Thursday, June 25, 2015

New movie review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom sell their wares in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Two salesmen traipse about shilling novelty goods from their briefcases. A dance instructor’s advances are rebuffed by her young, handsome student. A military man tries and fails to attend a seminar. The king of Sweden wages war on a Russian tyrant. A couple lounges on the beach. Another couple stares out the window. Three people die in the middle of mundane tasks. Just out of our view, of course, a pigeon sits on a branch.

If you cannot tell what you are in for by the title alone, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is more than happy to hammer home its weirdness in a series of absurdist, serio-comic tableaus. It is a strange work, to be sure, but it is also a masterful piece of heart and humanism, unique in a cinema landscape that often has little time or place for real people.

Henry David Thoreau said in Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Andersson has taken that now-clichéd idea and extended it to a feature film about desperate men, women, children, monarchs, and monkeys. There is much humor to be found in the film – again, anyone who would burden his film with such a cumbersome title must have a sense of humor, as well as a hell of a lot of confidence – but it is all shrouded in a general air of dissatisfaction and despair.

There is no plot, per se, rather the film acts like a buffet of life. We pick up a story thread, follow it for a bit, put it down for a while, and try the next one. Maybe we will come back to it, and maybe we will not. At the end, nothing is finished, but there is satisfaction in exploring so many different options. Because this is a film about life as it is lived, there would be no way for Andersson to encompass all of that. Instead, he smartly carries us in and out of the experiences of a variety of people.

You can't take it with you.
Andersson opens the film with three vignettes titled “Meeting with Death Nos. 1-3.”

Meeting with Death No. 1: A man has a heart attack while opening a bottle of wine. His wife is cooking in the kitchen and does not hear his struggle or notice his demise. She may be in the background of the frame, but her husband is in the background of her story.

Meeting with Death No. 2: A dying woman wishes to take her favorite handbag to heaven with her. One of her sons tries to pry it from her hands, insisting she cannot take it with her and refusing to leave it unguarded at the hospital since it contains valuable family heirlooms. Regardless of the mother’s cries, her adult children will not have a mother when she dies, but at least they can have her jewels.

Meeting with Death No. 3: A man dies in the lunch line on a cruise ship after he has already paid for his meal. The staff offers the meal for free to any of the other passengers, and one man steps forward to take the beer. Life goes on.

The thesis of the film seems to be: We are all background players in someone else’s story. No matter what is happening in our own lives, something of equal import is happening in the lives of others. At its core, it is a beautiful message. The culture at large tells us each one of us is special or that we can take steps to become special. Andersson argues it is life itself that is special. Our individual stories mean little against the simple glory of existence.

The salesmen, Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), are a bit like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the film, acting as functionaries in the larger tale of humanity. They hover on the edges of the story, peddling their wares when they see an opportunity but mostly just observing. Sam is bitter about his life, while Jonathan is more philosophical. Jonathan sees the comedy and tragedy unfolding all around him, and sometimes he is so overwhelmed he breaks down in tears.

Late in the film, he is listening to a record alone in his room, and he becomes obsessed with the ending, picking up the needle and replacing it to the same part over and over. Sam asks what is wrong, and Jonathan tells him about the song, of which he says: “It’s so beautiful but horribly sad, too.” The entire film is summed up in this line.

Sam and Jonathan travel around trying to make people happy, as they claim, selling items such as extra-long vampire teeth, a laugh bag, and a hideous but endearing mask they call Uncle One-Tooth. However, they do not inhabit a universe of joy. One woman screams and runs away in terror at the sight of the mask. One shop that has accepted their goods cannot afford to keep them. They are offering whimsy in a world that knows nothing but war and atrocity. Sam lashes out in anger, while Jonathan collapses in sadness. Neither reaction is unwarranted.

As all of this unfolds, Andersson’s camera never moves. He simply sets it down and allows the sorrow and pain to become evident, even if it is only clear to us as observers. Of course, it is not all sadness because life is not all sadness. Relief can be found in the margins, in the quiet moments of peace we share with our loved ones or the simple novelty of another day coming and going. These pleasures may be few and far between, but A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence seems to argue the elusiveness of happiness is not what is heartbreaking but that when we capture it, it cannot last.

See it? Yes.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Tribe: Silently screaming from the void

Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe, starring Yana Novikova (center), is a modern masterpiece.

Silence may be among the most terrifying things in our culture. Because silence implies an absence – of sound, of company, of life – we take it upon ourselves to fill the void any way we can. In that empty space, we hear cracks and creaks and groans and moans, and we ascribe to them meaning, import, and danger. When the TV is off, the lights are out, and we are lying in bed, there is nothing but the beating of our hearts and the blood in our veins. The millions of thoughts ringing in our subconscious echo in the nothingness, and we are scared. But if the only world you know is silence, what is there to fear? Perhaps, each other.

Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is among the most formally daring, visually stunning, and emotionally taxing films you are ever likely to see. It concerns a student’s arrival at a boarding school for the deaf and follows as he becomes a member of the school’s ruling gang and the toll that acceptance takes on him physically and emotionally. The film is told entirely in Ukrainian sign language without subtitles, and despite running more than two hours, it is composed of fewer than 40 shots. There is no other experience in cinema to match.

