Friday, June 26, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Opening this weekend: The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

On the one hand, this big-budget action movie has the potential to become a huge summer hit. On the other hand, it is about the war in Iraq, about which, apparently no one wants to watch movies.

Synopsis from the film's website:

The Hurt Locker is a riveting, suspenseful portrait of the courage under fire of the military's unrecognized heroes: the technicians of a bomb squad who volunteer to challenge the odds and save lives doing one of the world's most dangerous jobs. Three members of the Army's elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad battle insurgents and one another as they search for and disarm a wave of roadside bombs on the streets of Baghdad—in order to try and make the city a safer place for Iraqis and Americans alike. Their mission is clear—protect and save—but it's anything but easy, as the margin of error when defusing a war-zone bomb is zero. This thrilling and heart-pounding look at the psychology of bomb technicians and the effects of risk and danger on the human psyche is a fictional tale inspired by real events by journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal, who was embedded with a special bomb unit in Iraq. In Iraq, it is soldier vernacular to speak of explosions as sending you to "the hurt locker."

The New York Times ran an article about Kathryn Bigelow a few days ago, and loved this movie.

Afghan Star

Opening this weekend: Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking

Synopsis from the film's website:

After 30 years of war and Taliban-rule, pop culture has returned to Afghanistan. Afghan Star - a Pop Idol-style TV series – is searching the country for the next generation of music stars. Over 2000 people are auditioning and even three women have come forward to try their luck. The organizers, Tolo TV, believe with this program they can "move people from guns to music."

But in a troubled country like Afghanistan, even music is controversial. Considered sacrilegious by the Mujahiddeen and outright banned by the Taliban (1996-2001), music has come to symbolize freedom for the youth. While the conflict still rages many of those taking part are literally risking their lives.

But the old guard warlords and religious elite have more to worry about than just music. Millions of people watch the show (11 million watched the final – a third of the country) and vote by SMS from their cell phone for their favorite singers. For many, this is the first time they have encountered democracy: one man or one women equals one vote. All - the different genders, ethnic groups, age sectors - are equal. This is a highly radical idea in a country still essentially based on a male-dominated tribal elder system. For the first time young people, ethnic minorities and women have an arena in which to shine. And at last, the people are allowed to vote for who they want.

This documentary follows the three month process from the regional auditions to the final in Kabul. Behind the scenes at all times we gained unprecedented access to the lives of contestants, fans and producers alike.


Opening this weekend: Surveillance, directed by Jennifer Lynch

Synopsis from the film's website:

It's been a hell of a day on the highway.

When Federal Officers Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman) arrive at Captain Billing's office, they have three sets of stories to figure out and a string of vicious murders to consider.

One zealot cop, a strung out junkie and an eight year old girl all sit in testimony to the roadside rampage, but as the Feds begin to expose the fragile little details each witness conceals so carefully with a well practiced lie, they soon discover that uncovering 'the truth' can come at a very big cost...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Rooftop Films screening on Friday: Humpday, directed by Lynn Shelton

Synopsis from the film's website:

It's been a decade since Ben (Duplass) and Andrew (Leonard) were the bad boys of their college campus. Ben has settled down and found a job, wife, and home. Andrew took the alternate route as a vagabond artist, skipping the globe from Chiapas to Cambodia. When Andrew shows up unannounced on Ben's doorstep, they easily fall back into their old dynamic of macho one-upmanship.

Late into the night at a wild party, the two find themselves locked in a mutual dare: to enter an amateur porn contest together. But what kind of boundary-breaking, envelope pushing porn can two straight dudes make? After the booze and "big talk" run out, only one idea remains—they will have sex together...on camera. It's not gay; it's beyond gay. It's not porn; it's art. But how exactly will it work? And more importantly, who will tell Anna (Delmore), Ben's wife?

Writer/director Lynn Shelton, director of My Effortless Brilliance and recipient of the "Someone to Watch Award" at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards, expertly mines the biggest ironies of the male ego to hilarious effect. Humpday is a buddy movie gone wild.

Monday, June 22, 2009

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Screening by Rooftop Films/BAMcinemaFEST on Thursday, June 25: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler

Synopsis from the film's website:

In William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, filmmakers Emily and Sarah Kunstler explore the life of their father, the late radical civil rights lawyer.

In the 1960s and 70s, Kunstler fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., and represented activists protesting the Vietnam war. When the inmates took over Attica prison, or Native Americans stood up to the federal government at Wounded Knee, they asked Kunstler to be their lawyer.

To his daughters, it seemed that he was at the center of everything important that had ever happened. But when they were growing up, Kunstler represented some of the most unpopular members of society: people accused of rape, terrorism, organized crime and cop killing.

