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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ZERO MOTIVATION: Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review

Nelly Tagar as Daffi. Photographer: Yaron Scharf
ZERO MOTIVATION
2014, 96 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Winner of the Tribeca Film Festival's Best Narrative Feature Award and Nora Ephron Prize, Talya Lavie's Zero Motivation is the most entertaining movie about boredom ever made.  The film tells the story of a group of young women serving in the IDF at a desert station in Israel.  The women are petty, bratty, rotten, and selfish, all of these delightful qualities emphasized by the fact that they are bored working in an office all day.

In addition to being the most entertaining movie about boredom ever made, this is the most apolitical movie about the IDF ever made.  In most Israeli or Palestinian films I've seen, particularly those about the army, there's always some kind of political slant (and I've seen films that have leaned towards every side of that conflict), but Zero Motivation zeroes in on the pettiness of the soldiers' everyday lives as they complain, fight, and try to beat each other's Minesweeper scores.

The film is told in three parts through the eyes of two characters, Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy).  There isn't one narrative through-line for Zero Motivation, but rather the film is told in little anecdotes, each funnier than the next.  The actresses all give strong performances.  Their comedic timing is impeccable.

Almost every single character in this film is unlikable, which is what makes them infinitely compelling.  They're live wires which means they're extremely unpredictable.  These women literally have zero motivation to succeed or to support their country.  They are constantly reminded that their fellow soldiers are laying down their lives while they're bitching about having to file papers.  The women in this film forget that they're serving in the military where people's lives are in danger - they're so caught up in their own little world.  Because they're caught up in this world, they fail to see the larger picture.

But, they're human.  In one way or another, we can relate to these characters, whether we'd care to admit it or not.  These characters could have been caricatures, but they aren't because Lavie makes them relatable.  These are just bored women at work.  Everyone can relate to wanting to play an addictive game like Minesweeper on a slow day at work.  Unfortunately, though, in these womens' workplace, people's lives are on the line.

Overall, this is an auspicious debut for Lavie.  It is a supremely entertaining, confident, occasionally demented, and very human film.  If this is how great the quality of Lavie's films will continue to be, I cannot wait to see what's next.

4/4

FSLC Honors Rob Reiner at the 41st Annual Chaplin Gala

Rob Reiner
Photo courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center
FSLC Honors Rob Reiner 
at the 
41st Annual Chaplin Gala

by Joshua Handler

Last night, April 28, the Film Society of Lincoln Center held the 41st annual Chaplin Gala to honor the career of Rob Reiner.  The gala was originally held to celebrate the career of Charlie Chaplin and has since honored the careers of Alfred Hitchcock, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese, and others.

Reiner is, I believe, one of the most underappreciated American directors.  Between 1984 and 1992, Reiner directed seven films, six of which are perennial favorites, beloved by critics and audiences alike.  Those six favorites are This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, and A Few Good Men.  He also directed such hits as The American President and The Bucket List later on.  These films are all imbued with a special touch that makes them infinitely rewatchable.  Their characters are vivid and Reiner's understated, unobtrusive direction makes them easy to simply put on any night of the week.

To honor Reiner, Michael McKean, Carol Kane, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, Bruce Cohen, Michael Douglas, Barry Sonnenfeld, and James Caan gave speeches followed by film clips from Reiner's films. In addition, Tom Cruise, Mandy Patinkin, Morgan Freeman, and Rob Reiner's legendary father, Carl Reiner, recorded speeches.  While most of the above presenters discussed Reiner's directorial work, Bruce Cohen discussed Reiner's dedication to political activism, particularly his dedication to overturning Proposition 8 in California, and Douglas discussed Reiner's career as an actor (he is perhaps best remembered for playing the role of Michael 'Meathead' Stivic in All in the Family).

The presenters all told different stories about Reiner, most of which were hilarious, but they were all unified by their respect for him as a person.  Every presenter raved about what a kind man he is and how working with him was one of the best experiences of their respective careers.

Patinkin's story was particularly amusing.  When rehearsing for The Princess Bride, Billy Crystal would begin improving hours of 12th and 13th Century jokes.  Reiner would be laugh so hard that he had to leave the room and made Patinkin rehearse with Crystal because Reiner would ruin every take with his laughing.  Patinkin was (barely) able to hold in the laughs.

At the end of the evening, Martin Scorsese came up to present Reiner with his award.  Scorsese was Reiner's director for The Wolf of Wall Street in which Reiner played Jordan Belfort's short-tempered father.  While Reiner's role in that film was small, it was among the most memorable.

The gala was an incredibly enjoyable evening because, while it was held in the Lincoln Center's massive Avery Fisher Hall, it felt like sitting in on an evening of friends telling hilarious, moving stories about a shared friend, except for the fact that the storytellers were among the most recognizable actors in Hollywood.  This was an evening of celebration and love and it was an absolute pleasure to attend.  If anything, the evening made me just want to watch all of Reiner's films again.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

An Interview with E.L. Katz, Director of CHEAP THRILLS

Pat Healy in CHEAP THRILLS
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films
An Interview with E.L. Katz, 
Director of CHEAP THRILLS
By Joshua Handler

E.L. Katz recently made his directorial debut with Cheap Thrills, a violent, nasty, dark comedy about a man who, after losing his job right after receiving an eviction notice, meets an old friend at a bar who introduces him to a rich stranger who dares the two to do increasingly crazy things in exchange for extraordinary amounts of money.  The film has been a critical hit and won multiple awards at Fantastic Fest last year.  Cheap Thrills was released on VOD in February and was released in theaters last month.