On Friday, Slaboshpitsky and one of the film’s stars, Yana Novikova, were in New York City for a screening of the film and a question-and-answer session moderated by Indiewire’s Eric Kohn. In an illuminating and vibrant discussion, they covered topics such as the film’s remarkable technical achievements, its harrowing violence, and the audacity of making a film that only a small population of people could fully understand.

Yana Novikova and Miroslav Slaboshpitsky at Film Forum.
“To be clear, I had the concept of the film before I had the story,” said Slaboshpitsky. “It must be done without subtitles and without voiceover. It must be filmed like how I imagine a silent movie like the Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin films, or Harold Lloyd, which people can understand in every country in every place in the same condition, so subtitle is impossible … In the contract, we have an article that the person who buys the film has an obligation never to add subtitles or voiceover or anything like that, so I hope we never show this film with subtitles, not before my death but after, too.”

The difference is that even the great silent comedians used title cards throughout their films to keep the audience following the story. In this way, The Tribe is closer to the works of German silent film director F.W. Murnau, who sought to make films using as few interstitial cards as possible to allow the story to play out on its own. His success, and by extension the success of The Tribe, is to achieve unimaginable levels of psychological depth and inquiry in an essentially wordless setting.

Certainly, there are words, and none of the actors – all of whom are deaf – was making up any of the film’s dialogue. It simply is not necessary to understand the words in order to understand the intent. Even in our daily lives, as hearing-able individuals, so much of our interaction with others is non-verbal – a glance, a gesture, a smile, or a pose – that understanding communication without words seems to be an innate part of all of us.

“I have the challenge to make a film without subtitles when it was over … so I tried to build a story that the audience can follow,” said Slaboshpitsky. “In case you understand Ukrainian sign language, I think you can understand maybe 10 percent more, but I don’t think that you miss something important. In fact, you can completely understand the words, but the words are not really important.”

As such, what becomes important is the mood and atmosphere of the film, and Slaboshpitsky proves deft at building on his audience’s expectations and the general fear and discomfort caused by silences. Since we in the audience cannot understand what is being said, we feel like outsiders, but the use of long takes and Steadicam shots forces us to become part of the action. This puts viewers in the unique position of being accomplices to actions over which we have no control, similar to the film’s main character, played by Grigoriy Fesenko.

He is new to this school, but because power attracts like a magnet, he is lured into the world of drug dealing, robbery, and prostitution lorded over by the titular tribe. They run the school like a deaf mafia – which Slaboshpitsky stressed is a real phenomenon in Ukraine – and theirs is a brutal rule, punctuated by shocking acts of violence and psychological abuse. When Fesenko’s character falls in love with one of the prostitutes, played by Novikova, the whole hierarchal structure of the regime is threatened. Thus, the downfall of all involved begins.

For a first-time performer, Novikova is absolutely magnificent. Really, the performance is marvelous regardless of experience level, but as someone who had never previously acted, Novikova brings a remarkable amount of skill and professionalism to a part that asks an incredible amount of her. She bares herself completely, body and spirit, and brings us into the life of a young girl who has resigned herself to the options available to her and made peace with the things she must do to carve out a life for herself.

“I asked my mom, ‘Do you think I could become an actress in the future,’ and my mom was like, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s possible. You’re deaf. Deaf people in movies? There’s no deaf people in movies,’” said Novikova through a sign language interpreter. “I felt kind of bad about it. I went to school, and I was never involved in any acting classes or courses or opportunities … I kept looking for something that could help me reach my goal of wanting to be an actress. Then, it just so happens that I was asked to be in this movie, The Tribe, by Miroslav, and I was so thankful for it. I was so inspired by the whole thing, and that’s how I begun, and now I’m going to pursue acting after this.”

Most of the actors in the film are first-timers – according to Slaboshpitsky, there are more than 300 deaf actors in The Tribe – but none, not even Fesenko, who is also brilliant in the film, endured as much as Novikova. One sequence in particular is certain to become infamous among viewers of the film. An illegal abortion, played out in one long take, is about as raw and grueling a viewing experience as I have ever witnessed. In a packed house at the Film Forum, the scene left grown men sobbing, and at least one person was so overcome he or she had to be removed from the theater.

Novikova spoke at length about the process of researching and preparing for the scene, as well as the physically and emotionally draining experience of shooting the scene. She said there was a medical professional on set to advise both her and the character performing the procedure, and the shot was repeated over and over until the full impact and realism of the scene could be transmitted on film.

“They explained to us how this goes and what’s this and what’s this process and really broke everything down for us to understand and digest it,” she said. “Once the director felt like we were comfortable with it and we understood what was happening, we filmed it. It took all day, and we kept rehearsing it again and again and again for days, and we kept reshooting it again. If we made a mistake, we shot it again. Again and again. We had to make sure it was done in the right way and capture it, capture the true emotions, the raw, gritty emotions in that moment.”

The sequence – in its preparation, shooting, and final presentation – is a microcosm of the film itself. Slaboshpitsky took it upon himself to present a society rarely considered by the rest of the world, and his responsibility was to show it as it exists. There is no Hollywood sheen, no artificial drama. It is just reality as experienced by an overlooked and underserved subculture. In digging into the muck and brutality, Slaboshpitsky exposes a raw nerve, aching for relief and screaming out in pain. The Tribe is a masterpiece that argues there is no relief coming, and the screams are simply echoes in a silent void.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

New movie review: Love & Mercy

Paul Dano plays the young Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad's remarkable Love & Mercy.

