MoviefiedNYC’s Top 10 movies of 2016

John David West’s Top 10 Films of 2016

10. Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw-ridge-1Mel Gibson (yep Mad Mel is back) and Hacksaw Ridge proves to be a better venture than his previous outings. The film is sometimes a little schmaltzy with the typical Hollywood, man against all odds, American glory, and pious, good-versus-evil sentimentality, but in actuality it’s kind of refreshing. This is the true story of Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) in one of his best performances to date. Doss is a Seventh-day Adventist, who—as a conscientious objector—joined the military and refused to carry a gun into battle.  Doss’s refusal to participate in violence starkly contrasts the war-torn images Gibson’s puts on the screen. They are brutally violent, limbs are blown apart before our eyes and rats feast on dead soldiers. Is it too much? Perhaps not. War is far more brutal than anything we can watch on the big screen in the safety of our cozy seats. At this point, I am quite weary of the “based on a true story” marketing that seems to give so many films a certain level of cachet, but in the case of Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of Desmond Doss’s selflessness is rather refreshing to see a unique World War II story.

9. O.J.: Made in America

o-j-made-in-america-1This gargantuan documentary by Ezra Edelman runs a staggering 464 minutes—well over seven hours. Its length—and the fact that it never becomes dull or tedious despite it—solidifies that the O.J Simpson story may best represent America’s obsession with celebrity, media, violence, the criminal justice system, and our complex, ongoing issues with race relations.

8. Fences

fences-1August Wilsons’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play features career high performances by Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. This play to screen adaptation may disappoint audiences who crave action and more locations than simply a backyard and living room, but it’s the simple set that doesn’t interfere with Wilson’s beautiful linguistic music along with Washington and Davis’ passion.

7. Tony Erdmann

tony-erdmann-1Another film that brings some much-needed originality to this year’s batch of movies. A German comedy that doesn’t try too hard to be funny – it’s comical when it needs to be and touching when the time is right. What’s most satisfying about Toni Erdman is how surprisingly gratifying of a film it is – just wait for the birthday brunch that becomes absurdly funny and oddly relatable. It’s a clever comment on the ridiculousness of corporate conformity and a need to perform well for the team.

6. 13th

13thNot only is Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the U.S. prison system a sobering essay on institutionalized racism in the U.S, but is also a study – through the 13th Amendment of the Constitution – of how it was allowed to thrive. The films success lies in its accessiblity whilst never being preachy. This is with out a doubt a movie that everyone should see.

5. Arrival

Amy Adams, Arrival
Amy Adams, Arrival

Adapted from the book, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival ponders some tough questions, in the words of its director Denis Villeneuve: “What would happen if you knew how and when you will die? What will your relationship with life and love, your family, and friends, and with your society be?  By being more in relationship with death, in an intimate way with the nature of life and its subtleties, it would bring us more humility.” We all need that human humility today, more than ever. As one of the smarter films of 2016, and with an intelligent performance by Amy Adams, Arrival is one last year’s films that deserves a second viewing.

4. The Salesman

the-salesman1Asghar Farhadi‘s realistic thriller The Salesman opens like a disaster film as an apartment building appears to collapse as its residents are forced to flee. After this disruptive event the films settles into Farhadi’s typical exploration of domestic life as the film’s central characters, a married couple, played brilliantly by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are forced to find an alternative apartment to live in. The Salesman is ultimately about more intimate matters than a physical disaster as their lives are dramatically changed by a violent event in their new apartment. Farhadi carefully and quietly spins the domestic drama into naturalistic revenge thriller that takes you for the ride inside the heads of its lead characters.

3. The Lobster

lobsterThe Lobster is one of the most unique films of 2016. Set in the near future, it takes an absurdist angle to explore what it means to be single. In this gray futuristic story, the uncoupled are arrested and transferred to The Hotel, where they must find a mate and fall in love within 45 days or they will be forever transformed into an animal of their choosing. Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us the Oscar nominated Dogtooth (2011). This is his first English language film, and he’s just as compelling and disturbing in English as he is in Greek. This time he has a few big screen names from Hollywood’s John C. Reilly, to across the Atlantic with England’s Rachel Weisz, France’s Léa Seydoux and middle-aged, pudgy Irish Colin Farrell in a very strong yet understated performance. These actors are all doing great ensemble work in a movie whose title begs the most important question – “what animal would you choose?”

2. Moonlight

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Moonlight is quite possibly a perfect acting movie – its ensemble of actors don’t miss a beat. While Mahershala Ali is getting all the—well deserved—attention for his performance as the neighborhood drug dealer who provides a young boy a home away from his abusive home—a stable life, if you will.  But the critically-overshadowed performance of Ashton Sanders as the bullied and questioning teenage Chiron is one of the most moving of the film.  Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Chiron’s crack addict mother is one of the year’s most compelling performances. With the film’s visually delightful cinematography and a beautiful script, Moonlight does not miss a step under the brilliant direction of Barry Jenkins. 

