Thursday, December 30, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Toneelgroep Amsterdam's “La Voix Humaine”

'Tis the season for surreal culture shock. First it was the fried balls. Forget popcorn and potato chips; from bitterballen to oliebollen, unless it's round and fried, it ain't a snack here in Holland. Then it was Sinterklaas—or, more precisely, his helper Zwarte Piet (best explained by David Sedaris in an essay for “Esquire” a few years back). Suffice to say, the sight of towheaded tots trotting down the street in blackface can make even a seen-it-all New Yorker like me gawk. And now: Toneelgroep Amsterdam's production of Jean Cocteau's “La Voix Humaine,” a French play performed in Dutch with English surtitles projected perfectly center-stage above the action. (Interestingly, five days before I attended the show at the spectacular, castle-like Stadsschouwburg, Spike Lee held a discussion/book promotion at the theater. Alas, I heard he didn't have much to say about Zwarte Piet.)

But I have quite a bit to say about “La Voix Humaine,” a one-woman show starring the luminous Halina Reijn (who also stars in the company's “Children of the Sun” as the invalid Lisa) as an alternately determined and desperate mistress who is trying to break up once and for all with her lover over the phone. While Michael Shannon and his headset may have New York audiences in stitches in “Mistakes Were Made,” Ms. Reijn and her regular old receiver (or "terrible weapon" as she refers to it at one point) drag Amsterdam theatergoers through a nonstop, emotional tight-wire act for nearly an hour.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Apocalypse Now








The Doomsday Film Festival is set to shake up Williamsburg! Though I can’t do a panel again this year I’ve no doubt my colleagues are gonna kick some apocalyptic ass.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Toneelgroep Amsterdam's “Children of the Sun”

Belgian theater and opera director Ivo van Hove—a familiar name to those who get their off-Broadway fix at BAM and New York Theatre Workshop—has been the artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands's largest rep company, for close to a decade, and it shows in his latest self-assured production, “Kinderen van de Zon.” For those of you who don't speak Dutch (and I don't so I had to catch a performance that included English "surtitles" projected a tad too high above centerstage), the title translates to “Children of the Sun,” Maxim Gorki's timeless classic about the intelligentsia's doomed disconnect—and retreat from—the realities of the common man. (Yup, I am now going to review in English a Russian play done in Dutch. Take that, NYC theater critics back home!)

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Pairing Films at IDFA

For a docu-phile, attending the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam — with its nearly 300 films to choose from — feels less like being a kid in a candy store and more like being stuck in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for a week and a half. In addition to being Europe’s biggest fest for nonfiction flicks IDFA boasts round the clock events. (Literally — if you were still revved at three in the morning after IDFA Dance Night a program called “Docs Around The Clock” continued until 9AM, breakfast included.) In between screenings at the Pathe de Munt or the gorgeous Pathe Tuschinski, named for the movie-loving Polish immigrant who built the stunning Art Deco cathedral before perishing in the Holocaust, there was enough to keep even the most ADD-addled attendee busy. You could go to debates and panels in the afternoons, and “Guests meet Guests” meet-and-greets at Brasserie Schiller followed by talk shows and a free surprise film screening at the Escape Club in the evenings. There was also an art exhibition titled “Expanding Documentary” that starred the dynamite “HIGHRISE/Out My Window,” an installation featuring an international array of 360-degree images from Webby Award recipient Katerina Cizek. And I haven’t even mentioned the brunches, dinners and after-parties (nor the master classes or various markets if you came with a doc to pitch).

To read the rest of my epic coverage visit Filmmaker magazine.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sex and The Stad 2


Check out my latest column on page 89 of Amsterdam Magazine. Bonus points if you can separate hard fact from hot fiction.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Debating Climate Change at IDFA

Before IDFA’s Green Screen Climate Debate began at the Escape Club in Rembrandtplein Monday afternoon, our host noted that none other than Al Gore was due to arrive at Schiphol airport at any moment (no doubt in one of his private environmentally-damaging jets). Though he was in Holland to receive an award, the Nobel laureate, unfortunately, had declined the festival’s offer to stop by to debate. Too bad because we were left with the star of “Cool It,” Bjorn Lomborg — the John Cameron Mitchell-resembling “skeptical environmentalist” whose book the film was based on — instead facing down Jan Rotman, an aptly named and pissed-off Rotterdam professor who had the former vice-president’s harrumphing condescension down pat. (He also looked a lot like Nicolas Cage, one audience member commented somewhat inexplicably.)

To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

@IDFA: “Client 9,” “Prosecutor”

In straightforward PBS style, Canadian Barry Stevens’s “Prosecutor” follows Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and an unconventional and charismatic Argentinean with a colorful past. Moreno-Ocampo’s resume runs the gamut from bringing to justice the war criminals of his homeland in the 1980s and teaching at Harvard to serving as soccer star Maradona’s lawyer and hosting a “Judge Judy”-type TV show. Five years on the job and still struggling to reel in big Sudanese fish Omar Al-Bashir, Moreno-Ocampo is finally bringing his first case — the prosecution of a Congolese military leader charged with conscripting child soldiers — to trial. Yet what’s most fascinating about “Prosecutor” is that the lead hero, who favors white suits, has less in common with the wise old Nuremberg prosecutor who visits his office to express his support than he does with a onetime Attorney General starring in another doc also screening here at IDFA, “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.” While Moreno-Campo is probably more likely to be found winding down with “Law and Order” episodes on videotape (glimpsed in his apartment in The Hague) than he is dialing for hookers, he’d do even better to catch Gibney’s film in his spare time. The fate of New York’s steamroller governor could serve as a crucial cautionary tale about the price of moral high ground hubris.

To read the rest of my review visit Filmmaker magazine.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sex and The Stad


Check out my inaugural column on page 97 of the latest issue of Amsterdam Magazine. Greetz!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Festival Coverage: Pornfilmfestival Berlin

As a filmmaker who makes G-rated porn I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being thoroughly excited when I learned that a festival devoted to celebrating sex onscreen had filled its opening night slot with a flick that contains not one sex scene. And writer/director/producer/editor Zach Clark’s SXSW 2009 hit “Modern Love Is Automatic,” a refreshingly respectful and poignant comedy that centers around a jaded nurse who moonlights as a dominatrix and her aspiring (or rather delusional) model roommate, wasn’t the only selection to subversively screw with the very definition of porn. This year’s fifth edition, which concluded on Halloween, included some highly improbable subgenres in the mix — gay zombie and vampire porn and even a porn musical retrospective.

And Rambo porn. Or rather one critical essay in the form of my short, “The Story of Ramb O,” in which I’ve juxtaposed images from “Rambo First Blood: Part 2” with text from “The Story of O” (to show that a soldier is forever the government’s bitch).

To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Falling in Love at PornFilmFestival Berlin

I first heard about writer/director/producer/editor Zach Clark's “Modern Love Is Automatic” from fellow Houser Steve Boone, who emailed to ask if I'd seen the SXSW 2009 hit about a nurse who becomes a dominatrix. I hadn't—though I've seen the real life version of medical professionals moonlighting as pro doms more times than I care to count. So I made a mental note to see it, then promptly missed its theatrical release at the reRun Gastropub Theater. And like so many other flicks that sadly fall off my radar, this breath-of-fresh-air gem likely would have been confined to my dusty must-see list had it not been that “Modern Love Is Automatic” is opening this year's Pornfilmfestival Berlin, where my own short, “The Story of Ramb O,” is having its world premiere. Thank heaven for kinky accidents.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Story of Ramb O at Pornfilmfestival Berlin

World premiere Sunday, October 31!






"A soldier is forever the government's bitch."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Marwencol

Jeff Malmberg's “Marwencol” takes its name from the fictional Belgian town built by the documentary's subject, Mark Hogancamp, in his Kingston, New York backyard. But Malmberg's video imagery, captured by point-and-shoot camerawork, and livened up with big band music from time to time, can't hold a candle to outsider artist Hogancamp's work. Luckily for Malmberg, he's found a highly articulate character whose life story is so captivating it matters little who's behind the lens.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors

Directors Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter seem to have taken the concept of the banality of evil too far, applying the stalest of documentary filmmaking techniques, the talking-head interview, to their “Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors,” in which the psychiatrist and Harvard lecturer Robert Jay Lifton gives us the Cliff's Notes version of his 1986 book “The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide” from the safety of his book-filled study. Lifton, who himself interviewed dozens of doctors that worked at Auschwitz, is an easygoing and engaging academic, and someone whose university course probably wouldn't put you to sleep. But, then, college classes don't have an 86-minute running time.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

“Certified Copy” at the 48th New York Film Festival

Every once in awhile a movie comes along that rekindles the passion we cine-maniacs had when we first fell in love with art films. This year, The 48th New York Film Festival (running from September 24th through October 10th) presents one such cinephile’s wet dream in the form of “Certified Copy,” the latest from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, which also marks the 70-year-old master’s first cinematic foray outside his homeland.

Starring French enchantress Juliette Binoche, who nabbed the Best Actress prize in Cannes for her portrayal of an expat gallery owner residing in Tuscany, and British opera star William Shimell as the author she pursues, “Certified Copy” is nothing less than a modern-day masterpiece. It’s one of those rare spellbinders that quietly leave the audience unable to move until the very last credits roll.

