Friday, May 24, 2013


As I watched a beardless Will Oldham deliver an extremely original performance in New Jerusalem I was reminded of his earliest acting role in John Sayles' Matewan where he plays the young teen preacher hootin' & hollerin' at the congregation. In Rick Alverson's sophomore film Oldham plays an evangelical Christian ("Ike") trying to help/"save" his friend & coworker ("Sean") whose suffering from depression and/or some kind of post traumatic stress possibly brought on by his time spent on tour in Iraq while he was in the National Guard. Oldham seems to fit these characters perfectly. From what little I know about him I’m pretty sure he isn’t super religious but there's something about his folky/blue grass/country side that seems to allow him to tap in to these roles and play them masterfully. In an interview with pitchfork a few years ago he was quoted as saying; I think all religions have truth to them. I get the feeling a lot of the recent characters Oldham has played were either made specifically with him in mind or the stories were somewhat crafted around him. He doesn't strike me as the kind of actor who auditions for parts and there isn't one role he's played where I imagined someone else in his place. Acting isn't even his main gig! As a singer, his music is pretty lo-fi & incredibly soulful which are two characteristics one could use to describe just about any recent film he's appeared in.

New Jerusalem has an interesting vibe. Imagine a John Cassavetes film on anti-depressants - it has the same handheld documentary/cinema verite style as any classic Cassavetes film but at the same time it’s a lot more subdued and laidback without all the yelling and explosive outbursts. If the Cassavetes comparison doesn't do anything for you, imagine a natural & minimalist film from the same school as Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy & Wendy & Lucy (both films coincidentally co-star Will Oldham), Ballast, Shotgun Stories, Junebug (which features a cameo from Oldham as well), a student film directed by a young David Gordon Green or any other modern American indie film that shows the seldom seen hypnotic, droning and sometimes beautiful side of "Anywhere USA".
Did Kelly Reichardt pick up that ball that David Gordon Green intentionally dropped after he made Snow Angels? Is it fair to say she's now the leading figure in that genre of natural looking minimalist American independent cinema that's become so popular today? I know Reichardt had nothing to do with New Jerusalem but her influence is all over it. It’s like Rick Alverson plucked the Ike & Sean characters from the background of one of her films.
Ike & Sean work together at a tire shop somewhere in southeast Virginia (I assume southeast Virginia because the only two specific areas that are mentioned in the film are Richmond & Virginia Beach). Ike is fascinated by Sean and constantly asks him annoying questions almost like how a younger brother asks their older cooler brother a string of annoying questions. A lot of Ike's inquires have to do with Ireland (where Sean is originally from) as well as Sean's time in Iraq. It's clear from the start that Sean is a rough edged, brooding individual with a lot going on inside but we don't REALLY get it until he has a panic attack in the bathroom at work one day. After witnessing Sean's panic attack, Ike takes it upon himself to be the good Christian that he is and help Sean find Christ because he feels that’s the only thing that can save his friend.

Ike's devotion to the lord is subtle at first. In the beginning of the film we see him say a quick prayer before eating dinner or make a little bible reference but after about 20 minutes in it's clear that he's a soldier in God's army. Unlike other stereotypical Christian characters found in movies (...and in real life) Ike isn't a judgy, homophobic, "fire & brimstone" Christian. Perhaps my description of him as a "soldier" in God's army was a lil inaccurate as he seems to be pretty anti-war too. Ike focuses on the positive aspects of Christianity.

I can see you at this pivotal point. And you're gonna fall one way or the other - Ike

Are Sean's panic attacks brought on by PTS or something deeper? He sees a doctor who prescribes him medication to cope but Ike pretty much considers these pills (along with all other forms of medication) to be evil "wacky pills". Is this film also trying to make a comment on how over-medicated America has become? Alverson doesn't really dwell on this too much so I may be reaching. 