1. Manchester by the Sea

manchester-seaFew directors are able to make a film that successfully blurs the line between tragedy and comedy, while also maintaining a tone that is unquestionably dramatic. It helps that the film is set during an overcast snowy New England winter; that its set in a working class environment; and has an score that features some heavy pieces, including Albinoni’s classic funeral hit, “Adagio in G Minor.” Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan has seamlessly blended the dramatic with the comic,  through his direction of his well-crafted script. You don’t walk away confused about you just watched—it’s a definitely a drama, a devastating drama, with many moments that capture the clumsiness that bring humor to daily life. Affleck is the conflicted center of this film and gives a career-high performance that is a case study of quiet restraint, and subtle emotional depth. This is an honest performance that is successful for it’s nuanced and controlled quality, yet it’s not dull or boring—it’s authentic. Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife delivers one of her most powerful performances in years. Manchester by the Sea, with its strong cast, mature writing, masterful direction, and a score that—despite coming dangerously close to overpowering the film—effectively enhances the over all tone. Manchester By The Sea is one of 2016’s best films and my number one.

 A few more:  

singstreet2
Sing Street (Dir. John Carney)

Sing Street

Elle

Lion

Loving

The Handmaiden 

Paterson

LaLa Land

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Good Girls Revolt on Amazon Prime

good-girlsAmazon’s new original series Good Girls Revolt – developed by former journalist Dana Calvoe (Narcos) – follows the careers of a group of young female researchers at a fictitious magazine, News of the Week, during the counterculture days of 1969. Inspired by the book The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich, which examined the complaint, filed with the EEOC by a dozen female researchers who claimed their civil rights were being violated by a male-only policy of reporters at the magazine.

maxresdefaultWhile Good Girls Revolt addresses not only the character’s feminist awakening, but also the other issues of the time; race relations, drug and alcohol abuse. However, the show is certainly not a didactic history lesion, but rather is sexy with equal parts male and female gaze; it’s compelling entertainment—irresistible beyond one’s control, and it’s surprisingly well constructe. A mixture of the Mad Men stylish nostalgia but not too self aware (seeing employees smoke in the office is amusing but soon tiresome). Ultimately, it’s the show’s characters that kept me coming back for the first ten episodes, who are richly drawn and delightfully distinct. Notably Genevieve Angelson as the impulsive and ambitious Patti who wants more than research—she longs to be a reporter. Also Anna Camp as Jane, a girl in search of a husband who realizes that she’s actually a career girl with a lot to offer; and Erin Drake as the awkward, über-sweet and unhappily-married Cindy who wants to be a novelist. It is Drake who has the most interesting journey; this is a performance that should gain some attention. This fun and nostalgic period piece is sadly quite relevant 40 years later as we witness the first woman running for president refereed to as a “nasty woman” by her presidential opponent.  We still have a long way to go, yet Good Girls Revolt reminds us how far we’ve come. 

Good Girls Revolt appears on Amazon Prime streaming, Friday, October 28, 2016.

New York Film Festival: Manchester by the Sea

 

manchester-seaFew directors are able to make a film that successfully blurs the line between tragedy and comedy, while also maintaining a tone that is unquestionably dramatic. It helps that the film is set during an overcast snowy New England winter; that its set in a working class environment; and has an score that features some heavy pieces, including Albinoni’s classic funeral hit,“Adagio in G Minor.” Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan has seamlessly blended the dramatic with the comic, not only through his direction but also through his well-crafted script. You don’t walk away confused about you they just saw—it’s a definitely a drama, a devastating drama with many moments that capture the clumsiness that add to daily life with humor.

Manchester by the Sea came out of Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals as a favorite and it’s getting the same love at this year’s New York Film Festival. Lonergan directs with careful detail and allows the scenes to run as long as necessary without feeling indulgent, but with enough emotional intensity that it feels honest. The performances possess the same quality of subtle intensity. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman living in a working class neighborhood of Boston. He’s essentially given up on life after suffering a tragic loss some years earlier. Following the death of his older, more stable brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee learns that is the sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Affleck is the conflicted center of this film and gives a career-high performance that is a case study of quiet restraint, and subtle emotional depth. This is an honest performance that is successful for it’s nuanced and controlled quality, yet it’s not dull or boring—it’s authentic.  Lee is ultimately a likable guy, mostly because, although he is very damaged and lonely, he is in need of help, he is a good man who is responsible and does the right thing. Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife delivers one of her most powerful performances in years, despite her too little screen time. In an unforgettable scene later in the film, Williams and Affleck are remarkable and heartbreakingly honest as she is awkwardly tries to talk to Lee about their tragic past, but through polite restraint, Lee is unable to let go and succumbs to avoidance as his only tool. In the hands of any other director this scene would have been a sappy, get-out-your-handkerchief moment, but here it’s a simple, frustrating (you want reach out and help them), and truthful moment. Affleck and Williams handle this scene masterfully.