To read the rest of my review visit Global Comment.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Freakonomics

Blame producer Chad Troutwine, also a producer on “Paris Je T'aime,” for bringing together an array of talented documentary filmmakers to try to coax life into material certainly not suited to the medium of film. With his latest “Freakonomics,” a collection of four shorts based on the blockbuster book about the science of economics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, he's hired the right guys and gals to do the wrong job. Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, and the team of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing all gamely attack their topics—parenting, cheaters, cause and effect, and incentives, respectively—with gusto, and unfortunately, with widely varying results. And because all these distinct directors were allowed complete creative autonomy, the scattershot “Freakonomics” lacks any tonal cohesion. Each segment is a standalone piece, divided by Seth Gordon's clunky and inorganic interludes and only tangentially related to the larger whole. (In fact, Gordon's introductory snippets—basically showy animation and brief interviews with economist Levitt and journalist Dubner sitting in a staid wood-paneled study—involving real estate, teachers, polio, and the potty training of Levitt's daughter are downright distracting.)

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Howl

Like the counterculture icon that penned the poem that serves as the title to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film, “Howl” is one odd bird. The study of a young, pre-showman Allen Ginsberg — embodied by James Franco, proving once and for all he's the next Johnny Depp — and the repressive Eisenhower era he rebelled against is presented via three interweaving channels. First, there's the courtroom drama adapted from actual transcripts from the 1957 obscenity trial of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti that the infamous book of poems sparked. Second, there's the fictional interview conducted by an unseen journalist using Ginsberg's own words. Then there's the animation of the notorious poem itself (designed by Eric Drooker, who collaborated with Ginsberg on “Illuminated Poems”). All of which gives “Howl” the look of “Good Night, and Good Luck.” meets “Waltz with Bashir.”

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Other City

While the Red Campaign to fight AIDS in Africa may be all the rage with celebrities, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Susan Koch has chosen to train her lens on the unglamorous American city that has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in this country, one higher than that of many African nations. Her documentary “The Other City” is a fascinating and damning glimpse inside a parallel universe that exists right in the heart of our nation's capital, and a battle cry from the urban poor of Washington, D.C.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller

Taking as its jumping off point the real-life disappearance in 1961 of the 23-year-old son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the Asmat region of Papua, New Guinea, "The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller" is a six-course meal. Expertly directed by Alfred Preisser (founder of The Classical Theatre of Harlem and frequent collaborator of Melvin Van Peebles) from Jeff Cohen's sophisticated script based on a short story by Christopher Stokes, and starring a superbly understated ensemble, the play makes a strong case that spiritual destruction and artistic corruption are equal to any physical savagery.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Clowning Like It's 1933: The New York Clown Theatre Festival

As the economy crumbles all around us, Depression-era nostalgia is in the air. One of this summer's highlights for me was spending a gorgeous August evening watching a free screening of “Duck Soup” on a boat docked on the Hudson, courtesy of Cinebeasts. (This cool little collective had teamed up with the Lilac Preservation Project to raise funds to restore the good ship Lilac, built the same year the Marx Brothers classic hit screens.) And now there's the New York Clown Theatre Festival at the Brick, running from September 3 - 26. Among the whopping 26 shows and cabarets, from an international array of performers, presented this year is "Diz and Izzy Aster – Vaudeville's Late Bloomers," which I caught on a double bill with "Ferdinand the Magnificent!" Diz and Izzy are the Burns-and-Allen type creation of multi-talented Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell—who sing, strum, and slapstick their way through familiar ditties, including a "new song by a young starlet" named Judy Garland. (Technically, Izzy plays "Over the Rainbow" on a musical saw.) Ferdinand the Magnificent, on the other hand, is a genuine big-nosed, diaper-wearing clown clad in an obnoxious, neon-pink bodysuit. Resembling a Dodo bird, this alter ego of puppeteer and musician Nick Trotter is a descendant of none other than Harpo Marx, and communicates mostly through physical gestures and the small cowbell tied about his waist.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Biker Fox

The documentary “Biker Fox” might be more aptly called “The World According to Biker Fox,” since Jeremy Lamberton's Slamdance sensation is one very long infomercial for Frank P. DeLarzelere III, a zany, evangelizing health junkie cut from the cloth of Richard Simmons (complete with booty-shaking spandex shorts) who refers to himself in the third person as Biker Fox, and whose overzealous passion for cycling has led him to numerous road-rage run-ins with the Tulsa, Oklahoma law. Biker Fox is a Peter Pan with anger-management issues, a pure exuberant spirit and merry prankster who enjoys everything from feeding wild raccoons by hand in his backyard to reverse prank calling clients who phone the upstanding, salvaged auto-parts business he owns. (One poor guy is greeted by Biker Fox shouting over eardrum-shattering heavy metal music.)

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Interview: Author Marcy Dermansky on Bad Marie

I first met Marcy Dermansky, author of the recently released “Bad Marie”—a novel that features an ex-con femme fatale the French New Wave would adore, and which seems to unfold frame by frame—at a press conference for Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.” I was there covering the event for SpoutBlog, and trying to stay as far away as possible from the journalist groupies in the front row who were vainly attempting to maintain their professional veneers while obviously hoping to catch the eye of Sean Penn or James Franco. Marcy, film critic for About.com, happened to be sitting near the back with me, putting on no false airs whatsoever. We started talking and she told me unabashedly that she wasn’t there in any writer’s capacity. She simply wanted to see Sean Penn. And it’s precisely this refreshing mix of honest fandom with a driving curiosity to observe the behavior behind the tabloids that Marcy brings to her second novel.

To read my interview visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Spacemen from Space!

Ian W. Hill’s “Spacemen from Space: An Exciting New Serial for the Stage in 6 Thrill-Packed Episodes!” is mindless entertainment for the couch potato set – and I mean that as a compliment. Presented by Gemini CollisionWorks and The Brick Theater, Inc. the show is a mash-up mash note to a bygone era, a time when men were men, women were dames, and jet pack-propelled superheroes saved the world – or something to that effect. What “Spacemen from Space” lacks in coherence and continuity it certainly makes up for in zany homespun fun.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Expendables

“The Expendables” is the latest vanity project from the youth-obsessed Sylvester Stallone, who directed, co-wrote, and stars in this film about Barney Ross, leader of a band of mercenaries tasked to overthrow a South American dictatorial regime at the behest of the CIA (represented by a profanity-spewing agent played by Bruce Willis). And with its rote gunplay and geriatric-paced running time, it's also the most boring action flick of the summer. Simply put, “The Expendables” is in dire need of less “Rambo” firepower and more of “Rocky’s” sweet-science finesse.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Neshoba: The Price of Freedom

Neshoba County, Mississippi may be located in our nation's good ol' (boys') South, but its psychic terrain bears more in common with post-genocide Chile or Rwanda. The site of the "Mississippi Burning" murders (in which three civil rights workers, two New York Jews and a Mississippian black, were tortured and killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964), the city of Philadelphia is still feeling the shallow grave-buried pain over four decades later. Like Rwanda's Hutus and Tutsis, the murderers and their relatives, and the family members of those tortured and killed, continue to live side by side.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Family Affair

“Family Affair” is director Chico Colvard's very personal search for answers as to why his three sisters continue to keep in their lives the father who sexually abused them as children. The abuse only came to light after Colvard, at the age of 10, accidentally shot the eldest girl in the leg. (Believing she would die, she decided to spill the beans in an effort to save her siblings from further abuse.) Through standard home-movie footage, old photos, and present-day interviews with relatives (including sisters Paula, Angelika, and Chiquita, their estranged German-Jewish mother, and even their ailing African-American father), Colvard has painstakingly attempted to assemble as many pieces of his family's history together in an effort to make sense of the unthinkable. Unfortunately, the fragments never quite fit into a cinematic whole.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

August 5 – Well Seasoned: Stories from Pros with Some Experience Under Their Belts

Hot in the city? Join me for the next Red Umbrella Diaries (“stories of sex and money” series) where I’ll be reading an excerpt from Under My Master’s Wings.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer of '85: The Strongest Femme In The World: Pumping Iron II: The Women

It's a shame I had to trek downtown to Tribeca to experience “Pumping Iron II: The Women,” which played as part of the 92nd Street Y's "Outsider Sports" series (on a double bill with “Afghan Muscles”— kudos to the creative programmer!). Not that I have anything against attending a free screening of a 16mm print courtesy of the New York Public Library. It's just that George Butler's follow-up to his Schwarzenegger-starring “Pumping Iron” needs to be disseminated on DVD in a 25th-anniversary edition complete with all the bells and whistles. Yes, this semi-doc is a film geek's dream, one that leaves you thinking about things beyond its bodybuilding theme and hungering to learn more.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Extra Man

It's hard to see what Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, co-directors of “American Splendor” and “The Nanny Diaries,” saw in taking on “The Extra Man,” the story of a socially awkward teacher named Louis Ives (played by the always understated Paul Dano) who leaves behind his sheltered prep-school gig for the wilds of Manhattan. Once there he lands a phone sales job at an environmental magazine and moves into the Upper East Side apartment of an eccentric dandy (played by the predictably cast Kevin Kline). Based on a novel by the script's co-writer Jonathan Ames, the movie revolves around the conceit that Kline's failed playwright/budding-mentor Henry Harrison is an "extra man," a chaste male escort to high-society dames. Unfortunately, like the ridiculously pretentious Harrison, the film fancies itself much more interesting than it is. And screenwriter Ames seems to aspire to be that successful oddball he is most decidedly not: Charlie Kaufman.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Desperate to Be Shocking: Neil LaBute's “Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: And Other Plays”

