Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why Were So Many Sundance Movies about Break-Ups This Year?


An Over-Simplification of Her Beauty

In recent years, it seems that no Sundance is complete without at least one break-out film about break-ups. Whether it arrives via something intense and dramatic like Blue Valentine or lighthearted and wistful like (500) Days of Summer, romantic angst has seemingly become the festival’s bread and butter. And while this year’s festival didn’t appear to generate a true stand-out in the vein of those earlier films (though you never know – 500 Days didn’t initially feel like it was going to be the hit it later became), it wasn’t for lack of trying. Indeed, break-ups, in all their varied forms, were ubiquitous onscreen at this year’s Sundance.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sundance Review: Room 237



Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 might be the best film I’ve seen at Sundance this year. It’s certainly the film to which I had the most personal response.  My Kubrick obsession is fairly well-documented, and in my early 20s the thoughts swirling in my head weren’t unlike the ones expressed in the film. I wasn't much of a conspiracy theorist, to be fair, but I spent a lot of time – a lot of time, too much time, time that probably should have been better spent having a life – arguing about this sort of stuff.

Sundance Review: The Comedy



Remember how in Ghostbusters II our heroes had to battle paranormal slime that had been formed out of all the negative energy in New York City oozing down into the sewers? Well, The Comedy is sort of like that slime -- it's the negative runoff of all those Judd Apatow comedies we’ve been watching. If you’ve ever wondered whether stuff like Knocked Up had a certain nasty, cruel, sad subtext – now it's become the text. In fact, maybe those are the comedies the title refers to, since the film itself is not meant to be funny in any way.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sundance Review: Detropia



Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s Detropia probably isn’t the definitive documentary about the collapse of Detroit. It doesn’t provide the kind of historical detail and social context that you might need if you wanted to understand the issues behind the Motor City’s economic decline. No, Detropia is as much a ghost story as it is a documentary. It’s an impressionistic journey through the gray soul of a major American metropolis that is slipping – nay, has slipped – into nothingness, lonely but not quite empty.

Sundance Review: Me at the Zoo



Years ago, when I wrote for a print magazine covering the Internet, we used to sit around and think about the day when the online experience would become so ubiquitous that our magazine would become completely obsolete, like a print journal about telephones. The day came soon enough, but I don’t know if any of us imagined the direction in which digital identity would go. Back then it seemed that the Internet would become the savior of niche culture, that it would turn all of us into particularists free to indulge our strangest interests with small groups of like-minded folks.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sundance Review: Simon Killer



Antonio Campos’s debut feature Afterschool was one of my favorite films of 2008, so I had very high hopes for his follow-up Simon Killer. And while the style is still distinctly his, the new film plays in part like the opposite of the earlier. Whereas Afterschool was heavily structured, with a downright intricate script, Simon seems deliberately disjointed, almost improvised. Whereas Afterschool’s central character was almost catatonically passive, Simon’s protagonist is intensely there, alive and fierce in his tightly-wound little way. And while actors seemed almost like an afterthought in Afterschool (the camera so often wanted to turn away from them), Simon practically hinges on the grand gestures of performance. It may not be as successful as Afterschool, but it feels rawer, more personal – a quality enhanced by its curiously unformed nature.

Sundance Review: I Am Not a Hipster



I saw almost every move in Destin Cretton’s I Am Not a Hipster coming from a mile away. Depressive indie musician gives awkward radio interview? Check. He’s suffering through a bad break-up and will surely do something stupid? Check. His dim-bulb best friend turns out to be more with-it than originally thought? Check. Objectively, it may well be a terrible movie. So why then did I kind of enjoy it?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sundance Review: Robot and Frank



Robot and Frank supposedly takes place a few indeterminate years in the future, but it might as well be taking place on a different planet. Director Jake Schreier doesn’t go overboard with the sci-fi elements – in fact, the only thing at first that would suggest anything futuristic is a tiny car driving by in the background – but he uses behavior to create an otherworldly context for his drama.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Forgotten Films: The Stranger (Luchino Visconti, 1967)


(For an explanation of the Forgotten Films project, go here.)


Forgive me for a second if this gets a bit personal. (Don’t worry -- not that personal.)

The other day, while suffering from a rather grotesque bout of food-poisoning, I found myself thinking back to the last time I’d been similarly laid low. And, amazingly, I could remember the exact date: I'm pretty sure it was November 27, 1997. Newly returned from nearly a year in Russia, I had just cooked myself a surprisingly delicious Thanksgiving meal of Georgian chakhokhbili and was now suffering from the even-more-surprising and previously unbeknownst-to-me fact that the chicken had been thawed and refrozen before I’d gotten to it. Worse: The following day MoMA was having a very rare screening of Luchino Visconti’s The Stranger, a film I’d been trying desperately to see since the age of thirteen, and the reason I'd chosen to remain in New York during Thanksgiving in the first place.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Norwegian Wood: Rubber Souls

I had hoped to get this piece on Norwegian Wood up sooner, but, well, let’s just say I’ve been distracted of late. But there are still some chances to see it: The film is still playing at the IFC Center, and it will hopefully be making an appearance on VOD soon, if it hasn’t already. So run, don't walk, etc.


The French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung is a curious case for me. I remember snoozing my way through both viewings of his gorgeous, acclaimed (and Oscar-nominated) debut The Scent of Green Papaya back in 1993, and filing him away as one of those filmmakers I just didn’t “get.” But I admired his 1995 follow-up Cyclo (which, admittedly, had a bit more narrative kick to keep me awake), and I adored 2000’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun. That latter title got a tepid critical response, but the more years I live the more it feels like one of the greatest films ever made.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Separation: When Worlds, and Actors, Collide



Ashgar Farhadi’s A Separation is already probably the best-reviewed film of 2011, so nobody needs me to sit here and rattle on about how great it is. But there is one aspect of it that I want to get into, a bit.

I’ve discussed elsewhere the problem of different acting temperatures mixing in the same film – most recently in my review of Young Adult, where I felt Charlize Theron was giving a bullet of a performance in a different movie than the rest of the cast, and not in a good way. I’ve chewed off many a friendly ear over the years talking about this phenomenon. American Beauty is a particularly egregious example; every single actor in it seems to be in a completely different film, and it drives me up the wall. Literally -- I once drunkenly scaled a wall to express my hatred of American Beauty.