to voice her exclusion. So much about The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is about supporting communities, building communities, and looking out for the marginalized among us. The rejection Rivera faced is just one of many hardships the film deals with in frank terms, and the solution tends to be about forming groups of support that resemble different kinds of families. As the documentary weaves the present with the past to flesh out Marsha, Sylvia, Victoria, and the LGBT culture of New York, the film also considered the future of trans rights via the murder of Islan Nettles. Nettles was a trans woman beaten to death in Harlem in 2013. James Dixon, the man who killed her, became enraged when he learned he had been flirting with a trans woman. While so much of the film is about history and seeking resolution for a 20 year old case, the Dixon trial is a reminder that the struggle for justice and trans rights is far from over. People say that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but it's so gradual most times, and it's never a guarantee of justice in all cases; people tell themselves a lot of things when trying to make sense of an unjust, amoral universe. I wonder if there's another title for the documentary that can more accurately encapsulate its scope and its focus. It seems like a quibble. The scope of what France is doing here--braiding different stories about different women together through NYC history--is built around the death and life of Marsha P. Johnson while going far beyond that. This is a film about the value and worth of all trans lives, and why the fight must go on together.
Marsha P. Johnson photo
A brief history of trans rights
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is an engrossing watch that works on different levels and through different modes. At the outset, it seems like the documentary will take the form of an obsessive detective story/murder...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Mr. Long

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
Mr. Long (Ryu San)Director: SABURating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: Japan  While recovering from his injuries, our hero befriends a boy named Jun (Runyin Bai) and his mother Lily (Yiti Yao) in an abandoned slum. Lily is a former prostitute turned junkie, and her story is where so much of the melodrama stems from. There's an extended flashback that shows her tragic fall. The scene initially seems to be dropped in randomly, but thinking about the whole film in retrospect, Lily's backstory comes after a period of slowness and inertness to increase its emotional impact. It's a mood swing done with purpose. The initial outbursts of violence we see in Long's life are eventually followed by cooking and a series of hesitant gestures toward domesticity. The pendulum can only always overcorrect. I don't think Mr. Long would work as well without these dull, silent stretches, and yet while watching the movie I felt bored in these moments. That's the point. What happens in those boring scenes implies a welcome tranquility in these tumultuous lives. To the outside observer, it's boring, but for the characters, a game or ping pong or a simple day making food or giggling with mom is a reprieve from past misery. For once, the present has some sort of order. The boredom can only last so long--maybe it lasts too long in the early going--before it runs the risk of interruption. There's a lot to discuss about the film's overall cruelty and fatalism, and whether or not SABU has contempt for his characters like a vengeful god, but that would be getting into major spoiler territory. If you're patient with Mr. Long and follow the film on its own terms, the reward is peaceful boredom for lives defined by pain and heartbreak. I'm not sure what to make of that exactly, but I keep thinking about the soporific/histrionic style of Mr. Long and how it deepens my appreciation for both its quiet and brutal moments.
Review: Mr. Long photo
Nihilistic Tampopo/Slapstick Unforgiven
Juzo Itami's Tampopo was a quirky blend of western tropes and epicurean delight. SABU's Mr. Long is sort of like a nihilistic Tampopo. We follow a skilled assassin from Taiwan named Long (a brooding Chen Chang) who gets wayla...

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Reagan Show

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
The Reagan ShowDirectors: Pacho Velez and Sierra PettengillRating: TBDRelease Date: June 30, 2017 We're told at the outset that the Reagan administration was expert at video documentation. It was part of their political strategy. I was struck by a few minutes of footage of President Reagan pretending to be a cowboy. Velez and Pettengill show scenes from some of a younger Reagan's westerns, and later show footage of President Reagan on the ranch with his wife Nancy, moseying around and looking rugged. There's the narrative of his persona carried forward into the real world--America didn't elect the real Ronald Reagan but the idea of Ronald Reagan/the hyperreal Ronald Reagan, as if there was any actual continuity between a character someone plays and the office they occupy later in life. While on horseback, Nancy Reagan gives the camera a terrified look, though she composes herself for the usable footage that perpetuates the cowboy myth. Reagan boyishly improvs while he and Nancy are photographed watering a sapling. They're playing cowboy POTUS and cowgirl FLOTUS for the American public. These funny moments are scattered throughout, though much of The Reagan Show focuses on the wind down of the Cold War. Reagan delivers a policy speech on TV to Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in a measured, statesmanlike cadence. Once the TV feed cuts, he snipes at the Soviet leader with a goofy insult, which makes Reagan giggle--part tough guy, part school boy who saw a tough guy say something like that on TV or a movie once. Again, he's playing a part. I felt myself wanting more of what The Reagan Show did well applied to other aspects of Reagan's presidency. The Iran-Contra scandal is only alluded to once as an aside, and I wondered if any footage existed following the Challenger tragedy or John Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt. And then again, Reagan's team was probably smart enough to know when to put the cameras away or to ask the videographers to stop recording. It leaves me wondering just how much more footage there may be and if it's of a similar character to what this doc has to show. In other words, more play and more acting.
Review: The Reagan Show photo
Telegenic and well rehearsed
Given how the Republican Party speaks of Ronald Reagan, he feels more like some cowboy legend than an American president. This speaks to Reagan's image consciousness as a politician, with a carefully cultivated persona that f...

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Departure

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
The DepartureDirector: Lana WilsonRating: TBARelease Date: TBA  These sorts of punk-turned-monk contradictions are on display at the very outset of The Departure. Before we see Nemoto in his robes and with clients, we first encounter him in a dance club bathed in neon and strobe lights. He's lost in the music and the crowd, but Wilson's camera catches a glimmer of beatific happiness on his face. In retrospect, of course this man lost in the present moment in the club is a monk. Later in the film he seems less in control--drunk and belting out karaoke. Here's someone I'd like to talk to about mindfulness before heading out to a karaoke bar. At home he seems like a good but distant husband and father. His wife Yukiko is patient with him, devoted, and kindly reminds him to take things a little easier. But when dealing with the emotional and psychological needs of others, nothing is that easy. There is yet another contradiction in a life that seems so plain. By helping ease the suffering of others, Nemoto is suffering himself; and yet maybe the physical and psychological stress that this strain places on him is what gives his life meaning and makes it worth living. Maybe that last leap is a wholly western projection on my part. The Departure is such a quietly observed film anchored the entire time to the stable (or maybe wobbling) Nemoto as its center. While he comforts a man over lunch about suicidal thoughts or in the same man's apartment as he's struck by a wave of depression, Nemoto offers conciliatory hums of acknowledgement and the occasionally warm smile, remark, and laugh. They talk about the man's children, and Nemoto eventually opens up a bit about himself and mentions his son. It's just one sentence, but it feels so blunt and weighty when he says it. When someone so purposefully reserved shares something so vulnerable, it seems to speak to a larger yearning or anxiety or love within that is kept contained save for little spurts. The volume and quality of this inner life is emphasized by Wilson's ability to isolate such moments as part of a whole. They are beautiful in passing, as brief as they are, though there are many.
The Departure review photo
The long process of letting go
Almost everyone could benefit from a little bit of therapy, especially therapists themselves. I often wonder what sorts of anxieties therapists have to deal with after they've finished dealing with clients for the day. Empath...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Abundant Acreage Available

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
Abundant Acreage AvailableDirector: Angus MacLachlanRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD  Tracy's dilemma--the whole drama of Abundant Acreage Available--is obligation. She feels obligated to these different men in such a way that she feels her own needs have to be set aside. Nevermind that the three interlopers on the land are basically trespassers trying to take the farm away. They could be con men, for all Tracy and Jesse know, but Tracy tolerates their presence on account of her upbringing. She even puts up with her brother's righteous belief that God is sending him signs of what's right to do to make things right. Rather than explode or assert herself, Tracy's dissatisfaction is expressed in small gestures and facial expressions. This is fine for a bit, but Tracy is denied agency throughout the film. She reacts more than she acts, which might not necessarily be bad, but Abundant Acreage Available is so one-note and one-mode as a story, and it always felt like Tracy was too passive in spite of all the duress she's facing. It doesn't help that the visuals are so flat and muted. The competing interests of a woman trying to appease these men doesn't go anywhere with lasting weight, and the film's story unfolds with a sense of passiveness and obviousness. It's as if MacLachlan's screenplay was obligated to go from A to B to C and, like Tracy, simply and begrudgingly assents. At least the performances are strong in a pretty standard, inert story. Kinney is great as an infuriatingly gullible but cocksure brother. Of the three invaders, Gail is the standout, equal parts folksy charm and sinister motives. Ryan's great as always, and it made me wish the material was half as good as her performance. For all its nods to subtle changes and restrained grief, and for all the work the actors do to elevate the material, it felt like there was just not enough in the film to move me like I sensed it wanted to move me.
Abundant Acreage photo
A passive aggressive home invasion
Like so many other underrated actresses, Amy Ryan is always good in whatever she's in. She's also so versatile when she's on screen, able to excel in oddball comedy as well as subtle character dramas. In Angus MacLachlan's Ab...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Flames

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
FlamesDirectors: Josephine Decker and Zefrey ThrowellRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBD There's a moving 40 minutes scattered throughout this 86-minute film. The best bits for me involved Decker and Throwell talking about why things ended the way they did, and giving themselves time to be vulnerable and self-effacing on screen. Decker comes across better, at least to me, though maybe she's not always so forthcoming about why things ended. Throwell doesn't come across great, especially when he's being honest about what happened. There's a gleeful cruelty even when he's trying to be sweet to Decker, and I'm not sure how much of that was real or staged. Flames is an art doc and an artifice doc. But for that 40 strong minutes, there are plenty of boring moments in Flames that just sort of float there. The couple's doomed trip to Maldives feels like an inert home movie about art scene hipsters in love. And there are stretches of the movie that feel repetitive or too much like navel gazing. And there are also moments that feel a bit too precious, like when Decker and Throwell go to couples therapy. At that point, they're broken up and don't seem to be hanging out, so their time in therapy makes gestures at intimacy but also feels like a performance art piece without stakes beyond adding a scene to the film. That might be Flames as a whole for me--a blend of intimacy and performance art, each side vying for time and control, and I'm not sure what to make of it all since I don't necessarily know or feel connected to these people. Yet part of me wants to like the better-messy-business of Flames because the parts that worked well enough cast some of the film's jetsam in a different light. An act of public strip poker reveals a lot about who Decker and Throwell are as people and as participants in their relationship. And a bit of impromptu acupuncture in a naked puppet show offers some hints of the relationship that unfolds. But like relationships that don't end well and that don't feel like they're worth salvaging, it's best to just move on.
Review: Flames photo
Love burns itself down self-indulgently
Flames offers an intriguing premise. Part documentary and part art movie, co-directors Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell document their relationship as it falls apart. We start with the two of them in the best part of any ...

