Tag Archives: Alex Ross Perry

Review Roundup: QUEEN OF EARTH and THE MEND

Here are reviews of two of my favorite American indies — Queen of Earth and The Mend — to turn up in Chicago in 2015. These capsules originally appeared at Cine-File in September.


Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH (New American)
Rating: 8.5

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that there is no landscape more wondrous than that of the human face. In a much-remarked upon shot in LISTEN UP PHILIP, Alex Ross Perry’s formidable previous film, the camera held on Elisabeth Moss’s visage in close-up as she silently ran through a gamut of emotions, a single long take that constituted a welcome interlude of radical empathy in a film otherwise deliberately brimming with unpleasantness. In a way, QUEEN OF EARTH, Perry’s fourth and best feature to date, picks up where that shot in PHILIP left off: with an extraordinarily gripping close-up of Moss’s tear-stained, mascara-smeared face, as her character, Catherine, confronts her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), about his infidelity in the immediate wake of her father’s suicide. This double whammy of misfortune soon sends the New York City-bred Catherine packing for a lakeside retreat with her childhood friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston) in order to take stock of her life and perhaps engage in a little female bonding. Things don’t go according to plan, however, as Catherine slowly becomes mentally unglued over the course of a week’s ostensible “R & R.” While large swaths of this film’s dialogue would not have felt out of place in either of Perry’s previous two films, acerbic comedies marked by extremely literary screenplays (2014’s LISTEN UP PHILIP and 2011’s THE COLOR WHEEL), the particular context of who is speaking to whom, and where, pushes the content here into a very different and welcome direction–the realm of psychological horror. While Perry freely assimilates influences from both the “high” (e.g., PERSONA, REPULSION, etc.) and “low” (e.g., CARNIVAL OF SOULS, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, etc.) ends of the cinematic spectrum, QUEEN OF EARTH resonates not because it’s any kind of post-modern pastiche but because of what it has to say about real-world human psychology. In particular, Perry taps into universal fears and anxieties about class privilege and nepotism (with the epithet of “spoiled brat” being pointedly hurled back and forth between the female leads). Ultimate interpretations will vary wildly from viewer to viewer (Are the main characters two halves of a single personality? Are the “present-day” scenes a twisted revenge fantasy being projected by Ginny at the conclusion of the “flashbacks?”); I suggest catching a matinee with a friend and afterwards doing coffee, over which you may want to extensively theorize about What It All Means. Director Alex Ross Perry and Producer Joe Swanberg in person at the 7 and 9:30pm Saturday screenings. (2015, 90 min, DCP Digital) MGS

John Magary’s THE MEND (New American)
Rating: 8.6

There are aspects of THE MEND that will seem familiar to anyone acquainted with the microbudget American filmmaking scene of the 2010s: the New York City-apartment locations, the white thirty-something urban professional characters, naturalistic dialogue and acting, and a near-plotless series of caustically funny scenes examining the tensions that arise between lovers, friends, and siblings. This is also precisely why any attempts to describe this first feature by writer/director John Magary make it difficult to convey how much it distinguishes itself through formal mastery and narrative ingenuity. From the controlled chaos of the opening scene–a daringly elliptical and fast-paced montage depicting the protagonist, Mat (Josh Lucas), first fucking then fighting with his girlfriend, Andrea (Lucy Owen), immediately after wrestling on the couch with her pre-adolescent son, Ronnie (Cory Nichols)–THE MEND establishes itself as a film of uncommon originality and aesthetic diversity. Like Arnaud Desplechin, a director he admires, Magary resorts to nearly every stylistic trick in the book in order to best aid the atmosphere of a given scene–an “anything goes” approach that sees him alternating between handheld camerawork and smooth tracking shots, long takes and brisk cutting, irising in and out (as in a silent film), and peppering the action with a seemingly incongruous, dissonant orchestral score (the kind that Mathieu Chabrol used to compose for his father Claude), which lends this ostensible comedy/drama the flavor of a thriller and makes nearly every scene seem full of potential violence. Of course, there’s nothing inherently virtuous about such a crazy-quilt mixture of moods and stylistic flourishes but the approach is wholly appropriate when applied to this particular subject matter: the competitive, occasionally toxic, love/hate relationship between two brothers. The older brother, the asshole-ish Mat, is a mooching, couch-surfing hipster with vague plans to incorporate his “web design” business. The younger brother, Alan (Stephen Plunkett), is a burgeoning yuppie with his own apartment and fiancé, who would appear to have his life together. Much of the fun to be had in watching THE MEND comes from observing the expert performances of Lucas and Plunkett, who infinitely complicate the initial impressions their characters make even as the film studiously avoids anything resembling a conventional resolution. (2014, 111 min, Unconfirmed Format) MGS



Queen of Earth / The Mend at Cine-File


Over the past two weeks, I’ve reviewed two exceptional new independent American films for Cine-File Chicago: Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, which continues at the Music Box Theatre (for its second week) through Thursday, and John Magary’s The Mend, which opened at the Facets Cinematheque Friday and also runs through Thursday. Both films focus on “unlikable” central characters but distinguish themselves from other recent indie fare through superb lead performances and by each director’s unusually ambitious and accomplished sense of aesthetics: Perry’s movie was beautifully shot on 16mm film by the great young D.P. Sean Price Williams and Magary goes bananas with his Arnaud Desplechin-like “whatever works” grab-bag of styles.

You can read my review of Queen of Earth here.

You can read my review of The Mend here.

Random thought: I recently noted that those who’ve seen both Love and Mercy and Straight Outta Compton may wonder when it became a rule for biopics of musicians to feature Paul Giamatti in a bad hairpiece. In a similar vein, those who see The Mend after Frances Ha may want to know why everyone wants to ejaculate on poor Mickey Sumner’s face.

