Category Archives: Review

Free Pussy Riot

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadia), Maria Alyokhina (Masha) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (Katia)

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – HBO

A defiant woman sits in a courtroom in Russia. She is pretty, with cropped hair, a full, protruding lower lip. Her expression says she is unconflicted; she is waiting. The judge presiding over the trial and that of two other young women is a Russian woman of a different generation. Heavy red rouge, a hairstyle out of the height of 1980s sternness. She seems to express no empathy for the women who are charged with disturbing the social order by acts of hooliganism. To them, she is a warden of Vladimir Putin’s court. The enemy they denounce on the streets also judges them in captivity.

The women are each sentenced to three years in a penal colony. According to their lawyers, the crime they had broken was no more than a misdemeanor. Even an admittedly “sloppy” one. These women, along with other members of an anonymous feminist modern art group called “Pussy Riot,” entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on February 21, 2012 and approached the altar. They began what was to be their fifth performance together in a public space with a song they had written that contained the lyrics, “It’s god shit.” The performance lasted less than thirty seconds before the scattered crowd of enraged security guards and religious visitors, many who were overwhelmed with shock, rushed to remove them from that sacred space. This was filmed and added to the group’s YouTube site. It is a scene of such vibrant blasphemy that few will have ever seen anything like it.

The group was expecting the performance to provoke noise from the opposition and anger from Putin. They may not have expected the backlash they would see from the Russian Orthodox church. The church has come to symbolize much of what Russia was able to rebuild after the fall of the Soviet Union, and its fragile statements about conservatism are made stronger by the backing of Putin’s state. A mother of one of the members of Pussy Riot received threats to tear off her daughter’s limbs when she is released from jail. The three women who were arrested from the performance would be left to speak on behalf of the opposition from behind bars.

“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” a documentary directed by Mike Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, aired on HBO this week. Revolution has in the last century appropriated the loud hues of rock and roll. Pussy Riot is driven with the sounds of punk rock, performed by young women whose thin limbs are colored in multiple brights shades of tights and whose identities are hidden with homemade balaclavas.

People only vaguely familiar with the group often refer to them as that “Russian band.” Their appearance is a shock of color and movement, seeming to compose far less a music group and far more a work of conceptual art. (Those who have seen that memorable, odd dance sequence in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers will feel a pang of recognition). The group also denies they are a band, saying instead they are a performance art group that uses metaphor and art to convey their opinions about feminism and free culture – two things that the Russian government denounces on a regular basis. In an interview with a British journalist about the group’s criminal trial, Putin asked him to consider the history and significance of the word “pussy,” inviting him to join in disgust at the audacity of such a thing. (“I assumed it referred to a cat,” the journalist coyly said).

As brash as the group comes off, there is no denying a certain amount of bravery that their performances demand. The process for the art itself seems simple, “write a song, some music, and think of a place to perform,” one member says. However the quick rush to the location, clambering up and over fences and walls, and the sudden burst of performance to a dazed public is not in the agency of every man and woman. The group’s fourth performance took place in Red Square, one month before the cathedral show. The title of the Kremlin performance was “Putin Zassel” (Putin pisses).

Today twelve activists are facing up to eight years in jail for their participation in a protest the day before Putin’s inauguration as President on May 7. Thirteen years after he first assumed the office, opponents are accusing him of establishing a base of loyalists who support his leadership of the United Russia party in what he calls a “sovereign democracy.” Part of this has been a clampdown on dissent that has echoes to Russia’s long communist era and belies a leader’s devotion to quiet, conservative values.

Pussy Riot shows the world how art expression brings criticism, clear and unmistakable as church bells, into a public square where it is not welcome. The Occupy Wall Street movement of last year could have used some of that – clear as its political objectives were. Today the words Pussy Riot evoke mass protests in Russia, a pop song, a book about the group published by the Feminist Press last September, shout outs from Madonna and various other activist celebrities. They all say that Russia needs a group like Pussy Riot.

The group should feel at least somewhat fulfilled by these results. Meanwhile, two women wait in prison – one having staged a prolonged hunger strike to protest her internment. At the appeal hearing where one of the women had her sentence suspended through a bit of shrewd legal legwork, Nadya Tolokonnikova lamented that Putin had been elected for a third term while she languished in isolation. To her, Pussy Riot and other groups like it really are important to Russia. “See what is happening,” she said to the court. “She what Russia has become?”

