ARP IMDBAfter 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.'”

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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.”

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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 thatqueen poster 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:

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Hans Morgenstern

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 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.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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It’s the end of the year, and once again here is a list of the best films I caught this year. As opposed to other years, I’m including short films and even a couple of multimedia experiences, including some works that some might exclusively consider “art.”

If there is one characteristic I search for in moving image experiences it is the feeling of transcendence. To this writer and lover of the art of the moving image — sometimes above narrative and definitely beyond the confines of the classical Hollywood cinema form — that often means subverting the medium. It would be unfair to place the burden of that on narrative films that often come up this time of year, begging to be noticed for an Oscar award. But it was a grueling awards season this year only because not many of these films stood out as genuinely spectacular (I’m thinking Unbroken, The Gambler, Into the Woods and Interstellar)

In this two-part post, I hope to give you a taste of films that you would not expect for an end-of-the-year summary, including links to some that you might be able to see now, on-line. All of these were true surprising experiences and many, yes, had that moment of transcendence. But of course there were indie, world and even some studio films that impressed with acting and narrative technique.

Though I must take personal acquaintance out of the mix, as that has an effect on opinion, allow me to note that I saw wonderful films by some local Miami filmmakers this year. The Miami International Film Festival gave us the incredible short documentary “Cherry Pop: The Story of the World’s Fanciest Cat” by Kareem Tabsch, co-founder of Miami’s chain of O Cinemas. He cracked up when I asked if it was a mockumentary. It’s not.

MIFF also gave us “Ectotherms,” an atmospheric film of suburban malaise distinct to Miami by Monica Peña, operations manager at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (read my interview with her here). She also finished a short documentary that captures a side of Miami Beach few who haven’t been there have ever seen. It premiered at Miami’s Borscht Film Festival. Watch “Pink Sidewalks” below:

Speaking of Borscht, I saw only a few of this year’s offerings, but they inspired lots of writing on my part in the “Miami New Times.” “Cool As Ice 2” is an amazing meta sequel to Cool As Ice by the talented duo of Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer. Then there is “Papa Machete,” by Jonathan David Kane, a poetic short documentary about an elderly Haitian Machete Fencing master that is now headed to Sundance. I also lobbied hard to get Borscht the “Golden Orange” from the Florida Film Critics Circle. They won it (read all my Borscht coverage and check out videos by following this link).

Finally, though Art Basel – Miami Beach this year meant a preview for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, it more importantly allowed me to spend a lot of time with Auto Body, an group exhibition in response to gender inequality in art that featured art by women artists. It was a performance and video-based exhibit with nothing for sale. A lot of it was based on destruction over creation or vice-versa. It opened with Cheryl Pope destroying hundreds of water balloons sustained from the ceiling using only her head and closed with Naama Tsabar leading an all-girl band through an immaculate cover of Pulp’s “Babies,” which descended into abstract noise at song’s end, while Tsabar spent a half-hour bashing the stage to pieces with her guitar. In between my friend dancer Ana Mendez choreographed a fall down and “up” a metal staircase she titled “Liminal Being,” which she repeated several times each day of the exhibit. It was raw, real and visceral, showing both strength and human vulnerability, something that could be said for much of the art in this exhibit.

But much of what made Auto Body were short films, and indeed some of the most incredible visuals I saw this year unfolded on those 25 screens. I wrote a preview here, with several interviews. Next I wrote a reactionary summary of part of day 1 of the event here. The latter includes some of the video highlights at the exhibition, which lasted four days and even caught the attention of the “New York Times.” Here’s a snippet of one of the highlights (those offended by naked female bodies should not play this):

There are some terrific film experiences above that made 2014 memorable, there’s also a distinctive style coming out of Miami, be it abstract or narrative-based, that is worth further exploration in another post. Some are already using the term “Miami Wave.” I just feel too close to them to rank them among the films I feel less personally attached to in the list below and in part 2 of this post, which will appear on this blog tomorrow. Though, recalling this year in local art and film, I do feel like I have already written about my favorite film of 2014.

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I’m going to start this list by presenting an example of one of the great short films I saw in 2014, which I will consider number 20 of my top 20 film experiences of 2014, then I’ll present the rest of the first half of this list. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the specific link, you will be financially supporting this blog. If we reviewed it here, there will be a link to the review under the poster art. Finally if we haven’t reviewed it, I’ll try to share a few words about the film’s significance.

20. Collection petites planètes • volume 7 • Maricel Yasa

Do not dismiss this as a music video. It’s a slice-of-life exploration of Buenos Aires with the beautiful accompaniment of the music of Maricel Yasa. Her soft, airy vocals and active acoustic guitar plucking is sometimes accompanied by a droning, high-pitched violin but it mostly melds with the sounds of the city, be they rumbling buses or kids setting off sporadic fireworks in a park. Filmmaker Vincent Moon (we wrote a lot about him here), shows no shame in his probing camera work, which is as spontaneous as the scenes he captures, he drifts close to his subjects and shows as much respect for their surroundings. His work has beauty and an earthy quality that is both beautiful and sometimes sublimely poetic.

19.  Blue Ruin

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With Blue Ruin, director Jeremy Saulnier gives us a suspense film not driven by plot twists but a human incompetence that reveals the blinding power of a grudge allowed to fester for way too long. The performances by these unknown actors are handled with great care. There’s an every-man quality to them that far from glamorizes the revenge flick. There’s little panache but great sensitivity in showing how hard it is to kill, adding to the nerve-racking pace of the film without contrived enhancements of editing and music.

