Shooting Blanks: A History of No Wave Cinema

BlankCity 04 BG
Steve Mass & Diego Cortez. Photo by and courtesy of Bobby Grossman from Blank City.

New York, New Cinema

In one of the opening scenes of Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), a long, slow tracking shot follows a young girl walking through a desolate, empty city street. Screamin’ Jay Hawkin’s “I Put A Spell On You” plays on the movie’s soundtrack as the lone girl walks down a series of blocks filled with bleak, run-down buildings and barren alleyways.

The image and setting is ironically depressing and faintly post-apocalyptic. It is as if the setting was in some war-ravaged Eastern European city, when in fact, the film was set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year 1984.

New York can be a magical city. From the neon wonderland that is Times Square to the hip, urban bohemian hangouts of Greenwich Village, New York City has a certain charm and quality that has made it one of the greatest cities in the world. Yet, in the 1970s and early 1980s, a new film movement, known as “no wave,” emerged to depict a not-so-glamorous New York, and showed images that were far from the timeless and classic settings portrayed in iconic NYC-based films.

The movement was a stripped-down, DIY approach to filmmaking that not only revolutionized the art of independent cinema at the time, but doubled as a strong cultural statement for the obscure and revolutionary art and music scene in New York. It was a movement that featured a derelict culture of offbeat and pioneering artists and musicians, and combined a strong sense of collaborative unity, shoestring budgets, unique visions, and DIY sensibility.

As a whole, “no wave” sparked a nuanced, minimalist and wholly original aesthetic for films.

Blank City, a new, fascinating documentary by French newcomer Celine Danhier, documents the history of No Wave cinema and the “cinema of transgression,” a term coined by No Wave director Nick Zedd to describe the sadistic and darkly humorous shock value of much of the latter work of many No Wave filmmakers.

BlankCity 15
Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone Junior in Eric Mitchell’s film “The Way It Is,” featured in BLANK CITY.

Through in-depth, candid interviews and amusing anecdotes with such notorious “no wavers” as Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, John Lurie, James Chance, John Waters, Beth B, Scott B, James Nares, Debbie Harry, Thurston Moore, Lydia Lunch, and many others, Danhier manages to create a rousing and informative documentary that does justice to the spirit of No Wave cinema.

The impetus for No Wave cinema came from the “no wave” music movement. As anyone who was around New York, especially in downtown Manhattan in the late 1970s would tell you, it was not the most glamorous place to be, and was filled with not-so-glamorous people.

According to James Chance (of the bands Teenage Jesus and the Jerks/James Chance and the Contortions), “Straight people were trying to escape New York. The only people who wanted to come to New York were like freaks and crazy people.”

In 1978, Brian Eno (of Roxy Music) curated a compilation album titled No New York, a 16-track compilation of songs by the bands D.N.A, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and James Chance and the Contortions. When the album was released, it introduced the world to an emerging music scene that was born out of the frustrations of dilapidated industrial slums in the Lower East Side.

The No Wave music movement was less of a pinned-down style or sound of music, and more of an unorthodox methodical approach to starting a band and playing music. The art-punk sound of the movement was less of a testament to the reinvention of sound with suspect professionalism or musicianship, than it was of curious
artists attempting to expand into a new medium, whether they were good or not. “Nobody was doing what they were good at,” remarks Lurie in the film. “The painters were in bands, the musicians were making films.”

Thus No Wave cinema was born.

It started as a sort of avantgarde approach for these artists and musicians to try their hand at something that was completely foreign to them. But for these artist-turned-filmmakers, they took that avant-garde approach and found a stylistic niche to create a movement. Above all else, these No Wave filmmakers valued the mood, raw texture, and lo-fi aesthetic of their films rather than trying to string together a coherent narrative or structure.

BlankCity 01
“Patti Astor” Photo by and courtesy of Maripol from Blank City.

The Rise of Nothing (and Everything)

Just as the music aspect of “no wave” grew to prominence in New York, No Wave Cinema followed along heartily. By the early 1980s, filmmakers like James Nares, Scott and Beth B, Eric Mitchell, Lydia Lunch, and Chance were regularly screening their work at the same venues that had helped to populate the corresponding music scene years earlier.

Venues like the famed CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City became the breeding grounds for these budding auteurs. However, it was not until the opening of The New Cinema, a film space created by Nares and Mitchell of the Collaborative Projects collective (a grant-funded collaborative formed amongst artists, filmmakers, and musicians in New York in the late 1970s), that the full impact of No Wave Cinema came to fruition.

The space was more than a place where filmmakers would screen their latest pieces; it became a refuge and the central hub of the “no wave” scene. It was through the infamous screening parties at The New Cinema that “no wave” began to make a splash in the greater art world. Films like “Rome ‘78”, “King Blank,” “Black Box,” and “Underground U.S.A”. gained notoriety through their continual runs at The New Cinema. As the work of this movement began to receive mainstream attention through film reviews written by commercial media such as The Village Voice, The Washington Post, and Variety, the movement consequently fizzled out.

BlankCity 16 GODLIS
“No Wave 78” photo © GODLIS.

Some of the more radical filmmakers of the movement, such as Richard Kern, Lizzie Borden, and Zedd, continued to push the boundaries of the extreme, and their work soon developed into what is now known as “the cinema of transgression.”

“The cinema of transgression” developed in the wake of the demise of “No Wave Cinema.” By the time the movement had fizzled out in the mid 1980s, some of the movement’s filmmakers had pushed beyond the boundaries of conventional filmmaking to the point of gratuitous shock value and sadomasochism.

Few others, most notably Jarmusch, continued to work in the same fashion and brought “no wave” into mainstream attention with films such as Stranger Than Paradise (which won the coveted Camera d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival), Down By Law, Mystery Train, and Coffee and Cigarettes.

BlankCity 02A
Debbie Harry in Amos Poe’s film Unmade Beds, featured in BLANK CITY.

Chronicling the Blank Movement

With Blank City, Danhier has perhaps created the most comprehensive and well-documented account of the notoriously underground “no wave” movement. The film employs a classic documentary approach to tackle its subject through the conventional use of talkingheads, erratically and stylistically intercut with splendid archival
footage. The result is a wholly enlightening, fascinating and informative film that sheds light on one of cinema’s most enigmatic and hard-boiled movements.

With her approach, Danhier paints an apt portrait of the bleak reality of New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She does so in a way that romanticizes the derelict, drug-addled slums that were the backdrop for the inspiration of the “no wave” movement. Particularly effective is the number of open and candid interviews that Danhier found for the film.

Such reclusive stalwarts as Jarmusch, Chance, Lurie, Nares, and Amos Poe who were notorious for avoiding interviews, opened up candidly about the movement and provided for some of the film’s most vivid and amusing anecdotes. What Danhier has created is something remarkable. Blank City is more than a well-put-together documentary chronicling a moment in time. It is a love letter to a lost generation who lived in a fleeting but highly influential movement spearheaded by cinematic pioneers.

It is clear with Blank City that Danhier’s passion for her subject runs deep, as her film defines her role less as a director and more as a diligent and dogged cultural historian of No Wave cinema. Thus Blank City becomes less of a documentary and more of a visually comprehensive and highly detailed account of an innovative movement, and is sure to become the authoritative text on the subject.

Watch Blank City on Amazon here.

From the Archives: The Tribe of Life with Michael Rapaport and Phife Dawg

This article was printed in the Autumn Winter 2011 issue of Obsessed Magazine. Photos by Kate Reeder.

In Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, famed actor Michael Rapaport dons the filmmaker hat for the first time as he explores the trials and tribulations of hip hop legends A Tribe Called Quest. Compiled from more than 100 hours of footage, the film is a moving, intimate, and wholly informative portrait of A Tribe Called Quest that chronicles their  20-year plus career with the utmost care and precision.

Born out of the streets of Queens, A Tribe Called Quest exploded onto the rising hip hop scene in New York during the mid-1980s. The Tribe, which consists of founding members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White were an influential asset to the development of modern hip hop. Along with fellow artists De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest was a central part of the Native Tongues Posse, a musical collective of hip hop artists whose music featured positive, good-natured lyrics and a distinct nod to the culture of their African heritage. With such classic tracks as “Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” “Bonita Applebum” and the iconic “Can I Kick It?”, A Tribe Called Quest created a unique and unprecedented legacy that has been a major influence on some of today’s biggest names in hip hop, and undoubtedly shaped the world of hip hop as we know it.

Tribe Called Quest 4
Photo: Kate Reeder

“For me, A Tribe Called Quest meant the same thing as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, so my goal was to treat them the same way those groups have been documented over the years,” Rapaport says about the idea for making his documentary. With Beats, Rhymes & Life, that esoteric passion is wholly apparent through Rapaport’s unique vision and precise and honest portrayal of the group. “I know that I made it for one reason and that’s because A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite group and I love their spirit and music.”

The film itself is part concert footage from their reunion at the 2008 Rock the Bells tour, part chronicling of the history of the group, and part “behind the music” featurette that explores the troubling dynamics among the groups members.

Rapaport offers some great in-depth interviews and personal access to the group’s founding members as they reunite for the first time since their 1998 break up.

What develops is a triumphant examination of the personal lives of Tribe and the conflicts within the group. Particularly moving is the creative tension between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg that eventually led to their 1998 breakup, and Phife’s life-long battle against diabetes, which led to the group’s re-formation, and makes for some of the film’s most emotionally charged moments.

Despite all the drama of the group, they all were able to put their differences aside and come together for their brother in peril and Rapaport poignantly captures those touching moments. Beats, Rhymes & Life is a fascinating and moving music documentary that will appeal to both hardcore Tribe fans, and to those new to the group.

Rapaport and Phife Dawg were kind enough to sit down with Meets Obsession and discuss the process of making the film, as well as some of the hardships and obstacles that went into making this labor of love.

Meets Obsession (MO) [To Michael Rapaport]: When did you decide you wanted to start directing films?