Katz said he found the screenplay, originally titled Looking For Something, at a dinner he threw for genre screenwriters.  The finished product of the film is very close to how it was originally envisioned.  "In the final script," explained Katz, "everything that we...wrote ended up [in the film]…I don't think anything got lost there…but…there's other versions…[T]he script went through some different revisions and…David Chirchirillo and me worked on some other drafts where things got a little too fucked up, you know, we had…one where...a pregnant woman died…it just got too crazy, so we sort of went as big as we could on the page and then tried to find a way to kind of to get to a place where…we wouldn't lose the audience off the bat.  [M]aybe we'd lose them at the end, but for a while, they're going to be on board that this is sort of a plausible situation.  Once we started dialing that in, we knew what it was that we…were going to end up shooting, and that stuff didn't really change."

This film was definitely not for everybody.  Katz recalled the following incident at a screening: "I was at a screening at the L.A. Film School…and I was just sitting out in the lobby with my wife and just kind of waiting, pacing around, and this big dude with a grocery bag and sweatpants cruises out, and he walks past me, and he's just like, I don't think he even knew I made the movie, and he's like, '[T]hat movie - no good. Trash,' and then he walks out towards this one exit door, opens the exit door which sets off an alarm 'cause theres this barricade that said…'don't walk out this way,' so this fucking loud alarm starts playing in the whole school, and I'm just like…'He just trolled the fuck out of this movie in the most effective way possible.'  I couldn't help but just laugh."

Katz realizes that his movie won't be everyone's cup of tea.  "It's not going to be for everybody and it shouldn't be…[T]his is crazy stuff...and not everybody's going to be into it, and I'm fine with that," he said.

Because Cheap Thrills was Katz's feature directorial debut, the film was a new experience for him.  "I think just the transition from…being in your room and kind of being able to take your time with each creative decision to suddenly having a lot of them that have to be answered very rapidly while essentially having a construction…going on [was an adjustment]," said Katz.

Luckily his actors (Pat Healy, Dave Koechner, Ethan Embry, and Sara Paxton lead the cast) "were pretty game…I think they were excited to tackle the really disturbing stuff and..they all played it really straight…[T]hey took it seriously from the beginning.  That's the only way you can make a movie like this.  If people are sort of on board conceptually, but not really, you're gonna fall on your face."

Cheap Thrills has launched Katz's career.  He will next direct a section in the ABCs of Death sequel.  Cheap Thrills is well worth seeking out.  It's highly disturbing, well-written, funny, and features stand-out performances from Healy and Koechner.  Cheap Thrills will be released on Blu-ray/DVD on May 27.

HUMAN CAPITAL: Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review

Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. Photograph by Loris Zampelli©Loris Zampelli
HUMAN CAPITAL
(Il capitale umano)
2014, 109 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Paolo Virzì's Human Capital is a layered, smartly-structured film that begins with a cyclist being hit off the road by a car on Christmas Eve.  This incident brings together many people all of whom propel this story of corruption and greed.  The film is an adaptation of Stephen Amidon's novel of the same name.

Like Rashomon, Human Capital tells the same story three times, from three different points of view, with each person's story revealing more about the circumstances behind the cyclist's death.  Unlike Rashomon, though, the characters don't narrate their own stories, which doesn't allow us to question their motives and their reliability.  This approach makes Human Capital much more satisfying than if it was ambiguous.

The screenplay by Virzì, Francesco Bruni, and Francesco Piccolo is well-thought-out, dark, and features three-dimensional characters.  While the finale of the film doesn't have the bite that it should and the film itself becomes too convoluted for its own good, it is still extremely entertaining and has potential to become a sleeper hit in the U.S. when Film Movement releases in early 2015.

The performances from all are strong.  For her role as a rich housewife whose ambitions are crushed by her powerful husband, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi deservingly won the Tribeca Film Festival's Best Actress Award.  Fabrizio Bentivoglio also gives a stand-out performance as a man who makes insane investments with a corrupt businessman in the hopes of becoming rich.

Overall, Human Capital is an interesting critique of Italy's upper class (while this sounds like a repeat of The Great Beauty, Human Capital is nothing like Beauty), a well-acted drama, and a solid piece of entertainment.  Again, with the right release, this could connect quite well with American audiences.

3.5/4

WHITEY: Hot Docs 2014 Review

James 'Whitey' BulgerCourtesy of Magnolia Pictures
WHITEY: 
UNITED STATES V. JAMES J. BULGER
2014, 106 minutes
Rated R for language and some crime scene images

Review by Joshua Handler

Oscar-nominee Joe Berlinger's latest documentary, Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger is an incendiary documentary that initially appears to be a straight biography, but is far from it.  The film begins when James 'Whitey' Bulger is arrested and follows his trial while exploring the man and the corruption that plagued Boston for years.

Bulger is a psychotic criminal who terrorized Boston for decades before disappearing for over a decade.  He was next to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's Most Wanted List and he was thought to be an FBI informant.  This film, however, questions the validity of that claim and digs deeper into the story of why a man this dangerous could be allowed to run free through Boston without being charged with a crime.

Through the ultimately unsatisfying trial, Berlinger digs deep into Whitey's reign of terror.  What's shocking is the fact that Whitey claims that the FBI gave him immunity in exchange for information.  While it's still debated whether this is true, it seems highly likely given the fact that Bulger was never arrested during his peak (there is ample evidence in the film to support the above claim).