Review: My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

Apr 13 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220922:43512:0[/embed] My Entire High School Sinking Into the SeaDirector: Dash ShawRating: PG-13Release Date: April 14, 2017 The set-up is at least sort of promising. An earthquake sends a high school on a hill by the ocean crashing down into the water. Students have to swim from floor to floor for air and survival, with a stratified class hierarchy--freshmen on the bottom and seniors on top. There's something questlike about it all, structured like a videogame with different kinds of levels--one sequence is even presented like a screen from the original Double Dragon, with characters throwing punches and jumpkicks with the same poses as Billy and Jimmy Lee. But Shaw takes all of these potentially interesting ideas and dials them down to the same level of slacker disinterest. The voice actors deliver their lines in a uniform indifferent monotone, as if they've begrudgingly recorded their dialogue one afternoon and left. The jokes are never distinct from the asides or the exposition. Apart from the heroic Lorraine the Lunch Lady (voiced by Sarandon), everyone sounds interchangeable. Since none of the voices stand out, it makes the all-star indie cast seem like needless stunt casting for the indie cachet. Lots of the dialogue gets lost in the audio mix, with any hint of personality drowned in the repetitive, overbearing, wall-to-wall score. This is a 77-minute movie that just drones on and on. It doesn't help that the protagonist, Dash (Schwartzman), is the least interesting character in the entire film. He's a self-important high school journalist and stand-in for the real life Dash Shaw. Yes, how twee, this fictional story is supposed to be semi-autobiographical. Dash is the type of tepid lead who gets in the way of the more worthy supporting players. His fellow staff members on the newspaper, Assaf (Watts) and Verti (Rudolph), have a warmth to them as well as a burgeoning crush that would have been great to watch unfold front and center. Even Dunham's overachieving all-goodnik Mary could have been the compelling hub of the story--a class president go-getter in survival mode. But no, it's boring old Dash, the "ugh, that guy" sort of hipster dude. There are moments of beauty in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, like the opening animation of Dash in silhouette running to class, or select flashbacks rendered with great care, or parts of the conclusion that have a zen-like quality. Most of it, though, looks like a hodgepodge of watercolor, acrylic, and magic marker, with a wonky, unrefined aesthetic. It simulates the stuff made while screwing around in a high school art class. The choice makes sense, but it's not always interesting to look at in full wobbly motion. It's animation with a sort of haphazard craft--art as marginalia rather than a point of focus, a talented person's creative assignment put together the night before. I was particularly put off by the film's defensiveness. At points, Dash and Assaf brag about being great writers whose genius and talent no one will understand. That metatextual boast always irks me. I rarely feel that a creative work should gird itself against criticism so overtly, and in such an insecure manner. Especially in this case, in which there's so little at stake and so little offered. Why be so precious over an animated shrug?
Entire High School review photo
A shrugworthy mumblecore cartoon
There are so many possibilities in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, the directorial debut of indie comics artist Dash Shaw. There's the image of an entire high school building adrift on the ocean and sinking. Think...

Review: Your Name

Apr 04 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221337:43448:0[/embed] Your Name (Kimi no Na wa, 君の名は。)Director: Makoto ShinkaiRating: PGRelease Date: August 26, 2016 (Japan); April 7, 2017 (USA)Country: Japan Our two body-swapped and star-crossed heroes are a country girl named Mitsuha and a city boy named Taki. Apropos of nothing, the two teens swap bodies. At first they think they're dreaming--as Mitsuha in Taki's body struggles as a waiter in a restaurant, she wonders when her long and bizarre dream will end. Taki in Mitsuha's body begins each morning copping a feel like a creeper. They intermittently lead each other's lives, and they come to enjoy the ability to live a life so different from their own day-to-day. The allure, like most body swap films, is in the contrast of experiences--metropolitan and pastoral, modern and traditional, the social norms of male and female, etc. My enjoyment of Your Name can be broken into quarters. I loved the first quarter of the movie, which was a great modern take on the body swap genre. The city boy and the country girl get to know each other obliquely, corresponding through their own cellphones with do's and don'ts about each other's lives. Shinkai closes that opening quarter with a fantastic montage of the joys and frustrations of living another life only to return to the mucked-up nature of your own. I liked the second quarter of Your Name, which, without spoilers, involves a mystery and a journey. Tonally it reminded me a little of Hirokazu Koreeda's charming I Wish, though an adolescent version. As for the last half of Your Name? It was all right. "Generally acceptable" may be a more accurate phrase. So much about Your Name hinges on a major plot twist and the way the narrative treats this revealed information. If I wasn't on board with the first portion of the film, the swerve at the halfway mark would have soured me on the whole movie. It's all dependent on a series of narrative conveniences that the story doesn't attempt to explain: spotty memory, technological failure, the loose rules of the body swapping, a lack of common sense from the characters, lapses in human curiosity. And yet, somehow, I think Your Name still works by the end because it is so earnest about its teenage feelings. There's the desire to be understood by someone, to forge a lasting connection, to make sense of your own life. That's all there. I watched the movie in a crowded theater full of teens and young adults. As a plot twist occurred in the second half, gasps rustled through the crowd. After that emotional gut reaction, the analytical bits in my brain stepped forward and processed the information. No, a little too convenient, but just go with it. This kept happening in the last half of the movie. I found myself liking moments even though I was of two minds about them. There's a gorgeous scene set at dusk before a dimming sky. It's quiet, it's memorable, it was enough for me to disregard a lapse in logic a few scenes before. A young woman in the crowd, excited by the connection that occurred on screen, whispered an elated "Yes". Minutes later, sighs from the crowd, crestfallen, like everyone had breathed out at once. I couldn't help but be moved as well--I felt what someone else was feeling, which is what Your Name is about at its best. Oddly, some of my qualms come from understanding Shinkai's point of view as a storyteller. To affect the audience the way he wants to, Shinkai needs to move the story in direction P, therefore actions L, M, N, and O have to occur. I saw the movie with Steve over at Unseen Films, and his immediate feelings for the movie were far more tepid than mine. The logical lapses were so apparent to him. My own fondness for the first half of the film led me to justify those logical lapses to him even though I noticed them as well. And I have to admit, my justification was because I understood Shinkai's storytelling motivations rather than any diegetic explanation provided by the film. I can't recall who said this or if I'm even getting it right, but there's a sandwich rule when it comes to storytelling. Say you make a movie. Part of it doesn't make sense. If an audience member doesn't realize there's a lapse in logic until hours later when they're making a sandwich, the story is successful. Your Name didn't pass the sandwich test with me, but I could sense it did with many others in the crowd. Even without the sandwich test, there was a lot to admire. If only the last half had hooked me more, not by plot twists but through the characters, not by letters signifying Shinkai's moves but rather that ineffable emotional stuff that's harder to figure out and impossible to name.
Review: Your Name photo
The body swap movie with a swerve
Makoto Shinkai's Your Name is the highest-grossing anime film of all-time, and it hasn't even come out in the United States yet. It beat Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away; give it a few more months and Your Name may beat Spirite...

Review: My Scientology Movie

Mar 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220428:43450:0[/embed] My Scientology MovieDirector: John DowerRating: NRRelease Date: March 10, 2017 Gibney's documentary--an adaptation of Lawrence Wright's book of the same name--is a top-to-bottom takedown of the entire Church of Scientology, looking at the group's origins via the eccentric L. Ron Hubbard to its current state. Sweeney's Panorama pieces were more upsetting. The first, Scientology and Me, featured Sweeney getting stalked and harassed by high-level members of the Church of Scientology; the follow-up, The Secrets of Scientology, revealed how the Scientology operatives intimidated Sweeney, with the go-ahead coming from Scientology leader David Miscaviage himself. I mention the above works for their clarity of purpose and strong execution. Theroux's movie is far lighter on substance and information to its detriment, and much more impish by comparison just based on circumstance. He'd originally intended to make a documentary on Scientology and sought full cooperation of the cult. The Church of Scientology declined his request. They no longer allow journalists access to the church, perhaps because of Sweeney's damning work, which revealed just how nuts the organization is at its core. Undeterred, Theroux makes his own movie about Scientology featuring dramatic recreations and reinterpretations of events. There's an open casting call for people to play David Miscaviage and Tom Cruise, the former played by an alarmingly talented guy named Andrew Perez. For accuracy and insight into his film (and to bait the Church of Scientology), Theroux also contacts Mark Rathbun to help as a consultant. Rathbun was a former high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology, at times a brutal protector and enforcer for the church. He's now an apostate. My Scientology Movie sort of reminded me of Theorux's 2003 special Louis, Martin & Michael, in which he tried to get an interview with Michael Jackson but instead wound up hanging out with Michael's father and Uri Gellar. By not getting directly to Michael Jackson, Theroux got a great portrait of the strange world that Michael lives in. Similarly, by not working directly with the Church of Scientology, Theroux gets an oblique portrait of Scientology. The film isn't a takedown in the Gibney mode and it's nowhere near as intense as Sweeney's pieces (it's not even as good as Louis, Martin & Michael, to be honest), but Theroux's ability to disarm offers an all right roundabout look at how Scientology affects former members. Long-time Theroux fans like myself might be left wanting. One of the film's recreations centers around a detention center for misbehaving Scientologists. We witness the kind of intimidation and humiliation that church members endured at the hands of their leader. Perez shifts into Miscaviage mode, becoming an abusive, self-righteous demon eager to demean as he is to shove and to strike and to break furniture to make a point. The Church of Scientology sends its team of stalkers to see what Theroux is up to. What might be unnerving is oddly undone thanks to Theroux's unshakable calm. Theroux does what he's always done best in these sorts of situations: he renders scary things absurd. Theroux applies his trademark naivete, though it's on Rathbun rather than a current cult official. Rathbun's the closest that Theroux can get to the church directly, and he tries to ask questions, discern original motives, and get into the mind of a high-level Scientologist. Rathbun is practiced in the art of manipulation and intimidation, however, and a resentment builds between them. Those awkward moments in a Theroux piece are compelling to watch because they are such unguarded moments. Theroux gets a slight glimpse at the innerworkings of Rathbun, a complicated man who is much more of a mystery than whatever's going on in the Church of Scientology.
My Scientology Movie photo
A Theroux perspective, but not thorough
Louis Theroux won me over many years ago with the show Weird Weekends. In each episode, Theroux embedded himself in a subculture and use his extreme mild-mannered niceness to disarm his subjects. He'd hang out with porn stars...

