SKY AND GROUND (Talya Tibbon & Joshua Bennett, 2017)
Sunday, November 12, SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves., $19, 6:45
Thursday, November 16, IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St., $12, 10:15 am
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)
The DOC NYC festival, consisting of more than 150 nonfiction feature films and shorts, has room for stories small and large, allowing viewers to understand the world from the macro to the micro; Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett’s Sky and Ground, having its world premiere November 12 and 16, zeroes in on the micro. In his sweeping new documentary, Human Flow, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and his crew went to twenty-three countries and dozens of refugee camps to personalize the growing international migrant crisis. Among the places he visited was the Idomeni tent city in Greece at the now-closed Macedonian border. The makeshift camp is the starting point for Tibbon and Bennett’s startling and intimate Sky and Ground. Tibbon embeds herself with the Nabi clan, led by Abdullah Sheik Nabi, known as Guevara for his childhood admiration for Argentine rebel Che Guevara. Guevara and his family have escaped the dangerous situation in Aleppo, Syria, and are trying to get to Berlin, where Guevara’s brother, Abdo, lives. But getting there is a harrowing journey, fraught with police and military, rewards for citizens who turn them in, cheating smugglers, and more impediments to their attempts to find a new home. “If we stay here in this misery, my family will go crazy,” Guevara says of the camp, and they are soon back on the road, not knowing what fate awaits them. Using the GPS on his cell phone and staying in touch with Abdo, Guevara has taken charge because no one else could, accepting responsibility for his mother, Jalila; his sister, Shireen, and her husband, Souleiman; and his nieces and nephews. The film plays out like a gripping thriller as the family sneaks through vast landscapes, wooded areas, isolated camps, and train stations, knowing they could get caught and sent back to war-torn Syria at any moment. “Everywhere I go, I lose my home,” Shireen says, while Jalila adds, “I am very, very regretful. I’d rather have bombs dropping every day than go through this torment.” But Guevara never gives up, no matter how treacherous things become. “After trying to get in touch with ten smugglers, all of them proved to be liars and frauds,” he explains. “We have no choice but to attempt to smuggle ourselves again.”
The arresting film is beautifully photographed by Emmy winner Axel Baumann, the lush vistas and sunsets in stark contrast to the Nabis’ heart-wrenching dilemma. In addition, Guevara documents everything he can using his cell phone and a handheld camera given to him by the crew. Tibbon and Bennett, who are also two of the producers — Guevara is credited as one of the coproducers — puts the viewer right in the midst of the action, helping us understand the Nabis’ strife and fear. They could be a middle-class family from anywhere; they are not poor and uneducated but an intelligent and clever group with money and connections and yet still are thwarted at nearly every turn, though they manage to maintain their faith and even their sense of humor throughout. There is a fascinating, unspoken aspect to Sky and Ground that went on behind the scenes; the filmmakers might have embedded themselves with the Nabis, but they had access to a car and slept in hotels as they followed the family across several countries. “As a filmmaker, ‘embedding’ with your subjects poses moral and editorial dilemmas on a daily basis,” Tibbon notes in her director’s statement. “When Jalila, the family matriarch, wondered why we couldn’t get them a car (or put them in ours), or when the kids asked why do I get to go back to a hotel at the end of the evening and they don’t, I didn’t have good enough answers. They weren’t criminals and I wasn’t better than them. . . . But from the outset we knew we couldn’t do anything illegal (like sneaking through borders) and we also knew that we didn’t want to do anything that would potentially put the family at risk or alter their journey.” Sky and Ground is a terrifying film to watch not only because it is hard to know what we as free individuals can do about the crisis but also because in today’s situation across the globe, it makes you realize that this could happen to just about anyone. Part of the Humanity on the Move trilogy from Show of Force, Sky and Ground is screening on November 12 at 6:45 at the SVA Theatre and November 16 at 10:15 am at IFC Center, followed by Q&As with Tibbon, Bennett, and producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre.