As much as this film condemns Whitey's actions, it is even more condemning of the Boston FBI branch.  There was a period of time when the Boston FBI branch wanted more than anything to take down the Mafia.  To accomplish this goal, they supposedly enlisted the help of Whitey in exchange for immunity. Berlinger explores the FBI's actions during that time and comes up with more than one highly disturbing conclusion.

It is a breath of fresh air to see a biographical documentary not be presented like a straight biography.  Berlinger knew that that would be a dull approach to a film about this crazy a man, so he started at the end of the story and worked his way back through his own investigation and the trial.

Overall, Whitey is a potent piece of documentary filmmaking that is as disturbing as it is provocative.  Berlinger never lets the pace slow and keeps the revelations coming throughout.  Magnolia Pictures will release the film in June followed by a broadcast on CNN later in the year.

3.5/4

Saturday, April 26, 2014

THE ONE I LOVE: Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review

Sophie & Ethan, Elisabeth Moss & Mark Duplass. Photographer: Doug Emmett
THE ONE I LOVE
2014, 91 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Charlie McDowell's The One I Love starts as one movie before completely changing into another.  Starring Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss, the film tells the story of a couple whose marriage is on the rocks.  One day, the couple goes to see their therapist who tells them to go on a little getaway at a place that he recommends.  Once the couple gets there -

- and that's all I'm going to tell you.  This is a movie best unspoiled.  If you read many of the other reviews of this film published out of Sundance, they spoil the film's main narrative punch.  Going into this movie knowing as little as I told you above is the best way to view it, since the rest of the movie relies on that which I have withheld from you.

This is going to be an especially hard movie to review because so much of what makes it great comes from its twist, but I will keep this review completely spoiler-free and will do my best to review it.  Duplass and Moss are excellent.  Their comedic timing is sharp and their chemistry is strong, making their characters extremely likable.

Justin Lader's screenplay takes full advantage of its clever concept.  On the surface, it's amusing and clever, but on a deeper level, it's a moving meditation on marriage and love.  This film, in its own weird way, shows us how imperfections are one of the main aspects of another person that draws us to love them.

What's so smart about The One I Love is that it begins so generically.  While it is funny from the start, there's nothing to distinguish its opening from the openings of millions of other Sundance marriage trouble movies, as one critic wrote.  The genericness of the opening twenty minutes are used to catch us off-guard before throwing in a twist that literally changes everything that follows

Overall, The One I Love is a daring movie that must be seen to be believed.  As much as I would have loved to write a more in-depth and analytical review of this ingenious film, I will spare the spoilers and let you see just what makes this movie so insanely good.  I don't even want to post a section with a spoiler warning, as this means that there's a chance that I will spoil the movie for someone if they read carelessly.  RADiUS-TWC is releasing The One I Love on August 15, and if word of mouth is strong enough, it could be a sleeper hit.

3.5/4

THE OVERNIGHTERS: Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films
THE OVERNIGHTERS
2014, 95 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Jesse Moss' The Overnighters has been astounding audiences ever since its premiere at Sundance in January.  The film tells the story of a small town in North Dakota that experiences a boom because oil is found beneath it.  Because of the boom, overnighters flood into the town.  The local pastor, Jay Reinke, takes them in and allows them to stay in the church, on its parking lot, and in his home, which causes tensions with the town.

I frequently feel that great documentaries are more compelling than great narratives because there is no substitute for real life.  However, great as many documentaries are, there are few that can actually be called "profound" or can change your perception on life.  The Overnighters is an example of the aforementioned kind of documentary.  Moss approaches this material with respect and humanity.  Many of the overnighters are felons and sex offenders.  While many of these men have had terrible pasts and committed heinous acts, they are never shown as bad people, just human beings, which is how Reinke sees them.

One of the most revealing scenes in The Overnighters is one in which Reinke allows one of the overnighters to stay in his home.  This man is a sex offender.  Our image of a sex offender is someone who has committed a horrible crime (and that is the case much of the time).  However, this man is a registered sex offender because he had sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 18-years-old.  These were simply two people in love doing something that two people in love tend to do.  A scene like this really puts these men's lives into perspective and calls on us to look past labels and histories to find the human inside.  In this respect, The Overnighters can be compared to Edgar Baren's masterpiece, the Oscar-nominated short documentary "Prison Terminal" since it asks us to see everyone as a human, not as a label.

Documentaries frequently change course as they're being made.  Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles is a perfect example of that.  That being said, I've don't believe I've ever seen a documentary change because of one last-minute revelation.  This is precisely what happens in The Overnighters.  The last "act" of this film has a few revelations that rival those of The Sixth Sense or The Skin I Live In for their ability to change your perception of what came before.  These revelations show the complexity of humanity and how many layers and faces each of us have.

Overall, with or without the revelations, The Overnighters is a documentary as profound as The Act of Killing and as humane as "Prison Terminal".  Moss' film is a statement on the illusiveness of the American Dream, a call for compassion, and a brilliant piece of filmmaking.  Watch for this when Drafthouse Films releases later this year.  I will not be surprised if The Overnighters is nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar at the 2015 Oscars.  It's fairly obvious that Drafthouse will make a push given, according to their site, the fact that they're releasing in "Winter 2014."

4/4

Friday, April 25, 2014

BAD HAIR: Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review

Photo courtesy of Sudaca Films
BAD HAIR
(PELO MALO)
2014, 93 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler 

Mariana Rondón's Bad Hair is a powerful, moving, daring film that is a contender for having the most powerful ending of any film at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.  Starting as an amusing, enjoyable coming-of-age story and gradually becoming darker and darker before reaching its surprising conclusion, Bad Hair is a highly unusual film that features two standout performances by Samuel Lange Zambrano and Samantha Castillo.