Review: We Are the Flesh

Jan 12 // Hubert Vigilla
TRAILER IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK (NSFW) [embed]220963:43146:0[/embed] We Are the Flesh (Tenemos le carne)Director: Emiliano Rocha MinterRating: NRRelease Date: January 13, 2017 (limited)Country: Mexico  We Are the Flesh reminds me of early Clive Barker splatterpunk stories; one scene in thermal vision even recalls Barker's little-seen short film The Forbidden. There's also a hint of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, though it's shorn of the technological madness and kinetic stuff--this transgression is luridly organic. Maybe Tetsuo by way of Gaspar Noe, with occasional outbursts of hysterical excess straight out of Andrzej Zulawski (Possession). The film also has some moist, mucus-rich makeup effects that wouldn't be out of place in a Brian Yuzna movie (Society, From Beyond). This paragraph is either a warning or a recommendation--if you want blood, you got it. There's a man with a demonic smile (Noe Hernandez) who lives in an abandoned building. He gets high on homemade gasoline and gets off on solitude. A boy (Diego Gamaliel) and a girl (Maria Evoli), siblings, enter his building. They're desperately in search of food and shelter. The man lets them stay as long as they help him construct a claustrophobic landscape within the building. Think of something like a cave and a uterus complete with a pseudo birth canal; a psychoanalytic hellscape where the id can thrive. All the while, the man tries to coerce the boy and the girl to break social, sexual, and interpersonal taboos. Minter builds up dread through whispers and shouts as he mounts transgressions upon each other. There's incest, rape, murder, cannibalism, on-camera sex, and necrophilia, and even now I can't say what it all adds up to. We Are the Flesh may not add up to anything, to be honest. Even though Hernandez and Evoli give the film their all--Evoli in particular goes for psychotic broke--the movie may just be images and noise with the intent to shock. I think there's a political allegory about Mexico and poverty, that a lack of means reduces us to some base state of nature in which social mores no longer matter. But it's a bit of a guess. It might be a stretch. Sometimes extreme cinema is just extreme cinema, but I can't help but sense something more meaningful behind all of this given how repulsed yet affected I felt. When someone lets out a blood-curdling scream, there has to be a reason, right? Maybe? Or was it just the desire to scream? This struggle for meaning is probably an intentional provocation from Minter. When confronted with something shocking, I usually feel challenged to interpret it. Yet Minter evades overt meaning making. There seems to be 10 minutes missing from the final act of the 80-minute film. Several events take place off camera unexplained, and it leads to total narrative disorientation. We Are the Flesh was a feverish nightmare already, and then that skimpy dream logic breaks down completely. No order, not for this this movie. What Minter provides is a sustained sense of unease, however. That feeling remained with me even after a less than satisfying conclusion. Even if We Are the Flesh only prompts exasperation and disgust, it's such a strange trip into the abyss I want to send others down there into the dark who are willing. Minter, like or hate it, is a Mexican filmmaker to watch. I'm reminded of something Clive Barker said about movies once (paraphrased): I want to feel something, even if it's just disgust; better that than thinking, okay, let's go for a pizza. After We Are the Flesh, pizza was the last thing I wanted.
Review: We Are the Flesh photo
The ecstasy of pure id
Reviewing We Are the Flesh from writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter is tricky. On the one hand, it's a deeply flawed film aimed at a limited audience. It's transgressive in the extreme, sexually explicit bordering on pornog...

Review: Toni Erdmann

Dec 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220911:43142:0[/embed] Toni ErdmannDirector: Maren AdeRating: RRelease Date: July 16, 2016 (Germany); December 25, 2016 (USA)Country: Germany/Austria I love Groucho Marx as a character, but I would never want someone like that as a father. In some ways, Toni Erdmann is what it would be like if Groucho Marx was Margaret Dumont's dad. Ines (Sandra Huller) is our girl Dumont. She's a high-level consultant working in Romania to negotiate an outsourcing deal. Like so many women in the business world, she needs to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, fighting the entrenched sexism of the workplace while out-politicking others in the office. She's always working and seems to get off on forceful shows of control. While trying to unwind at a day spa, she complains that her masseuse was too gentle. "I want to be roughed up," she smiles. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is her dad Groucho. Rather than a painted mustache, Winfried's got a pair of ugly false teeth and a wig. It's not hard to see why Ines' mother divorced Winfried, or why Ines tries to avoid her dad. He imposes, he mocks, he's a bit of a chaos agent. The man can't take anything seriously. After his dog dies, Winfried spontaneously vacations in Romania to connect with his daughter, eventually adopting the persona of Toni Erdmann. The name sounds so serious and German (redundant?), but in English the name apparently translates into "Toni Meerkat". Ines is too ruthless and needs to lighten up, and her father is a potential catalyst for that change. Questions of value are pretty common in works about corporate life (i.e., human value vs. the bottom line), and these are often the weakest parts of Toni Erdmann. They're familiar in an obvious way, as if from another movie that's far safer and more conventional. Perhaps Ade sensed this slip into the obvious when sculpting the final edit. A character and a plot thread totally vanishes from the movie at a certain point. It doesn't prevent Ines' reconnection with the world of the common folk from feeling like an expected destination. Toni isn't just his daughter's Groucho but her Drop Dead Fred. Ade even uses the common grammar of these contrasts between wealth and poverty in the globalized world: from Ines' office window, she can look over a Romanian hovel. Consequently, other reconciliations in the movie felt inevitable to me. When Toni Erdmann lets go, it's at its best, whether it's a bit of kink involving pastries or a belting out a tune. Huller plays so many of her scenes like she's at the verge of a breakdown. She's a great straightwoman, but there are moments of absurd release that hint at the person Ines was before she bought into the quest for status. There are different Ines facades for the different roles she has to play or the tasks thrust upon her, but rarely does she get to be herself. Winfried is a little more one-note on the surface since his solution for everything is a joke, but there are moments of vulnerability between father and daughter that suggest that jokes are all he has left. Connecting with someone emotionally can be painful and awkward, and humor is one way of circumventing those difficulties. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you wind up hammering everything. That goes for both father and daughter. A lot of what works in Toni Erdmann depends on what the audience brings to it, which might be the case of any movie about parents and children. The way we measure other families inevitably winds up being our own family experiences, which is what makes Toni Erdmann familiar in a surprising way. What is it about Ines that I see in myself, or Winfied in my own dad, or vice versa? Sometimes I look at these on-screen family relationships and see myself or people I know. Other times I see versions of characters. Families are weird like that; so is Toni Erdmann.
NYFF Review: Toni Erdmann photo
Estranged daughter, strange father
There's no way Toni Erdmann could ever live up to its hype. Reviews from Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival touted the German film as a 162-minute screwball comedy masterpiece, packed with high emotional stake...

Review: I, Daniel Blake

Dec 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220904:43138:0[/embed] I, Daniel BlakeDirector: Ken LoachRating: TBDRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (UK); December 23, 2016 (USA)Country: UK Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower who's been denied disability benefits after suffering a heart attack. He's an everyman figure for the vulnerable elderly, and for anyone who's been on hold with customer service for longer than necessary. Daniel doesn't have any family or friends to help him in this situation, so he needs the social safety net. There's a catch: in order to receive any benefits, he has to look for work, and yet he can't work at the moment because his doctor says it will aggravate his heart condition. His plight may sound familiar, but that's because it's a reality for many older people. The elderly and other vulnerable populations often face these kinds of helpless situations. Rather than receive individual assistance with computers or paperwork, the system wants to push him through and out as quickly as possible--men and women chewed up and spat. While Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty may heighten the dire situation, Johns' performance grounds Daniel. He's an individual man and a common man metaphor, and achingly human. Daniel's path crosses with Katie (Hayley Squires), a struggling single-mother from London trying to resettle in New Castle. Hers is a life of constant denial. Spaghetti for the kids at dinner, and just an apple for herself until morning. She can't find work because there aren't any jobs, and so that cycle of denial continues. In one of the movie's most moving and empathetic moments, we watch Katie overcome by hunger at a food bank. She breaks down. Squires brings a lot of heart to her performance, but in this scene Katie's courage has faltered. There's only a debased shame. Somewhere, mixed in, there's also dread. Together, Daniel and Katie offer a glimmer of hope for the people failed by the system. When vulnerable people slip through the country's social safety net, perhaps their only shot at dignity is to be there for one another. And perhaps because this plight is so familiar--seen on film, TV, in families or down the street--struggling people can feel a little less alone in the world. The situation in I, Daniel Blake is so specific to the UK, and yet the pain and the hardship is relatable throughout the western world. Knowing that someone else has experienced the same thing can help reduce that sense of hopeless desperation that accompanies poverty. It's a meek hope, though, a faint and brief glimmer, which may explain the fervor of the film, like something off a Billy Bragg record. I, Daniel Blake feels like a rallying cry for reform and greater egalitarianism, or at least some restoration of humanity and kindness to systems that have become so good at stripping humanity away. If the characters seem familiar, it's probably because the same tragedies happen so often and have happened for so long to so many. If the story beats sound familiar, it's probably because the cadence of protest chants often have a common pattern. I, Daniel Blake is ostensibly about a man named Daniel and a woman named Katie, but I know these people by other names and with other faces.
Review: I, Daniel Blake photo
Familiar yet powerfully urgent
Bureaucracies make great villains. Faceless and absurd, they operate in such nefarious ways and are perfect machines for dehumanization. Bureaucracies are reliably inefficient, needlessly hierarchical, ruthlessly procedure-ob...

