Jafar Panahi’s Taxi subtly shines harsh light on cinematic oppression of one of Iran’s great directors — a film review
October 9, 2015
There are many problems with an autocratic regime. Rights are hindered and double standards flourish aplenty. People are jailed without fair trial. There’s torture. Education is never fairly distributed, and when it is, instructors often only instill young students with a warped sense of culture and history for the sake of propaganda favoring those in power. You would think this kind of government could only create cynics, victims or blind followers, and that there’s little room for sympathetic humanity to flourish. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi knows this all too well, and he seeks to correct some of it with his choice of personal expression: a camera mounted on a taxi cab’s dashboard in Tehran. All the while, he offers a sly, accessible wink to the audience watching the resulting “film” at the cinema. It’s a trip you won’t soon forget.
With Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, the director and Independent Ethos favorite returns with another “non-film” to show us his country’s human side while defying a government order forbidding him to make movies. He was jailed, tortured and placed under house arrest after he allegedly showed support to the Green Movement by shooting secret meetings back in 2009. Of all he endured, worst of all was being banned from making movies for 20 years.
It didn’t stop him from shooting a movie capturing his life under house arrest using mostly his iPhone’s camera (This Is Not a Film highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest). He shipped the resulting film to the Cannes Film Festival in a flash drive hidden inside a cake. His next film treaded more lightly with a story both rich in metaphor that he subverted with scenes of day-to-day life (Closed Curtain continues Iranian filmmaker’s abstract expression in art despite ban). His latest “film” stands as his most approachable since his ban. In it, the director tries to hide under a cabbie hat and drives around in a taxi not-so-discreetly filming his “fares.” With the passengers who come and go, the film becomes a series of vignettes ranging from comic to tragic. Most of all, Panahi keeps it light and always interesting, from the first frame to the last. The film opens on a street scene. The camera lingers long enough to take in daily life, women in hijabs and plainly dressed men crisscross the intersection as motorcycles zip around them. It’s a kinetic if static opening shot. There isn’t much range for Panahi’s camera, but it’s occasionally rotated on passengers and the director, creating deep two-shots that never feel dull. Panahi never hides his camera, and the first person he focuses it on is because the person has noticed it. The man who has jumped into his passenger seat asks, “What is that?” Panahi turns it on him, and the passenger looks straight at the audience and asks, “An anti-theft device?” Panahi replies “Sort of.”
It’s a rich moment and sets the tone for the rest of this sly and entertaining movie. This passenger soon gets into an argument about sharia law with a lady who has taken the back seat (apparently, taxi drivers carry more than one fare in their cabs). The argument ends with a punch line as the man gets off. Meanwhile, a third passenger, a pudgy dwarf of a man, has joined the ride. When the woman gets out, this third man looks at Panahi and smiles. “Mr. Panahi, I recognize you.” Both smile at each other, as this man, who introduces himself as Omir, calls him out for having staged a scene in the taxi while making a movie. “That last line was from your film Crimson Gold,” says Omir.
With this scene, Panahi subverts his own filmmaking, at first giving you a kind of heavy-handed scene but then nullifying it. “This is not a film,” he seems to say. But then the movie becomes this whirlwind trip that will enlighten viewers about Iran’s film world while paying tribute to those who love cinema and have a sense of humor about filmmaking and its consumption. Omir turns out to be breaking film law in his own way, selling bootleg DVDs. When he directs Panahi to the house of a client to deliver Hollywood action movies and Season Five of “The Walking Dead,” the client recognizes Panahi, too. “Don’t worry, he’s one of us,” says the bootlegger. The client soon changes his order for “arty” movies, asking Panahi for recommendations, who responds, “I think all movies are worth watching, depending on your taste.”
