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New York Is Throwing Money at Film Shoots, But Who Benefits?

When the D.C.-based subsidy watch group Good Jobs First released its analysis recently of the $1.2 billion that New York State hands out in tax breaks to private industries each year, one item stood out: $621 million in subsidies for film and TV shoots that take place in the state. That means every man, woman, and child in New York shells out an average of $31 a year in public money into the coffers of studios and production companies.

TV and film production is big business in New York, as anyone who’s seen the ubiquitous “Made in NY” subway ads for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment already knows. And since it’s a notoriously footloose industry — you can get away with filming almost anywhere, especially when audiences don’t seem to mind if your big Bronx epic features a climactic hovercraft chase across a suspiciously big harbor — that draws in spending that might otherwise go to other states, there’s even hope that, unlike with subsidies for a sports stadium or a corporate headquarters, New Yorkers are even getting a decent economic bang for their buck.

“The tax credits are quite important — they fill a financing gap,” says Scott Macaulay, an independent film producer (Casting JonBenet) and editor-in-chief of Filmmaker magazine. Without them, he and other film industry veterans say, production companies might well pull up stakes and go to another location that offers better incentives.

That’s the theory, at least. But though both the city and state film offices provide data showing that the film industry has grown here since Governor George Pataki instituted the state’s tax credit program in 2004, economic experts aren’t so sure, pointing to other numbers that show that film and TV shoots don’t employ many more people in the state than they did fifteen years ago — and that any gain is nowhere near worth the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that the state pours into it.

“The figures do not appear to be audited — everyone is taking everyone else’s word for it,” says Michael Thom, a USC public policy professor who has studied film tax breaks nationwide. There have now been multiple state-level studies of film subsidies, he says, and “all of them come to this conclusion it’s a negative return on investment.”

And even if a positive impact does exist, New York’s film industry spending may just be a way of treading water: a zero-sum game where states compete to throw increasing amounts of tax money at the same number of jobs. It’s a problem that corporate-subsidy experts in other industries have dubbed “the economic war among the states” — and it serves mostly to funnel money out of public treasuries and into private pockets.

“It’s like Groundhog Day except the main character doesn’t evolve,” says Good Jobs First executive director Greg LeRoy. “The repetition of states chasing film shoots is an extreme example of how our state-eat-state job wars fail to deliver on good, enduring jobs or stronger tax bases.”

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That there’s a lot of shooting taking place in New York these days is self-evident to anyone who’s fought their way past yet another catering truck or team of production assistants blocking the sidewalk. Empire State Development, which oversees film tax breaks, provides a helpful list of 74 productions that got state aid in the second quarter of 2017, ranging from major beneficiaries like season two of Madam Secretary ($21,217,413) and season three of Elementary ($20,535,166) to smaller projects like Flatbush Luck, a comedy crime drama that collected $49,778 for 74 jobs this spring after hitting screens in 2016. (There can be as much as a two-year lag time between an initial credit application and final approval following a state audit, according to ESD.)

Knowing that there’s filming going on doesn’t really say much about the effectiveness of subsidies, though. To do a real analysis of what sort of bang New Yorkers are getting for their film-subsidy buck, you need to calculate how much production activity would have happened even without subsidies, controlling for other factors that may have influenced rising or falling job numbers.

The government chase for movie and TV shoots began in the 1990s, says Joseph Stephans, an indie film producer (Wildlike) and location manager. “Tax incentives were not on my radar at the time — I don’t know if they were for anybody,” he says. At the time, indie films in particular were experiencing a heyday, with many shooting in New York, but more because that’s where the locations (and willing crews) were, not because of economic benefits.

All that changed in 1997 when Canada, seeking to boost a domestic film industry that was languishing at best — the top-grossing Canadian movie to that date, Porky’s, had been shot in Florida instituted a 16 percent federal tax credit for foreign producers who agreed to shoot in the country. With several Canadian provinces tacking on their own film subsidy programs, producers could suddenly receive rebates on as much as 70 percent of their expenditures, so long as they were made in loonies.

Immediately, there was a surge in movies and TV shows using Canadian cities as stand-ins for U.S. locations — as the Guardian noted, Chicago (2002), New York Minute (2004), and Hollywoodland (2006) were all shot in Toronto. In the late Nineties, says Stephans, “there were small markets all over the country — Georgia, Minnesota, Louisiana — that had some small incentives, and they did well with production.” But once Canada launched its film credit program, he says, it “basically just grabbed all of that — any middle-market, non-L.A. or -New York work was gone.”

Soon after, New York State struck back. In 2004, it instituted its Film Production Tax Credit program to reimburse production companies for 10 percent of all “below-the-line” costs (those for actual shooting work, not counting such things as principal actors’ or directors’ fees). Four years later, the benefit was tripled to 30 percent of below-the-line costs. Though framed as “tax credits,” these payments are refundable — meaning producers can receive far more from the state than they’d ever owe in actual taxes.

Today, most states provide some form of subsidy to local shoots, with New York’s 30 percent rate among the highest. “The amount of help from the government was in direct response to Canada’s subsidies that kicked in in the late Nineties,” says Stephans. “And New York has been calling their bet ever since.”