Brian Wilson is a genius. Full stop. As the primary creative force behind The Beach Boys, he is responsible for crafting some of the catchiest pop melodies this side of The Beatles, and his complex musical and vocal arrangements have been and will be studied by musicians and critics for decades. His contributions to popular music are innumerable, and his influence is as widespread as it is singular. There is no one like him.

It is also indisputable that he has lived a hard life. Every step of the way, he was harassed, abused, and exploited by those around him. His petty, vindictive father terrorized him his whole life. He succumbed to drugs, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. He famously spent three years lying in bed, haunted by the voices in his head and the demons in his thoughts. His greatest gift is also his curse, and though the creative spirit he embodies has been battered and bruised by the world around him, it has not been broken.

The story of Wilson’s life is by turns haunting, surreal, sad, and triumphant and deserves a film of equal depth and complexity. That film is director-producer Bill Pohlad’s tender, beautiful Love & Mercy. Pohlad has spent most of his career as a producer, helping shepherd to the screen films such as 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life, and Brokeback Mountain. Here, he takes over the director’s chair for the first time in 25 years, and the results are stunning.

Working from a screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, Pohlad portrays Wilson’s life as a gorgeous, elliptical tone poem about the confused and hyperactive mind of a brilliant artist. Pohlad avoids the pitfalls of most by-the-numbers music biopics by not focusing on dry biography – though the film is impeccably researched and detailed – and instead presenting events as Wilson would have experienced and interpreted them.

John Cuscak and Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy.
The film is split into two parts given roughly equal weight. Paul Dano plays a younger Wilson shown struggling to take the band and its music in new directions with the recording of the now-legendary Pet Sounds. John Cusack plays Wilson two decades later, after his “bed” period and while under the control of psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). During this time, he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who tries to help him break free of Landy’s influence.

All of the performances are superb, and Banks in particular is a revelation. Known almost exclusively for her comedic roles, though some audiences will no doubt recognize her best as Effie Trinket from the Hunger Games films, Banks plumbs depths of emotional resolve and compassion that she has rarely been able to showcase. She more than rises to the challenge, exerting herself as the conscience of the film as Ledbetter is the only person we meet who sees Wilson for the man he is behind the myth.

Giamatti turns in typically excellent work as Landy, whose purposeful misdiagnosis allows him to take guardianship of Wilson and bend and manipulate him to his will with a cocktail of medications and psychological abuse. In an older but not-yet-wise Wilson, Cusack gets a role befitting his immense talent. Through all his lies and fabrications, Landy says one true thing – that Wilson is a boy in a man’s body – and Cusack’s subtle, introverted work perfectly captures that truth.

This half of the movie comprises a more traditional narrative, which is strong, if a bit clichéd and propped up by its wonderful actors. The sequences with younger Wilson, identified in the credits as “Past Brian,” are another matter altogether. In showing the process of creation, Pohlad mixes film stocks, plays tricks with the soundscape, and shuffles our perception of time to put the audience directly in the mind of a musician having an artistic and spiritual breakthrough.

Though the supporting performances are strong, Dano is like a one-man show through this section of the film. An actor who has showed immense promise in films as diverse as Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, here, he realizes the full potential of his talents. Wilson cannot escape his past as every element of his life conspires to drag him back to a place of pain and misery. Dano embodies this man who wants so badly to please others and express himself artistically but keeps finding these two endeavors to be contradictory. Making full use of his face, voice, and mannerisms, Dano brings to life someone who is simultaneously breaking through and breaking down.

In service of all these wonderful performances, Pohlad provides an immaculately crafted world for his actors to explore and for his to take root. It is hard to think of a recent film that has used sound so well and in so many different ways. From the complete lack of artifice in Wilson’s hammering out of a rough version of “God Only Knows” to the sonic collage of past Beach Boys hits – provided by frequent Trent Reznor collaborator and Oscar winner Atticus Ross – Pohlad creates a universe of sound that is rarely pleasant but always emotionally resonant. This, we can infer, is what it sounds like to be Wilson.

The portrait of Wilson in Love & Mercy is that of neither saint nor sinner. He has done wrong and been wronged. For every triumph, he has been exposed to a trial. While the people in his life have hurt him, he has endured and persevered with help of others. His successes have not inured him to the difficulties of life. He is a genius whose struggles have humbled him. He does not ask for pity or praise. All he needs is a little – well, it’s right there in the title.

See it? Yes.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

New movie review: Inside Out

Joy takes the wheel in Inside Out, the new film from Pixar Animation Studios.

Pixar Animation Studios has been around for 20 years and 15 films now. A new Pixar movie is reason enough to be excited as a few of the studio’s films belong in the conversation for the best of the last two decades – Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 are firmly on this level. Even still, the description of Inside Out, which opened in theaters this week, had me practically vibrating with anticipation. Up helmer Pete Docter is back in the director’s chair for a look at life from inside the mind of a young girl.

This movie has been on my radar for years, and there are certain problems that come up when expectations run so high for so long, not the least of which is a genuinely great film falling short of those absurdly high expectations. For me, that is the case with Inside Out. I cannot look at it objectively. My mind has built up for years everything this movie could be, everything I wanted it to be, and though it is not those things, it is my fault, not the creators’.