Bad Hair tells the story of a young boy, Junior (Zambrano), living in a slum in Venezuela who wants to straighten his head of big, curly hair.  His overbearing, harsh mother, Marta (Castillo), however, is afraid that Junior is gay and doesn't want him to straighten his hair.

Rondón's greatest achievement with this film is her uncompromising vision.  There is absolutely no sugar-coating in this film.  Rondón is completely committed to honesty, which makes this a unique vision.  If a film like Bad Hair was made in the United States, it almost certainly would've ended differently and would've been light, funny, and sentimental.  Rondón uses the slum setting to stunning effect, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia infused with hints of beauty.

Junior isn't accepted and will likely never be accepted as gay in his community and this is a tragic fact of life that Rondón stares right in the face.  Though this film is set in Venezuela, Junior's plight is one faced by young boys and girls all over the world.  Bad Hair is a call for tolerance and acceptance.

Zambrano's performance is extraordinary.  As a child who cannot be more than 12 or 13 years of age, Zambrano gives a performance of depth, maturity, and emotion that is rarely seen in child actors.  Castillo's biggest achievement is making her nasty character sympathetic.  Marta is rough, but her horrible circumstances make her even rougher - we can't help but to feel at least a little bad for her since her husband left her, she has young children to raise, and she has to find a job.  While Marta is a tough character to feel any sympathy for, Castillo brings out the humanity in her by showing her as an overstressed human trying to go on damage control, so to speak, by hiding her son's sexuality since this would make him an outsider in their community.  While we may not agree with Marta's decisions, we can at least understand them to some extent.  The scenes that Zambrano and Castillo share are dynamite, with Zambrano holding his own against the much-older Castillo.

The cinematography for this film is evocative.  It is grainy and rough, almost like a '70s grindhouse film.  This adds texture and grit to the already-grimy slum-set film.

Overall, Bad Hair is unforgettable.  While its pace occasionally lags, that is more than made up for with its jaw-dropping performances, humane script and direction, and fantastic conclusion.  This movie has more to say than many other narrative films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival and is well worth seeking out.

3.5/4

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

FISHTAIL: Tribeca Film Festival 2014 Review

Ranch Hand Tylee Abbott herds the bulls over the ridge. 
Photographer: Joe Anderson.
FISHTAIL
2014, 61 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

This year's World Documentary Competition has featured a variety of different documentaries about everything from the transgender community in Puerto Rico to a group of people protecting mountain gorillas in Congo. However, no documentary in competition is quite like Andrew Renzi's hypnotic FISHTAIL, an hour-long film that documents modern day cowboys as they work through calving season at Fishtail Basin Ranch in Montana.

The only narration is a beautiful, rough recording of Harry Dean Stanton reading poetry. While this approach certainly will not please everyone, I was mesmerized throughout. The 16MM cinematography gives the film the feel of a classic western. It's faded colors and film grain make this an ode to a time gone by.

These cowboys are among the last of their kind. They are a group who thrived 150 years ago but have been slowly been dying. Renzi's film captures this sense of melancholy through Stanton's narration and the cinematography, but it is also a testament to those who live and love this rough way of life. These men rise at sunrise and work through the day caring for these animals.  Their job is their life.

Fishtail's "narrative" (if it can even be called that) is split into sections.  The section dividers are placed based on the natural progression of life on the ranch, not on some artificially constructed narrative that the filmmakers wanted to tell.  This allows the film to move smoothly and rhythmically, following the ebbs and flows of life on the ranch.


The sun-drenched, mystical cinematography by Joe Anderson ranks among the best I've seen this year.  The old-fashioned look that he created for this film is a wonderful homage to rougher revisionist westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Heaven's Gate, and this places the film firmly in the Revisionist Western genre that left out the mythologizing and glamorizing that plagued many classic Westerns of the 1930s-1950s (The Searchers being a notable exception).  

Overall, Fishtail is another masterful documentary world premiering at Tribeca.  The cinematography, direction, narration, score (by Danni Bensi and Saunder Jurrians), and just about everything else in this film work together beautifully to create a near-perfect whole.  

4/4 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

POINT AND SHOOT: Tribeca Film Festival Review 2014

Matthew VanDyke sitting in the prison cell. Photographer: Nouri Fonas 
POINT AND SHOOT
2014, 83 minutes
 Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Two-time Oscar-nominee Marshall Curry's Point and Shoot is a textbook example of how to make a compelling documentary.  Point and Shoot tells the story of Matthew VanDyke, an American who decided that his life needed a little adventure.  So, he set out to drive around the Arab world on a motorcycle and film his journey.  Along the way, he befriended a Libyan man, Nouri.  After VanDyke returned to America, the Arab Spring erupted and he felt as if it was his duty to fight with the rebels in Libya alongside Nouri.  Through VanDyke's footage of his travels and of the war, interviews, and vivid animated sequences by Joe Posner, Point and Shoot brings VanDyke's story to vivid life.

From the moment Point and Shoot started through the minute it ended, I was captivated.  VanDyke's story is so out of the ordinary that watching him tell the story in an interview would have been fascinating on its own.  VanDyke's footage of his travels is intimate and funny and brings his stories to life.  As interesting as that footage is, nothing compares to his war footage.  In most other documentaries about war, we must watch news footage of the conflict or footage shot by professional camera crews from the press, but in Point and Shoot, we see VanDyke's footage which is personal and emotional and has an immediacy that no news footage could ever capture.  This footage is very much like the that which comprises Jehane Noujaim's excellent documentary The Square, as that film is a first-hand, ground-level view of a revolution unfolding.