MR: I’ve had the curiosity and impulse to want to direct films for about the past ten years. With my career as an actor, I was around so many great directors, John Singleton, Spike Lee, Tony Scott, Woody Allen, and when you’re around them and you’re like “How do they do this?”, and there’s a love of filmmaking and curiosity about it. I’ve been talking about wanting to direct a movie, but unless you’re like Leonardo DiCaprio, or Jim Carrey, or a big, big star with lots of money, the only way to make the transition from actor to director is to just do it, you’re not going to get handed anything.

The idea [for this film] stuck with me… and I was working on a television show that I was not happy doing, but I was actually making a good, steady paycheck. It was a good paying job, but it was not fun to do, and I found that Tribe was going back on tour in 2008, and I asked them “Can we do [the film]?” Getting started was the easiest part, but it was being compelled that got me through it. Documentary filmmaking is a bloodbath; it’s not like making Avatar. It’s not even like making a small independent movie with a $500 budget. It’s no budget, it’s nuts and bolts, it’s nothing. We’re out walking through New York City carrying bags and cameras. It’s guerrilla, straight-up guerrilla filmmaking, but I love that part and it brings out the best in myself and the people around me.

MO: You’ve mentioned all the great directors you’ve worked with in your career, Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Tony Scott, John Singleton. Did working with them influence your directing style?

MR: It influenced my directing style in terms of the one thing all those guys share; they share a different, unique tone. Tony Scott’s very loud, he’s Australian, he’s smoking cigars, but he’s in control of the set. Woody Allen and Spike Lee are very similar; they’re real low-key, super quiet. Spike Lee’s a little feisty at times, he’s like a little general, but [the directors] and John Singleton, they’re in control. I worked on a movie with Nora Ephron, and one thing I learned from her is she would sometimes say, “I don’t know, but we’re going to figure it out.” Just being confident enough to do that and just coming in with a plan and applying it, those are the things that I learned from those directors.

MO [To Phife Dawg]: It’s such an expository and personal documentary, were there ever times when you felt you didn’t want the camera on you?

Phife: Absolutely, I got tired of that damn camera. But the one thing I liked about the process [of shooting the film] is just knowing that the director, he may not be Steven Spielberg yet, but the passion was definitely Scorcese-ish. He was adamant, he was passionate, he really wanted to get it done and make sure everybody’s eyebrows lift off their faces when they saw the film. That was his whole approach to it. So, I wasn’t going to be the weakest link in it by not supporting him and not giving him my best. Not like it’s a performance, it’s real, it’s a documentary, when I say giving him my best, I mean no-holds barred… and I just laid it on the line, as best as I could.

Tribe Called Quest6
Photo: Kate Reeder

MO [To Phife Dawg]: This doc chronicles the whole history of the band, including the fallout between the [band], and your intense battle with diabetes. What’s the hardest part of the documentary for you to watch?

Phife: When I’m getting ready to go in for the operation. It had to be the hardest, definitely. That, as well as how I was looking before the operation. There are scenes where it’s like, ok, Phife is sick, obviously. Then there are scenes where he’s turned a corner, when we’re going to rehearsal, or Australia or Japan where it’s like, ok, Phife is back, which brings it full throttle, at least for myself.

MO [To Michael Rapaport]: With Beats, Rhymes, and Life, you demonstrated that you have a unique vision and style to filmmaking. Do you want to keep directing films?

MR: Yeah, I want to direct a narrative film. I’ve got a script I’m excited about, but we’re really nowhere with it yet. I haven’t really been able to truly focus on it. It’s something that I would like to get going by the end of the year.

MO: Is it something you wrote?

MR: No it’s something I read, very dark.

MO: What genre?

MR: Human, it’s dark, it’s very dark, but it’s poignant, and it deals with teenagers who are at the bottom of the bottom. But it’s told in a very interesting and fresh way. With the script, I liked how dark it gets, but how poignant it gets, and that balance.

MO: Does it remind you of anything? What kinds of films are similar?

MR: Boyz n the Hood meets A Clockwork Orange meets Kids, with a sprinkle of Natural Born Killers. It’s a really bizarre script, but I’m nowhere with it yet. One of the challenges for me personally for getting this movie made is, “Yeah, you made this documentary, but can you technically direct?” And I’m thinking, “Jesus Christ, you know how tiring making this thing was?” There’s no script, there’s no nothing. Give me a script and I’ll shoot a few takes, I’ll make it happen. But it’s my plight and I’ll find a way to get the [film] made.

Film Report Card: Grading David Chase’s “Not Fading Away” and “The Impossible”

Film Report Card: Grading David Chase’s “Not Fading Away” And “The Impossible”
In our weekly report card, MO writers and editors grade the films opening in theaters each week. Find out which movies make the grade, and which ones don’t.


[highlight bg="#000000" color="#ffffff"]Not Fade Away[/highlight]

Set against the backdrop of the swingin’ 60s, writer/director David Chase’s (“Sopranos” creator) feature film debut is a poignant, detailed, albeit meandering coming-of-age story about a group of young misfits who hear bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the first time and decide to start a band.

The film begins earnestly with a black-and-white flashback retelling the infamous meeting between two kindred teens, Mick and Keith, on a train in London’s tube system. The duo, of course, are the fresh-faced blues nuts destined to reshape the musical landscape as The Rolling Stones. The film then cuts to the meeting of two other young music fans, destined to start a band, but never achieve any sort of success like The Stones. Instead, the film follows the plights of the band during their several years together before falling apart unceremoniously.

Ultimately, “Not Fade Away” shows a lot of promise, but Chase becomes too caught up in nostalgic naval-gazing and a stellar soundtrack to allow the narrative to focus in any one direction. Needless storylines that don’t go anywhere, and character developments and motivations that happen off screen make for a somewhat confusing film. “Not Fade Away” is certainly an impressive debut, but like the masterfully crafted and revolutionary TV show Chase is known for, it would have been better suited for the small screen.

Overall Grade: B | ► Buy tickets to this film [divider]


[highlight bg="#000000" color="#ffffff"]The Impossible[/highlight]

What could have been an awe-inspiring and heartfelt story about the hope and heartbreak of the tragedy surrounding the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, ends up being a by-the-book, white-washed story about the hope and heartbreak of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, “The Impossible” tells the true story of a family of five vacationing in a posh Indonesian waterfront resort when the devastating Tsunami hit.

Starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the vacationing parents of three small boys, the film tells the harrowing journey they go through to reunite with each other and their kids in the chaotic aftermath of the Tsunami’s destruction. Through injury and obstacle, the family overcomes incredible odds to reunite among the destruction, but the whole film feels like a cookie-cutter disaster narrative. It utilizes certain themes and a glossy soundtrack to emotionally manipulate, but lazily glosses over the fact that thousands of Indonesian natives lost their families and lives in the Tsunami.

The film features some rather impressive visuals, as the Tsunami rolls in and literally obliterates everything in its path, but the film never leaves its comfort zone and feels like a “white people survival story for white people.”

Overall Grade: C | ► Buy tickets to this film [divider]

Year In Review: The Best Films of 2012

The Best Films Of 2012

By nature, best-of-the-year lists are a ubiquitous, pointless and a somewhat silly tradition.

Why do you need someone to tell you what was good and what wasn’t in a given year?

You and you alone are your own judge and arbiter of taste. Still, the role of critics in culture, historically, has been to decipher the good from the bad and bestow top honors to those who have gone above and beyond with their art.

And, although the internet is making the role of the professional critic -- and by professional, I mean one who earns what little money outlets will pay them for their opinion --  more and more obsolete, it’s still a somewhat crucial role.

As such, I take great pleasure in scrutinizing music, film and cultural trends each year to come up with best-of-the-year lists, and we take even more pleasure in sharing it with our loyal readers.

Simply put, 2012 was a spectacular year in film. One of the best in years, perhaps decades. But how good was it?

So good, in fact, that films by beloved auteurs like Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Ang Lee, and Christopher Nolan didn’t even crack my top 10 (and only one cracked my top 20).

It’s seems arbitrary and nearly impossible to narrow down and rank the films I loved this year, but nevertheless it was a necessary task.

From dramatized (and playfully indulgent) historical fictions, like “Django Unchained”  and “Zero Dark Thirty," to meditations on what love really means in “Amour,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” and “Take This Waltz,” to mind-bending genre movies  such as “Holy Motors,” “The Cabin in the Woods,” and Looper,” this year offered a wide range of excellent popcorn fare and arthouse options alike.

So, without further ado, the best films of 2012:

Honorable Mentions (Or, Films I Loved That Didn’t Quite Make the List):

“Wreck-it Ralph,” “The Queen of Versailles,” “The Avengers,” “Turn Me On, Dammit!,” “Skyfall,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “V/H/S,”, “Ginger and Rosa”, “Take This Waltz,” “ParaNorman,” "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," "Your Sister's Sister," and "Safety Not Guaranteed." [divider]

The Top 20:


Killer Joe

20. "Killer Joe"

2012 can also be dubbed as the year Matthew McConaughey became a real actor again. Stepping away from silly, self-parodying roles in shameless Hollywood hiccups, McConaughey went back to his indie film routes with a trio of excellent roles (“Magic Mike” and “Bernie”) to re-establish his title as one of the best modern character actors. But nonesuch role was as stirring, maniacal and comically off-the-walls as his turn as the titular sadistic hitman-for-hire in William Friedkin’s southern-fried gothic dark comedy, “Killer Joe.”[divider]

19. "Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie"

Perhaps one of the most bizarre and inventive deconstructions of conventional comedy I’ve ever seen. Also, features one of the most profoundly disgusting gross-out gags of the year (“shrriiiimmm!!!”)[divider]


18. "Compliance"

If it weren’t based on a chillingly true story, “Compliance” would be the most unbelievable film of 2012. But, the facts of the 2004 Bullitt County McDonald’s Case, in which a prank phone call is taken disturbingly too far, is  accurately depicted in Craig Zobel’s film, making it one of the most harrowing films of the year.[divider]

17. "The Innkeepers"

Ti West’s 2009 chiller, “The House of the Devil” remains one of my favorite horror movies in the past decade. Particularly, because I love West’s slow-burn style of filmmaking, which harkens back to a golden age of horror cinema in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “The Innkeepers” is another terrific slow-burn that carefully constructs a deep idiosyncratic characterization of its two main leads--Sara Paxton and Pat Healy--before exploding into a no-holds-barred shockfest in its last 20 minutes.[divider]

Moonrise Kingdom

16. "Moonrise Kingdom"

Quite simply, Wes Anderson delivers not only one of the most beautifully shot and exquisitely touching and offbeat films of the year, but of his career.[divider]

15. "Cabin in the Woods"

One of the most brilliantly constructed deconstructions of the horror genre ever created. Drew Goddard’s film (co-written and produced by the unflappable Joss Whedon), is smart, fun, and cleverly scripted. Destined to become a cult classic.[divider]

The Comedy

14. "The Comedy"

I swear, it’s a total coincidence that two of my favorite films of the year star the absurdist comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. It’s a coincidence because I’ve never really watched their signature show, “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” (but perhaps I’ll start). Nevertheless, I found Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy” to be one of the most jarring, abrasive, and nasty films of the year.