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Greenberg

What is happening in Greenberg? One thing is Noah Baumbauch’s near-perfect screenplay and direction. This is a real LA film, and for whatever reason, Baumbach has chosen LA to be the setting for a particular portrait of sadness. Because that’s what this film is. It’s sadness…all of ours, represented in the title character far less than it is in its Lavinia of tortured lead female characters, Florence, who is kicked and poked and emotionally thrown just enough to make the viewer think, wow, Baum speaks the truth.

There are a few women who are irreconcilably offended by the way Florence is treated in this film. And rightly so, indeed. Yes. This viewer felt pain, but it was largely a lot of her own ability to recognize the impulses and actions that probably make Florence a bit of a push over, and a dummy, in the film. You are forgiven and further empathized with, because I am guilty of the same.

Florence is the personal assistant to the kind of beautiful, liberal couple that lives in LA, which is very similar to the same couple that lives in New York, only the former have a pool that they let their weirdo neighbors use. She is babysitter to their kids, buyer of groceries, and walker of their lovable German Shepard and comfy Hollywood home. They take their kids on a family vacation to Vietnam, where they’re “opening a hotel or something,” and leave their heavily psycho-medicated brother, visiting from New York for a while after an off-camera break-down, alone with his thoughts, the liquor cabinet, and a notepad on which to write letters of complaint to various corporations and national newspapers.  (“Can a pool flood? What the hell kind of question is that?” his brother shouts over the phone from Vietnam).

Another thing that is happening is Ben Stiller, who, as the brother, Roger Greenberg, is giving us a performance that is unhinged and damaged and ultimately real: he gives us the comedy he was once capable of before a long, strange hiatus into…other things. Stiller has comedic posts in the deadpan, in the wacky, in that of the bemused straight man, and now in the form of a Baumbach lead. Bequeathed with a critical literacy that lets him analyze 20-year olds at his niece’s party (“Oh yeah, I heard the kids are doing coke again,” he says with mock amusement), by saying he read in an article that they are all incapable of expressing emotions. He reverses this comment in another, more serious scene when he admits to Florence that he thinks “young people are so brave.”

Greenberg is also available to transgress social and emotional boundaries with Florence, and then feign damage and unavailability when she, oddly, responds. His poor treatment of an old friend and bandmate who he reunites with in LA is troubling, since he is a fumbling, idiotic, selfish mess most of the time. But his relationship with Florence  is made to be the focal point for us to choose to hate him or forgive him. It seems like this is a very important choice, and Baumbach may be too hasty to make the call for us at the end. That doesn’t change the fact that everything that Baumbauch is trying to tell us with his film, in the focused details of misbehavior, is entirely, unforgivingly true.

-Heather Struck

I Fear What I May Do One Fateful Valentine’s Day

Not really. I mean, aside from giving myself digestive problems from eating too many jelly beans in one sitting and washing it down with a bottle of Riesling, which has happened before, so I can’t even really fear that anymore. But the revelation with Shutter Island is that it gives us a remarkable fear within the framework of a paranoia film. It’s probably the greatest and most intense fear in existence, because its explanations are so abstract. It is the fear that we will never really own our minds. If the purpose of art is to seek representations of truth, and the good artist achieves some amount of clarity in that quest, then how do all the rest of us manage to stumble along in our silly jobs with their useful applications, churning and creating and advancing modern society in an attempt to serve some greater duty to the universe? How do we do that knowing that, come on, we don’t have any clue about what’s happening out there.

If there’s a reason to get this existential here now, other than that I just think about this sort of stuff all the time, it’s that the paranoia in Shutter Island touches on what seems to be a current societal concern with the big questions of art and life, that have indeed been around forever. A Jonathan Ames quote from a recent episode of his HBO series, Bored to Death, leaps out at you like a line from T.S Eliot – “Our lives don’t change, we just become more content with our core of misery, which is a form of happiness” – delivered by a wonderfully surly psycho-therapist.

Ok, yes. Let’s talk about this and worry about this now. It’s been enough time. A psycho-correctional facility on a damp, north-eastern island is a scary enough setting for it.

