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Nas Raps About the Spirit of Cognac and Hip-Hop Culture

Hennessy is celebrating its 250th birthday in predictably lavish style. During an exclusive black-tie gala at Lincoln Center last week, the world’s largest cognac producer unveiled a new, ultra-premium release backdropped by a multimedia art exhibit at Alice Tully Hall. The show featured a menagerie of film, interpretive dance, photography, and interactive installations focusing on the past, present, and future of the eighth-generation French liquor brand. It was here that Nas, rap icon — and Hennessy Ambassador — performed a private, impromptu show in front of a handful of ebullient attendees. I sat down with the legend of Queensbridge before he took the stage to discuss his relationship with Hennessy and how it evolved as a fixture within hip-hop culture.

Like with most of the other guests that evening, Nas’s first sip of Hennessy 250 — a limited-run, $600-a-bottle release — came at last Tuesday’s Lincoln Center gala. “It’s really what I would like to drink every time I drink cognac,” he said. “That’s the type of drink I like. It’s smooth. Really smooth.” He might be on the company payroll, but it’s difficult to argue with his assessment. Although the newest addition to the Hennessy portfolio offers exotic, saffron-like spice aromatics, on the tongue, it’s redolent of orange zest and wildflowers with a lush, velvety mouthfeel that demands careful contemplation beyond each sip.

Even for a successful rapper, this precious juice, containing eau de vie aged for up to 50 years in French oak barrels, is reserved for special occasions. As an everyday go-to, Nas prefers his dependable V.S., the brand’s flagship golden blend, which typically retails at around $35 a bottle in the city.

That drink has been familiar to Nas throughout his entire professional career. “We always want to be accepted as an adult, when you’re young,” he explained. “That’s the reason why we didn’t first know about it. I was introduced to Hennessy by an older fellow who told me I was drinking basically bullshit. He told me about better Champagne, he told me about Hennessy. We started rapping about it, and that was it.”

An official collaboration between Nas and Hennessy was bound to happen sooner or later. He’s been repping the company’s spirits long before it paid him to do so. “It was on my first album, before one song, I mention this damn drink,” he recalls, referring to the opening track of his debut 1994 classic, Illmatic. “I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Hennessy, like a family member, throughout my life. So it was funny, ironic, how they contacted me to be an ambassador.”

The partnership hardly affected his lifestyle, as Nas notes: “I just do what I’ve been doing, but now we do it on a big level. It’s pretty cool, just to show my world and their world combining. It starts right there. That’s where it is. ”

It’s hard to fake true passion. And, over the course of even a brief conversation, you wouldn’t dare question Nas’s genuine devotion to this particular liquor. He also takes pride in being included among the other noted personalities who have been associated with Hennessy throughout the years. “[They] had people in the past: Miles Davis, Martin Scorcese, [Manny] Pacquiao. Out of all those guys I’m probably the real Hennessy drinker,” he boasts. “So it was a great idea for us to get together. I’m an old-school fan of rap. Run-D.M.C. meeting Adidas — things like that — I can equate to this.”

Even though Nas still enjoys his “Henny With Sprite,” he concedes that “now I’m a more civilized drinker. Now I enjoy every moment of it — it’s not just a party.” The new 250 release from Hennessy provides plenty of reason to celebrate. And not even Nas would dare dilute this drink with sugar water. “The 250 is neat!” he exclaims.

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WELL VERSED

Poetry & the Creative Mind is billed as “poetry’s biggest night out.” Not a soiree, not a salon, not a casual get-together. Poetry is pulling out the fancy shoes and getting dolled up. The roster for this year’s thirteenth annual event backs the claim: Notables from across the board gather to perform poems at the Lincoln Center gala. Nick Cannon, Holly Hunter, Kris Kristofferson, Gloria Steinem, Vanessa Williams, and chef Anita Lo will join esteemed others in this benefit for the Academy of American Poets, which founded National Poetry Month in 1966, helping to produce programs that keep poetry in public schools.

Wed., April 15, 6:30 p.m., 2015

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Parisian Spring: This Year’s Rendez-Vous With French Cinema Might Melt Our City at Last

Apologies to T.S. Eliot, but March in New York is surely the cruelest month, often a 31-day mantle of cold or drizzle (or both) through which spring refuses to budge. Yet March does have its saving graces, among them the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance Films’ annual Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, now in its twentieth year.

