Saturday, July 18, 2015

New York times part II: A Trainwreck and a whirlwind

Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow, and Bill Hader (left to right) introduce Trainwreck at the Lincoln Center.

I have not written much in this space over the last couple of weeks, but it has not been for lack of material. I do not do much aside from go to work and attend films, and the last week and a half or so has seen a tremendous amount of both activities, such as they are. Here is a rough sketch of the last 11 days:

July 7 – Martin Scorsese exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and a screening of Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man (read about that here)

July 8 – A screening of the new documentary Stray Dog and a Q and A with director Debra Granik and producer Victoria Stewart

July 9 – A preview screening of Sundance hit Tangerine with a Q and A with the director, cast, and crew

July 13 – An hour-long talk with Parker Posey about her experience in the independent film world and her work in the new Woody Allen film Irrational Man

July 14 – World premiere of Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, as well as the bacchanal of an afterparty

July 16 – Screening of Matthew Heineman’s Mexican drug war documentary Cartel Land with a post-screening Q and A with the director

I intend to write about each and every one of these events, and I am behind on some of my newer film reviews – briefly, see Dope, which is fantastic; skip Me and Early and the Dying Girl, which is overly self-aware; see Amy, a fascinating documentary about the pitfalls of celebrity and stardom. But since I have no idea when I will even be able to transcribe all my interviews, let alone write thoughtful pieces about these experiences, I thought I would briefly touch on them here. Think of this as a teaser of things to come.

Stray Dog

Granik is known mostly for her Oscar-nominated second feature Winter’s Bone, which helped establish Jennifer Lawrence as a star even before the Hunger Games films. Though I was not a huge fan, Winter’s Bone is well worth seeing for its stark, unflinching depiction of rural drug culture and its effect on innocent bystanders, as well as for a knockout leading performance by Lawrence.

For the documentary Stray Dog, Granik returns to the Ozarks and takes as her subject Ronnie Hall, who played one of the more intimidating figures in Winter’s Bone. Hall is a biker, Vietnam veteran, and all-around sweetheart. Where I felt Winter’s Bone in places had a dehumanizing effect on the inhabitants of this southern mountainous region, Stray Dog works to correct that.

This is a compassionate portrait of a man who was tortured by anger and depression over the things he did as a soldier but who overcomes his challenges by giving and receiving love as much as he can. The film covers everything we expect from movies about veterans – family, duty, honor, loyalty, pride, etc. – but does so with such a light touch it never comes across as manipulative or insincere. It is a beautiful film and easily the best documentary I have seen so far this year.


Tangerine, from writer-director Sean Baker, is a curious case, presenting as it does the lives of two transgender prostitutes, their pimp, and a cab driver in their orbit all on one eventful Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. The story covers territory rarely seen in cinema and feels resolutely real; however, from a filmmaking standpoint, this is a hard movie to love.

Baker casts non-professionals as his transgender leads – Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor – and shoots the entire film on an iPhone5. As a result, there is something distinctly amateurish about the early proceedings, particularly as the iPhone camera does a poor job of capturing daylight. Once you get into the evening hours and you get on the wavelength of the performances, things start to coalesce.

The film has been hailed as a credit to independent filmmaking, and it is certainly that, but I am unsure of whether that is a positive credit. It is a fair question to ask whether this is the film that should represent independent films on the larger stage, but I appreciate the spirit and intention of Tangerine, perhaps more than the execution.

Parker Posey

Speaking of independent film, Posey was once known as the Queen of the Indies, and she spent a solid hour Monday discussing her lengthy career in a question-and-answer session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. She was there ostensibly to talk about Allen’s Irrational Man, which opened Friday, but since no one had yet seen the film, the conversation was more about Posey’s place in the Hollywood machine – that is to say, her place standing just outside the machine.

Posey has done big budget. The films are usually bad – Superman Returns, Josie and the Pussycats, Blade: Trinity – but invariably, Posey is the best thing about them. Her home obviously is in the independent world, and her collaborations with Christopher Guest are legend. When the audience could ask questions, the first place it went was to Best in Show and what working with Guest is like, despite the fact he has not made a feature film since 2006.

Bubbly and ethereal, Posey answered questions willingly, if circuitously, and was not short on stories to illuminate a life spent making movies. She was intelligent, funny, and self-deprecating, a perfect Allen heroine, which he seems to think, too, as it was announced Friday that Posey has joined the cast of Allen’s next as-yet-untitled film. Allen is my favorite director, and the next film could be great, but I would still say there is a good chance Posey will be one of the best things about it.


A little birthday present to myself, my partner in life and crime and I got all dolled up in our nicest fineries Tuesday and attended an old-fashioned movie premiere – and that will be the last time I use the phrase “old fashioned” to describe anything regarding Apatow and writer-producer-star Amy Schumer’s wonderful Trainwreck. This is the best film Apatow has yet made, successfully marrying small character moments with huge laughs and bringing Schumer’s acerbic brand of comedy to the screen in a way that stays true to both their styles.