Review: Evolution

Nov 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220389:42858:0[/embed] EvolutionDirector: Lucile HadzihalilovicRelease Date: November 25, 2016 (limited/VOD)Rating: NRCountry: France The world of Evolution is mysterious from the get go, which is due largely to the coastal locale where the film is set. We don't know what year it is, or quite where this place is either. It's all so otherworldly, the sort of setting for tales, allegories, and de Chirico paintings. There are white stucco buildings built near the water, and the sand is black leading to the turbulent shore. It's beautiful in how stark it is. In the distance, there's a medical facility that looks like it was abandoned years ago, but boys and their mothers walk back and forth for periodic examinations. There are only grown women and young boys on this island. There are no men, there are no girls, and the mothers have a sinister uniformity about them. At night, the mothers leave their homes carrying hand lanterns and congregate near the water. The boys are just boys but are in the dark about their caretakers. The boys are raised on a diet of mashed kelp and something like worms, one of those foods that while heated in a saucepan still looks cold when it's served. Evolution centers primarily on Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), and what Nicolas discovers about this town and where babies come from. We follow him into the night, down long corridors, to water in the dark, and in the process participate in the act of discovery, unwrapping the allegory along with Nicolas, sharing in his repulsion and curiosity. Roughly midway through Evolution, this dive into the unknown slows, maybe too much for what's revealed about the mothers and their boys. Yet even what's revealed is just enough to suggest larger possibilities and delve deeper into the thematic territory of the movie--sex, childbirth, asexuality, violation, flesh, reproduction, biological processes. I sensed in the film's lull that Hadzihalilovic was signalling a move away from an explicit exploration of the plot and the machinery of the world to a series of ruminative brushstrokes, each one a deliberate move to the film's finale, which is more conceptual than visceral. In the immediate aftermath of Evolution, I felt a little let down, expecting more of a resolution to what's introduced early on. Yet the movie has this strange, lingering quality thanks to its pervasive otherworldliness. I mentioned Lovecraft and Cronenbeg earlier, but Hadzihalilovic makes this movie her own, invested with unique hobbyhorses and a fascinating sensibility. It's rare to see a movie that sticks around in your mind after an initial sense of disappointment. The fact I'm still thinking about Evolution, and deeper now than in the hours after the first viewing, have made me reevaluate Hadzihalilovic's languid pace, which unfolds with the same speed as a dream verging on a nightmare but never quite arriving there. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse does a magnificent job in rendering these images and giving them such a haunting quality that I can't get several of them out of my head. Evolution's grown on me, like a skin graft or like coral, or maybe it's grown in me, like the stuff of recurring bad dreams.
Review: Evolution photo
Lingering, haunting, and yet
There's so much going for Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Evolution, a film expertly lensed from the deliberate first shot: looking up to the sky from underwater. From beneath, the ripples and waves on the ocean surface produce undul...

Review: Manchester by the Sea

Nov 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220919:43136:0[/embed] Manchester by the SeaDirector: Kenneth LonerganRating: RRelease Date:  November 18, 2016 (limited) Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives in a small room in Boston. He's prickly and withdrawn, a brooding guy who spends a lot of time alone. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away, Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown to help settle affairs with Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Whenever Lee's name is mentioned, people around town perk up. They're surprised, shocked, that Lee Chandler, the Lee Chandler, is back. He's got a reputation for something. There's a reason he's avoided home. Affleck's troubled quiet is remarkable to watch. It's a nuanced performance built around restraint. I found myself wondering throughout the film what moments would cause his stoic facade to collapse. There's such an immense heartbreak and guilt in him, which is clear even before his past is revealed, yet he doesn't want to share his emotional and psychological burden with anyone else. As penitent as he is, an intimate human connection would hurt even more. He'd rather get drunk and get beat up. Lonergan drops several telling flashbacks, and he finds elegant ways to loop the past into the present and then out again. It adds dimension to Lee, and Affleck is superb at playing the same man in different keys. Michelle Williams plays Lee's ex-wife Randi, whose character is similarly constrained by her emotions. She wants to speak about their history together, but doing that may be more painful than staying bottled up. A phone call early in the film captures the tense awkwardness of two people who want to say more, say everything, but can't bring themselves to say much of anything. Williams has always been an excellent and underrated actress, and part of me wanted more of her in the film. It would be a different sort of movie. Manchester by the Sea is more about Lee and to a certain extent his nephew Patrick and the shortcomings of masculine tropes when it comes to raw emotional life. On the one hand the male-dominated story feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe it also emphasizes Lee and Patrick's solitude. With regard to family, this man and this boy are all that's left in each other's lives. The restraint in the lives of the characters may explain why I responded so much to the emotional highs and lows of Manchester by the Sea. It's the catharsis for the audience that the characters can't give themselves. All of the funny and sad material gives an alternately absurd and humane texture to these lives. Even the material that doesn't seem like it fits in a streamlined narrative--such as an unexpected but perfect cameo appearance, or Patrick's teenage horndog shtick--enrich the sad, beautiful whole. Admittedly this seismographic portrait of people's lives doesn't work for everyone. I had a pretty spirited back-and-forth with my friend and fellow film critic Nathanael Hood, and he was lukewarm on the film's jagged contours. Lonergan finds quiet and stillness amid mood swings, and also offers the actors ample room to emote or withhold. Frozen chicken falls from the freezer and a person finally breaks down; someone offers a small tip for service and the other person doesn't know how to interpret that sort of kindness. I laughed, I cried, and I laughed. All of the funny moments are punctuated by an unremitting sadness. Lee is comically bad at small talk and social gatherings, but the reasons for it, like so much about Manchester by the Sea, are so personal and painful.
Manchester by the Sea photo
Life is heartbreaking, and funny, too
Watching Manchester by the Sea, I was reminded of two lines from the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch: "I cry, because I will laugh if I don't" and "I laugh, because I will cry if I don't". Kenneth Lonergan's latest film is ...

DOC NYC Review: 13TH

Nov 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220907:43127:0[/embed] 13THDirector: Ava DuVernayRelease Date: October 7, 2016 (Netflix)Rating: TBD DuVernay's central thesis is that while the 13th Amendment ostensibly abolished slavery, the systems of oppression in the 1800s evolved into different forms of oppression that are currently in practice today. It's a compelling argument that begins with the Reconstruction Era following The Civil War, in which imprisoned black men were used as labor to rebuild the south. It continues into segregation and Jim Crow, the war on drugs, the Republican's Southern strategy, and so forth. DuVernay is expert at cycling various ideas, phrases, and images throughout 13TH, which helps make her overraching argument cohesive.  13TH generally follows a linear and chronological crawl through 150 years of American history, intercutting archival footage and talking heads. Our guides through history include activists (e.g., Angela Davis), academics (e.g., Henry Louis Gates Jr.), commentators (e.g., Van Jones), and politicians (e.g., Senator Cory Booker). While the primary draw of 13TH is the outrage at a corrupt criminal justice system, formal touches contribute to the riveting watch. The settings for each of the interviews, for instance, are often industrial spaces that evoke the feel of jails and prisons. DuVernay withholds identifying many interviewees until their third or fourth appearance on screen. I don't know why that seemed so novel, but I was hanging on people's words a little more that I might have been. There are a few contrarians among the interviewees who don't think systemic racism is a problem. Of course they're white dudes. Surprisingly, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich isn't one of these clueless white guys. Gingrich appears in 13TH and says that many white people don't understand what life is like for black people in America. I may not agree with his politics, but credit goes to Gingrich. He's relatively more woke than some people I know. 13TH is predominantly concerned with mass incarceration and how the prison population increased dramatically through the '70s, '80s, and '90s. It's neat and brisk through most of its 100-minute run time, though it becomes loose once we focus on the mid-2000s to today. From prison privatization we then cover issues of police militarization, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and even (perhaps unavoidably) Donald Trump's ugly rhetoric in the Presidential race. (Trump makes an earlier appearance when he calls for the execution of The Central Park Five.) If she wanted, DuVernay could have made a mini-series out of this, or a long-form doc in multiple parts a la Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America. DuVernay's such a skilled cinematic essayist that she's able to rein in 13TH even as it seems to stray. I mentioned her cycle of ideas and images earlier. Just when I felt like the movie was moving off track, she would reintroduce an idea or an image to show why one particular point is a reticulation of a previous one. The death of Emmett Till haunts the deaths that gave rise to Black Lives Matter. Phrases like "law and order" take on a sinister quality. The idea of the black man as a rapacious criminal similarly casts its unending shadow. The most memorable recurring image in 13TH involves a black man in a suit and hat. It must be from the 1950s. He's walking through a suburb. There's a mob of angry white men around him. They shove him. They yell at him. He gets punched in the back of the head. But the black man keeps walking. He's being insulted and assaulted, but he's carrying on unphased. During a press conference, DuVernay referred to this anonymous person as "the dignified man". I don't know where he was walking or if he got there, but I hope he made it okay. I hope everyone does somehow.
Review: The 13th photo
Slavery didn't end, it adapted
13TH feels like a culmination of Ava DuVernay's career to this point. The documentary brings together the racial and social history of Selma, her years of work as a documentarian, her stint as a journalist, and even her under...