Told from the point of view of a little girl’s emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear – Inside Out is about the pain and poignancy of growing up and how embracing life means appreciating the highs and the lows. The film is bold, visionary, and on point. It will play like gangbusters to its target audience – which is children, by the way, regardless of the rapturous praise bestowed on the film by adult critics – and it communicates an essential life lesson creatively and simply.

The girl is Riley, whose family moves from rural Minnesota to San Francisco as her father tries to start a new company, presumably in the tech industry. She has to start a new school, a situation in which Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) is working overtime. She adjusts to a new house, which Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is all over. She resents being brought halfway across the country away from everything she has ever known, which is when Anger (Lewis Black) takes over. Through it all, Sadness (Phyllis Smith) touches everything it sees. Yet, the overriding emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler).

Inside Out is an ode to the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed optimism of youth and a plea to children everywhere to hold on to that outlook as long as they can. However, this is a knowing film, and the screenplay by Docter, Josh Cooley, and Meg LeFauve recognizes that growing up and getting just a little jaded is inevitable. Sadness is real, as are fear, anger, and disgust, and there is nothing wrong with feeling any of them. Each combines to make Riley who she is and to make us who we are.

The message is elegant, important, and not too far removed from similar themes in Up or Toy Story 3. Where the problem comes – and none of what I am about to say should distract from the fact that I think this is absolutely a must-see film – is in its plot, which revolves around Joy and Sadness trying to find their way back to the headquarters of Riley’s mind with the rest of the emotions.

As it progresses, the plot seems to exist less to develop the themes of the movie than to keep viewers’ attention while the themes develop around it. Joy and Sadness travel through Riley’s memories, imagination, and subconscious as Joy leads the way with an unending supply of hopefulness. In their journey, they meet Bing Bong (a sensational Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood whom she no longer remembers, though he remembers her.

It is all great fun, there are a number of wonderful gags, and Bing Bong’s arc is deeply felt and emotionally satisfying. Yet, at its core, Inside Out just seems a little safe. The life of the mind is a massive amusement park with endless possibilities, particularly in animation, but Docter and company seem hesitant to go on the scariest rides.

There is an alternately delightful and suspenseful sequence in which our heroes travel through the Hall of Abstract Thought and begin taking on abstract shapes and dimensions themselves. Gorgeously rendered and brilliantly conceived, it is the kind of sequence the film could use more of, but I feel I am in the minority here and can understand why.

An existential journey through the labyrinth of the mind would be an impressive and daring feat of children’s filmmaking, but I cannot be sure many people would want to see it. Inside Out, as it is, is magnificently resonant and endlessly relatable. It argues that youth is a glorious time of innocence that is over far too soon. We watch as Riley’s memories literally fade away off the screen, and we are sad for her because we know what she is losing, but we are also sad for ourselves and the things we have lost and cannot recall.

The credits end with a simple, if impossible, plea from the filmmakers: “Dedicated to our children. Don’t grow up. Ever.” Of course, we all must grow up and grow old, but the spirit of the message is pure. If youth is joy, then it cannot hurt to keep joy at the wheel as long as we can. Because if we do, then no matter the destination, we are in for one amazing ride.

See it? Yes.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The family that stays together: Hanging out with The Wolfpack

Filmmaker Crystal Moselle's new documentary The Wolfpack opened this week.

The story of the Angulo family is undeniably strange. A couple and their seven children reside in a New York City apartment. The father, a devout Hare Krishna convinced the world is a dangerous place, keeps his family mostly locked inside but for doctors’ appointments and the rare recreational venture. He has the only key. The children are homeschooled, and contact with outsiders is virtually non-existent.

To connect with life beyond the apartment walls, the brothers – there is also a younger sister with a developmental disability – develop a ravenous appetite for films and take to recreating their favorites. As they mature, they rebel against their father’s rule and slowly break down his authoritarian regime. First, one brother breaks out, then the rest. As the cracks widen in the dictatorial façade behind which they had lived, the twin fears of their father and the outside world dissipate until they are mostly free, experiencing real life almost for the first time.

“Fear’s not a factor anymore – in our story,” said Govinda Angulo, the second oldest, with his twin brother Narayana, of the siblings. “I think we had a little bit of fear because we didn’t really know what to expect when we broke out. I think we’ve done really well under the circumstances. I don’t think there’s any fear there.”

Govinda and Narayana were joined onstage Thursday at the Lincoln Center in New York City by brothers Bhagavan, Makunda, and Jagadisa, as well as by their mother Susanne and director Crystal Moselle. They were in attendance for a question-and-answer session following a screening of The Wolfpack, Moselle’s new documentary about the family. The film was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival this year and began rolling out into theaters this week.

Moselle seems to have been given unrestricted access to the Angulos to document their story, no doubt due to the fact she met the brothers after they had already begun to dismantle their father’s makeshift prison. One of the brothers even states during an interview in the film that had they met a year before they did, no one would have spoken to Moselle. However fortuitous, the director’s good timing was aided by an eye for an interesting story.

“They were walking through the crowd, and something about them intrigued me,” she said. “They had this long hair and sunglasses, and they’re all in black, and I just ran after them. … It was very organic. When I met them, they were excited that I was a filmmaker, and they wanted to get into the business of filmmaking. We started hanging out at the park and looking at cameras together. … I filmed them at the park, and they asked me to come over to their house. I just always had a camera in hand. … It was all about creativity.”