To some people New Jerusalem is nothing more than a boring low budget indie about two lonely guys debating about Christ while others may consider it to be a brilliant little gem. I personally go with the latter but I would never try very hard to convince someone of this film's greatness if they dislike it because New Jerusalem isn't for everyone. But if you have the patience and find certain matters interesting like; PTS, atheism vs. religion, loneliness, male bonding, depression and the after affects of the Iraq war told from the perspective of someone that isn't American or Iraqi, then maybe this is a film for you. But the one thing that can’t really be hated on in my opinion is Oldham's performance. Ike is a curious, awkward, strange, good intentioned, unique and sometimes pushy individual. It’s almost like he was made in a movie lab with the DNA of other quirky fictitious indie movie characters like; Eddie (Stranger Than Paradise), Dignan (Bottle Rocket), Joe (The Station Agent) & Morgan (Minnie & Moskowitz). If you genuinely like interesting characters I highly doubt Ike won’t get at least a few chuckles from you or moments where you find yourself totally intrigued or fascinated by him. Not to downplay Colm O'Leary's touching performance as Sean, but Oldham/Ike is the highlight of this film. He's so random and just "not all there" at times. In one scene Ike is trying to peer in to Sean's house to see if he's home but it looks like he's trying to break in. Sean's next door neighbor sees this and comes over to ask Ike what he’s doing but Ike doesn't even acknowledge him and keeps on trying to peek in to Sean's house.
Ike definitely marches to the beat of a different drummer...
Ike (L) & Sean (R)
Although Sean is cynical and blahzay about religion, for reasons we come to find out towards the end of the film (no, he wasn't molested by a priest as a child), he goes along begrudgingly and joins Ike at church and to Bible readings. New Jerusalem is unique in that it doesn't take sides. This isn't a pro or anti Christianit film. I know other reviews seem to think otherwise but that's not how I saw it. Sean is an atheist but not one of those self righteous arrogant atheists who comes off just as annoying as the religious fanatics they hate so much. There is a touch of smugness to him but it isn't that serious (when Sean accompanies Ike to church he has a curious/arrogant smirk on his face throughout the service). Sean isn't outspoken, keeps his opinion's to himself mostly and the only time we actually hear his opinions on religion are when Ike instigates a debate. One of the film's best lines is delivered by Sean in a scene where gives his general opinion on religion - I don't trust the man that comes with the message
Ike is pushy with his views. But at the same time he is a good person and he's going out of his way to do what he thinks will help his friend. On one hand Ike makes Jesus & Christianity seem beautiful. The way he speaks of the joy & happiness that the lord brings almost makes me wanna sign up for Bible school. But on the other hand his aggressiveness & pushiness are very off-putting.

Naturally things come to head in a friendship with these two different types of personalities. Towards the end Ike & Sean have a semi-heated argument but make amends a few days later and the film ends on an ambiguous note.
Personally I wouldn’t have had any problem at all with this being an extra 30-45 minutes. There are two subplots that I wish were expanded on – The first involves Sean taking care of his neighbor’s sick cat. At first Sean is hesitant but over time he falls in love with it. This part of the story showed Sean’s sensitive side and his ability to take care of another living thing. The second subplot is about the flirty relationship between Sean and the assistant pharmacist he gets his medication from. Just when things start to spark up between them the film ends. But those are just minor things that don’t make this film any less great. 

Given Alverson's most recent film The Comedy, I expected a more cynical tone to New Jerusalem in regards to religion but thankfully I was wrong. Much like The Comedy, the tone of New Jerusalem slowly creeps up on you. Most films that deal with religion are so black & white. They're either about the evils of religion and the corrupt men behind it or its some naive & simplistic story about someone being saved. There's a lot of grey area in religion and in this film. New Jerusalem isn't just part of Kelly Reichardt's new school of natural realism but it’s also part of a new group of recent films that offer an alternative look at religion and/or spirituality like; Mary, Battle In Heaven, Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux, To The Wonder & The Tree Of Life.

Beneath the simple plot is a quietly dense and layered film with quite a few hypnotic moments that offers just as many questions as answers.

There's an interesting class of newly established filmmakers emerging in indie cinema over the last 5 years making their presence known with their 2nd or 3rd feature film (Rick Alverson, Sarah Polley, Xavier Dolan, Shane Carruth, Steve McQueen, etc). New Jerusalem is a testament (no pun intended) to the importance of digital media and digital devices in the world of low budget/indie cinema. Although this isn't up on Netflix yet you can see this courtesy of's instant watch. I still love video stores but times are changing. Had it not been for instant watch this would have been damn near impossible to see given there's no DVD release as of yet.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


To celebrate three years of PINNLAND EMPIRE I will be dedicating this site to the films of Hal Hartley throughout the month of June.