“Filthy Talk for Troubled Times” had its world premiere 20 years ago at NYC's Westside Dance Project in a production also directed by Neil LaBute and has rarely been seen since. Which comes as no surprise since the play, set in a topless bar ("out near the airport," of course) and featuring five men and two waitresses bemoaning the state of gender relations, is both dated and mediocre. Take, for example, this typical rant from Man 4: "'Silence equals death?' Bullshit! 'Silence' is not speaking out loud. (Beat.) 'Death' is letting some guy put his thing up your ass, right?" Which, in our current post-Borat era, is less offensive than it is pathetic. If anything, “Filthy Talk” only confirms what I've suspected for quite some time, that LaBute is sort of the Paris Hilton for the smart set, forever trying to be outrageous but often ending up the butt of his own joke.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door
at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Nicolas Winding Refn, “Valhalla Rising”

“Valhalla Rising,” which stars Mads Mikkelsen (best known for playing the much more suave devil Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale”) as a one-eyed, mute, enslaved gladiator who joins a group of Viking Christians on a conquest that turns into an existential journey to hell, is certainly not what one would expect from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. And that’s part of the beauty of the film. Before this latest atmospheric mood piece containing echoes of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Refn helmed the hyperkinetic “Bronson,” about England’s most dangerous criminal turned cult hero who never seemed at a loss for words or fists. Prior to that Refn made his name crafting stories from the drug-dealing underworld in his “Pusher” trilogy (which, incidentally, was Mikkelsen’s launching pad into film). Refn it seems is less like his fellow Dane Lars Von Trier and more like American Steven Soderbergh, both directors in constant motion, striving less to create important art than to simply surprise themselves. And by doing so, they often achieve both.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Valhalla Rising

Nicolas Winding Refn's “Valhalla Rising” is ostensibly about a one-eyed, mute Scandinavian gladiator who, after slaying the owner that's enslaved him like a battered pit bull, joins a bunch of Viking Christian zealots on their way to take over Jerusalem. But, in fact, this Bruckheimer-style storyline is merely an excuse to film a Joseph Conrad-worthy existential journey to hell. It's an intriguing artistic choice from the director best known for the narrative-driven “Pusher” trilogy and the borderline avant-garde “Bronson.” Now with “Valhalla Rising” it seems Refn has pared his vision down to its atmospheric essence, creating another universe that is closer in spirit to Kubrick's futuristic “2001: A Space Odyssey” than it is to any ancient Biblical blockbuster.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Considering “The Big Lebowski: An XXX Parody”

In retrospect it seems inevitable that some enterprising pornographers in Hollywood’s shadow industry would look to the Coen brothers’ quintessential Venice Beach bum The Dude for inspiration. Not only is southern California the hub of the sex biz, The Dude is SoCal made flesh. And now a company called New Sensations has done just this with “The Big Lebowski: A XXX Parody,” a passionate, nearly shot-for-shot recreation that shows that cute porn is not an oxymoron. Sure, New Sensations has already tackled pop culture with “30 Rock: A XXX Parody” and “Seinfeld: A XXX Parody,” but “The Big Lebowski: A XXX Parody” really does feel like something different. This isn’t some mainstream TV touchstone the company is tackling, but a cult film from bona fide indie auteurs. A few years back Lucas Entertainment was the darling of the GAYVN Awards with its serious porn remakes of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (and “Dangerous Liaisons” prior to that). In its own way “The Big Lebowski: A XXX Parody” feels closer to those earnest gay versions, more tributes birthed from true movie geek love than of-the-moment knock-offs.

To read the rest visit Filmmaker magazine.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Lisa Cholodenko is one of the more radical visionaries working in American indie cinema today. So it's a shame her voice is often drowned out in a world in which loud-and-proud LGBT films and characters are aplenty, but nuanced, flesh-and-blood protagonists that just so happen to be gay or bisexual are few and far between. From “High Art” to “Laurel Canyon” to her latest “The Kids Are All Right,” Cholodenko has proven herself more like a documentary filmmaker, painstakingly trying to present people on screen as they really are—complicated and messy, forever defying labels and bouncing out of boxes—as opposed to how we wish them to be or how they present themselves. Which, of course, is a damn hard sell.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

“The Rural Life and Spirit” at Rooftop Films

From glitzy, hipster-courting sponsors—including IFC Films and “New York” magazine—to the free flavored beverages (courtesy of Vitamin Water during the show) and free alcohol (courtesy of Radeberger Pilsner at the after-party around the corner), Rooftop Films Summer Series 2010, at first glance, seems to have taken a page from the slick playbook of the Gen Art Film Festival. There’s the indie band to warm up the crowd before the screening and a bulky program the size of “Interview” magazine. There are trailers for the IFC channel’s latest TV hit and for YouTube-sensation-turned-documentary-feature “Winnebago Man.” By the time the nine o’clock program finally rolls, inevitably fashionably late, you’ve nearly forgotten what you came there to see in the first place.

But then the sky goes dark, and one of the 23 features or 21 shorts programs included in this “14th Annual Summer Series of Underground Movies Outdoors” begins. And the magic of cinema slices right through the hype.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

New York Asian Film Festival 2010: Dispatch Two

“Annyong Yumika,” making its North American premiere at this year's New York Asian Film Festival, takes its name from legendary Japanese porn starlet Yumika Hayashi, who also had a big career in Korea. But perhaps most intriguing about this odd nonfiction look at the woman who took top honors at the Pink Grand Prix for the softcore Japanese flick “Lunchbox”—and who met an untimely death in 2005—is that it's truly not made for Western eyes. Practically experimental in his whimsical collage approach, director Tetsuaki Matsue takes as his jumping off point the discovery of his subject's previously lost film, “Junko: The Tokyo Housewife.” That softcore Korean production, which cast Korean actors speaking Japanese, becomes the catalyst for not only retracing Yumika's life (through old home movie footage and bizarre reenactments at actual locations), but also for exploring, to use the title of one talking head professor's book, "the Japanese as seen in Korea."

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, “Restrepo”

Most documentary filmmakers attempt to see the world through the lens of the subjects they’re shooting, but few put their lives on the line to do so. That perhaps is what most separates first-time directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington from a few of their colleagues who didn’t take home the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Their award-winning “Restrepo” is the result of a near yearlong embedment with the Second Platoon, Battle Company in eastern Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley, during which they survived like soldiers wielding cameras in lieu of guns. While the two don’t lack name recognition — writer Junger is the bestselling author of “The Perfect Storm,” and along with prizewinning photojournalist Hetherington, is a longtime contributor to “Vanity Fair” — they’ve used their critical prestige to shine a light on the identities of the little known. Like “Doc” Restrepo, a platoon medic killed in action but not forgotten at the outpost that bears his name.

To read my interview visit Filmmaker magazine.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

2010 New York Asian Film Festival: melodrama perfected

With its lavish, sumptuous production design and attention-grabbing camerawork “Bodyguards and Assassins,” which makes its New York debut at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is quintessential martial arts eye candy. As broadly populist as any western style action flick, this 2009 blockbuster – which boasts “more Hong Kong Film Awards than any movie in history” – follows a makeshift team of bodyguards who put their lives on the line at the turn of the last century to prevent the assassination of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary leader arriving in the British colony to plan the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty.

To read the rest visit Global Comment.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Interview with “Wild and Wonderful” Julien Nitzberg

Julien Nitzberg, director of the cult documentary “Dancing Outlaw,” which stars the notorious Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White, has set himself up for the same criticism that often gets leveled at fiction filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke. When directors show politically incorrect behavior without passing judgment on that behavior, it rubs many folks the wrong way, leading to charges of misogyny in Von Trier's case or nihilism in Haneke's. Nitzberg's latest film, “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia,” has and will most certainly be judged exploitative for its celebratory portrayal of Jesco and his kin: poor, white, violent West Virginian drug dealers who have no qualms about smoking crack for the camera at their octogenarian matriarch's birthday party. But underlying the reality-TV hi-jinks is a true respect for the subjects. Nitzberg seems almost in awe of the Whites' ability to buck the system so thoroughly and blatantly. The Whites indeed have created their own lawless world where the primal, Biblical eye-for-an-eye rule trumps all. One can't help but think Werner Herzog would be tickled pink by both the doc and the rebel director behind its lens.

To read my interview visit Slant Magazine.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2010: Moloch Tropical

“Moloch Tropical,” which follows the political and mental disintegration of a fictional democratically elected president in Haiti, is the latest from Haitian-born director Raoul Peck, who tread similar territory a decade ago in “Lumumba,” the story of Congo's heroic prime minister Patrice Lumumba. However, it's not his own earlier work that Peck has audaciously repurposed, but Alexander Sokurov's “Moloch,” a chamber piece detailing the mundane existence of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun at their Bavarian hideaway. (At least I think that's what “Moloch” is about—having seen it in the late '90s at a surreal Russian Film Festival screening with German subtitles and a live English translation.) Peck himself is a frustrating talent, one whose grandiosity is simultaneously his strength and his weakness—not unlike the lead character of “Moloch Tropical.”

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hotel Modern’s “Kamp” at the Toy Theater Festival

One of the most astonishing theatrical productions this summer in NYC occurred at St. Ann’s Warehouse out in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, which hosted the Great Small Works 9th International Toy Theater Festival May 30th through June 13th. (Up next at St. Ann’s is the fantastical sounding Labapalooza! – a festival of avant-garde, works-in-progress puppetry June 23rd through June 27th.)