Who was William Kunstler? Why did he choose the life he did? And where do his daughters fit into that choice?

Trailer is here—interview with Emily Kunstler and associate producer Tracy Bunting is below.

Youssou N'dour: I Bring What I Love

Now playing: Youssou N'dour: I Bring What I Love, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Synopsis from the film's website:

Youssou N'dour: I Bring What I Love is a music-infused cinematic journey about the power of one man’s voice to inspire change. Described by Rolling Stone as “a singer with a voice so extraordinary the history of Africa seems locked inside it,” N'dour bridges two worlds – that of an international pop star, the highest selling African artist of all time, and a West African griot, a traditional musical storyteller. Shot over three years and across three continents, I Bring What I Love follows the creation of Ndour’s album Egypt, a work dedicated to the musician’s love of the Islamic faith. Released in 2004, at a moment when Islam suffered from a bad image in the Western world, the album was celebrated abroad, yet criticized as blasphemous in Senegal. With N'dour as a guide, the film shows the spiritual and musical inspirations behind Egypt and what the singer really wanted to transmit to his audience.

Friday, June 19, 2009

You Won't Miss Me

Showing at BAMcinemaFest: You Won't Miss Me, directed by Ry Russo-Young

Synopsis from the BAM website:

This absorbing character study features a startlingly raw performance from Stella Schnabel as an aspiring actress who drifts through a series of meaningless sexual encounters, failed auditions, and public breakdowns, repeatedly lashing out at the world she struggles to comprehend. Like an updated version of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, You Won’t Miss Me astutely taps into the psychology of a frustrated generation—privileged and talented but, for all its potential, unfulfilled.

Fri, Jun 19 at 9:30pm, followed by Q&A with director Ry Russo-Young
Tue, June 23 at 6:30pm, followed by Q&A with director Ry Russo-Young and actress Stella Schnabel

Trailer is here, but somehow not on YouTube (correction—the trailer is on YouTube and embedded below), which has, however, an interview with Ry Russo-Young.

Sorry, Thanks

Showing at BAMcinemaFest: Sorry, Thanks, directed by Dia Sokol

Synopsis from the film's website:

Reeling from a brutal break-up, Kira (Kenya Miles) sleeps with Max (Wiley Wiggins), a charming but disheveled wreck already committed to long-term girlfriend Sara. Max (no emotional sophisticate) becomes obsessed, mostly with Kira, but vaguely with his curious lack of conscience as well. Kira, fighting to win a job she hates and running aimless romantic loops, faces the precarious double challenge of choosing a next step and charting a course back to sanity. Good luck leading with your heart, when your heart is an utter emotional idiot.


Wed, Jun 24 at 9:30pm, followed by Q&A with director Dia Sokol

K-20: Legend of the Mask

Showing at the New York Asian Film Festival: K-20: The Legend of the Mask, directed by Shimako Sato

Synopsis from the NYAFF website:

Holy Steampunk, Sherlock Holmes! Screen idol Takeshi Kaneshiro is back and this time he’s showing his respect for Lupin, Raffles and all the great thieves and masked penny dreadful heroes of the turn-of-the-century in this massive steampunk blow-out directed by Shimako Sato, one of the few female directors in the big budget end of the Japanese film industry.

It’s 1949 and World War II never happened. Nikola Tesla has just won a Nobel Prize rather than dying in obscurity and the Japanese Empire is an undying aristocracy where the rich sip tea out of bone china, while the poor die in the gutters. K-20, the Fiend with Twenty Faces, steals from the rich and gives to himself. But now, on the eve of the marriage between society princess, Yoko Hashiba, and chief of police, Kogoro Akechi, the fiend frames simple circus acrobat Hekichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) for his crimes and the poor sap is arrested and sentenced to death. But he escapes at the last minute and assumes the guise of K-20 in order to clear his good name.

Starting with a falling chandelier from Phantom of the Opera and continuing with the Tunguska Explosion, Tesla coils, gyrocopters and all manner of pulp touchstones, this flick is constantly zooming, panning, gliding and skidding to a stop, suffused with old fashioned showmanship and skill. For sheer entertainment value it’s like all the Saturday morning matinees you never saw wrapped up in one film and given a big budget gloss. But more than the skill and style, the actors are a delight. The young princess, Hashiba (Takako Matsu) describes herself as “just a modest girl from a good family,” but really she’s a two-fisted adventurer in waiting, hemmed in by good breeding but secretly yearning to sock a baddie in the jaw and fly a helicopter into the sunset. Takeshi Kaneshiro is charm itself, and it’s a pleasure to spend two hours in his company. By the time the last zeppelin has cleared the screen you’ll want to know where you can buy a ticket and stand in line to wait for the sequel.