kyle-chandler-casey-affleck-credit_-claire-folger-courtesy-of-amazon-studios-and-roadside-attractionsAnother stand out performance comes from Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, Grand Budapest Hotel) as Lee’s nephew who finds himself suddenly alone, and at odds with Lee’s desire to take Lucas back to Boston to live until he is of legal age to receive his inheritance.  With his teen angst and rampant horniness, he’s the perfect counterpart to Casey’s emotionally muted (yet volatile given enough alcohol) and sexually stalled state. Their relationship is a pleasure—with the right amount of pain—to watch.

Manchester by the Sea, with its Oscar caliber performances, mature writing, masterful direction and a score that—despite coming dangerously close to overpowering the film—effectively enhances the over all tone of the movie, will likely stand out as one of 2016’s best films.

–John David West

 

Streaming on Netflix: Miss Lovely’s director Ashim Ahluwalia

0a5a0-miss_lovely_06Director, Ashim Ahluwalia—whose first feature film, Miss Lovely, currently streaming on Netflix—is not your typical Bollywood director.  I interviewed Ahluwalia last year and he was not what I expected, as I anticipated meeting the next big blockbuster Bollywood director.  He’s a down-to-earth guy, well-informed and totally aware of his field, and passionate about making movies that matter.  I approached the topic of Indian cinema (a subject new to me) in hopes of broadening my knowledge. After speaking with Ahluwalia, I walked away feeling much enlightened on the business of Indian cinema, in particular the emergence of C-grade movies. My fears were confirmed that it’s hard everywhere for filmmakers who don’t want to just make films that are “instantaneously gratifying.” But—be it Hollywood or Bollywood—it’s good to know that there are directors out there like Ahluwalia who are committed to making movies that matter.

West:  As I started doing my background research on this new “Bollywood” director, Ashim Ahluwalia, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he is not a Bollywood director, but rather a director who happens to be Indian, and a fine director of world cinema.

Ahluwalia: Thank you.

West:  You studied [film] here in the USA at Bard. How has studying in the USA informed or created conflict for you in making films in India?

Ahluwalia: Bard was a huge eye-opener for me. It’s a freaky school, even by American standards, and even by American narrative industry cinema. It comes from a very ’60s experimental film tradition, and the way they look at cinema is very different. So, as I was growing up, I was exposed mainly to Hollywood and Bollywood stuff. When I went to Bard, I was exposed to a lot of experimental stuff, world cinema, and a lot Asian cinema, which I had never seen.  And also a lot of Indian films from the ’50s and ’60s, which I had also never seen. So, it was suddenly a complete new world.  One of the things I took away from Bard was the fact that film is a language. It’s not something that you just take as [a] given. I think that that’s something that we don’t see so much of now. Because people sort of accept the genre that they work in, and there’s no questions about the language and the things that you can do with form. I think when you talk about contemporary Korean and Japanese cinema—they’re still doing that form. Popular film, studio films, will do some weird stuff, and you say “Wow, how do they get away with that?” I’m kind of fascinated and amazed by that way of making film. You know, necessarily flagging it off and making an art house film, which for me is as boring as doing a commercial film, but really this new way of thinking about cinema, like, collapsing into itself. I think Miss Lovely is a perfect example of me being very unencumbered in the Indian industry setup, That’s very satisfying, because that means there’s something new to do with film. You’re not retroactively trying to do something that’s already been done twenty years ago. So, that’s where I’m coming from. Bard got me really thinking about form and language and what you can really do with it, and slipping things [in]. How porn is so close to experimental film, and how horror is sometimes so close to sex. These lines that people keep very far apart from each other, but if you slip over them, things really happen that are interesting.

West: But within the film [Miss Lovely], they’re making movies that are marrying horror and soft porn.

Ahluwalia: Exactly! I think for me—you know in India we have a tradition—I think you have that here too—a tradition of the straight up commercial film, and then there’s art house films, and then there’s a big gap in between. Right? I think that what happened is that when I went back [to India], I discovered the C-grade space: the sort of illegal sex film, which had bits of stock footage in it, and had weird mismatched narrative: where an actor suddenly disappears, and is then suddenly replaced by another actor. I think this was actually the missing link for me, between these two spaces. And so, as a first feature, it’s not only an interesting subject, but it’s also defining a space for me.