Shutter Island is adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane,who also wrote the novel that inspired Clint Eastwood’s somber Mystic River. Scorsese suggests in Shutter Island that there are indeed dark corners of human nature that are so traumatic to behold that they tear down humanity’s own grip on the earth. Without going too much into plot, which is woven masterfully with suspense and what are quite beautiful macabre scenes that caused one audience member to remark out loud, “This is getting trippy,” Scorsese has produced a fresh, imaginative work. If one expects staleness from this director, he proves them wrong with a defiant flourish, and he continues to make engaging films with not a scene wasted.

Heather Struck

We Could Just Build a Robot and Call it Our Daughter

The Onion’s AV Club did a bang-up review on the amazing DVD release of Small Wonder, the theme song of which tells us why television had a sitcom revolution in the last decade. Everything that is banal and terrible and devoid of meaning in life was made into a TV pilot. After a brief, heightened peak with Harry and the Hendersons, it was a long, far slide to rock bottom.

Heather Struck

Those Game-Changing Films of the 00’s

Some excellent film-making happened during the Cold War, a time when paranoia pervaded movies with such atmosphere and rhythm as to make them fairly indispensable to our back-looking view of those decades. What happened in the post 9/11 years of the 21st century was something different though. Parameters were stretched with visual tactics and narrative structures were blasted and remolded by fantastic writing talents. The films in this list are the game-changers for film in the last decade. They are chosen both for their artistic merits as well as for their popular appeal, and because I will always fall for the masters of the pen.

Dancer in the Dark (2000) – Just a tremendous masterpiece.

Lord of the Rings (2001) – Screenwriters Fran Walsh (married to Peter Jackson) and Philippa Boyens, were both working in flush territory of fantasy and English poetry with this script. I can’t imagine why elves and goblins make a good picture, and military brats and blue aliens don’t, but alas, we have Avatar.

Lost in Translation (2003) – This film helped solidify a new age for introspection and malaise in cinema, Coppola’s muse. Well done, because this one stuck.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – Charlie Kaufman is a master. Anthony Lane remarked at the time that he would have liked to see Mark Ruffalo and Jim Carrey switch parts in this film. So would I, you know, just for a laugh.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) – This film came right on the heels of the break-out British comedy series, The Office, and it had, along with Simon Pegg’s fine comedy writing, the same idea to embark. We are all, in our hazy, slightly terrified, uncertain daily lives, already zombies.

Naploeon Dynamite (2004) – I may have been persuaded by the time capsule of nostalgia that this film is, but ultimately it’s about friendship, and it pulls off that journey with humor and fluidity. It also lets Jon Heder dance like a white boy at the end.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Annie Proulx’s fiction is a solid base for Ang Lee’s beautiful piece. The American West is the star, but Lee respects emotional conflict enough to let the characters stir up a brilliant narrative.

This Is England (2006) – My favorite film of that year, because it so eloquently said and did what everyone was trying to do — Show that we ache for the lives of others, and that, in itself, is life.

The Host (2006) – Funny and sad, scary and…salty. Lots of ramen. A great take on what a horror film should be.

There Will Be Blood (2007) – If the Western was at all revisited in this last decade, it was to broaden the limits of the ideals implicit in the genre, Brokeback did a lot for that, while films like those by Paul Thomas Anderson, operatic and gorgeous, simply use their existing limits to expose a general uneasiness and fear about our present modern world.

Heather Struck

Oscar-Gala Part 1

Because predicting Oscar winners and losers is what we do in moments of boredom. Not that there’s anything right about that. According to my historical logic, Up In The Air wins Best Picture and Avatar takes home a BAFTA for Best Actress. Here is Part 1:

AvatarKill Bill (Not nominated, 2003)