Review: Elle

Nov 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220908:43150:0[/embed] ElleDirector: Paul VerhoevenRating: RRelease Date: November 11, 2016 (limited)Country: France  Elle starts with the rape, in media res. Verhoeven shoots the scene with surprising restraint. There's the noise of the assault off camera. Michèle's pet cat looks on blankly. The rapist, dressed in black with a ski mask, stands and wipes blood from his hip and groin and then walks away. Michèle tidies up around the kitchen and continues about her day in a daze. She's in shock, but it's subtle. A brief bubble bath scene is so artfully done and haunting. Michèle's a bit angrier at her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) when he comes to visit than she would be otherwise. Vincent asks about the bruise on the side of her face. She says she fell off her bike. The rape goes unreported. When Michèle finally mentions it to anyone, she waits for the most awkward moment possible to bring it up. She says what happened as if she lost a credit card. Is it a coping mechanism or is it just the movie playing provocateur? Elle aims for the uncomfortable laugh, and for a while it succeeds in doling out its cringe humor. At a certain point, it's just cringes. While dealing with horrible things in life, one hundred other genres may be occurring in the world simultaneously. A portion of the film plays like a thriller, with Michèle narrowing down the suspects in her life while her attacker stalks and harasses her. As this thriller plays out, there's a family dramedy: Michèle's jealous about her ex-husband's new girlfriend, annoyed by her son's screwed up relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, and can't stand her mother's new boyfriend either. Then there's the matter of her father and an infamous trauma in her past, one essential to Michèle's character but never explored substantively in the story. Huppert's a saving grace for the film in that she plays everything so straight, even Michèle's unexpected actions and reactions. Yet these are just actions in a performance, not necessarily actions stemming from a character. I could rarely get a handle on who Michèle was or how she interpreted the world and the events around her. The rape is replayed explicitly in the film, and then played again as a kind of revenge fantasy. Later, Michèle seems to invite victimization. There's a harrowing scene in which Michèle seems turned on by the idea of the man she's with raping her, recreating the trauma that opened the film. Is she feeling pleasure? Is that pain and masochistic shame? Is it a mix of both, and if so, what then? Huppert wears an inscrutable mask before, during, and after the scene. The moment is never discussed afterward. I don't need on-screen psychoanalysis or to be handheld through a narrative, but I'd like to be given some hint of what Michèle feels about what's happened. Elle avoids exploring the emotional impact of rape. Instead the film tries to offer Michèle's detachment as some opaque and oblique portrait of her psychology, but even this amounts to a blank gray page. This is all extremely difficult and sensitive territory to explore, especially when Michèle's motives are so ambiguous. Sure, there's never a single correct way for someone to respond to trauma, but rather than provide an alternative portrait of recovery or greater insight into this personality in flux, I felt as if Elle was simply pushing buttons and inverting the traditional rape-revenge narrative for the shock value. That's easier and less painful than really getting into someone's interior life after such a traumatic experience. The film's MO seems to be keep the focus on the inscrutable surface, and make it shocking. It doesn't help that Elle's perspective is male dominated; it's directed by Verhoeven from a script by David Birke, and adapted from a novel by Philippe Dijan. Am I watching a woman's experience as she struggles to retake power as all the men in her life rob her of agency? Or am I just watching a male interpretation of all this that indulges in a little bit of rape fantasy? This might all be up for audience interpretation, which makes me surprised that so many critics have written that the film is so empowering to women and makes bold statements. I don't think it says anything at all, or intends to empower anyone; it's just well-orchestrated provocation. No surprise that by the end of Elle, I was left feeling a sour and empty frustration. Michèle is the head of a video game company, though this portion of Elle serves as a mild subtextual and metatextual backdrop. They're making a medieval action-adventure--think Warcraft by way of Assassin's Creed with really antiquated graphics. During a meeting, one of her designers--a man who may be the rapist--says that Michèle's pretentious literary background has gotten in the way of the game's basic playability. I think Verhoeven's penchant for provocation might have gotten in the way of the fundamental human concerns of Elle.
Review: Elle photo
Provocative, but is it saying anything?
Elle has been billed as a rape-comedy, but that's a misnomer. It's a comedy in the classical sense given the events of the story, but it's not necessarily funny (there are funny scenes, though). And yes, it's about rape. Elle...

DOC NYC Review: Weiner

Nov 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220984:43191:0[/embed] WeinerDirectors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse SteinbergRating: RRelease Date: May 20, 2016 Many have lamented that the 2016 election lacks big ideas. Where's the policy debate? Where's the climate change discussion? Where's the substance? Given, it's difficult to have any discussion of weight when one of the two major candidates knows less about governance than a 6th grader, but let's just entertain the idea that our public discourse has eroded. The public says it wants policy, but maybe it just wants a show. A reality show, no less. That's one of the underlying suggestions of Weiner. I remember learning more about sex from the Monica Lewinsky scandal on TV than from my folks--I even recall a debate on whether or not oral sex was sex per se on the second season of MTV's The Real World. Over the last 12 years, Donald Trump parlayed his reality TV stardom into a political run; and over the last eight years, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin parlayed her political stardom into a reality TV gig. In my previous piece on Weiner (which should be considered part one of this review), I mentioned there were moments in the film that reminded me of the faux-doc sitcom The Office. America's made a mockumentary out of politics, and I don't see that changing, or at least I don't know what the change will be. And there I go, clutching my pearls, telling the kids to get off my lawn, implicitly pining for some sort of high-minded policy debate. And yet here I am, writing about this great political documentary which captures the zeitgeist of our political moment precisely because it's about the spectacle of a disgraced man's downfall rather than the strengths and weaknesses of his political platform. The spectacle is more dazzling; or, to use that wretched overused word, the optics are more captivating. To put it another way, who wants to talk about the middle class and the working class--or, hell, Standing Rock--when we have blow jobs and cum on blue dresses and sexting and dick pics and pussy grabbing instead? Thinking about Weiner again (what a phrase), I feel even worse for Huma Abedin. She's suffered yet another indignity because of her husband. Regardless how you feel about their politics, Huma and Hillary Clinton have a lot in common when it comes to the men in their lives, which probably explains their close bond. Huma carries herself through the film with a semi-translucent veneer of grace that can't mask the extreme mortification and anger at her awful fucking husband. Meanwhile, Weiner smiles and laughs and grandstands, all the while grinning. He looks like the Epic Troll Face guy. It's armchair psychology at its worst, but he must get off on the attention. That would explain the recurring exhibitionism, and his most recent public disgrace. In my first piece on Weiner, I mentioned a kind of admiration for the guy given his persistence. Weiner tried, he failed, he tried again, and failed again. Worstward, ho! But given these latest allegations, the admiration vanishes. Some people are Sisyphus. Abedin, for instance. I compared her to Buster Keaton in the previous piece, and on she goes, walking, running, continuing despite the chaotic world around her; the straightwoman in a slapstick, dick pic world. Other people, like Anthony Weiner, are less like Sisyphus and are really just very compelling persistent assholes. Very compelling persistent assholes make for great television, and great films, too. Apparently, they also make for nightmarish presidential elections.
Review: Weiner photo
The rise and fall and rise and fall...
Weiner is an appropriate film to review on Election Day, and not just because it's one of the best political documentaries of the last 10 years. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner potentially put the 2016 election in jeopardy ...

Review: Peter and the Farm

Nov 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220390:43183:0[/embed] Peter and the FarmDirector: Tony StoneRelease Date: November 4, 2016 (limited)Rating: NR There's an old idea that the health of a king would be reflected in the state of his kingdom, and that when a king's reign is in decline, so too the kingdom would fall to ruin. Dunning constantly mentions how this farm he bought in the 1960s isn't what it used to be, and how things are falling apart. He recalls glory days with his family (who are no longer present), and even shares a story about conceiving one of his kids while trying to shoot varmints. Yet the planks are rotting and the paint is peeling, and Dunning's lonely and depressed and an alcoholic. Stone catches the high and lows of this life in solitude as the seasons pass, showing concern for Dunning as a person as well as the subject for a documentary. It's a tough balance, and I sometimes wonder how documentary filmmakers manage it. Dunning's a salty guy, and he sometimes rags on city-boy Stone and his crew from New York as they come up to his farm. Still, there's a sense that Dunning is hungry for the company. The crew generally tries to stay out of Dunning's way to document the life he leads, but there are moments of concern they express on camera, and it expressed my own concerns for Dunning's well-being. This might be the city-boy in me talking, but there's a sense of romance about living a sustainable life on an organic farm. Stone cuts through that, however, getting into the mud and shit and sheer dissatisfaction that are the realities of Dunning's livelihood. In one particularly fetid scene, a cow in the foreground of a shot makes a healthy bowel movement for the unflinching camera. A farm veterinarian checks if the cow's pregnant, which involves shoving his arm into the cow's rectum all the way up to the bicep. Thankfully that's just out of frame as a hail of dung scatters to the barn floor. To the camera after he's done, the vet laughs and says he's going to get some lunch. The land and the man are one in Peter and the Farm, and we have to take the high and the low as part of a whole. There's a rustic beauty to the solitude of the farm, and Dunning's recollections of his marriages and his friendships have a kind of poetry about them as well. He was an artist and a marine and into the counterculture, and now he's on a farm. That's one hell of a story. But there's always a kind of misery underlying it all, and countless regrets. For every joy there's a desire for something lost and irretrievable in the past, an acknowledgment of more work to be done, and a dark sense that the work to be done won't be worth it in the end. Dunning confesses so much on screen, and with such sincerity, it makes me wonder about what's too painful to disclose, and what kinds of equivocation might be at play. With farming there's a larger metaphor for tilling the land, taming it, enriching the soil, making it yield what we want. One of my big takeaways from Peter and the Farm is that the metaphor sounds great but mostly in theory. The actual, physical ground we work on and our own interior lives often resist the impulse to be tamed. That struggle is the stuff of stories like Peter Dunning's--shit and sundowns and the occasional moment to reflect.
Peter and the Farm Review photo
Salt of the earth
The first thing I noticed about Peter Dunning, the subject of the documentary Peter and the Farm, was his injured hand. It's gnarled and he's missing fingers, and at 68 years old he's managed to function with just a thumb and...