After the screening, it was off to the famous Tavern on the Green, which you may remember from Ghostbusters, for the afterparty. It was everything you would expect from a big, Hollywood-style event. The booze flowed freely, the food never stopped coming, and famous faces drifted in and out of every room. Belly up to the bar and there is Ezra Miller. Head into the back room to find ?uestlove and Julia Stiles hanging out together. In one corner, Lebron James holds court, and in another, Apatow graciously accepts his due praise. At the center of it all is Schumer.

I spend pretty much all day every day thinking about films, watching films, analyzing films, and just generally projecting film reels in the cinema of my mind. I do not get out of my head a lot. But on this occasion, it was nice to suit up, get down, and gush like any other fan. I got stuck behind Colin Quinn by the food line. I got a picture with Tilda Swinton. I fist bumped Dave Attel. It was just cool. Nothing more, nothing less.

Cartel Land

After a day of recovery – an open bar will often necessitate such – we headed back out to the theater, this time the IFC Center, for an altogether different experience. Cartel Land is equal parts enthralling and infuriating. Whether or not you think the War on Drugs is worth fighting, we should all be able to agree we are not winning that particular battle, not on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Heineman’s film looks at two groups of vigilantes – American yahoos who fancy themselves cowboys in the Wild West and Mexican townspeople trying to take back their cities from the cartels. Heineman, who also served as one of the film’s cameramen, takes us directly inside the battle, going on raids, enduring shootouts, and witnessing horrifying crimes and tragedies. The most terrifying thing might be the web the cartels spin through daily life in Mexico as there does not seem to be any way to dismantle it, and it catches the innocent and guilty alike.

The director is knowledgeable, passionate, and dedicated to exposing the corruption of a nation seemingly overrun by drug lords. In an illuminating question-and-answer session, Heineman made his intentions clear. Change will only come when enough people get tired of the way things are and fight to fix the system. His hope is to galvanize a movement, and Cartel Land is certainly a galvanizing film.


Lots more to come – hopefully in a timely manner. Just look at what is out this week alone: Ant Man; Stanford Prison Experiment; The Look of Silence; Irrational Man; Mr. Holmes; and of course, Trainwreck. I guess what I am saying is: I will see you at the movies.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New York times: Scorsese, MoMA, and The Third Man

I don’t know that I always appreciate my New York experience as much as I might, and that may be because my idea of going outdoors is to bury myself in a movie theater for two or three hours at a time. Every once in a while, though, events conspire to remind me I don’t live in just any city. I live in New York City. Thanks to Martin Scorsese, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Film Forum, yesterday was full of those events.

Scorsese is probably the highest-profile leader of the film preservation movement, spearheading The Film Foundation, which is dedicated to keeping the history of the medium alive in an ever-evolving landscape. The organization’s top priority has been the restoration of classic films shot on highly volatile nitrate film stock, but the movies themselves are not the only precious evidence of the art form.

In that vein, the New York Museum of Modern Art is hosting “Scorsese Collects,” an exhibit of 34 classic film posters from the Scorsese Poster Collection. The pieces run the gamut from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s gorgeous The Red Shoes to John Ford’s The Searchers to Scorsese’s own Mean Streets. The beautiful collection is a tribute to an increasingly lost and marginalized art.

Though small, the exhibit is a must-see for any film fan. I was absolutely giddy with delight to be within inches of each well preserved artifact of film history. There were a number of highlights, including a dangerous, sexy one-sheet for Jacques Tourneur’s classic Cat People and a wonderfully impressionistic take on Elia Kazan’s Best Picture-winning On the Waterfront that foregrounds the violence and brutality of the film’s story. Perhaps, though, the most essential work is the simplest: the iconic “Veronica Lake’s on the take” poster for Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, as perfect now as the day it was designed.

In the center of the room, there hangs a 6- or 7-foot tall poster for Carol Reed’s magnificent The Third Man, the imagery for which focuses on the stunning climactic foot chase through the Vienna sewer system. I have seen The Third Man five or six times, though never on the big screen, and while staring at the film’s promotional art, I remembered the NYC Film Forum was screening the film through the end of the week. That was all I needed, and I headed out the door of the museum, caught the train downtown, and settled in for two hours of one of the greatest mystery movies ever put to celluloid.

If pressed to name the top 10 films of all time, I would put The Third Man right there in the conversation, and its wonder only grows in proportion to the size of the screen showing it. The stark, Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography still stuns, the writing is razor sharp, and Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles provide two of the great screen performances of the sound era. Welles, in particular, is just luminous, a true movie star, as commanding a presence today as he was when the film was released in 1949.

After the film, my girlfriend – kind enough to indulge me in a day of classic film nostalgia – and I strolled over to Washington Square Park, where to our surprise, the New York Jazzharmonic was giving its debut performance as part of the Washington Square Music Festival. All in all, I am not sure there was a more New York way to close out an art-filled day. It cannot happen every day for everyone, but sometimes, man, New York City really comes alive.