But to call “Kamp” from the Rotterdam-based troupe Hotel Modern a theater piece doesn’t even come close to describing their re-imagining of Auschwitz as a breathtaking scale model peopled by thousands of three-inch tall miniatures, looking like a European version of Mexico’s Day of the Dead figurines. Taking up the entire stage, the intricate and precise installation would fit right at home at the Whitney Biennial (in fact, there’s a temporary toy theater museum also set up at St. Ann’s) and includes not only rows of barracks and a railroad track but also the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” emblazoned on a gateway.

To read the rest visit Global Comment.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

45365

Directors Bill Ross and Turner Ross are small-town siblings who returned for nine months to their hometown of Sidney, Ohio—zip code 45365—with a camera and a palpable passion to capture the essence of everyday rural lives. Eschewing talking-head interviews or any type of narration whatsoever, the filmmakers create a composite sketch of Sidney, allowing their camera to rove randomly like an omnipotent eye from the Shelby County fair to the local radio station, from a cop on patrol (who at one point comes to the aid of an unhappy cable customer!) to a judge campaigning door-to-door for reelection.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Hack! An I.T. Spaghetti Western

The reason The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is one of the most innovative venues in NYC is because its artistic directors Michael Gardner and Robert Honeywell are in fact true artists - meaning they're not afraid to take risks. And now with their Too Soon Festival running through June 27th they've bet the farm on a wild array of productions with names like "Jeannine's Abortion: A Play in One Trimester" and the Salinger-themed "RIP JD." Of course, names can be deceiving and it was just my luck to pick the rare dud of the bunch. The Impetuous Theater Group's "Hack! An I.T. Spaghetti Western," unfortunately, is only half-baked.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Get Mad at Sin!

Andrew Dinwiddie's "Get Mad at Sin!," directed by Jeff Larson and running at the Obie Award-winning Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City, Queens, takes as its starting point a delightfully ripe concept - to craft a one-man show from an out-of-print vinyl record of a sermon Jimmy Swaggart gave at an Arkansas church in 1971 (over a decade before sex scandals brought about his downfall in the late 80s). And a hell of a sermon it is! Smartly, Dinwiddie, wearing a cheap polyester suit and JC Penney-style loafers, dispenses with any irony and simply channels the fire and brimstone preacher at his Sunday best. Stalking a worn red carpet, that divides the audience seated in folding chairs on raised platforms with rec room-type wood paneling, Dinwiddie orates and shimmies with abundant sincerity, letting Swaggart's own incredible words ring out loud and clear.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

“Presumed Guilty” at the 2010 Human Rights Watch festival

“Presumed Guilty” is the title of this year’s closing night doc at the 2010 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, a co-presentation of Human Rights Watch and The Film Society of Lincoln Center that takes place June 10th – 24th at the Walter Reade Theater here in NYC, showcasing 30 diverse cause-driven films from 25 countries. It’s also a fascinating peek inside the Orwellian and oxymoronic Mexican justice system where corruption is so ingrained that those in charge are left nearly flabbergasted when young lawyers Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, along with filmmaker Geoffrey Smith, show up to challenge the status quo camera firmly in tow.

To read the rest of my review visit Global Comment.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Juche Idea

Though I haven't seen director Jim Finn's prior "utopian comedies" exploring communism in the USSR and Peru, his current venture into North Korean ideology with “The Juche Idea” leaves little doubt as to why he's a darling of the experimental filmmaking world. Nabbing Best Narrative Feature at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the 62-minute flick takes as its starting point Kim Jong Il's Juche (choo-CHAY), a philosophy of self-reliance that the Dear Leader applied to his film industry beginning in the late '60s. While Finn makes ample use of footage from North Korea's state-sanctioned propaganda docs and hokey narrative features, the heart of the story lies with a South Korean video artist named Yoon Jung Lee, tasked to breathe new life into Juche cinema during a North Korean art residency at a collective farm. While the character of this video artist was inspired by an actual South Korean kidnapped in the '70s and forced to work for Kim Jong Il's moviemaking machine, her true role is as Finn's own imaginary stand-in.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Disinterment on the Killing Fields: “Enemies of the People” at the 2010 Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Having taken home the 2010 Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize earlier this year, “Enemies of the People,” Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s subtle look inside the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge through interviews with the killers themselves (including Nuon Chea, a.k.a. “Brother Number Two,” co-ruler with Pol Pot and the highest ranking member still alive) now arrives in NYC, premiering June 18th at the 2010 Human Rights Watch Film Festival where it is this year’s recipient of the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. It’s also a case study in investigative journalism done right.

To read the rest of my review visit Global Comment.

Monday, May 17, 2010

After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United

As its title suggests, “After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United” follows Israel's underdog Bnei Sakhnin soccer team in the aftermath of their shocking advance to the National Cup. Through shots of dusty small-town Sakhnin and straightforward interviews with the team's Arab president, Jewish coach, players (a mix of Arab, Jewish, and foreign-born athletes), and even the anchorman for Neptune Studios (the local TV station that makes our public access seem as polished as CNN), filmmaker Christopher Browne travels far beyond David-and-Goliath cliché to paint a portrait of life in a schizophrenic state. Instead of charting the team's skyrocketing to the top of their game, Browne takes the reverse course of documenting its inevitable downward spiraling in a land in which over a million legal citizens are Muslim Arabs uneasily residing in a Jewish state.

To read the rest visit Slant Magazine.

Monday, May 3, 2010

“The Killer Inside Me” stands out at Tribeca Film Fest

The Tribeca Film Festival, Robert De Niro’s annual glam-fest on the Hudson, is glitzy and obnoxious and very L.A. – which is exactly why I enjoy covering it. It’s like traveling to the West Coast to get a glimpse of how exotic Hollywood lives without leaving New York City. It’s a fun lark, a break from the heavy-handed sobriety of “Film as Art” that defines New York Film Festival and The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films, which TFF arrives fresh on the heels of.

Like most festivals there’s a lot of dregs to sit through to discover the gems, but when you emerge from a screening of “Soul Kitchen” from Fatih Akin, the most exciting director Germany has produced since Werner Herzog, or the under-the-radar (though not for long) doc “Sons of Perdition” you remember just how powerful cinema can be. De Niro founded the fest to lift spirits after 9/11, after all. In other words, to remind us of the joy that got all of us – even the most hard-nosed film snobs – going to the movies in the first place.

The best case in point this year is Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me.”

To read the rest visit Global Comment.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

“Enron” at the Broadhurst Theater

"We're going to put it together and sell it to you as the truth," proclaims the lawyer for the villainous CEO Jeffrey Skilling, played with surprising nuance by song-and-dance man Norbert Leo Butz, at the outset of “Enron,” referring to the grand spectacle that's about to unfold before our eyes. The calamitous fall of the energy giant in 2001, a harbinger of the financial meltdown to come, has been exhaustively documented, first in the 2003 book “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, and later in Alex Gibney's 2005 Oscar-nominated doc based on that source. So the latest incarnation, a ballsy Broadway musical, is smartly less concerned with the how's of the scandal than with asking "Why?"—as the company's own tagline urged in its advertising.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Babies

Pity the Focus Features marketing team behind “Babies,” a near-wordless French production directed by Thomas Balmès that follows four babies from disparate parts of the world from birth to the dawn of self-awareness. Surprisingly, the doc isn't as unbearable as that might sound: The HD images Balmès captures, breathtaking landscapes in Namibia and Mongolia shot from a tripod, visually cast the infants in the greater context of their surroundings. The director's attention to lighting and composition is painterly, the babies perfectly framed. But the result is a cinematic coffee-table book set to music and ambient sound, an aesthetic exercise that gets at no deeper truth than "babies are basically alike no matter the culture."

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

“Budrus”: Capturing Minds Without Heart

“Budrus,” the title of Julia Bacha’s feature documentary in competition at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in NYC, presented in conjunction with the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, refers to the tiny Palestinian town (population 1,500) at the center of the struggle against Israel’s razing of 300 acres and 3,000 olive trees, in effect destroying the village to make way for a separation wall. Led by activist Ayed Morrar and his daughter Iltezam the townsfolk – including Hamas members – and Israeli activists come together to prove that nonviolent tactics can make a difference. Especially when cameras are rolling.