The $300 million sci-fi back-breaker that J. Hoberman says is a “spectacular instance of political correctness,” I simply call really freakin disappointing. If this is Sci Fi, why is it not acting like it, and if it is expanding the boundaries of a genre, it didn’t work. Sigourney Weaver’s presence in the film tears at my heart and makes me wish for a scene half as awe-inspiring as one from Alien, and one that campaigns for whatever office he’s going for three times less vehemently. The campaign fails because Avatar is a film that seems to have lost its real plot somewhere in production, and is left with a project that is predictable, reused and offensive, which is exactly how this writer felt, as she wrote for The Awl. Hoberman is right to expect a back-lash from the Right as much as Bustillos is right to expect one from women. The former may deride Hollywood and 20th Century Fox for the audacity to pointedly bash the Bush years with little dropped-in lines like “shock and awe” and a delightful ideological battle between science and political power,  but he fails to expect a similar backlash from the Left. What, exactly, are we watching? And why is the American colonization story being used so fluidly without even a nod to the origins of that story? Is this a space story or not, man? I liked some of Kill Bill, but Tarantino’s eagerness to fly his film’s heroine from genre plot point to genre plot point was too jarring to form a cohesive whole. We were left with pieces of some pretty cool filmmaking, but not a film. Cameron hit the same errors with his passionate flight to make a film he could burst back on the scene with. He didn’t realize that 2009 is a far throw from 1994. You just can’t pull one over on us anymore.

Up In The AirCrash (Best Picture, 2005)

Jason Reitman’s respectably neat film may be this Oscar season’s Crash, not in the sense that it’s an overblown, overrated act of atmosphere, but because it offered a view of ourselves in 2009 that seemed to flow directly into a recognizable cultural ethos. Up In The Air is a good film with a surprising ending and actors who are up to the task of comedy and everyday drama. It finally, in the end, shows us that we are indeed wounded by an economic storm that has left more men and women out of work than have been in 3 decades. Its real effectiveness, however, is in Reitman’s ability to draw out the flaws and desires of his central character, whose own heartbreak and ultimate realization mirror our own. We were ready for this easy film because it happily reminds us how to live. And we will always take that reminder.

-Heather Struck

21st-Century Films I Can’t Get Outta My Head

These are the films I am most constantly revisiting, in my head and on my TV screen. They are a good way to measure the noteworthy films of the last decade because, while they have myriad artistic merits, they more importantly have that certain something that creative, ambitious cinema can produce. My head tells me so, at least.

Sexy Beast (2000): Few characters scare me…Ben Kingsly’s Don Logan terrifies me.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): How we deal with technology and how it deals with us. I remember many people thinking that the ‘future robots’ were aliens, which is an example of how outright misunderstood this film was.

25th Hour (2002): There are certain times when we can look back at our decisions in earnest. In the wake of 9/11, we could relate to this.

Irréversible (2002): The entire length of this film captures pure states of emotion, a unique feat. It is by no means an easy viewing experience, but one that is rewardingly unforgettable.

Finding Nemo (2003): The first Pixar film that hit me on all levels, this is one I’ve kept on my mind. Family and friendship is even better illustrated without the bitter-sweetness of nostalgia that its Toy Story films swam around in.

Lady Vengeance (2005): The entire Chan-Wook Park Vengeance Trilogy is amazing. This one has the most emotional impact in my book.

Shaun of the Dead (2004): I think I’ve mentally exhausted everything this film offers, but it took about a dozen views to get there. It’s the best comedy and the best zombie film of the decade.

The Host (2006): A dysfunctional family melodrama with a monster. This film has it all. If only more films would just add a monster.

Zodiac (2007): This film tells us, in a brilliantly moody way, that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

There Will Be Blood (2007): Cue the chorus to the theme from America’s Funniest Home Videos. “America…America…This is youuuu.”

And I am prone to panic at the moment where I have to cut my list off, so here are a few very honorable mentions:
Battle Royal, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Dancer In The Dark, Requiem For A Dream, Amelie, Mulholland Drive, Y Tu Mamá También, 28 Days Later, Adaptation, City Of God, Punch-Drunk Love, Road To Perdition, Solaris, Dogville, Kill Bill 1, Oldboy, The Dreamers, Collateral, Kill Bill 2,  Sideways, A History Of Violence, The New World, The Departed, A Scanner Darkly, Borat, Children Of Men, Little Children, United 93, Once, Death Proof, Eastern Promises, No Country For Old Men, Persepolis, The Orphanage (El Orfanato), Burn After Reading, Let The Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In), Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight, Wall-E, Waltz With Bashir, Where The Wild Things Are, Coraline, Thirst, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, A Serious Man

-Patrick Starr

Decade List TK — The Best Movies Since 2000

We are working on it with great intensity. Here’s a recipe for Russian Tea Cakes (my favorite Christmas cookie) for the mean time.

Betty Crocker has a simple version, an index card somewhere in my Mom’s old cookbook has a better one. I’m going to try the former and see if I can possibly go on in life with 2nd best.