Other states upped their own antes at the same time as New York, some to startlingly high levels. The results were largely poor: A 2015 report for the Mississippi legislature found that states took losses of anywhere from 54 percent to 93 percent on money expended on film subsidies. Iowa’s 50 percent credit — which the state had advertised as “half-price filmmaking” — was scrapped after just a few months amid charges of fraud and mismanagement, with the state actually paying one filmmaker not to film in the state rather than apply for credits.

“States like Iowa and Michigan have learned the hard way that film jobs are fleeting, too easily lured away, leaving no enduring benefits but very high costs,” says LeRoy.

For New York, the return on the state’s $600 million–a-year expense is not simple to calculate. The latest audit by Camoin Associates for ESD of the film and TV industry cites figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showing a slow but steady climb in the share of film and TV production jobs going to New York State, from just under 15 percent when the credits were introduced in 2004 to 19 percent in 2015. And the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment provides figures showing that the number of film productions has risen slightly over the past ten years (from 245 in 2007 to 311 in 2016, with a low of 162 in 2012), while TV series shoots have skyrocketed, from a mere 12 in 2006 to 56 last season. In terms of film and TV employment, the Camoin audit claims the state credit generates a total impact of more than 70,000 jobs in 2015 and 2016.

Other statistics, however, paint a far less rosy picture. The number of people employed in New York in “motion picture and sound recording” (the state’s designation) and “motion picture and video production” (the feds’) actually appears to have gone down in recent years, despite the subsidies, notes Thom. The former, at an average of about 58,000 individuals, is about the same as it was in 2000 — though there was a slight dip in 2003 and 2004, after Canada’s subsidies took full effect and before New York’s kicked in — and both have declined slightly since 2013.

How could one set of numbers show that film tax credits have led to a huge boom in production jobs, while others show little to no effect? One issue is that the state’s audits separately report each job stint, no matter how short, rather than converting to “full-time equivalent” jobs — a tiny footnote in the Camoin study indicates that “if one person is employed part-time for four months, then takes two months off and is hired again for four months that would be counted as two jobs.” As a result, the official state numbers double- or triple-count crew members who work on multiple productions in one year.

Another likely factor is that while the city has undoubtedly seen a jump in the total number of TV shoots, the number of hours worked may not be keeping pace. That’s because more and more local productions are for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, which have both shorter seasons and smaller crews. “Netflix and the like come at it more from an indie-film attitude,” with lower budgets, says Stephans. “Network jobs economically are much more attractive than streaming jobs.”

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Meanwhile, there’s still the question of how much of this frenetic filming pace is attributable entirely to state cash handouts. The 2017 Camoin Associates audit determined that New York State paid out $1.36 billion in subsidies across 2015 and 2016, while bringing in $1.55 billion in state and city tax money — a 14.5 percent return on taxpayers’ investment. But that assumes that none of that tax revenue would have come in without the credits — that, in other words, all currently subsidized film and TV production in New York would dry up if the state weren’t paying for it.

Some productions would undoubtedly take place here regardless — The Daily Show didn’t decamp for Vancouver even when a subsidy gap existed, and The Defenders aren’t likely to start patrolling Yonge Street. Thom says that a study by the California legislature estimated that one-third of production activity in that state would take place in that state with or without subsidies. If the same ratio holds true in New York, then even if the state cut off the subsidy spigot and two-thirds of productions hightailed it to more budget-friendly climes, the state would still collect more than $250 million a year in tax revenues on an expense of zero dollars. With the current program running about a $100 million annual return by the state’s own figures, this implies that New York state would bring in about $150 million a year more in net revenues if it cut off film credits entirely — money it could conceivably then spend on more effective job-creation programs.

Subsidies for film and TV production in New York aren’t going away anytime soon: Cuomo’s latest budget extended the program three more years, until 2022, and both the Motion Picture Association of America and film production unions have lobbied hard to keep it in place. (A bill to add a “diversity credit” for salaries of TV writers and directors who are women or people of color has already passed the state legislature and is awaiting Cuomo’s signature.)

If you’re employed in the TV or movie industries in New York, that’s good: With the state paying 30 percent of your paychecks, that means producers are likely to be much more free with their spending. If you’re a New York State resident whose only tie to local entertainment production is watching Jessica Jones tear up Hell’s Kitchen, though, you’re paying a high price with your tax dollars. Maybe you’re right to gripe about that catering truck after all.

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David Bezmozgis’s Naturalistic Teen Drama “Natasha” Touchingly Plumbs the Immigrant Experience

As a coming-of-age tale, Natasha at first seems familiar: lazy summer days, meandering bike rides, raging teenage libidos. But the disconnect between parents and children here proves more than just generational. The Toronto-set film reveals two disparate paths of immigrant children: a second-generation kid assimilating into his parents’ adopted country, and a new arrival attempting to escape an exploitative past.