The festival, a showcase of new French films spanning genres and styles, and made by relative newcomers and veterans alike, has grown so much that it now takes place in three venues: the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the IFC Center, and BAMcinématek. The ten-day event kicks off on March 6 with Rendez-Vous stalwart Benoît Jacquot’s stylish romantic melodrama 3 Hearts, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni, and the incomparable Catherine Deneuve, and wraps up on March 15 with Reality, a dream-logic reverie by Quentin Dupieux (whose 2010 Rubber chronicled the crime spree of a murderous tire). In between, this year’s Rendez-Vous offers pictures from familiar names (like André Téchiné, whose psychological drama In the Name of My Daughter makes its North American premiere) and from novices who may not be known to American audiences — at least not yet (like rapper Abd Al Malik, making his directorial debut with May Allah Bless France!). Here are a few highlights from the series’ 26-film slate — if you manage to catch every one, you may not even notice the weather.

Love at First Fight: Don’t be put off by the not-so-graceful English title of Thomas Cailley’s debut picture — think of it by its much better French one, Les Combattants (or Fighters), which more fully captures the movie’s bold, sweet, punch-drunk temperament. Young, gentle-spirited Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) is just about to join his family’s woodworking business when scrappy Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) catches his eye; more accurately, he loses to her — technically — in an impromptu beach wrestling match. Madeleine’s dream is to join the army, and the smitten Arnaud toys with the idea of following her, but the going is rough. Cailley makes the most of these two wonderful young actors’ faces: Together, they capture the head-rush of young love in all its prickly, misguided glory, and won some welcome celebration: Love was honored with three Césars, for best first film, best actress, and best new actor.

Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart: Erstwhile Cahiers du Cinéma critic Cédric Anger has fashioned a chilly, fascinating film from the pages of true crime. Guillaume Canet plays a serial killer based on Alain Lamare, responsible for the brutal murders of several young women in Oise in the late 1970s. The stinging twist is that Lamare — here renamed Franck Neuhart — was a gendarme assigned to investigate the very crimes he was surreptitiously committing. The opening of Anger’s film is rendered with the elegance of De Palma: We see the killer
going about his horrific nocturnal routine with an almost zenlike physical composure, though we don’t see his face until later, as he dons his uniform for work. The effect is disquietingly creepy, and Anger builds the story skillfully from there. As Neuhart, Canet is a waxen blank: He has a placid, anonymous quality, like a store mannequin, which makes his portrayal all the more unnerving. Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart is one of two serial-killer-themed pictures in this year’s Rendez-Vous: The other is Frédéric Tellier’s SK1, a drama focused on the more recent case of Guy Georges, sentenced to life in prison in 2001 for the murder of seven women. Together, they offer two good reasons to look over your shoulder when you’re walking home late at night.

Stubborn: Romantic obsession can be adorable — until it becomes annoying, or worse. In his second feature film, video artist and experimental filmmaker Armel Hostiou tells the story of Vincent (Vincent Macaigne), a chubby, endearing Frenchman who has followed the love of his life across the sea to New York — only to discover that she wants nothing to do with him. Still, Vincent won’t take no for an answer: He doggedly follows his lady love Barbara (Kate Moran), at one point barging in on her and her new boyfriend to bestow a token upon her that he’s sure will change her mind. (It doesn’t, but the way he orders the boyfriend to make him fresh-squeezed orange juice is hilarious, the mark of a guy who clearly has trouble with boundaries.) Where’s the line between garden-variety devotion and stalkerish obsession? Stubborn blurs it in a way that’s both unsettling and bitterly funny: You may start out feeling sorry for Vincent, only, like Barbara, to find yourself wanting to brush him off like a gnat. And in the end, you may feel something else entirely, like compassion. In
between you’ll laugh and cringe, perhaps
in equal measure.

Breathe: Mélanie Laurent is best known as an actress, but Breathe, her
assured, potent second feature as a director, gives us good reason to pay attention to what she’s doing behind the camera as well as in front of it. Seventeen-year-old Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a quiet, dutiful student with a few close friends, a good kid who seems destined to disappear uneventfully into the anonymity of the adult world. Then the charismatic, wild-haired Sarah (Lou de Laâge) shows up at her school, and everything changes: The two form a symbiotic bond that tilts toward romantic obsession. By turns moody and piercing, Breathe captures both the intimacy and the potentially claustrophobic quality of teenage friendship. We’ve all seen the story of the sexy, dangerous newcomer at school who wreaks havoc everywhere she looks. But Laurent has such a deft touch — and is so delicately in tune with her two lead actresses — that she makes you believe you’re seeing it all for the first time.

