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  • alex sichel

    There are many different ways that people diagnosed with a terminal illness cope with the devastating situation. For filmmaker Alex Sichel, best known for 1997’s All Over Me, the obvious response was to create a film about it. A Woman Like Me, directed by Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti, is a hybrid documentary that includes scenes of Alex’s illness and exploration of various treatments, along with a fictional narrative that parallels her own story. This latter film-within-a-film stars a luminous Lili Taylor as a New York-based filmmaker named Anna who is also dealing with breast cancer, but whose upbeat attitude and positive outcome contrasts with Alex’s experience. A compelling composite,  A Woman Like Me is an honest, moving portrayal of a vibrant personality managing a terrible health crisis with creativity, humor and grit.

    Early in the film Alex tells us that making a movie “is my way of understanding what’s going on.” While she sometimes wonders if the stress of filmmaking is the best way to use her time (her mother is strongly against it), it’s clear that she has to do this. The goal for Alex, who identifies as Buddhist, is to face death without fear; making A Woman Like Me is part of her process to achieve that, while also holding on to some hope.

    A Woman Like Me, unlike other “meta” films with complicated storylines, is fairly simple and chronological: We see Alex working on character development with the cast of her fictional movie in between visits to traditional doctors at Sloan Kettering and the alternative healers she favors. She includes several family members in the documentary, including her seven-year-old daughter Anastasia. While supportive, her parents and husband Erich have issues with her treatment choices. (Her mother especially is dismayed by Alex’s “magical” thinking.) Alex winds up trying various approaches to save herself: chemo and other drugs, plus non-Western healing such as light harmonics. Onscreen she is a likeably sardonic character, often making wisecracks about her situation, though she also lets us see the strain of the illness’s physical and emotional toll.


    Gritty scenes of chemo injections, PET scans, and unflinching conversations with Alex’s various physicians are interspersed with dreamy passages of the fictional Anna interacting with her own husband and daughter, talking serenely with her doctor, and generally taking it all with graceful acceptance. This enlightened character and her beautifully lit scenes seem to represent an idealized version of Alex, someone in whom she finds inspiration.

    As the film progresses and Alex’s condition worsens, she becomes increasingly preoccupied with how to involve Anastasia in her situation (as does the fictional Anna with her daughter). There’s a tough scene in which Alex and Erich bicker about seemingly trivial film details at the dinner table, while Anastasia – a cheerful, inventive girl – tries to keep the darkness at bay. Alex visits an idyllic Buddhist temple and meditation center, and talks about using her illness as an opportunity to truly explore the practice’s tenets. At one point, she and her entire family visit the small Greek village from which her mother’s family originally emigrated. The movie ends with Alex back at the Buddhist temple, talking about letting go and facing death without fear. She died shortly after filming A Woman Like Me (Giamatti finished the movie alone). It’s a lovely testament to her life and spirit.

    A Woman Like Me opens tomorrow at Village East Cinema in Manhattan.


    Jose Nestor Marquez’s new film Reversion is a stark, no-frills thriller about a young woman named Sophie (Aja Naomi King), the marketing director for a controversial new tech product as well as the daughter of its inventor, Jack Clé (Colm Feore). Called oubli (nice French references), the ear-mounted metal clip enables users to relive their fondest memories via a device that resembles an iPhone. Days before its launch, Sophie – who repeatedly uses the device to relive moments with her deceased mother — is kidnapped by another young woman (Jeanette Samano) in desperate need of the device’s code.

    Thus Sophie learns that there is much more to oubli than she knew, and that her overly protective neuroscientist father has been hiding major secrets about its development. The film has stark, appealingly sleek visuals, but Marquez’s low-key direction may be a little too antiseptic for its own good, as we struggle to relate to his underdeveloped characters. Though clunky at times, Reversion does have an intriguing concept and just enough momentum to maintain one’s interest in its outcome (as well as a fascinating turn from the always game Amanda Plummer as Jack’s somewhat unhinged former associate). It’s yet another reminder that cool new technology invariably has a downside, if not quite as dark as this one.

