Ex Libris – The New York Public Library (2017; Dir.: Frederick Wiseman)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 13, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Somewhere in the middle of this 44th feature-length Frederick Wiseman documentary, a typically sprawling and reflective look at the New York Public Library system, someone says the words, “Libraries are not about books…they’re about people.” That sentiment could serve as the subtitle for just about every Wiseman film – it’s not about high school, it’s about people; it’s not about an insane asylum, it’s about people; it’s not about a welfare office, it’s about people, and so on. As opposed to the straight-to-camera smarmy-ness of most modern documentaries, Wiseman allows ample space for discovery and digression, and over the course of 197 mostly compelling minutes, disconnected vignettes shot at various branches of the NYPL gradually form into a portrait of a community. Wiseman’s approach is the essence of democracy, giving equal weight to packed-house celebrity interviews and amateur recitals, and allowing audiences to make personal connections rather than forcing the issue down their throats. Ex Libris portrays the library not just as a storage space for books, but as a place where the community gathers for self-betterment and the free exchange of ideas, whether that means students doing research or seniors dancing to Kool and the Gang. Never one for unnecessary sugarcoating, though, Wiseman also lets us see that for all its majesty and necessity, the library remains in constant danger, both from unpredictable public funding and the two-headed threat of apathy and ignorance. The catastrophically bored faces of the children and teenagers throughout Ex Libris speak more volumes than could ever be housed in the NYPL.
*Opens Friday, August 4, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
A scruffy little charmer from festival darling Defa, in the form of a smart indie ensemble piece about – what else? – mixed-up New Yorkers stumbling towards some sort of personal connection. Defa made his bones with short films (including a 2014 version of Person to Person that became his calling card), so it’s probably no surprise that the separate stories drift together and apart rather than neatly interlace: a shirt-obsessed record collector chases the punk who ripped him off; a tabloid reporter (Michael Cera) tries to impress a pretty news runner (Abbi Jacobson) on her first day; a hetero-curious teen connects with a cute boy; a watch repairman (Philip Baker Hall) tries not to get involved in his customers’ business; and a mopey revenge porn practitioner hides from his inevitable punishment. The various story threads loosely circle around a mysterious death and a possible femme fatale, but Defa is clearly more interested in exploring the souls of his characters than in any ostentatious narrative contortions. There are a handful of too-cute touches that occasionally make Person to Person feel more like an over-sized TV pilot, but the film has a huge heart and a sneaky sense of humor, and there is a propulsive musical energy that reminds you of vintage Alan Rudolph or Paul Mazursky.
*Opens Friday, September 16, at the AMC Van Ness 14 in San Francisco.
The 1990s nostalgia trend in pop culture continues with this energetic throwback to Larry Clark’s Kids, Gregg Araki’s early work, and other benchmarks of casually shocking 1990s independent cinema. Morgan Saylor (Brody’s daughter from Homeland) gives a ferocious and fearless performance as Leah, an Oklahoma-bred college student who dives nose-first into the hedonistic opportunities and pitfalls of NYC life, barely even pausing to acknowledge when she’s been ripped off or raped. After moving to an off-campus apartment in a particularly rough neighborhood, Leah quickly becomes involved with the charismatic but volatile Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc), a small-time corner drug dealer whose Scarface ambitions are awakened by this heedless and psychotically privileged party girl. Leah also works an internship for a rich, sleazy, exploitative pervert played by Justin Bartha, who apparently should only be playing rich, sleazy, exploitative perverts. White Girl is reportedly based on the real-life experiences of first-time writer-director Elizabeth Wood, and while you feel some compassion for Leah’s utter lack of self-control, as well as some grudging respect for the insane lengths she goes to get the guilty-as-hell Blue out of jail, she certainly isn’t softened into someone sympathetic or likable. It’s all a little empty and pro forma, but Saylor is an absolute powderkeg – she’s so intense and unpredictable, it feels as though Leah is capable of anything, which is thrilling and terrifying all at once.