VanDyke is a great subject not only because of his story, but because of his openness with Curry.  VanDyke bares it all in front of the camera, not holding anything back.  I felt as if I had gotten to know him so well through the film that by the time the 83 minutes were over, it seemed like I knew him like a friend.

It takes a documentarian of Curry's caliber to create a documentary out of material this important and sprawling.  While the film covers a large amount of time with a lot of information, Curry managed to create a coherent story told with a relentless pace.  Most documentaries are too long and hit a point where they slow up.  However, Point and Shoot doesn't have this problem.  Through his multi-media approach, Curry crafted a compelling story that unfolds like a thriller.  We never know what's going to happen next.  The only certainty in this story is that VanDyke will live, as he is the one telling the story.

Overall, Point and Shoot is a superior documentary in every way.  It is a multi-dimensional portrait of a unique man, it is a powerful story of war, and it is an important historical document.  How many movies can one say that about?

4/4

GABRIEL: Tribeca Film Festival Review 2014

Rory Culkin in Gabriel: Courtesy Gabriel
GABRIEL
2014, 88 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Lou Howe's Gabriel is a moving film that's so well-acted it was hard to believe I was watching actors.  The film centers around Gabriel (he prefers to be called Gabe), a mentally ill young man who wants to propose to his former girlfriend because he believes that that will create stability in his life.  Rory Culkin is mesmerizing as Gabe and the supporting cast is universally excellent, but Deirdre O'Connell stands out at Gabriel's mom, Meredith.

Howe's screenplay is honest, emotional, and not sentimental, though very moving.  Every tear is earned.  Howe doesn't define Gabe by his illness.  Through good and bad, Howe makes sure that we understand why Gabe is acting the way he is.  Because of Gabe's illness, his behavior is unpredictable, and this unpredictability drives each scene.

While Gabriel is very much a character study of its eponymous character, it is also an exploration of how mental illness can affect an entire family.  Howe made every character interesting and lovingly developed each and every one of them.

As mentioned, the entire cast is fantastic, but Culkin and O'Connell stand out.  Culkin's portrayal of Gabe is sensitive, human, and heartbreaking.  Culkin's work with Gabe is unique because of the many habits and idiosyncrasies that he created. While many of Gabe's actions are questionable at best, I was invested in him and cared about him throughout because of Culkin's superb work.  He earned my sympathy.

Deirdre O'Connell's portrayal of Gabe's mother, Meredith, is beautiful.  A character like Meredith would usually be underdeveloped, but Howe and O'Connell do everything they can to make her as real as possible.  By watching O'Connell, we learn volumes about Meredith.  Meredith hasn't had the easiest life, yet she is a kind, loving mother with a huge heart.  In Meredith, I saw so much of my mother and I expect many others to see their mothers in her too.

Overall, Gabriel is a multi-layered film with a stand-out lead performance, a smart screenplay, and a director who likely has a great career ahead.  This is a stand-out film in this year's World Narrative Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival and should play well with most everyone who sees it.

4/4

Saturday, April 19, 2014

THE CANAL: Tribeca Film Festival Review 2014

Photo by Piers McGrail
THE CANAL
2014, 92 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Ivan Cavanaugh's The Canal is a disturbing, surreal, and well-acted film about an Irish man who begins to believe that his house might be haunted after the death of his wife.  Writing that last sentence sent shivers down my spine because of the memories that it's conjuring up.  The above is the most basic description of The Canal, but it is an apt one.  There's not much more to the story than that, but what makes this seemingly generic film stand out is the skill with which it was made.

Kavanaugh was obviously influenced by '70s horror, particularly Don't Look Now (referenced in the press notes) and Suspiria.  His use of candy-colored visuals, particularly in the film's last third, and wide slow-zoom shots are explicit references to the aforementioned films and harken back to a day when horror films were more suspense-driven.  While The Canal has a gory scene or two, most of its scares are jump scares and much of its suspense is generated from long periods of silence.

The Canal causes unease and unnerves because it teases us with surreal sequences of disturbing imagery without any explanation combined with sharp editing.  Present-day horror filmmakers feel the need to shock us with gore to make up for a lack of real thrills.  I have nothing against gore, but gore is nasty, not scary.  Filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now) and Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby) realized that milking suspense from their film's locations created suspense.  They saw that gore wasn't going to make their films terrifying.  Look at either film and there is little gore (save for a scene or two).  Roeg and Argento tease us with odd sound effects and surreal images, but don't reveal what they mean until the last minute.  Venice and a Manhattan apartment building became labyrinths of deception and violence in the aforementioned directors' films.  Cavanaugh uses his eerie Irish location to similar effect with similar techniques to elicit suspense.

Overall, The Canal is an unnerving horror movie that provides an excellent showcase for lead Rupert Evans and Robin Hill's editing.  The aforementioned artists' talents cannot go unmentioned, particularly Hill's, because so much of what makes this film effective is their work.  If Evans' lead performance wasn't so convincing, the movie would not have worked.  To "buy" a horror movie, so to speak, we must believe that what is happening onscreen is actually happening in that world.  If a performance is weak, we begin to laugh at the movie, and thus the realism of the film's world is broken.  The Canal is as good, if not far better, than any horror film around and should please both fans of classic horror and David Lynch.

3.5/4

Friday, April 18, 2014

MANAKAMANA Review

Courtesy of The Cinema Guild
MANAKAMANA
2014, 118 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana takes its name from a Nepali temple.  The film is the latest produced by Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is best-known for producing the acclaimed documentaries Sweetgrass and Leviathan.  The temple of Manakamana is located on a mountain and to get there, one must take a cable car.  Spray and Velez discovered that a roll of Super 16 film lasts as long as a cable car ride to or from Manakamana, so they went out and filmed people's trips up and down the mountain.