10875-miss_lovely_01

West: How was Miss Lovely received in India?

Ahluwalia: It’s been received well. I didn’t even expect it to open theatrically—it opened in 400 cinemas in India. The distributor said, “We can do this.” I said, “Are you sure you want to do this because it’s a really challenging film.” It [Miss Lovely] is really frustrating, because it gives you all the clues of a traditional genre movie, a thriller, and then it doesn’t deliver. It delivers something else. And they were like, “No, we really want to do this.”  So, what they did is quite interesting. They released it as an art house movie in the cities, and kind of a sexy film in small towns.

West: How interesting.

Ahluwalia:  It was really interesting. It was really well received.  Actually the week we opened, we were the most popular film. Which makes no sense whatsoever. It could also have to do with the fact that it has all this sexual-titillating content in a country which is very conservative. But the reviews were great.

It was just staggering for me that people just got it. There were reviews from mainstream papers talking about how this film is all about its relationship to Bollywood, and its definition, vis-à-vis, having a dominant film industry that’s kind of a looming force that doesn’t let you make movies.

West:  So, this is an example of don’t underestimate your audience.

Ahluwalia:  Yeah! You know, I learn that every time. It’s so amazing. There will be the most intelligent cinephile who will be, like, “I don’t get it.” Then there will be some granny, “Oh, that was interesting how that happened.”  That makes me excited.  So, once you get into that whole thing that only the audience wants is a summer blockbuster, then it becomes difficult to make work.

West:  Do you think this creates more opportunities for other Indian filmmakers to make non-glittery [non-Bollywood] films?

Ahluwalia:  Yeah. It really helped that this film went to Cannes. Because, suddenly it was like, “Oh, there’s something worth looking at here [in India].”  And it was in Rotterdam and Toronto, which is rare for a first feature. Rotterdam is art house and quite rigorous and challenging. Toronto can be quite mainstream, but also very indie, so it has this weird mix. I think the fact that it had a kind of a stamp of approval that allowed for people to say, “Oh this isn’t a sleaze film.” [Otherwise,] I think that people would have just said, “Oh, this is a sleaze movie. Get rid of it.”

West:  The distributors, you mean?

Ahluwalia:  The distributors, everybody, would not have allowed for the film to circulate. It would have been killed as a weird oddity. And then maybe rediscovered some twenty years later.

West:  Are there other [Indian] directors who are making similar films or films about real people?

Ahluwalia:  There are, but not so formally radical. I think that the film allowed for non-histrionic acting; the film allowed for a weird space, where you have [a] mix of real people, documentary, and also a darker sort of film. Something that is radical with this film—in the Indian context—is how dark it is, and how it doesn’t ever fulfill that happy moment. Happiness with a tinge of sadness attached to it. I think that tone has never existed in Indian cinema. Because the characters are nuanced: the younger brother is submissive, yet he’s kind of conniving; and the older brother is horribly dominating, yet he’s kind of loyal. Things are not complete.

West:  They’re not cookie cutter characters.

Ahluwalia:  It doesn’t further along the Indian moral agenda: the family being a good thing. I think that can influence younger [Indian] filmmakers.  So, you see films with ambiguous characters, or more incomplete characters and more nuanced, and so, the realness from that aspect, not just the superficial realism from the handheld [documentary look].

2c226-miss_lovely_03

West:  You mentioned documentaries. I understand that Miss Lovely started out as a documentary that you turned into a narrative film. How has documentary influenced your style and experience?

Ahluwalia:  Well, because pornography is illegal—just to put it in context—any kind of pornographic material is illegal; it will get you a minimum of three years in jail. It’s non-bailable.  So when you think about these movies, they’re not B-movies, which want to be real movies; they’re C-grade movies that are made for the excuse for these sex bits to be illegally interspersed. They get interspersed at the cinema level, and not through the censors. So these reels, in the ‘80s, used to be delivered on bicycle at night and get spliced into these movies. So you’d have a movie, which people would be waiting for the sex bit to appear.  I was fascinated by this. I spent a year and a half with these people. By the end, nobody wanted to be in the documentary. They were, like, “Why would I tell you on camera what I told you last night while [we] were drunk?”  Then, I realized how naïve I was. I guess, in a way, how westernized I was by not understanding that these people would hang out with me, but they would never let me make this documentary. Years later, what I did was take all the people and their stories—which were all real—and kind of patch them together and make the script of Miss Lovely. So there are elements of that documentary that worked back into the film. The movies that the two brothers make [in the film] are real C-grade movies. They’re not re-enacted. All that stuff and the sex bits were brought back into the film. So, it allowed room for my earlier life as an experimental filmmaker, using stock footage, reused footage, stuff that in a mainstream film, you’d never get away with.

