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‘White Girl’ Suggests Its Heroine’s Suffering Is All Her Own Fault

It’s hard to watch White Girl without experiencing a creeping sense of anxiety. Loosely based on the adolescent life of writer-director Elizabeth Wood, the film follows Leah (Morgan Saylor), a college student who parties all night and snorts prodigious amounts of cocaine. She and her roommate, Katie (India Menuez), live in Ridgewood as members of the hipster gentrification class. Early on Leah meets Blue (Brian Marc), a drug dealer hanging outside her apartment, and the two begin the tumultuous relationship that drives the narrative as they party, fuck, and push the product.

It’s dispiriting that the first nonwhite people Leah encounters are dealers, but a scene in which she and Blue mark up their drug prices while partying with a white crowd winks at this racial divide. Blue doesn’t seem too much like the usual movie cliché of a hustler (though plenty of stereotypes can be found in his orbit) — he has a delicate quality, with long lashes and fine bone structure, and is less wild than his girlfriend. He ends up getting busted by an undercover cop just after promising to take Leah out for a fancy dinner. His moment of earnest sweetness, hoping to impress Leah with a romantic gesture, is shut down by a system that’s convinced he’s a threat.

In order to get Blue out of jail, Leah enlists a lawyer, George Fratelli (Chris Noth), who is too expensive but plies her with his understanding of discrimination in a world of police who inordinately punish nonwhite men for drug possession. The relationship between Leah and the older, slightly sleazy Fratelli ultimately moves in a disturbing sexual direction that viewers with an inherent distrust of powerful men might not find surprising. Wood is attuned to the ways America’s power dynamics work against young women, yet scenes in which Leah gets money stolen and faces sexual violence feel strangely like some kind of punishment.

You might hope that a film directed by a woman in which an attractive college student constantly uses drugs would identify more with the protagonist than the leering men around her. But Leah is a bad seed, and White Girl won’t ever let us forget it. Wood makes us feel the crowded, pulsing haze of the nightclub, the claustrophobia and the adrenaline, but then Leah takes off her shirt and snorts coke off her internship boss’s dick. This is one of those films that merits a long cold shower afterwards. That might actually be a compliment — Wood wants to provoke.

The glimpses White Girl offers of the relationship between Leah and Katie suggest that the film could have something more to say about female friendship and intimacy. While Katie partakes in many of the same indulgences as Leah, there are moments when she expresses concern for her roommate, and in one of the more affecting scenes, they huddle close in the shower after Leah has a particularly traumatic experience. Saylor and Menuez both have the perfect looks for their roles: Saylor’s baby face and fluffy blond curls impart an angelic quality at obvious odds with her actions, while Menuez has the calm countenance and long red hair of a Pre-Raphaelite maiden. There’s an unspoken bond between these girls. It’s a shame Wood’s film spends so much time on the sleazy forces that might destroy it.

White Girl
Written and directed by Elizabeth Wood
FilmRise
Opens September 2, Angelika Film Center and Nitehawk Cinema

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In Horror Comedy ‘Ava’s Possessions,’ the Exorcised Undergo Group Counseling

We’ve seen it dozens of times: a snarling victim lashed to a bed, a priest intoning prayers in Latin, a worried family hovering at what they hope is a safe distance. But how often has it come before the opening titles?

Jordan Galland’s Ava’s Possessions begins where most demonic-possession movies end. After a successful exorcism, Ava (Louisa Krause, likable in the role) is left with a life in shambles, a lengthy list of criminal offenses, and a weeks-long gap in her memory. (How did that bloodstain get on her floor?)

That setup kicks off an absurd take on recovery culture rendered with delightful mundanity: Ava has to attend a court-mandated support group for the possessed. “We don’t use the D-word. They’re ‘uninvited spiritual guests,’ ” says the no-nonsense counselor (Wass Stevens) who leads them in exercises like popping balloons with their demons’ — sorry, guests’ — faces drawn on in marker. Ava, meanwhile, has to discover what she did during her time in the thrall of Naphula the Anointed (and make amends to those she wronged, of course).

A concurrent plot involving Ava’s family doesn’t land quite as well, as it travels down some more familiar paths, but the twelve-step satire had me grinning like a fiend.