    Reversion opens tomorrow at AMC Empire 25 in Manhattan.

    Marina Zogbi

  • On October 1, Olivier Rousteing’s exotically ritzy looks for Balmain were on full display as the fashion house presented clothes for Spring 2016 Paris Fashion Week.

    Set at Paris’s Hotel Intercontinental, the star-studded event drew notables like Diplo, Jada Pinkett Smith, and of course members of the Kardashian clan.

    And while we shouldn’t care about whether or not Kris Jenner and her brood were in attendance, it’s important to pay attention to the 29-year-old designer.

    Since taking over Christophe Decarnin’s creative director position at Balmain in 2011, Rousteing has been killing it in the fashion world.

    Let’s look at three reasons why Balmain is a huge force that is changing fashion history forever.

    Read More

  • Brian Sella

    Brian Sella

    To celebrate the release of their first release on Fueled by Ramen Records, The Front Bottoms played Brooklyn’s Rough Trade. Entry to the show was granted with purchase of the album, Back On Top, and came with a signing after the show. The formula is one Rough Trade is a) known for and b) built for. The combined record store/concert space has the stage in the back and the floor space within the shop itself to accommodate both events.

    Before the show fans, most of whom were hugging a recently purchased vinyl of Back On Top, lined up along the wall of the store, chattering excitedly about the record. It was a fairly young crowd, some members bragging about how they had cut class to line up early. The guy handing out 21+ wristbands didn’t have much to do. Despite the age difference, one thing was clear. Everyone was there for the band.

    Not that only die hards are capable of showing up to an early show on a weekday evening. Everyone is and was welcome. It wasn’t the show that collected passersby or casual listeners. Partially because Rough Trade is tucked somewhat away from the rest of Williamsburg and partially because the nature of the show attracted the more “serious” fans. The majority of the crowd accumulating in Rough Trade really, really liked the band. That’s why they showed to the concert/signing, not just the band’s gig later in the month at Irving Plaza. In fact, many talked about going to both shows. Some even buzzed about seeing the band earlier in the summer at Skate & Surf. It was clear by the chatter that everyone loved TFB and was thrilled by the prospect of meeting the band after the show. The line quieted only when the muffled thumps of the sound check drifted through the walls.

    Eventually, the stage was set and the torrent of people was funneled into the venue space. The group quickly crowded the stage, which was relatively bare. The band’s usual backdrop was missing as were the inflatable “F” and “B” that usually floated above the drum set. The audience seemed unfazed by the stripped back appearance. They were still just as fired up for the show as they had been in line. One girl half clamored onto the stage just to snapchat Tom Warren’s trumpet, which sat unattended by a mic stand.

    When the band took the stage the crowd exploded in cheers. Brian Sella, the group’s lead singer, dressed simply in a white undershirt smiled wide and picked up his guitar. A large purple bumper sticker read “Look Twice. Save a Life. Motorcyclists Are Everywhere.” Several of the band’s songs, including some off of Back on Top, as well as their videos feature the boys on their bikes, so it was a fitting statement. Mathew Uychich, the band’s drummer and other founding member, sat down at his kit, which looked as if it had been frankenstein-ed together for the purposes of the somewhat acoustic show. Sella greeted the audience and explained Uychich’s demeanor as being the result of too much strong coffee. The other two members, Warren and keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Ciaran O’Donnell, settled at their instruments and the band launched into “HELP”, their lead single off of the new record.

    Next the band played another song from the new album “Laugh Till I Cry”, which they premier on NPR prior to the release of Back On Top. The song contains an odd verse that Sella explained after the tune ended. The lyrics “Ladies and gentlemen! / The DJ / Just threw up / On the dance floor / The party is over! / It’s time to go!” were actually inspired by real events. According to Sella, a friend of the band who works as a DJ was booked for a sweet sixteen party. Their friend prepared for the gig by getting absolutely hammered. Then during the course of the party, their friend tried to get the teens into the music and dancing. All that movement resulted in his vomiting on the dance floor, hence the bit in the song. Sella laughed telling the story, saying that his friend’s attempt to get everyone dancing was rather a moot point because the partygoers were merely sixteen or as he put it “just kids.”