Sat June 20, 8:15pm at the IFC Center
Tue June 30, 1:45pm at the IFC Center

High Noon

Showing at the New York Asian Film Festival: High Noon, directed by Mak Hei-Yan

Synopsis from the NYAFF website:

Eric Tsang produced the youth film project, Winds of September, which resulted in three feature films about kids coming of age, one set in Taiwan, one set in Mainland China and one set in Hong Kong. Each movie is based on the exact same screenplay, written by Tom Lin who directed the Taiwanese segment, and so you’d expect the same movie three times. Nope. Each movie reflects the film industry in which it’s been shot and audiences and critics agree that the one to see is High Noon. Sure it’s a teen angst movie and we’ve all seen plenty of those before, but few other movies capture the frenetic energy of Hong Kong and few other filmmakers are willing to push the youth movie as far as this flick’s 24-year-old director, Mak Hei-yan.

Set in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, Mak zooms in on seven high school students who spend their time screwing around, eating, playing video games and studying. Shot on DV, the visual style is what keeps things hopping early on, with Mak filling her frame with so much zippy visual panache that you begin to feel like you’re trapped inside a sixteen-year-old’s head while they IM their friends, scan Youtube, watch TV and talk on the phone all at the same time. But then things take a turn for the worse and the movie begins to live up to its tagline: “There’s one ridiculous event after another every day.”

Most Hong Kong movies aimed at the teen demographic are shallow sex comedies, sappy love stories or ponderous lectures about the dangers of one thing or another. Mak eschews all that guff and sprints into Category III territory (Hong Kong’s equivalent of the NC-17 rating) full speed ahead. As the movie turns darker and the unwanted pregnancies, drug addictions and murders pile up you realize that you’ve been tricked into lowering your guard just long enough for the director to get under your skin. Veering wildly between youth drama and exploitation picture, High Noon pulls itself together in the end to deliver a powerful punch. As Variety says, “Young Mak is one to watch.”

Tue June 23, 1:05pm at the IFC Center

Interview with Mak Hei-Yan:

Crush and Blush

Showing at the New York Asian Film Festival: Crush and Blush, directed by Lee Kyeong-Mi

Synopsis from the NYAFF website:

Me-Sook (Kong Hyo-Jin) is probably not the finest teacher that the South Korean educational system has to offer. A paranoid, ruddy-faced stick of dynamite, she lives in the faculty lounge, teaches middle school English without knowing the language, and has been in love with colleague Mr. Seo (Lee Jong-Hyeok) since she was his student. Mr. Seo has a family now, but as far as Me-Sook is concerned, they’re just temporary obstacles. When she learns that dizzy colleague Lee Yu-Ri (Hwangwoo Seul-Hye) has been carrying on an affair with Seo, Me-Sook goes thermonuclear, forming an unholy alliance with a student who's a born loser, just like her: Mr. Seo’s daughter. Imagine a movie based on a team-up by Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction and Reese Witherspoon from Election, and you’re just starting to understand the pathology on display here.

"People like us must work harder than everyone else," Me-Sook warns Jong-Hee, Mr. Seo’s daughter, at the start of their mission. And they do. In between rehearsals for their ill-advised performance of Waiting for Godot at the school talent festival, the girls spend their nights posing as Mr. Seo on the Net, luring the virginal Yu-Ri into cybersex trysts, but to their dismay, the more perverse the chats become the more aroused Yu-Ri gets. As their scheme expands and begins to collapse, comedy becomes dramedy, laying bare the fragile bonds not only between outcasts but between women. When Mrs. Seo (a magnificent Bang Eun-Jin) puts it all together, it's time to put on your headphones in the language lab, and choose your future through guided meditation and soul-shattering confessions.

Crush and Blush is helmed by first-time female director, Lee Kyeong-Mi, who splices thriller, satire and, yes, chick flick DNA to create a gorgeous monster. Upending all the tired "female stalker" cinema tropes, she places you in the headspace of the supposed “psychos” while the prey remains at a distance. Co-written and produced by Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy)—who cameos in the film along with Bong Joon-Ho (director of The Host)—the film took home "Best New Director" and "Best Screenplay" at the Blue Dragon Film Awards. Kong Hyo-Jin won "Best Actress" at the Korean Film Awards for her tour de force as the unstoppable Me-Sook, whom she transforms from an object of derision to one of shocking identification. These characters do horrible things, but for profoundly human reasons, and unlike Fatal Attraction, nobody gets stabbed, shot, or boils a bunny. Catharsis, when it comes, is both hysterical and heartbreaking. Crush and Blush is a subversion of the stalker picture, a love letter to the world's losers. "No one cares about people like us," Me-Sook tells Jong-hee late in the picture. "But I care," Jong-Hee replies. By the end of this film, so will you.