There’s a comic sense to this movie but also much wisdom. The highlight has to be when Panahi picks up his niece, Hana, who aspires to be a director and recites the rules of making “distributable” movies in Iran based on what her teacher told her. She tries to make her uncle a part of her film, but he can’t help but make comments that, as she points out, will make her film “undistributable.” At one point, he leaves her alone in the cab while he takes a bathroom break. Just trying to shoot some action outside her window, Hana will have her own confrontation with how difficult it is to make a movie that will satisfy government censors. It’s a moment that is both humorous and bittersweet and points to the hypocrisy of a regime that can never suppress human nature.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is one more masterpiece in what is now a trilogy of non-movies for Panahi. He celebrates filmmaking while railing against the forces that repress him. Featuring genial and natural performances by the entire “cast” (the film has no credits), Panahi constructs an emphatic protest with a smile and a wink that will charm and enthrall viewers throughout. When a woman bearing roses takes the passenger seat, she looks at the camera and gives the audience a rose. It’s gleeful and heart-rending. She too knows Panahi and sympathizes with the bind that he is in, telling him when she leaves, “You better remove my words from your movie. You’ll be accused of sordid realism.”
While Western movie culture so often recognizes escapism over realism, it’s refreshing to find a film like Panahi’s. He never loses sight of the value of entertainment while making his incredibly important statement. Sometimes poignant, other times hilarious, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is always brilliantly contemplative. It will remind viewers of many facets of cinema that we so often take for granted, including the viewer’s complicit imagination. The art has value because we bring value to it, and if there’s one filmmaker who deserves our love, it’s Panahi because he gives it back so richly.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi runs 82 minutes, is in Persian with English subtitles and is not rated (it has references to violence). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 9, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. On Oct. 16, the film expands to Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. Kino Lorber provided all images to illustrate this post and an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.
October 6, 2015
Too many of director Denis Villeneuve’s films have had issues with communicating ambiguous ideas that stumble over key moments of heavy-handed contrivance or missteps in plot development, ultimately undermining his storytelling with disappointing cognitive dissonance. In Incendies (2010) he leans on deus ex machina for a twist to find resolution for a family torn apart by war that ultimately rings less like profundity and more like coincidence. With Enemy (2013), he sapped the creepy power of José Saramago’s book The Double by tacking on a hollow joke ending. In his latest, Sicario, a film about the lawlessness of the border between Mexico and the U.S., Villeneuve deflates a nihilistic outlook with a poorly resolved subplot of revenge that ends up glorifying the notion of lawlessness and does little to offer any enlightenment to a very real war at the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
All these films are exceptionally shot, have interesting characters brought to life with strong performances, but they all suffer from fatal flaws in storytelling that weaken them to places of mediocre film-making as a whole. Sicario has received high ratings among mainstream critics (see its score on Metacritic). We won’t argue that this movie is not exquisitely shot with rich mise-en-scène that enhances the film’s eerie, unsettling mood and even slyly connects characters across the border. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is key for the film’s seductive look. It opens with an arresting sweeping shot of an Arizona suburb as a militarized FBI and police force converge on a house from the edges of the screen. From close-ups to wide shots, Sicario never feels uninteresting to look at. For added tension, Jóhann Jóhannsson provides an appropriately percussive soundtrack, geared to ramp up heart rates.
For all the effort behind the scenes to amp up the tension, Sicario‘s biggest strength lies in the film’s wide-eyed heart, actress Emily Blunt. She brings much sympathy to Kate Macer, a young but strong-willed FBI field operative with an idealistic, black and white mindset due for a reality check. After a startling discovery in that Arizona house punctuated by a booby trap that ends in the death of two officers, she is about to get her world upended. A cavalier big shot in flip-flops from D.C. (Josh Brolin) named Matt Graves recruits her for a cross-border operation that’s far from by-the-book. She’s off down the rabbit hole toward disillusioning enlightenment. Blunt does a lot with what is otherwise a one-dimensional character until she ends up a damsel in distress who can’t save herself in what is supposed to be some kind of profound revelation on a very complicated situation. Too many other characters feel archetypal and rote, including a family-man Juarez cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) who is but a cog in a corrupt machine and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a prosecutor from Colombia hired by the U.S. government as a very hands-on adviser.
