“Listen Up Philip”, a short review

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Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, a self-absorbed asshole who is enjoying a mild success with the publication of his second novel. Philip’s ego and eccentricity is progressively causing the disintegration of his relationship with his friends and his girlfriend Ashley (played by Elizabeth Moss). He is given the opportunity to meet his idol Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce), an older, successful, meaner writer who embodies everything that Philip aspires to be. In this friendship, Phillip embarks into a conflicting road of social self-destruction and emotional self-exile.

The film is the third feature of young NYU graduate Alex Ross Perry. His film “The Color Wheel” found no distribution but left an impression among critics. NY times’ A.O Scott called it “sly, daring, genuinely original and at times perversely brilliant.” but has also said in the same review that it is “full of obnoxious characters in scenes that seem overwritten and under-rehearsed, oblivious to the most basic standards of tonal consistency, narrative coherence or visual decorum.” “Listen Up Philip” is Perry’s first film with distribution. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January and has been released in selective theaters last Friday after leaving quite a good impression at the New York Film Festival.

Like “The Color Wheel”, “Listen Up Philip” is shot by cinematographer Sean Price Williams on Super 16mm. It is shot in a very well-designed documentary-style cinematography that made me think immediately of Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” or John Cassavetes’ “Shadows”. But what looks spontaneous and impulsive is actually deliberate and meticulously scripted. Perry fills the screen with wonderful extreme close-ups and dances the camera around in a chaotic but very calculated camera zooms, swings and tilts.

The dialogue is clever, sharp and heavily scripted. Perry leaves no room for improvisation, the screenplay is formed of novelistic monologues, witty insults and hurtful remarks. Most of these remarks are said by Schwartzman in his most rigorous and mature performance yet. Eric Bogosian narrates the film adding to the literary flavor of the film. (“narration NOT voice-over” Perry points out.). In the same way we switch to another chapter in a book, the story switches from one character to another. We follow Philip in the beginning of the film but then we shift to another character’s point of view creating a more layered and more elaborate perspective of the story.

“Listen Up Philip” belongs to a long tradition of New York independent movies. Along with Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen, Whit Stillman and many others, Alex Ross Perry fits like a glove. “It’s my New York movie” Perry explains during a Q&A at the BAMcinématek “I wanted to make a New York movie”.

Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”

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We can talk about Metropolitan in context with the history of American independent cinema but we would have very little to talk about. The 1990s in the United States was a golden decade for independent American cinema. Emerging young filmmakers like Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch were becoming the new faces of the so-called “indie film” in the United States. The 1980s was the decade of big Hollywood blockbusters e.g, Indiana Jones (1989), E.T The Extra –Terrestial (1982), RoboCop (1987) and so on, it was the decade of yuppies, Ronald Regan, Madonna, cocaine and AIDS. Then came the 1990s, a decade that can be described as the cultural hangover of the 80s. In the 90s, we saw the last days of celluloid and the birth of digital filmmaking. Films became grittier, people were interested in what was socially relevant: poverty, race, violence and the AIDS epidemic. Films like Kids (1995), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Do the Right Thing (1989) were successful. So how does a film about rich upper class Park Avenue kids fit into such a decade? Perhaps it is not a surprise to the reader that Whit Stillman’s directorial debut did not crowd the theaters. It was a lonely release with not much attention. Yet at the 63rd Academy Awards, it was honored with a Best Original Screenplay nomination. Stillman was awarded Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards and over a decade later, the Criterion Collection released Metropolitan with a new re-mastered digital transfer. So there is something to be said about the legacy and importance of this lonely little movie.

 

I saw Metropolitan for the first time on Netflix streaming. I was in my room and I watched it on my laptop (please don’t judge). I was in complete awe, not because it was an emotionally thrilling film but because I was fascinated with the characters, the tuxedos, the bridge parties and débutante balls. Watching these groups of young preppy Ivy League kids was as foreign and as fascinating to me as watching a documentary on the Awá tribe of the Brazilian Amazon. But I wasn’t just fascinated I was amused. Whit Stillman’s writing is witty, clever and irresistibly funny. What was interesting about the humor was how incredibly dry it was. The language is esoteric with unnecessarily long –sometimes ridiculous- sentences.

 

It’s hard to talk about this film in cinematic terms. We can say that it is mostly shot on a wide lens, everything is lit flat and uninterestingly and the camera is just there almost to just show us what’s going on, not much else. Scenes of long intellectual conversations mixed in with teenage-like gossip makes up probably 90% of the film. We, as an audience don’t participate in any of this. We just witness.