Review: Gimme Danger

Oct 27 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220909:43126:0[/embed] Gimme DangerDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: October 28, 2016Rating:  R I'll start by accentuating the positive. It's great to watch the Stooges take a victory lap. After years of being a posse of indigent riffraff, The Stooges are now music demigods. On camera, Iggy Pop has such a smooth, comforting cool about him. Whenever he's telling a story, I experienced an anticipatory glee, waiting for that smirk to flourish into laughter and an unbridled smile. Stooges drummer Scott Asheton, by contrast, has a labored voice of a working class life lived hard. His late brother, Ron, pops up in archival interviews. Latter-day Stooges member James Williamson sits near his amp in a bathroom; we also spend some time with Minuteman frontman Mike Watt, who's part of The Stooges' reunion lineup. After the pre-title stinger (standard issue in so many docs these days), Jarmusch starts in Iggy Pop's childhood. Little James Osterberg, who lived in a trailer, tortured his parents with a drumkit and learned punk stagecraft from The Howdy Doody Show. We then zip through the band's formation in the '60s, with a little bit of exploration of the political scene in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Stooges live communally, and share the stage with their big brother band The MC5. Then they record their self-titled album, and then they put out Funhouse, and then it's on to Raw Power. And then this happens, and then this other thing, oh and this. At a certain point it dawned on me: Gimme Danger was mostly comprised of "and-thens". It's more like the events as fleshed out bullet points, not the life of a band as an essay. Jarmusch includes footage of the infamous Cincinnati Pop Fest performance in which Iggy Pop, held aloft by the crowd, smears peanut butter all over his chest and goes hogwild. So oddball and unconventional, which makes the limp plainness of Gimme Danger a bummer. It doesn't feel like a Jarmusch movie at all. Instead, it's more like a competent TV documentary on The Stooges, but one that never really goes deep enough. They mention the radical politics of Ann Arbor and hanging with The MC5, but that's it. They mention a stint in the Chelsea Hotel, but not much more than the fact they stayed there. So much room for expansion, amusing tangents, the sorts of anecdotes that give texture to a life. But mostly it's all back to the bullet points. I come back to the idea of shape that I mentioned earlier. While talking about "Search and Destroy" on Raw Power, Iggy explains the metaphoric shape of the song. Williamson's guitar fills the space in such a dense way, and that informed how Ron played his leads and how Iggy did his vocals. Pieces come together, play off each other, rework and reconstitute themselves, and find a means of working in combination that kicks like a goddamn drum. You hear or sense that shaping everywhere on Raw Power, which is why it's one of the best albums of all time. You're listening to a band when it gets it and gels. Gimme Danger seems to lack this sense of shape, or cohesion, if you prefer. If this interview goes here, how is it complemented there? And if this footage does this, what should that footage do to complement it? Admittedly, editing seems like the most difficult part of documentary film. Still, I wonder what Gimme Danger might have been with just a bit more shaping. It's not bad, don't get me wrong, but it's not something I'll put on repeat.
Review: Gimme Danger photo
I just wanna be your doc
Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch sound like an unlikely pairing. One's the primal frontman of proto-punk legends The Stooges, the other's a mellow, measured indie auteur. But maybe there's something magnetic about their respective b...

Review: Moonlight

Oct 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220901:43153:0[/embed] MoonlightDirector: Barry JenkinsRelease Date: October 21st, 2016Rating: R  Moonlight is told in three parts, each spaced a decade or so apart. In part one, Chiron is a child; people call him "Little." In part 2, he's a teenager; one person calls him "Black." In part 3, he's in his late 20s; everyone calls him "Black" now. Each of the three actors is in the poster, which I think is an excellent poster (there are also individual character posters of each actor in the same position, which is less cool). However, the posters all have the same, dumb tagline: "This is the story of a lifetime." That's a terrible tagline. Unlike, say, the Disney film that you might expect to have the tagline, it's more literal. It is, sort of, the story of someone's lifetime. But that's not a very good measuring stick. I look at that poster and think, "That looks really cool." I read that tagline and think, "That sounds really bland." Though that raises an interesting thought (more on that later). All three parts of Moonlight are good, though they are all good for totally different reasons. Part 1 sets Chiron up, but it's less about Chiron than the man who is his mentor: Juan. Part of me wonders if that's intentional, that it's supposed to be about Juan. Certainly he's a critical part of the narrative (and also of Chiron's development as the film progresses), but this is not his story ultimately. And it seems to me that part of the reason it feels so much like his story is because of just how spectacular Mahershala Ali is in the role. Every moment he's on screen belongs to him. If years down the road, Moonlight winds up forgotten (I don't think it will), Ali's performance will not. The conflict of his character — a drug dealer who sells to the mother of the kid he's now begun to take care of, in large part because the kid's mother is a drug addict — is compelling as heck, and the performance makes it all the more so. Juan isn't in Part 2 (and he's not really in Part 3, but he's also totally in Part 3). He's dead, but no one ever says it. That is actually one of my favorite things about the film. There's no, "Sucks that Juan died in that [whatever happened]." In fact, we don't ever find out what happened. We know from the bits and pieces, the "I haven't seen her since the funeral" and the "This is my house." There's nothing expository here; these words are natural and in character. Writer/director Barry Jenkins trusts the audience's intelligence enough to make basic connections. I have always appreciated that in a filmmaker, and Moonlight is no exception. That said, this is where we should double back to my earlier thought: "That sounds really bland." While no part of Moonlight could be justifiably called "bland," a case could be made that it feels oddly "typical." Chiron's story is, really, not a new one. I've long made a point that, if I can see something coming, it was telegraphed from a mile away, because I more often than not will be blindsided by twists that everyone else sees as painfully obvious. And Moonlight is not really a film about twists (the closest thing the story has to one has already been spoiled in this review (sorry)), but it's a film about a sequence of events. The sequence of events in each story can more or less be predicted within the first ten minutes of each time period. This is especially true of the teenage years, which follow an almost painfully conventional structure. Part 3 diverges most drastically, but the way Chiron would ultimately turn out is not unpredictable.  And yet, it didn't matter. In fact, I'd argue that the film is more effective rather than less as a result of this. Because this is something like a story we've seen time and time again, it highlights just how well crafted it is here. In reviews of foreign films, I've discussed how seeing a different culture's take on the Same Old Story can ultimately create something that feels new and fresh. I wasn't really thinking about it within our borders, but that's a matter of my own blindness. The creative minds behind Moonlight have had unique experiences that the white people who usually make decisions just can't grasp. I don't believe for a moment that a white person could not have made Moonlight feel so... vital, because it would have felt like every other story of its ilk. You may know the beats, but they still feel fresh. And it's a combination of everything, because the writing has to be there; the performances have to be there; the technical aspects have to be there. Truly great movies can't succeed on one level. They must succeed on every level. And Moonlight does. (I want to briefly call out the camerawork, which is spectacular. Hell, just that opening shot is a goddamn masterwork.) And so we return to this idea of representation, and the weight that rests on Moonlight's shoulders. People will look to it as the film that can keep the Oscars this year from being so white. If it doesn't get at least four nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography), well... I can't even fathom that possibility, because this is a film that more than deserves the praise that's been heaped upon it. By all accounts (again, I will not be watching it), the cracks in The Birth of a Nation as a work of art started to show as the narrative of Nate Parker's past emerged. And so were it to achieve ultimate success, some may have seen it more as a response to controversy than a justified win in and of itself. (That would be unfortunate, regardless of the film's quality, but I know more than a few people who would think that way.) There are no such concerns here. Any success that Moonlight has will come without reservation and without question. When the lights came up, I turned to the man beside me and asked what he had thought. "Beautiful," he answered. Nothing else needed to be said.
Moonlight Review photo
Able to bear the weight of its existence
I don't want to (and am not going to) make this review about the fact that Moonlight is a film about African Americans. It's not a topic I can avoid, but I want to get as much of that as I can out of the way in this intro. So...

