Category archives: Visual Arts

  • Demon, Polish director Marcin Wrona’s third feature, is an unlikely but entertaining hybrid between a raucous wedding comedy and a brooding horror film. That he managed to pull it off at all is a testament to his talent and unique artistic sensibility. (Sadly, Wrona died of an apparent suicide at age 42 just before the film was set to premiere in Poland last fall.) Those who like their movie genres rigidly defined may be confused by Demon, which isn’t all that scary (or hilarious, for that matter), but the rest of us can appreciate its gorgeously morose ambience; dark, absurdist humor and strong performances. Based on Piotr Rowicki’s play Adherence, Demon concerns the laid-back Piotr (Itay Tiran), who has traveled from England to the rural Polish hometown of his fiancée Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), for their wedding. The couple have only known each other for a few weeks, so the groom is meeting her parents for the first time. Piotr already has an easy rapport with Zaneta’s bro-like brother and initially gets along well enough with her jocular father (Andrzej Grabowski). When he begins renovations on the family’s rundown country house where the couple will live, Piotr unearths a pile of human bones and is immediately spooked, especially when he later glimpses what appears to be a female spirit wandering around outside. Soon his sunny personality gives way to sudden dark moods, and his body begins to react (via nosebleeds) to something or someone who is slowly taking him[...]
  • The new documentary Lucha Mexico is an entertaining, enlightening and, ultimately, poignant look at Lucha Libre, the colorful, acrobatic form of professional wrestling that has been popular in Mexico for decades. Filmmakers Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz give us a truly inside view of the sport and its wildly popular superhero personalities, its intense physical demands and its widespread influence throughout the country. Even nonfans of spectacle wrestling can appreciate this in-depth look at the longtime phenomenon and its myriad masked players. From the get-go, the filmmakers take us right into the ring for up-close scenes of amusing and highly energetic matches featuring dramatic, larger-than-life (in some cases, literally) stars cheered on by thousands of adoring fans. We also see glimpses of life outside of the arena, as the luchadores train, meet fans, and talk about their lives. One of the film’s main spotlights follows the popular and likeable Shocker, who is used as a sort of guide through Lucha Libre, as we see him working out, posing for fan photos, touring the country to compete in matches big and small, and receiving brutal-looking medical treatments for a devastating knee injury (he opens a restaurant during his recovery). Former strength competitor Jon “Strongman” Andersen provides another veteran point of view, as he talks matter-of-factly about the realities of the profession. We also see him in various settings, including home with family and at the[...]
  • Formed in 1978, Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations devoted to defending and protecting human rights. Having long recognized the power of film to educate and bring change, the organization’s New York-based Human Rights Watch Film Festival screens approximately 500 films in 20 cities around the world each year. The 2016 edition of its New York City event is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center from June 10 through 19, featuring 18 feature films and three interactive programs. Here are some highlights: Opening Night selection is Hooligan Sparrow, which documents the efforts of  filmmaker Nanfu Wang to track Chinese activist Ye Haiyan (aka “Hooligan Sparrow”) in her mission to prosecute a school principal who arranged the rape of schoolgirls by government officials. Sparrow, a women’s rights advocate who first made headlines by speaking up for sex workers, seeks to close a loophole in China’s child prostitution laws that has enabled officials to elude rape charges by claiming that the victims were prostitutes. Hooligan Sparrow shows its protagonist and a small group of fellow protestors being harassed regularly by government-hired thugs, as Wang uses hidden cameras to record interactions with uncooperative police officials. Sparrow avoids arrest by fleeing to several cities during the course of the film, including her home village, as she awaits the verdict in the schoolgirl case. For Hooligan Sparrow, Wang [...]
  • Winner of Best Narrative Feature at the Queens World Film Festival last month, H.O.M.E. is a poignant, beautifully shot film about the importance of human connection. Its director and co-writer, Daniel Maldonado, a lifelong New Yorker, shows us aspects of the city we don’t always see via two interconnected stories: One features Jeremy Ray Valdez as Danny, a young runaway with Asperger’s Syndrome who is living in the subways. The other thread concerns a struggling Ecuadorian cab driver, Gabriel (acclaimed Mexican actor Jesús Ochoa), who helps a distraught Chinese mother (Angela Lin) get home to Chinatown. Maldonado’s first feature, H.O.M.E. has both a dreamlike, impressionistic quality and realistic characters and scenes, a testament to his unique artistic vision and desire to create something human and relatable. The New York subway system is also a major character in the film; through Danny’s eyes, it is a repository of complex beauty and sometimes overwhelming stimuli. The film will be screened at 10:45 pm on Friday, April 15, at Cinema Village, as part of the Manhattan Film Festival. Last week I spoke with Maldonado about the making and the meaning of H.O.M.E.: You studied film at the School of Visual Arts? I kind of went about it in a roundabout way; instead of trying to get into a 4-year program, I went to night school, because I was pretty much supporting myself. After two years of night classes, I completely fell in love, so I switched into the degree pro[...]