West:  So, you learned a lot in the process of making the film.

Ahluwalia:  I’ve become, sort of weirdly, the archaeologist of this stuff and now, unfortunately, I have to say, I’m fucking tired of it—talking about C-grade films. Two years ago, nobody talked about this stuff. Before this film was made, this didn’t exist. It was kind of a vague subculture. This film comes out, and I thought that people in India were going to freak-out, because it’s quite wild, not just formally, but the sex stuff, and the way women are shown. Because women in Indian films are very submissive, or they’re vamps, and they die at the end. The funny thing is that it’s gone the other way. People are non-neurotically talking about subculture. Which is great, because it opened up this huge conversation. Everybody is writing a paper on C-grade cinema; everyone is doing a coffee-table book. It’s gone the other way a bit. And I’m kind of done. But I did it accidently, because I actually restored these films; I had to find them on film. I went into basements to find them, digging up movie negatives, getting them restored. As a result there’s a kind of a resurgence of interest. And now French DVD labels want to put out a series of Indian sex films.

West:  While watching Miss Lovely, it made me curious to see these [C-grade films]. The more [Miss Lovely] is shown, the more you’re going to entice people’s curiosity. I guess it’s really good timing, huh? Maybe two years ago you couldn’t have gotten it played?

Ahluwalia:  It could be.  It took me years to get this film financed, three to four years to make it. Then it went to Cannes in 2012, but then it didn’t get released [in] India until two months ago, when it was released in 400 cinemas. It was stuck in the censors for a year in India.  Now it’s being released in the States two years later. So it’s got this very weird, very slow movement, which is very unlike the normal path of a film. Usually, it’s at a festival; then two months later it opens, then DVD, VOD. [Miss Lovely] is so weird, because it has different lives and different ways of being perceived in different cultures. In India, the distributors put it out as an indie art house movie in the cities, and then as a sex film in small towns. So, I have the good fortune of my first feature [film] being in Cannes and in the sleaziest, fleapit cinemas in North India, in the middle of nowhere, which is bizarre. It’s just crazy!

West:  You said somewhere that you want to continue to make films that upset, bother, and leave the viewer thinking, why the hell did I watch that?, and then find themselves still thinking about it a week later.  As you continue to experience some success, is this something that you can maintain?

Ahluwalia:  I would love to do that. I would be disappointed if I made a film that was instantaneously gratifying, and then two weeks later there’s another [hit] movie, and then mine is gone from the public consciousness. I’d feel a bit sad, a bit depressed. I’d feel like an addict. I would need to make another one immediately to get a response; but then [when] I’m not getting a response, and I’m getting great box office, it becomes instant gratification and then instant forgetting.

West:  Yeah, an explosion comes instantly, and then is gone instantly. A film is good when it leaves you with some questions, something a little ambiguous, you can come back to it over and over again. Unfortunately, that kind of film doesn’t make billions of dollars.

Ahluwalia:  The funny thing is, I get a lot of commercial offers to do commercial movies, like aSlum Dog Millionaire kind of thing. I am being offered those kinds of projects: “Can you do this [movie]; we’ll give you the writer, but it can’t be too art house.” And, I’m a bit, like—“fuck, man!” From a career point of view, it’s probably better; but it also means I’ll have a shorter life as a filmmaker, because in a couple [of] years, I’m going to be known as an old thing [making commercial movies]. So, you have to be careful about these things.

West:  Will we see more smaller, intimate, independent Indian films of the caliber of say, Iranian cinema, like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, being made and exported to audiences abroad?

Ahluwalia: Yes, I think you will.  I think Iranian cinema is very developed, because it had the Farabi Cinema Foundation that put money into early films, [Abbas] Kiarostami for example, which then allowed for an [Asghar] Farhadi. There’s already a tradition of a delicate realism in Iran. India doesn’t have that, like America; India comes from a tradition of spectacle. You’re taking spectacle, and your working down to a smaller film.

West:  But, even in Hollywood, they’re able to turn out some great intimate films. I don’t know how things are in India about foreign cinema coming in.

Ahluwalia:  It [India] has a very strong, dominant culture of its own cinema. It’s also very star-driven. Imagine if everyone in the U.S. was making Michael Bay movies, and then one or two people make a small movie. That’s the scale. The films that are really big are the ones that bring in fifty or a hundred times their budget.  It’s really difficult, but I think its’ going to happen.

Indian cinema exceeds American cinema with double the number of films. Through the Internet, streaming video Indian cinema is available to Western audiences more than ever before. Ahluwalia is sadly correct in his charge that making smaller, more intimate, films is difficult, but as in the USA, it can be done. And Ahluwalia has indeed proven that it can and will continue to be possible in India, as well, to make films that matter.

