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New Directors/New Films

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...

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: 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 ...


Review: Hard Sell

May 23 // Rick Lash
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I want to say nice things about this film. That's the feeling I'm left with as I'm watching it. I believe I understand where the Writer/Director, Sean Nalaboff, is coming from. Hard Sell is "a coming-of-age tale ... [abo...

Thoughts on the documentary Weiner by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg

May 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220420:42870:0[/embed] Weiner is cringe comedy at its most painful, with so much said in clenched jaws, nervous posture, and sad eyes. What's most fascinating is how, at least for me, the initial schedenfreude turned into empathy. I felt bad for Weiner, sure, but more so for and his wife, Huma Abedin, who suffers the failed campaign mostly in silence. Huma's appearances are brief but momentous. When she occasionally looks at the camera and emotes, I'm reminded of Jim from The Office or Buster Keaton; when the camera catches her in a candid moment, I'm reminded of seeing distressed strangers suffering through some private turmoil on the subway. While watching Weiner, I kept thinking about Marshall Curry's 2005 documentary Street Fight, which covered Cory Booker's run for mayor of Newark. Booker remains a rising star in the Democratic Party (though he seemed to burn brighter as a mayor than he currently does as a US senator), and Street Fight is all about his high-minded, aspirational campaign which was characterized by an inexhaustible surfeit of dignity. Weiner, on the other hand, is all about exponentially expanding indignity, both on the part of the candidate and also on the part of a media obsessed with salaciousness, moral outrage, and sanctimony. [embed]220420:42872:0[/embed] The early buzz over Weiner is that the film's release could have an impact on the general election. Huma is a close confidante of Hillary Clinton and currently serves as vice chairwoman of Clinton's presidential campaign. I don't think this will have much sway on the primaries or the big vote in November, but it may help people reflect on what matters in politics. With so much focus on personality and personal lives, the focus on policy gets lost. In other words, Dick Pics > The Middle Class. As we watch Weiner struggle to get his message out on the campaign trail, all anyone can talk about are his personal indiscretions and how they affect perceptions of trustworthiness. Some express moral outrage, and use it as an excuse for the worst kind of bullying. How much of this is rooted in legitimate concern for New York City politics, and how much of it is just a love of political theater? [embed]220420:42871:0[/embed] I developed a strange admiration for Weiner as the documentary progressed. Part of that is how we begin to feel bad for a person when they've been publicly humiliated, but Weiner is also a fighter. When I first heard about him several years back, it was because of his passion as a Congressman when advocating for 9/11 first responders. The first sexual disgrace would come a year later, but that fighting spirit carried on in his comeback/mayoral bid, though he became a total palooka for the public. Even with everything collapsing, he continued into the fray, taking punch after punch after punch, and yet, against all good judgement, he decided to stand and fight rather than fall. Is it odd to admire the punching bag and the punch-drunk? The big question is if Weiner believed he could salvage his comeback or if it was just the weight of expectation and obligation that kept him going. Most likely both. Maybe it was also a kind of public flogging that he secretly agreed with. It's weird to admire that, but people are strange and complicated, and sometimes they run for office. Whether or not I'd vote for them is a different matter entirely.
Weiner documentary photo
Politics (and dick pics) in our time
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner was one of the must-sees at New Directors/New Films earlier this year. The documentary chronicles the inspiring comeback and catastrophic implosion of Anthony Weiner's 2013 bid to be...

New Directors/New Films photo
New Directors/New Films

NYC: New Directors/New Films starts next week (March 16-27)


A showcase for emerging filmmakers
Mar 08
// Hubert Vigilla
The 45th edition of New Directors/New Films starts next week in New York City. New Directors/New Films showcases emerging filmmakers from around the world, and screens some of the most talked about films on the festival circu...

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