Mark (Alex Ozerov), the sixteen-year-old son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, sells weed, reads Nietzsche, and has a penchant for porn. When Mark’s great-uncle marries a mail-order bride from Moscow, the arrival of his new aunt’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon), marks a turning point in the summer. Gordon shines while bringing equal parts cynicism and wonder to her precocious, Lolita-like role.

Written and directed by David Bezmozgis — adapting his 2004 short story — Natasha is as beguiling and confounding as its title character. With naturalistic honesty, Ozerov and Gordon tap into their characters’ insecurities and sexuality (because, duh, teens). But Bezmozgis delves deeper than pubescent angst, exploring the immigrant experience through family dynamics, dinner-table debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and old-country dreams.

Natasha
Written and directed by David Bezmozgis
Menemesha Films
Opens April 28, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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Get Lost in Sarah Adina Smith’s Rural Science-Fiction Puzzle, “Buster’s Mal Heart”

In Montana, where writer-director Sarah Adina Smith filmed her small-town sci-fi flick, Buster’s Mal Heart, the winter-inversion clouds hang heavy in valleys, trapping the sunlight that bounces off the snow. The effect is a perpetual, sullen twilight. Smith embraces that between-light-and-dark aspect of Big Sky Country to tell the story of Jonas (Rami Malek), a Hispanic night-shift “concierge” at a low-rent hotel in a resort town, who falls down a rabbit-hole of Y2K conspiracy theories as he begins to suspect that the unfulfilling life he’s been dutifully trudging through may be a “bug in the system.” Maybe he was meant to be someone and somewhere else.

Jonas is the quintessential third-shift hotel clerk, wandering through empty halls, fishing pizza slices from the pool and lazily tossing a squash ball at a wall — anything to kill time. One night, a drifter (DJ Qualls) interrupts the endless religious programs parading on the TV behind the check-in desk. The drifter has cash and no ID; he’s an under-the-radar outlaw who babbles endlessly — and sometimes, to Jonas’ ears, convincingly — about a different kind of “inversion,” one that opens up a tunnel running through the Earth’s core.

Meanwhile, there are two other Jonases roaming around: one trapped adrift on a dinghy, the other a marauding drifter who survives the bleak winter by breaking into vacant vacation homes. This film is not for casual watching, with Twitter open on your phone. It’s science fiction that’s complex, thoughtful and funny, like 12 Monkeys or Primer run through a Fargo filter.

Most of the humor comes from drifter Jonas, whose idiosyncratic behavior — meticulously cleaning the houses but leaving a pot of shit on the tables, or carrying on lengthy conversations with phone-sex operators that climax with his warning that it’s the inversion, not he, who “is coming” — draws big, awkward laughs. But funny isn’t the director’s primary aim; through a mind-bending timeline, Smith deftly explores the boxed-in lives of a rural service class, raised on a steady diet of TV prophets and public-access kooks and dwelling in one of the few American locales where people could just disappear if they wanted to.

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It’s Time to Catch Up on the Rapture: “The Leftovers” Has Become One of TV’s Best Shows

The Leftovers airs Sundays on HBO

If you don’t have religion, you should at least have The Leftovers. HBO’s rapturous drama hasn’t found much of an audience during its brief time on Earth, but those who listen to its sermon long enough tend to convert — nothing else on television seeks, so nakedly and unironically, to explore the truth and beauty of what it’s like to be left behind. That its characters’ search for answers comes from a place of skepticism only makes their answers more meaningful; every revelation and faith-affirming moment is hard-won. That’s truer than ever in its third and final season, which finds the show in a more overtly biblical mode than before as it approaches what could be the end times.

Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, The Leftovers began with the instantaneous, inexplicable disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population — some 140 million people, apparently in the rapture itself. If you believe those people were chosen, as most in this world do, then you must also believe that everyone still here was not. Perrotta co-created the series, the first season of which covered the entirety of his book; the show has only improved since it began charting its own path forward.

Much like last season, this concluding chapter begins with a wordless, long-ago prologue seemingly divorced from the main narrative. We’re introduced to a would-be utopia, whose Puritan-like denizens keep incorrectly guessing the date of the rapture; each time the world doesn’t end as predicted, they grow more disenchanted. We’re left to ponder that as Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon), the show’s emotional center, find themselves dealing with a similar enthusiasm for armageddon in the here and now.

Just ahead of the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure, almost everyone in the fictional Jarden, Texas — known as Miracle because it was the one city in America from which no one was taken — is convinced that a second rapture is on the way and that this time they’ll be accepted into heaven’s embrace. That includes Nora’s brother, Matt (Christopher Eccleston), a man of God so inspired by Kevin’s two resurrections that he’s written a newer testament about him.

There’s also a 20-foot-tall Gary Busey balloon in the town square. Why wouldn’t there be?

Swinging for the transcendental fences has come with a few misses along the way, but at its best, The Leftovers is as moving as anything I’ve ever seen on the small screen. Its focus narrowed and its time running out, the show now has the energy of a dying man who knows the end is nigh. It isn’t raging against the dying of the light, but there’s a clarity and a purpose to its creators’ every surprising decision — such as the latter half of this season taking place in Australia, and the explosive fate of a certain chain-smoking cult. There are also an abundance of gloriously off-the-wall moments that remind us that the series’ other co-creator is Damon Lindelof, one of Lost’s showrunners — watch for a bronze medalist from the Sydney Olympics claiming to be God and absolving himself of responsibility for the Crusades but taking credit for the Sudden Departure.