MIRACLE ON 42ND STREET (Alice Elliott, 2017)
333 West 23rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Saturday, November 11, $19, 1:30
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)
If you’ve been watching The Deuce on HBO, you have a pretty good idea of what the Times Square area was like in the 1970s, a haven for drugs, prostitution, massage parlors, and pornography. A few blocks west was the dangerous area known as Hell’s Kitchen, which had a history of gang violence and other troubles. But in the mid-1970s, Richard Ravitch and HRH Construction began building Manhattan Plaza, two commercial skyscrapers, more than forty floors each, a project aiming to revitalize the neighborhood by bringing in upwardly mobile people. But the recession, urban blight, and the lack of interest in moving into the area stopped the building in its tracks until someone — it is still argued exactly who — came up with the idea to transform Manhattan Plaza into an arts community, offering low-income housing to qualified performers working in the Theater District, Times Square, and other parts of the city. Oscar-nominated producer, cowriter, and director Alice Elliott recounts the story of Manhattan Plaza in Miracle on 42nd Street, which is having its world premiere November 11 at the DOC NYC film festival. Situated between Forty-Second and Forty-Third Streets and Ninth and Tenth Avenues, Manhattan Plaza has been home to a vast array of artists, from Tennessee Williams and Dexter Gordon to James Earl Jones and Mickey Rourke; seventy percent of the rooms are allocated for artists on a limited income, with fifteen percent for the elderly and the disabled and fifteen percent for neighborhood residents. Elliott speaks with such actors, musicians, and comedians as Larry David, Alicia Keys, Giancarlo Esposito, Angela Lansbury, Donald Faison, Estelle Parsons, Terrence Howard, and Kenny Kramer, all of whom lived in Manhattan Plaza, as well as Samuel L. Jackson, who worked the night shift there as a security guard. (Two of the producers, Mary Jo Slater and Nancy McLeod Perkins, were also longtime Manhattan Plaza residents.)
They all speak fondly of the welcoming atmosphere that helped them hone their crafts. “For as much as I could have a sense of community, there was a sense of community at Manhattan Plaza,” notes David, who lived across the hall from Kramer; their relationship formed the basis for the Seinfeld characters George Costanza, Jerry Seinfeld, and Cosmo Kramer. “That building raised me,” Faison says. Lansbury calls it a “wonderful sociological experiment.” And Howard adds, “That place nurtured my dreams.” Meanwhile, the behind-the scenes development of the project and history of the location are recalled in interviews with longtime director of operations Richard Hunnings, Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, former assistant NYPD chief Mickey Schwartz, operations director Rodney Kirk, former NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, 42nd St. Development Corp. founder Fred Papert, and builder Irving Fischer, who proudly says, “This wasn’t just a place to live; it was a community. . . . Manhattan Plaza revitalized the center of the city.” The interviews, some of which were conducted more than five years ago, are intercut with archival footage of New York City streets and Mayors John Lindsay and Abe Beame, along with clips from a 1978 Manhattan Plaza talent night in which David and Kramer both performed. Elliott (The Collector of Bedford Street. Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy) cowrote the film with Joal Ryan and Steve Ryfle; unfortunately, narrator Chazz Palminteri never finds the proper rhythm of the text, regularly emphasizing the wrong words. The sixty-eight-minute film also shows how the idea spread to other cities, where arts-based housing helped rebuild neighborhoods, but in today’s financial climate, it’s hard to imagine any more Manhattan Plaza–like projects popping up in the city. Miracle on 42nd Street is screening November 11 at 1:30 at the SVA Theatre and will be followed by a Q&A with Elliott, Parsons, Palminteri, and Kramer. In addition, the film will be preceded by Lucy Walker’s five-minute short, Oh, What a Beautiful Symphony (A City Symphony).