The research by actor/writer Taylor Sheridan never goes deeper than the headlines: kidnappings that end in tragedy, dismembered bodies hung over an overpass, the police cooperating with the cartels to move drugs. Even the idea that the CIA is cooperating with Mexican police is old, albeit murky, news. It has been called Plan Mérida in Mexico. There’s an American-authored Wiki page about it calling it Mérida Initiative. By itself, the themes of the film fail to deliver a unique perspective and leave the theme broadly focused on shocking headlines presented as spectacle rather than exploring the deeper complexity of the issue of corruption and drug trafficking. It’s perfect stuff for Hollywood entertainment. No wonder a sequel was announced before the film opened in wide release, and of course it will focus on the film’s most romantic character: Alejandro, because Kate is proven ineffectual at film’s end.
Sicario has taken a page from the action thriller Zero Dark Thirty (Film review: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ brings obsession with elusive truth to vivid light), and we’re not talking about mutual scenes shot with night vision goggles. Although Sicario focuses on the War on Drugs rather than the War on Terror, both make the case that there are intangible forces that complicate issues to a degree that present no viable solutions through the “legal” or “good” route. At the heart of moral dilemmas in these films there happens to be a female character questioning the logic and mechanics of the process. However, as opposed to Zero Dark Thirty, the approach in Sicario leaves this female character under-developed. Kate makes us care about procedure but only slightly, as she quickly seems to loose any power in the shadows of men like Graves and Alejandro, and when she does try to exert her power she only finds herself in trouble. Her character drives the point home about the dangers of the drug war, but she’s never in enough danger to genuinely unnerve the audience. In typical Hollywood fashion she survives the mission with her life. It leaves the audience with a level of comfort that diffuses the film’s attempt at presenting a deep moral dilemma. To see how to handle such a character the right way see William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., a film that probably wounldn’t pass today’s test audiences because it’s too disturbing to see a good guy killed half-way through the action. Sicario‘s filmmakers wouldn’t dare sacrifice the film’s thrills for a grim outlook that does genuine justice to the horrors of what happens to people who try to follow law and order in this drug war.
The movie reminds you of so many others before it and fails to capture a singular point of view to add a real sense of distinction. Films such as Miss Bala (2011) or Heli (‘Heli’ depicts human costs of drug-related violence with raw horror) were brilliant at focusing on particular characters and bringing to light the hidden dangers of the War on Drugs and their impact on everyday people. The complexity is there, and the end result does not mean filmmakers should completely throw their hands up when it comes to handling the multi-layered complexity of transnational illegal trade. Sicario becomes nothing more than a series of elaborate vignettes informed by headlines with a revenge tale tacked on to give the audience a sense of cathartic closure that makes it just a little bit easier to walk out of the theater.
Many defenders will not dare prepare you for the climax of Sicario, in fear of spoiling the movie. However, it is here where the film drops off the deep end with a slick if stupefying rogue mission by Alejandro, decked out in black fatigues and armed with a gun and silencer, to avenge his family. It turns the movie into just another Death Wish iteration in stylish packaging. Before he heads off on his personal vendetta to kill Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo), the drug lord he holds responsible for the death of his loved ones, it is conveniently revealed that Alejandro’s wife had her head chopped off and his daughter was thrown into a vat of acid on the orders of this man. It’s meant to illicit sympathy for Alejandro, who is also revealed to have ties to the Medellín Cartel, so this act is also business. Not to mention, it also serves U.S. interests.
After a thrilling hunt out of a perfectly played level of a first-person shooter video game, which includes the rather indifferent killing of Silvio, Alejandro shoots is way to the dinner table of this drug lord. Holding Fausto, his wife and two young sons at gunpoint, Alejandro relishes his moment of meting his idea of justice. Before he dies, Fausto tells Alejandro — and in effect the audience — that he is no better a man for his actions because it was the Medellín Cartel who made Fausto, and the cycle will just continue (you know, to point out the obvious nihilism). Alejandro and then Fausto tells his kids to keep eating their dinner. They take little nibbles of the chicken at the ends of their forks, quaking with fear. Alejandro shoots the kids and wife. The kill shots happen off-screen, making the killings more palatable for the audience before Alejandro finally shoots a slack-jawed Fausto.