    Unbeknownst to him a sizable portion of the audience at Rough Trade was probably right around that age. The Front Bottoms lyrics deal a lot with the standard topics of growing-up, drinking, smoking and panicking about the future. In another one of their songs, “Twelve Feet” off of I Hate My Friends, Sella sings, “Maybe college won’t work out, / I can come live at your house / I’m supposed to be at class now / but my roommate just passed out / And I cannot get in my room, / get all my books and what I need.” Most people have felt something akin to the anxiety Sella alludes to in the song. His ability to write lyrics that are simultaneously relatable and yet refreshingly new is one of the band’s greatest strengths.

    The band’s song “Cough It Out”, which they also played at Rough Trade, is one of their softer, sappier songs that despite its lyrical focus on carving initials into trees and being delusional with love is one of their more original tracks. It’s a quiet, layered single that showcases all the musicianship that the band has built up since their early demos in 2008. It’s also proof that signing to a major label has yet to ruin the band’s sound. Another promising song off the record is “Historic Cemetery”, which translated somewhat haphazardly into its live version. The track, which usually ends with a rap by GDP, ended instead in a sort of solo by O’Donnell on a tiny keyboard that barely stretched over his knees. Sella admitted that they hadn’t figured out how to end the song yet, but the audience seemed more than pleased to cheer O’Donnell on as he looped through the main hook. The crowd shouted “do it!” and “tickle those keys!” as the tune petered out.

    The stripped back, somewhat intimate setting lent to much chatter from the crowd. When Sella sang “I’m just talking shit on you. / Sorry” during the opening of “The Plan (Fuck Jobs)” one concert goer yelled back, “You’re not sorry.” Everyone laughed along and luckily the commentary always died down once the song started up. The song also featured Warren on the trumpet. His part was short and intermittent, but was greeted with a riotous cheer every time it came up. Sella later noted how O’Donnell was originally the band’s trumpet player, but switched to the keyboard and such as TFB expanded instrumentally. O’Donnell, he said, also never received that enthusiastic of a response to this trumpeting. The band chatted openly with the crowd during the set. It’s typically for the band to talk, but usually just to kill time while someone tunes or changes instruments. The Front Bottoms just seemed to talk. It felt less like banter and more like a conversation being had between friends. The band members seemed grateful for their success of the show and the chance to play Rough Trade, but the didn’t blubber on about it on stage. They thanked the audience, but also stayed on their level. Despite the release show, they were still same guys from New Jersey who like motorcycles and indie music. There was something just very real about them. The hope is that when they do get “famous” they’ll stay that way.

    To end the set, Mat and Brian chatted briefly about what to play, toying with the idea of ending on “The Beers” off of The Front Bottoms. They launched into the song, another sort of lovesick tune about taking steroids because “you like a man with muscles / And I like you.” When the song ended there was time for one more, so Sella started strumming. Before he could sing the opening lines to “Au Revoir (Adios)” the audience eagerly jumped in and sang them for him. Brian chuckled as the crowd continued to sing into the second verse, before finally uttering a sort of defeated “Oh come on…” and restarting the song. The moment characterized the entire evening. It was a small, almost personal show attended by people that really love the band.

    The set ended with a crescendoing chant for “Twin Sized Mattress”, the band’s best known song, but Brian waved and continued packing up. There wasn’t time for an encore. There was another band playing right afterwards; their instruments and amps draped in dust cloths just behind where the Front Bottoms had been standing. Disappointed, but eager to get on to the signing portion of the evening the room emptied as quickly as it had filled.

  • Magnolia Pictures

    It’s fair to say that most people – even those who came of age during the late 1960s and 1970s — probably have no idea how influential National Lampoon magazine was (and still is) to American comedy. Douglas Tirola’s entertaining new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a sort of primer for anyone who equates the Lampoon name mainly with a disparate assortment of increasingly juvenile movies.