As the Q-and-A went on, the collaborative nature of the project and the relationship between Moselle and the family came into sharper focus. On some level, they are almost partners as Moselle helped the brothers produce their first short film, saying she acted as a “sound board for them to take their art to the next level.” Susanne is even more direct when discussing Moselle’s place in the family.

“Crystal was just like a friend who would come and just be there with us and hang out and have fun with everyone,” she said. “When I met Crystal, it felt very natural to just let her in and open up our home to her and our hearts to her because she’s quite an incredible woman. I have to hand it to her. It didn’t really feel like we were being filmed and like: ‘Okay, now we have to present ourselves in some kind of way to be on camera.’ It was very, very natural.”

On one level, this is what the best documentarians do – make their subjects feel comfortable to such an extent that they behave as though the cameras are not even there, though they are always rolling. However, Moselle uses this privilege mostly just to pal around with her subjects as they perform their film re-enactments. There is little deeper investigation into the nature of the family or its unusual circumstances.

This is Moselle’s first film as a director, and she has found one helluva story to tell, but throughout The Wolfpack, it seems she is concerned with the less interesting parts of that story. Rather than explore the full implications of the family’s imprisonment, Moselle gives us brief hints as to what the family may have felt and experienced, but because so much emphasis is placed on the brothers’ filmmaking, it is impossible to become fully immersed in the other parts of their story.

The filmmaker and her subjects screen the film at the Lincoln Center.
Certainly, the tale of a group of brothers who grew up watching films and re-enacting their favorites attempting to become filmmakers is intriguing and worthy of a film in its own right. However, the Angulo family story runs deeper than that, and it is hard not to be frustrated by the film’s constant refusal to dig. What is more, it is hard to understand from where such reluctance would derive. Moselle’s rapport with her subjects would seem to suggest she could have probed further had she so desired. She simply does not.

“Crystal filming us felt more like a hangout more than work,” said Makunda. “It was like playtime because it was the whole circle of the filmmaking world. Re-enactments [were] part of our world, and we recognized filmmakers filming their subjects. I think we saw it as a complete circle of filmmaking. It was all like a hangout, really.”

The motif of the experience being a “hangout” recurred throughout the Q-and-A.

Govinda went on to say: “We’re sort of a film team, ourselves with Crystal and the team that made this movie.”

That the brothers became collaborators in telling the story of their lives is an empowering narrative in some sense, but it does not necessarily make for the best film. Perhaps, then, Moselle should have had more collaboration with Susanne, whose comments closed out the evening and who seemed to get closer to exploring the core of the Angulos than any of the filmmakers on stage.

“Family-wise, I see us growing and changing and evolving as a group of people who really love each other and care about each other and stick together and help to support each other,” she said. “I’ve always felt that in their support for me and my support for them. I also feel like it’s a real time of empowerment for me personally and also for them. It’s really a wonderful thing that’s happening.”

In a scene near the end of the film, we watch as Susanne calls her mother on the phone. The two women have not spoken in decades. Susanne’s unabashed joy and astonishment at the interaction make for some of the most beautiful moments in The Wolfpack. This is the life they missed out on due to their circumstances, and the scene is representative of the film the audience missed out on. If Susanne’s unfiltered, unself-conscious emotion is any indication, it would have been something.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

New movie review: Dior and I

Raf Simons struggles to design the new Dior haute couture line in the new documentary Dior and I.

Except for some winter clothes in a duffel bag, these are the contents of my closet: eight polo shirts in three different colors; one pair of black slacks; one pair of dark blue jeans; and three black jackets. Just about anyone who knows me will corroborate this. The concept is to minimize the process, and the idea that I might put any thought or effort into what I am wearing is laughable.

All this is to say I am not the target audience for the new fashion industry insider documentary Dior and I. Nevertheless, I was enthralled by the tale of the newest head designer at Christian Dior and his attempts to maintain his own style and integrity while embracing the venerable Dior brand. Director Frédéric Tcheng, in his first solo effort behind the camera, keeps things light and breezy without ever losing sight of what is at stake for all involved.

Tcheng cut his teeth as a producer and editor, among other jobs, on the 2008 fashion doc Valentino: The Last Emperor, about the life and career of legendary designer Valentino Garavani. The career of his subject this time around is on more perilous ground. Raf Simons is well regarded – you do not get to design the new Dior haute couture line without reaching the pinnacle – but he is known for minimalist designs, men’s clothing, and ready-to-wear fashions. We are told repeatedly Dior is different, that haute couture is different, and the pressure weighs on Simons throughout the film.

There is a concept in screenwriting known as the ticking clock – “We have to evacuate the town because the dam will burst in an hour” – and it is used to create tension in a plot. It can occasionally come off as clichéd or arbitrary, but Tcheng weaves the ticking clock into his narrative so deftly that the audience feels the same pressures and anxieties as the designers in the film.

The Dior team works on the new line.
We are told at one point a new clothing line such as the one depicted would normally take about four to six months to bring to life. Simons and his team have eight weeks. On top of the time constraints, Simons has been given the reins to one of the premier names in fashion, a job that offers immense creative freedom but requires deference to the history of the brand. Simons is the latest in a long line of designers borne of the Dior philosophy. As much as any creative person wants to feel like an individual, at Dior, the trail must always lead back to the originator.

To drive this point home, Tcheng uses archival footage and voiceover passages from Dior’s memoir to establish just what the originator meant to the industry. These sections of the film are less a biographical look at Dior or a history of the company he founded than they are a series of mood pieces designed to put us in the mind of not only Dior but of anyone seeking to follow in his footsteps.