Thus ends Sicario‘s climax, a rather romantic depiction of bad-ass killing sanitized by its own restraint, sending a rather mixed signal to the audience of hypocritical righteousness with a little gloss of amorality courtesy of the film’s writer. Alejandro is presented as a victim who deserves some justice just shortly before his act, and then the film flinches in the neat deaths of the wife and children with cutaways from horror and a brief, restrained shot of aftermath (see A History of Violence for how to imbue acts of violence with the ugliness necessary to implicate the audience rather than satiate their catharsis). It’s all too slick, patronizing and rather tasteless.
It’s such a tonal shift that it deflates any semblance of the danger in chaos that Villeneuve and Sheridan worked so hard to establish earlier in the film. The film also flourishes during the early scenes where the characters are shrouded in mystery as far as their connections and motivations. Unfortunately, when it comes to their reveal, they are nothing but archetypes serving another Hollywood movie that glorifies violence as a means to an end. What’s worse, due to this penultimate scene, the driving force of the film is removed from the overall bigger theme of drug trafficking. It becomes personal and vicarious, a glossy stunt imposing cheap thrills on the audience. It creates a haze of resolution where there should be none. By the time Kate has a chance to do something about holding on to her ideals, it no longer matters. Sicario is not a statement film without a statement. It’s a film that compromises its statement for high-gloss tension that ultimately celebrates revenge in its cinematic choices and therefore stumbles in trying to be so much more than it can ever try to be.
Sicario runs 121 minutes, is in English and Spanish with English subtitles and is rated R (for somewhat gruesome violent and curse words). It opened in wide release last Friday. Lionsgate provided all images used in this review and invited us to a preview screening a week before its release for the purpose of this review.
September 19, 2015
An awakening of female sensuality and passion are at the core of Mélanie Laurent’s second film Breathe (Respire). Rather than exploiting the familiar coming of age narrative, Laurent explores characters that have depth and lets them evolve slowly. Breathe tells the story of Charlie (Joséphine Japy), a seemingly average suburban teenager who lives with her mother. Charlie goes to school where she has a suitor and a small but consistent group of friends and has, for the most part, a quiet life. The one source of tension for Charlie is the on and off relationship her parents have. A child of a very young couple (her mother had her at 18), Charlie witnesses the turmoil between her father, who is not committed to the relationship, and her mother, who loves her father too deeply, even painfully.
Charlie’s life is unexpectedly changed when a new girl joins the school. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is beautiful, confident, filled with energy and appears to have taken to plain Charlie in a special way. The relationship between the two high school girls develops fast and soon Charlie becomes enthralled by Sarah. The two go everywhere together and Sarah gives Charlie her undivided attention, prompting her to find a side of herself she was unaware of. However, Sarah has also inserted herself into Charlie’s life in a pernicious way; jealous of the close bond that Charlie and her mother share, Sarah tries to elicit a close bond with Charlie’s mother. Sara also is aware of who Charlie’s closest friends are, and in a slow but persistent way, she creates a wedge between Charlie and her friends. The relationship goes from a deep friendship into a complicated entangled affair.
When Charlie takes Sarah on a family vacation, the relationship between them deepens. It goes from elated joy and a sort of closeness seldom achieved by best friends to a toxic relationship where Sarah seems to delight in seeing Charlie being hurt, while also drawing her closer in. This sick dynamic culminates when Charlie — jealous and worried — confronts Sarah one late night as she arrives after a night out. Sarah responds by seducing Charlie and passionately kissing her. From this point on, the relationship deepens in macabre ways.
As shy Charlie becomes obsessed with Sarah, her own identity suffers and wanes. She uncovers a secret Charlie has been hiding, and when she approaches Sarah to talk about it, hoping this will make them closer again, Sarah goes into a rage and unleashes a campaign against Charlie. At school, Charlie becomes the object of Sarah’s rage. She is unable to fight back, as she still garners hopes to recoup that lost friendship.
The action centers around different kinds of women, it is not only a coming of age for Charlie, but also an interesting take on her mother, who has been deeply involved in regaining her father for years but throughout the course of the film finds herself renewed. As Simone de Beauvoir once posited, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman,” meaning the lived body, carrying experiences and a unique socioeconomic imprint, an identity gradually acquired.