18. Whiplash

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Refreshingly intense, Whiplash not only features two of this year’s great male performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, but it  has an unrelenting pace fueled by twisted passion. They may not be musicians, but Teller and Simmons give a lot to convey their weirdo drive for technical musical perfection. The crazy thing is that it’s jazz, a music to be loved for its human imperfection. However, to get to that — ahem — transcendent level of greatness in the music, you have to master perfect form, and it comes through pain, and, man, is pain conveyed to the hilt in this film.

17. Wild

Read Ana Morgenstern’s review

16. Force Majeure

Force_MajeureRead my review

15. Listen Up Philip

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14. Lake Los Angeles

lake laRead my review in “Miami New Times”

13. Snowpiercer

snowpiercer_ver20Read Ana Morgenstern’s review

12. Birdman

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11. Hide Your Smiling Faces

smilingfaces_smRead my review

Tomorrow: the top 10 films (or videos) of 2014. Update, it’s live:

The best movies of 2014, according to Hans Morgenstern — Part 2

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

LUP-Poster-WEBIt doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that Listen Up Philip presents a man, specifically an author, living two lives. One is a life of the corporeal, human behavior and feelings with repercussions on those close to him personally, the other is a life of intellect, creativity and imagination, which satisfies personal ego and impacts, however fleetingly, those who read his books. The drama of the film stems from the titular character’s sacrifice of one life over the other. Which one he chooses will make him either a hero or a villain. Director and screenwriter Alex Ross Perry wastes no time establishing which he is.

Third-person omniscient narration prattled off by Eric Bogosian in an authoritative deadpan, as if he were at a book reading, informs us that Philip (Jason Schwartzman), who is walking down a New York City street with a furrowed brow is “characteristically not in a hurry but enraged by slow foot traffic in front of him.” When he sits at a diner counter the narrator speaks of a familiar “stage of rage” that has overtaken him due to the tardiness of his ex-girlfriend. When she appears, he tries to shrug it off, but ends the “date” by walking out without ordering and refusing to give her a copy of his new book he said he has personalized with a dedication to her.

Perry has set up a movie to make Philip Lewis Friedman, played by a note-perfect Schwartzman, one of the pettier, unsympathetic dicks committed to screen in a long time. jason_booksThe voice-over narration reveals motivation and often conflicting feelings of angst and ennui. It’s as if Philip lives and destroys relationships so he might inform his writing, and it makes for a heck of a funny film if you can stomach the anti-hero as protagonist.

The audience is not allowed to judge that his writing is any good, but we are told that it is. That is all that matters because this a film not concerned with the craft of creativity as much as it is interested in the formation of the persona of the creator. When we meet Philip, he is only just finished his second novel, but we are told he is on his way to a very successful career as a writer. It’s no secret that Perry based this film on the acclaimed writer Philip Roth, so those with some insight into the life the writer, who has been known to have influenced Perry, might get extra satisfaction from the comedic drama of Listen Up Philip. But those who are not are still in for a heck of a hilarious ride into comedic irony that speaks to the creative soul entanglement with true human relations.

Philip is a huge narcissist. His consistent failure to sympathetically connect with those outside of him from one beat to the next gives Listen Up Philip a sort of sadomasochistic humor firmly trenched in Woody Allen and Larry David, albeit a bit darker. There is a sense of hopelessness for this man to connect. He hardly shows any despair about this quality, and if he does it’s only because he might feel he failed not others but himself. It’s presented as a vivid conundrum via his suffering current lover, played with forgiving heart by Elisabeth Moss. Ashley is certainly strong in her own right as a working photographer with her own creative side, yet she struggles to stay afloat in his wake. He seems more domestically satisfied when a more famous writer, with a lengthy but faltering career (a steely but tired Jonathan Pryce), invites him to his country home to finish his third book. That this man seems like an aged doppelgänger, beard and all, should serve as a warning post, but for Philip, the ego maniac, he has found a mentor to aspire for.

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Schwartzman proves a perfect pick for the lead role. Philip’s remote yet determined attitude harkens back to his role as a teenager in the film that put him on the map as an actor: Rushmore. Philip is what the sociopathic aspiring overachiever Max Fischer would have become had he lost his virginity to Miss Cross.

Moss is also given a period of time in the middle of the film to carry the movie, and she shines with warm grace. While Philip heads off to the country and later accepts an adjunct position as a creative writing professor at a university, she takes the time to grow familiar with the comfort of his absence. The time away from Philip reveals what a weight he bore on her, and when he returns, the audience will have every right to root for her own desires over his, a power she can only find with distance.

Shot in Super 16mm, the director harnesses the power of the medium for the intimacy required of his subject and themes. Faces are tightly framed by the format, highlighting the actors’ expressiveness. Listen Up Philip needs this intimacy, which is hardly played for sentiment. Cjason_josephinelose-ups highlight often conflicted faces, which enhance the declarative, oft-present narration, which digs deep into the tumultuous emotions that inform Philip’s behavior, who cannot ever seem to genuinely communicate and connect with those around him. Sometimes the voice-over narration drowns out dialogue because it’s the world inside that Philip cares more deeply about.

Listen Up Philip is a film not only incredibly concerned with the internal world of the writer but also the dual nature of identity. There is no middle ground for Philip, he must choose between the people who want to love him or be loved by strangers who have not had the misfortune of meeting this cretin in the flesh. The film presents that vividly with strong performances, creative filmmaking and witty writing. It’s a tragic comedy that balances both sides to present a thoroughly watchable movie informed by a pained personal wisdom, so thanks to Perry for digging as deep as he does to present one of the year’s most fascinating and funny character studies of a real a-hole.

Hans Morgenstern

Listen Up Philip runs 109 minutes and is not rated (it’s got cursing and some sexual stuff [can’t recall if its graphic]). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Oct. 31. The cinematheque provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. It only recently opened in theaters across the U.S. and will be expanding across cinemas for the rest of the year. For other screenings, visit this link.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)