About two-thirds of the way through the film, Simons visits Dior’s old home and tells those he is with of his attempt to read Dior’s memoir – the same one Tcheng uses in the film. He says he had to stop 15 pages in because it was so weird and so intense that he could read no more. He was crushing himself with the memory of the man – even the clothes-makers in the Dior house speak of his ghost roaming the halls and checking their work. In a brilliant bit of narrative construction, after this realization, we get no more flashbacks to Dior or the past. The future and the new line are all that matter to Simons.

If only the rest of his team could be so singularly focused, Simons might have an easier time, but such things can never be easy. The other intriguing element constantly lurking in the background of Tcheng’s film is the intersection between art and commerce. Fashion design is undoubtedly art, but it is an art achieved to decidedly commercial ends. At a high-end house such as Dior, it becomes clear both the art and commerce are taken seriously.

The new line debuts.
Simons becomes bitterly aware of this when he expects to see an early preview of the new line, but the preview is delayed because one of his right-hand women is sent to New York for a private fitting with a wealthy client. He argues this is unacceptable but is told he must accept it. To watch Simons fight for the value of the new line is to watch an artist fight for the integrity of his art. Throughout history, artists have been required to compromise to appease the moneymen and influencers. Even at the top of the mountain, this reality holds true, maybe more so because more is on the line.

The wonderful thing about Dior and I is that it allows us to connect with its subjects on this level. You and I may not understand the first thing about haute couture, but art is intuitive. It is about the beauty and the struggle of creation. Tcheng’s film works not because it brings us into the world of fashion but because it brings us into the world of an artist who refuses to give up the fight.

See it? Yes.

Monday, June 8, 2015

On Mad Max and the need for a stunt performers Oscar

George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is an action extravaganza that deserves an Academy Award for it stunt performers. 

Late to the party is better than never, right? So, I finally caught up with Mad Max: Fury Road. It is precisely what you have heard it is – an action-packed extravaganza of brutality and mayhem. After years making children’s movies and weepies, director George Miller’s return to the genre that so nurtured him in his early years is everything for which audiences could have hoped.

Its brilliant reviews notwithstanding, this is not the kind of movie that is likely to win Academy Awards. It may sneak into the sound categories and could be a finalist for the visual effects honor, but any nominations will have to be their own reward. There will be other films less weird, less abrasive, and less difficult for voters who cannot handle Miller’s heart attack in a film reel. None of this is to say the film is not Oscar worthy. It is simply worthy for an award that does not exist yet.

For years, the guild representing stunt performers has lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an award recognizing its members’ contribution to the medium, and for years, they have been rebuffed. There are a half-dozen theories or more as to why this change has yet to be implemented, the most prominent of which is that big action stars want nothing to dispel the illusion they are performing all their own dangerous stunt work. Of course, this ignores the fact that audiences are savvy enough to know that is probably not Channing Tatum jumping from the moving train.

There may be no recent movie that makes the necessity for a stunt performers Oscar clearer than Mad Max: Fury Road. From start to finish, the film is one long, intricately choreographed action sequence. The rightly lauded car stunts are just the tip of the ice berg. The fight scenes, the jumps, dodges, falls, and rolls, the fire play – every element of the film moves like a precision clock. Each individual piece moves perfectly into place to create the illusion of controlled chaos. If one comes out of synch, the entire operation falls apart.

Regardless of the Academy’s stance, I do not think it is controversial to say these people – and their contemporaries – deserve an Oscar for their brilliant work. Without stunts and stunt performers, these films could not exist any more than they could without cameramen, boom operators, or editors. The Academy just needs to catch up to the reality of the situation, something it has historically been slow to do. The Screen Actors Guild already has a category to honor stunt teams. So, if we take the awarding of a stunt performers Oscar as inevitable, then the question becomes to whom to give the statue.

Obviously, statues cannot be given to the hundreds of individual performers who make all of the action sequences sing. That would be impractical. Dayna Porter, who stunt doubles for Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Jacob Tomuri, Tom Hardy’s stunt double in the film, would be worthy candidates, but it also seems unfair to single out anybody from such a remarkable group. My solution: Guy Norris, the film’s supervising stunt coordinator.

Norris has been in the business more than 30 years, and fittingly, his first job on a stunt team was on Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. I do not think anyone would argue with a lifelong veteran of the craft hopping up on stage for such a richly deserved recognition. It will not happen in any competitive category this year. Again, the Academy does not move that quickly, but an honorary award recognizing Norris’ achievement would be a nice segue into creating an official category.

The same sequence of events ushered in the makeup and foreign film Oscars. Why not stunt performers? It is about time, and the evidence is right there on screen. All you have to do is look.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

In your dreams: The personal and universal in The Nightmare

Rodney Ascher's new documentary The Nightmare attempts to recreate the experience of sleep paralysis.

You go to bed, close your eyes, and suddenly wake up. You cannot move, cannot speak, and cannot breathe. In the doorway, there appears a shadowy figure, then another and another. They advance on you. One of them speaks words of doom as though they come from the devil himself. Beads of sweat form on your forehead. Your whole body becomes tense. You grind your teeth and clench your fists. There is no telling, no imagining what harm is about to befall you. Like a bolt of lightning, something unseen strikes, and you jolt up in bed. Everything is normal. You are now awake.