—John David West

 

 

 

Streaming on Netflix: The Nightmare

The-Nightmare-Poster-350x517To highlight one of the many movies we’ve covered in the past that’s now currently streaming on Netflix, we are reposting our 2015 feature on The Nightmare. The interview below features one of the stars of The Nightmare, Kate Angus who recently published her beautifully realized debut book So Late to the Party.

“There’s nothing we can do when it chooses to visit us, but to breathe, keep our eyes open, and wait for morning.”
—Kate Angus

Sometime last year my dear friend Kate Angus sent me a random text announcing that she was going to appear in a documentary about sleep paralysis. I soon forgot about it, then months later she sent me another text: “they’re coming over to shoot the documentary at my apartment—OMG, I’ve spent the whole day cleaning!” “Who is the director,” I asked. “Rodney Ascher. He did some documentary a year ago that got good reviews.” I replied, “That’s awesome!” It was then that I took this thing more seriously. However, knowing that Asher is the director of Room 237, I thought, God I hope he doesn’t make her look like a nut case! Over the following months, I kept my thoughts and fears to myself, and did as any good friend would, telling Kate that she would be fine and most importantly—if she did come off a little crazy—I was certain she would, at least, look pretty.

In Rodney Ascher’s 2011 documentary Room 237, he assembles a collection of slightly off (I’m being kind) interviewees who discuss their various conspiracy theories around the film The Shining. This time, in The Nightmare he assembles a collection of similarly likable if not awkward interviews where the victims of a disorder known as sleep paralysis retell their worst nightmares. The disorder, where a patient is stuck in a conscious, dream-like state while physically paralyzed, is accompanied with terrifying nightmares and the specific visit of a shadowy figure—sometimes sporting a Freddy Kruger like hat.

Kate was approached by Ascher, a confessed victim of the phenomenon himself, after he found an article in The Toast that she wrote in 2014 titled “The Dark Thing Beside You: Night Hags and Sleep Paralysis,” where she recounts her own experiences related to sleep paralysis.

The Nightmare opens this weekend in theaters and on VOD. Of course I had to take advantage of my friend’s “fifteen minutes,” and so we met at a crowded East Village wine bar for drinks, an interview, and a chance for me to go on the record by saying, “Kate, I’m so relieved that you don’t look or sound crazy.”   —John David West

“The word nightmare originates from sleep paralysis and its accompanying hallucinations. The Anglo-Saxons believed in a ghastly nocturnal visitor known as the mare (from the Old Norse mara); a night hag who would sit on sleepers’ chests and strangle them.”Kate Angus

 West: How did Rodney Asher find you?

Angus: Somebody from his production team, emailed me, and said that Rodney was coming to NY to interview a couple people and would I want to be one of them.

West: Did you know what you were getting into?

Angus: I didn’t think about it. I googled him, and I saw that he had one documentary out (Room 237), which got good reviews—but which I did not actually watch. I didn’t do my due diligence.

West: [Laughs] Had you watched it, you might not have wanted to do the interview.

Angus: But I have so many friends making docs, so when I see them go through the long process—Marah Strauch (Sunshine Superman), and my friend Barak who has been working on a documentary about a band [Silver Apples] for a number of years. So, I’ve been watching two friends that I adore go through the lengthy process of making a doc, trying to get people to talk to them, so now I have this inherent and ingrained desire to help somebody making a doc. So, I was like, well he seems reputable, he got good reviews. Here’s a man making a documentary and I want to be helpful. I didn’t really think about it all that carefully. I’m currently in a stage where I’ll say yes to whatever—we live in an unpredictable world, it might be fun! So I said yes and I kind of forgot about it.

West: How did you prepare?

Angus: I didn’t. I forgot. Then a few days before they were due to interview me, they called. Then I freaked out. Because they were going to film in my apartment. So instead of watching his other movie, I freaked out about cleaning my apartment. I just didn’t think about the fact that this is a documentary and that anything I say can be in the movie.

West: So you didn’t do any prep for the interview?

Angus: What is there to prep, David? It’s my life. They were going to ask me about my experiences. My preparation was cleaning my apartment. Oh, and deciding what to wear and putting on some eyeliner before they came over.

West: Did you think about that fact that it might be a movie that’s released in theaters?

Angus: I didn’t really think about that. I didn’t realize how much trust I had given to them until well after the fact. Then I was, oh, god, what if I look like a crazy person in this sleep paralysis documentary—they could make me look like a lunatic.

West: I remember when you texted me that you had been asked to do the movie. It wasn’t until long after you agreed [to be in the film] that I did my own due diligence and realized that this was the same director of Room 237—a movie I very much enjoyed—and that the interviewees were a bit kooky. Some were really kooky. Did you worry how you might sound?