In Breathe, Charlie is in the process of becoming a woman, that identity partly learned from an example at home and partly due to external stimuli represents the shift in Charlie’s personality. While the end may seem a shocking development, it is also an instance of becoming a woman. The process of evolving and becoming a woman is not a simple or linear trajectory, as Beauvoir reminds us, it is charged with contextual and cultural meaning. In Charlie’s microcosm it is also the result of the lived experience at home, where the one relationship that has molded her persona is ridden with rejection and suffering.
Breathe runs 91 minutes long, is in French with English subtitles and it is not rated (there is adult language, sexuality and violence on an array of levels). It’s now playing in our South Florida area exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters. On Oct. 2, it begins its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screening dates in other cities, visit this link. All images in this post courtesy of Film Movement, which also provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.
September 18, 2015
Black Mass has a big issue. It’s the celebrated face of lead actor Johnny Depp. The problem comes from Depp’s prolonged gimmick of using makeup as a pathway into his performances for both himself and the sake of audience appeal. His version of real-life Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger is ultimately no different from his versions of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (and probably its upcoming sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass). All come across as makeup on a famous actor’s face.
Reportedly, Depp stayed in character as Bulger between takes. “By the end of filming I’d spent more time with Whitey Bulger than I’d spent with Johnny,” said co-star Joel Edgerton to “Entertainment Weekly.” While one should appreciate the dedication of the method approach to acting, this kind of reporting is one more bit of hype to a little understood acting style that is too often made mythic. It becomes less about the performance and more about the actor. As Depp tries to disappear into the role, his technique overshadows it.
Depp is also the sum of what has come to be his seeming gimmick: flashy makeup that makes each role he plays a caricature. As Bulger, Depp uses blue contact lenses, a dead browned front tooth and harshly combed back thin, grey hair to look the part. While it works all right for the cartoonish movies of Tim Burton or the Pirates films, it can be problematic for a movie based on a real person who committed horrific acts. As a kind of caricature, it sanitizes the real crimes, including murder, committed by this man.
Black Mass is supposed to be a menacing depiction of a real-life psychopathic crime boss currently serving two life sentences plus five years at a maximum security prison. It was only a few years ago that the FBI finally caught up with Bulger, who had been lying low in California. Agents ambushed him in a Santa Monica apartment parking garage. This was only in 2011, and I remember when the news broke like it was yesterday. Now Hollywood has come with its adaptation and of course a peculiarly romantic account for his cruelty (he lost his only son at a young age and his mother died). This rationalization is practically spelled out before he commits one of his most heinous acts. It’s an odd step in character illustration that is supposed to illicit empathy while also showing what a psycho Bulger was.
Director Scott Cooper does a fine job stitching together an intriguing story of Boston corruption that allowed Bulger to thrive for as long as 20 years before he disappeared, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. Both Bulger’s younger brother, State Senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch adding one more layer of distraction with an accent that struggles to sound Bostonian) and his old playground mate now FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton). Despite its two-hour-plus running time, it covers a lot of ground without feeling like a montage or losing its momentum.
Ultimately, it’s just too difficult to forgive the glamorization of Bulger in this movie, a star vehicle that romanticizes a monster. The filmmakers attempts at presenting Bulger as a mean-spirited menace falls out of whack with his presentation as a victim of circumstance. To top it off, the authorities come across as inept until the film’s tidy epilogue (the appearance of a limply mustachioed Adam Scott as an FBI agent suspicious of Connolly’s connection to Bulger feels like an unintended joke). Supporting characters either simmer with bitterness, tremor in fear of Bulger or mindlessly follow Bulger. And then there’s the sentimental bit of pop psychology about his son and mom. Black Mass is ultimately a failure in all of its self-consciousness in making a rather horrific story a bit of Hollywood entertainment, not to mention a self-serious film reaching for awards and accolades I doubt it will snag.
Black Mass runs 122 minutes and is rated R (it’s violent). It opens in wide release this Friday, Sept. 17. All images are courtesy of Warner Bros., who hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
September 5, 2015
A masterfully crafted documentary, Best of Enemies uses humor, an intense devotion to archival footage and ultimately, a perspective that looks beyond its subjects to show how wrong we currently treat opposing views. The evidence is all over cable news today: pundits brought in to discuss everything from the state of police relations with the public to what happened on the MTV Music Awards the other night. Is there ever any enlightenment to be had that might actually bring substantive social change?
Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, two documentary filmmakers with most of their experience in covering popular music history, posit that there is not. Something was lost sometime in the late 1960s during a televised debate between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. Buckley, the right-wing conservative, and Vidal, the left-wing liberal, were hired by ABC News to provide commentary on the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach. Both the epitome of opposing intellects instead tore into each others ideals with hardly a true insight into the candidates, and it made for great television. By the time of that year’s Democratic convention in Chicago, ABC, once the lagging third place (and third-rate) network of the only three on commercial television blew away the competition of CBS and NBC. The impact of Gore and Buckley’s vitriolic debates changed news forever.
Best of Enemies spends a good amount of time dwelling on the two men and how they became stars of their political scene based on their writings and television appearances. Buckley, we learn in this film, enjoyed dismantling arguments to win them. In the same way, we learn, Vidal took pride in his intense research, in turn using his opponent’s language against him. Both thought their country was in a state of decline and blamed the ideas of the other. They also both ran for political office and failed. And even though both were born in New York, they spoke with affected English accents: the mark of the intellectual.
Early in the film, it’s fun to watch such men trade barbs. Low blows were not uncommon, and the filmmakers share some choice moments. In Chicago, however, the tone shifts, and inter-cutting footage of police crackdowns on protesters with the pundits’ debating, you get the uneasy sense of social breakdown. Couple that with what seems to be Vidal’s quest to break Buckley’s cool demeanor, and an intense suspense seems to build. Indeed it blows up in what was then startling fashion, and you get a sense that the two men will never be the same… nor, for that matter, TV news.
Gordon and Neville stick to using graphics from the era to enhance the archival footage, which often features sweeping shots of static images to add dynamism. They even kick off the film with the bubbling electronic music of Raymond Scott, a retro representation of the future (though it sounds incredibly dated and quaint now). It genuinely feels as though you are watching a document of that era. The only new footage is that of the talking heads, including Dick Cavett and Buckley’s brother Reid Buckley, who offer current perspective on a past that blew everyone who watched television news away (even though they had no idea what a change it would cause).
The filmmakers, though, save their kicker for the end, where both Vidal and Buckley, in a pair of brief clips produced not long after these debates, denounce the idea of debate on TV newscasts for a few minutes at a time while the end credits roll. This is when we also first see current images of modern political conventions, and someone talks about the divide of people who no longer listen to each other. Though of course Gore and Buckley do not deserve all the credit, this documentary allows for a lesson to the present (just check out today’s concerns with the “filter bubble”). Never has the sign of a TV screen cooling off after powering down had more resonance. It’s time to listen again.
Best of Enemies runs 87 minutes and is rated R (some intense language and possibly vintage nudity). It opened exclusively in our Miami area yesterday, Sept. 4 at Coral Gables Art Cinema. The film premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival. It’s opening now in other cities across the U.S. Check out this link for dates and theaters. All images in this post are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures who also provided a screener DVD for the purpose of this review.
September 4, 2015
After last year’s Listen Up Philip (‘Listen Up Philip’: one of the year’s most fascinating and funny character studies — a film review), who would have thought writer/director Alex Ross Perry would — just a year later — produce such a startling, tonally different work like the entrancing drama Queen of Earth. Elisabeth Moss once again returns to work with Perry after having such a great moment in his last movie. This time, however, instead of a character who works through her issues with a lover (the titular Philip played by Jason Schwartzman), she plays a woman who succumbs to a sudden sense of profound insecurity. Her character, Catherine, is dealing with two significant losses: the death of her father and a break-up with her boyfriend. She heads off to a lakeside house her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) has invited her to for a week of recovery. With those two relationships ended, the film focuses on the dynamic between these two women who know each other too well for their own good. Let the projection and anxiety commence.