Back Alley: This 29-minute film by Cécile Ducrocq, part of the Rendez-Vous shorts program, plays like a full-length feature distilled to its essence. Suzanne (Laure Calamy) has been a streetwalker since the age of fifteen. She treats her clients with respect, but she’s authoritative with them, too, proficient in the art of controlling any given situation. She’s dismayed to learn that a group of young African immigrants are setting up shop in a caravan of campers just outside her city, greatly undercutting her prices and threatening to destroy her livelihood. The tactics she uses to address the problem introduce thorny questions about ethical business practices, sexual politics, and racism: Back Alley, which is Ducrocq’s fourth short, folds a lot of provocative ideas into its diminutive runtime. It’s a challenging little piece of work that honors the inquisitive spirit of Rendez-Vous. Maybe next time, Ducrocq will give us a feature.

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NYFF: Eden Drones on Emptily About Electronica

A series of clichés delivered with frustrating detachment, Eden finds Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love, Father of My Children) charting one aspiring DJ’s career over the course of electronic music ‘90s and ’00s heyday. Beginning in 1992, Paul (Félix de Gibry) becomes one of the leading practitioners of Garage, a soulful disco-infused techno subgenre that soon thrusts him into the electronica scene’s spotlight alongside other up-and-comers like Daft Punk. Unlike that still-relevant duo, however, Paul and partner Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) find only modest success during their two-decade run. Hansen-Løve detailsthis a natural and compelling feel for her milieu, which is marked by drug use, dancing, camaraderie, and an overarching sense of both positivity and possibility.

Throughout Eden, Paul snorts much coke, dates and breaks up with many girlfriends (including Greta Gerwig, in a stilted-dialogue supporting part), and spins countless records. However, it operates at a distant remove its protagonist, much like the crowds that Hansen-Løve shoots in a handful of pans that highlight their joyous bodies and voices coming together in many-as-one kinship. Paul is front-and-center, and yet aside from a few details (his rejection of university life), he remains a total cipher, so that when one ex-girlfriend – upon seeing him for the first time in years – declares “You haven’t changed at all,” the joke isn’t just that Paul foolishly refuses to mature by clinging to his DJing ambitions, it’s that he fundamentally can’t change because he has no noteworthy or defining personality traits to begin with.

As usual, Hansen-Løve bifurcates her tale, replete with multiple first-half events echoed by similar (darker) moments during the second half. Yet such structural neat-and-tidiness merely underlines the formulaic schematism at play here, which ultimately offers a familiar – not to mention cool, withdrawn – portrait of the painful process of learning to let go of your dreams in order to grow up.

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NYFF: Ferrara’s Tender Pasolini Achieves Sublimity

Earlier this year, the director Abel Ferrara premiered his Welcome to New York, a lacerating study of an appalling man for whom Ferrara has, to put it mildly, conflicting feelings. The subject: Devereaux, a lightly fictionalized Dominique Strauss-Kahn surrogate, played by Gérard Depardieu (himself no stranger to controversy). Still unreleased in the U.S., Welcome to New York captures Devereaux’s carnivorous sexuality in stark terms: The exhaustive 30-minute orgy that opens the film would have been stimulating in Martin Scorsese’s rowdy The Wolf of Wall Street, but under Ferrara’s disciplined, disturbing gaze (dim lighting and fearless long takes abound), this monstrous chunk of a human being is rendered rather pathetic.

Contrast this attitude with the reverence of Ferrara’s latest movie, Pasolini, another compressed-time investigation of a figure with real-world origins. Where Welcome to New York clearly (though not moralistically) condemns Devereaux’s base impulses, Ferrara cherishes his subject here, the Italian multi-hyphenate Pier Paolo Pasolini. That means the Ferrara die-hards who have been anticipating the director’s Pasolini movie for so long — the ones who have grown accustomed to the limitless rage and intensity of movies like Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, and Dangerous Game — are the people likeliest to be caught off-guard by the sensitive, even-tempered, almost peaceful tones of Pasolini. (Ferrara and DP Stefano Falivene’s palette favors warm blacks, golds, and browns.) Though Ferrara gets in a gut-punch with his unflinching depiction of Pasolini’s violent death — after getting beaten to a pulp on a beach at night, his body is run over by a car — the film mostly occupies a softer, more contemplative plane.

The great image in Pasolini is a close-up on Dafoe, his eyes tucked behind shaded lenses, his hand touching his forehead, rubbing the creases as he thinks. The movie centers on the final days of Pasolini’s life (a tight structure reminiscent of Ferrara and Dafoe’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth); a more predictable director might have stressed the resignation of the image, showing Pasolini vexed and frustrated with the world around him (“The tragedy is there are no more human beings,” he states). But Ferrara peers beyond the surface and finds that this man is not fatigued, but rather gently invigorated with every aspect of his life: He probes the nighttime streets of Rome, buying spaghetti and beer for male prostitutes to seduce in his Alfa Romeo. He buries himself in newspaper headlines, which Ferrara displays in montage. He toils away on his typewriter, and Ferrara himself, with the help of Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli, envisions the novels (Petrolio) and films (Porno-Teo-Kolossal, with gays and lesbians coming together to procreate) that Pasolini was working on at the time of his death.