Stay tuned...

Friday, May 17, 2013


As I was sitting on the metro north reading a film comment review of Xavier Dolan's third feature; Laurence Anyways, the story of a transgendered high school teacher/poet, a big guy dressed in 6" heels, black leggings, a tube top style shirt, a wig and make-up stepped on to this semi-crowded train and I immediately thought to myself; "that's brave." I really don't mean to sound patronizing but when you have the physique of a professional linebacker (like this guy did) and you're dressed in women's clothes (with confidence mind you) people are gonna stare and make you feel uncomfortable. I'm sorry but it takes some kind of bravery to stand amongst a bunch of strangers staring & most likely judging you. It'd be cool to live in a world where I don't have to think someone is brave for just being themselves but unfortunately that's the insecure world we live in and I don't think it'll be changing any time soon. Naturally I made a connection between this person on the train and Laurence, the main character of Xavier Dolan's latest film which I was literally in the middle of reading about. If there was ever a sign to write about a film – this was it.

I know the difference between a transvestite (which I’m assuming the guy on the train was) and someone whose transgendered (like Laurence) but the one thing they both have in common is that they don't necessarily feel comfortable in the skin they were given and/or the image/expectation that society has either directly or indirectly put on them. There's quite a few scenes in Laurence Anyways that truly convey the bravery it takes to not only identify with being another gender but to face the world with this new identity when so many people have always known you as a man (in Laurence's case). Laurence Alia is a fictitious character but he represents so many real people.
Truth be told, this film had been in the back of my mind since I saw it last year at TIFF but not necessarily for good reasons. Sorry if I set the tone for a positive review but I had some issues with Laurence Anyways. Even though I had very high hopes for Dolan's latest feature, this wasn't a case of me being disappointed because it didn't live up to some unrealistic expectation I had before seeing it (something I’m guilty of quite a bit). This film is flawed. I’ve had some time to think this one over and I realized it's better than I initially gave it credit for but there’s still an uneven feel. On one hand, Xavier Dolan DID manage to create one of the most complex characters in years (we'll get in to that later) but on the other hand this felt a little TOO stylized for a film with this kind of subject matter. Not to say that a filmmaker shouldn't put his/her own stamp on their work but in a film about the struggles of being transgendered things can get a little distracting when half the movie looks more like an 80's new wave music video. It’s difficult to take parts of this film seriously. Influence & inspiration is another thing that may rub some people the wrong way. Since the beginning of his filmmaking career Xavier Dolan has gotten a lot of heat for "heavily borrowing" from auteurs like Wong Kar Wai (the overuse of slow motion shots and the emphasis on rich colors) as well as Godard (the women in his films seem to be modeled after Anna Karina). But given that I'm such a huge Nicholas Winding Refn fan whose recent style is made up of so many elements from so many other filmmakers (Old school Michael Mann, Stanley Kubrick, Kenneth Anger, Takeshi Kitano, etc) I can’t really criticize Dolan for that. All I can say is that Xavier Dolan is still very young (he just turned 24) so it’s natural for a young filmmaker to borrow from people he/she admires. At least we have a director that young who admires filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai & Godard.

I like Dolan's approach to cinema even through its still developing. It serves as a contrast against all the other depressing & slow shit I love so much. I do see him eventually coming in to his own style but right now he's still stuck somewhere in between selected scenes from In The Mood For Love and an androgynous Human League music video. But I'm still a fan. I mean, what’s there to not like about him? He has a lot of drive for such a young guy (he’s currently in pre-production on his fourth feature), he often works triple duty as actor, director & writer, the musical selection in his work is excellent, he makes hipsters seem appealing & interesting and he does the voice of Stan for French-Canadian South Park episodes.
This time around Xavier Dolan tips his hat to filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar yet the difference here is that the transgendered main character in Laurence Anyways is an actual human being and not a borderline comical shemale caricature like we so often find in Almodovar’s films (c’mon, you know this is true). Not to say that’s always the case but it’s come to a point where people are starting to express cynicism towards transgendered characters in Almodovar's work because they’re so one dimensional and silly (the few Spanish cinephiles I know express more annoyance with Almodovar these days then pride). The same thing could also be said about John Waters at times. I find it interesting that two of the leading voices in LGBT cinema (Almodovar & Waters, both gay like Xavier Dolan) have such a difficult time portraying transgendered & transvestite characters as real people sometimes. Of course it’s not their obligation but let’s be honest, straight directors certainly can’t do it (minus a few exceptions here & there) and up until recently I don't think there's ever been a (prominent) transgendered filmmaker to take on that task and that one prominent transgendered director we all know of now (Lana Wachowski) is more interested in science fiction. It should also be noted that Gus Van Sant, another important figure in LGBT cinema, was the executive producer for Laurence Anyways. Almost two years ago I predicted Van Sant & Dolan would work together in some capacity and look what happened.