Even as it expands outward, the world of The Leftovers remains concerned most of all with the moment that cleaved its world into “before” and “after.” This new season begins with most of the ensemble in a better place than we’re used to seeing them, but it isn’t long before we’re reminded that no one would ever fully recover from something so unfathomable.

Countless movies and TV series have shown us miserable people putting on a good face and going through the motions, but how many feature characters who put on bulletproof vests and hire prostitutes to shoot them (as Nora used to) or duct-tape plastic bags around their head and hyperventilate (as Kevin does here)? In both cases, they’re choosing to feel alive by being close to death.

That sometimes-happy couple remains the show’s beating heart, and their version of will-they-or-won’t-they is considerably darker than it would be on any other series. Brought together by grief, they’re constantly at risk of being torn apart by it. Coon, who’s also in the new season of Fargo, makes every moment feel achingly real. Kevin is the one tasked with setting things right in this world, but it’s Nora who makes it worth saving in the first place.
As in the first two seasons, special mention is owed to the music. Max Richter’s recurring piano theme sounds like a post-apocalyptic bedtime song, an assurance that there may be hope for those still here. Hearing it makes you feel as though both you and the people onscreen have just jointly realized some profound truth that has yet to be put into words. That’s fitting, given a line from Season 2’s hauntingly beautiful finale that’s repeated here: “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

The Leftovers
asks us to walk alongside it without knowing where it’s leading us — or, in some cases, where we even are at that particular moment — but the journey is worth it. Nothing else on television is at once so draining and so rewarding. When it completes its run in a few months, the show will have aired just 28 episodes. Like many who exited this mortal coil, it’ll never have the chance to overstay its welcome. But just because this departure won’t be sudden doesn’t mean it won’t leave a void.

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“Casting JonBenet” Can’t Solve a Murder, So It Asks Actors to Explore It

Twice I’ve described Kitty Green’s curious, alienating docu-whatsit Casting JonBenet to friends, and twice I’ve been asked, with surprising heat, “Why?” and “What’s the point?” So, this time, before we get into the specifics of what this documentary actually documents, let’s take a moment to consider what the film isn’t — and what truths Green, via her resolute unorthodoxies, manages to expose.

Far from a straight newsy doc recapitulating the facts of the 1996 murder of the child-pageant queen, or an investigative attempt to crack the case definitively, Casting JonBenet becomes a study of what we think we know and the casual ease with which we dish about real people who have been in the news. “She probably was the royal bitch of a mother,” one Boulder resident says of Patsy Ramsey, JonBenét’s mother, addressing the camera as if he were jawing at you over beers. One truth: Put on screen, Americans’ gossipy chatter sounds damnably cruel. We’re a nation of Nancy Graces.

From there the film becomes an exploration of how our certainty about strangers’ secrets and motivations often has roots in our own experiences of trauma. Then it becomes an examination of the ways that actors draw upon their own personal traumas, real or imagined, in order to inhabit the characters they play. That’s a grab-bag of ideas, but Green’s doc — like the case at its center — defies resolution or easy answers.

It’s her method that makes my friends balk. At a studio in Boulder, Green auditions 72 area actors for roles in a film drama about the murder; most of Casting JonBenet is made up of her conversations with these performers, many of whom claim some personal connection to the case. Green encourages them to spill their thoughts about who killed Ramsey: Some suggest Patsy, bitter about turning forty or angry that the six-year-old sometimes wet the bed. Some suggest father John or brother Burke or a neighbor who had dressed up as Santa Claus.

Despite the title, Green is casting JonBenét’s parents rather than the victim herself. She interviews only adults, though she still opens the film on a flock of ersatz JonBenéts, present-day tykes in star-spangled leotards and makeup as thick as a Wendy’s hamburger patty, a disturbing re-creation of what was already a parody of feminine purity and perfection.

Each woman has a go at playing Patsy — whom some of them know — as she telephones the police to report that her daughter has been kidnapped. The wannabe Johns each get the opportunity to act out the discovery of JonBenét’s body in the family’s basement.

It’s never clear how much the actors know about Green’s project — if they truly hope to land a part or if they understand that the auditions are the film. Eventually, though, the layers of reality and its opposite coalesce into something fresh. Green gets them to open up about their own encounters with death and abuse and takes pains to show us how those memories inform their acting. Green saves the most potent of the performances for the end, when her actors (pro and amateur) connect and commit themselves to the Ramseys. They can’t play the full truth of those moments — only the killer knows what actually happened — but each of them finds a truth. Green closes with an exquisitely staged panorama of many of her actors on a set, all performing their roles at the same time. It’s a panoply of Ramseys, each unknowable.