Nightmares are a universal experience, but as adults, most of us are able to distinguish between the real and the unreal, the waking world and our dreams. However, sufferers of sleep paralysis exist between those two dimensions. Their reality takes on the feeling of a nightmare, and their nightmares take on the proportions of reality.

In Rodney Ascher’s new documentary The Nightmare, the story of sleep paralysis is told from the only perspective that matters: the sufferers’. There are no talking-head interviews with scientists or psychologists and no attempts to explain away what the sleeper is experiencing. There is only the creeping dread and suffocating fear of the moment. Rather than engage the rational part of the audience’s mind, Ascher’s film offers a more primal exploration of the nature of the disease.

Rodney Ascher (left) speaks at the Lincoln Center.
“The idea [was] that we would allow people to tell their stories and allow them to express the path that their search for answers took them on,” said Ascher during a question-and-answer session after a screening of the film Friday at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

“As far as the science goes, we show only so much as it informed their search for answers. Sure, there’s plenty of science about what’s happening in your body during this experience, and it concerns REM states and chemicals, and it gets very complicated very quickly, but it doesn’t get at the questions that are bigger than sleep paralysis. Why do people see the same things? And, certainly in sleep paralysis, it’s dramatic in that point, but even in the more generalized way: Why do people dream about similar things? Why are there recurring themes in many people’s dreams?”

The Nightmare chronicles the journeys of eight people with sleep paralysis, and to a large degree, the things that haunt them are similar, despite their varied life experiences. There is often a shadow man, who is usually described as a demon or an alien. There is the inability to move or speak. Sometimes, they have out-of-body experiences in which they are able to watch themselves sleeping or worse.

For most of these people, their troubles started at a young age, and in a time before the Internet, there was little to do but tell a parent or doctor who would explain it away as a bad dream. Interestingly, what gave many of these people hope were films. Movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Communion put on screen in a visceral way what they were going through, and it allowed them to share with others their experiences.

“The Freddy Krueger thing is so interesting to me because if someone watched Nightmare on Elm Street and then had a nightmare about Freddy Krueger or even a sleep paralysis experience where he appeared, that would make sense as some sort of hallucination, but that’s not what’s being described,” said Ascher. “It’s being described as: ‘I have this weird experience, and then I was watching Nightmare on Elm Street, and it was like a police lineup. That’s the guy!’ If you research Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s based on a true story – Laotian immigrants who were struggling with sleep paralysis – and some of them were dying in their sleep or of heart failure from trying to stay up night after night after night.”

Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare" (1781)
It goes beyond a simple 1980s horror film, though. Ascher argued that throughout history, there are works of art and other occurrences that could be interpreted as sleep paralysis experiences. He pointed to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1881, as a work some scholars believe was inspired by sleep paralysis. Henry Fueseli’s 1781 painting “The Nightmare,” from which this film takes its name, depicts nearly all of the classic elements described by sufferers of sleep paralysis.

According to Ascher, even the biblical story described in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with an angel can be taken as a sleep paralysis event. Popular art throughout the centuries and across cultures is riddled with descriptions of happenings that are eerily similar to those given by the subjects of The Nightmare. It was this universality of imagery and experience that interested Ascher, and that meant his investigation would be more emotional and spiritual than rational.

“The connections are deep,” said Ascher. “The whole question of: Where do these images come from? Was there an original that these are all copies of a copy of a copy of a copy of? Do these images come from our [most ancient] memories? Those are questions that are more interesting to me than what REM state you happen to be going through during one of these experiences.”

Yet, as much as the film is an exploration of the history and universality of nightmares, it is also about the individual stories of its subjects and how these eight people either sought answers or found relief, how they learned to cope, and how their lives were altered on deeply personal levels. What is most striking about each person’s journey is how closely tied it is to faith and how much each person’s belief system was challenged or affirmed.

For each story, faith and belief are the twin pillars holding it up, not just in a religious sense, although there is that, too, but on a more fundamental spiritual level. As a skeptic and someone who looks first for a scientific explanation always, I was initially wary of Ascher’s decision to forego a more critical analysis of the phenomenon, but as the film progressed, I was struck by a realization. For sufferers of sleep paralysis, the events that take place are real – no qualifier. No book or article or study will convince them otherwise.

In this way, it is a lot like faith in a god or religion, which more than one person in the film turns to as a cure for her condition. I cannot tell anyone his god does not exist or that his religion is wrong. I do not have the standing to do so. I am not a part of it. No one on the outside can ever understand what it is like for someone of the inside. This makes Ascher’s filmmaking style all the more ingenious and inventive.

Using recreations and re-enactments of the stories his subjects tell, Ascher brings viewers inside this world and makes them a part of it. Every moment of the film is shot like a horror movie, filled with dread, simulating for the audience what it is like to experience sleep paralysis. After viewing the film, I maintain my skepticism, and the logical part of my brain knows to look for the scientific explanation, but I can no longer say I did not experience, on some small level, the feelings of these people.

“[Room 237] is mostly made from archival material,” said Ascher, referring to his previous documentary. “I like working in that style, but I just thought, personally, a challenge that I wanted to take on was creating my own imagery. Because it would be – to the best of my knowledge – impossible to capture this stuff on camera, it opened the door to that. Also, it raised very interesting questions about how to do that. Ultimately, we settled on a style that sort of acknowledged the artifice as a way of being truthful in a documentary context.”