-Heather

We’re Not Totally Sure What He “Does,” But Here’s Reggie Watts, and It’s Good

There are two reasons that Reggie Watts makes for a good set, and they are 1) he doesn’t get bogged down in, you know, ‘jokes,’ which, let’s face it, can be onerous and tiresome, and 2) he’s referred to as a “performance artist” more than anything else. This is a word that, above all else, means that if you don’t catch this set and whatever happens in it, you never will. Alright, obviously. The poster above is not for this New Year’s Eve, it was last year’s, but I imagine his performance at the event advertised above was altogether similar and different to the one he delivered at The Onion’s holiday party this month (in Bell House, an oasis in the seedy part of Brooklyn used in Goodfellas for Ray Liotta to cut his teeth).

Performance is impermanent, off-the cuff and consists of energy that people often only derive while in front of a group of people, or peoples (in an anthropological sense). Yes, Watts could have been doing his thing in a midnight fire and steel drum session as part of a native community in the West Indies. It would be the same creative burst and the same reception.

I don’t know what actually culturally happens in many West Indian territories as much as I’d like to, alas, but even in New York, theater is often the same. You can’t capture that energy and hold onto it in anything but memory, which is bittersweet, because what stays in memory tends to get more and more gilded and more distant from the moment of creation as time passes.

Reggie Watts fits in this world, where music and impromptu story-telling are the ways to pass our time. His music is extraordinary in such a way that he could easily be that quirky member of the band with the massive afro and the hookups to all the good parties. But while he’s onstage at a comedy show, getting laughs the way a musician snags cheers over a toss of the head or a killer solo, his promenence among a culture of performers is clear. Watts is a student of meta-analysis, and he takes care in reigniting songs and ephemera from our memories so that we can see what had made them so meaningful in the first place. In a lot of cases, we don’t know what the hell made them so meaningful. They were single-celled, monotonous, catchy pop culture. It’s not so important what the words to any of the pop songs in the early 1990s actually were, since we laugh and sway to Watts’ reimagined version of a song by Third Eye Blind or somesuch band, in which he stumbles over lyrics and sustains only the pop-beats that made the songs so catchy in the first place.

It’s all, really, a bit of fun of course. Nothing to be taken so seriously as a communal ritual or a Harold Pinter play. But it’s a comedy show, which is, of course, one of the most serious things in the world to those who love them.

-Heather Struck

What’s Playing in Town — Men Staring at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on a book by Jon Ronson that claims to tell some truly bizarre facts about the U.S. military’s foray into some psychic experiments in its Fort Bragg training facility that involve mind control, and what the film calls “nonviolent combat.” Some of these tactics, which for some reason include a room full of maimed goats (they have had their bleating abilities removed) were tested in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Weird stuff.

The film pulls a mental prank repeatedly on an audience that is caught between images of Ewan McGregor’s still young visage in a t shirt and a journo’s charcoal trousers, running around Iraq with George Clooney (he has a gift), who calls himself a Jedi. That’s right, Clooney’s a Jedi, but so is Ewan McGregor, sort of, whose American accent is woven of the same lyrical inflections as his Obi Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’ latter three Star Wars Films. So Clooney’s telling an incredulous McGregor to act and think like a Jedi, while Jeff Bridges is The Dude in the desert, in a chakra shirt and braided hair, teaching soldiers the art of nonviolent combat.

We’re left with a film that is fun, strangely, despite the fact that it doesn’t pick up any of these pieces and turn them into something meaningful. Clooney’s professionalism is apparent when he is shifting to and fro from absurd human nature to cynicism. He can run up allys and sail down sand dunes, his arms aloft like a flying squirrel, into the body of his nameless assailant, and his body, stretched tall, still rivals Hollywood’s most tenacious hotties. He’s a pro, like the best who came before him, Cary Grant and Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. Those guys didn’t make too many boring movies.

Where the film chooses the option to follow a few true stories of American war practices that involve psychic experiments in contention with Russia and the unfortunate test subjects (the animal in the film’s title), it loses the seriousness of the idea that is presented at the beginning. That is, people are far more efficient at being peaceful than they are in violence. As ridiculous as this sounds, try watching the scene in which Clooney’s character kills a goat while staring at it from across a room, and see how acutely you feel for the poor absurd creature.

Heather Struck