Though Listen Up Philip was driven with a comic tone so keenly established by the film’s outset, Perry has shifted gears at an almost startling level. There is nothing funny in Queen of Earth, notes the 31-year-old filmmaker, speaking via phone from New York City. He says it was a conscious decision inspired by Woody Allen. “That’s why I was so excited about Interiors, which he made right after Annie Hall. I was thinking about how I could follow up Listen Up Philip because it was such a huge, sprawling complete movie, and I look at Interiors and I thought, ‘Well, that’s how you follow up a huge movie that really connects with people and changes the way that people look at your work is make this small miserable chamber piece with no humor and nothing that anyone likes about your last movie, and you just kinda get that going and you just try with something different.'”
The only thing that isn’t different about this film and Listen Up Philip is returning actress Elizabeth Moss. Perry considers her a friend and says having her sign on involved a simple text message asking if she would like to play the role. “She perceived it as a challenging character, the likes of which she’d never done before, and she was really excited about that, to do something different,” he says. “She’d never really done anything quite so genre suggestive, and she just saw it as a really great character, and I knew if I was lucky enough to get her, then most of the hard work would be done, and no matter what, this film would have a powerful central performance that would carry most of the movie, and that’s the most important thing for a movie, especially a movie like this. It’s just two people sitting around in one location. I knew we needed someone of her acting caliber, and I hoped it would be her, and I was very lucky that she thought that way as well.”
Another, less obvious, carry over is Perry’s regular soundtrack composer Keegan DeWitt, whose abstract, moody music is also a big departure from the jazzy score of Philip. It’s restless, avant-garde quality featuring flutes and bells recalls Ligeti and plays a prominent role in giving the film an obtuse sense of disquiet. Perry says, Keegan came late into the process, after Perry had already begun editing early scenes to a temp score. “He had to look at that and conform his creation around the pre-existing rhythm of the edit,” notes Perry, “which is certainly not usually how that thing is done, but I’m such a fan of his work, and I was so blown away with what he was able to do.”
In fact, DeWitt worked so quick, his music caught up with the production, and it even had an influence on Perry, to an extent. “I mean, he read the script as early as everybody else,” continues Perry, “and then he’s looking at the dailies, and he’s seeing footage by day four or five of the shoot, and he’s making music while we’re shooting the movie, and then he’s sending us his music while we’re shooting, and we’re listening to some of the music on set. Then on day one of editing, basically the final music is just in there, and the movie takes its shape, takes its form around the essentially finished score, and that makes the music a much more complete part of the finished film.” (You can listen to the entire soundtrack on Spotify)
As for the success of Listen Up Philip, which brought the indie filmmaker wider acclaim and notoriety — at least among cinephiles — he said it never tainted his independent ethos, despite riding a wave of buzz from Sundance to Los Angeles. “There certainly were no offers to do anything,” he reveals. “I was in Los Angeles for three weeks after Sundance with [producer] Joe Swanberg trying to find any offer for Listen Up Philip, which people really liked, and that whole time all he and I did was talk about making this movie. Now, here I am a year later, not a single offer and not a single meeting I had out there turned into anything at that time, except for all the time he and I spent dreaming of this movie, and now here we are talking about it, and it’s been released already. So that stuff is pretty elusive, especially when you’re alone with a strong enough perspective and viewpoint that it can’t just be squeezed into any random box, and yeah, it changed a lot in terms of the audiences that’s going to be interested in what the next project is, which is the best gift of all. I’d rather have that than being hired to direct some script that I don’t really sort of care about.”
Even though Listen Up Philip garnered him a new audience, Perry feels no urge to pander to them. Some may be startled by his shift in tone, but that does not bother the filmmaker. Asked how he felt about audiences who might be disappointed by the change he responded, “I hope so. That was my dream. That was what happened with Interiors from Woody Allen, and that’s what I wanted to really happen here. People are really into it, so I don’t know. I’m sure there are people that are disappointed, but it’s not like Listen Up Philip made $20 million or was nominated for Oscars or anything. Still relatively few people saw it, so I think the pool of people that can be disappointed is quite shallow, as well.”
Perry and I spoke much more in The Miami New Times, a publication I freelance for, about the themes of his films, questions he grapples with in his stories, influences and his filmmaking techniques, which embrace actual film. Jump through the newspaper’s art and culture blog logo below to read that article:
Queen of Earth opens in our South Florida area exclusively at Tower Theater this Friday, Sept. 4. It’s playing only at a few other theaters in the U.S. To see if it’s in your city, check this link. IFC Films films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this interview. They also provided all images here, except the portrait of Perry. That came from imdb.com.