Ava’s Possessions
Directed by Jordan Galland
Momentum Pictures
Opens March 4, Nitehawk Cinema and Cinema Village

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Brian Posehn Ruins Christmas in ‘Uncle Nick’ — And Is Great Depicting a Middle-Aged Creep

There’s this whole gross genre of film narrative, mostly by middle-aged screenwriters and directors, about forty-year-old men lusting after teenage girls. Think Ghost World and American Beauty. Aside from extruding your pineal gland through your forehead and beaming your revolting thoughts directly onto a screen, there’s no form offering more creator transparency.

But Uncle Nick, directed by Chris Kasick, exaggerates the genre’s details to emphasize its grossness. Slobby, alcoholic Nick, played by Brian Posehn, loads up on Christmas Eve supplies at a liquor store and heads out with the specific goal of banging his douchebag brother’s stepdaughter (Melia Renee).

Posehn’s family includes alt-comedy mainstays Scott Adsit and Paget Brewster, as well as the very funny Missi Pyle. Nick’s creep brother, played by Beau Ballinger, is a nastier character than Nick, sponging off of his well-to-do wife and bullying his nerdy stepson. Somehow, the film also shoehorns dark baseball history into its holiday noir, relating in starkly shot flashbacks the infamous 1974 Ten-Cent Beer Night riots at an Indians vs. Rangers game and dividing its running time into nine “innings” of increasing drunken grimness.

Like an umpire dodging a hurled battery, the film ducks its own premise just a bit: Nick’s niece is twenty, not a teenager, and the film veers toward a redemptive ending. But Posehn, flaunting his insulin-resistant physique and middle-aged dong, is the perfect counterpoint to the wretched American Beauty, providing a way more accurate portrayal of midlife creepiness.

Uncle Nick
Directed by Chris Kasick
Dark Sky Films
Opens December 4, Nitehawk Cinema

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Satanic Metalhead Thriller ‘Deathgasm’ Actually Lives Up to Its Title

Ask any pulpit-pounder: Heavy metal and satanism go hand in gnarled hand. The match is made in heaven in Jason Lei Howden’s debut feature, Deathgasm, a bonkers apocalypse movie that pits rockers against the hordes of hell.

Pawned off on relatives and tormented at school, headbanger Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) forms a garage band with some fellow outcasts, including surly brother-in-metal Zakk (James Blake). Entrusted with satanic sheet music by a burnt-out former star, the band semi-inadvertently summons demons into the bodies of the town’s straitlaced residents, just as a squad of occultists arrives to track down the black hymn for their own ends. What follows is mayhem: bystanders clawing their eyes out and attacking the unpossessed, and the band defending themselves with whatever’s on hand, from weed whackers to floppy sex toys.

Cawthorne is vulnerable and resilient as Brodie, bullied and torn down every day and propping up a tough exterior with his music; the abuse is cartoonish, but Cawthorne’s performance underpins the resulting power fantasy with genuine emotion.

His tongue half in cheek, Howden indulges in stylistic flourishes like introducing characters with notebook-paper sketches and flights of fancy that transport characters to Boris Vallejo–inspired mountaintops. The film that results is confident and giddily brutal.

Deathgasm
Written and directed by Jason Lei Howden
Dark Sky Films
Opens October 2, Nitehawk Cinema

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NAME THAT DUNE

As we all wait anxiously to hear if David Lynch will be involved in Showtime’s nascent Twin Peaks reboot, we can soothe our nerves in another red-draped room. Tonight Nitehawk launches its new Booze & Books series, in which the theater teams up with local publishers, writers, and bookstores for themed screenings, with a showing of Dune — incidentally, Lynch’s least Lynchian film, despite the presence of Kyle MacLachlan. To celebrate the release of Folio Society’s illustrated edition of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, enjoy the psychedelic, futuristic movie adaptation. The 1984 epic follows the source material faithfully, portraying all the love, war, and space travel surrounding the spice trade in the year 10191. Illustrator Sam Weber will introduce the film, followed by an after-party with themed cocktails.