 

Metropolitan begins and opens with an establishing shot of the Plaza Hotel, after a debutante ball, a group of kids dressed in dresses and tuxedos come out and try to stop a taxi, they see another young man named Tom. There is a small misunderstanding and they accidentally invite him to a party at a Park Avenue apartment. Our sympathy lies with Tom who is the foreigner in this world of Upper East Side bourgeoisie. Tom gets immersed in this world and becomes involved in their personal affairs that end up in romances, disputes and amity.

 

The idea of it however, was fascinating to me; this enviroment of rich Upper East Side bridge parties was alien to me. I had grown up in Barcelona and watched plenty of films set in New York. It has always interested me how vastly different some of the cinematic portrayals of the city can be. Compare, for instance Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), both films set in New York yet the two films presents us with dramatically different worlds. This shows us that there are many “New Yorks”: Spike Lee’s New York has nothing to do Jarmusch’s and Jarmusch’s New York has nothing to do with Whit Stillman’s.

Hiroshima Mon Amour: a Modern Film

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima Mon Amour

 

“Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-vers in France.”

There is much to discuss about Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and much of it depends on subjective thought and critical perspective but one thing that could be said with fair certainty is that Hiroshima is a truly modern film in its entirety; from its content to its form and even its music. Since its 1959 release, the film has barely aged. It’s poetic structure, tragic themes and innovative use of non-linear storytelling is refreshing to this day almost 50 years later. But how do we classify Hiroshima Mon Amour? In its historical context, it’s a post-war classic, artistically it’s a gem of French cinema and for film historians, Hiroshima Mon Amour is considered as the catalyst for the Nouvelle Vague movement in France. French director Eric Rohmer once said “I think that in a few years, in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we will know whether Hiroshima Mon Amour was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema.” (1)

Resnais, who is a pre-Nouvelle Vague filmmaker is often linked to the French movement as a father figure along with other earlier French filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville and Robert Bresson. But as opposed to the French New Wave, Resnais is not upbeat and spontaneous instead he is nostalgic, carefully constructing a classic symphony that is both distressing and poignant. He is direct and clear and altogether abstract and lyrical. Hiroshima Mon Amour could very well be a story of love, even if the film carries the devastation of history on its shoulders.

The film opens with a woman’s voice over images of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in central Hiroshima. The poetic narration of the woman’s voice is juxtaposed to powerful images of the burned victims and genetically deformed children due to radiation poisoning from the atomic bombing, all of these images appear in the museum. This contrast is violently emotional. The image of ashes raining on the lover’s embrace is beautiful and horrific. The film consists of mostly a conversation or a series of conversations between two lovers, a French actress known simply as Her and a Japanese architect known as Him. It is understood that they had recently met in Hiroshima, Japan and had begun an affair that is now at its end. The film takes place in this final adieu between Him and Her. While she was in Hiroshima to make a “film about peace” (“What else can you make in Hiroshima?”) he was back from Paris. They speak French. They either have several conversations or they have one long conversation. It’s unclear. The film is purposely open to multiple interpretations. The film goes back and forth in time. It mixes cinema verité style documentary footage of the 1949 atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima Mon Amour mixes historical trauma with personal trauma in a poetic manner. The film deals heavily with memory and forgetfulness. Memory as a way to deal with trauma and forgetfulness as consequence of a national and personal tragedy. Both of His and Her personal trauma is directly linked to the uprising of Fascism and World War II. When she was young she was punished and humiliated for having a love affair with a German soldier and he was in the Japanese army but was elsewhere but his family was in Hiroshima during the 1945 bombing. He rejects her comparison of both sufferings yet he continues to pursue her.

The wonderful script by Resnais’ collaborator and French writer Marguerite Duras adds powerful friction to the image. This contrast between the beautiful text and the horrible image reflects upon the duality of love and hatred: his and her love against the hatred of the past and the horrors of memory.

As a film, it is a wonderful example of how film medium can be used as a way to preserve memory and a way to reflect a nation’s cultural conscience. It is not just an intercontinental medium but it is an art form that is truly modern. I personally like to think all films are about film in some way or another. Cinematic fiction is in itself a very self-aware medium. In Hiroshima Mon Amour we have a very real and major historical tragedy that is perfectly fitted into a very small intimate story of two lovers. This can only be achieved in film. When asked to write about a film viewed in my Film and Literature class I chose Hiroshima Mon Amour because it can be viewed as a film as a singularity or as cinema as a whole. Films like these are important because they constantly remind us never to forget. Films like these remind us of tragedy, mistakes and human suffering to perhaps look into the future. The past is gone but it is eternally immortalized as light being spilled on a screen to make sure we learn what we’ve done and where we were so that we can look at what we’re doing and where we’re going.

“Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin all over again. Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds. These figures are official. It will begin all over again. It will be ten thousand degrees on the earth. Ten thousand suns, they will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. A whole city will be raised from the earth and fall back in ashes….”

 

 

References:

(1) Kent Jones, “Time Indefinite”, essay for the Criterion Collection DVD release

The World According to “Frances Ha”

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“Frances Ha”

Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwick
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver, Grace Gummer,
Mickey Sumner, Patrick Heusinger, Hannah Dunne
 

Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy is about a 27 year old young adult trying to get by in today’s contemporary New York City.

But it’s also about how friends, lovers and acquaintances come and go,  jobs appear and disappear and life moves on. Never in one straight line. You move from apartment to apartment from borough to borough (this is an especially accurate depiction of today’s life in New York City).

It’s fun. It’s fast paced. It’s funny. It’s “Frances Ha”.

The film opens with cut-up moments of a young contemporary dancer named Frances (Gerwig) living in Brooklyn with her friend Sophie (Sumner) who is into the literary publishing business. They smoke on the fire escape, they pretend-fight in the park, they talk, they eat, they sleep together, they love each other, they’re best friends. You could say it’s a sweet and sour portrait of today’s life of young artists in the city but without falling into the romanticism of how New York used to be. To compare it as other critics have to HBO’s “Girls” is falling a little short, instead I think a more fair comparison would be to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” or “Annie Hall”, in the sense that the comedy rises from the awkwardness of everyday situations and written in a unique and sophisticated way.

bildeWe see the world according to Frances. And although she is neurotic, spontaneous and even a little irritating sometimes we still view the world through her lens. A part from a good screenplay with good naturalistic dialogue and realistic scenarios, it is still the performance of Greta Gerwick that really makes the whole thing come alive. Her eccentricity and character makes her likable enough to understand her irrational yet fascinating decisions like traveling to Paris for just a weekend.

The choice of black and white is more nostalgia than aesthetics. It bares the image to the bone and brings out the dialogue. The whole film seems to have a feel of a collection of moments. The scenes seem to be cut quickly sometimes right in the middle of the conversation. We just get a taste of the situations instead of having long and extended shots. In “Frances Ha” the shots are simple and well framed combining the early style of Jim Jarmusch with a pitch of François Truffaut.

Like most Noah Baumbach films, “Frances Ha” is filled with memorable lines and quotes, one of them is said by Sophie: “The only people who can afford to be artist in New York are rich” when she is looking around France’s new 4,000 dollar apartment whom she shares with two other  “artists”. Another memorable quote is said by Frances when she is asked what is exactly her profession, she answers: “It’s complicated”, then she is asked by the same person: “Is it because what you do is complicated?” she answers: “No, it’s because I don’t do it”. That could actually be a very good description of at least 90% of artist living in this city. It’s complicated because we don’t do it.

It’s a good film. Go see it. It’s playing at the IFC Center in the West Village.

http://www.ifccenter.com/films/frances-ha/

Food and Film: The Imaginary Conversations

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My father came to visit me in New York last week. Out one night, after a lovely dinner at Freeman’s we discussed where and why we would take our favorite filmmakers to dinner. Our rules were:

  1. They have to be alive.
  2. The dinner should have nothing to do with their nationality or their movies, it should relate to their character and artistic taste.
  3. The intention of this imaginary dinner is to have an in depth conversation about anything you want while enjoying food and/or drinks.
  4. The place must be in New York City.

Here is what I came up with the places I know…

WOODY ALLEN

Chicken salad sandwich at Eisenberg’s near the Flatiron.

Splash

WERNER HERZOG

Beers at some random pub in East Village.

MARTIN SCORSESE

Lunch at Fanelli’s Cafe in SoHo.

http://www.yelp.com/biz/fanellis-cafe-new-york

PEDRO ALMODOVAR

Vegan sushi at Beyond Sushi in Gramecy.