MOLE MAN (Guy Fiorita, 2017)
Friday, November 10, Cinépolis Chelsea, 260 West Twenty-Third St. at Eighth Ave., 212-691-5519, $19, 7:30
Monday, November 13, IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St., $12, 12:15
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)
After appearing on a 2010 episode of the History Channel series American Pickers, Ron Heist gained cult status for the massive structure he had been building in his parents’ large backyard in Butler, Pennsylvania, since 1965. The director of that episode, Guy Fiorita, has now made the bittersweet documentary Mole Man, a fascinating look inside the life and times of a unique man. Born in 1950, Ron has been obsessed with building things since he was a child. Now sixty-seven, toothless, and usually wearing a dark hoodie, Ron has constructed twenty-five buildings and twenty-three cellars linked by narrow passageways on his family’s property. He built it all by hand and by himself, scavenging items from more than seven hundred abandoned homes and factories, many of which had been left vacant following the closing of the Pullman Standard railcar plant in 1982. He refuses to use nails or mortar or even a level, relying on his own feel and intuition. He gets on his motorcycle, puts on his helmet, and meanders through the woods until he finds these houses, then brings back wood, doors, window frames, cinder blocks, chests, and whatever else he can fit on the back of his bike, as well as balls, plungers, clocks, license plates, and other items he collects. “People shouldn’t be as wasteful,” he says while showing off some treasures he has just found. Ron was always different, and his father, Chuck, treated him special; but the film’s real subject is Ron’s prospects: following the recent death of his father, Ron is left with his ninety-year-old mother, Mary, and his future becomes doubtful. The family, including Ron’s brother, Tim, and sister, Christine, who love Ron dearly, think that their mother would be better off in a smaller home, and they don’t have enough money to maintain the house. Meanwhile, they finally get Ron tested by a therapist to confirm that he has autism — he was previously diagnosed as “mentally challenged,” as were many of a lost generation of undiagnosed adults with the condition — and might be eligible for certain health benefits, although they worry about what might happen to Ron if he has to live elsewhere. “His routine, his environment . . . that’s his safety zone,” Tim says. But when Ron tells three of his friends, Sean Burke, Mike, and his cousin-in-law, John Burkert, that he knows where the Piney Mansion is, they believe they might find more than enough valuable objects, particularly some old, classic cars, to keep Ron living at home, so off into the woods they go, on a rather difficult journey. “To see Ron pulled out of that place, I think, would kill him, plain and simple,” John explains. “I just don’t think he’d want to live anymore.”
Ron is an endearing, eminently likable character. He has a childlike enthusiasm and even somewhat resembles a taller version of the Mole Men from the 1951 Superman film, although that’s not where he got his nickname from. “He loves being the Mole Man,” Burkert says. Like many people with autism, he has trouble holding conversations unless it’s on a subject that interests him, like time, numbers, construction, and scavenging. People naturally are drawn to his love of life and his dedication to his ever-expanding living quarters, although safety issues are a growing concern. Fiorita never exploits Ron, instead celebrating his individuality while also recognizing that Ron’s immediate future is at risk. Mole Man is having its world premiere at DOC NYC on November 10 and 13, with Fiorita, producers Cassidy Hartmann and James DeJulio, and some of the film’s subjects participating in postscreening Q&As. DOC NYC runs November 9 to 16 at Cinepolis Chelsea, the SVA Theatre, and IFC Center, with more than 150 features and shorts, by such documentarians as Barbara Kopple, Errol Morris, Laura Poitras, and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; the films highlight such diverse figures as Eric Clapton, Curtis Sliwa, Lorraine Hansberry, Sammy Davis Jr., and David Bowie in addition to exploring many contemporary sociocultural issues from around the world.