Review: Fire at Sea

Oct 20 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220906:43140:0[/embed] Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare)Director: Gianfranco RosiRating: TBDRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)Country: Italy Fire at Sea is two different movies. In one movie, dozens of malnourished refugees die from inhaling gasoline fumes from the ship's engine. In the other film, a 12-year-old boy named Samuele struggles to steer a rowboat at the pier. One moment's dire and heartbreaking, the other is played for laughs. There's the coziness of Samuele's town, and then there's the squalor of a refugee ship. We watch Italian boys shoot cacti with slingshots and play war. We also watch a man from a war-torn country hyperventilate after being saved from a ship; he might be dying, he might have died. Everything about the town seems inconsequential, particularly two or three scenes involving a diver who adds little to the film save for some nice underwater photography. While a mix of emotional highs and lows can work, here's it's just so mannered, calculated, and done with an off-putting emotional disinterest. Fire at Sea has so many obvious counterpoints to highlight thematic or symbolic material, it's as if Rosi cared more about the metaphors than the actual human suffering. There's minimal connection between the refugees and the people in town. None of the townspeople in the film work in the Italian coast guard, and only one person actually interacts with the refugees or talks about them meaningfully. For everyone else, the refugees don't seem to exist. Toward the beginning of the film, an elderly woman cooks while listening to a radio. The DJ reads a report about drowned refugees. Those poor people, she says, and carries on. There's a doctor in town who treats refugees fished from the Mediterranean. He recounts this in troubled tones. The things he's seen, the dire conditions, haunt his dreams. The doctor later appears in the film talking to Samuele about the boy's lazy eye. (A metaphor for how many people choose not to see or cannot see the horrors that refugees face--okay, yeah, I get it). Samuele goes off, performing for the camera like a neurotic elderly man. In another movie, this may be charming. In Fire at Sea, the moment made me angry, and probably not in the way that Rosi intended. Yeah, okay, I get it, the contrast is meant to upset the audience's comfortable lives and sensibilities. But isn't all of this also obvious? Fire at Sea is most effective when focusing on the refugees and the rescue teams. That's when the film feels humane rather than an exercise in contrasting aesthetics. A man who's been beaten on the boat literally cries blood. A woman breaks down before the camera, and despite being severely dehydrated, she first pours a cup of water over her head in relief. In a refugee processing center, a room of refugees prays as if in a Pentecostal revival, singing their story of survival. At night, refugees from different countries have a pick-up soccer game, as if some humanity, that dignity they risked their lives for, has been restored to them. But then back to Samuele, who slurps up spaghetti good and loud for laughs. I understand Rosi's intentions intellectually, and this collection of contrasts and disconnects does sound interesting in the abstract. But these are real people, and the last thing I want out of films or books is to be merely interesting. Being merely interesting is easy. The more I think about Fire at Sea, the more I'm offended by the choice to aestheticize human suffering for the sake of mere interestingness. Rosi may be well-intentioned, but Fire at Sea came across as unintentionally callous. That may have been the point. That doesn't mean I have to like it. It's telling that the final scenes of Fire at Sea are all about Samuele rather than the refugees. Those poor people, Rosi's film seems to say, and carries on.
Review: Fire at Sea photo
When refugees are a secondary concern
Sometimes I'll see a movie and that makes me shake my head and say, "Okay, yeah, I get it". These sorts of movies are ones that I can understand at a formal, metaphorical, or thematic level, and yet even though I understand t...

BHFF Review: The Master Cleanse

Oct 18 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220967:43149:0[/embed] The Master CleanseDirector: Bobby MillerRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD  During the 1980s there was a glut of creature movies, spurred mostly by the popularity of Gremlins. After that came movies like Ghoulies and Critters and Hobgoblins. The Master Cleanse is like a cousin to these films, a few times removed. In some ways this link to the creature features of the not-so-distant past is a detriment to the film, but we'll come back to that point later. Writer/director Bobby Miller embeds the creature feature elements within a movie about self-help and fad diets as a solution for existential problems. Paul (Johnny Galecki) is a classic schlub who's heartbroken and aimless and in search of direction. He decides to check out a mystery retreat in the woods to deal with his woes. He's attracted to a fellow retreatee, an actress named Maggie (Anna Friel). The two meet in an chintzy orientation meeting that reeks of bad multi-level marketing scams. In the woods, the participants agree to an all-liquid diet of specially formulated sludge that will help rid them of their problems. Miller and his cast relish the awkward humor of these moments, which also tap into an underlying first-world sadness. Who else but the lost and desperate would even try these sorts of things? How many bad weeks are we from being where these people are? It's such a clever set up to watch unfold, even with such a small cast. A lot of the credit goes to how invested the ensemble is in their characters and the premise. Galecki channels a mix of sympathy and patheticness perfect for his downtrodden everyschlub. As the creatures make their way into the narrative, I was charmed by the movie's use of practical effects. There's something pretty wondrous about the conceit Miller presents. The creatures and the characters are linked in an unexpected way, which adds some life to the puppets and the people we're watching. There's so much to work with and so much to like about The Master Cleanse, but it wraps up way too soon. That may be the narrative expectations I have from those creature features I mentioned before. As The Master Cleanse quickly winds down, it feels like it would have been the beginning of third act in another film--a point where the world expands. I wonder if the budget was an issue, or the desire to keep the film at a very brief 80 minutes, or maybe this was a conscious choice to keep the story very small. I could have spent another 15 to 20 minutes in the world of the film no problem; it almost feels like the emotional payoff would have been bigger with a little more time. There's so much potential, such a fine tone, so many other things I would have liked to see, and characters I would have liked to spend more time with. The Master Cleanse is a movie where vomiting and diarrhea are fetid versions of Chekhov's gun. I mean this as a high compliment--what other movie does this? So many questions about excretions. While The Master Cleanse falls short at the end--a good example of  a logical conclusion that isn't necessarily a satisfying one--there's enough in there to enjoy. It's almost like I went on the retreat and did the cleanse diet myself. I drank it all in and it's all out of my system. Gosh am I hungry.
The Master Cleanse Review photo
The small-scale creature feature
I'm curious how they're going to market The Master Cleanse. I went into the film knowing very little about it, and many of my favorite parts involve its little surprises. I hope those surprises aren't spoiled in the trailer. ...

BHFF Review: Child Eater

Oct 16 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220938:43148:0[/embed] Child EaterDirector: Erlingur Ottar ThoroddsenRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBD The Child Eater monster is a mix of familiar elements. The fingers and ears and baldness of Nosferatu's Count Orlok, the hulking menace of a Jason Vorhees, the coat a bit Candyman, the sunglasses like the ones worn by the Butterball cenobite from Hellraiser. (An eerie moment with feathers descending in the night also recalls a dream sequence in Hellraiser.) He's scary, and the local legend around him evokes the spooky stories spread around small towns that happen to have a notorious figure/incident in their past. Maybe a little too familiar is just plain too familiar. There's a babysitter in peril named Helen (Cai Bliss) whose dad is a sheriff. There's a cute but also creepy little boy she's looking after named Lucas (Colin Critchley). And then there's the monster. After a moody flashback sequence in the opening credits, the events unfold over the course of a single day and night. That becomes an issue considering wounds certain a certain character sustains; an hour or so later, this character runs around without acknowledging the injury. Come to think of it, where was that police backup two or three hours before? Oh, no matter. There's are some solid ideas and images to play with in Child Eater. The gore effects and the moody images are fine--a sequence with Lucas being chased in a makeshift network of tunnels is menacing for what it is--but maybe it's all just fine. There are a lot of familiar horror tropes thrown in that feel perfunctory. Helen's a capable final girl for a horror movie, but she feel more like an archetype than a distinct character. Like memorable movie monsters, unique final girls are hard to come by--not everyone is a Laurie Strode or a Nancy Thompson. What I really wanted from Child Eater was a moment when the film becomes its own beast. Rather than ticking off a checklist of tropes, I was hoping it would go in some wild and unexpected direction. Writer/director Erlingur Ottar Thoroddsen originally did a short film version of Child Eater that can be viewed online, and many of those elements are planted throughout the feature-length version of the story. As far as the original elements, the tunnels I mentioned earlier offered a possibility, and an eerie game of hide and seek was squandered before achieving maximum effect. A creepy side character played by Melinda Chilton also felt like a wasted opportunity for Child Eater to build out its own identity as a film. This isn't to say Child Eater is bad. Again, it's competent. It just needs more of a sense of individuality to stand out. Soup in need of salt; maybe a better stock, homemade and new.
Review: Child Eater photo
Meet new monster, same as old monster
Creating a new face of horror is difficult. For every Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers, there are countless forgettable imitators. These lower-tier boogeymen may look good, and their mythology may have promise, but they never...

NYFF Review: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220930:43141:0[/embed] The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait PhotographyDirector: Errol MorrisRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD "Nice" is such a loaded word. It's often equivocal, a sly insult hidden in a mild compliment rather than a genuine endorsement of character. Stephen Sondheim parsed the word in the musical Into the Woods, noting that nice and good are two different things. (The latter is always preferable to the former.) It's telling that Dorfman uses it as part of her self-description. She's so humble and self-effacing on camera. It's the sort of goodness that can be passed off as niceness and/or mistaken for mere shyness. I got the feeling that this is how she is off camera as well. Morris' adoration for Dorfman comes through in the way he comments on her work and chronicles her career. These warm feelings wouldn't be possible if he subjected his friend to the Interrotron. Dorfman initially seems more like a friend's mom or an aunt than an artist, as if these identities are mutually exclusive. That distinction is ridiculous. Dorfman was something of a fixture in the New York literary scene in the 1960s, taking photos of literary luminaries passing through the city. It's there that she started a lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg. She would take portraits of him and with him for the next few decades. She's wistful when she looks at Ginsberg's portraits, and while I wondered what she was thinking, I didn't feel like prying. It's not as if I could. The large Polaroids shared in The B-Side are a mix of famous people and everyday folks. In addition to Ginsberg, Dorfman has a few images of Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman. Richman's earnest, wonkily cool/uncool music might be the proper sonic equivalent to Dorfman's portraiture and personality. The intimacy is palpable throughout The B-Side. Morris recreates the experience of hanging out with a good friend and looking at their body of work. If not looking through a portfolio, it's at least the experience of flipping through photo albums and mementos with a live commentary. This sounds merely nice, but there's more to it. Like the little details in a photo that bring it to life, there's an ineffable humane quality to The B-Side, and I think it has as much to do with Dorfman's personality as  her chosen medium. Polaroids are a "nice" format. There's a retro-chic about them, which explains their appeal--cooler than a disposable film camera--but they're impractical by today's standards. What's more, they're intended for common images and not the domain or typical format for high art. Dorfman is essentially offering a Polaroid photobooth experience (photobooths = nice), but she magnifies the internal life in her images. In her own self-portraits, there's an overwhelming domesticity, but her hand-written captions are revealing in the way that diaries and journals are revealing. The portraits themselves are art in plenty of ways: in how they play with expectations, in the way they hint at some story or feeling beneath the surface, in the way their material (Polaroid film) made me rethink the common uses of the material. When the meaning of the film's title is explained, the whole collection Dorfman's shared gains new and endearing meaning. There's something so likable about this nice Jewish girl who's been doing this since the 1970s. There's something charming about these imperfect images in this mostly dead format. There's something so delightful about The B-Side. It's not Morris' best film in terms of scope or depth, but it's also not just nice. I think The B-Side is Morris' most generous movie, and it's generous in a way that only friends can be to one another.
Review: The B-Side photo
There's something about Elsa
The B-Side is an atypical Errol Morris documentary. He doesn't use the Interrotron at all, his tool that allows interviewees to stare directly into the camera. Instead, the camera's just off to the side. The score is delicate...