September 3, 2015
Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s insights into human behavior seem to grow more astute with every film he makes. Somehow he finds charms in the flaws of people and transmits a keen sense of empathy to the audience. Baumbach and his screen-writing partner Greta Gerwig have crafted us a peculiar but endearing young woman with questionable social skills in Mistress America’s 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke). Speaking to her mom via phone not long after she has started class at Barnard, Tracy gripes about her difficulty making friends. “It’s like being at a party where you don’t know anyone all the time.”
“That sounds uncomfortable,” responds her mom. There’s something really funny in this exchange but also canny. The parent states something obvious, informed by experience. It leaves her daughter even more isolated and warmer to the audience. We also don’t understand Tracy’s troubles in making friends, which, as the movie progresses, will become more clear. But even in her social awkwardness she will continue to become more endearing, all the way up to a key confrontation that will have some questioning whether Tracy may be a sociopath.
Her mother suggests she call up the daughter of the man her mother is about to marry, Brooke (Gerwig), an older young lady (she’s 30) who may soon become her step-sister. One day, after eating an entire pie by herself at a diner, while Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” is spilling from a tinny speaker, Brooke stares down at the cracked screen of her iPhone 3GS. She dials Brooke and leaves a message. Brooke calls back seconds later and so begins a strange, screwy adventure about chasing dreams at oscillating levels of maturity.
Baumbach is at the top of his game working with Gerwig. A lightness pervades this film, similar to their fitst collaboration, Frances Ha (Film Review: ‘Frances Ha’ reveals Noah Baumbach’s luminous lighter touch). So the script is smart, but it wouldn’t be a complete package without supporting cinematic elements. New collaborators include the duo Dean & Britta of Luna fame, who have produced a bubbly, new wave soundtrack for the movie. But he’s also working with Sam Levy again who lenses a gorgeous New York City. However, nothing is about the surface in a Baumbach film. There’s a reason it takes Brooke an uncomfortable amount of time to walk down the Times Square steps with arms outstretched to greet Tracy waiting below. It’s a quirky set-piece that speaks to shaking off illusions of romance that Baumbach traffics in so well.
Ultimately, it is the screenplay that makes this movie, and I sense awards in its future (if there be justice). As delightful as these women sometimes appear, the script is quick to cancel out any charms, and this play never gets tiresome. Brooke is a great over-sharer and the embodiment of cognitive dissonance. She pauses in the street to write a Tweet about some inanity but gripes when someone snaps a picture of her being kissed by a friend. “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must WE?” she says in a declaration to the universe but to no one really.
The dynamic between these two would-be sisters starts to knot when Brooke shares with Tracy her idea to start a restaurant in New York City called “Mom’s.” Brooke doesn’t know anything about cooking, but she has an array of mismatched plates in boxes at her studio apartment that exude the sort of ambiance she dreams of creating. It’s this sense of superficiality that fuels an insubstantial drive that begins to intrigue and delight Tracy. Tracy, meanwhile, is chasing her own dream, hoping to be accepted by a supercilious writer’s club at college who flaunt leather satchels and sit in a room discussing big ideas while sipping wine. It turns out Brooke, who refers to herself as “Mistress America,” could prove to be the real-life inspiration she needs for a short story that would impress the snobs.
“I think you can do anything” Tracy says, enabling Brooke’s ego as she meets with potential investors. There’s a sinister sincerity to the statement. However, the film only ever presents these characters as endearing. Tracy never appears ironically shifty. You have a sense she knows not what she is doing, as she co-opts her new-found friendship with little regard for Brooke’s feelings. Whether she can learn from this is not spelled out, but the bond between these two depends on something much more profound.
Mistress America runs 84 minutes and is rated R (adult talk and humor). It opens in our South Florida area Sept. 4 at the following indie theaters: O Cinema Wynwood and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For screening dates hear you, check out a list of theaters hosting the film across the U.S. by clicking this link. O Cinema invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.