Wed June 24, 9:15pm at the IFC Center (with actress Kong Hyo-jin in attendance)
Thu June 25, 5:00pm at the IFC center (with actress Kong Hyo-jin in attendance)

New Muslim Cool

Showing at Rooftop Films this weekend: New Muslim Cool, directed by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor

Synopsis from the film's website:

Puerto Rican American rapper Hamza Pérez ended his life as a drug dealer 12 years ago, and started down a new path as a young Muslim.

Now he’s moved to Pittsburgh’s tough North Side to start a new religious community, rebuild his shattered family, and take his message of faith to other young people through his uncompromising music as part of the hip-hop duo M-Team.

Raising his two kids as a single dad and longing for companionship, Hamza finds love on a Muslim networking website and seizes the chance for happiness in a second marriage.

But when the FBI raids his mosque, Hamza must confront the realities of the post-9/11 world, and challenge himself. He starts reaching for a deeper understanding of his faith, discovering new connections with people from Christian and Jewish communities.

New Muslim Cool takes viewers on Hamza’s ride through the streets, projects and jail cells of urban America, following his spiritual journey to some surprising places — where we can all see ourselves reflected in a world that never stops changing.

Showing on Saturday, on the roof of El Museo del Barrio, as a Rooftop Films screening.


Opening this weekend: $9.99, directed by Tatia Rosenthal

Synopsis from the New York Times website:

The Israeli writer Etgar Keret possesses an imagination not easily slotted into conventional literary categories. His very short stories might be described as Kafkaesque parables, magic-realist knock-knock jokes or sad kernels of cracked cosmic wisdom. When such vignettes are strung together into a feature — as in Jellyfish (2007), which he directed with his wife, Shira Geffen, and now in Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99 — they become even more elusive and strange. To watch these films is to enter an eerily realistic parallel universe where people and emotions are at once perfectly recognizable and completely bizarre. This effect is doubled by the extraordinary technique used in $9.99 to bring Mr. Keret’s world to life. Ms. Rosenthal, an Israeli animator, has cast some of Australia’s finest actors, including well-known performers like Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia, to provide voices for figures made of modeling clay.

The film has its own cute but frustrating-to-navigate website.

Interview with Tatia Rosenthal here.

The Proposal

Opening this weekend: The Proposal, directed by Anne Fletcher

Can't say too much about this one... if you are likely to want to see it, then you probably already know about it. The movie's website is here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Luck by Chance

Showing at MoMA: Luck by Chance, directed by Zoya Akhtar

Synopsis from the film's website:

A starlet and a struggler meet while trying to navigate through the Hindi Film Industry and end up changing each other's lives forever.

Luck by Chance is a slice of film industry life, in which self advancement is the sole motivator. Here, notions of superstition, fate and destiny may underline every decision, but it is the gigantic egos, the grand desires and the small opportunities that converge to form strange patterns.
Patterns that we call kismet.

In such an unpredictable climate, is success and failure what others define for you or is it something you decide for yourself?

The New York Times review is here.

Smile Pinki

Showing at MoMA and on HBO: Smile Pinki, directed by Megan Mylan

Synopsis from the film's website:

Pinki is a five-year old girl in rural India born desperately poor and with a cleft lip. The simple surgery that can cure her is a distant dream until she meets Pankaj, a social worker traveling village to village gathering patients for a hospital that provides free surgery to thousands each year. Told in a vibrant vérité-style, this real-world fairy tale follows its wide-eyed protagonist on a journey from isolation to embrace.

Smile Pinki won an Oscar for best short documentary film, and it moved one of the Freakonomics guys to tears. Audio interview with Megan Mylan here.


Showing tomorrow at MoMA: Firaaq, directed by Nandita Das

Synopsis from the film's website:

Firaaq is an Urdu word that means both separation and quest. The film is a work of fiction, based on a thousand stories.

The story is set over a 24-hour period, one month after a campaign that took place in Gujarat, India, in 2002. It traces the emotional journey of ordinary people—some who were victims, some perpetrators and some who choose to watch silently. As an ensemble film, it fo9llows multiple narratives that are at some times interconnected and at times discreet, yet all are united by their spatial and emotional context.