At its core, Tim Heidecker delivers a polarizing performance as a pitiless, disgusting, borderline sociopathic trust-funded Brooklyn hipster that skates through life in one uncomfortably destructive scene after another. The film does not offer any justice or sense of morality to Heidecker’s obnoxiously repulsive character, but those who find the irony in Alverson’s taut character study will understand its inherent brilliance.[divider]

13. "Oslo, August 31st"

A moody, well-paced, and inquisitive study of an ex-junkie’s difficult road to sobriety. Joachim Trier’s film shines in its mostly quiet, understated, yet engrossing dialogue, and soft style, which relies on establishing a bleak mood to convey what’s going on underneath the surface.[divider]

12. "Django Unchained"

While not nearly as accomplished as his 2009 masterpiece “Inglorious Basterds,” Tarantino’s latest still accomplishes what he does best: polarizing dialogue, stylized narratives and gleefully self-indulgent violence.[divider]

The Master

11. "The Master"

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the great American auteurs, and his latest — shot in awe-inspiring 70 mm — is no exception. A mysterious and intoxicating character study of two fractured souls raises no real questions, and offers even less answers, but its nonetheless a fascinating, well-paced, and gorgeously shot ride.[divider]

10. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

I may be a sucker for coming-of-age dramas, but Stephen Chbosky’s flawless adaptation of his own classic 1999 young adult novel was something of a revelation. It managed to keep the essence of the book while adding an extra dimension of emotion through tight idiosyncratic pop culture nostalgia, delicately balanced storylines, and nuanced-but-exceptional performances from its young actors — particularly Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller.[divider]

Damsel In Distress

9.“Damsels in Distress”

It had been nearly 10 years since Whit Stillman last released a film, and while his mark in contemporary cinema has been sorely missed, this charming, funny and absurdist return proves to be his most ambitious film yet.[divider]

8. “Looper”

Rian Johnson uses all the tools at his disposal to create a genre-bending sci-fi action flick that wears its influences on its sleeve as proudly as it defies genre expectations. [divider]

7. “Room 237”

A curiously constructed documentary that follows five different scholars’ wild theories on the hidden meanings behind Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” While the theories themselves are far too wild to take seriously, the arguments are made with such passionate conviction and fervent evidence (no matter how far-fetched is is), that the Rodney Ascher’s film succeeds as an exploration of cinephilia and the wondrous power of film.[divider]

The Loneliest Planet

6. “The Loneliest Planet”

Like the best films of French auteur Clair Denis, Julia Loktev’s film is, quite simply, a minimalist masterpiece. Set against the gorgeous, overwhelming backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains (a setting that often trumps and swallows its characters), the film relies on a single, polarizing moment to makes its central thesis that explores the nature of intimacy at its core.[divider]

5. “Rust and Bone”

I was blown away by Marion Cotillard's fearless performance as a recent double amputee adjusting to her new disability, but also at Jacques Audiard's cloudy, cerebral and sometimes bleak depiction of two troubled souls finding each other. [divider]

4. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Benh Zeitlin’s feature film debut is a wondrous foray into post-Katrina magical realism, and is as poetic and enchanting as it is stirring. The performance by its young star Quvenzhané Wallis is one of my favorites of the year.

Zero Dark Thirty

3. “Zero Dark Thirty”

Kathryn Bigelow’s stark procedural was already the most controversial film of the year months before its first screenings. The contentious depictions of torture and the journalistic approach to filmmaking, (Bigelow and co-writer/producer Mark Boal were given access to classified information during the production of the film), were essential to convey the story of how the CIA caught and killed Osama bin Laden.  At the forefront of the discussion, the fact remains that “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of the best-directed and fascinating films of the year.

The always excellent Jessica Chastain turns her role  in a career-defining performance as the central character obsessed with tracking down America’s public enemy #1. But the film — which takes a strictly non-partisan approach to telling the story — succeeds as Bigelow’s most personal one to date, with an engrossing feminist subtext at its core.[divider]

2. “Holy Motors”

How do you define cinema? Leos Carax’s bold, imaginative, and downright bizarre film manages to do so in a way that resists rational description as easily as it resists pigeonholing. [divider]


1. “Amour”

Michael Haneke is perhaps one of the great modern provocateurs. But while many accuse the famously intrusive filmmaker (Haneke’s “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon” remain as two of the most viscerally disturbing films I’ve ever seen) as going soft in his ripe old age, the truth is, “Amour” is perhaps his most unrelentless, harrowing and beautiful films to date.

The story, which is a brutally open and unrestricted depiction of an aging couple, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louise Trinitingnt), whose love is tested when Anne suffers a stroke and quickly succumbs to dementia, forces its viewers to question their own mortality and confront the meaning of love. Easily the most emotionally devastating — yet beautifully shot — film of the year.

But we're curious what your favorite films of the year were.

Take to the comments and let us know!

Virgin Mobile FreeFest: Your Annotated Guide to Conquering the Festival

A word of advice to all you FreeFest-ers this weekend: Show up early. As the schedule suggests, some of the strongest performers of the fest are taking the stage well before lunchtime, and it’s always easier to get a good spot close to the stage before the massive crowds descend upon Merriweather’s leafy grounds.

As with any large outdoor musical festivals with multiple stages, there’s bound to be some conflicts. Though the organizers have done a good job scheduling the acts so there’s no complete overlap between any three acts at a given time, it still takes a lot of energy bouncing back and forth between sets. As such, I’ve poured over the schedule and picked out suggestions during some of the days biggest competing sets.

Luckily, ZZ Top and Skrillex aren’t playing at the same time. Collaboration? One can only hope... [divider]

Justin Jones vs. Das Racist vs. Volta Bureau:
For the early-risers, FreeFest kicks off the day with a platter of musical offerings to choose from. You could go for the mopey acoustic stylings of local troubadour Justin Jones on the Pavilion Stage, or the snotty, sarcastic rhymes of alt hip-hop kings Das Racist on the West Stage, but I’d put my money on the dance tent, where local electronic outfit Volta Bureau (featuring U Street Music Hall owner Will Eastman) will get you amped for a full day of tunes. Afterall, EDM is a much cheaper alternative to Merriweather’s $8 coffee. [divider]

Allen Stone vs. Future Islands vs. Penguin Prison:
Rising out of Baltimore’s Wham City scene, synth-pop group Future Islands plays the kind of stirring, soulful tunes that’s something of a revelation in today’s indie soundscape. Culling influence from Joy Division and 80’s New Wave, their latest album—2011’s On The Water—was one of the year’s best, and their West Stage performance is certainly not one to be missed. [divider]

Trampled By Turtles

Trampled by Turtles vs. Portugal. The Man vs. Alvin Risk:
Not only are Trampled by Turtles one of the finest live bluegrass acts around, but you’d be remiss if they happened to bust out this awesome Arcade Fire cover and you were too busy quietly nodding along to Portugal. The Man to catch it.  Portugal. The Man is pretty great too, and luckily you have time to catch the beginning of their set and see Trampled by Turtles. [divider]

The Dismemberment Plan:
Quite possibly the best slot of the day and the one that I’m most looking forward to is D.C.’s experimental post-punk heroes The Dismemberment Plan, who reunited in late 2011 to a handful of sold out shows, and have been quietly playing small shows here and there since. A full-fledged reunion was merely an afterthought for the band and their legions of fans, until this summer, at a pair of small shows in Baltimore and Fredericksburg, the D-Plan unleashed eight (yes, eight!) brand new songs. Frontman Travis Morrison confirmed earlier this week that The Plan is indeed working on a new album. Glory be! [divider]

Ben Folds Five

Ben Folds Five vs. Nervo:
Though the infectious, dreamy beats and synth-driven prog-pop of Nervo are certainly a draw for a mid-afternoon dance party, it’s going to be hard to resist the recently reunited Ben Folds Five reunion. I mean it wouldn’t be a proper party in Columbia, MD without a little Rockin’ the Suburbs. [divider]

Santigold vs. Thomas Gold:
is sort of on fire these days. Her latest album, Master of My Make-Believe, culled rave reviews when it was released, and her live shows have a reputation for being an extravagant affair. Looks like the real gold is at the West Stage. [divider]

Alabama Shakes:
I have no real opinion on Alabama Shakes, but people seem to adore them. I’ve listened to it, it’s ok, but doesn’t really do much for me. The majority of their set is scheduled in between sets on the West Stage. I guess I’ll check it out. [divider]

ZZ Top vs. Nas and M83:
The inclusion of classic beard-rockers ZZ Top in the lineup almost seems like a decision made out of pure irony rather than musical popularity. I was really hoping for some sort of Nas/ZZ Top collaboration here. Oh well. Either way, M83 puts on one of the best live shows I’ve seen this year, so I’d make sure not to miss that. [divider]

Jack White Vs. Skrillex:
Or, Dad Rock vs. Dubstep. If you’ve worn dayglow paint in the past year, own more than one article of neon clothing, or, for whatever reason I’ll never understand, wear a pacifier to shows, then your mind’s already made up.

For the rest of you? Come join me in the sea of beards and flannel, the water’s real nice this time of year. Just don’t look too bored for Jack. [divider]

Be on the lookout for Meets Obsession’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest Coverage next week.