Manakamana is extraordinary because of the way that it puts people under a microscope to allow us to appreciate the smallest of actions or the shortest of sentences.  During one trip up the mountain, a woman, Mithu, is sitting in the cable car and holding a miniature Manakamana souvenir.  Her sullen look and shyness (I was told by co-director Stephanie Spray that this woman was really very talkative) means that she says very little throughout the cable car ride.  The one or two times she speaks, she talks about how much she likes her souvenir.  The fact that the only words that this woman says throughout the entire ride are about a simple souvenir is hauntingly beautiful.

Souvenirs are simple objects that remind us of whatever place we visited.  As interesting as they are, most people think of them as simple knick knacks.  However, Mithu saw her Manakamana souvenir as something meaningful - a little piece of happiness that she felt was good enough to talk about and share with the world.

Manakamana is a film about the small moments.  While one or two of the film's eleven sequences are fascinating throughout, most sequences are made emotionally resonant and intriguing because of the small moments like the one described above.  This is not a film for the easily bored, as minutes go by without anything of significance happening.  By showing life unfiltered and in real time, we begin to look for the moments of beauty and realize just how wonderful they are because we are forced to pay attention and to look for those moments to keep us interested.

Overall, Manakamana is a film about the beauty of human life and the small moments that we may neglect to notice in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.  While the film is a bit too long, it is an entrancing experience unlike any other.  For the adventurous filmgoers out there, this is a must.

3.5/4

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Interview with Gareth Evans of THE RAID 2

Director Gareth Evans
Photo by Akhirwan Nurhaidir and Gumilar Triyoga, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

An Interview with Gareth Evans, Writer/Director/Editor of 
THE RAID 2

By Joshua Handler

Gareth Evans is a one-of-a-kind auteur.  Welsh-born, but Indonesian-based, Evans has found major success with his last two films: The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, two hyper-violent action films that combine gun violence with Silat, a form of Indonesian martial arts.  This past Friday, The Raid 2 opened wide in the United States, and I was fortunate to talk with Evans about the film.  I loved the film and reviewed it here.

The Raid 2 takes place two hours after the first film ended.  After remaining alive through the hellish debacle that was the raid on the apartment building, Rama (Iko Uwais) must now go undercover to bring down all of the corrupt officials in the government.  He must start by befriending a crime boss' son in prison.  Evans sees The Raid: Redemption as a "survival horror film" and The Raid 2 as a "gangster film."

While The Raid 2 has a well-structured and intriguing dramatic story, the reason the film is great is its action.  Says Evans on creating the action sequences, "I'll come to [the choreographers] with...a scenario...'Well this is the fighter, these are the bad guys, this is their weapon...this is what they have, and this is what you have. This is the environment, the location, the props...the skill set of everyone involved,' and I say, 'Okay I'll be back in about 20 or 30 minutes.  You come up with six different ways to beat up six different guys...using these props, using this environment...then they'll present to me,' and then usually what'll happen is I'll start to add some of the character to it...

"There should be punchline moments in each of the fight sequences, and usually they consist of about 2 minutes, 3 minutes long, and we should have about four to five punchlines in that space and time, and the punchline is kind of like the big killshot, the big...stunt moments where people have to take a breath when they see them.  We put one in and then we slow down again then build up again...until we reach our next punchline.  The last step...is that we film everything but we film it all using a handy cam in an office space with crash mats everywhere, and we film it exactly the same as we would do it for the final film.  So I'm basically designing my shot list, I'm figuring out every angle and every edit for the fight scene so when we get to the...production stage, we have this video to use as a reference."

In addition to the stunning choreography, Evans also had to take into consideration how the action sequences built character and fit into the story as a whole.  "Whenever it came to a fight sequence, it wasn't because we were on page 10 or page 12, it was because it organically felt right to have a fight sequence in that situation.  [T]he fight sequences [also] to feel like they had a purpose beyond just the visceral thrills...


"The prison riot, for example, was something where we started off by setting up the paranoia in the character, and then...maybe he's going to come under attack, then realizing that he's not the target...of the attack - it's the guy that he's supoosed to be getting close with that's under attack, and if he gets killed then his whole mission is ruined...and so he ends up having to become bodyguard and protector of that guy because otherwise he's going to have to rot in prison for two to three years for no reason whatsoever...

"On the surface level it's like a seven-minute prison riot and it's spectacle, but...by the end of the scene, there's a complete change in personality in character motivation and character arc for these two guys."

For the now-famous car chase sequence, Evans and crew used CGI only for "touch-ups."  Everything else is real.  In The Raid: Redemption, there is a sequence in which the camera passes through a hole in the floor from one floor to another in a single take.  Evans said he wanted to do the same thing again,  but this time between two cars.  "Let's just try it and if we do it and the behind-the-scenes footage is good, you look like a fucking hero," said Evans to co-director of photography Matt Flannery.  The only CGI used in that sequence is during the shot in which the camera passes between the two cars - the door was added in digitally.


