Nature Boys

Final_PosterHide Your Smiling Faces”, the stunning debut feature by Daniel Patrick Carbone, is about two boys spending the summer with their parents in the mountainous area of Sussex County, New Jersey in a time period that seems like the late 1990s (note use of portable CD player). The time and location could almost be any wooded area in the past couple of decades. The film is largely nonverbal, bereft of topical or cultural references, which is refreshing. Parents today often complain that teenagers spend too much time looking at screens but there are no televisions or Gameboys to be seen here. The two boys, 14-year-old Eric (Nathan Varnson) and his 9-year-old brother Tommy (Ryan Jones), rather, spend their days exploring nature, riding bikes, wrestling with other boys —there are no girls in the film— and talking about death. The landscapes they inhabit are half idyllic and half foreboding. They were shot gorgeously by Nick Bentgen, who also shot sequences for the recent documentary, “Teenage”.

Eric is quiet and about to explode with prepubescent energy. “I hate it here,” he complains to his parents over dinner one evening. Their parents are just as ineffectual as the ones whose words are distorted in those old Charlie Brown TV shows. Notice the t-shirts the brothers wear. Tommy’s are all from zoos and nature camps (including one in Croatia). Eric prefers MTV Headbangerz Ball. Eric bullies his brother a bit literally forcing him one point to sink or swim, a technique Tommy repeats later with his dog Daisy. But Eric loves Tommy too and isn’t afraid to show it. One night at the dinner table after a petulant Eric stalks off, their father tells Tommy, “You are not him.” A perfect summary of parental fears of bad sibling influence and their inability to control it! Read more

Experimental Films at Williamsburg’s Spectacle

"Trip Paulista"

“Trip Paulista”

Last weekend Experimental Film Festival Portland (EFFPortland) co-director Hannah Piper Burns presented two showcases at Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater. Piper is an accomplished filmmaker herself and on Fandor‘s marketing staff. I missed her compilation of female experimentalists from Portland (“PDXX”). It also contained two of her own films, both of which I’ve enjoyed before (and can be seen on her website). The second compilation, “New/Strange Worlds” is drawn from films shown at last year’s EFFPortland festival.

At least four of the shorts are amazing and also available —in whole or in part— online. Brazil’s Marcia Beatriz Granero might love Kenneth Anger as much as I do; I kept thinking of the way Anger used color in his short film “Puce Moment” while I watched her gorgeous “Trip Paulista,” in which a woman dreams, drinks coffee, takes psychotropics and then treats the streets of Sao Paulo as if they were her private beach. Read more

The Search for an Elusive Photographer

finding_vivian_maier_xlgIt’s the stuff of art history legend. In 2007, Chicago real estate agent and Americana collector John Maloof purchased a box of negatives at an auction for about $400 but had  no idea what he found. He scanned some of them and only then realized what a treasure trove of incredible street photographs he had come across. Taken in Chicago and elsewhere over the middle decades of the 20th Century, the number of images ran into the tens of thousands. But who took them? His search for the photographer and the answer to why she never exhibited her work is the thrust of this fascinating and visually enthralling documentary directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel (“tosh.O”),“Finding Vivian Maier.”

Joel Meyerowitz, famous for his own large format color photography, points out that the pictures show a real eye, and compares them to the work of greats like Helen Levitt, Robert Frank and Atget. But, as another interviewee puts it, the story of the photographer is even more interesting than the photos.

Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for most of her life. This, as one of her past employers observed, provided her with both housing and enough free time to take pictures. Which she did. Over 100,000 to be specific! But she also had a dark side, according to several of her former charges. She wasn’t above force feeding a child and dispassionately photographed another after they were injured in a minor car accident. Vivian never married and was an obsessive hoarder of newspapers. She loved collecting dark news stories that validated her sense of the folly of life; one compassionate ex-employer says with tears in her eyes, after recalling having to fire her. She was stern, private, and often difficult. A linguist who met her claims her French accent was fake. (“The vowels were too long. My master’s thesis was on French vowels.”) She had an obsessive fear of men that suggests some prior mistreatment and may have suffered from undiagnosed mental illness. She avoided doctors. “The poor can’t afford to die,” she said. Read more

Love with an Improper Stranger

lilaIt Felt Like Love” is about a confused 14 year-old Brooklyn girl (Gina Piersanti), who wants her friends to think she is as sexually active as her 16 year-old best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni). Her sad, often pathetic, attempts to accomplish this are presented without sentimentality but also without painting anyone as a victim or villain.

Like most great films about a young woman’s sexuality (and this is definitely one of them; Lars Von Trier’s current “Nymphomaniac” is another) it makes one think about the minefield that is adolescence: jealousy, debasement, peer pressure, inadequate medical advice, parental judgement — and that’s on a good day! Frankly, I don’t know how anyone survives it.

Lila more or less stalks Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), a college boy she wants to hook up with. He’s not interested (“Is there something you want from me?”), yet lets her join him and his buddies while they smoke weed and watch porn. “I’ve considered it [pornography] as a career choice,” she tells them. “The hours are good and so is the pay.”

She and her bestie, Chiari, take dance classes which seem aimed to prepare them for a career as background dancers in rap videos. Even though they are competitive with one another, they have a code of ethics. When one of them asks the other for help, the other says “I would do it for you.” After Chiara’s sweet sixteen, the two girls go to another party. Lila gets drunk and gets into bed with Sammy, passed out after having sex with another girl, hoping he will think he had sex with her. Chiari breaks up with her boyfriend and gives her friendship ring to Lila, who wears it to impress Sammy. Reputation is more important than experience? As the kids say today, epic fail. Read more

Stand-up but Don’t Deliver

The setup of “Obvious Child” may remind you a bit of “Seinfeld” — a Jewish New York comedian turns the mundane into standup material. In this case, however, the comic is a young Brooklyn woman named Donna Stern as played by relative newcomer Jenny Slate. Donna’s material about abortion isn’t exactly gold though it’s an improvement over her usual set of unfunny and icky bodily function jokes. [The best joke in the entire film is actually delivered by another comic: how his dad reminds him of both Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor.] She’s already lost one boyfriend due to her onstage over-sharing, her job at the anti-imperialist, non-repressive non-colonialist bookstore is about to end and her academic mom’s idea of advice comes in the form of a spreadsheet. Attention from a very nice though not-her-type straight arrow turns into a one-night stand that leads to her unplanned pregnancy.

The main business of the film—which sometimes threatens to be more cute than funny but ultimately won me over—is about Donna’s eventual thaw to the goy (a winning performance by “The Office”‘s Jake Lacy). A rom-com whose love story takes off post-abortion probably won’t make it to many pro-lifer Netflix queues but others will appreciate the delicate balance of humor and emotion in this hugely likable film. It doesn’t hurt that the film sports a great ensemble cast including Richard Kind and Polly Draper as Donna’s divorced parents, David Cross as a creepy comedy club owner, and Gaby Hoffman as her roomie. Confidently directed by Gillian Robespierre, this first feature premiered at Sundance earlier this year and is the centerpiece of the upcoming New Director’s/New Films festival at Lincoln Center. While it’s hard to see much of a future for Donna Stern, I predict big things for Slate and Robespierre. Read more