  • Just in time for election season comes Ron and Laura Take Back America, a ragged mockumentary written and directed by Janice Markham and Mel England, who star in the title roles. A few years ago when the duo conceived of a satire about a conservative couple who become anti-healthcare reform activists, the country was already polarized, with many on the right espousing the vague “take back America” rhetoric that continues to be popular despite its meaninglessness. Now, in this presidential election year, with contentious battles for both parties’ nominations, and (especially!) the emergence of Donald Trump as demagogue of the disaffected right, emotions are running extremely high, and campaign oratory dangerously loose. The sentiments expressed in and by Ron and Laura... have become all too familiar. While Ron (England) and Laura (Markham) Grawsill are classic ring-wing prototypes – religious, angry at the government, intolerant of homosexuality, etc. etc.—they’re also somewhat sympathetic, in that their issues with health insurance and Ron’s mother’s dementia, for example, are real and crippling. They also try, in their own clueless way, to be open to certain new ideas. We laugh at the familiar, fumbling, not-quite-logical rants (and they spout it all, from blather about illegals taking away their insurance to concern about death panels and “commie care”), but they’re not quite cartoon cutouts. We're shown how the Bakersfield, California, couple first become aware o[...]
  • The eponymous heroine of Xavier Giannoli’s film Marguerite is a tough sell on paper: a wealthy French socialite who fancies herself a great operatic singer, but who is in fact utterly tone-deaf. Yet, as played (with great sensitivity) by Catherine Frot in this French tragicomedy set in the early 1920s, Marguerite Dumont — at least when she’s not singing — is a warm, sympathetic presence with a true appreciation for music. We’re appalled by the sounds that come out of her mouth, but we can’t help but feel for this woman whose vulnerability and unhappiness is palpable. The character is based on American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who has already inspired several plays as well as a forthcoming Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep. Where Jenkins was merely bad, Mme. Dumont is truly awful; her wild screeching performances are some of the most stunning (literally) moments in the film. This could have been fodder for an out-and-out farce, but though Giannoli’s unconventional movie has many humorous moments, it is also dark, poignant, and visually sumptuous. The film begins with various people arriving at a benefit recital given in Marguerite’s opulent home. There’s young soprano Hazel (Christa Théret), arch young music critic Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and his friend Kyril, an avant-garde artist (Aubrey Fenoy); we’re also introduced to Marguerite’s husband Georges (André Marcon), who pretends that his car broke down so he can avoid the concert. Several opening acts [...]
  • Documentaries have traditionally fallen into two categories: straightforward accounts that tell their story using photo/video/audio snippets plus interviews (think Ken Burns), and those that use re-enactments and other creative devices. Recently, there have been some very innovative examples of the latter category (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the narrative/doc hybrid A Woman Like Me). Now we have Andrew Shapter’s The Teller and the Truth, a haunting and evocative film about the 1974 disappearance of Francis Wetherbee, a young Texas bank teller whose car was found submerged in a nearby river, but whose body was never found. Though it looks and feels like a real-life chronicle, The Teller and the Truth is something else entirely. The film starts off like a typical documentary, becomes a sort of true-crime whodunit, and ultimately ends up a highly romantic speculation on what might have happened to the lovely Wetherbee. It’s as intriguing for its unorthodox handling of truth-versus-fantasy as it is for its subject matter. Apparently Shapter first came upon the long-forgotten story of Wetherbee several years ago when he saw a striking black and white print of a sad-eyed young woman taken by his photographer uncle and mentor. The photo had been shot a week after its subject was briefly taken hostage by a masked bank robber -- she was unhurt but reportedly traumatized -- and two weeks before she mysteriously disappeared. Shapter, who had previously made the documentarie[...]
  • There was once a professor who consistently lamented people not spending time with a work of art. She felt that consuming art became speedy, mediums were not fully appreciated in their details, and therefore a lot of great artwork may never get proper recognition. It's safe to say this is true for many people, and even those like myself who studied art have definitely overlooked pieces due to the extreme saturation of available art to see, especially in a metropolis like New York City (though it is something I greatly try to avoid while in a space.) I was stuck in front of Scott Williams' painting 50th Street Maspeth this past weekend, due to the intimate space at Art101 being packed with people, but I'm glad I was. His work first appears like an impressionistic modern landscape - a view of the street, cars parked, sunny day, fence to the side - but the more I stared at it the more odd I found it. I noticed his use of perspective is based on traditional one-point perspective yet it is shifted off to the side thereby disrupting the everyday banality of this type of setting. Furthermore, his use of oil paint appears both deliberate, in regards to shadowing and color, and accidental in regards to the application of paint itself. This imbues the scene with a sense of randomness and further complicates it. He writes of his "chance" paintings - "For on site, 'plein air painting', a map of Queens and Brooklyn was marked with gridded coordinates. Throwing numbered and lettered coi[...]
  • Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s masterful new film, A War, is an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive depiction of the War in Afghanistan, both the complicated moral issues faced by occupying troops and the toll on their families back home. That’s not to say that this Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film isn’t gripping or that its action sequences lack punch – one battle sequence is particularly pulse-pounding and stomach-churning. Shot in a straightforward style, the movie is never spectacular or overblown; Lindholm largely lets the situation's drama speak for itself. A War follows CO Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk, who previously starred in Lindholm’s A Hijacking) and his unit – who are trying to weed the Taliban out of an Afghan province while protecting civilians – as well as Pedersen’s family in Denmark. The tense vibe of the film is set early on when Claus’s unit is out on patrol. Sure enough, a young gunner is suddenly caught in a mine explosion, a horrific scene that brings home the unpredictability of the unit’s every mission as well as its close camaraderie. The CO – a tough but decent sort – is sympathetic to one soldier (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) who is badly shaken up by the incident, putting him on camp duty for a few weeks. Claus himself will replace both men on patrols, though it is not his usual role. Meanwhile in Denmark, his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is dealing with their three young children, one of whom is having disruptive behavioral issu[...]
  • I came across Katy Grannan's photographs at Salon 94 after visiting the New Museum next door. While individually they remain striking portraits, albeit not vastly unique in the photographic spectrum, what makes her work important lies in her documentary approach to the sleepiness, strangeness, and pathos of Modesto, California. Also the setting of her upcoming documentary, The Nine, the pieces ranged from large-scale individual portraits, to landscapes, and video clips. The portraits are blazing in their preciseness and their size allows for the individuals to tower over the viewers, commanding the most space and attention in the room they are in. The men are shirtless, and the women sport outfits that look like they're from the 80's. A look of disillusionment permeates through their faces, however, and in the case of the women, it betrays the vibrancy of their clothing. What's really at the heart of Grannan's work is a commentary on the American class system - ripe in the media these days thanks to shows like Making a Murderer - and "the other side of the American Dream." Modesto was the location in The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange's photograph Migrant Mother, both gripping portrayals of The Great Depression's physical and emotional effects on the psyche and physicality. And essentially, Grannan's work from Modesto serves as the setting of our contemporary depression. And the photographs speak for themselves in this regard - the subjects are present but not f[...]
  •   Romania's official 2016 Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language Film, Aferim! is an unconventional and beautifully shot black-and-white movie that is both reminiscent of an American Western and exotic in its depiction of a bygone (and perhaps not so bygone) foreign culture. The episodic tale, which takes place in 1835 Wallachia (a region in Romania), follows a lawman and his son as they traverse a desolate landscape in search of an escaped gypsy slave. Directed by Radu Jude and co-written by novelist Florin Lazarescu, Aferim! (which means “Bravo!”) is based on actual accounts of gypsy slavery. Though often comedic (the dialogue is full of crudely funny banter), it serves as a semi-historical commentary on Romania’s anti-Roma sentiment, which is still very much in evidence today. It also starkly depicts the ridiculous prejudices that people of one nationality or religion have for others, in addition to other forms of bigotry. Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his teenage son Ionitā (Mihai Comānoiu) first come upon an abbey on their travels, where they cross themselves and light candles like good Catholics, though Costandin has already cruelly berated an old woman and threatened a bunch of local gypsies. He’s a scrappy, equal-opportunity offender, who hurls insults at almost everyone he comes across – especially poor “crows” (gypsies) – or denigrates them behind their backs. In contrast, Ionitā is more reserved and thoughtful. The two carry a ma[...]
  • Based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb is an unsettling drama about the relationship between an unmoored middle-aged man and a precocious young girl. The movie, starring and directed by Ross Partridge, consists mainly of a road trip, fraught with the self-centered needs of its protagonist and set against the beautiful backdrop of the duo’s natural surroundings (Wyoming and Colorado). When we first meet David Lamb (Partridge), he’s denying the fact that his wife has left him to his ailing, alcoholic father, who knows better; David also lies about his wife’s desertion to co-worker Linny (Jess Weixler), with whom he is having an affair. Despite his good looks and laid-back outward demeanor, David is obviously a guy with issues. Some time later, he is smoking in a parking lot after his father’s funeral, when 11-year-old Tommie (a terrific Oona Laurence) saunters up and asks for a cigarette, a dare set up by her friends. David’s reaction – he not only gives her one, but lights it – is the just the first of many disturbing moments in this film and in their relationship. He pretends to kidnap Tommie to scare her friends, but actually drives her home, and lectures her about approaching him: “I’m not a bad guy, but I could have been.” (He introduces himself as “Gary,” one of many lies he tells to various people he knows or encounters.) This sets the tone for the rest of the film, showing both David’s concern for Tommie and his disconcertingly inappropriate behavior[...]