FILM: A Brilliantly Presented Character Study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology-Inspired “The Master” (1)

FILM: A Brilliantly Presented Character Study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology-Inspired “The Master”

FILM: A Brilliantly Presented Character Study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology-Inspired “The Master” (1)

Like a shot of hard bourbon, “The Master” is a tough film to swallow -- but one that's meant to be. And that's, in part, what makes the film so terrific.

In this gorgeously presented intense character study of two enigmatic and deeply flawed individuals, Paul Thomas Anderson employs a tender narrative ebb-and-flow that creates for some of the finest -- and most stirring -- performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman's careers.

Its rich, ambiguous text (one that still mystifies me) is sure to be a turnoff for some audiences, but the mystery and ambiguity that surrounds its central characters is what makes it so appealing.

Inspired by the cult of L. Ron Hubbard and the early years of the formation of Scientology, “The Master” follows Freddy Quell (Phoenix), a WWII vet with mental troubles piled as high as his abhorrent alcoholism, who is fired from job after job until he happens upon the yacht of an enigmatic leader Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).

Though Dodd and his legion of followers are clearly inspired by Scientology (there was some ambiguousness of the Scientology aspect of the film before its release. Make no mistake, the influence is as clear as day), the film isn’t about Scientology, it’s merely an aspect of the narrative that serves as the catalyst for the conflict between the two characters.

FILM: A Brilliantly Presented Character Study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology-Inspired “The Master” (3)The film opens on a tropical beach somewhere in the Pacific. Quell is shown among his fellow soldiers, enjoying the downtime -- presumably much-needed from the horrors of war -- but he’s also shown as a sort of loner. When he does interact, it’s an awkward, uncomfortable interaction.

In one scene, Freddy joins a group of soldiers to help finish a sand sculpture of a naked lady. Eventually, he begins dry-humping the sand-sculpture in such an uncomfortable manner that it drives most of his comrades away. Freddy’s social ineptness, trigger-hair temper, and overt alcoholism make him an almost too-perfect candidate for Dodd’s unorthodox, free-thinking new “religion.”

Dodd recruits Freddy, and begins his “processing” -- a form of treatment to reach Dodd’s ideas of enlightenment and way-of-living in which Freddy is subjected to a series of uncomfortable, intimate questions repeated at a rapid-fire pace (“Have you ever had sex with a family member? Have you ever killed someone? Have you ever killed someone? Have you ever killed someone?”).FILM: A Brilliantly Presented Character Study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology-Inspired “The Master” (2)

As the film progresses, Dodd and his cronies are scrutinized by the public for their movement, and Freddy’s temper threatens to undo all of their work. Dodd’s wife (played by Amy Adams) is wary of Freddy, but Dodd sees something in him and their relationship is strung together throughout by a series of occurrences and misgivings that both define and undefine their characters.

Working on an extra large canvas (“The Master” was shot on 65mm film, and demands to be seen on the appropriately large screen), Anderson’s one slight isn’t a lack of ambition, but rather, that the psychology of his film overreaches. The film resists pigeonholing as strongly as it resists a rational description. It’s a collection of stirring scene after stirring scene, strung together by two complex characters, whose psyche and motivation remain a mystery throughout. The result is a film so steeped in layers that it demands multiple viewings to unravel its narrative complexities and character ambiguities.

Overall Grade: A-

“The Master” opens today in theaters everywhere. Click here for theaters and showtimes.

Rashida Jones and Will McCormack Talk to Meets Obsession On Exes, Working with Andy Samberg and Their Latest Film

Photo by David Lanzenberg, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

From her long tenure as Jim’s (John Krasinski) girlfriend on “The Office,” to her now current starring role as Leslie Knope’s levelheaded best friend Ann Perkins on “Parks and Recreation,” Rashida Jones has quickly become one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood.

In between her stints on “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” she’s done a handful of feature films (mostly big budget comedies and the ilk), but her most recent film, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” -- which she also co-wrote with Will McCormack -- is her first passion project, and one that represents a change of pace for her career.

Jones stars opposite Andy Samberg – in a surprising dramatic turn – as a separated couple and lifelong best friends who just can’t seem to let go of each other.

It’s both a very funny film and a surprisingly emotional – and at times dark -- take on marriage, going through divorce, and going through life changes when, frankly, that’s the last thing you want to do.

Meets Obsession sat down with Jones and co-writer and co-star Will McCormack just before it’s D.C. opening to discuss the excellent new film, the process of making the movie, and the often blurred line between ‘friendship’ and ‘romance.

MO: So how did you get the idea for the movie?

Rashida: We had a lot of friends who were in similar situations to this and, I guess, stole from their lives. You know, what good friends do [laughs].

We both had unhealthy relationships with long-term exes and it just felt like something we kept seeing. This type of guy and this type of girl -- a guy who’s just sort of chill and not too interested in getting out there and pursuing his career, and a girl who’s sort of on top of it all; that sort of dynamic.

MO: How did you end up casting Andy Samberg? He’s usually known for more comedic roles and this was a lot more of a dramatic role than we’ve ever seen from him.

Rashida: I think Andy’s sort of had this inside him for a while. He said he wanted to do this and we were like “I don’t know…”

Will: Yeah, we sent him the script and we were like: “Can you do this?” and he was like “I got this.” We said, “No, really, can you?” Then we went to New York and we read with him and he was incredible.

Rashida: He really crushed it.

Rashida Jones as Celeste and Andy Samberg as Jesse. Photo by David Lanzenberg, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Will: It was fun to watch because you were sort of watching an actor do this for the first time in his life; it was amazing.

MO: So, did you write the characters with particular actors in mind?

Rashida: A few of them…yes. The ones that we played. And we wrote that part for Chris Messina because he’s a close friend of ours we knew that he would just nail it, which he did.

Will: We wrote Celeste for her.

Rashida: [laughs] Yeah. But everyone else we sort of had a wish list, and we did pretty well with it.

MO [To Will]: Were you ever slated to play Jesse?

Will: No, well maybe originally when we first wrote the movie…

Rashida: Four years ago…

Will: [laughs] I read Jesse a lot in the beginning; I read a lot of characters, I even read Celeste a lot too.

Rashida: You would have made a good Celeste

Will: [laughs] I guess for a moment I was, but no, not really.

I’m a character actor, I always have been and that’s what I want to do when I act. I was really happy to play Skillz, that’s the part I wanted, and I was happy to get the part [laughs]. But I sort of feel like I’m older than that now, and Andy was perfect in the role.

Andy and Rashida have been friends for a long, long time so they already had a sort of built-in dynamic, little idiosyncrasies; a really great connection, so it seemed like a natural fit. And it felt fresh, since he had never done anything like this before.

MO: There seems to be a central theme in “Celeste and Jesse Forever” about the difficulties of letting each go. Was there ever a certain project or certain character that either of you had a hard time letting go of?

Rashida: [laughs] We have a thing called ‘Character Island’ where all of the characters that used to be in our movies or in our scripts get exiled to ‘Character Island’. There were some characters in “Celeste and Jesse” that didn’t make the cut. There was a little girl…

Will: Yeah, there was a little girl.

Rashida: There was a sister and a little girl…

Will: They got cut.

Rashida: Jesse had a sister and she had a daughter who was kind of a sagely little girl who sort of became Riley. She was supposed to be, like 6 years old. But I think we were both totally fine cutting her out of the script, right?

Will: [laughs] Yeah.

Rashida: We were ruthless about that…

Will: Wait, do you mean like characters we’ve played in other movies?

Andy Samberg as Jesse and Will McCormack as Skillz. Photo by David Lanzenberg, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

MO: Yeah, if there’s a certain character you’ve played that you’ve had a hard time letting go of...

Will: No, I’m usually so psyched when I’m done [laughs]. I’m like “I don’t have to come back tomorrow? We’re good? You’ve got it? Great…” I’m like that when I act too, “Good? We’ve got it? Great, moving on…” [laughs].

Rashida: With comedy, you don’t have to get in deep with a character that it becomes hard to let go. Although, I remember after finishing my one episode of “Freaks and Geeks,” I cried so hard. I was so upset…

Will: [laughs] Seriously?

Will: I’m barely in “Celeste in Jesse Forever,” but I wish there was more scenes with Skillz because it was fun to act with [Rashida]. It was particularly fun to watch Rashida because she was so locked in to the part, and for me -- I’m biased -- but it was watching a really good part and a great actress intersect, which was very exciting to watch. It was also emotional, because that part, you had to do a lot, and I’m sure you were exhausted but psyched.

Rashida: Afterwards I went to Asia and just, like, sat in white pajamas [laughs]. It was like a retreat I went by myself to Thailand and just sat in white pajamas for, like, a week [laughs].

MO: Sounds like you were really done with Celeste.

Rashida: I was so done.

Will: I just went to the mall [laughs].

MO: I’m curious to know about the writing process, specifically, when you were writing it, how much did you judge the characters as you wrote them, if at all?

Rashida: We were just talking about how in one of the early drafts, Will was like, “is Celeste too unlikeable? Are we just screwing ourselves because people won’t find a way in?” So we did some work to sort of soften her, but I don’t think you can judge your characters. We really tried to create a balance with all of our characters so nobody was villainous or reprehensible.

Will: I think it’s good to make your lead unlikeable as well, because as people we all have flaws. I feel like people can relate to a flawed protagonist, but we wanted to make sure you weren’t too unlikeable.

Rashida: Right, of course, and you were right -- we did soften her. She’s still unlikeable, but then she gets hers, so you start to feel bad for her.

Will: We wanted to make it realistic in that people don’t change a lot, they change a little, which -- in turn -- is a lot.

Rashida: They change a little when they’re forced to change. All these things happen to her and then at the end of the movie she just doesn’t yell at somebody for a change. That’s all she did.

Andy Samberg As Jesse And Rashida Jones As Celeste
Andy Samberg as Jesse and Rashida Jones as Celeste. Photo by David Lanzenberg, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

MO: Rashida, your character makes a huge career mistake that ultimately works out for her, has that ever happened to either of you personally?