Casting JonBenet
Written and directed by Kitty Green
Netflix
Opens April 28, Metrograph
Premieres April 28 on Netflix

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Alamo Drafthouse Showcases the Tonic Rebellion of Jennifer Jason Leigh

A grade-school memory from May 11, 1981: I’m rapt in front of the TV, watching Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing the anorexic teenager Casey in the ABC Monday Night Movie The Best Little Girl in the World, refuse to eat the peanut-butter-slathered piece of bread her exasperated dad (Charles Durning) is trying to force into her mouth. The teledrama, one of the actress’s earliest high-profile productions (she was nineteen at the time of the original broadcast), is small-screen social studies at its most strident and hysterical. But Leigh’s ferocity and defiance in the scene have always stayed with me; these qualities have, in fact, been at the core of many of her best performances (which aren’t always in her best movies). Her acts of resistance are brilliantly on display in the last four titles to screen (all on 35mm) in the Alamo Drafthouse tribute “Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One.”

The first part of the JJL salute, which began last month and which includes most of her major titles up to The Anniversary Party (2001) — her inaugural, and so far only, outing as director (a responsibility she shared with her co-writer and co-star Alan Cumming) — perversely skips Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), featuring Leigh as Stacy, always yearning for experiences outside the pizza parlor. In Amy Heckerling’s enduring Reagan-era coming-of-age ensemble comedy, Leigh’s high school sophomore stands out for her sexual curiosity and appetite — and for the fortitude she displays when her bedmates disappoint (and worse).

Most charitably, Leigh’s role in Paul Verhoeven’s depleting, scabrous Flesh + Blood (1985; screening May 8), the earliest JJL title in the Alamo retrospective, could be thought of as Stacy’s Black Death–period forerunner. Set in Western Europe in 1501, the first Hollywood-backed film by the Dutch provocateur finds Leigh’s Agnes, a prince’s convent-raised virgin daughter promised to the poncey son of an Italian nobleman, kidnapped by a group of mercenaries led by Rutger Hauer’s Martin. Leigh’s first scenes in Flesh + Blood — before she’s brutalized repeatedly — are her finest: Agnes, burning to have a firsthand demonstration of what the nuns surely refused to mention, demands that her maid and a male servant do it al fresco, then orders them to stop mid-coitus. Still baby-faced, the actress elevates this display of wild caprice with impish inquisitiveness. Leigh performs even greater scene-salvaging as Agnes perseveres through multiple rapes and a few rope-bindings, quickly realizing that the only way to survive is to feign deep sexual enthrallment to the commander of these Late Middle Ages savages. “If you think you’re hurting me, you’re wrong. I like it. I’ll take you. Oh, I can feel you. Go on, my brave soldier,” Agnes tells Martin as he thrusts away — lousy dialogue exalted by Leigh’s venomous delivery.

When Leigh is called upon to essentially mimic someone else, as she was in the Coen brothers’ mannerist, late-1950s-set capitalist comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994; showing May 1), she still adds subtle notes to the ventriloquism. As Amy Archer, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter (for her “series on the reunited triplets”) for the Manhattan Argus on a stealth mission to expose Norville Barnes, an executive naïf played by Tim Robbins, Leigh speaks in a patois that’s high screwball by way of Seven Sisters lockjaw: equal parts rapid-fire Rosalind Russell and aristo-articulating Katharine Hepburn. Zippy and uncanny, Leigh’s performance is the most sharply drawn in this breakneck work of excessive buffoonery; her skills at titrating her fast-talking character’s fourth-estate imperiousness are wonderfully evidenced when Amy quietly, but no less tartly, corrects Norville’s pronunciation of karma while they sit in a Beatnik bar.

There’s no obvious antecedent for Allegra Geller, the “game-pod goddess” Leigh plays in David Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999; screening May 2), perhaps the goopiest of the body-horror maestro’s sci-fi freak-outs. In his Voice review, J. Hoberman praised Leigh’s “witchy gusto”; Allegra, the designer of the diabolical VR diversion of the title, does seduce with a kind of sinister sorcery. She convinces tech-phobic Ted Pikul (Jude Law) to succumb to her game’s most gruesome demand: surgical penetration at the base of the spine, a crude operation that creates an orifice into which an umbilical “bio-port” — and later, Allegra’s wet, excited finger — can be inserted. “I knew that it was the only thing that could give my life any meaning,” Allegra says to Ted, explaining why she devoted five years to developing her immersive-simulation scenarios. Thanks to Leigh’s adroit performance, Allegra is a fascinating contradiction: a dystopic “demoness,” in the words of the insurrectionists out to kill her, who wants to render the body superfluous but structures her game parts to resemble our most viscous organs.

In Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia (1995; playing April 30), written by Barbara Turner, the actress’s mother, Leigh enacts another kind of body horror: that of the drunk, strung-out singer, whose rapacious need and rage destroy everything around her. Playing Sadie Flood, the younger sister of Mare Winningham’s eponymous angel-voiced folk-rock star, Leigh burns with an incandescent fury as her raccoon-eyed barroom belter self-sabotages again and again. As she tears through Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back,” she is all raw, riveting, exposed nerve endings — an exegesis of extreme vulnerability that’s a dress rehearsal of sorts for Leigh’s rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in Charlie Kaufman’s superb stop-motion Anomalisa (2015), a film that proves just how palpable and electric the actress is even when she’s not physically present.

Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn
Through May 8

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Criminal Minds: Exploring Jean-Pierre Melville’s Troubled Crooks at Film Forum

Loneliness was the great theme of Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinema — not just the romantic loneliness of thieves and cops and lounge singers and spies, but the corrosive loneliness of sociopaths, sadists, men and women who have lost their moral compass. The French auteur, who is getting a centennial retrospective at Film Forum starting this week, was known mainly for his mesmerizing crime dramas — terse, poetic studies of alienation and betrayal, patience and procedure. But he was first and foremost a master of human psychology.

You can sense this psychological acuity in one of his earliest works, the 1950 adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles, about the bizarre mind games played by a pair of manipulative, borderline-incestuous siblings. Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and Paul (Edouard Dermit) are a far cry from the gangsters and melancholy killers of Melville’s later films. But they exemplify the director’s fascination with extreme behavior and characters who seek to push the world away. Elisabeth regards anyone who comes into contact with the siblings as a threat to their relationship. That this desire to be alone together extends as far as murder and suicide is in keeping with the movie’s uniquely unsettling, surreal atmosphere (this is, after all, a Cocteau story), but it’s not far off from the pathological actions of later Melville protagonists.

After 1956’s elegiac heist drama Bob le Flambeur, Melville became known primarily for his tales of weary criminals and others who operate in the shadows. Two Men in Manhattan (1959), a noir homage shot partly on the streets of New York (Melville described it as “a love letter” to the city), follows journalist Moreau (played by the director himself) and an opportunistic, alcoholic photographer, Delmas (Pierre Grasset), as they search for the missing French ambassador to the United Nations. Over one night, they visit jazz singers, actresses, and dancers, each interrogation revealing something new about the errant diplomat. But Melville seems less interested in the mystery than in his characters’ solitude: They have each in their own ways shut themselves off. The city itself seems to feed this alienation: Melville’s New York is a fragmented place where every neighborhood seems disconnected and everyone lives in their own cocoon, adhering to their own rules.

When I was younger, the words “honor among thieves” often came to mind when viewing Melville’s films: These stories are filled with noble sacrifice, with stone-faced men who will die before ratting out comrades or betraying loved ones. Sometimes, the people who inspire such loyalty are just chance acquaintances. The deadly partners in 1970’s Le Cercle Rouge barely know one another; they are united by the fact that they are outlaws and each has skills the others need. Sometimes, the characters feel they serve a higher purpose: the French Resistance, in the war epic Army of Shadows (1969), or God, in the episodic and contemplative 1961 drama Léon Morin, Priest (which, immediately following the retrospective, is getting a week-long run at Film Forum in a never-before-seen director’s cut that restores thirteen minutes of new footage).

But over the years, I’ve found something more clinical at work in the films. We may romanticize these characters’ cool demeanor, their hard glances and impenetrable quiet — but the more we watch them, the more we realize that Melville himself is often horrified by them.

Nowhere is this more evident than in two Alain Delon–starring pictures that serve as intriguing mirror images of each other. In Le Samouraï (1967), Melville’s masterpiece, the actor plays a lonely assassin named Jef Costello, who lives in a nondescript room and seemingly emerges only to kill. Jef’s methodical patience verges on the absurd: He will sit in a car he’s about to steal, his face utterly immobile, and try a comically huge string of keys to see which might start the engine. Costello’s stoic melancholy — embodied by Delon’s impossibly beautiful visage — along with François de Roubaix’s plangent score, has cemented the character’s iconic status among generations of cinephiles. So it’s interesting to read interviews with the director in which he refers to Costello as a schizophrenic. (“Before writing my script, I read up on everything I could about schizophrenia — the solitude, the silences, the introversion,” Melville says in Rui Nogueira’s book Melville on Melville, excerpted in the Criterion Collection’s release of the film.)

Costello’s loneliness isn’t so much an act of purposeful, Zen asceticism as it is an inability to exist in the world. The film certainly has a romantic streak — the quiet series of glances that seem to define Costello’s interactions with beautiful pianist Valérie (Cathy Rosier) speak to an impossible sense of yearning. But it’s a relationship that can never be consummated, because Costello can’t relate to other people. The more I watch Le Samouraï, the more I notice how pale, how small Delon’s character seems to be.

His instability is even evident in the film’s reference points. When both the cops and the gangsters set out in pursuit of Costello, Melville cuts between the two groups as they strategize — a clear nod to Fritz Lang’s M, in which the police and the underworld set off in search of Peter Lorre’s pathetic child-killer. Listen, also, to the remarkable sound design (an art for which Melville too rarely has been celebrated). Wherever Costello goes, the sounds of the world — TVs, cars, different types of music — intrude on his reality like shards of sonic glass. No wonder he prefers to lie silently in his room listening to nothing but the chirping of his pet bird.