To read the rest of my review visit Global Comment.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tribeca Film Festival 2010: The Woodmans (C. Scott Willis)

At the heart of C. Scott Willis's “The Woodmans” is a tragedy that forever changed the lives of its world-renowned subjects Betty and George, a ceramic sculptor and painter and photographer, respectively, and their video artist son Charles. In the press notes, critics are gently nudged to refrain from revealing the exact nature of what happened to the couple's even more famous photographer daughter Francesca at the age of 22 "so that the audience can see her images without that filter." Which gets to the heart of the problem with The Woodmans.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tribeca Film Festival 2010: sex & drugs & rock & roll (Mat Whitecross)

I confess that Ian Dury and the Blockheads were one of those early punk bands I never quite understood the appeal of. (But, then, as someone who grew up on the hardcore of Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys, the Ramones always seemed a bit slowpoke to my ears as well.) So perhaps Mat Whitecross, director of the Dury biopic “sex & drugs & rock & roll,” was driven by that not-unfounded fear that a rocker lacking the name recognition of Johnny or Sid or Ian Curtis would be a hard sell even to punk aficionados. (Sure, Madness for one owes its carnival sound and style to Dury, but he's still relatively unknown at least on these shores.) How else to explain a film so MTV-slick it's practically anti-punk rock? Not only does “sex & drugs & rock & roll” not have any bollocks, it's like the nerd of the class desperately trying to get the cool kids to like him.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tribeca Film Festival 2010: My Brothers (Paul Fraser)

“My Brothers,” a coming-of-age tale set over Halloween weekend 1987 that follows three young siblings as they make their way to the Irish seaside to find a replacement watch for their dying father, on its surface bears all the hallmarks of a Shane Meadows film. So it's no surprise that the movie marks the directorial debut of Paul Fraser, a frequent writing collaborator of Meadows. Unfortunately, like another Tribeca Film Festival selection, “sex & drugs & rock & roll” by Mat Whitecross, co-director of Michael Winterbottom's “The Road to Guantanamo,” it's also in dire need of the auteur half of the partnership at its helm.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tribeca Film Festival 2010: The Two Escobars (Michael Zimbalist and Jeff Zimbalist)

"It's too dangerous to get involved in soccer," offers a thug named Popeye, once a right-hand man to Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, as a lesson he learned from the boss's murder. "Narco-soccer," as it was called back when all the Latin American cartels from Medellin to Cali each owned their own teams, left the drug lords too out in the open. Which also goes a long way to explaining how Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist, co-directors of the riveting and thoroughly researched doc “The Two Escobars,” managed to find such a treasure chest's worth of historical footage. The Escobars of the documentary's title are the infamous Pablo and Colombian soccer hero Andrés, unrelated and having little in common but a last name, a shared birthplace, a passion for soccer, and the fact that they lived and died under the constant watch of the media eye.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Tribeca Film Festival 2010: Thieves by Law (Alexander Gentelev)

"Show me one person in Russia who doesn't have a criminal record," a subject rhetorically challenges in Alexander Gentelev's “Thieves by Law,” a smart and fascinating peek inside the Russian mafia via three middle-aged "businessmen" old and wise enough to have both survived, and to be able to explain without bombast, the inner workings of the post-Perestroika underworld. And in a country that allows convicted criminals to run for government office, the guy's got a point. Like Matteo Garrone's “Gomorrah,” which would make a great narrative companion piece to this doc, “Thieves by Law” forgoes broad sensationalism for the riveting details of the matter-of-fact mafioso life.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bahman Ghobadi & Roxana Saberi on “No One Knows About Persian Cats”

“No One Knows About Persian Cats” is the fifth feature from Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi (who won the Camera d’Or at Cannes a decade ago for “A Time For Drunken Horses”) – and the first for his co-writer, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi. (Perhaps best known for having been jailed in Tehran last year, accused of being a spy, Ms. Saberi’s memoir “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” will soon be published by HarperCollins.) With the indispensable help of Ghobadi’s translator Sheida Diani – the director speaks English but prefers to conduct interviews in his native Farsi – I spoke with the two about their unique narrative take on Iran’s underground music scene.

To read the interview visit Global Comment.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War

"Trivia time" on Soviet Free Radio Order may be "brought to you by borscht," but "Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War" comes courtesy of The Brick Theater, Inc. and The Mad Ones. Directed and co-conceived by Lila Neugebauer and co-created by the Ensemble, the show single handedly proves that conceptual theater doesn't necessitate geek comedy, hipster irony or mind numbing boredom. But it should involve a parallel universe in which the cold war came to an end when genocidal robots annihilated America, a quartet of Russian radio performers with a thing for 50s kitsch, and a terrifically talented team both onstage and behind the scenes. And "now a word from our state sponsors."

To read the rest visit Theater Online.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Swingin' At Jack's: An Aerial Circus Cabaret

"Swingin' At Jack's: An Aerial Circus Cabaret" is the latest production from the multitalented quintet known as Suspended Cirque, three women and two men who dance, sing, do acrobatics, play the sax and, oh yeah, fly through the air on ropes, hoops and trapezes with the addictive exuberance of kids at a carnival. The last time I saw an early incarnation of "Swingin' At Jack's," also at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO, I lamented that no one had given them an artist residency. Well, now they've got every Sunday in April at this Brooklyn performance space, decked out to be a mid-century speakeasy complete with jazz band. So go, baby, go!

To read the rest visit Theater Online.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret

As its bold and sprawling title implies Rapscallion Theatre Collective's "All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret" is out to push both buttons and boundaries. Directed by Krystal Banzon from a script by Mariah MacCarthy the show tackles gender stereotypes through an array of can't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover characters, from a hetero tomboy to a femme straight guy, from a feminist lesbian with a knee-jerk hatred of men, to a gay hairdresser who becomes a straight-basher. Guiding them on their journey to self-awareness and the shedding of black-and-white categories is an androgynous emcee named Taylor played by Becca Blackwell whose natural, easygoing stage presence is perfectly suited to the enlightened character.

To read the rest visit Theater Online.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kyogen: Traditional Comic Theater Of Japan

Perhaps the most surprising thing about "Kyogen: Traditional Comic Theater of Japan," comprised of two classic kyogen - literal translation "mad words" or "wild speech" - tales, is how accessible the production is to western eyes. Presented by the Yamamoto Kyogen Company, a family that for generations has been practicing this comedic art form that developed alongside noh and dates back to the early 14th century, "Shido Hogaku (Stop in Your Tracks)" and "Tsukimi Zato (Moon-viewing Blind Man)" are both as timeless and engaging as anything in the Shakespeare canon. No wonder Charlie Chaplin called kyogen "the most sophisticated art form" when he visited the Yamamoto clan's theater in 1932.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Two Gentlemen Of Lebowski

As a theater and film critic familiar with the Bard's buddy comedy about friendship and love, but who must guiltily confess to never having seen the Coen brothers' cult hit on which filmmaker Adam Bertocci's play "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski" is mostly based, I can attest that one need not be a White Russian drinking, pot smoking, bowling playing fan of The Dude to enjoy DMTheatrics' American Shakespeare Factory (in association with Horse Trade Theater Group's) latest thoroughly engaging and swift moving production. But it helps. Especially if you don't want to feel left out as those seated around you anxiously await the transformation of their favorite Dude koans.

To read the rest visit Theater Online.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Caligula Maximus

"Rocky Horror Picture Show" meets Coney Island Sideshow is how best to describe writer/director Alfred Preisser and writer Randy Weiner's "Caligula Maximus," a loveably scruffy and ragged extravaganza set on the last night of the debauched dictator's life. While not exactly DIY indie theater - Preisser is better known as the co-founder of Classical Theatre of Harlem while Weiner owns hipster venue The Box - "Caligula Maximus" does boast a homemade "let's put on a show" sensibility that shines addictively through.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"The Story of Ramb O" now available on YouTube!

My four-minute, homoerotic quickie The Story of Ramb O is now playing for a limited time (until YouTube gives me the boot).

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Oath at New Directors/New Films 2010

Fresh on the heels of the Academy Award-nominated “My Country, My Country” (New Directors/New Films 2006), “The Oath” is the second film in director Laura Poitras's trilogy examining America and the repercussions of its policies after 9/11, and yet already it feels dated. Poitras spent two years filming in Yemen and Guantanamo Bay in order to tell the parallel stories of Salim Hamdan—of "Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld," Osama bin Laden's onetime driver who the Supreme Court sided with in that landmark case—and the brother-in-law who recruited him into Al Qaeda, Abu Jandal, bin Laden's former bodyguard. While family man Hamdan, a low-priority target sitting in solitary confinement, is seen and heard only through grainy video images and prison letters, charismatic psychopath Jandal shuttles between prayers with his young son, the Yemeni streets in his taxicab, and meetings with jihadi wannabes.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

“The Sun Behind The Clouds”: missed opportunity

To this jaded New Yorker, the recent political brouhaha surrounding Tibetan filmmakers Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s “The Sun Behind The Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom” seems much ado about nothing. The documentary, shot throughout 2008 leading up to the Beijing Olympics and structured around the biggest uprising in that Chinese-controlled country since it lost its independence in 1959, was the reason the state-run China Film Group pulled its feature “City of Life and Death” from the Palm Springs International Film Festival. (A subsequent screening of that movie here at NYC’s Film Forum, which premieres “The Sun Behind The Clouds” on March 31st, was also cancelled.)

That the Chinese don’t want to be included in any festival that also screens a pro-Tibet doc is simply as childish as that same government’s naïve belief that all their Tibetan woes will vanish once the Dalai Lama dies and a state-approved lama takes his place. It’s as silly as Americans once magically thinking that the capture of Osama bin Laden would quell Muslim hatred of us.