Will: Maybe our writing career?

Rashida: [laughs] This was a huge mistake.

Will: But look, it’s actually coming out!

Rashida: It would be so cool if it were true.

MO: Like a movie you didn’t get, but ultimately it led to better opportunities?

Rashida: Oh, that happens sometimes. There have definitely been some parts that I was torn up about not getting, and then I see the movie and I’m like “I’m good” [laughs].

I remember there was a movie I was up for and I thought it was going to change my career, and I was devastated when I didn’t get it. I don’t even think the movie ever came out.

Will: Or got made.

Rashida: [laughs] Or got made. I kind of believe that nothing’s really a mistake. I recently did that thing where you accidentally send an email to the wrong person.

But I feel like that’s never a mistake. Like, it was clearly something I needed to say to that person, and I didn’t even apologize, I just continued the conversation as if I meant to write it [laughs].

MO: Celeste and Jesse have a lot of hilarious idiosyncrasies with each other in the film -- especially in their cringe-worthy couples speak, so I was curious what’s the silliest thing you’ve ever seen or heard a couple do or say.

Will: I don’t know, um, I was on vacation with some friends that were maybe slightly vapid and I heard a conversation that went like this:

“You’re so tan.”

“No, you’re so tan.”

“You’re so hot.”

“No, you’re so hot.”

And that was the entire conversation [laughs]. I was like, “I wonder if these should be my friends?” I mean, they were tan, and they were pretty hot.

MO: It was a truthful conversation.

Will: [laughs] It was pretty honest, like that to them was there reality. They were tan and hot.

Rashida: [laughs] I don’t know specifically, but I definitely have friends that I catch sometimes just speaking like a little bit higher to each other.

Will: Like baby talk.

Rashida: Yes, and I’m like, don’t do that…like ever, definitely not in public. But everyone does it anyways.

MO: I recently watched a similar film, “Friends with Kids,” and it seems like the idea of films that explores the often-blurred line between friendship and romance is becoming a trend -- a sort of update on “When Harry Met Sally” -- so I’d like to know, do you think it’s possible to still be friends with an ex?

Rashida: Ours is like a slightly different version because there’s the added complexity that they were married, so I feel like maybe our version is begging the question, can exes be friends?

MO: Exactly

Rashida: I feel like my answer is it depends: A) Were you friends to begin with? I’ve dated people that I shouldn’t have dated because I wouldn’t have been friends with them in the first place.

And B) You need to leave a little time for healing. I don’t think you can go right into being friends with someone you just broke up with.

Will: “Without recognition there can be no healing”. – Sinead O’Connor.

Rashida: [laughs] Or Biggie Smalls.

Will: I think they can. I’m friends with most of my exes because I’m sort of proud of my ex list, I’ve dated some really great girls…

Rashida: But with time…

Will: Right, with time. I think the interesting thing about our movie -- I hope -- is that they’re hasty; they sort of try to be friends without doing the necessary emotional work that needs to be done after a break-up. Celeste doesn’t even think she needs any, and I think that’s why her descent is funny, because she’s like “Oh my god, I have to do feelings?” No one’s exempt from that, you have to go through it. So, I think you can, but I think you need to communicate first.

MO: You mentioned earlier that you went through and picked all these actors for the film, so I was curious what sort of process did you go through to pick a director? Also, what was he trying to achieve with all this gorgeous cinematography? It was one of the best looking romantic comedies I’ve ever seen.

Will: Made for under a million dollars, $840,000 actually. David Lanzenberg [ed. note: the film’s cinematographer], he’s a genius.

Rashida: He’s the jam, he’s so good, and he’s never done a feature film before.

But anyways, we saw “The Vicious Kind,” Lee Krieger’s last movie, which is a fantastic film. If you haven’t seen it, definitely see it, it’s very different tonally from our movie. It’s a dark family drama with Adam Scott and J.K. Simmons, and the performances are so good and it looks fantastic.

So we met with Lee and he’s so charming, so smart, and so talented and immediately got the movie. He’s 28, so he’s of the generation who gets it and had been through some similar morphing himself. He’s also this refined aesthete and has this fine taste.

Will: I was obsessed with “The Vicious Kind,” I was like “Oh my God, this is one of the best indie films I’ve seen.” We weren’t looking for like a big comedy director, we were looking for a dramatic director because we wanted that part of the movie to be excavated. He was talking about the movie in terms of films like “Husbands and Wives,” “Annie Hall,” and “Broadcast News,” and we were like “Yes! That’s it!” He really tonally wanted it to have heft, and so did we.

Rashida: He’s very sensitive and a good communicator on set, and he’s great with actors, and knows how to make the scenes about the emotions -- that was something that was important to us. Between Will, Andy, and I, we had the comedy stuff covered, we didn’t need to force anyone to be funnier than they already naturally were.

MO: There’s a great line in the film that goes something like, “You have to crawl before you can walk.” As actors and writers you’re always growing with each experience, but is there one movie or project you’ve done where you’ve felt that big transition?

Rashida: That’s a good question.

Will: Prior to this? This was the biggest growth spurt of my life.

Rashida: It was huge for me too; as an actress, as a writer, as a producer, as everything.

Will: This was professionally and personally the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most gratifying

Rashida: Me too.

Will: It’s really intense to write, produce, and make a movie, and have it come out in the world. It’s a very vulnerable thing, and we tried to write a comedy about heartbreak to the best of our ability. We weren’t trying to be cynical or satirical at all in the emotional parts of the movie. It doesn’t take guts to do that, but it does take some measure of vulnerability, and this is how we felt it; this is how we put it out into the world.

As an actor I’ve never really had a lot of fear, but as a writer I’ve had a ton of fear about exposing myself. It was great to go through the process, and I would do it again, but it was hard; I had a lot of fear about it. This movie, for me, by far is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Rashida: Same. As an actress I’ve never had to carry anything before, and we wrote this part that was challenging; to be likeable and have some levity, but also to have some gravity, it was a tough balance -- and I was in it. I was feeling every emotion in a way that I don’t really like to feel emotion, because they’re scary [laughs]. So it was challenging, but great.

Film: Art and Activism Intersect in

Film: Art and Activism Intersect in "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"

Film: Art and Activism Intersect in "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"

When renowned artist and political activist Ai Weiwei went missing in April of 2011, it caused quite the international raucous.

A famed and noted dissident of the Chinese government, Weiwei has made a career out of being a thorn in the side of his nation’s Communist overlords.

But though his international fame and reverence had protected him from his government’s invasive and sketchy laws against public denouncement in the past, it suddenly became obvious that not even his celebrity, cult-like following could protect him forever.

When it was first reported that no one -- not even his family -- had heard from him, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the government was somehow behind his disappearance. But why was his disappearance so startling to the world? And why would his own government be so afraid of his outspoken opposition of the Chinese political system?

Director Alison Klayman’s intriguing and insightful new film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” explores just that, and offers a well-rounded and intimate portrait of the hugely influential and somewhat enigmatic artist.

Film: Art and Activism Intersect in "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"The film serves as a primer of sorts to Weiwei’s artistic and socio-political legacy and background, and how Weiwei uses technology as a weapon -- his blog and most prominently, Twitter -- but on a much grander scale.  Klayman’s doc can be read as a testament to the power of art.

Perhaps Weiwei’s grandest artistic achievement and, consequently, his biggest mea culpa was designing Beijing’s famed “Bird’s Nest” stadium, constructed for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Though a monumental piece of architecture, it was only after its construction that Weiwei became aware of the Chinese government’s actions to displace its lower class citizens from the vicinity of the stadium, and thus distanced himself from the project altogether. It’s a struggle that kicks off Klayman’s films and ultimately defines Weiwei’s career, which brilliantly blends art and activism.

The film follows Weiwei and his seemingly vast band of assistants and collaborators as he works on grandiose project after grandiose project, all the while doing everything he can to speak out against the latest misstep his government makes.

But the true power of his art -- as the film explores -- are his pieces that act as both activism and art. Most notably, his piece to commemorate the 5,000 odd students who perished in 2008’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan (a truly horrible natural disaster that claimed the lives of an estimated 68,000 people). Many young students lost their lives as a result of shoddy “tofu” construction methods of school buildings, and rather than owning up to the fault of ill-financed school buildings, the government decided to keep the number disclosed so as not to look bad. Of course, this outraged many, and Weiwei took to the streets, dedicating the next year to tracking down the names of the perished students in a massive (and heartbreaking) piece. It’s both a fitting memorial and brazen denouncement against China’s government -- and one that should have sent him to prison.

Combined with footage from Weiwei’s own documentary filmmaking team (Weiwei has produced something like 15 documentaries in two years that he released for free online), Klayman’s film works best at always having the camera on at opportune times.

When police detain and assault Weiwei the night before he’s scheduled to testify in a political hearing, we see the first hand footage of his assault, which eventually turns into an ongoing -- albeit unsuccessful -- lawsuit against the Chinese authorities.

But Klayman’s film isn’t without its flaws -- at 91-minutes the film feels somewhat incomplete. The story of Weiwei’s 81-day detainment for supposed “tax evasion” and the mass worldwide protests it sparked is somewhat glossed over, and even details into Weiwei’s private life are never fully explained (he had a son with another woman, that his wife may or may not have been O.K. with, it’s all a little sketchy).

But the film shines in its portrayal of such an influential artist, his ongoing struggle against his government, and his mass of adoring fans that will stand by his side no matter what it may cost them.

If you only take away one thing from Klayman’s powerful documentary, it’s this: never underestimate the power of one’s art, or the number of Twitter followers.

Overall Grade: B+

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens today in select theaters. Click here for theaters and showtimes.

FILM: A Flawed Visual Masterpiece in “The Dark Knight Rises

FILM: A Flawed Masterpiece in “The Dark Knight Rises"

FILM: A Flawed Visual Masterpiece in “The Dark Knight Rises"
Tom Hardy, Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway in "The Dark Knight Rises"

“Let’s not stand on ceremony here, Mr. Wayne.” The hulking brute villain Bane (Tom Hardy) menacingly mumbles to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in full Batman regalia, before the two duke it out in their first violent confrontation.

