F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 2, 2017)

2 02 2017

impolexAn oft-cited dictum of Karl Marx states, “History repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.” There’s a pervasive sense that living through our current time is like watching the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s refracted through a funhouse mirror, albeit with the “fun” sorely missing. By accident, Alex Ross Perry’s debut feature “Impolex” seems perfectly positioned to capitalize on the moment.

The film supposedly takes inspiration from Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern classic “Gravity’s Rainbow” (I use qualifiers because I have not read the novel). Its protagonist, American soldier Tyrone (Riley O’Bryan) lugs German rockets around the forest after the end of World War II. He follows seemingly no clear path and shares episodic encounters with everyone from an escaped prisoner to a pirate and even a talking octopus. It’s an ambling journey where each step does not seem to build on or relate to each other, in part because Tyrone is extremely malleable to the message conveyed by the people he meets. He struggles mightily inside to also hold onto some vestige of his own personality amidst these encounters.

None of this makes sense. And yet, not making sense makes perfect sense. This pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” feels like a sketched line from the post-war existentialist dread to our present post-truth anxiety. Even if certain moments lack some spark or some scenes drag on, this thunderous 73-minute debut from Perry showcases his deep understanding of the psychological underpinnings of the film. “Impolex” marks a scrappy debut from a writer/director whose literary ambitions have informed some of the decade’s more audacious pieces of American independent cinema.


9 08 2016

JoshyAs predicted by myself and many people smarter than me, the so-called mumblecore movement shot to cultural prominence in the wake of 2013’s “Drinking Buddies.” These low-budget, short production films began attracting some bright talent from television and cinema. With their unscripted, improvisation style and lived-in qualities, it’s no wonder that comedians and dramatists alike rushed to appear in their own.

With a large cast featuring small screen scene stealers like Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, sketch performers like Nick Kroll and Brett Gelman, indie dream girls like Jenny Slate and Alison Brie, and even filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg themselves in front of the camera, Jeff Baena’s “Joshy” feels a bit like “Mumblecore: The Movie.” (Or at least what our culture has decided it will be today.) The simple pleasures of watching this group interact for an hour and a half cannot be understated.

Yet recent films of a similar ilk such as “Digging for Fire” felt like a hangout for hangout’s sake, with thematics tacked on and a narrative throughline threaded in as an afterthought. The conversations and group dynamics of “Joshy,” however, are baked into the films reason for existing itself. After the eponymous character suffers a tragedy that lays to waste his marital plans, his motley crew of buddies use the house reserved for his bachelor weekend as the venue and occasion for a cheer-up mission.

It quickly becomes obvious that while his trio of bros attempt to play the role of fun-loving therapists, they too are all undergoing hardcore emotional stressors of their own. Each attempts some level of macho posturing – whether in relation to booze, drugs or strippers – to mask the pain. Their buddy makes it all too easy to feel superior; the pet name Joshy suggests both femininity and childishness.

If the film feels at times meandering, it’s because Baena both admirably gives the main men space to work out their issues while also providing ample space to critique them. By being at the center of the film, Joshy and pals are inevitable magnets of symapthy and understanding. But Baena never lets the men of “Joshy” off the hook for what could come across as tunnel vision or indefensible behavior. A more “grown-up” family, played by Joe and Kris Swanberg, drops in on their retreat and delivers a pretty firm scolding. Similarly, a group of call girls makes reference to the gang as resembling creepy serial killer types. It’s a pretty satisfying way to balance the competing impulses of developing the characters and indulging the actors. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Queen of Earth

6 12 2015

Queen of EarthAlex Ross Perry’s latest film, “Queen of Earth,” recalls the work of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavettes in its visual style. Yet in its dialogue and story, the film feels a bit like Chekov’s stab at a psychological thriller.

In fact, I got a bit of déjà vu to Woody Allen’s “September,” a chamber drama set in a rustic retreat. The setting is similar in “Queen of Earth” – a lake house, populated by a smug set of unabashedly spoiled thirty-somethings. The majority of the film’s ninety minutes are devoted to the verbal shanking that occurs between two frenemies, Katherine Waterston’s Virginia and Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine. The latter of the two takes it a little rougher and begins to suffer a bit of a crack up.

Thankfully, Moss and Waterston are talented enough thespians to make these fights interesting. Perry, who penned indelible one-liners for his previous features “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip,” paints in almost humorously broad strokes here. His general, vague dialogue makes their conflict feel rather lacking in depth. Furthermore, it feels at odds with his aesthetic tools of choice, which heavily rely on close-ups of their faces to carry the drama.