    The fast-paced film uses lively animation and tons of vintage graphics, including iconic magazine covers, to illustrate the publication’s history, told via snippets of interviews with those who were involved with the magazine firsthand (Anne Beatts, P.J. O’Rourke) or consider it crucial to their development, comedic and otherwise (Judd Apatow, John Goodman, Billy Bob Thornton). The main focus is (understandably) National Lampoon’s heyday, from birth in the late 1960s through decline in the 1980s, with emphasis on the various characters who shaped it, especially founding editors Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, and chairman/CEO Matty Simmons.

    In the mid-1960s, the satirical student-run Harvard Lampoon (first published in 1876) fell under the stewardship of charismatic, unstable Kenney and serious, organized Beard, the dynamic duo who would go on to co-found National Lampoon in 1970. Among the film’s many enlightening bits of information is the fact that a popular parody of Mademoiselle magazine was responsible for broadening the college Lampoon’s subscription base, enabling its expansion well beyond Cambridge. The national magazine’s first official hire was the legendarily volatile Michael O’Donoghue, who brought a dark, angry tone to the publication and would later become an integral part of early Saturday Night Live.

    Magnolia Pictures

    Magnolia Pictures

    The film follows the magazine’s growing popularity, fueled by Kenney and Beard’s refusal to bow to criticism or squeamish advertisers. National Lampoon’s content was often crass, shocking, raunchy and incredibly sexist (though the latter was par for the course in those days), the result of a largely drug- and alcohol-fueled staff who were encouraged to push any and all boundaries.  “It’s the job of a satirist to make people in power really uncomfortable,” explains key contributor Tony Hendra of the publication’s tendency to outrage. Beatts was one of the few women allowed into this bad boys club, mainly because she was dating one of the writers. (She’d go on to write the infamous ad parody showing a floating VW Beetle with the tagline, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” Volkswagen sued.) There were illustrations from greats including Gahan Wilson and Charles Rodrigues, plus headline-grabbing covers like the renowned “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll shoot this dog” issue from 1973. Once advertisers were persuaded to take advantage of the mag’s young, hip demographic, NL flourished economically as well as creatively, at one point becoming the second most popular magazine on newsstands.

    Soon came a hit comedy LP, O’Donoghue and Hendra’s  Radio Dinner, which grew out of O’Donoghue’s National Lampoon Radio Hour, which itself began featuring young Second City actors Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and John Belushi, among others. Then came the hit Off-Broadway comedy show National Lampoon Lemmings, starring Chevy Chase, Belushi, and Christopher Guest, which included a musical parody of Woodstock. It’s a kick seeing youthful versions of these now seasoned (or deceased) comedy pros, especially Belushi unleashing his Joe Cocker imitation for the first time. The cast’s shaggy, devil-may-care abandon is palpable, especially in these days of over-curated, well-groomed entertainment. Lemmings would be the forerunner of Saturday Night Live, which, according to one commentator, was responsible for sucking the life out of the magazine, as the NL brand of subversive humor became available to wider audiences.

    Magnolia Pictures

    Magnolia Pictures

    The film charts both the publication’s decline and that of Kenney, whose self-destruction is mourned by his friend Chase. We see the birth of National Lampoon movies, including early blockbuster Animal House, which would become the blueprint for Hollywood college-humor flicks for decades to come; and National Lampoon Vacation, based on a John Hughes short story, which would spawn many sequels. (Another interesting tidbit: Hughes wrote some of the dirtiest stuff in the mag.) But the film doesn’t really delve into the movie franchise and its many spinoffs, sticking mainly to the magazine, which officially ceased publication in 1998, long after it ceased being relevant.

    Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is an eye-opening look at what now seems a distant era in publishing and media in general. Hendra likens National Lampoon‘s heyday to Paris in the ’20s for writers. Though things were far from idyllic, given the instability and huge egos involved, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when anything seemed possible in comedy and entertainment in general.

    Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan.