To read the rest of my review visit Global Comment.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My Perestroika at New Directors/New Films 2010

Making the political personal seems to be one of the running themes of this year's New Directors/New Films, and Robin Hessman's wondrously thought-provoking “My Perestroika”—literal translation "My Restructuring"—truly brings that concept home. Like a Russian version of Michael Apted's “42 Up,” Hessman's doc, which begins and ends with the national rite of the first day of school, observes the lives of five everyman classmates through the juxtaposition of their Soviet childhood home movies (i.e. unofficial history) and old communist documentary footage (the official history) and present-day interviews. As an American expat who spent a good part of the turbulent '90s living as an outsider in Leningrad and Moscow, tightrope-walking between cultures during the Cold War's thaw, Hessman possesses an East-West street cred that pays off in spades with her honestly reflective and unselfconscious subjects. A Glasnost-worthy openness shines through every face.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant Magazine.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sin

I'd been greatly looking forward to seeing "Sin," directed by Kent Paul and adapted from the short story "The Unseen" by Isaac Bashevis Singer (author of the better known "Yentl"), for quite some time now. Though I know nothing of the source material for this comedic thriller - that takes place in 16th Century Poland and concerns a happily married, observantly Jewish couple whose lives are upturned by the devil and his temptress minions on Yom Kippur - I have read the play. Having been given an earlier draft by its writer Mark Altman (who I'd gotten to know after I reviewed "Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls," which he co-wrote) I now find myself in the odd position of also knowing that Altman's page-turner of a play is, well, better than the sum of its production parts.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Women Without Men at New Directors/New Films 2010

Like visual artist Steve McQueen, who also recently made the shift from museums and galleries to the cinema with a story involving British imperialism and the body politic made literal, Iranian-born Shirin Neshat certainly knows how to speak without words. Winner of the Silver Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival, Neshat's debut feature, “Women Without Men,” is based on a novel with magical-realist flourishes by author Shahrnush Parsipur (who also has a delightful turn as a brothel madam in the movie), and like its source, the film's images are painstakingly crafted and painfully alive. Which makes this film about the death of a democracy, and which opens with a suicide, all the more compelling.

To read the rest of my review visit New Directors/New Films 2010 at Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Battle of Chile

“All points of view about a historical reality are valid and contribute to building a country’s history,” a wise young student says in “Chile, Obstinate Memory,” the heartbreaking homecoming film from the four-disc edition of Patricio Guzman’s mid-70s documentary, “The Battle of Chile,” just released by Icarus Films. The three parts of “The Battle of Chile” (“The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie,” “The Coup d’Etat,” and “The Power of The People”) comprise a meticulous and gripping eyewitness account of the events that culminated in the CIA-backed military coup that led to the assassination of the country’s democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende.

To read the rest of my review visit The Rumpus.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury

If you happened to miss the hit simian smackdown "Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury" this past December at The Brick Theater's Fight Fest you're in luck. Piper McKenzie Productions is bringing the bug-picking monkeys and eye-popping predators back to The Brick for another delightful run. Wordless save for the disembodied voice of a narrator - played by writer/director Jeff Lewonczyk in the manner of a BBC talking head dryly presenting a nature documentary - piped in over the Darwinian proceedings the play follows the story of one gangly monkey's journey from blissful ignorance to self-conscious awareness. Which is pretty poignant philosophical stuff for a show that begins and ends with some playfully lewd monkey humping.

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

“A Behanding in Spokane” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

“A Behanding in Spokane” is enfant terrible Martin McDonagh's first play to be set in America, and stars Christopher Walken, the one celebrity who would seem the perfect fit for the Tarantino-of-the-stage's mix of startling menace and hilarious absurdity. But the multiple Tony-nominated and Academy Award-winning Irishman's latest project—despite the presence of always finely tuned Walken and a nothing less than revelatory Sam Rockwell—is minor McDonagh. And that's being generous. Without those two tent-pole presences holding it up, “Behanding” would fold like a cheap house of cards.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Conor McPherson & Ciarán Hinds discuss “The Eclipse”

Writer/director Conor McPherson’s “The Eclipse,” based on a short story by Billy Roche, is a bittersweet romance with a gothic horror twist set in a sleepy Irish seaside town. The film follows single parent Michael Farr (a revelatory Ciarán Hinds) as he struggles to come to terms with both the death of his wife and the impending demise of her father – not to mention terrifying ghosts that appear at random. His only hope comes in the form of Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle, in a seemingly effortless performance), a supernatural fiction writer being stalked by a best-selling author played by a scarily unpredictable Aidan Quinn. Magnolia Pictures will release the film here in New York and in Los Angeles on Friday, March 26th with a national U.S. rollout to follow.

I spoke with both the Tony Award-nominated playwright McPherson (“Shining City,” “The Seafarer”) and his leading man Hinds (“Munich,” “There Will Be Blood”) – who took home the Best Actor award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival for his performance as the haunted widower – at the chic Ace Hotel as a raging snowstorm stirred the spirits of midtown Manhattan outside.

To read the interview visit Global Comment.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

5 Questions for “Contact” director Jeremiah Kipp

Two young lovers. One mysterious drug. A close encounter of the “Twilight Zone” kind. Jeremiah Kipp’s “Contact” premiered here in NYC at last year’s final incarnation of annual Halloween horror film fest Sinister Six. Luckily for those who missed that screening the short film can be viewed online here. And luckily for me Jeremiah was gracious enough to discuss Lars von Trier, the horror genre, collaborating with actors, lessons learned and short-form filmmaking.

Lauren Wissot: I know you look up to envelope-pushers like Lars von Trier. I’m a big fan of his films – especially “Antichrist” – as well. What do you admire about the director? You said you wished you’d taken “Contact” even further in transgression. How so?

Jeremiah Kipp: Seeing a film like “Antichrist” reminds me of the possibilities of what movies can do. It shakes us somehow, breaks through barriers, and gets to the heart of the matter. A so-called provocateur like von Trier is, actually, being incredibly naked, honest, sincere and direct in his confrontation of primal fears and needs. The fact that a film like this exists makes me feel less alone. The movie might be his most personal; I wonder how close he is to the Charlotte Gainsbourg character. It’s funny, because the lead actress in “Contact” absolutely loathes von Trier, particularly “Breaking the Waves”, which I consider one of the most important films of the 1990s.

I love filmmakers who go for that kind of extreme cinema: Harmony Korine, Bruno Dumont, Andrzej Zulawski, Abel Ferrara. Their best movies go beyond what is polite, into a raw nerve. In comparison, “Contact” is more of a romantic film; like a Joy Division song about love that aches. But a part of me would rather have gone for the guts and innards of the human condition like von Trier does rather than into matters of the heart. Cinema can push further in terms of sexuality, horror, pain; I wonder if “Contact” could be remade as 60 seconds of pure uncensored physicality, like an emotional hand grenade.

LW: What attracts you to the horror genre? I remember asking the same thing of Larry Fessenden – who you’ve worked with – when I interviewed him for Filmmaker, and he responded that for him the genre itself is really secondary. For whatever reasons the stories he wants to tell end up taking that particular form.

JK: Larry Fessenden is one of the most important New York filmmakers working today, beyond even the scope of the horror genre. But what attracts him to this place, I think, is the way horror movies take something we are afraid of in real life and pushes it towards the metaphorical. Hansel and Gretel would be a tale of social realism documenting starvation, poverty and child abuse were it not for the imaginative leap it takes into the magical: a gingerbread house, a witch who cooks and eats little kids, and so on. Naturalism only gets us so far; horror delves further, and creates images for feelings we have a difficult time expressing literally. In “Contact”, two lovers kiss, their faces melt together, and suddenly we have an image fraught with possible meaning. Horror movies are like poetry in this way. If Larry were to remake his vampire film “Habit” now as a mid-life crisis movie, it might be incredibly powerful, since I think he is fed on by parasites, including myself, who pull his time away from what he should be doing, which is what he was born to do, which is to direct films.

LW: What I found particularly fascinating about Sheila’s interview with your lead actress Zoë Daelman Chlanda at The House Next Door was the window it opened onto your method of working with actors. What Zoë seemed to appreciate most was that for you it’s a collaborative effort that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. You build the characters together. How did you come to take this approach?

JK: I get excited about working with actors and crew who have a tenacious quality, or a charisma. There has to be something alive about them, something to respond to. And I believe in the rehearsal process with actors. You want to explore all the possibilities. It makes the picture feel more alive, and by going through this process the audience feels some kind of depth, something under the surface, because we’ve done the work. It can be as simple as that an actor and actress are playing characters in a relationship, and the time spent working in rehearsal affords them the opportunity to get to know one another, to get a frame of reference for how they relate to one another. And when you work with good actors like Zoë, they’re able to build from that direct experience. You push them, or stimulate their ideas somehow, and you love them, and they respond and push and inspire you right back. In fact, (DP and editor) Dominick Sivilli doesn’t even like to call it acting; he calls them filmmakers because their presence contribute so much to the movie, which ultimately is the vision we are all trying to serve.

LW: What did you learn from creating “Contact”? What was the best lesson and what would you have done differently?

JK: So many movies are filled with wall-to-wall dialogue; they might as well be filmed plays. We wanted to dare ourselves to strip away all the constitutive elements, to reduce the plot, the characters and dialogue, to pare down to the very essential until all that was left was pure cinema. It pleased me to see that the more we reduced the film, the more it heightened a sense of anticipation in the audience. There’s a great tension to be found in silence; it is like an ambush. That was a wonderful lesson. As for what might have been done differently, perhaps we could have gone even further with the graphic elements -- by that I don’t necessarily mean the nudity and gore, but the visual technique as an expression of feeling. I recently saw the films of Philippe Grandrieux and how daring he was with shots willfully out of focus, or stretched, or plunged into shadow, or relentlessly pursuing the actors to the point where they were rendered abstract; and his unnerving use of sound as a way for the viewer to comprehend these pulsating, amorphous images. If we aggressively chase our impulses this way, the possibilities of cinema expand, and new forms emerge, which is exciting.