With The Raid 2, Evans wanted to question how far are we willing to follow the hero through sadistic acts.  "When I was a kid growing up, whenever I'd watch action films with my dad," recalled Evans,  "my dad [would] always be the...guide in terms of...what was acceptable...and what was unacceptable."  If Evans' dad deemed something unacceptable, he would send the kids out of the room.  "Violence can be visceral and be aggressive.  It can be...an entertainment thing...but the part where [Evans' dad]...drew the line was cruel violence...and I think what we do is kind of obscure the line a bit...If somebody's...impacted in some way, it's not about...holding on that shot to see all of the pain and suffering that that person's going through...it's usually about a real quick, sharp, shocking moment of...violence that kind of takes your breath away for a second before we cut away then to show something else...By focusing on...those breathtaking moments as opposed to those scenes that make you feel like you want to wretch...by keeping on having those breathtaking moments, it creates this sort of communal atmosphere of...shock without people hopefully being repulsed by the film."

Many will be repulsed by The Raid 2, but even more will be thrilled by the beautifully-shot and choreographed action sequences, the well-developed characters, and the overall craft of the film.  The Raid 2 is now open across the United States.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What to See at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival

Courtesy TFF
WHAT TO SEE AT THE 
2014 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL

By Joshua Handler

This year's Tribeca Film Festival begins this Thursday, April 17 and ends April 27.  As with just about any film festival, the selection is a mixed bag.  I have seen 19 films, roughly about half of which have been good to great.  So, to save you from the horrible movies, I will tell you what I consider to be worth the ticket price.  I will say that I haven't seen Love is Strange, Gabriel, Land Ho!, Art and Craft, and a few others that I have heard are excellent.

The Best:

VENUS IN FUR (Dir. Roman Polanski) - Venus in Fur is Roman Polanski's film adaptation of David Ives' twisted play about an actress who does everything she can to convince a director that she's right for the lead role in his new play.  Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric star and they and Polanski are all in top form.  Venus in Fur is a funny, racy, dark drama that I believe to be the best of the fest.  The film hits theaters on June 20.

STARRED UP (Dir. David Mackenzie) - David Mackenzie's prison drama Starred Up has already garnered an enormous amount of critical acclaim and deserves all of it.  The film stars Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn and tells the story of a young man who's put in the same maximum security prison as his father.  Gritty, intense, violent, profane, and moving, Starred Up is a great piece of work and, like Venus in Fur, features two outstanding lead performances.  The film will be released theatrically in August.

FISHTAIL (Dir. Andrew Renzi) - This film is embargoed, but let me say that this is a work of jaw-dropping beauty and poetry.  Fishtail is a documentary that shows life on a Montana cattle ranch during calving season.  At 60 minutes, it's the perfect length and Harry Dean Stanton's poetry readings are beautiful.  Full review to be published soon.

THE ONE I LOVE (Dir. Charlie McDowell) - This film is also embargoed so my thoughts will be brief.  The One I Love premiered to great acclaim at Sundance and requires you to know next to nothing about it when going in.  The most basic synopsis won't do the film justice, but I'll give one anyway.  The One I Love stars Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss and tells the story of a couple whose marriage is on the rocks.  Their therapist tells them to go out to a vacation spot, and when they get there something very interesting happens.  This sounds like every other marriage comedy, but trust me, after viewing for 20 minutes, you'll see that its not.  It's smart, funny, honest, and very clever.

Worth the ticket price:
BRIDES
HUMAN CAPITAL


Saturday, April 12, 2014

AFFLICTED Review

Derek Lee in AFFLICTED
Photo courtesy of CBS Films
AFFLICTED
2014, 85 minutes
Rated R for disturbing bloody violence, and language

Review by Joshua Handler

Afflicted marks the feature directorial debut of Clif Prowse and Derek Lee, and while not the most inventive or terrifying horror film ever, it is very fun with a healthy sense of humor and just enough originality to make it worth a watch.

Derek and Clif (the directors of the movie are are the leads) are best friends and decide to take a trip around the world, filming the entire thing for their blog.  One night in France, Derek meets a girl at a bar and takes her back to his hotel room.  Derek and a few friends come back to the hotel room later to find that Derek has open wounds on his body.  Derek and Clif discover that Derek has contracted some form of horrifying disease that keeps getting worse as the time wears on.

What makes Afflicted so entertaining is the fact that it rarely ever takes itself seriously and creates a monster that's original and very human.  Prowse and Lee have obviously had a ball making this film.  Their chemistry onscreen gives the film's first horror-free half a laid-back mood that makes it extremely enjoyable to watch.  The two seem like typical guys that you'd see everyday on the street, making them instantly relatable.

The second part of the movie is not quite as funny as the first part and focuses more on horror than comedy, though it isn't scary.  However, it is still fun and features some nice scenes of gore.  The acting continues to be strong and the film arrives at a clever conclusion.

Overall, Afflicted is a solid horror film from two directors who have bright careers ahead of them.  After a slew of horrible horror films, it's very refreshing to see one that is as well-directed, acted, and scripted as this one.  Horror and non-horror fans should enjoy this.

3/4

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY to Screen at FSLC with Stroman, Aronson, Schlossberg Q&A


FROM SCREEN TO STAGE: 
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY 
Susan Stroman, Letty Aronson, 
and Julian Schlossberg in Conversation

By Joshua Handler

The stage adaptation of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway recently opened in NYC, so to celebrate the opening, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting a screening of a 35MM archival print of the film followed by a conversation with acclaimed stage director Susan Stroman (The Producers, Bullets Over Broadway) and producers Letty Aronson (Allen's sister and longtime producer) and Julian Schlossberg on May 5.  

The film Bullets Over Broadway was nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Director for Woody 
Allen, won one for Best Supporting Actress (Dianne Wiest), and stars (alongside Wiest) John Cusack, Jim Broadbent, Harvey Fierstein, Chazz Palminteri, Mary-Louise Parker, Rob Reiner, Jennifer Tilly, and Tracey Ullman. I love the movie and am looking forward to viewing it again.  The Film Society of Lincoln Center's press release is below.

-FSLC logo revised 1210
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
 
THE FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER TO PRESENT 
FROM SCREEN TO STAGE: BULLETS OVER BROADWAY
ON MAY 5

INCLUDES A SCREENING OF AN ARCHIVAL PRINT OF WOODY ALLEN’S ACADEMY AWARD®–WINNING BULLETS OVER BROADWAY

FOLLOWED BY A CONVERSATION WITH TONY-WINNING DIRECTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER SUSAN STROMAN AND PRODUCERS LETTY ARONSON AND JULIAN SCHLOSSBERG
 
New York, New York (April 11, 2014) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced today a one-night-only event, From Screen to Stage: Bullets Over Broadway, on Monday, May 5 at 6:30PM. The evening will include a screening of an archival print of Woody Allen’s rollicking Oscar®-winning jazz-age ensemble comedy Bullets Over Broadway, followed by a conversation with five-time Tony-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman and lead producers Letty Aronson and Julian Schlossberg. The event celebrates the April opening of Bullets over Broadway: The Musical, starring Zach Braff and Marin Mazzie, at the St. James Theatre.

The May 5 conversation will be moderated by Kent Jones, the Director of the New York Film Festival, and will address the creative process of turning a movie into a musical, touching on the pleasures as well as the pitfalls of this particular transformation, including plenty of backstage stories. Following the discussion, the audience is invited to a reception in the Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery. Print is courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. A special thank you to Theatre Communications Group for hosting this evening and Roy Furman.

Allen’s 1994 Bullets Over Broadway marks the first-ever Centerpiece selection of the New York Film Festival and is a tale of life in the theater during the very Roaring Twenties, populated with gangsters, showgirls, and other colorful personalities. Along with Dianne Wiest (who won the Oscar® in 1995 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role), as a diva who devours all in her path, and John Cusack, as an idealistic playwright, Jim Broadbent, Harvey Fierstein, Chazz Palminteri, Mary-Louise Parker, Rob Reiner, Jennifer Tilly, and Tracey Ullman make up the outstanding ensemble cast that helped the film become a classic. The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards® in 1995, including Best Director for Woody Allen, Best Original Screenplay for Allen and Douglas McGrath, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Chazz Palminteri, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for both Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly.

The screening will take place on Monday, May 5 at 6:30PM at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street. Tickets go on sale today, Thursday, April 10. Admission is $13; $9 for students and seniors (62+); and $8 for Film Society members. Visit FilmLinc.com for more information.


Film Society of Lincoln Center
Founded in 1969 to celebrate American and international cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center works to recognize established and emerging filmmakers, support important new work, and to enhance the awareness, accessibility, and understanding of the moving image. The Film Society produces the renowned New York Film Festival, a curated selection of the year's most significant new film work, and presents or collaborates on other annual New York City festivals including Dance on Camera, Film Comment Selects, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, LatinBeat, New Directors/New Films, NewFest, New York African Film Festival, New York Asian Film Festival, New York Jewish Film Festival, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema and Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. In addition to publishing the award-winning Film Comment magazine, The Film Society recognizes an artist's unique achievement in film with the prestigious Chaplin Award. The Film Society's state-of-the-art Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, located at Lincoln Center, provide a home for year-round programs and the New York City film community.

The Film Society receives generous, year-round support from Royal Bank of Canada, Jaeger-LeCoultre, American Airlines, The New York Times, Stella Artois, the Kobal Collection, Trump International Hotel and Tower, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

For more information, visit www.filmlinc.com and follow @filmlinc on Twitter.

Monday, April 7, 2014

20,000 DAYS ON EARTH: ND/NF Closing Night Review

Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films
20,000 DAYS ON EARTH
2014, 95 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollards' 20,000 Days on Earth is guaranteed to be one of the most unusual and hypnotizing films that you'll have ever seen.  The film is a hybrid of documentary and narrative (more documentary though) and follows a day in the life of Renaissance Man Nick Cave who is a singer, composer, and screenwriter, among many other things.  Winner of the Directing and Editing Prizes at Sundance 2014, this film is truly something different.

Nick Cave is a fascinating person and watching his life through Forsyth and Pollard's hyper-stylized lens makes this film hypnotic.  Entire sequences played on-screen and I was completely entranced.  This happened most memorably during a sequence in which Cave is in psychoanalysis and when he is singing a beautiful song on his piano.  These sequences are so hypnotic because they are so full of life, so full of soul and introspection that it is impossible to look away.

We are now in an age where the lines between documentary and fictional narrative are being blurred.  With films like The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell, and now 20,000 Days on Earth, our conception of what documentary is is being changed, and it is a sight to behold.  These films are as inventive as they come and add some spice to a genre frequently associated with boring voiceover and talking head interviews.

Reviewing a film like 20,000 Days On Earth is almost pointless, as it is simply a movie that should be seen and not read about.  In many ways, there has never been a film like it.  While it is a documentary, many sequences are staged.  However, while sequences have been staged for the film, such as the scene in the psychoanalyst's office, what happens in those scenes is real.  In other words, it is a real psychotherapy session staged for the film.

Overall, this is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest documentaries of all time.  I don't want to say much more about this so as not to spoil any of the film's surprises.  This is an amazing piece of filmmaking that will move, electrify, educate, and hypnotize you as you view it.  20,000 Days On Earth was an excellent way to close New Directors/New Films.

4/4