That truth is a nightmare, and thanks to Ascher’s film, now we can all understand the dread of going to bed, closing out eyes, and suddenly finding ourselves awake.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

New movie review: Entourage

Adrian Grenier (left), Jeremy Piven (center), and Kevin Connolly star in the television-to-film adaptation Entourage.

Let’s talk for a minute. It is possible you have strong feelings one way or the other about the HBO television series Entourage. Based on the myriad angry columns and snarky news reports about the show’s new big-screen adaptation, it is possible those feelings are negative and bordering on blindly hateful. Maybe you are sick of the so-called “bro” culture and everything that entails. Perhaps you are offended by the borderline misogyny on display. You may be sick of the celebration of excessive wealth.

These are all the things the popular culture has turned its nose up at in recent years and not without reason, which means many of you probably do hold these views and society at large will not disagree with you. In the four years since Entourage went off the air, we all tacitly agreed to participate in the backlash against the man-child celebrated by the show and its ilk such as much of Judd Apatow’s output and basically any Adam Sandler movie.

This is a world now in which people who once may have enjoyed the show might claim to have grown up and moved beyond it. Some will always have been too “mature” for it, whatever that means. Others simply are offended by the premise. If any of the above describes your worldview, the Entourage movie is not for you, and that is fine. No one can say you are wrong. That being said, I am not talking to you right now. Much like the movie, this review will not be for you.

Okay, whom do we have left? Fans, I hope. Now that we are alone together, let’s talk about how much damn fun this movie is. Written and directed by the show’s creator, Doug Ellin, Entourage is a direct extension of the show that spawned it, set just a few months after the events of the series finale. As such, it plays like a long, big-budget version of the show, not that the series was ever lacking for production value.

In its waning days, roughly seasons seven and eight, even fans – among whom I count myself – can agree the show started to slip as it attempted more dramatic storylines and split apart its core group. What made the show work was always the comic dynamic of its central cast, Vinny (Adrian Grenier), E (Kevin Connolly), Drama (Kevin Dillon), and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara). When the writers moved away from that group dynamic, the show suffered.

For the big-screen adaptation, Ellin returns to the show’s bread and butter, keeping at least two of the guys together at all times – even in situations in which it would otherwise be ridiculous, except that we know what we are watching and why – and letting them bounce off each other. The rest is just watching sparks fly, and despite the show having wrapped years ago, the cast has not lost an ounce of chemistry. Dillon, in particular, seems to be back in his element, and Jeremy Piven is never better than when he is channeling super agent turned studio head Ari Gold.

The central conceit has not changed in the translation from TV to film. Vince wants to express a specific artistic vision, and the Hollywood machine stands in his way. Since the movie is just a super-sized version of the show, though, Vince’s problems are infinitely larger and the stakes are monumentally higher – for the characters, should I need to specify that for the haters who insist on reading this far.

Left to right: Jerry Ferrara, Piven, Grenier, Connolly, and Kevin Dillon.
Vince wants to direct a movie, and as the new studio head, Ari is in a position to make that dream come true. He uses his clout to put Vince in charge of the next summer tent pole with a $100 million price tag. He goes considerably over his budget and is forced to deal with the Texas money man and his son (Billy Bob Thornton and Haley Joel Osmet) who are financing the production. Eric has a side plot with longtime on-again-off-again girlfriend/fiancée/wife Sloane. Turtle tries to romance a celebrity. Drama has self-esteem issues based on his lacking career. It is all par for the Entourage course.

Trust me. If you are interested in Entourage, it is not because of the plot. If you are not familiar with the show, the plot will not get you invested in these people. If you do not like the show, well, see the introduction. However, if you are a fan, the plot is not really the point. The point is to watch gifted comic actors throw shade at each other for a brisk 100 minutes.

I saw the film at a Tuesday night preview screening with an audience that was absolutely thrilled to be there. Every joke landed and landed hard. This was the target demographic. The movie might not – hell, probably could not – play the same to anyone outside the intended audience. I am here to ask: So what? This movie has been absolutely pounded by mainstream critics. I understand. I see their points. None of it, however, makes the experience of watching characters you always enjoyed brought back to life and bigger than ever.

Not everything is for everybody. Not everything needs to be. High culture is not the only culture. I will be the first to admit there is an anti-feminist, pro-excess streak running through Entourage. That is kind of the point. Entourage began as a satire of the Hollywood lifestyle. Somewhere along the way, people stopped thinking of it that way and started critiquing it as a glorification of extravagant wealth. Honestly, it is both, in many of the same ways Martin Scorsese’s recent The Wolf of Wall Street was.

It plays simultaneously on our collective id and our collective super ego. In many of us, there is a part, however small or large, that wishes we had infinite wealth, unending youth, and incorruptible beauty. That is the fantasy of Vincent Chase. At the same time, most of us realize such a life is not only unsustainable, it is undesirable. It is inherently empty. There is a void at the heart of the Entourage dream that intentional or not, reflects the emptiness of the lifestyle it depicts.

Yeah, Entourage is about a movie star living a life most of us cannot imagine – much of it based on true stories of Hollywood life – but that is not the soul of the enterprise. Really, it is about a guy and his friends. There is no deeper message than: Friendship is pretty great. I see the flaws in the details, but on the whole, how could I possibly disagree with that sentiment? The truth is I cannot.

See it? Yes.