While this might be a step forward for Perry as an artist, it seems to have come at the cost of his memorable, believable characters. Hopefully he can find a way to better marry the two sensibilities moving forward. B- / 2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 2, 2015)

2 07 2015

The Color WheelMost people – well, most Americans – have a sibling.  So, naturally, sibling rivalry commonly appears as an aspect or subject in film.  This usually involves pairing off actors who scarcely know each other prior to the shoot and asking them to fill in a lifetime of close, personal experience with that person.  Almost inevitably, it feels forced and not entirely believable.

Alex Ross Perry’s “The Color Wheel,” on the other hand, might be the most convincing on-screen portrayal of siblings I have ever seen.  Perry not only directed the film, but also co-wrote it with his co-star Carlen Altman.  Every moment, every barb, every heartfelt appeal for approval struck a nerve with me.  Such seldom-found recognition makes this a perfect pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Perry’s naturalistic, grainy black & white film look nicely complements the raw emotional scabs being picked apart by the brother and sister at the heart of the film.  (Often times, those aesthetic choices just come across as showy and pretentious.)  Carlen Altman’s JR, an aspiring news anchor with exaggerated perceptions of her own talent, decides to make a move after breaking off a relationship with her former professor.  Since her prickly personality alienated most of her friends, JR has little recourse but her brother, Perry’s Colin, to help her make the journey.

I have taken many a long road trip in my day, and “The Color Wheel” captures the frustration and exhaustion that comes from the taxing mental tolls they exact.  After a long day of driving, patience is thin and emotional regulation is low.  JR and Colin trade really authentic and acerbic banter from either side of the center console.  Their digs wound deeply because siblings know each other perhaps better than anyone and can make brutally honest assessments of each other.  Every few minutes, I whispered to myself, “That’s something I might say to my brother.”

Family is a contact sport in “The Color Wheel,” both in terms of the pain of a tackle and the warmth of a hug.  JR and Carlen come to important realizations about where they need to move in their lives.  They see the disparity between how they present themselves to their peers and how they naturally act to a family member, which motivates them to make some changes.  Perry and Altman even prove willing to critique the narcissism that many accuse the so-called “mumblecore” movement of demonstrating so unabashedly, and the result is a film as enlightening as it is hilarious and frank.

REVIEW: Listen Up Philip

30 10 2014

Listen Up PhilipIf you were to put a gun to my head (but I hope you wouldn’t) and asked me to a name a novelistic film, I would most likely offer up “The Place Beyond the Pines.”  The rich detail provided in the hundreds of pages of text is usually translated into cinematic terms through depth and immensity of scope.  This is far from representative of all the capabilities of the novel, however.

Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” might lack a sprawling canvas of time, yet it feels perhaps more novelistic than any film in recent memory.  It not only captures the content of the writing style, but it also manages to somehow resemble the form itself.  Perry’s consistent employment of voiceover to verbally elucidate the internal worlds of his characters as they trod a frustrating journey of self-actualization makes the experience of viewing akin to curling up with a book on the couch.

To be fair, “Listen Up Philip” is not quite a page-turner in the same way as a novel like “Gone Girl.”  If I was reading the story at my own pace, as opposed to having it told to me for an hour and 45 minutes, I don’t think I would be in any huge rush to see it through to the bitter end.  (Emphasis on bitter for this snarky scowler of a story.)  But the replication and simulation of the prosaic absorption process within a condensed period is certainly a worthwhile use of time.

And while the story is not even particularly innovative or enjoyable, Perry definitely aligns the nature of his plot with the tenor of his form.  It seems only logical that an ingeniously written and self-aware film would follow the misadventures of an ingenious and very self-aware writer.  Perry’s protagonist Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is Woody Allen meets Whit Stillman distilled into an entitled millennial novelist.  A semi-successful writer releasing his second book, Philip is forced to deal with the fallout from the clashes of his elephantine ego in both personal and professional settings.

Schwartzman, given the unjustly rare chance to take center stage, provides a potent mix of pretentious pedantry and embraceable anxiety.  Thankfully, though, the film also provides nuance and detail to the ensemble surrounding Philip.  This allows Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce to deliver rich performances as Philip’s exasperated girlfriend and his overeager older mentor, respectively.

“Listen Up Philip” takes all the grandiosity normally imbued in the passage of time in novelistic cinema and transfers it to the characters.  Letting personalities propel the proceedings is certainly nothing groundbreaking in independent film, but achieving it in this manner is definitely a less common treat.  B+3stars