A middle class housewife closes the door on a woman desperately seeking refuge, and then struggles to overcome her guilt. The loyalty of two best friends is challenged in times rife with fear and suspicion. A group of victimized young men seek revenge as a way out of their helplessness and anger. A modern day Hindu-Muslim couple struggle between the survival instinct to hide their true identities and the desire to assert them. A boy having lost most of his family in the riots wanders through the streets searching for his missing father. A saintly musician clings on to his idealism until an evidence of civil strife shakes his faith.

Through these characters we trace the ways in which violence impacts both inner and outer lives. Violence spares nobody. Yet in the midst of this madness, some find it in their hearts to sing hopeful songs for better times.

Yes Madam, Sir

Showing at the Museum of Modern Art: Yes Madam, Sir, directed by Megan Doneman

Screening tonight and tomorrow as part of MoMA's "The New India" film series.

Synopsis from the film's website:

In these uncertain times comes a heartfelt story of boundless courage, determination, and inspiration…

Filmed in India over six years and narrated by Academy Award winning actor, Helen Mirren, Yes Madam, Sir is a ‘David and Goliath’ epic story profiling Asia Nobel Prize winner, Kiran Bedi – India’s first woman police officer.

Yes Madam, Sir carries the audience through an emotional, tumultuous, frustrating and often hilarious journey of a person who defies all odds, makes history, ruffles feathers, and who triumphs to ultimately affect change from within a centuries-old world.

A modern day Gandhi, Bedi is an intriguing paradox: deified by millions for her commitment to social justice and her public stance against corruption; vilified by the establishment as a publicity seeking, uncontrollable megalomaniac. The true drama lies not in Bedi’s extraordinary audacity, but in the inherent contradictions in her character. In Bedi’s eyes, she fights the fight of the underdog on an ultimately sinking ship.

With her baton at the ready, Bedi will always find a battle. Paradoxically the very qualities that propel Kiran Bedi to triumph could ultimately spell her downfall. The contradictions in Bedi’s character are never so evident than when her work and personal life are paralleled. Through exclusive scenes of Bedi on the job as India’s most controversial police officer, and through intimate home scenes with her father and daughter, and tender moments with her estranged husband, the filmmaker’s uncensored access unravels the truth behind the icon to reveal the most tragic, poignant and comedic moments of the film.

Packed with heart, Yes Madam, Sir is a roller coaster ride of the triumph and frustration, fame and infamy, comedy and tragedy, passion and pain of a sole leader, and a searing insight into a lawmaker who becomes a law unto herself.

Unfortunately, I can't find any trailers or clips, but this movie has been scooping up awards from film festivals left and right, so it is worth checking out. Interview with Megan Doneman is here.

My Life in Ruins

Opening this weekend: My Life in Ruins, directed by Nia Vardalos

Synopsis, from my head: αγόρι meets κορίτσι. Ethnic hilarity ensues. The reviews are dreadful, so I won't bother posting any.

Herb & Dorothy

Opening this weekend: Herb & Dorothy, directed by Megumi Sasaki

Synopsis from the film's website:

Herb & Dorothy tells the extraordinary story of Herbert Vogel, a postal clerk, and Dorothy Vogel, a librarian, who managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history with very modest means. In the early 1960s, when very little attention was paid to Minimalist and Conceptual Art, Herb and Dorothy Vogel quietly began purchasing the works of unknown artists. Devoting all of Herb's salary to purchase art they liked, and living on Dorothy's paycheck alone, they continued collecting artworks guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and it had to be small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Within these limitations, they proved themselves curatorial visionaries; most of those they supported and befriended went on to become world-renowned artists including Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi, and Lawrence Weiner.

After thirty years of meticulous collecting and buying, the Vogels managed to accumulate over 2,000 pieces, filling every corner of their tiny one bedroom apartment. "Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment," recalls Dorothy. In 1992, the Vogels decided to move their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The vast majority of their collection was given as a gift to the institution. Many of the works they acquired appreciated so significantly over the years that their collection today is worth millions of dollars. Still, the Vogels never sold a single piece. Today Herb and Dorothy still live in the same apartment in New York with 19 turtles, lots of fish, and one cat. They've refilled it with piles of new art they've acquired.

Herb & Dorothy is directed by first-time filmmaker Megumi Sasaki. The film received the Golden Starfish Award for the Best Documentary Film and Audience Award from the 2008 Hamptons International Film Festival. It has also received Audience Awards from the 2008 Silverdocs Film Festival and the 2009 Philadelphia Cinefest. Palm Springs International Film Festival named Herb & Dorothy one of their "Best of Fest" films in 2009.

The New York Times review is here, and an interview with Megumi Sasaki is here. The movie also has its own Facebook page.