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Thursday, November 28, 2013


Kathleen Hanna. 
Photo courtesy of Alesia Exum. An IFC Films release.

2013, 80 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

The Punk Singer is one of the best documentaries to have been released this year.  Directed by Sini Anderson, the film tells the story of Kathleen Hanna, a feminist activist and lead singer of the 1990s punk band Bikini Kill.  What makes this documentary so fantastic is Hanna's openness.  This is a great example of a film where the subject is as committed, if not more committed, than the filmmaker to tell his or her story.  

This film is a raw, revealing look at Hanna and is fascinating throughout.  Anderson and her editor do an excellent job at making this film completely compelling.  The pace never sags and everything moves fast, but not too fast - with The Punk Singer, I felt as if I got a complete portrait of Hanna's life. Very few documentaries are able to create (what feels like) a complete portrait of their subject's life, but because The Punk Singer tells Hanna's life story with passion and heart through Hanna's own words, it manages to feel complete even in a brief 80 minutes.

Hanna is a fantastic subject for a documentary.  She's wildly funny, offbeat, and completely different than any other person I've seen in any documentary.  Hanna does not hold back and tells every detail of her life no matter how painful.  One thing Hanna reveals near the end is something she's kept from everyone until now - she used this film as her opportunity to announce it to the world.  Kathleen Hanna's personality is magnetic, and while her story isn't like most others, she is very relatable, which makes this film infinitely watchable.  

What I've been trying to say all along is just go see The Punk Singer.  It will be available on iTunes November 29, the same day it opens in theaters.  It is a quick, fascinating, and entertaining look at one of the more colorful characters in recent rock history who regularly goes unappreciated.  This is a great piece of filmmaking - moving, enlightening, and funny.


Friday, November 22, 2013


Photo by Alex Bailey © 2013 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

2013, 98 minutes
Rated PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references

Review by Joshua Handler

Stephen Frears' wonderful new dramedy Philomena is a good-natured, moving film that tells the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was forced to give up her child for adoption by nuns in Ireland 50 years ago because the child was born out of wedlock.  50 years later, Philomena teams up with an out-of-work (and very cynical) journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to find her long-lost son.

Judi Dench gives yet another outstanding performance, trading in the iciness of M of the James Bond Series or the manipulativeness of Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal for a kindness and warmth.  Dench deftly handles the mix of heartbreaking drama and laugh-out-loud comedy in Philomena.  However, the biggest strength of her performance is her face.  Dench, through some revealing close-ups, expresses pain, love, and kindness simultaneously.   Her face is like an open book and will melt your heart.  She is a lock for another Oscar nomination.

Steve Coogan is solid, as always, playing his usual role: a cynic.  He and Dench are a bizarre pairing, but they have natural chemistry.  The two balance each other out and play extremely well off of one another in their scenes together.  Coogan also co-wrote the film with Jeff Pope and produced it, making his contribution even more impressive.  Philomena's screenplay is its other greatest asset.  It is economical and moving and is dedicated to telling this story in the most honest and heartfelt way possible.  Everything in Philomena rings true.  Even at its most sentimental, it never feels like Coogan and Pope are asking for your tears.  When tears are shed, they are well-earned.  Coogan and Pope masterfully balance drama and comedy, never letting the film veer too far into one genre or another.  

Frears' direction is understated, as always, which complements the film very well.  He lets scenes play out and lets the actors and screenplay take center stage.  Frears is an underrated director.  While he has received two Oscar nominations for Best Director (for The Grifters and The Queen), his name is never passed around with other great British directors.  What I admire about Frears is his ability to direct films of all genres (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, and Dangerous Liaisons are among his other films), and his ability to restrain himself from interfering with his own films.  He places his (usually) stellar actors and screenplays at the forefront and gets the most out of both.  And again, this is what he does with Philomena.  Frears has a humanist touch that allows us to empathize with his characters.  Anyone who can make the icy Queen Elizabeth II a complex and not entirely despicable character during the time of Princess Diana's death must be doing something right.

Overall, Philomena is a crowd-pleasing, moving drama from a cast and crew at the top of their games.  While this film may not have the gravitas of some of the other films being released during awards season, it is no less great.  I dare you to leave Philomena unmoved.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

FRANCES HA Criterion Review

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Criterion Collection DVD Review
2013, 86 minutes
Rated R for sexual references and language

The Criterion Collection just released Noah Baumbach’s quirkfest Frances Ha in a Blu-ray/DVD combo release and while the special features aren’t the best that Criterion has given us over the past few years, the movie itself is so delightful that I would certainly recommend buying if you’re a fan.  I would not, however, recommend this film as a blind buy, as its very offbeat sense of humor and meandering narrative will not be to everyone’s tastes. 