In A Year Of 13 Moons (1978)
Paris Is Burning (1991)
Hedwig & The Angry Inch (2001)
XXY (2008)
Even though Laurence Anyways was disappointing overall it still helped to clear that path, started by previous works like In A Year Of 13 Moon, Paris Is Burning & XXY, for future filmmakers to portray transgendered characters as human beings instead of the comic relief or someone to be parodied & poked fun at. Think about it – as serious as something like The Crying Game is (for those that forgot there’s a major subplot involving terrorism and the IRA) the one thing it will always be remembered for is the transgendered character played by Jaye Davidson that’s been parodied and made in to a joke since its release over two decades ago. Are people just not mature enough to handle this type of subject matter? Luckily Xavier Dolan seems to think so and he gives the audience some credit.
His previous work already touched on the complexity of sexuality and sexual identity so I assumed Laurence Anyways would be a masterpiece. I Killed My Mother dealt with teenage sexuality and Heartbeats dealt with a love triangle between a straight woman, a gay man and a metro/borderline androgynous, yet straight, male. Focusing on the blurriness of sexual identity seemed like a natural progression for the young director but he got a lil' too caught up in style.

*Throughout this write-up I’ll be shifting between using “he” & “she” when referencing Laurence because the character does identify as being a male in the beginning*

In Laurence Anyways Melvin Poupaud plays Laurence Alia - A seemingly happy male college professor in a relationship with a beautiful woman ("Fred") who suddenly breaks down on his 30th birthday and confesses that he’s been living a lie all these years and wants to live the rest of his life as a woman. At first Fred doesn't get it and just thinks Laurence is simply coming out as gay but Laurence still wants to be with her. After some initial hesitation on Fred's part they reconcile and make a go at trying to maintain their relationship but Fred finds it too difficult and leaves Laurence only to get back together years later and then leave Laurence again. I understand relationships can he a bit complicated but after a while I found the on-again/off-again relationship between Laurence & Fred to be a little tiresome. They're together, they break up, they're back together again then they break up again (their story spans a decade). Fred does genuinely love Laurence but just finds it too difficult to be in a relationship with someone transgendered.

Laurence Anyways is told from the title character’s perspective but we also get some outside perspective from Fred and the difficulties that come along with trying to be in a relationship with someone who identifies with a gender that you aren’t necessarily attracted too. Suzanne Clement (Fred) gives the standout performance as Laurence's depressed, confused, loving & vulnerable soul mate. Monia Chokri, co-star of Dolan's last film Heartbeats, gives a good supporting role as Fred's supportive yet cynical sister.

Clement hits homerun in this scene...