It’s easily “The Dark Knight Rises” most stunning scene, but also a fitting line of dialogue for the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, as he speeds right out of the gate, never letting down to stand on the ceremony of his creation. And Nolan’s grand finale of his staggeringly impressive reimagining of the Batman franchise is just that – a grand, sobering spectacle that delivers its ‘oohh’s and aahh’s’, but not much more.

FILM: A Flawed Visual Masterpiece in “The Dark Knight Rises"
Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in "The Dark Knight Rises"

Make no mistake, the series as a whole is a colossal achievement of genre filmmaking – a  dystopic noir set to the tune of a big budget Hollywood blockbuster that both redefined the superhero genre as a whole, and cemented Nolan as one of the finest modern auteurs.

And “The Dark Knight Rises” is a stunning and wholly satisfying conclusion, but whereas “Batman Begins” was a fresh reimagining, and “The Dark Knight” greatly surpassed expectations and introduced one of the most chilling performances in recent years, “The Dark Knight Rises” doesn’t quite live up to its hype, and is ultimately a flawed masterpiece.

Set eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” the city of Gotham is as clean and tenuous as it’s ever been, due to Harvey Dent’s legacy and a new bill called the Dent Act (a pseudo Patriot Act). But the dark secret of Dent’s transformation is the murderous Two-Face, which ultimately eats away at Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman).

Since that time, however, Batman hasn’t been seen since he took the fall for Dent’s death, and Bruce Wayne has exiled himself in his mansion due in part from his guilt for Rachel’s death.

But things aren’t smooth sailing in Gotham for long, as the criminal mastermind Bane – a terrifyingly hulked out mercenary in a menacing gas mask – quickly sets his sights on the city, hell bent on total destruction. Once again, the caped crusader is lured out of hiding and is faced with his greatest foe yet.

It’s no secret that “The Dark Knight Rises” is a masterful visual spectacle.

With over an hour of footage shot on special IMAX 65mm film, the action set pieces are exciting, massive, and (quite literally) explosive.

But where “The Dark Knight” hints at a city in chaos, with Heath Ledger’s iconic take on The Joker’s unleashing a nihilistic crusade to disrupt Gotham’s infrastructure, Nolan pushes the urgency of the plot to cataclysmic proportions. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s epic and sweeping score, Nolan builds a terrifying sense of dread and hopelessness as he magnificently depicts a city completely under siege.

Indeed, the fact that “The Dark Knight Rises” delivers on the promise of being a massively well-constructed spectacle almost covers up the cracks in Nolan’s screenplay.

FILM: A Flawed Visual Masterpiece in “The Dark Knight Rises"
Anne Hathaway in "The Dark Knight Rises"


Born out of the post-9/11 paranoia, Nolan’s Batman films are no stranger to overt socio-political allegory, but where “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” coyly handle those tones with precision, “The Dark Knight Rises” tends to turn it up to high. Bane’s villainy is pure fascism, and once he takes control of Gotham – turning it into a warzone of which “the people are in control” – the echoes of the Occupy Movement quickly become ear-shattering screams. Furthermore, the sheer magnitude and scope of Nolan’s (along with brother Jonathan Nolan) screenplay nearly buckles under the weight of its own pressure.

Even at a whopping 2 hours-and-45 minutes, the story is so jam-packed with new characters and individual agendas that Nolan often relies on silly, expository dialogue, and when the finale finally hits, it feels like a rushed attempt to pull together the many strings he’s weaved.

Still, “The Dark Knight Rises” twist ending is certainly a fitting finale for the series, and one that will appease the masses of wide-eyed fans.

Though, what’s always been the strongest element of Nolan’s Batman series are his characters, and “The Dark Knight Rises” is no exception.

292453_Dark Knight Rises Ticketing 300x250

Oldman and Michael Caine continue to bring raw emotion and realism to their roles —especially as the desperation of the situation grows.

Anne Hathaway is as intoxicating and seductive as ever  as the conflicted cat burglar Selina Kyle, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the earnest rookie cop John Blake briskly helps move the story along as Bruce Wayne’s newest confidant.

But it’s Tom Hardy who really steals the show.

It’s no easy task following in the footsteps of Heath Ledger as the lead villain, but Hardy as Bane is downright terrifying.

As the director of such mind-benders as “Memento,” “The Prestige,” and “Inception,” it’s no surprise that he tacks on twist after twist. But the best part of Nolan’s story is how seamlessly it ties back to “Batman Begins”. It’s a fitting choice to bring it all back to where it began, and the result becomes wholly satisfying – albeit flawed – conclusion to Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy.

Overall Grade: B+

“The Dark Knight Rises” opens today in theaters everywhere. Click here for theaters and showtimes.


FILM: "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey" Kicks Off the SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival

FILM: "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey" Kicks Off the SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival
Photo Credit: Ninfa Z. Bito

You’ve got to hand it to Neal Schon, he really knows ‘em when he sees ‘em. When the longtime Journey guitarist was desperately searching for a new singer for his legendary band, he knew he struck gold the moment he came across a Youtube video of a scrappy, young Filipino blissfully belting the lyrics to “Faithfully” in a manner that mirrors Steve Perry’s iconic pipes, and then some.

Immediately after he watched the video, Schon tracked down the singer — 39-year old Arnel Pineda — and promptly flew him out to L.A. to audition as the lead vocalist of Journey.

He got the gig, seized media outlets everywhere and Journey made its big comeback. And the whole Cinderella affair is chronicled in the documentary “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” which opened the AFI/Discovery Channel’s 10th annual Silverdocs Film Festival on Monday.

Written and directed by Ramona Diaz, the film follows the band on the road with its newfound singer on their big "Revelation Tour," capturing every gut-wrenching hardship and obstacle Arnel faces during his one-shot-in-a-million, life-changing big break singing in front of tens of thousands of die-hard Journey fans.

That is, of course, had there been any real hardships and obstacles faced along the way.

Sure, the story behind “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” is one that seems ripe for a monumental behind-the-scenes rockumentary on paper, but the truth is that Diaz struggles to find any sort of real conflict during filming, and as a result, the film tends to tread its own water for most of its excruciatingly long 113-minute run time.

The film’s fish-out-of-water story is aptly summed up early on by Jonathan Cain, the band’s Keyboardist/Rhythm Guitarist who was skeptical of Arnel at first: “How do you take a guy from a Third World country and throw him into the rock 'n' roll circus?” Apparently, pretty easily—Arnel seamlessly tackles the role as if he was born to fulfill it.

Which he was, kind of.

As the film explores in its strongest scenes, Arnel was on his own from a very young age and resorted to singing on the streets for spare change just to buy food.

Soon, his talents were discovered, and by the time he was 15, he was the lead singer of a cover band, earning enough from gigs to get his own place. He then spent the next 25 years singing for numerous bands, going through heartache, alcoholism and drug addiction. A would-be classic rock 'n' roll story, except that by the time the Journey guys and Diaz catch up with him, he’s well past that chapter of his life.

FILM: "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey" Kicks Off the SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival
Photo Credit: Richard Fahoome

The film is scattered with many would-be conflicts. He’s on the verge of passing out before his first gig with the band, but performs like he’s been doing it for years (the band’s manager even mildly scolds him bouncing around the stage too much). He talks about the temptations of slipping back into his old habits with the “rock 'n' roll circus” that surrounds him. Please. Though rock 'n' roll may still be in full swing for the Journey dudes, the sex and drugs have left them eons ago.

The biggest narrative conflict comes midway through their tour when Arnell comes down with a cold and the members worry about how it will affect the shows. Needless to say, he ends up sounding better than ever.

Though the rags-to-riches story is certainly endearing, and the film offers enough lighthearted and amusing moments to make it somewhat enjoyable (one scene in a tour van with a particularly hilarious mustachioed character provided some of the biggest unintentional laughs of the evening), it is really only ripe for about an hour before things start feel repetitive.

Which is why Neal Schon really must call 'em as he sees 'em. The guitarist was in attendance for the film and was scheduled to be a part of a post-screening discussion between The Washington  Post’s pop music critic Chris Richards and the filmmakers, but apparently he fled as soon as the film ended as he was rumored to be upset that “the film didn’t emphasize the dynamics of the band enough.

Don’t stop believin’, Neal.

Check back all this week for more updates and reviews from the Silverdocs Documentary Festival.

Overall Grade: C+

FILM: Why Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" Isn't the Sci-Fi Epic We Were Hoping For

On Tuesday a rare, once-in-a-lifetime event occurred: the transit of Venus moved across the face of the sun and was visible from Earth. Considered to be one of the “rarest of predictable celestial phenomena” (a phenomena that occurs in pairs; the last one occurring in 2004, and the next not scheduled until 2117), it was a greatly hyped and momentous occasion which was met with lots of squinting and a resounding “that’s it?”

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” conjured a similar reaction for me.

Ok, that’s not completely fair.

At least Venus’ solar journey helped put to rest some questions about our solar system, whereas “Prometheus” merely proposes intriguing questions about our existence and extraterrestrial life, meanders around for them for two hours, and then fails to answer them.

Instead, it paves the way for an inevitable franchise which will attempt to squeeze more out of our collective wallets for at least two more films before rightly answering them.

“Prometheus” is a prequel of sorts to Scott’s sci-fi/horror 1979 masterpiece “Alien” (or as Scott has gone on record to say, it’s not a prequel, per se, but contains “strands of “Alien’s” DNA, so to speak”).

Like “Alien,” it finds a commercial spaceship of scientists and other crew members grounded on a strange planet — this time around it’s LV-223 instead of LV-426 (for “Alien” fanboys keeping score) — up against unknown, nasty forces, who have acid for blood.

The crew of the Prometheus space vessel are on an alien-hunting mission led by eager and wide-eyed scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green).

Funded by the mysterious Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the deceased multi-billionaire and CEO of the Weyland Corporation, the voyage comes four years after Shaw and Holloway uncover ancient, cryptic star maps scribbled in prehistoric caverns on Earth that seem to suggest that our existence is connected with that of an alien race.