I am a big fan of Frances Ha.  Viewing Criterion’s release was my first viewing of the film since I screened it in early May and watching it again was a delight.  I gave the film a 3.5/4 in the spring and I stand by that rating, but I now have a new appreciation for the film.

The film tells the story of a twenty-something woman, Frances (Greta Gerwig), who lives with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  Frances isn’t rich and does absolutely nothing to help her financial situation.  She has no aim in life.  She’s stuck in that period when people try to figure out their lives, but she is way too old to still be figuring out her life.
One of the many beautiful aspects of the screenplay is that Noah Baumbach and his co-writer (and star of the film) Greta Gerwig are completely aware of the ridiculousness of Frances’ situation.  Frances really has everything except the drive to get a job and take control of her life.  Gerwig and Baumbach are never condescending towards Frances, but they never take pity on her make it seem as if her situation is horrible.  For every dark undertone, there is a lot of comedy and lightness.  They make Frances look outrageous.  The situations she finds herself in are realistic, but very comical.  Again, we are never asked to pity Frances - we are simply asked to root for her.  Gerwig, in the performance of a lifetime, makes Frances a real, lovable person, flaws and all.  Gerwig has a bizarre screen presence.  Everything about her and her timing is just slightly off, but she creates such a sunny character that we can’t help but love her.  

Underneath Frances Ha is an undertone of loneliness and sadness, but these never overpower the contagious energy and positivity that the film gives off.  The film is in beautiful digital black-and-white and features a mix of ‘80s pop songs and music by French New Wave composer George Delerue (Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player).  Because the film is new and didn’t require any massive restoration, there isn’t much to comment on in terms of the look of the Criterion release itself.

The special features on this film are somewhat lacking, which is a shame, as Frances Ha is such a fascinating film.  It is fascinating in the sense that it is an homage to the French New Wave, but is also a comment on the current generation of twenty-somethings living in Brooklyn who have no idea what to do with their lives.  The special features include an interview with Noah Baumbach conducted by Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon), an interview with Greta Gerwig conducted by Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Stories We Tell), a conversation between Baumbach, cinematographer Sam Levy, and Pascan Dangin who did the film’s color mastering.  The conversation between Polley and Gerwig is definitely the best, as Polley, being an actress herself, asks some very interesting questions that get Gerwig to reveal a lot about her thoughts regarding the character of Frances and how she perceives her. 

The interview with Baumbach is interesting, but I would have liked to hear more about his thoughts on Frances and her life.  Most of the interview, Baumbach talks about why he decided to make a film like Frances Ha and how he created it.  Much of this is very interesting, particularly the part where he reveals that the entire movie, save for the sequence where Frances goes back home to see her parents (played by Gerwig’s real parents), is scripted.  For a movie that feels very natural and loose (in the best possible way), it was shocking to find out that it wasn’t improvised. 

The conversation between Baumbach, Levy, and Dangin didn’t interest me much, as it was very technical and the three didn’t break down the technicalities of coloring the film and achieving its look for those who don’t know anything about the coloring process.  Those who know about the technical aspects of cinematography and coloring will find this conversation fascinating, but I was very lost through much of it.

Overall, Frances Ha is a fantastic movie given an average treatment by the usually incredible Criterion Collection.  I wish that there had been more about production on the actual film and simply more special features.  A director’s commentary would have been enlightening, as it seems like a large amount of thought and effort was put into composing each shot and blocking each scene.  Again, I’d highly recommend buying this if you’re a fan of the film, but wouldn’t recommend this for the special features or as a blind buy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

NEBRASKA Review: NYFCS Opening Night

(Left to right) Bruce Dern is Woody Grant, June Squibb is Kate Grant and Will Forte is David Grant in NEBRASKA, from Paramount Vantage in association with FilmNation Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund and Echo Lake Entertainment.
Photo credit: Merie Wallace
© MMXIII Paramount Vantage, A Division of Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved

2013, 115 minutes
Rated R for some language

Review by Joshua Handler

Alexander Payne has made a career of making films about families learning to come together or people learning to live.  His latest film, Nebraska, merges those two themes with its story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, Cannes Best Actor-winner), an elderly man who goes on a trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son, David (Will Forte), after receiving a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize in the mail telling him he has won $1,000,000.  David and Woody's wife, Kate (June Squibb), see right through it, but Woody doesn't.  