Laurence faces plenty of prejudices through the course of the film beyond people just staring at her. She gets beat up, her father essentially disowns her (although there was clearly some deeper stuff there prior to Laurence's gender change that the film doesn't really get in to) and there's a scene where Fred stands up for Laurence at a restaurant after a waitress makes things uncomfortable. I still had issues with the Laurence character. This goes back to what I said earlier about her being complex. Yes we're supposed to sympathize for Laurence in her struggle to be identified as a woman but Xavier Dolan makes her a bit of asshole at times. This is something I have yet to hear anyone address. I guess that is a progressive move on Dolan's part. Instead of making Laurence some angelic martyr for the LGBT community he makes her human with many faults. In between her relationship with Fred, Laurence lives with a woman named Charlotte who she treats like shit (probably due to the fact that Laurence is still in love with Fred). In the middle of the film Laurence leaves Charlotte and runs off with Fred and we never hear from her again. It’s almost like Xavier Dolan treated Charlotte the same way Laurence did. She’s just brushed off to the side and we never hear from her again after being unfairly dumped.
Laurence Anyways was also quite long when it didn't really need to be, clocking in at two hours and forty minutes. If the film delved a little deeper in to things like why Laurence identified as a woman or the strained relationship he had with his parents then I wouldn't mind the length but that never really happens. When Laurence confesses to Fred that he wants to live his life as a woman 20-30 minutes in to the movie we (the audience) are kinda put in the same position as Fred. This confession almost comes outta nowhere. It’s like "Huh?! Where is this coming from?" I'm not asking for some cliché flashback of a young Laurence trying on his mothers clothes but there coulda been some insight in to why suddenly in his 30's did he want this dramatic change. There's a quick scene at the beginning of the film where Laurence is looking over the female students in his classroom almost with envy as if he wished he could be them but if that one scene was supposed to convey Laurence's desire to be identified as a woman then that’s pretty weak. At no time in the early part of this film when Laurence still identifies as a man do we get any discomfort or feeling of him putting on a facade besides that one moment.
Xavier Dolan kinda lets his love of nostalgia get in the way. Yes, the large majority of the story takes place between the late 80’s through the 90’s but the film is almost drowned in neon colors, swatch watches, big hair, synthesizers & acid washed jeans. Sometimes it gets to the point where you wanna shout at the screen saying; “I GET IT! WE’RE IN THE 80’S! TONE IT DOWN A LITTLE.” 160 minutes is more than enough time to make a strong coherent film but Xavier Dolan uses up too much time crafting pretty looking isolated moments and sequences instead of one whole film. Laurence Anyways is far from awful or terrible. It just could have been better. Clearly you can see I had a lot to say about it which counts for something. I do see growth & maturity in Dolan, who stayed behind the camera this time minus one super quick cameo, and I still look forward to his next film. I wouldn’t even mind giving this a second chance. Perhaps I was just worn out by the 30+ movies I’d seen at Toronto prior to watching this.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Am I crazy or is The Comedy a quietly brilliant piece of work? And I'm not using the term "brilliant" lightly simply because I'm a huge Tim & Eric fan. The Comedy was excellent and it offers much more than random Harmony Korine/Andy Kaufman-esque humor. This is a film that honestly has something for everyone whether you're a Tim & Eric fan or not. Even if you aren’t in to their style of random/surreal humor, there's a good chance you'll still "get" this film or at least understand & respect what it tried to do. Plus, the humor in The Comedy isn’t even the same style of blinky, seizure-inducing, high energy humor we see on Tim & Eric Awesome Show. This is a dark comedy in the truest sense.

The Comedy may frustrate some viewers as the main character; "Swanson" (Tim Heidecker) is a very unlikeable human being yet because he's the center piece of the story and he’s funny, you feel like you're supposed to care about or have some type of emotional investment in him (his father just died and his brother is in an insane asylum). But I'm pretty sure we're supposed to dislike Swanson, his group of friends (made up of Eric Werheim & James Murphy of LCD Sound System) and everyone he represents. Just treat the main character in The Comedy the same way you'd treat Alexander DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange) or Troy Duffy (Overnight) - intriguing to watch but not someone to root for. As I watched The Comedy, Rick Alverson's third feature film about a bored, self centered, aging Brooklyn hipster coasting through life being a shitty person, I was reminded of that whole Vice magazine/street carnage/pseudo-artsy/pitchfork media/not racist but racist/sarcastic/"indie" Brooklyn hipster type. Actually, I wonder if Rick Alverson had a person like Gavin Mcinnes or even Vincent Gallo in mind when he wrote this. I've lived in NYC since 2005, have a music studio in North Brooklyn (Williamsburg/Bushwick) that you have to take either the L or G trains to get too (two subway lines synonymous with Brooklyn hipsters) where I spend a decent amount of time at. Most of the music venues I go too are in Williamsburg and I read the occasional Vice magazine/Street Carnage article (which usually leads me to being pissed off) so I'm a bit familiar with that whole scene and this film kinda pins it down and shows how shallow it can sometimes be. But Brooklyn hipsters aren’t the only focus of this film. Any type of comedy or "art" that tries to be provocative yet instead comes off as offensive, racist, sexist and just plain unfunny gets called in to question (even stuff I may personally like) - From all the new age sketch comedy & viral videos on YouTube to stand-up comedians in the vein of Louis CK, Patrice O’Neal (R.I.P.), Jim Norton & Paul Mooney or even Seth McFarlane to a certain extent. Any type of humor or art that’s made you stop & question whether or not something is funny & button-pushing or just downright fucked up kinda subconsciously comes up while watching The Comedy.