As Prometheus reaches the orbit of LV-223, the crew awakes from a two-year stasis and are quickly debriefed about the exploratory nature of their mission by the hard-nosed corporate suit and mission director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron).

Leading the crew, which is rounded out by the ship’s captain, Janek (Idris Elba), David the android (Michael Fassbender), and few other forgettable (and thus, expendable) members, Shaw and Holloway venture towards a mysterious pyramid on the planet where they believe they’ll find answers.

Of course, things go less than spectacular when the crew finds fossilized corpses of giant, humanoid aliens (thought to be one of the Engineers who may or may not be responsible for the creation of humanity), who appear to have died trying to escape from something.

In a scene that mirrors a particularly iconic one in “Alien,” the crew unearths a secret chamber containing dozens of stone cylinders, oozing with a mysterious, organic liquid, which proves to be the source of the crew’s deadly pitfall.

There’s a great movie lurking somewhere in “Prometheus’s” DNA, and that’s what’s most frustrating about it.

The film borrows a lot more from its “Alien” predecessor than Scott claims,  particularly in its narrative pacing and structure, which feels closer to a prequel/remake in the same vane as Matthijs van Heikningen Jr.’s The Thing” premake (can we start calling them premakes? No? Ok, fine) than a standalone film.

Most, if not all, of the film’s faults can be ascribed to the uneven script courtesy of Jon Spaihts and “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof, which raises too many questions about our existence and these so-called alien “engineers.”  The film strains basic logic in order to conform to their own storytelling needs,  and as a result, forces a somewhat awkward obligation to make an “Alien” canonical connection with thick-as-mud philosophical questions about the nature of God, an afterlife, etc., etc.

But considering Lindelof’s repertoire for unanswered questions, I should have been prepared for such pitfalls. Yet the uneven, overstuffed, illogical nature of all these elements proved to be too much for “Prometheus” to juggle.

All is not lost, however, as Scott’s keen sense for grandiose spectacle and painterly style absolutely make the film a marvel to look at.

The sweeping other-worldly landscapes and set designs are magnificently shot (courtesy of cinematographer Darius Wolski), and combined with the ship’s futuristic holographic technology, the 3D works seamlessly to enhance the film’s stunning visuals.

Furthermore, the film’s special effects and classic H.R. Griger-inspired creature designs absolutely delivers in the film’s tantalizing and gross-out body horror elements, which I find is the absolute best thing going for it. For those expecting squirm-in-your-seat, gross-out body horror, the film mostly delivers, though it could have used a little more of it.

The stellar acting really holds the film together more than it should have. Idris Elba and Charlize Theron hold their own as the gruff, smooth-talking ship’s captain and the no-holds-barred, pragmatic mission leader, respectively.

Rapace’s performance as the strong-willed, but naive heroine showcases Scott’s knack for strong female leads, but maybe tries a little too hard to mirror the original alien ass-kicker, Sigourney Weaver.

But the film’s most intriguing – and most frustrating – character comes in Fassbender’s android character, David.

Something between “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” HAL 9000 and Haley Joel Osment’s Pinocchio-like robot of the same name from “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” Fassbender is fantastic as his character struggles with attempting to understand and empathize with his human counterparts.

But his major failure is more the fault of Lindelof and Spaiht’s story, in which posits him with his own secret agenda that’s cryptically hinted at but never explained.  Unfortunately, this just adds to the mounting pile of unanswered questions plaguing the film and shamelessly sets up future sequels (especially in its grating final scene, which feels more like a lazily tacked on ‘P.S.’ for fanboys than anything else).

In a pivotal centerfold scene, David extracts some of the ominous dark organic matter, examines it closely on his fingertips and says “big things come from small beginnings.”

A fact that aptly describes Venus’ recent solar orbit, but in the case of “Prometheus,” it seems the inverse is true: Small things come from big beginnings.

Overall Grade: C+

[divider]Prometheus opens today in theaters everywhere, click here for theaters and showtimes.[divider]

Moonrise Kingdom

FILM: The Wonderfully Pastiche Playhouse of Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom"

Moonrise Kingdom
At this point in his career, the most common criticism you’ll hear about Wes Anderson is  that he’s become a parody of himself.

With the too-bizarre-too-take-seriously “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and the underwhelming “Darjeeling Limited” (the adorably kitschy stop-motion menagerie “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” notwithstanding), it’s a hard argument to refute. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. For if there’s one modern auteur whose trademark style is so distinct and artful that it occupies a grandiose world of its own, it’s Wes Anderson. For better or for worse, there’s one thing you can count on with a Wes Anderson film: That it’s going to be a Wes Anderson film. But whether or not that’s a good thing is all a matter of taste.

With his latest feature, “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson doesn’t abandon his style or quirk, obviously, but instead, plays it to the favor of the story and setting, thus creating a profoundly moving and delightful narrative that contrasts young, adolescent love with adulthood.

Moonrise KingdomSet in 1965 on the fictional New England island of New Penzance, the film opens with a trademark Anderson tracking shot of a family in their quiet but compartmental New England house. A familiar shot (like that of the submarine in “The Life Aquatic,” or the Tenanbaum mansion in “The Royal Tenenbaums”), that seemingly reduces his characters to players in an elaborately kitschy dollhouse. But that’s exactly what Anderson’s films are: Quirky players in an elaborate dollhouse story.

That house, by the way, is called ‘Summer’s End’ and appropriately titled waterside-cottage occupied by the Bishop family — the classically sour and self-deprecating Bill Murray as Walt Bishop, Frances McDormand as his neurotic and adulterating wife, Laura, their three young boys, and finally Suzy Bishop. Wearing floral mini-skirts and heavy eyeshadow (much like Gwyneth Paltrow’s aesthetic in “The Royal Tenenbaums”), Suzy is the black sheep of the family; misunderstood by her parents and prone to violent outbursts amongst her peers. Though, Suzy’s one solace in her life is the kinship she’s sparked with the tenacious and similarly misunderstood orpha, Sam Shakusky.

As the film’s nameless narrator (Bob Balaban) informs us, Sam — a dedicated member of the Khaki Scouts of North America — met Suzy one year earlier, and after a year of developing a deep bond as two misunderstood outcasts, they make plans to run away and be together. When Sam’s Khaki Scout Master Randy Ward (amusingly played by Edward Norton) and Suzy’s family discover their disappearance, Anderson ensembles a colorful cast of quirky supporting characters to track them down and bring them back to their respective homes (though in the case of Sam, his non-home is a juvenile center for delinquent orphans).

Moonrise Kingdom” is perhaps Wes Anderson’s best film since his Academy Award-nominated “The Royal Tenenbaums”.

With its 1960’s setting, Anderson’s palette of pastiche and kitschy aesthetic perfectly captures the tone of fetishized love of a bygone era. But like the best of Anderson’s work, the film’s quirk only works because of how it tenderly handles its very human themes. In this case, the innocence of adolescence, excitement of first love and the disillusionment of adulthood.

Of course, the adventure — both physically and emotionally — that Sam and Suzy embark on is adorably endearing. Venturing out into the backwoods of New Penzance, Suzy, armed with her arsenal of her favorite fantastical novels, a pair of left-handed scissors, and her trusty binoculars, and Sam — packing Khaki Scout survival gear (and a corncob pipe that he likes to unwind with, for quirk’s sake), the sweetly naive courtship that evolves between them hits all the right notes with young love.

But what really makes the film work thematically is how the depiction of young love contrasts with the seasoned disillusionment of the film’s tragic adult players.

Accompanying Murray, Norton, and McDormand, are Bruce Willis as the island’s police chief Captain Sharp, Tilda Swinton as the Social Services worker aptly referred to as “Social Services” throughout the film, and Jason Schwartzman as the hard-headed cousin of one of Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts.

With stellar performances all around (particularly in Norton and Willis who magnificently showcase their range as actors), the soured and sad depictions of the lives (failed marriages, loneliness, and delusions of grandeur are aloft) of the adult characters give the film depth and real character, and, ultimately, only serve to root for -- and fall in love with -- Sam and Suzy’s relationship.

For the first two-thirds, “Moonrise Kingdom” is as close to perfection as a Wes Anderson film has come. It’s only until the film’s final act that introduces a brooding and destructive storm that threatens the safety of our young protagonists that “Moonrise Kingdom” teeters into uneven territory, but even then we’ve already been so charmed that it’s acceptable.

With his deadpan, matter-of-fact dialogue, colorfully offbeat characters, and twee lens, Anderson’s style isn’t for everyone. But for those who do appreciate Anderson’s art, “Moonrise Kingdom” is a pleasurable and delightful chapter in Anderson’s canon. One that conveys its emotions as effectively as it paints its pastiche portrait.

Though it’s shaping up to be the arthouse hit of the summer, Anderson naysayers won’t be swayed by “Moonrise Kingdom”, but that’s okay; they can stay outside while the rest of us gleefully play in his wonderfully elaborate dollhouse.

Overall Grade: A-


“Moonrise Kingdom” is now playing in select theaters, click here for theaters and showtimes.

FILM: Subversive Quirk Works Wonders in "Turn Me On, Dammit!"

Teenage boys are horny. An obvious notion that’s been cinema’s long time obsession through a seemingly endless—and in most cases superfluous—supply of both raunchy and indie male-centric coming-of-age films. Particularly in the last decade. Which makes it all the more refreshing to see Norwegian writer/director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s “Turn Me On, Dammit!” tackle the subject from a female perspective.

Opening with long static shots of desolate mountain roads, herds of sheep roaming aimlessly, and more shots depicting rural nothingness, Jacobsen does a remarkable job of establishing the exceedingly dull setting in the too-small-to-be-real Nordic village of Skoddeheimen, a town that’s an endless source of boredom and angst for 15-year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm) and her clique of friends.

With a background in documentary filmmaking, it’s Jacobsen’s keen attention for capturing settings and the idiosyncrasies of Alma’s life that give the film its quirky charm.

Though perpetually bored, with grandiose plans to move on to bigger and better places like most of her friends, Alma isn’t like the other girls. Her budding, and curiously impulsive, sexuality eventually leads her askew.