Review: Under the Shadow

Oct 06 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220388:42856:0[/embed] Under the Shadow (زیر سایه)Director: Babak AnvariRating: PG-13Release Date: October 7, 2016 (limited)Country: Iran  It's easy to spot shadows everywhere in Anvari's film given the nature of the beast. Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, there are frequent air raid sirens and the threat of missiles coming down on civilian targets at any moment. Anvari sets up a particularly memorable tableau of an unexploded missile that's come through an apartment ceiling. An elderly man lies prone on the ground as if pinned there beneath the shell; the pointed nose seems to have pierced him through the heart. Our hero Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives in the apartment below, and that particular attack has left her ceiling a mess of cracks. For the characters who live in the building, their meager defense against being blown to pieces involves taping their windows and waiting in the basement for the terror to pass. There's more than the threat of bombs. Under the Shadow opens with Shideh getting kicked out of medical school because of her activism during the Iranian revolution. She's maintained a defiantly western mentality even after the Shah was exiled. Shideh rarely wears a hijab or chador (traditional headscarf and cloak, respectively), and she owns a VCR--a Jane Fonda aerobic workout is a form of dissent. When her husband is called away to the frontlines, Shideh is left alone to look after their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). The rest of the building seems to be fleeing, and there's talk of djinn, an ancient evil of legend, riding on the wind. Anvari gets a lot of thematic mileage out of the chador and masking tape on windows. Ana Lilly Amirpour, writer/director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, said that wearing a chador felt very bat-like to her, which helped inspire her chic vampire film (sort of like the Persian-language cousin of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive). For Shideh in Under the Shadow, the chador is a stifling metaphor: an invisible specter delineated in a sheet, a manifestation of Iran's political oppression, the symbol of a gender role she's disavowed. These things cannot be kept out by putting masking tape on windows. At various times in the film, the tape is peeling away. Anvari was born in Iran and lived there 17 years, but is now based in the UK. While he's sometimes distanced himself from the film's politics to emphasize the personal story between Shideh and Dorsa, it's hard for me to view Under the Shadow apolitically. It's a political movie because Shideh's a politically involved hero. Even if it's not always front and center, her actions speak to her politics. Shideh's struggles to keep the bombs and the djinn out aren't just for her own dignity but for Dorsa's future. Dorsa's little doll goes missing amid the chaos, and by extension we're left to wonder what future Dorsa's daughter might face if they were to remain in Iran. (Under the Shadow was shot in Jordan given numerous government restrictions/requirements when making films in Iran.) I'll admit I didn't find much of Under the Shadow scary, but I rarely find horror movies scary. It's eerie, however, and well-crafted. Most times I appreciate a horror movie for being memorable more than being scary. Rashidi is a solid emotional anchor for the film. Manshadi's not given as much to do acting-wise, but that says more about the nature of Dorsa as a character, who's a little one-note adorable. Rashidi plays Shideh with that exasperated air of a parent pushed to her limit, a woman who cares for her daughter so much yet can't help but feel she's also failing her in some way. It might be the all the other worries of country and career that makes her feel this way, pressing down more and more. The cracks begin to show, and they grow bigger, and it's always getting darker.
Review: Under the Shadow photo
Darkness, darkness everywhere
Some of the most notable indie horror movies of the last few years have been by women or about women. For example, see Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, and Robert Eggers' The Witch. Each ...

NYFF 2016: Our Most Anticipated Movies of the 54th New York Film Festival

Sep 28 // Hubert Vigilla
MoonlightDirector: Barry Jenkins This year's big festival darling, Moonlight looks like it could be one of the great, daring coming-of-age films this year. Writer/director Barry Jenkins explores aspects of masculinity, sexuality, identity, and passing in the black community, focusing on a bullied boy named Chiron who lives with his single mother in Miami. ElleDirector: Paul Verhoeven After 16 years away from Hollywood and a decade since his last proper film (Black Book), Paul Verhoeven's Elle looks like a provocative return-to-form. Some critics who caught the premiere at Cannes described it as an empowering rape comedy, a combination of words so antithetical I can't help but be intrigued. Starring Isabelle huppert, Elle is France's official selection for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. 13THDirector: Ava DuVernay In the 13TH, an original feature-length documentary for Netflix, Selma director Ava DuVernay focuses on the systemic racism and pervasive inequality of the United States prison system. The film's title refers to the 13th Amendment, which ostensibly abolished slavery. Interviewees in 13TH include Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, and, unexpectedly, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Toni ErdmannDirector: Maren Ade The buzz around Toni Erdmann is that it's a masterful three-hour screwball drama-comedy about an estranged father and his daughter. Beyond the great reviews out of Cannes and Toronto, I'm going into the film blind but hopeful. It'll be my first exciting dip into the films of Maren Ade. Toni Erdmann is Gemany's official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. PatersonDirector: Jim Jarmusch Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite filmmakers, which means that my excitement for Paterson is a given. Getting away from the Detroit-based vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch instead heads to Paterson, New Jersey where a bus driver (Adam Driver) named Paterson writes poems in private. There's obviously more to it than that, but the beauty is in the smaller things. Gimme DangerDirector: Jim Jarmusch Jim Jarmusch is one of a few people doing double-duty at this year's New York Film Festival. In addition to Paterson, he's also got a documentary on the birth and decline and resurgence of The Stooges. Their third album, Raw Power, is one of the best albums ever made. This is an indisputable fact. I wonder how a mellow guy like Jarmusch does with the raucous squalor of Iggy Pop. Personal ShopperDirector: Olivier Assayas Kristen Stewart is doing her best to break away from the Twilight films. She shook free of that sparkling albatross in Olivier Assays' 2014 drama Clouds of Sils Maria, and she re-teams with Assayas for this year's Personal Shopper. The film centers on Stewart's character (part high-powered personal shopper, part spiritual medium... just go with it) coming to terms with the death of her twin brother. Certain WomenDirector: Kelly Reichardt Another NYFF film starring Kristen Stewart, Certain Women looks like one of those quiet, ruminative character studies that can linger in your memory long after it's over. The three stories in the film (adapted from the work of Maile Meloy) are each propelled by the performances of Stewart, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and newcomer Lily Gladstone. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkDirector: Ang Lee Here's your Kristen Stewart hat trick. Adapted from the novel by Ben Fountain, Ang Lee's latest is all about an Iraq War veteran dealing with a brief return home. The movie co-stars Joe Alwyn, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, and Steve Martin. Shot in 4K 3D in 120 frames per second, Billy Lynn should look and feel much different than anything else that's come before.  NerudaDirector: Pablo Larrain Pablo Larrain has had a busy last few years as a producer and filmmaker, and he's doing double-duty at the New York Film Festival this year. In Neruda, Larrain tells a semi-fictionalized account of the political exile of Pablo Neruda in Chile during the late 1940s. The poet is on the run from a shadowy Chilean agent played by Gael Garcia Bernal. JackieDirector: Pablo Larrain Just announced yesterday, Pablo Larrain's Jackie will have its US premiere at NYFF 54 at a special screening. His English-language debut is a biopic of Jackie Kennedy set around the time of the JFK assassination. Natalie Portman stars in the film, and she's apparently turned in a remarkable performance as the former First Lady. GraduationDirector: Cristian Mungiu Cristian Mungiu's films have a devastating power. Much of it comes from his control of long takes and what that does to the perception of a scene. In Graduation, Mungiu turns his attention to a father determined to have his daughter graduate and study abroad after she's been assaulted, no matter what compromises must be made. Graduation is Romania's official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Manchester by the SeaDirector: Kenneth Lonergan Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a movie I've been wanting to watch all year thanks to major buzz at Sundance. The film follows Casey Affleck's character, who returns home to Massachusetts after the death of his brother. Lots of pain and carefully observed family drama ensues. JulietaDirector: Pedro Almodovar I never expected Pedro Almodovar to adapt Canadian literary fiction icon Alice Munro to the big screen, but here goes with Julieta. Taking stories from Munro's collection Runaway, Almodovar continues to do what he does best: explore the lives and relationships of fascinating women. Julieta is Spain's official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait PhotographyDirector: Errol Morris There are certain things audiences expect from an Errol Morris documentary, but The B-Side looks like it'll throw fans for a loop. Morris puts away the Interrotron and instead spends quality time with a good friend. The friend in question is photographer Elsa Dorfman, best known for taking endearing, oversized 20x24 Polaroid portraits.
NYFF 54 Preview photo
Just a handful of major highlights
The 54th New York Film Festival kicks off on Friday, September 30th and runs until Sunday, October 16th. This year's slate looks generally solid, and several of the movies are going to be shoo-ins for best-of-the-year lists c...


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