Thu., May 21, 7:15 p.m., 2015

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DRIVEN TO EXTREMES

As part of his New York City rounds, the Canadian director Bruce LaBruce organizes a 35mm screening of a radical, overlooked Elizabeth Taylor vehicle. Based on a Muriel Spark novella, directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, shot by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now), and featuring — among other glorious attractions — an Andy Warhol cameo, The Driver’s Seat (1974) follows Taylor’s off-the-rails character as she travels to Rome carrying a death wish. In an enthusiastic piece on the Nitehawk website, LaBruce — who is scheduled to introduce the screening — writes the following: “[The Driver’s Seat] is…one of the most complex feminist statements of the Seventies, serving as a kind of allegory for a woman in search of her ultimate orgasm.”

Wed., April 29, 10 p.m., 2015

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Watch Classic VHS Movies at Nitehawk Cinema’s New Lo-Res Bar

Though drinking in the theater has always been acceptable at Nitehawk Cinema, owner Matthew Viragh had trouble luring patrons to the downstairs bar. When his team began trying to figure out how best to entice drinkers, they found an answer that had been staring them in the face for years: the vast collection of VHS tapes decorating Nitehawk’s walls. And so they opened Lo-ResBar (136 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-384-3980), offering large-format drinks and two vintage televisions playing a continuous digital loop of VHS classics.

What was once casually referred to as “the café at Nitehawk” is no longer just a bar by association. The drinks menu received a full revamp by beverage director Matt Walker; the list now focuses on whiskey and specialty cocktails named after timeless B-movies. Beer-lovers can drink large bottles of craft suds from breweries like Victory. Happy hour runs from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and you’ll find specials like the Beta, a can of PBR and shot of Benchmark bourbon for six bucks.

Walker emphasizes that Lo-Res is meant to be its own experience. “The most difficult part is Lo-Res being within an already well-known business like Nitehawk Cinema,” he says. “We knew that any identity would need to fit the already established aesthetics and feel of Nitehawk, while still offering an experience you couldn’t get by simply going to a movie here.”

That said, guests can access Nitehawk’s food menu at the bar, which offers items like queso, popcorn, and tater tots.

As for the best drinks at Lo-Res and its sister space above, Walker recommends going by the mood set by your chosen flick. “I think it all depends on what genre of movie you’re seeing,” he says. “Comedies call for gin cocktails, period-piece dramas require red wine, action films are for whiskey and beer, and horror films…well, whatever gets you through the night.”

Click on the next page for a first look at the newly opened Lo-Res:

Bruce Lee, one of the many guests who attended Lo-Res's opening
Bruce Lee, one of the many guests who attended Lo-Res’s opening
Lo-Res at Nitehawk Cinema
Lo-Res at Nitehawk Cinema
A look at the menu and outdoor seating
A look at the menu and outdoor seating
Buckaroo Banzai
Buckaroo Banzai
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LUCKY HARMS

For those looking to cap their St. Patrick’s Day celebration with a cult-movie fix, Nitehawk has you covered with its screening of Mark Jones’s 1993 Leprechaun. The setup is predictably silly — a pissed-off leprechaun arrives in North Dakota to recover his stolen pot of gold — but there is a certain satisfaction in the English actor Warwick Davis’s commitment to the eponymous role (this first Leprechaun has the added incentive of featuring a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston). Davis — at the time a few years removed from Willow — has returned to the series in a bevy of sequels ranging from Leprechaun 4: In Space to Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood, and his enthusiasm for the enterprise can be summed up by the following passage from his 2011 memoir, Size Matters Not: “I know the Leprechaun movie franchise is not to everyone’s taste but I had a great time making them and I’m proud of my performances in every one of those crazy films.”

Tue., March 17, 9:30 p.m., 2015

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Julianne Moore Is Grand in Maps to the Stars

Is it possible to essentially like a movie yet feel revulsion toward its script? David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is clearly intended as a sharp satire of Hollywood ambition, vanity, avarice, and emptiness, and in places it’s smart and astringently funny. Yet it seems to be fighting its own bone structure. The script is by Bruce Wagner, a screenwriter, producer, and novelist whose specialty, in bitter little books like Force Majeure and Dead Stars, is skewering Hollywood — he’s like a jaundiced eye with a laptop attached. But unlike other novelists who’ve tackled Hollywood — among them Michael Tolkin, Terry Southern, Don Carpenter, and the lesser-known John Kaye, author of the splendid twin novels Stars Screaming and The Dead Circus — Wagner has little or perhaps no affection for his subjects, and he too often shoots at the easy targets. For Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars is a different kind of body-horror movie, one whose sourness threatens to eat it away from the inside — it feels like its own version of They Came From Within, with the script as parasitic enemy.