Nebraska is a film of small moments and character.  Bruce Dern gives one of the best performances of the year as Woody.  Dern has been around for years and has worked with a variety of great directors, but has never gotten the attention he deserves.  Payne's decision to have Dern lead Nebraska was a masterstroke.  Dern's performance is one of the most deeply-felt and quietly emotional I've seen this year.  Dern barely says a word, but conveys so much through his face and takes advantage of individual moments to shine.  In one scene, Woody visits his childhood house with his wife and two sons.  Going through this house conjures up many painful memories for Woody and through every move of Dern's face, every wince, every word, we understand.  This scene is one of the most powerfully-acted of the year.  It ranks up with Captain Phillips' finale and a climactic scene from Blue is the Warmest Color.  As support, Will Forte gives a heartfelt performance as David.  He nails almost every comedic and dramatic beat.  Keeping up alongside someone like Dern is a challenge and Forte really rises to it.  Squibb is wonderful as Kay, a hardened woman with a loving, caring interior.  She fully crafts her character and is best during a scene in a graveyard where her racy side comes out.

Bob Nelson's screenplay is quietly beautiful and Payne's typically understated direction perfectly complements it.  Payne and Nelson capture the rural Midwest in a manner that is very respectful of the region and its people.  While they do throw in situations that derive their comedy from the people in the Midwest, they still provide a heartfelt depiction of the region.  It is a moving depiction of a region of the country largely forgotten by Hollywood, and Phedon Papamichael's black-and-white cinematography makes the plainness of the Midwest look stunning.

With Nebraska, Payne, Nelson, and cast explore our hometowns' ability to stay with us and affect us throughout our lives.  Woody lived in his hometown for a long time before moving to Billings and through the different people David encounters around town, he learns about his father's past and about how his father became the man he is today.  Each one of these encounters cracks at the mystery of Woody.  Woody's life has been tough and the events that occurred in his hometown shaped him and never left.  David is our guide through the town and we learn about Woody at the pace that he does.  By the end, Payne, Nelson, and cast have created a full heartbreaking portrait of a man who was never able to follow his dreams.

The screening of Nebraska that I attended was opening night of the New York Film Critics Series and was followed by a Q&A with Dern, Forte, and Squibb that was moderated by Peter Travers, film critic for Rolling Stone.  The reverence that each actor had for the others and Payne was extraordinary.  Dern said that this role, along with Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, was the most personal role he'd done.  He said that 80% of the job is casting for Alexander Payne and that once he was on set, there was nothing to prove because "you know you're the person [you're playing]."  "Getting the role of Woody is the best honor I've ever had," said Dern.  When asked which scene resonated with him the most, Dern answered that it was the scene where Woody goes through his childhood home: "You must go home again and see who you are and what you came from and that these people were a lot bigger in life than you gave them credit for being."  And that is a big takeaway from the film and Woody's journey - people must understand and accept their past before moving on.  They must also realize that success isn't measured in living a big life - success is measured in happiness and Woody realizes that while many of the people he reunites with live simple lives, they are happy and that accounts for more than any of the riches in the world.  The $1,000,000 won't buy him happiness.  Acceptance from his family will.  And, for Dern, the takeaway was "[t]hank God he [Woody] still dares to dream."  Woody may look like a fool for dreaming, but it is a miracle that he continues to do so.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013


John Huston (left) squares off against demonic child Paige Conner (right) in The Visitor.
Credit: Drafthouse Films.

1979 (re-released 2013), 108 minutes
Rated R

Review by Joshua Handler

I've got to give it to Drafthouse Films - they're one gutsy distributor, as they've released two of this year's most daring films: Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing and now The Visitor, a rediscovered 1979 gem that stars (among others) John Huston, Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Franco Nero, and Shelley Winters.  I've never quite seen anything like The Visitor and for my money, this is one of the best films you'll get to experience in the theater all year.  This is the first time that The Visitor has been released uncut in the United States, so while you're watching a movie filmed 34 years ago, you're also watching one that is, in a way, new.

The film follows what happens when a God-like figure (John Huston) comes down to earth to get the soul of a young telekinetic girl, as she has part of a supervillain in her.   

The Visitor is an indescribable sensation.  The film itself isn't completely coherent (there are so many odd subplots that convolute the narrative and are completely forgotten), but when watching something this audacious and this bizarre, it doesn't matter.  As I was sitting down watching The Visitor, I simply couldn't believe what a great piece of junk it is.  It is terrible in many respects.  The acting is shaky, as is the hilariously overdone music.  That being said, it is an interesting piece of filmmaking, since  it seems as if the filmmakers actually took time to make what they thought would be a good film.