At home she uses her vivid imagination—and a phone sex hotline—to quench her insatiable sex drive as she secretly crushes on Artur (Matias Myren), the dreamy, guitar-playing classmate that’s the apple of her eye.

Though their relationship starts off innocently enough—a few knowing glances and awkward smiles here and there—Alma and Artur’s appropriately adorable a pas deux comes to a screeching halt when Artur mans up and shows his true affections for Alma outside of a party at the local youth center by “poking her with his dick.”

Excited about the ‘escalation’ in their relationship, Alma immediately runs inside to tell her best friend, the equally angsty (but not so sexually so) Saralou (Malin Bjøhovde), and her lip gloss-addicted queen bee sister, Ingrid (Beate Støfring). Of course, Artur denies the entire ordeal, and Alma is immediately shunned from her popular social circle at school.

Ostracized by her classmates and declared “abnormal” by her own mother (who discovers Alma’s phone sex obsession), poor Alma is at her wits end. And for what reason? Because she likes to masturbate to phone sex hotlines and is eager to be “poked” by boys like any other 15-year old girl?

Such is the tone of Alma’s angst that drives the narrative of the film. But as the film establishes in its brisk 76-minute runtime, Alma is as tenacious a 15-year old as there ever was. Refusing to be victimized by Artur’s denials, she makes it her business to confront him and make him fess up. When she’s unsuccessful at that, she does the next logical thing and runs away to Oslo, to stay with Saralou and Ingrid’s older, college-bound sister, who serves as Alma’s role model.

Conveying teen angst with compassion and quirk, from the sure-to-be controversial opening scene of Alma “pleasuring” herself, Jacobsen never shies away from depicting the explicit details of a teen girl exploring her sexuality.

But what’s most charming, is the delicate way in which Jacobsen conveys the innocent curiosity of Alma’s sexual exploration. The film always manages to stay light-hearted and never delves into exploitative territories. It feels more like a John Hughes film by-way-of Noah Baumbach than anything else, especially in its sweet, yet somewhat flawed happily-ever-after finale.

Grounded by the superbly natural and subtle performance by the young Bersholm, who exercises her angst in a perfect blend of listless daydreaming and kinetic bursts of frustration, “Turn Me On, Dammit!” is an quietly funny, always honest, and oddly touching coming-of-age story.

One whose feminist narrative delightfully transcends its genre norms (that is, if ‘coming-of-age’ can be considered a genre by now), to explore the odd nature of one’s sexual awakening. And to prove that teenage girls are just as horny as boys.

Overall Grade: B+
"Turn Me On, Dammit!" is now playing in  select theaters, click here  for theaters and showtimes.

Men in Black III

FILM: Third Times a Charm for the "Men in Black"

Men in Black III

Amid what’s slated to be one of the biggest summers for Hollywood — with “Marvel’s The Avengers” smashing box office records, and the highly anticipated releases of “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” slated for release later in the season — my anticipation for a third “Men in Black” film was certainly low, especially after the abysmal sequel that followed a decade ago.

But, nearly 15 years after director Barry Sonnenfeld charmed audience with the quirky, whimsical, and surprisingly fresh original, comes the third film in the uneven franchise.

A noble, if not sordid (given its lengthy production problems) attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was the first. Though everyone knows the first lesson about catching lightning in a bottle: It’s nearly impossible.

But with “Men in Black III,” Sonnenfeld and co. give a valiant effort. A thoroughly enjoyable effort that proves to be eons better than its previous attempt, yet still a few yards left of the mark.

Where the former “MIB” attempted to capitalize on the spectacle — and not the charm — of the original, “MIB III” spends a majority of its efforts capitalizing on the charm element through the intriguing narrative structure and witty one-liners of Etan Cohen’s screenplay and clever visual puns that give praise to Sonnenfeld’s original directorial efforts.

Men In Black IIICombined with the rich  ‘odd-couple’ chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and the addition of Josh Brolin, this latest installment proves to be a welcomed one, whether we asked for it or not.

The film picks up in roughly the same time frame since we last visited it — with Agent K (Jones) and his partner J (Smith) going through the daily doldrums of keeping the planet safe from intergalactic destruction.

In keeping with canon, J is now a “senior agent” since he’s 15 years-strong on the job, and he is still as hopeless as ever in his attempts to understand his partner’s stone-cold psyche.

Though this time around, K becomes even more emotionally detached from his partner after Boris the Animal (“Flight of the Conchord’s” Jemaine Clement) — a ruthless, spiky, one-armed alien thug K locked decades ago — breaks out of a maximum security lunar prison and once again threatens Earth’s safety.

The MacGuffin of the first half of the film relies on a certain outlawed and supposedly destroyed time travel device that Boris has stolen to travel back to 1969 and kill K, thus changing the course of history, so his currently extinct alien race can take over the planet. After Boris makes the time jump and erases K from the current present, J must track down the last remaining time-travel doohickey and (literally) jump back in time to save the Earth from imminent alien destruction.

The choice to use the narrative of time-travel, and more specifically, the choice of shooting J back to the late 60’s is one of the strongest elements going for “MIB III.”

As one of the most socially and politically distinct years in America’s history, it’s used for moderate comedic effect in J’s fish-out-of-water (er, time) gags that Sonnenfeld populates the second half of the film with. And it’s even more charming to watch Sonnenfeld have fun with cultural staples like the the Vietnam war, the Black Panthers, and most effectively, Andy Warhol (brilliantly portrayed by Bill Hader) and the countercultural boom.

Though as J hooks up with late-60’s K (Josh Brolin, putting on an impressive Tommy Lee Jones face), the narrative begins to gain slack as the pair embark on a repetitive catch-and-release with Boris.

While the the driving narrative of “Men in Black III” is somewhat fitting, it’s also somewhat slacking, especially in its hokey, emotional third-act twist.

Luckily, the film is filled with enough trademark dry wit, visual puns (the literal act of jumping through time by jumping from a large building is particularly endearing), and a cast of fantastic character actors who are at the top of their game to keep me delightfully entertained throughout.

Brolin turns in a solid performance with his sour-yet-still-naive portrayal as the younger K, as does Jemaine Clement as the gruff, biker gang-esque baddie, but the real show-stealer is Michael Stuhlberg as the neurotic alien Griffin, whose ability to see an infinite multitude of possible outcomes for the future provide for some of the film’s best gags.

Thrown into the mix of summer blockbuster season fairly early, it’s likely that “Men in Black III” will be neuralized from your memory come August, as it’s destined to meld together with everything else released under the giant, bat-and-spider-shaped shadow that looms over the multiplexes in the coming months.

But for now,  it stands as a welcomed and entertaining chapter in the “Men in Black” franchise. And that’s all we could ever ask for after the atrocious “Men in Black II”, which I wish would be neuralized from my memory.

Overall Grade: B

Men In Black III opens today in theaters everywhere, click here  for theaters and showtimes.

Sweet Green's Sweetlife Food And Music Festival 2012 (7)

Festival Review: A Taste For All at Sweet Green's Sweetlife Food and Music Festival

Photos: Megan Friend

From electro house-pop to Americana, cinematic post-rock to hip hop, and everything in between, on paper, Saturday’s Sweetlife Festival sounds like a classic case of ‘apples & oranges,’ but the third annual food and music festival felt like anything but that.

Produced and curated by salad/frozen yogurt tycoon Sweet Green, hordes of neon-clad teenagers and festival junkies braved the drizzly weather and somewhat sub-zero temperatures (at least it felt so considering it’s already May) to catch a, to put it lightly, “eclectic” of lineup of performers.

With headliners like Swedish house sensation Avicii and crooning hip-hop stalwart Kid Cudi, the crowd drawn to Merriweather Post Pavillion was “colorful,” no doubt, but alas, quite inebriated and obnoxious.

Kicking off the day’s festivities were car commercial/current “it” band Fun., whose blend of rousing indie pop-rock and current chart-topping single “We Are Young” was a fitting and topical opener to get the early arrivers moving from the get go.

Sweet Green's Sweetlife Food And Music Festival 2012 (1)

Of course, as a food festival, a cavalry of popular D.C.-area food trucks were lined up at the back of the festival grounds, providing much-needed -- if not food coma-inducing -- break for festival goers to fuel up in between sets.

With such buzzworthy trucks as Jose Andres’ Pepe Truck, Shake Shack, Baked + Wired, Big Cheese, and of course, Sweet Green, among others, the festival was no doubt the Bonnaroo of food festivals for foodies, if there ever was such a thing.

But the draw of the massive festival was the music, which offered something for all tastes.

Rounding out the main stage acts were rapper A$AP Rocky, soul revival act Fitz and the Tantrums (whose overused neo-soul routine felt more like an “American Idol” house band than anything), post-rockers Explosions in the Sky (who put on one of the more sensational performances of the day), and twee indie popsters The Shins.

But the day was closed out with sets from  Kid Cudi and Avicii, whom I didn’t stay for because I’m not 17 (also, my wardrobe wasn’t nearly neon enough to pass for an Avicii show).

For those looking to avoid the crowds of the main stage found themselves delighted to an especially enticing lineup at the festival’s smaller Treehouse stage. Discovering new acts like the sisters L.A.’s Haim, whose sound is somewhere along the lines of Fleetwood Mac meets Wild Flag, as well as the incredible crooning of LP, became one of the delights of the festival. The Shins Performing at Sweet Green's Sweetlife Food And Music Festival 2012

Indeed, with acts like roots-rock darlings Delta Spirit and U.S. Royalty, electro goth-pop sensation Zola Jesus (who put on my favorite performance of the entire fest), and Baltimore’s Twin Shadow, the Treehouse stage became a welcomed hangout for those over 24 fest fans seeking a refuge from the masses of drunken teenagers.

By the end of the day, the sun began to set, the temperatures dropped, and the rains came down, but it didn’t stop the crowd from finding a reason to keep partying throughout the festival grounds.

Because, just like the diversity of culinary offerings the festival had to offer, if hip-hop, house, post-rock, or pop wasn’t your thing, there was plenty of options to find your flavor and have a good time.