Sundance film festival programmer Trevor Groth described The Comedy best when he called it a critique of a culture based at its core around irony & sarcasm and about ultimately how hollow that is
(I almost don’t wanna write anything more. That’s one of the best & most accurate descriptions of a film I've ever read)

Alverson's cynicism towards hipsters is still pretty evident. There's plenty scenes of the characters in the film drinking Pabst, wearing their ironic looking thrift store sunglasses, riding around on fixed gear bikes just being cliche...

Certain aspects of this film reminded me of Soderbergh's Schizopolis (a world I sometimes wished Soderbergh would revisit). Both films break down the pointlessness of dialogue & conversation between people and they both have the same kind of random humor. In one scene we find Swanson at a party having a wordy, borderline pretentious conversation with a girl about socialism, then in another equally executed scene, he's having an in-depth conversation with a stranger (played by comedian Neil Hamburger) about the cleanliness of hobo dicks. Both of those scenes/conversations are treated the same as if to say no matter what people talk about (from so-called important social issues to dick humor - it can all be pointless sometimes). You ever find yourself at an artsy Brooklyn hipster party and listen in on some of the conversations going on around you and start rolling your eyes wishing everyone would just shut the fuck up? This film plays on that.
The Comedy also has that type of dark humor found in a Todd Solondz film like Happiness or Welcome To The Dollhouse where you question if you should be laughing at something or not.
I know it’s tough to fathom but for those who haven’t seen this, there's plenty of serious & heavy elements in The Comedy. Beyond the odd humor, this film touches on racism, white privilege & gentrification - there’s a scene where Swanson is in a predominantly black bar trying to be "down", discussing "the hood" and how more people will eventually move in to the area and how it needs to be more diverse (aka more "white"). This scene immediately reminded me of a scene in Kelly Anderson's documentary; My Brooklyn where predominantly white people are asked their opinion on the Fulton mall area (a mostly Black & Latino area in Brooklyn) and they give nothing but negative & passively racist comments about the area simply because they don’t relate to the Fulton mall demographic. It’s like in order for privileged white people to be comfortable anywhere they have to do away with anything ethnic or “different” from their world. The Comedy also focuses on dysfunctional & distant families - Swanson's father left him everything in his will but it’s clear that he didn't have the best relationship with his father and he doesn't seem to care that he’s inheriting a bunch of money. He has a brother that's clinically insane and he doesn't know how to deal with that either. He also has a rocky/complicated relationship with his sister-in-law. Swanson has some serious internal issues going on inside (along with some serious depression) and he doesn't know how to deal with anything but there's little to no sympathy for our main character because he’s such an unbelievable dick. It’s tough to imagine devoting ones time to a film with an unlikeable main character but somehow it kept my attention.

Some feel The Comedy is also about redemption to a certain extent and I guess I kinda see that but I think due to Alverson's last feature, New Jerusalem, a religious drama about redemption & evangelism, people wanna make a connection that's barely there between two films directed by the same guy.

Even though I was warned and read quite a few reviews (I even met someone who worked on this film last summer who was quite open about the making of it) I still didn't expect The Comedy to be as dark & serious as it was at times. Not to say that this is on the same level of seriousness as an early Haneke film but when all you have as a reference is Tom Goes To The Mayor & Tim & Eric Awesome Show it’s understandable to get thrown off by the tone of this film. Tim Heidecker surprised the hell outta me with his breakout lead performance and I’d honestly like to see him collaborate with other filmmakers & actors outside of his comfort zone (possibly Todd Solondz? I think that would be a powerful duo).


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