Home

LENA DUNHAM

Brunch at Cafe Colette in Williamsburg.

http://cafe-colette.com/

NOAH BAUMBACH

Dinner at ABC Kitchen in Union Square.

http://www.abckitchennyc.com/

QUENTIN TARANTINO

Cheeseburgers at Five Guys Burger.

http://www.fiveguys.com/

WES ANDERSON

Dinner at Freeman’s in the Lower East Side.

http://freemansrestaurant.com/

JIM JARMUSCH

Pizza at Artichoke pizza.

http://www.artichokepizza.com/

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI

Espresso at La Colombe in TriBeCa.

http://lacolombe.com/

OLIVER STONE

Argentinian food at Empanada Mama in Alphabet City.

http://www.empmamanyc.com/

DAVID LYNCH

Caviar or desert at The Russian Tea Room in Midtown.

http://russiantearoomnyc.com/

WIM WENDERS

Wine at The Lobby Bar in the Ace Hotel in Midtown.

http://www.acehotel.com/newyork

DAVID CRONENBERG

Dim sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown.

So far that’s all I got.

Please feel free to suggest your own imaginary dinner.

Bon appétit!

To the Wonder: a Journey of Senses From Paris to Oklahoma

Ben Affleck and Rachel Weisz

A poetic and lyrical piece about lovers flowing and sliding in and out of love is what is screened before you in such an atmospheric tone you feel you are literally swimming in it. Terrence Malick’s new film “To the Wonder” is a story of love, faith and the relationship of people who are lost culturally and emotionally. Neil (Ben Affleck) is an Oklahoman who brings his lover Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter from France to suburban America. The couple is soon torn apart after Neil falls for an American woman named Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina loses faith in her love for Neil and finds companionship with the town’s priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who is also in a country that is not his own and who is also loosing his faith. The story develops into an almost dream-like way that makes it feel like we are exploring someone’s memories, dreams and nightmares while at the same time, still maintaining a more or less linear storyline. The film’s beauty and splendor is supported  by masterful editing and a skillful cinematography work where the camera slides through space and time. Each of the shots in the film relate to each other purely through emotion sometimes playfully jump cutting or even having the same action repeated in several shots. The film in its totality however, fails to support its philosophical themes. It soon becomes repetitive and dull. It seems as if the beautiful shots of Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck running and teasing each other through gorgeous landscapes and American supermarkets are exploited throughout the film. Sometimes it even comes very close to have the emotional value of a perfume commercial.  Aesthetics and poetic lyricism is all that’s left of Malick’s “To the Wonder”, failing completely to go further than the beautiful image.

Malick’s previous film “The Tree of Life” (2011) was an ambitious and visually breathtaking film about childhood and coming of age. It was received with cheers and boos at festivals and yet it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This film however, although it caused the same kind of mixed reaction, it falls far from The Tree of Life which had grown my expectations in such a way that perhaps this film has disappointed me by contrast. It wouldn’t be fair to say that “To the Wonder” is a bad film yet the disappointment was such that  it made it  feel (at least for me) as if it was the case.

Cosmopolis and the Specter of Capitalism

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“A specter is haunting the world. The specter of Capitalism” these words are lid in a big screen somewhere in Times Square as the young billionaire Eric Packer drives through an anarchist protests with his limousine. That is one of the haunting scenes from the new David Cronenberg film starring Robert Pattinson as Eric Packer. The film takes place mostly in Packer’s white stretch limo where he embarks on an odyssey across midtown Manhattan to get a haircut. In his journey he encounters several obstructions: various traffic jams caused by a presidential visit to the city, anti-capitalists protesters, and a Muslim rapper’s funeral procession. During his voyage he also encounters several meetings with various women whom he has sexual relations with, his daily check-up doctor and his wife. In his limo, he has computers were he starts loosing millions of dollars by betting against the yen currency. The currency speculation is parallel to his self-destruction.

Cronenberg portrays an image of the 1% that is alien to the reality that surrounds it. A speculator that is so loyal to capital that it will go down with it to the very end. A 1% so bizarre that seems almost non-human (at one point the doctor tells Eric that his prostate is asymmetrical). For Eric, money is an abstraction. Cronenberg creates a world not so different from our own where the idea of capital has become more of an intellectual reality as opposed to a more tangible material. A world where a billionaire like Eric Packer can gain and loose millions of dollars without actually producing anything. Eric Packer embodies the self-destructive tendency of Capitalism. The ruin is inevitable.

The dialogue is cold and surreal. The casting of Robert Pattinson has some consequences; the character comes across convincingly enough to make you realize he is playing another kind of blood-sucking vampire. However, Mr Pattinson fails to deliver the sense of power that his character possesses. The choice for Mr. Pattinson is clearly understood as a charismatic choice and a commercial strategy. Nonetheless, the film does not lack originality and manages to pick your mind and imagination for 109 minutes. It’s definitely worth the watch and worth the time.