Margarita, with a Straw (2016; Dir.: Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Cine Grand 7 in Fremont and the Camera 3 in San Jose.
Kalki Koechlin stars in this wispy but well-meaning romantic comedy as Laila, a spunky aspiring writer with cerebral palsy who leaves India to pursue an education in New York, where a newfound permissiveness kicks an already revving sexual awakening into overdrive. After a few unrequited crushes on “normal boys” and a fumbled attempt to experiment with another wheelchair-bound classmate, Laila falls in love with a blind female student protester, tentatively coming out while still itching to explore. Sensitivity and restraint are the greatest strengths of Margarita with a Straw – the film is firmly set against exploitation and pandering, at least until the face-palm final scene, and always meets the character of Laila at her emotional and physical eye level. With humor and heart, it deals with subjects that most movies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, especially the day-to-day challenges and sexual needs of people with disabilities. I just wish the movie wasn’t so feel-good perfunctory, so comfortable and comforting, so eager to ape the therapy-movie mold of drippy American indies.
Where in the wide world of fucks did this crazy thing come from? First-time writer-director John Magary makes an exhilarating debut with The Mend, an NYC-based comedy of ill manners that exudes a weird, nervous energy from the opening seconds and never relents. I couldn’t shake this film – it persisted in my mind like an stubborn houseguest. It recalls the Coen brothers in its singularity of voice and tone, offering not a new cinematic language but rather a new dialect, simultaneously tense and liberated, gleaming the edge between fussy and shambling, and by the end you feel as though the film has chewed its nails down to the nub. The central construct sounds like a Sundance nightmare – two estranged brothers, one a “freelance web designer”/total fuckup (Josh Lucas), the other a seemingly contented office worker on the brink of an unwanted engagement (Stephen Plunkett), stuck together in a Brooklyn apartment to hash out their daddy issues – but The Mend is one of the freshest and most invigorating films of the year.
Music thrusts in and out, the camera fidgets like a nervous party guest, stray shots and shreds of dialogue echo back in strange and unexpected rhymes – the film thrusts and staggers like a drunk who can’t figure out how to get out of his own apartment. Lucas is good for the what the film needs, believably grimy and thoughtless and grossly charming, but Plunkett is the real breakout star here. A little-known actor with a smattering of TV credits and a great screen face (he looks like Jack Black sat on Michael Shannon), Plunkett runs the gamut from pathos to deadpan comedy to bathroom door-stabbing ferocity, whether clutching his cellphone like a lifeline or drunkenly screwing with a production assistant (“He’s very hurt,” comes the crackling plea from a stolen walkie-talkie). Plunkett’s ability to play a variety of contradictory emotional states is essential for a film that wonders if love means letting go, or if it means holding on for dear life.
Love Hunter (2015; Dir.: Branislav “Brane” Bala and Nemanja Bala)
By Daniel Barnes
*Out now on iTunes, Amazon, and most VOD services, and available on DVD and Netflix Instant starting April 15.
Writer-directors Branislav and Nemanja Bala have fashioned Love Hunter as a semi-autobiographical star vehicle for singer-songwriter Milan Mumin. Wait, who? The Serbian-born Mumin fronted The Love Hunters, a key band in the Yugoslav War-era rock scene that never registered stateside, and for the last decade he’s been driving a New York City cab while continuing to chase his musical dreams. That’s essentially where Love Hunter picks up, with the gregarious Mumin playing “himself,” a cab-driving guitar player forced to choose between his solo album ambitions and the domestic demands of his fiancée, while soaking in the rhythms of the city and developing a crush on his pretty bassist. It hits an exact midpoint between the warming Once and the tacky Begin Again, both in terms of tone and quality, and it tends to drag considerably whenever the Bob Mould-like Mumin is forced to put down his guitar and carry the emotional weight of the film.