Ferrara often unfolds this cascade of mental and emotional activity through delicate dissolves that create an overlapping landscape of images — visions within visions within visions. In this context, Ferrara’s choice for the movie’s final shot is sublime and even wrenchingly poignant — a short, perfect elegy for the interviews and poems, novels and screenplays, articles and images that died along with Pasolini on that beach in 1975.

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NYFF: The Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night Offers Piercing Ethical Drama

This latest assured gem from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne recalls the work of their spiritual ancestor Robert Bresson in its rigorous examination of a simple moral dilemma.

In a rural French town wracked by economic tough times, Sandra (Marion Cotillard, in a tour-de-force performance) learns that, having just returned to her job at a solar panel manufacturing plant after a leave for clinical depression, she is now going to be laid off, because her sixteen co-workers have voted to fire her rather than lose their 1,000 euro bonuses. This news hits Xanax-popping Sandra hard, given that going back on the dole will take a toll on her family’s financial circumstances – not to mention that it’s a blow to her already fragile sense of self-worth. Nonetheless, Sandra fights back, convincing her bosses to hold a second, secret ballot on the issue after the weekend, and then, at the urging of her supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), visiting each of her co-workers in order to ask them, face to face, to let her keep her job.

What follows is a series of encounters in which need and greed prove equally compelling reasons for people to vote in their own interest, all loomed over by the specter of capitalism’s uglier side– embodied by Sandra’s nasty supervisor Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), who’s poisoning employees against her Far from didactic, however, the Dardennes allow any social commentary to emerge naturally from Sandra’s individual story.

The tension mounts as she struggles to maintain her own sanity and self-control while pleading with people to make a not-inconsiderable sacrifice for her sake. It’s a straightforward conceit that the directors capture via their trademark, formally assured framing and long takes, their static compositions and protracted tracking shots highlighting Sandra’s emotional condition (and relationship to those she visits) with piercing clarity and directness. Again confirming the acute auteurist greatness of the Dardennes, Two Days, One Night is an ethical drama of quietly epic proportions.

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NYFF: Heaven Knows What Is an Explosive Tour of Heroin and Homelessness in NYC

Josh and Benny Safdie’s explosive Heaven Knows What opens with the faces of two young junkies—Harley (Arielle Holmes) and the hooded Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, wearing long, Tommy Wiseau-like dark hair)—huddled together in the frame. Moments later, Ilya pleads for Harley’s death—“If you love me, you would’ve killed yourself by now,” he tells her—and she attempts to oblige by digging a razor into her left wrist. This is the world of Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, 40 years later, and part of the shock of the Safdies’ film is that the particulars of its heroin subculture so closely resemble those of Schatzberg’s. In Panic, a gum-chewing Al Pacino swiped a TV set from a parked van to impress Kitty Winn (and to pawn the thing off for smack money); in Heaven Knows What, Harley and Ilya steal boxes of convenience-store energy drinks, and then sell them to newsstands for easy cash. The cycle is the same, even if the contemporary setting of Heaven means that these street-tenants of the Upper West Side now lug around Duane Reade bags and socialize in Dunkin’ Donuts and White Castle, or on the cold sidewalks outside a Barnes & Noble.

The Safdies stumbled into this project. While doing research for a film set in New York’s diamond district, Josh met Holmes on a subway and struck up a conversation. A while later, he learned the full extent of her situation—homeless, an addict, stuck in a destructive relationship—and commissioned her to write about her life. This unpublished memoir, Mad Love in New York City, then served as the source material for Heaven, with Josh and Frownland director Ronald Bronstein adapting the material for the screen. Bronstein, who also co-edited Heaven with Benny, was the kinetic star of the Safdies’ autobiographical Daddy Longlegs, which, in its gutsy naturalism, heated domestic quarrels, and furious handheld camerawork, positioned the brothers as heirs to John Cassavetes. But they’ve altered their approach considerably, veering away from material inspired by their own lives: their follow-up feature to Daddy Longlegs was a deceptively complex documentary, Lenny Cooke, about a former high-school basketball star whose career never recovered from his premature leap into the NBA Draft.