The fact that Cronenberg directed almost works against Maps to the Stars: We expect greatness from him, not just proficiency, and he doesn’t exactly have a gift for comedy, not even the black kind. But the movie still has the darkly glittering Cronenberg touch, even if it’s just a light brushing. And he’s lined up the right performers, chief among them a witheringly funny Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, a Hollywood actress in desperate decline. Her hair is bleached an ungodly shade of nowhere blond; she’s just had to fire her personal
assistant, or, as she puts it, her “chore whore,” and now faces the irksome task of finding another. The parts aren’t rolling in as frequently as they used to, so she’s frantically hoping she can play her own late, movie-star mother (who sexually abused her, natch) in a remake of her mom’s big hit, despite the fact that she might be just a teensy bit over the hill for it.

Meanwhile, Mia Wasikowska’s Agatha, a waifish burn victim with a scarred face, has just rolled into town from Florida, and the first person she meets is a loping charmer of a limo driver, Robert Pattinson’s Jerome Fontana, who also happens to be an aspiring actor. Oh, and a screenwriter — whatever works. (As he prattles on to Agatha about the usual ins and outs of showbiz, he lets it drop that he’s thinking of converting to Scientology, “just as a career move.”) Agatha lands that job as Havana’s assistant, but it soon becomes apparent that she has a secret past, which involves spoiled teen movie star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird).

If it all sounds like too much, plot-wise, it is. Wagner packs a lot into the script, as if banking on the idea that the more barbs you throw in, the more will stick. Still, in molding the material, Cronenberg gives the picture as much shape and heft as he can. He’s graceful in navigating the movie’s tricky tone shifts, from genially satirical to misanthropically acidic. And when Maps to the Stars clicks, it’s great fun. The obvious comparison is to Robert Altman’s The Player, but Cronenberg’s approach is
a little more sly, and drier, than Altman’s: At its best, Maps to the Stars reminds me more of the unjustly forgotten 1994 The New Age, a bitter little bonbon written and directed by Tolkin (who also wrote The Player, both screenplay and novel), about Southern California types looking for
enlightenment in all the wrong places.

And whenever Moore’s onscreen — which, thankfully, is often — Maps to the Stars works like gangbusters. Moore is a terrific and fearless comic actress: She does one scene perched on the toilet, moaning to Agatha through the open door about how “backed up” she is by whatever this-or-that she’s been taking, and would Agatha run to the store and pick up a little something to help? “I think it’s called Quiet Moment,” she says, and the more she natters, the longer her shopping list gets, expanding to include tampons and sweets from Maison du Chocolat (“You can get them at Neiman’s”), an unholy combination if ever there was one.

But even with all that brassy hair, and arranged not-so-gracefully on the can, Moore never looks totally trashy, and her radiant dignity just makes everything funnier. In another scene, she turns an account of meeting one of the world’s great spiritual dignitaries into an ace humblebrag. “I met the Dalai Lama,” she says, nodding and taking a breath before zoning in on the kicker: “Very cool man.” Moore, perched on her throne or not, is the queen of all she surveys in Maps to the Stars. You’ll laugh until you find yourself needing a…Quiet Moment.

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WHEREFORE ART THOU LEO?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rosé — one of many drinks to be consumed at Nitehawk’s Film Feast. Venture back to 1996 and 1597 simultaneously with a screening of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, in which Hawaiian-shirt-clad Montagues and Capulets, warring mafia empires, quarrel, rave, and conduct forbidden affairs in Southern California — all in iambic verse. Murray’s Cheese offers food and beverage pairings for five key points in the movie as it unfolds. So when “Romeo Is Banished,” you’ll have in front of you red-wine-braised pork, gorgonzola cremificato, and polenta au jus. For what love does not conquer, there’s Champlain Valley Triple Crème Cheese (infused with Mast Brothers chocolate) and absinthe punch. In fair Verona, Verona Beach, or Brooklyn, there’s no better way to kick off Valentine’s week.

Wed., Feb. 11, 7 p.m., 2015