Angus: Not really, I didn’t think about it at the time. I wished that I had. When I teach I have a teaching filter, so I don’t swear that often. But I don’t generally use—[laughs] what they call blue language—in my teaching. If I had thought about it, I would’ve remembered not to swear. Because that’s what bothers me the most about being in this documentary is, “oh, no I swear so much! My mother will be appalled.” [laughs] It’s shameful. I use bad language. I’m a failure as a WASP. I’m a WASPY failure.

West: But, Kate, you do swear in person.

Angus: But not on film, David.

West: They didn’t do any reenactment with your story.

Angus: No. Because I’m the most boring.

West: [laughs] Thank god!

Angus: I know.

West: Ascher didn’t interview any scientist or psychologist. You’re actually the closest thing to that.

Angus: I am the closest thing to a scientist or psychologist that they used and that’s not my normal hat. I’m glad I didn’t’t get a reenactment like the spiders, or the giant claw or the woman who had sex with her creature. I was glad that my sleep paralysis is so normal.

West: Is it stress related.

Angus: The last time I had it was when I saw a guy killed on the L train so yes.

West: When you in experiencing sleep paralysis are you aware that you’re in it?

Angus: Yes, I know it now. I mean the first time that it happened; I didn’t know what it was. I thought somebody broke into my building and they were going to rape and murder me. Then I looked up what I experienced on the Internet the next day and I found sleep paralysis. So I thought, “Oh, that’s what I have” and then ever since that first time, it wasn’t scary to me. It became sort of a metaphor, that’s how I rationalize it: in life, the few times I’ve had it have happened during times where I was figuratively paralyzed—during a stretch after grad school when I couldn’t find a job or when I saw someone die and couldn’t help them. Awake, I couldn’t change the external circumstances around me, so in sleep, I had sleep paralysis.

West: That’s why you didn’t get a reenactment! Yours wasn’t horrifying to you or the viewer.

Angus: Yeah, it was weirdly comforting; it was like, “Hey, there! Hi, Sleep Paralysis.”

 “Only New Guinea legend offers sleep paralysis not as thing to be feared, but rather as something potentially beautiful.” –Kate Angus

West: You touched upon the similar sleep paralysis shadows appear in different cultures.

Angus: Yeah, I really like the one [Asher] featured from New Guinea, tribe that believe paralysis comes from sacred trees, they need to feed on human essence to keep going, but they’re polite so they don’t want to do it while you’re awake, so they paralyze you while you’re asleep and feed on you then. But, sometimes you wake up in the middle [of a feeding] and that’s why you have sleep paralysis.

West: It’s a nice spin on it. But of the shadowy figures are terrifying to the interviewees.

Angus: I’m such an optimist about the world, so naturally I see a weird dark figure and I think “why wouldn’t it be nice?”

West: Hm? I’m from the Midwest too and I have to say that I don’t think I would react the same way. I mean some of the interviewees had really dramatic, life changing, reactions to their shadow figures. One girl turned to Christianity.

Angus: Yeah, well, OK, this is me speculating—I don’t know these people—and it’s probably unfair of me to speculate but I also wonder if they’ve had additional trauma in their lives.

West: Most people have some horrors in their past.

Angus: True, yes, everyone has something in the past that affects them and it can cause trauma, but my life was really – not – that – bad. I don’t mean to impose. I mean it not fair of me to put a narrative on other people.

West: The people in Room 237 appear a bit more crazy and weird than they are in this movie.

Angus: HOW?

West: They are, well with their wild—although entertaining, conspiracy theories and odd obsessions on [Kubrick’s] The Shining.

Angus: I believe Rodney interviewed a lot of people, and I’m sure there were a fair amount of people with boring stories like mine that didn’t make it into the film. But, since I’m a teacher, I’m pretty good at presenting boring material in an entertaining manner. It’s what I’m paid to do, with my meager little teaching salary.

West: But you didn’t embellish your story or experience

Angus: No, no, no, in fact it’s pretty boring, so clearly not.

West: Did your shadow figure wear a hat?

Angus: No. He didn’t have a hat. He was like Death from the Seventh Seal, but he didn’t have a face—or a hood, just that shape. It didn’t really have arms.

West: Oh my god. That’s scary. Wait, what makes him masculine?

Angus: It didn’t feel especially gendered but I guess it was masculine.

West: But what makes it masculine?

Angus: I don’t know. Maybe there’s more appeal in the masculine, maybe I have a patriarchy default setting.

West: Actually a lot of the [interviewees] saw masculine figures. There didn’t seem to be any women shadows.