Who: Lambert Wilson
What: Film intro and screening, staged concert
Where: French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves., 212-355-6160
When: Monday, November 6, $14, 7:30, and Tuesday, November 7, $50, 7:30
Why: Six-time César nominee Lambert Wilson will be at FIAF this week for a pair of special events. On November 6 at 7:30, the French star of such films as Rendez-vous, Of Gods and Men, and Private Fears in Public Places will introduce the New York premiere of his latest movie, Nicolas Silhol’s Corporate, about human resources, redundancy, and resignation. On November 7 at 7:30, Wilson will pay tribute to his idol with the staged concert “Lambert Wilson Sings Yves Montand,” using songs performed from Montand’s repertoire to tell the life story of the elegant French-Italian actor and crooner. In addition, Wilson has curated the CinéSalon series “Actor’s Choice: Lambert Wilson & Yves Montand,” which runs Tuesdays from November 14 to December 19 and includes such films as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Philippe Le Guay’s Bicycling with Molière, Costa Gavras’s Z, and Jérôme Salle’s The Odyssey.
THE SQUARE (Ruben Östlund, 2017)
IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St. 212-924-7771
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St. at Amsterdam Ave., 212-875-5601
The plot of Ruben Östlund’s 2014 absurdist satire, Force Majeure, turns on a man’s momentary act of surprising cowardice when an avalanche threatens him and his family at a ski resort. In the Swedish writer-director’s latest film, the Palme d’Or-winning absurdist satire The Square, the plot is set in motion when a man’s momentary act of surprising bravery leads him into a spiral of personal and professional chaos. The Tesla-driving chief curator of the fictional X-Royal contemporary art museum in Sweden, Christian (Claes Bang) is walking through a busy plaza when he hears a woman crying for help as bystanders do nothing. After his initial hesitation, Christian intervenes and is ultimately quite pleased with himself and his decision to do the right thing — until, a few moments later, he realizes he’s been robbed. Back at the museum, Christian listens to a pair of millennial marketers pitching their campaign for the institution’s upcoming exhibit, “The Square,” which is highlighted by a four-meter-by-four-meter square positioned on the cobblestones in the museum’s front courtyard. An accompanying plaque reads, “‘The Square’ is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” As the museum contemplates a cutting-edge ad campaign for the exhibit, Christian has to deal with an arts journalist, an angry kid, the museum board, and his own moral decisions.
The film opens as Christian is being interviewed by Ann (Elisabeth Moss) in a gallery, in front of a neon wall sign that says, “You have nothing.” Later, the sign says, “You have everything.” This dichotomy is central to Christian’s inner dilemma; he seemingly does have everything, but his world is slowly shattering, just like the artworks heard crashing to the ground later while he is in a deep personal discussion with Ann. Östlund skewers the art world, political correctness, class conflict, freedom of speech, privileged social groups, and the concept of “safe spaces” in the film, which was inspired by a real exhibition by Östlund and producer Kalle Boman that ran at the Vandalorum Museum in Sweden in 2015. Immediately following the opening interview, which reveals Ann has no feel whatsoever for contemporary art, workers remove the statue of King Karl XIV Johan that stands in front of the museum; on the base is his royal motto, “The love of the people my reward.” As the monument is being taken off its plinth, the crane drops it and the king’s head falls off. “The Square” takes its place, signaling the old being replaced by the new, physical objects replaced by lofty ideals, with an utter disregard for what has come before. Östlund (Involuntary, Play) is not above making such obvious analogies and references, including naming his protagonist Christian, a man who spends much of the film attempting to do what he considers the right thing. (Östlund, who also edited the film with Jacob Secher Schulsinger, has said that “The Square” installation is a place where the Golden Rule and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should take precedence.)