LW: You’ve been directing critically acclaimed shorts for quite some time now (as well as producing features). Do you find there’s more freedom in the short form, more of an opportunity to take risks without that bigger budget hanging over your head?

JK: I wish there were more of an outlet with the short form. Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Carver could build entire careers based on their short stories (well, maybe not Poe, who is a starving artist like myself). Robert Frost and Ezra Pound were short form poets. But sadly, one cannot make a true living on short form filmmaking. However, the short film is financially less strenuous than a feature if you make films like “Contact”, which cost almost nothing and turned out far better than other movies I made that cost twenty times as much. I wonder if sometimes music videos and commercials can be more expressionistic than features -- if they’re made as true artistic offerings. Mark Romanek’s music video for Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” is more resonant than almost all of the films I saw last year. Again, think of the haiku, which is pure imagery. Short form cinema can operate very powerfully on the same level. Larry Fessenden made an animated Christmas short last year that tapped into magical feelings of childhood wonder and horror. But I do feel ready to move on to feature filmmaking, as long as it retains the qualities of being well crafted, honest and daring.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Art of Stealing from Errol Morris: The Art of the Steal

Don Argott's suspenseful “The Art of The Steal”—which delves deeply into the government and corporate takeover of a beloved private institution, the Barnes Foundation, by the city of Philadelphia and the Pew Charitable Trusts among other "charitable" organizations—is propaganda at its finest. The film follows the gripping saga of the art collection of the visionary Albert C. Barnes, who had the foresight to buy up the best of the best by iconoclasts Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse among other masters while the rest of the stuffy art world turned up its collective nose. In turn, Barnes gave the finger to the rarefied museum establishment by founding a school in Merion, Pennsylvania where the artworks—now estimated to be worth $25 billion—would hang above the faculty and students with limited hours open to the public. This didn't sit too well with Barnes's arch-nemeses, the Annenberg family, and the rest of Philly's notoriously corrupt power brokers.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"North Atlantic" at REDCAT

“North Atlantic,” the latest production from stalwart avant-garde troupe the Wooster Group, is a sexed up “Catch-22” that follows the travails of an international, Cold War-era peacekeeping force confined to an aircraft carrier while on a classified mission in the North Atlantic. James Strahs wrote the piece for the company way back in 1982 and it's now being revived not to draw any modern political parallels, but because, well, according to highly practical director Elizabeth LeCompte during a Q&A after the show I attended at the REDCAT theater in L.A., the play fits the space that's available for the NYC run. And Frances McDormand wanted to work with the group. While it's refreshing to hear a director candidly embrace limitations and ignore politics, it requires more than that to create great art.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?

As a freelance critic who is one of the few female voices at many of the sites I write for I found “NY Times” bigwig film critic Manohla Dargis’s run-up to the Oscars rant at Jezebel (see "Fuck Them": Times Critic On Hollywood, Women, & Why Romantic Comedies Suck, a follow up to her more staid “Times” lament Women in the Seats but Not Behind the Camera on the dearth of female directors in Hollywood) delightfully ballsy. For how often do you hear Grey Lady journalists explain why romantic comedies are so cringe worthy in the following terms?

“One, the people making them have no fucking taste, two, they're morons, three they're insulting panderers who think they're making movies for the great unwashed and that's what they want. I love romantic movies. I absolutely do. But I literally don't know what's happening. I think it's depressing that Judd Apatow makes the best romantic comedies and they're about men.”

But Dargis’s swinging cojones are also the problem with the piece. As a longtime fan of both Dargis and her own object of fandom, action director Kathryn Bigelow, I wholeheartedly agree with Dargis’ assessment of the shameful state of Hollywood with regards to female filmmakers. What’s more interesting, however, is why I’m a fan of both these talented women – and not, say, Nancy Meyers, a Hollywood player in the rom-com genre who I like even less than Dargis does. The simple truth is both Dargis and Bigelow (as opposed to Nancy Meyers) create their art from that very same male POV that Dargis herself seems to blame.

For let’s face it. This isn’t a matter of Hollywood not trusting women – it’s a matter of Hollywood, like society, placing a higher value on the white, hetero masculine gaze. It’s the same reason a filmmaker like Douglas Sirk would never direct a western like John Ford. Sirk just didn’t direct from a typically straight male point of view. Both Dargis and Bigelow, not to mention the many women execs in charge of those big bad studios, have been let into the good old boys club simply because the male honchos recognize them as one of their own. (That Bigelow eventually got kicked to the curb for low box office receipts unlike some of her under-performing male colleagues could be attributed to a million other factors besides gender, as Dargis dubiously hypothesizes.) Dargis and Bigelow write and direct, respectively, like their male counterparts, from a very comforting and familiar, masculine point of view.

As opposed to Nancy Meyers who, in Daphne Merkin’s profile of her in the “Times” magazine, is constantly reminding her crew that she wants things “soft” – right down to digitally eliminating spiky plants. Meyers isn’t just a female filmmaker, but a very feminine filmmaker, and one whose viewpoint greatly appeals to a lot of other female-gaze oriented folks. (This is also why she doesn’t direct like Dargis fave Judd Apatow – and Hollywood’s hiring a talented rom-com director who happens to be female with the same masculine gaze as Mr. Apatow would merely be an exercise in redundancy, not equal rights.) Personally I find Meyers as boring and predictable a director as Guy Ritchie, yet I’m also willing to admit that for all I know Meyers could be the next Douglas Sirk, lambasted in his own day for being soft. Perhaps her reputation will be rescued a few decades from now by a female-gaze oriented critic more insightful than I who recognizes the filmmaker’s petal pushing in a Hollywood world of bomb throwers as a radically subversive act of art.

And like the art establishment, where women’s work often makes up less than five percent of a museum’s collection, the business of Hollywood reflects America’s binary patriarchal society – it doesn’t determine it. In another century Georgia O’Keefe “suffered” from her affiliation with Alfred Stieglitz in the sense that his male gaze was forever being placed on top of her paintings. Once Stieglitz had eroticized the artist herself via his photographs her pictures were seen only through a sexual lens in the public imagination. O’Keefe’s artwork could no longer be expressions of a female sensibility. They had to undergo a masculine eroticization to be valued. Yet altering (mis)perception isn’t up to MOMA or Warner Brothers, but to the grassroots artists on the ground, including the gender-neutral gaze, indie filmmakers who elicit change. Only then will a studio call on Kelly Reichardt, or Ramin Bahrani for that matter, to direct the next superhero flick.

My Favorite Performances of The Past Decade

Film reviewing like life itself is a subjective experience. So when I started thinking about which actors stood out as the “best” of the decade I inevitably thought of which performances became seared into my own mind with the visceral force of a hot iron. And that in turn has led me to these five thespians that with the slightest gesture, with a single syllable raised the powerful films they were in to a shamanistic level.

Daniel Day Lewis – There Will Be Blood

Daniel Plainview is no Bill The Butcher. The always-mesmerizing Day Lewis plays obsessed oilman Plainview equal parts camp and pathos in a performance to rival that of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” Day Lewis is ready for his close up and his milkshake – forcing us to swallow it whole.

Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men

Rather than downplay his steamy looks Bardem taps into the darkness of his innate sensuality to turn in an edge-of-your seat performance as the assassin Anton Chigurh. In spite of the Coen brothers’ crazy hairdo idea he keeps us watching with an attraction-repulsion effect, forever wondering if a hint of warm-blooded impulse will break through that stone cold exterior. Without any help from theatrical makeup or prosthetics Bardem transforms that leading man face into a chilling inhuman mask.

Michael Fassbender – Hunger

As the real life (IRA) prisoners’ rights activist and hunger striker Bobby Sands Michael Fassbender announces himself as the next Daniel Day Lewis. Fassbender’s dignified and nuanced portrayal of a man whose body physically deteriorates while his mind and soul spiritually grow is nothing short of astounding. Christian Bale should take note.

Isabelle Huppert - The Piano Teacher

Gainsbourg at the beck and call of Von Trier is no match for Huppert under Haneke’s strict hand. As the piano professor Erika whose sexual repression leads to a sadomasochistic spiraling downwards Huppert doesn’t create a character so much as stage a slow-motion, human car wreck. By the film’s shocking end we view the heroine’s suicide as a mercy killing.

Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight

Even if it weren’t Ledger’s last completed film watching the dark blockbuster you fear for his life the whole way through. The Joker takes over the actor like something out of “The Exorcist.” This is less a performance than a channeling of a sociopath, as if Ledger instead of embodying a role emptied his body of his own soul. Whereas an actor like Sean Penn might disappear into the character Harvey Milk, Ledger just disappears. Wipe away all the clown makeup and, even more terrifying, still not one trace of the actor will be glimpsed.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Suspended Cirque’s “Speak Easy”


True artistic discoveries—relatively secret revelations that unfold before one's eyes—are few and far between, even for those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time watching and thinking about theater and film. But every once in a while a group like Suspended Cirque, an under-the-radar band of aerial performers, all heart but no budget, comes along to remind us of art's very purpose. The young company's latest show, “Speak Easy,” like their first three, had a blink-or-you'll-miss-it run over at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO. Some high-flying patron needs to give this troupe a permanent home or artistic residency before the bloated Cirque du Soleil scoops them up.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

“Filmmaker” magazine’s winter issue now playing at a newsstand near you!

