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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Suspense Is Relentless in Jon Watts’ New Film Cop Car, Starring Kevin Bacon

On a filmmaking level, up-and-coming new director Jon Watts’ Cop Car is a clinic in how to get the most bang for the buck. With minimal dialogue and a relentless, nailbiter plot that’s all the more sinister for its simplicity, Watts wrings nonstop suspense out of a small, tightly wound cast of newcomers and veterans.

James Freedson-Jackson plays the nonchalantly type A Travis; Hays Wellford is his klutzy sidekick, Harrison. As the film opens, the two middle-schoolers are running away from home on a lark (the comedic opening dialogue, too obscenely funny to give away here, sets the stage perfectly). Armed with a single Slim Jim, they wander upon a police cruiser belonging to Sherriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon, projecting a chilling amorality via a worn but still dangerous presence that harks back to a million Old West archetypes). If you buy the premise that a couple of eleven-year-olds can steal a police cruiser without (sort of) crashing it, you’re in for a wild ride.

The cinematography draws heavily on the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple as well as David Cronenberg’s adventures slumming among the lower classes. The wide-open Colorado vistas predictably owe a debt to Terrence Malilck’s Badlands. In what ought to be a welcoming big sky milieu that turns menacing in a heartbeat, the two kids quickly establish a pattern: who’s going to get killed first? Is the arsenal inside the cruiser that will be responsible (there’s a rather heavyhanded anti-gun subtext throughout the film)? Simple lack of experience behind the wheel? Or will Bacon’s bad cop bring the incessant foreshadowing to a bloodthirsty peak?

Bacon is brilliant in his portrayal of the hypocritical Kretzer. What’s most fascinating to watch is how Bacon plays an actor: everything Kretzer is supposed to be, he’s not. His best moment of many is when he rehearses what he’s going to tell his dispatcher, to convince her to keep in touch with him via cellphone rather than the cruiser’s radio, since the kids are having a ball (for a time) with it. Whether with a slow break of a stony countenance, a hitch in an otherwise confident gait, or, finally, a smile into a feral snarl, Bacon slowly lets pure evil out of its cage. Camryn Manheim provides a brave contrast in a cameo toward the end of the film as the witness who could be the key to the kids escaping from Kretzer’s cat-and-mouse game.

The only Rotten Tomatoes moment is when Kretzer lackadaisically ignores some damning DNA evidence that no one with any basic knowledge of forensic science would ever leave behind. Otherwise, Watts sells the idea that these two clueless kids could go as far as they do on their joyride from hell. Even the ending is unsettled. The film hits theatres on August 7.

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August 7, 2015 Posted by | Film, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Josephine Decker’s Menacing Balkan Noir Film Butter on the Latch Debuts This Week

Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.

Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.

On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.

Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.

Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.

The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.

November 11, 2014 Posted by | Film, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review: Joshua

Giving away the ending to a film may be the biggest faux pas a reviewer can commit, but what if the film doesn’t have an ending? That seems to be the case with Joshua: it’s as if the producers of this low-budget indie suspense flick ran out of money three-quarters of the way through and decided to wrap it up on the spot rather than looking for new backers. So we’re supposed to believe that little Joshua did all those bad things simply because he’s gay – he’s NINE YEARS OLD, for chrissakes!?!?! – and all he wants to do is get away from his family and hang out with his swishy uncle?

It’s too bad the movie ends that way (looks like the producers ran out of money for focus groups too), because getting there is a good ride. Joshua (Jacob Kogan, marvelously deadpan and eerie in his screen debut) lives with his yuppie parents (Brad, played by Sam Rockwell and Vera, played by Laurie Metcalfe lookalike Vera Farmiga) and his newborn sister in an impossibly large apartment on New York’s upper east side. Dad is a clueless type who seems to be sleepwalking through parenthood and his job at a nameless Wall Street financial house; mom had trouble with postpartum depression after Joshua was born, and it seems to be happening again, worse than before.

Trouble follows Joshua like New Jersey cops after a carful of black people. The gerbils in his classroom have mysteriously died, his little sister cries for no reason, constantly waking screaming up in the middle of the night, and his mother does the same thing. Drawing heavily on The Bad Seed and the original When a Stranger Calls as well as the Stephen King playbook, co-writer/director George Ratliff finds dread everywhere, in the most mundane places. There’s one scene where the door to an appliance – can’t tell you which one – opens, that pushes the scare factor way into the red. Otherwise, the director gets the max out of his low-budget set (the film is shot mostly in the apartment, with a few outdoor scenes at the Brooklyn Museum and what appears to be Morningside Park), shooting into the shadows for what turns out to be usually not there.

The film’s best scene finds Joshua onstage at a piano recital. He’s been practicing Bartok (not implausible: he’s talented, and Kogan actually learned how to play a few of the pieces that appear on camera), but what he pulls out of the woodwork has to be the most eerie musical moment to appear in any film drama since Michael Caine did his immortal, faux-badly-sung version of Roy Orbison’s It’s Over in Little Voice. Joshua keels over immediately after finishing his little jam. Yet nobody gets what’s going on (the filmmakers could have had a lot more fun satirizing pampered New York yuppie parents than they do).

After something particularly nasty happens to Joshua’s bible-thumping, proselytizing grandmother (played to the hilt by Celia Weston), Brad seems to get the picture, but he can’t stop what’s about to happen. And then the movie ends, before any hell breaks loose: Joshua could have gone on for another 15 suspenseful minutes and wound up either on a deliciously grisly or righteously just note. It screams out for a remake. David Cronenberg, people will have forgotten all about this in ten years’ time, are you listening?

July 25, 2007 Posted by | Film, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment