The Brooklyn Academy of Music kicked off its 2016 “cinemafest” this week, and as per usual it’s an eclectic showcase of international and domestic indies with an underdog spirit. This year especially seemed like a festival of gambles, from horror luminary Ti West trying his hand at the western to Tim Sutton taking on the Aurora shootings. Inevitably, some pan out better than others, but even failures at this fest often seem more admirable for following the ambitions that got them there. Our writers recommend Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (9:00PM on Friday, June 24th), Zach Clark’s Little Sister (9:45PM on Friday, June 17th with Jack Dunphy’s Chekov), Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (4:15PM on Sunday, June 19th), and Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America (6:45PM on Friday, June 24th). We’ve written about some of these, and some others, below.
Ti West has repeatedly demonstrated himself capable of a certain kind of virtuosic genre craft, enough at least for it to seem like he could one day be a formidable filmmaker—that is, if he could ever come up with material worth actually expending his creative energies on. In a Valley of Violence, finally, has a genuinely interesting concept: It’s a gruff western infused with the strain of a PTSD narrative, and all the heavier questions of conscience that come with it. But suddenly, West finds himself lacking the formal chops to do anything with it. It could be that the director’s horror facility just doesn’t port over so well to the western, but it seems more likely that the muted nature of the violence and action that crop up throughout In a Valley of Violence is actually a reflection of the morally-burdened, ex-Union soldier (Ethan Hawke) at its center. And that is interesting, but it also doesn’t make for an especially engaging form for an old west thriller. Sam C. Mac
Ever since Quentin Tarantino arrived, and especially since his Kill Bill and Grindhouse films, the market has seen a deluge of faux-exploitation garbage—from high profile stuff like Robert Rodriguez’s Machete all the way down to meaningless, so-bad-it’s-good(?) junk like Sharknado. These movies either double down on ironic winking or merely throw a “distressed film” filter on in Aftereffects. Nobody else, it seems, has been able to actually make a true exploitation film/homage, one that simultaneously provides cheap trashy thrills and a dose of social politics while remaining—and this is crucial—a formally exact recreation of the films being referenced. Until now, that is. Anna Biller‘s very funny second feature The Love Witch is an absolutely perfect recreation/conflagration of three distinct forms: ’60s Technicolor melodramas, Radley Metzger’s arty sexploitation, and mid-period John Waters-directed satire. As with her previous film, 2007’s Viva, Biller controls nearly every aspect here: Not only did she write, direct, produce, and edit The Love Witch, she also designed (or found) the costumes, sets, and props, and wrote all the music (including a piece for the harp). Her formal confidence is absolutely astounding, not only meticulously reproducing this vintage Hollywood aesthetic but stirring in shots that hang a beat too long, awkward pauses in dialogue, and goofy flourishes like obvious process photography and sudden snap-zooms. The whole thing is laced with not just overt feminism, but much sharper critiques of prescribed gender traps and the act of mistaking sex for love. This is a perfect exploitation film, and Anna Biller is the most promising voice to hit the genre in 20 years. Matt Lynch
Kate Plays Christine offers an intriguing setup at the expense of an ultimately unjustified exploitation. Director Robert Greene invites actress Kate Lyn Sheil to perform a series of dramatic recreations in the life of the late news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who’s known to some, if known at all, for committing suicide before a live TV audience in 1974—an act which inspired Sidney Lumet’s seminal news media satire Network. Much of Greene’s film involves Sheil’s preparation process: she gets a spray tan, tries on wigs, reads aloud from the script she’s been given, and generally spends a lot of time bemoaning her limited access to any material that might give her an idea of who Chubbuck actually was (no video footage at all of the woman is available online, let alone footage of her infamous suicide). Later, Sheil routinely challenges Greene, and the various other actors he’s hired for the project, as she struggles to find any meaning in what he’s doing—and, ultimately, in the life of Chubbuck herself. It’s important to remember, though, that Chubbuck was a real person, one who really committed suicide. This becomes problematic when we realize that Greene seems uninterested in engaging her legacy, but rather with using it as a springboard for exploring Sheil’s and his own agendas. That preference leads to scenes like Kate Plays Christine‘s egregious finale—which is Network by way of Michael Haneke. While the truth or fiction behind that scene and many others here is up for some debate, an earlier one of Sheil seems earnest and to be taken as intended. Detailing her attraction to the ambitions of Greene’s film, Sheil explains that she’s sick of being praised as an actress for her “subtlety.” This admission in turn serves as something of a tell: Kate Plays Christine is a work of substantial effort, but it’s also one that seems less interested in the actual provocation of thought than in earning due recognition for inciting it. SCM
Werner Herzog‘s latest documentary demonstrates the master’s ability to both simulate an evenhanded exploration of multiple view points and assert his own, unwavering allegiances with those figures and ideologies he most identifies. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World gathers experts and statistics on the modern uses of the World Wide Web to show first society’s impressive advancements, and later the baser human instincts that belie that progression. Along the way, Herzog finds friends among robotics students and hermits alike; he empathizes with eccentric scientists and philosophers but isn’t averse to rebuking their findings (sometimes subtly, like the shot that elides the solved half of a fervent mathematician’s chalk board equation). Whatever the opinion, he always gets his subjects thinking about broader meanings and implications. And while flourishes of Herzogian irreverence are in danger of becoming more obligatory than surprising, the sequence of monks on smartphones and an otherwise deserted Chicago skyline set to Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is a latter day highlight. SCM
An aesthetic tour-de-force if also an empty and unfailingly derivative one, actor Brady Corbet‘s directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, is based on a Jean-Paul Sartre short story, but pares down its psychologically complex source to essentially a gothic bad seed horror flick. Posing as a grander exploration of European society after the Great War, and its responsibility for the rise of fascism in World War II, Corbet’s film is closer in its depth (or lack of it) to Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin in that the kid here seems to possess an inherent evil that his intolerant parents merely exasperate. Corbet gets the Kubrick-by-way-of-Glazer atmosphere just right, in no small part thanks to Scott Walker’s tremendous score (half classical symphony, half avant-garde industrial noise—and wholly one of the greatest pieces of original music composed for a film this century), but he’s content to largely just mope around in it through five titled sections of no real distinction. The film merely feels like an undeveloped wasted opportunity—until the last section jumps into the future, straining for a heavy historical context it doesn’t even begin to earn. SCM