In Melville’s final film, Un Flic (1972), Delon is on the other side of the law, this time as a chief inspector who rarely breaks his cool while pursuing a group of bank robbers. He’s not quite as silent as his character in Le Samouraï, but he demonstrates a similar steely professionalism, as well as a frustrating inability to exist through anything other than his work. Perhaps the most tender moment comes right after one of the most troubling, as Delon chews out and humiliates a trans sex worker whom he had been using as an informant. As the informant leaves, Melville focuses on the tears on her face, and the music becomes briefly, uncharacteristically lyrical — a moment of compassion in an otherwise remorselessly austere work. Toward the end, Delon’s character busts in on a crook who’s about to take his own life, then very quickly closes the door again, so that the man can go ahead and shoot himself. Once the shot rings out, Delon charges back in.

Again, is this honor, or is it a kind of no-nonsense cruelty, a glimpse into the character’s genuinely twisted morality? I’m not sure Melville ever answers questions such as these. Rather, he allows his films to live with that tension — between the poetic allure of a dangerous life lived on the margins, and the troubling pathology of the outcast.

Melville
April 28–May 11, Film Forum

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“Obit” Takes a Shallow Dip into the Art of Memorializing

A light and cheery appraisal of a somber subject, Vanessa Gould’s documentary Obit focuses on the writers and editors assigned to the necrology desk of the New York Times. Like other chronicles of dead-tree media made in the past decade — The September Issue, R.J. Cutler’s Vogue ode (2009); Andrew Rossi’s polite Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) — Obit rarely strays from the anodyne tone of the advertorial.

Filming for a few days in December 2014 in the NYT office, Gould opens with Bruce Weber, one of her six primary interviewees, deep in reporting from his cubicle, speaking on the phone one morning to the woman who’s just become the widow of William P. Wilson, an adviser to John F. Kennedy for his 1960 televised debates with Richard Nixon. Weber dutifully works through a multipage checklist to amass basic biographical facts; to provide some putative narrative tension, Gould cuts intermittently to time-stamped segments, counting down to Weber’s 6 p.m. deadline as he shapes the raw data of Wilson’s life into one of the vivid mini-histories that typify the Times‘ Obituaries section.

Weber struggles with his first sentence for a while and grows fidgety, making frequent trips to the kitchen to get coffee, but the obituarist, like nearly everyone Gould speaks with, is sober and unflappable (and fond of pullover sweaters and sweater-vests). As Weber and his colleagues discuss, often during sit-downs with Gould in their homes, the nuts and bolts of their writing — whether to start with a traditional or an anecdotal lede, say, or which information typically goes into the second paragraph — they prove to be engaging, if not exactly revealing, interlocutors.

“We are not friends. We are not advocates. We are not grief counselors. We are reporters,” proclaims Margalit Fox, the great belletrist of the NYT‘s dead pool and Obit‘s most flamboyant speaker. I wish Gould had been more thorough in her own reporting, digging deeper and prodding her astute subjects to say more. The question of who warrants memorializing in the paper of record is never fully answered; time that could have been spent further investigating that query is instead spent on one trip too many to the Times‘ morgue, the labyrinthine repository of yellowed clippings and photos presided over by Jeff Roth.

Also underexplored: Which aspects of their subjects’ lives do the NYT obituarists leave out — or include — and why? Midway through the documentary, Fox notes that she and her cohort, who may never have imagined themselves in their current jobs but who nonetheless take great pride in what they do, have been able to “come out of the closet as obituary writers.” In at least one high-profile instance, never mentioned in Obit, a posthumous salute by Fox kept a major aspect of her subject’s life cloaked. Writing Susan Sontag’s obituary in late December 2004, the first year Fox was on the necro beat, she detailed the critic and intellectual’s brief early marriage to Philip Rieff but made no mention of the same-sex relationships that followed. “Every single day I face down terror,” Fox says in the film, referring to the pressure of crafting rich, detail-packed biographies in a matter of hours, a strain that invariably leads to omissions. It’s the most candid disclosure in Obit — and one that culminates in a dead end.

Obit
Directed by Vanessa Gould
Kino Lorber
Opens April 26, Film Forum

 

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Street-magic Drama “Sleight” Has One Great Trick But Needs More Magic

Keep your eyes on the magician’s hands. She’ll attempt to distract you with compliments and silly quips, but her most effective feint will be the story she tells as she shuffles the cards. She might give quaint mention to a lover’s spat between the King of Hearts and the Queen of Hearts. Or she’ll spin a detailed yarn about the conjoined silver rings that she’s brandishing, insisting that they were fastened together by a wise old man. The more outlandish the tale, the better: The words busy the brain until the magician hits you with the big reveal — you’re sitting on the Queen of Hearts!

At least that’s one way it could go. In J.D. Dillard’s coming-of-age (and coming-of-magic) tale, Sleight — about a young street magician who turns to dealing drugs to care for his little sis — the director builds to one big, beautiful revelation. But the story he tells in the lead-up doesn’t distract so much as it politely asks you to stand up so that it can place the trick card under your ass.