Oscar-winning director James Marsh (“Man On Wire”) tells me about his latest “Red Riding: 1980,” the second film in a three-part neo-noir based on David Peace’s novels that revolve around the infamous “Yorkshire Ripper” of the 70s and 80s. A must-see series – and a must-read interview!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Critic Squirms on Broadway

“NY Times” theater critic Ben Brantley’s reviews are a must-read for me. Like the best of the best whether I agree or disagree with his takes is irrelevant. I always come away feeling that I’ve learned something new – because even after all these years Brantley himself seems to be discovering something fresh from each and every show he analyzes.

And then at the other end of the “Times” spectrum is critic Charles Isherwood, whose byline shouldn’t even be gracing the same page as Brantley’s. Normally I avoid Isherwood’s predictable, clichéd non-think pieces but the title Feeling Unsettled At a Feel-Good Show in this past Sunday’s “Times” (1/31/10) caught my eye. The essay is the result of Isherwood’s conflicted response to the Broadway hit “Fela!” about Nigeria’s iconic Afrobeat creator and political activist, directed and choreographed by the legendary Bill T. Jones. Four paragraphs into the piece Isherwood explains, “As much as I enjoyed the show…it left me with lingering questions about the depiction of the African milieu it evoked. In short, the emphasis in ‘Fela!’ on the spectacle of African culture tilted the show a little too closely toward minstrelsy.”

In short, Isherwood is upset that he was forced to think, to confront a reaction he didn’t expect, instead of being merely entertained. (Which led me to wonder, did he not get the memo that thinking is part of his job requirement?) But instead of looking in the mirror and asking himself why he’s disturbed that “the way the dancers weave in and out of the audience repeatedly seems ingratiating, a sort of seduction that almost sexualizes the performers,” as Isherwood puts it (and what is wrong with this sexualizing other than the fact that it makes a particular theater critic uncomfortable?) he does something even more outrageous than any touchy-feely performer would dare. He blames the show!

After expounding upon the production’s women in their “flesh-baring ensembles” who “strut around the stage and the theater looking exotic, imperious and sexy” Isherwood adds that, “So too do the male members of the ensemble, who also bare a lot of flesh but have little to do other than sing and dance. Hence my discomfort.” Considering “Fela!” is a show directed and choreographed by a gifted and unapologetic dance man Isherwood’s attitude is damn condescending. “Little to do other than sing and dance” implies that singing and dancing are a step below the speaking of dialogue. Isherwood complains that only the title character gets to have his say, while ignoring the fact that all those hardworking performers rendered mute are actually emoting through their bodies. Which he’d realize if he’d chosen to set aside his preconceived notions of what a musical should be and simply watch this form of theater through its choreographer’s lens. Isherwood is only freaked out because “Fela!” doesn’t adhere to what he believes a Broadway show to be – with spoken words privileged above body language. (He later adds, “Although some of the dancers have individual moments, none are given individual voices.” Only if by “voices” Isherwood means actual words. My guess is that Isherwood is not listening to distinct voices emerging through a physical form because he can’t transcend his own limited way of seeing.)

Indeed, Isherwood admits as much when he writes, “Would I feel any discomfort if I were attending an African dance recital at Dance Theater Workshop? Probably not.” But for Isherwood the Broadway setting is “a little like being in a Disneyland version of Africa.” Since Disney seems to own most of Broadway these days (has he not heard of the Disneyland version of Africa called “The Lion King”?) one wonders why Isherwood is overly sensitive only to “Fela!” being Disney-fied – so much so that he faults the production for the context he’s seeing it in. “’Fela!’ sometimes seems to turn its ostensible characters into flashy sideshow entertainments, to elevate sensation over substance,” he even laments. But isn’t this what Fela Kuti himself did? First came the sensation (his music) followed by his substance (his politics). Isherwood couldn’t even get past his own unnerving sensations – so how could he ever hope to experience the substance within “Fela!”? Now that I think of it, perhaps I did learn something from Isherwood after all. When it comes to a critic like this it’s best to blame the messenger.

Friday, January 29, 2010

“A View from the Bridge” at the Cort Theater

In a time when Broadway, like Hollywood, is all about bigger and flashier, spectacle over substance, avatars over actors, it’s a minor miracle that a throwback drama centered around a family of Italian immigrants in 1950s Red Hook, Brooklyn can even get staged. Sure, star power is essential, and it’s hard to imagine director Gregory Mosher’s riveting production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” landing at the Cort Theatre without names like Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson attached. Yet it might just be the perfect show for these recessionary times: Mosher and his flawless crew seem to be doing twice the work with half the effort, and like the striving blue-collar characters they play, his hardworking cast takes nothing for granted, busting their collective ass to bring Miller’s work to life.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door (now at Slant Magazine!)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Screw Clooney! (Actors Whose Sex Appeal Transcends Their Non-Leading Man Looks)

Hollywood history doesn’t include many stars like Sal Mineo, a character actor whose feral cat charisma enabled him to hold his own onscreen against no lesser an icon of otherworldly beauty than the equally tragic James Dean. In “Who Killed Teddy Bear?,” Joseph Cates’s riveting sexploitation film noir – which recently screened in a rare 35mm print at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives – about a Times Square disco hostess (the always stunning Juliet Prowse) being stalked by an obscene caller Mineo plays Lawrence, a quiet busboy caring for his mentally retarded younger sister. Quite early on we learn he’s also deeply disturbed. Yet when Prowse’s character Norah unaware of Lawrence’s distasteful predilections compliments him on his toned body after a swim in the local gym’s pool we buy that she might be attracted to this creep. The average looking Mineo could make even a perverted weirdo sexy.

Which brings us to the myth of modern Hollywood – reflected in 21st century life – that beauty and sexiness always go hand in hand. I find this utterly ridiculous. Though I wouldn’t necessarily kick Brad Pitt out of bed, I certainly would grab a one-night-stand with Willem Dafoe over sex with Angelina’s leading man hubby anytime anyplace (of course, the seedier the better). In the good old movie days nondescript manly men like Humphrey Bogart could land vixens like Lauren Bacall without having to resemble Clark Gable; and while the women didn’t do quite so well in Tinseltown an Italian siren such as Anna Magnani looked to be every bit as good a lay as knockout Sophia Loren.

So, with all due respect, to George Clooney, Matt Damon, Will Smith and all those other A-list handsome nice guys, here are five lesser mortals who I’d green light over you in the sack. Beauty is only skin deep, after all, while sexiness comes from the mind and soul.

Willem Dafoe

Bobby Peru. The two words that sealed the Dafoe deal for me. Watching Dafoe as Bobby meticulously mentally disassemble then mind-fuck Laura Dern’s Lula in David Lynch’s warped “Wild At Heart” changed my life. Dafoe tapped into the dirty little secret that you don’t have to look like Nic Cage if you’ve got the X-ray vision to discern another’s most secret desires, and the balls to coax that taboo out into the light of day. Bobby tells Lula he likes a woman with nice tits who talks tough “and looks like she can fuck like a bunny.” “Do you fuck like that, huh?" he teasingly whispers from across the room. Even when Dafoe is playing the good guy (like in “Mississippi Burning” two decades ago) his fiery sinister sexuality can’t be extinguished. Bunny jump fast!

Peter Mullan

I last saw Peter Mullan playing a less than chaste priest at a press screening of the “Red Riding Trilogy” (due out in February) and it was like running into an old lover you hadn’t thought about in years. The Scottish actor first came to my attention for his riveting performance as a struggling alcoholic in “My Name Is Joe,” and though he may not have the classic studio looks of fellow countryman Sean Connery, he’s got the same aggressive and magnetic masculinity. Mullan doesn’t light up the screen so much as render it null and void, with those lascivious voyeuristic eyes that are forever roving and calculating. Indeed, it’s possible to leave the theater wondering who was watching whom.

Tim Roth

Whether it’s “Made in Britain,” “Little Odessa” or “Reservoir Dogs” Roth has a bad boy habit of seducing us with his primal intensity. He commands attention even when in a terrible made-for-TV movie like “Tsunami: The Aftermath,” in which he played a tousled roguish journalist. There’s a striking scene in that otherwise forgettable flick where Roth’s character, fed up with an incompetent bureaucracy, orders a drink at a bar. The camera lingers a tad too long in the uncomfortable tension emanating from Roth’s journo as he doesn’t ask but absolutely demands. Roth knows the line between need and desire is fluid, and he walks it with the sultry skill of a tight-wire artist.

John Malkovich

What Spike Jonze captured in “Being John Malkovich” was the same sexy quality apparent in “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Ripley’s Game” and even “Shadow of the Vampire” (opposite fellow sinister hottie Willem Dafoe) – the aspect of being an enigma. The elusive Malkovich compels us with his unreadable, hence unattainable, demeanor, forever creating secretive characters to toy with us. Unlike hot-blooded Roth Malkovich is an ice prince, a cool tease. Rather than give us what we want he’ll always leave us begging for more.

Christopher Walken

From the start of his career the gangly song and dance man was just too weird to be a lead. As good as he was in “The Deer Hunter” Walken’s striking physicality and creepy charisma often overtake the character of Nick, and it wouldn’t be until madman Abel Ferrara came along to cast him in “King of New York” that his offbeat air of sexual menace was allowed to fully shine through. Even weirder Ferrara did the same for unconventional Harvey Keitel in “Bad Lieutenant.” Walken like Keitel makes you feel dirty just by watching him, as if there’s a pornographic subtext hidden inside his every line.