Angus: Well, how do you know? I mean they weren’t chanting “I’m a man, I’m a man!” Or holding up a Playboy centerfold.

West: [laughs] They weren’t shadow lady figures with big racks either.

Angus: I’m a little offended by that. Even in the shadow world, you’re imposing cultural norms of beauty on women, you monster.

Our server, Marianne arrived just in time to check on us. After some polite customer-server talk we learned that Marianne was a wine and spirits specialist and asked her to create a drink for us. Something with cardamom, yuzu and gin.

West: Would you ever appear as an interviewee in a doc again?

Angus: Yes.

Marianne brought our drinks especially created for us,  to which we toasted documentaries and shadow spirits.

West: Kate, what would you do differently?

Kate took a generous sip of her icy cocktail of yuzu, gin, orange juice, and ginger and cardamom bitters

Angus: I wouldn’t swear as much!

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The Witness: A Myth revealed

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I have to confess, lately I’m a a little burned out on documentaries. But after some feet dragging–I just wasn’t in the mood for more true stories of brutal murders of innocent people.  The Witness proved to be more than just a depressing expose on an infamous crime, but a thoroughly engrossing documentary. This eye-opening work by director James Soloman (The Conspirator, 2010) unpacks the details and misinformation surrounding the events and iconic death of Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was reportedly killed in front of 38 witnesses in Queens, New York.

The Witness is a powerful look at the devastating results of irresponsible journalism. Over the years, the Genovese murder became the subject of numerous books, news reports, themes on episodic TV crime shows, and case studies; her brutal murder shocked the country and its myth has remained alive through the world over the last half century. What is most refreshing in The Witness is how the film brings Kitty to life and reveals the person behind the grotesque murder. For the first time in 50 years, we see her as a beloved sister, popular friend, and a never-forgotten lover. This is definitely a documentary that is worth your time. 

—John David West

The Lobster: Today’s Singles are Tomorrow’s Voiceless Animals — or Crustaceans

lobsterThe Lobster, which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is the kind of bizarre film I crave. Set in the near future, it takes an absurdist angle to explore what it means to be single (“Single? What’s wrong with you?”). In this gray futuristic story, the uncoupled are arrested and transferred to The Hotel, where they must find a mate and fall in love within 45 days or they will be forever transformed into an animal (or crustacean) of their choosing. How could I not love this? Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us the Oscar nominated Dogtooth (2011). This is his first English language film, and he’s just as compelling, disturbing and thought provoking in English as he is in Greek. This time he has a few big screen names from Hollywood’s John C. Reilly, to across the Atlantic with England’s Rachel Weisz, France’s Léa Seydoux and middle-aged, pudgy Irish Colin Farrell in a very strong yet understated performance. All doing great ensemble work in a movie whose title begs the question, “what the hell is this about?”

The Lobster is essentially a love story that explores the human condition and examines the ubiquitous fear of there’s something wrong with you if you’re single. Beyond the film’s strange, bleak view of a world where people are failures unless they’re in love (and become a voiceless animal), it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy—sad, violent, smart and oddly hilarious. Its story is completely approachable and engaging, yet it leaves the viewer with much to ponder: does being coupled matter that much but most importantly, what animal would you choose to be?

The Lobster challenges today’s ever-present, on-line dating age with its constant hum of “you should be married and or partnered, or, at least, looking for a partner—what online dating platforms do you use? Lanthimos takes a very darkly comic approach with The Lobster as he comments on an ultimately meaningless (IMO) struggle—that often transforms into fear as one gets older—of being plagued with singleness while the Married are safely coupled and snuggled into the perceived norms of society. How we uncoupled long to be inoculated against the disease of singleness! Coupled and cured and never to hear the words, “when are you going to find someone and settle down.” Everyone’s clock is ticking, we are all aware of it. Such universal concerns of loneliness, failure to find a partner, and worries about dying are poetically explored by Lanthimos. The future world that The Lobster exists in is one that is believable—minus the turning into animals thing. The world that the Lobster’s characters inhibit is the near future, a world that feels like one we today could possibly live to see in our own not-so-distant future. With that The Lobster should age well as it’s not dated by current cinematic ideas of what the future may like.

Will The Lobster find a wide audience in the U.S.? Most likely not. This is no Captain America. It’s a deliciously odd picture that’s too subtle to be a crowd pleaser. Also, it’s in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles. In Lanthimos words, “[In my movies] we raise questions about many things, I don’t want to . . . give specific narrow answers to those questions.“ If you are looking for answers this may not be the viewing experience you’re looking for, but if you want to walk away with some food for thought—and, of course a good laugh—then The Lobster is the right selection for you. In case you’re wondering what animal I would choose. I have to say, an elephant—they’re just so majestic.

John David West