Jacob Latimore is Bo Wolfe, a smart kid in Los Angeles who turned down a college scholarship to hustle party drugs at clubs. Mom has just died, so Bo has to make fast cash to cover rent for him and his sister, Tina (Storm Reid). During the day, Bo does card and levitation tricks for a few dollars tossed in a canvas tote, which is how he meets Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), a bakery waitress who glows when Bo floats her golden ring in front of her face. He literally has a trick up his sleeve: an electromagnetic device he has implanted in his shoulder.

Dillard presents this body mutilation as something like a seeping, infected eye, with copper wire neatly sewn around the hole as an embroidered sun. Like a real-life comic-book hero, Bo derives his power this way, and Dillard has great fun with these elements of the fantastic. The director shoots the street-magic scenes in bright light and gives us intentionally hilarious mind-freaked crowd-reaction shots in slow motion. There’s real joy in these moments, and you pine for more of them as the film wears on and Dillard baits-and-switches us, focusing more and more on the monotonous good-kid-gets-in-too-deep-with-bad-guys story.

Dulé Hill plays seemingly sophisticated drug pusher Angelo, Bo’s boss. Angelo’s like a dad to the orphaned Bo. He even gives the kid money for a date, but the cash comes with the stipulation of “favors” done in return. As one-note as these gangsters-doing-drug-deals scenes are — lots of lead pipes and guns and people huffing and puffing about their “territory” — Dillard does break up the rote tough-guy play by smartly cutting to Bo’s quivering hands. A master magician relies upon those appendages, but the gun cripples Bo like Kryptonite, building a little tension as we wonder whether he’ll use those hands to get out of the jam.

But we know from the get-go that Bo will take a risk, get too involved with the violent side of the drug business and have to find a way to extract himself from the situation — this is a story we’ve seen before. What we haven’t seen is the untold story leading up to this plot, one that shows us how a teenage science whiz gets so obsessed with magic that he burrows copper wires into his own goddamned arm.

Instead of showing us this, Dillard merely announces the backstory in a lengthy monologue delivered by Bo: As a kid, he became enamored with a street magician who put a knife through his hand without bleeding or creating a wound. Years later, Bo reconnected with the man and learned the secret: He had stabbed his palm so many times that he had built up so much scar tissue that would accept a real blade. Just for a trick, the man really did send the knife through his hand again and again. That’s a great story, but I don’t want to hear about it; I want to see it. Likewise, we’re never shown just how Bo got himself into his dilemma with Angelo.

Bo’s hardship is established by a single shot of what seems to be an unopened bill from a hospital. Later, he says that he wishes he could move Tina out of their house and into a better school district. But we don’t see Bo struggling. How indebted is he? Was dealing drugs his first choice for a job? Did his trickster personality not jibe with other employers? (And, drug-dealing jobs go, this one seems pretty cush; all he does is pull up in his car and exchange money for molly. The one time cops hassle him, he doesn’t seem fazed as he uses sleight of hand and leaves the cops befuddled.) We know he wants to be a magician, but he doesn’t seem to have any ambition to take his act off the street. Where are the stakes for Bo?

The filmmakers and the studio seem aware that the story is missing its impetus. After the screening, I was handed a promotional Sleight comic by Ryan Parrot, illustrated by Rob Guillory. Inside, all of Bo’s backstory is laid out with beauty and feeling, starting right from that magician with the knife in his palm and showing Bo getting fired from a valet company and then taking his first job for Angelo. The biggest sleight was watching this entire movie, only to find that what I wanted was in a comic book.

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Sunny French Eco-Doc “Tomorrow” Explores Ways We Might Be Able to Turn This Whole Death-of-the-Planet Thing Around

The can-do optimism of Tomorrow (Demain) sets it apart from other documentaries about the environmental crisis. Prompted by a 2012 report in Nature, which predicted that the catastrophic effects of climate change will hit sooner than previously calculated, co-directors Mélanie Laurent (Breathe) and Cyril Dion sought out creative problem-solving around the world and in their native France, where their film won a César Award. Laurent and Dion don’t resort to eco-shaming anyone, but an unspoken plea underscores their utopian survey: Why can’t we all live like this?

Written by Dion, Tomorrow is constructed as a conversation between curious amateurs who prompt each other to further investigation. In four sections (agriculture, economy, education, democracy), the co-directors explore systems that impact our environment, and find local solutions to global problems. Some stories are familiar, like the French paper-mill owner who’s made every aspect of his business part of a recycling loop. Other segments reflect shifting attitudes, such as the one about the Finnish school whose principal uses every possible resource to help students develop into capable independent thinkers.

Completed in 2015, Tomorrow misses major recent events including Brexit, which could impact several of the English cities profiled, whose governments have issued alternate currency to stimulate regional investment. There’s also oversimplification: When discussing urban farming in abandoned areas of Detroit, the filmmakers cite the auto industry’s contraction, but ignore white flight to the suburbs. What Laurent and Dion do best is present pockets of progressive change as blueprints for idealism in action.

Tomorrow
Directed by Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion
Under the Milky Way
Opens April 21, Village East