The film focuses on the issue of trust, and particularly how humans lose their ability to have faith in others as they mature. At the entrance to the “Square” installation, visitors are given the option of deciding between two paths, one marked “I Trust People,” the other “I Mistrust People.” Christian’s two daughters both take the former. The older daughter is a cheerleader, showing trust in her teammates as the girls are tossed high in the air and wait to be caught — but not without several men hovering right behind them to try to prevent any possible falls. The difference between childhood and adulthood is also evident in how Christian deals with a determined young boy in trouble because of the divorced curator. Bang is stoic as Christian, a man who feels more at home among works of art than with other people. He wants so desperately to be good, but it’s getting harder and harder to make the right decision in the current politically correct atmosphere, and he is so self-absorbed that he even fights over possession of a used condom, in one of the film’s most bizarrely comic moments. Those choices come to the fore in two wildly uncomfortable scenes involving an American artist named Julian (Dominic West), first at a public Q&A where he is bedeviled by an audience member with Tourette syndrome, and later at a gala fundraiser where a bare-chested performer (motion-capture actor Terry Notary) moves around the luxurious room, acting like an ape, but as he begins breaking physical and socially acceptable boundaries, no one knows how to react. (His acting like an ape is in direct contrast to Ann’s roommate, an ape who is far more civilized and is never commented on.) Both situations frustrate the viewer as well, as we are as hamstrung as the people in the film, all of us experiencing the bystander effect together. And the mood is further joyfully complicated by the lighthearted, satiric music. Despite a few minor missteps, The Square is a searingly intelligent exploration, and condemnation, of where humanity stands as a society in the twenty-first century, fearful of our every move, searching for that imaginary safe space where we can live and breathe freely with our fellow beings, consequences be damned.
ALONG FOR THE RIDE (Nick Ebeling, 2017)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Opens Friday, November 3
Just about everyone who has ever seen Easy Rider has imagined themselves on a bike, rumbling across the country with Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), experiencing whatever comes their way. Newark native Satya de la Manitou did more than that, becoming Hopper’s friend and right-hand man for more than forty years. Their intimate and crazy friendship is told in Nick Ebeling’s debut feature documentary, Along for the Ride, which opens today at Metrograph. It would take quite a character to have spent that much time with Hopper — and live to tell about it — and Satya is just that kind of human being, a tough but sensitive, direct, bold man who leads a wild journey into Hopper’s creative process and personal demons. Ebeling follows Satya as he visits with Hopper’s brother, David; actors Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell, and Michael Madsen (who reads a poem he wrote about Dennis); producers Danny Selznick, Lawrence Schiller, and Fred Caruso; directors Philippe Mora, Wim Wenders, and David Lynch; artists Ed Ruscha and Julian Schnabel and gallerist Tony Shafrazi; musicians and composers Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett (of GORILLAZ) and Mark Mothersbaugh (of DEVO); and architect Frank Gehry, who sheds a tear when talking about Dennis. Together, they provide a fascinating look into the depth of Hopper’s abilities as an actor, director, photographer, art lover, drug user, and center of attention. “He did everything well, like most geniuses do,” Satya explains.
Ebeling, who wrote the film with A. P. Menzies and photographed it with Randy Wedick and editor Danny Reams, weaves between stunning archival footage that goes behind the scenes of such Hopper directorial efforts as the controversial The Last Movie, Out of the Blue, Colors, and Easy Rider and his roles in Apocalypse Now, and Blue Velvet and new, starkly shot black-and-white interviews with Satya as he speaks right into the camera, digs through boxes and boxes of unlabeled paraphernalia, and gets comfortable with Hopper’s friends, family, and colleagues. The killer soundtrack is by Gemma Thompson of Savages, making you feel you’re right there in the middle of all this wonderful strangeness. Satya himself is a larger-than-life figure, with a dynamic presence, distinctive voice, and inner peace and joy that make it simple to understand why the eccentric Hopper was drawn to him, and why Satya was drawn to Hopper. “Dennis was like a precious gem, and a gem needs to be polished to attain its true brilliance,” Satya says. Hopper died in 2010 at the age of seventy-four; Satya has given his friend quite a fond farewell with this sweet film. Ebeling, Satya, and producer Sheri Timmons will participate in a Q&A after the 7:00 show on November 3. In conjunction with the theatrical release of Along for the Ride, Metrograph is presenting “Directed by Hopper,” consisting of The Last Movie, Out of the Blue, Colors, The Hot Spot, and Easy Rider.