    Marina Zogbi

  • I once had a friend ask me, “What exactly is graphic design?” The answer seemed pretty easy, as the name appears self-explanatory: design using graphics. But, truthfully, it was harder for me to get into the details of what exactly it is, even though it has been one of the most prolific and widely-used art forms in the modern era. And not unlike some other forms of modern art, there is the hackneyed response, “I could totally do that” while viewing graphic design that has been elevated to a higher status. In fact, I even heard it at the Cooper Hewitt’s long-running installation How Posters Work.

    poetry reading

    Amazing to hear that response, given the museum’s breadth of information presented about not only about the history of the medium but also contemporary approaches to it. Furthermore, the beginning of the exhibit, before really immersing the viewer in the posters themselves, contains a section attempting to relay just how graphic designers see, and how it subsequently affects how we decipher messages from images, be they subversive or overt. For example, how designers use black space, how they visualize colors to lay over each other and blend, and the ways in which they see text aligned on a poster to result in certain reading patterns. That was particularly interesting as areas of posters are darkened except one swirl-type shape, and it notes that eyes begin at the thicker portion of the illuminated swirl, and move down to the thinner part across the page. Images are placed alongside text  strategically to guide the viewer’s eye. If this sounds like manipulation, it’s because it is, and the exhibit doesn’t attempt to hide it.

    Most of the works are deeply rooted in the art of the advertisement, as posters were a major tool for mass information. Some of Cooper Hewitt’s posters (and all are from their permanent collection) take a step away from the traditional ad’s goal of capturing the essence of the subject in order to proliferate a message. Alexander Gelman’s Poetry Readings (1996) uses, as the wall text notes, an “off kilter” symbol of a sole lamp and minimalist text against a bright orange background to promote poetry readings at Biblio’s. Then there is the dramatic application of the mundane in Food is a Weapon (1943), published by the Office of War Information. It almost violently encourages people not to waste food, just like you wouldn’t waste a weapon. The implications are strongand the design fitting. And, both pieces highlight the firm connection graphic design has with the everyday, more so than other art forms.

    poster welformat ch

    What I found especially appealing is the connection graphic design has with collage in the relationship to the everyday and in technique. The museum dedicates a section of the exhibit to poster artists employing the practice of layering, just as collage artists do. A significant piece in the world of contemporary graphic design, René Put’s Poster No. 524: Focal Point (2012) is one of the first pieces on display, directly next to the vitrine’s glimpse into the different ways a graphic designer visualizes objects. Put, along with Rianne Petter, collected 523 posters from the street, decided what the focal point was for each, and cut it out in the shape of a circle. They then layered the circles on top of and against each other to create a new poster from the segments. It’s a testament to the creative process and allowing individual parts to speak both for themselves and for the whole – a crucial part of both collage and graphic design. Other works up also show the painterly aspect of creating digital layers, such as Weltformat (2013) for a festival.

    And finally, nearing the end of the show, there are radical political advertisements – some promoting funding for AIDS research, others denouncing the need for war – on a wall across from movie posters under the subsections of “doubling the meaning” and “telling a story” respectively. Yet both highlight the use of the uncanny to tell a story in essentially one frame. A movie poster for The Stepford Wives (1975) is one of the larger works. Though most of us are familiar with the story (and it’s pretty terrible remake) closer examination of the specific approach to this poster reveals all that is at work underneath the images we see on a daily basis and file away in long term memory. A wife’s face is central, yet the broken fragment from her head reveals the mannequin-aspect, as does the broken off hand laying at the foreground. Yet the face itself is utterly human, thereby posing the question to the viewer of what strangeness lies beneath, and where will this story take us? Again, the parts make up the whole yet their separate components are like the words making up a sentence – alone each has its own meaning.


    The point of posters is to allow for pleasurable ingestion of images with the meaning right there for the taking – therefore, they are one of the most accessible works of art. What Cooper Hewitt successfully does, however, is highlight the level of mastery of the craft by these artists. In this light, the name of the exhibit is not so much about how posters work, but how their creators do. And furthermore, the show elevates the amount of craft and drafting required to create one truly successful popular image. To bring up another hackneyed expression, “they make it look easy.”