Heaven, too, represents a step away from autobiography, although the nature of Holmes’s dangerous lifestyle—screaming matches on the street, begging for MetroCard swipes at subway stations, urgent swigs of whiskey and Coke—makes her an ideal subject for the Safdies’ immediate approach to city filmmaking. Like Schatzberg, the Safdies and their gifted cinematographer, Sean Price Williams (Listen Up Philip), rely on long lenses and diligent panning to suggest the scattered and hectic feeling of a life lived on the streets. (In a post-screening NYFF press conference, Josh evocatively described the film as an “opera of long lens.”) Heaven is often simply about just watching stressed-out characters navigate the geography of a crowded, congested city. Adding pressure to this atmosphere is the unusual synth soundtrack, which consists of the Japanese composer Isao Tomita’s violent, oppressive renditions of the work of Claude Debussy. Together, the images and the sounds turn Harley’s reality into a pulverizing grind from which escape is barely even a distant thought.

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NYFF: The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s Follow-Up to The Act of Killing, Is Equally Devastating

After the astonishing unreality of The Act of Killing, in which perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1965-1966 genocide reenacted their crimes for the camera in the style of their favorite gangster films, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to that masterwork, The Look of Silence, takes a more straightforward approach to such wrenching material. Its effect, however, is equally devastating.

The director’s latest, another must-see, returns to Indonesia. His focus is on Adi, whose brother was one of the many victims of death squads that, under the guise of combating communism, targeted anyone they thought of as opposing the military regime that had come to power via coup. Forced to live in a country where the killers still rule, Adi visits and confronts the fiends who hacked and disemboweled his brother – and finally finished him off with castration, an execution that the assassins, in footage that Adi watches in silence, relive with prideful glee at the very river-bank scene of the crime. What ensues is horror of a quiet, harrowing sort. Fixating on these faces and, more piercingly, on silence, Oppenheimer throws into sharp relief the contrast between Adi and the murderers’ perspectives, and thus the terrifying tension that engulfs the country as a whole.

During his interviews (which also include a meeting with his prison-guard uncle), Adi, an ophthalmologist by trade, places on his subjects a device for testing bifocal lenses. It’s a kind act which gives these encounters a disquieting tenderness at odds with Adi’s rage and sorrow over what these men did to his family (and country). Further enhancing these meetings’ harrowing strangeness is that ocular gadget itself, which features multiple big, bulky adjustable gear-like rings – something like a cross between round reading glasses and science-fiction X-ray vision goggles. The recurring image of these aged murderers donning such bizarre spectacles speaks to Adi’s desire to have the still-unrepentant killers see the error of their ways, as well as to those killers’ willful blindness toward their responsibility for their sadistic actions (which included drinking victims’ blood to – irony alert! – stave off madness) – – all while visually casting them as something akin to monstrous aliens.

When not questioning these psychopaths, Adi converses with his 100-year-old mother, who still grieves over her slaughtered first son, and his infirm father (blind, mostly deaf, and crippled), who can barely communicate. In these visits, The Look of Silence emphasizes the scars left by the genocide on its survivors, underscoring the way that memory serves as a source of both misery and enlightenment — and as a necessary (if unpleasant) counterbalance to so many citizens’ attempts to hide their atrocities in history.

Consequently, Oppenheimer’s film is ultimately defined by the juxtaposition of two different women responding to bombshells about their relatives’ vileness with “I didn’t know,” and multiple cretins making wannabe-exculpatory claims that “The past is the past” – conjoined declarations that convey the soul-crushing pain, and corrosive denial, that’s wrought from the truth’s disclosure.

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John Zorn

This September, one of New York’s most celebrated figures in avant-garde and experimental music, John Zorn, will turn 60. To celebrate, he’s staging a pair of concerts as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Tonight’s program consists of two vocal works for an all-female a cappella ensemble and an improvisational set that places Zorn at the venue’s Kuhn organ. Saturday’s performance consists of all of the composer’s string quartets, which have never been performed together before, played by three New York-based ensembles.

Thu., July 18, 8 p.m., 2013

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Sinéad O’Connor

Irish anti-Pope, pro-pop musician Sinéad O’Connor is more than just controversy, a symbolically shaved head, and one amazing Prince cover—she’s, at the very least, about nine emotionally raw and melodically compelling albums more. Her bluesy, harrowing voice carries songs over waves of somber piano chords or and acoustic strums. Whether you’re turned off by her lack of a censor and the largely public deterioration of her psyche, there’s no denying that her songs can command a room.

Fri., July 26, 8 p.m.; Sat., July 27, 8 p.m., 2013