The cinematography is sometimes very cheesy and overly dramatic, but some shots are beautifully composed and haunting, particularly in the opening sequence.  And no one can fault this film for not being narratively inventive.  This is one odd piece of filmmaking and it constantly amazes with one over-the-top scene after another.

Overall, The Visitor is a must-see film for anyone interested in cult cinema or for anyone sick of the constant stream of sequels, prequels, and remakes being pushed into theaters now.  It is a film like no other and one that I will not assign a star rating because it would be unfair to reduce something like this to a simple group of stars.  How does one rate this?  In so many ways, it is horrible, but in many other ways, it's fantastic.  The bottom line is: this is an incredibly bizarre, yet endlessly fascinating and entertaining film.

Here is where you can see The Visitor in theaters:

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

THE GREEN INFERNO Review: Scary Movies 7 Series

Courtesy of Open Road Films
2013, 103 minutes
Rated for aberrant violence and torture, grisly disturbing images, brief graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use

Review by Joshua Handler

This screening was shown as part of Scary Movies 7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on November 2, 2013.  The Green Inferno will be released theatrically next year by Open Road Films.

The Green Inferno, Eli Roth's homage to cannibal horror films of the '70s and '80s, is one of the few horror films I've seen in recent memory where everyone seemed to have a blast making it.  Roth introduced the film with great affection and excitement, which already started the evening on a good note and prepared me for the spectacle I was about to experience.  Roth said that this film was a passion project and having seen it, I can easily believe it.  

The film starts with helicopter shots of the Amazon jungle and then introduces us to Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a Columbia University student who joins an activist group soon after to go down to the Amazon to protest deforestation and the destruction of native tribes' homelands.  Soon after, all hell breaks loose.

While The Green Inferno has an engaging story, the main points of interest here are the scenes of spectacular gore and the clever social commentary.  The gore scenes here are frequently disturbing, but at the same time, hilarious, as Roth plays much of it for comedic effect.  Some killings come out of nowhere, but some scenes, particularly one of dismemberment, seem to last forever.  The dismemberment scene is initially extremely disturbing before becoming so ridiculous that it's funny.  

The Green Inferno serves as a commentary on our treatment of animals, namely our habit of eating them for food.  For the cannibals in the film, the humans are simply food, as cows, turkeys, chickens, etc. are for most humans.  In fact, to emphasize his point, Roth cuts to a shot of cows relaxing in the grass after a person is killed for food.  In one sequence, a human's arms, legs, and head are hacked off before his torso is put in the oven like a Thanksgiving turkey.  

In addition to being a commentary on animal abuse, the films serves as Roth's commentary on what he calls "slacktivism" - activism for people who "just want the shortcut."  These are people, according to Roth, who think that retweeting something is activism.  While this commentary is certainly quite funny, it takes a back seat to the extreme gore.

Another interesting aspect about The Green Inferno is that it doesn't make the cannibals seem evil.  The cannibal tribe is simply portrayed as living their way of life and punishing the invaders.  The college students aren't always made out to be the sympathetic ones.

Roth and actress Lorenza Izzo were on hand at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a post-screening Q&A during which they told some wonderfully bizarre stories.  One of the best was how this film came to be.  It all started on Quentin Tarantino's "publishing day", the day where he invites 20 or so of his closest friends over for a party where everyone gets the first copy of his new script.  At this party, Diablo Cody, screenwriter of Juno, asked Roth when he was going to direct again.  Roth told her the idea that he had for this film and she insisted that he write it (Cody is a huge fan of Roth's - she saw Hostel 2 for her birthday).  

Roth went scouting for locations down in South America and through a long chain of events, he found a group of people who were almost completely isolated.  The elder people had never seen TV or ice cubes before.  The only things they knew about the outside world were from the kids who would be boated into town for school.  The native group was shown the notorious film Cannibal Holocaust as their first film and immediately after seeing it (and taking it as a comedy), they agreed to act in Roth's film.  During this shoot, the crew endured all kinds of adverse conditions, but it seemed that the consensus was that the bugs were the worst.  According to Roth, the bugs in Starship Troopers had nothing on the ones that he and his crew had on set.

Overall, The Green Inferno is a crazy film that should entertain Roth's fans and fans of hardcore gore.  I wish it had more of a satisfying ending, but that is a small complaint in a film full of fun, laughs, and gore.