YOURSELF AND YOURS (Hong Sang-soo, 2016)
Museum of the Moving Image
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Saturday, November 4, $15, 5:00
Festival runs November 3-5
“Don’t try to know everything,” Min-jung (Lee Yoo-young) says in Hong Sang-soo’s latest unusual and brilliant romantic drama, Yourself and Yours. It’s impossible to know everything that happens in Hong’s films, which set fiction against reality, laying bare cinematic narrative techniques. With a propensity to use protagonists who are directors, it is often difficult to tell what is happening in the film vs. the film-within-the-film. He also repeats scenes with slight differences, calling into question the storytelling nature of cinema as well as real life, in which there are no do-overs. In the marvelous Yourself and Yours, scenes don’t repeat, although the existence of a main character might. Min-jung is in a relationship with painter Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk), who is dealing with the failing health of his mother when he is told by a friend (Kim Eui-sung) that Min-jung was seen in a bar drunk and arguing with another man. Young-soo refuses to believe it, since he and Min-jung are facing her drinking problem by very carefully limiting the number of drinks she has when she goes out with him. But when the friend insists that numerous people have seen her in bars with other men and imbibing heavily, Young-soo confronts her, and she virulently defends herself, claiming that they are lies and that he should have more faith in her. She leaves him, and over the next several days she has encounters with various men, but she appears to be either a pathological liar or have a memory problem as she tells the older Jaeyoung (Kwon Hae-hyo), a friend of Min-jung’s, that she is a twin who does not know the painter; later, with filmmaker Sangwon (Yu Jun-sang), she maintains that they have never met despite his assertion that they have. Through it all, Young-soo is determined to win her back. “I want to love each day with my loved one, and then die,” he explains with romantic fervor. He also acknowledges Min-jung’s uniqueness: “Her mind itself is extraordinary,” he says.
Yourself and Yours is an intelligent and witty exploration of fear and trust, built around a beautiful young woman who might or might not be lying, as she seems to reboot every time she meets a man, erasing her recent past. Lee (Late Spring, The Treacherous) is outstanding as Min-jung, keeping the audience on edge as to just what might be going through her “extraordinary” mind. Kim (Lovers in Prague, My Wife Got Married) plays Young-soo with just the right amount of worry and trepidation. As with most Hong films (The Day He Arrives, Oki’s Movie, Like You Know It All, Right Now, Wrong Then), there is a natural flow to the narrative, with long shots of characters just sitting around talking, smoking, and drinking — albeit primarily beer in this case rather than soju — with minimal camera movement courtesy of regular Hong cinematographer Park Hong-yeol (Hahaha, Our Sunhi), save for Hong’s trademark awkward zooms. There’s also an overtly cute romantic comedy score by Dalpalan to keep things light amid all the seriousness. Hong continually works on his scripts, so the actors generally get their lines the day of the shoot, adding to the normal, everyday feel of the performances. Many writers have compared the film to Luis Buñuel’s grand finale, 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire, in which Carole Bouquet and Angelina Molina alternate playing a flamenco dancer, postulating that there are numerous Min-jungs wandering around town, a series of doppelgängers hanging out in bars. That’s not the way I saw it at all (and at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Hong denied it was a direct influence); instead, I see it as one Min-jung, dealing with the endless aspects of relationships, and one Young-soo, an artist who desperately wants to believe in true love and who does not want to be alone, particularly with his mother on her deathbed. There’s the smallest of cues near the end that explains it all, but I’m not about to give that away. And I’m not sure how much it even matters, as regardless of how many Min-jungs might populate this fictional world, Hong has crafted another mesmerizing and mysterious look at love and romance as only he can. The film is screening November 4 at the Museum of Moving Image as part of the New York Korean Film Festival, presented with the Korea Society and running November 3-5 with such other films as Park Kwang-hyun’s Fabricated City, Shin Dong-il’s Come, Together, and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, which will be followed by a live video call with Bong, moderated by Simon Abrams.