Filmmaker Interview: Alex Ross Perry

Alex Ross Perry is a prodigiously talented writer/director who, having completely four feature films, already has an estimable body of work under his belt at just 31-years-old. Coming out of the microbudget independent American filmmaking scene, each of Perry’s movies has been more ambitious and complex than the last. Following 2013’s excellent Jason Schwartzman-starring Listen Up Philip, a lot of critics thought they had the young filmmaker pegged as a creator of highly literate, acerbic comedies but Perry surprised many when his latest, Queen of Earth, debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in January. It’s old-school psychological art-horror that echoes Polanski’s Repulsion and Bergman’s Persona in its story of childhood friends (Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston) who find their relationship tested when they vacation together at a lakeside retreat. I recently spoke to Perry about the film by phone.


MGS: Queen of Earth is being described as a “left turn” for you. Was it born from a desire to do something different from what people might expect or are you not that self-conscious about it while you’re doing it?

ARP: I’m sure I would be if I felt the need to be for a minute but, basically, what we’re doing is just about how to keep the collaborators that I enjoy working with stimulated. And giving them something to do that, for me, as a fan of their work . . . I want to see these people whose work I think is the best do things that I haven’t seen them do before. So a lot of it kind of starts from there.

MGS: Robert Altman was a director I thought of while watching Queen of Earth. Not that it reminds me of anything he did specifically but there’s a sense that, when he was making all those great films in the 1970s, each film was his own highly personal and perversely revisionist take on a different genre. When I saw Queen of Earth I thought “This is an amazing psychological thriller. I could see this guy making a musical or a film noir or a western.” Would you ever be interested in making your version of, say, a western?

ARP: Ideally, I would eventually come up with an exciting and relevant and unique-to-me idea for every genre that I like. I’ve never even had a glimpse of an idea for something like that that was remotely personal to me or unique. Of course, at some point I would love to have that idea. We were talking about Robert Altman’s Images when we were making this movie as this great example of a bizarre left turn for a director that’s sort of derided at the time and that over the years grows in reputation to the point that it’s elevated alongside that other work. And, you know, of course the similarities really reveal themselves as the years pass and the filmography gets more and more rich. And then, you know, there was a Robert Altman series here in New York in December and January right when I was in the middle of editing this. That really is a director who you can’t talk about detached from the large group of repeating collaborators and the fact that each movie — including the myriad unsuccessful movies that he made that are clearly just from a point of exploring something different and getting all of his favorite actors together — he clearly had a lot of his favorite actors always ready to come and just do something for a few weeks and then seeing what they’ll go for. And most of the time it’s not very interesting and some of the time it’s very good and then once in a while it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a pretty good thing to aspire to and he’s kind of the king of that — for Americans at least.


MGS: Elisabeth Moss is phenomenal in this. How much do you think the effectiveness of her performance is the result of the fact that you two had collaborated before?

ARP: If you asked her she would say a lot or almost entirely. She’s been making movies and acting in television since she was five or six-years-old but this was the first time that she’s made a second movie with the same director. Obviously she worked with a lot of repeat directors for various other projects. But this was the first ever theatrical film that was made with someone who she’s done that with before. And it was something she’d never done in terms of the performance and the character and the tone of the movie. And I think there’s just a lot of protection against embarrassment and failure on both of our parts. Which is what I feel having made four films with the same cinematographer (Sean Price Williams) and many other key crew members: she’s now welcomed into that kind of fraternity of, you know, just the whole thing about wanting to impress these people. Nobody wants to say “We made this one movie. It was great and we all were really happy and then we made another one and it just wasn’t there that time. So it was clearly a fluke and not a lifelong collaboration.” No one ever wants to feel that way. And she doesn’t want to be saying “We made a movie and then immediately we made another one and I didn’t deliver and then we never made a third one because you were wrong about how far outside of my own comfort zone I could go. I’m sorry that this one didn’t work out.” So it becomes this fun challenge of just wanting to impress and please and entertain these collaborators who you respect. And, you know, I would’ve felt very ridiculous asking a performer who I had less familiarity with to bear with me and explore some of the ideas that were in this movie. And I don’t know if that performer would’ve felt comfortable delivering that. She was very adamant that a lot of the things in this movie she just would’ve felt very embarrassed if she were doing them not only for a director who she hadn’t already had a successful collaboration with but in front of a cameraman and a crew that she didn’t already know by their first names and enjoy laughing with and going out to dinner with. We all sort of had that dynamic, which was really helpful.

MGS: In terms of having her go to places that are maybe more emotionally raw?

ARP: Yeah, and just freer. Emotionally raw is of course the nature of this film but mostly it’s just this sort of uninhibited sense of discovery and exploration that we were all able to bring together. That was definitely my idea in making the movie. I learned on Listen Up Philip what value these wonderful professional actors can bring and how many ideas they have about what they’re doing and it became very important to make sure that this film was structured in a way that there was breathing room for all of those moments to be brought in by the performers at all times.


MGS: Katherine Waterston is also really excellent. This is her first film since Inherent Vice so I feel like I have to ask: were you nervous at all about being the first person to direct her after Paul Thomas Anderson?

ARP: Well, no, I hadn’t seen the movie yet so I had no sense of what it would be like. I was excited and clearly it made me feel like there was a certain sense of unification of, you know, the kind of performer that you understand why it’s accessible to be so excited about them and to be so excited about what they’re doing. But, yeah, we wrapped about five days before the premiere of Inherent Vice at the New York Film Festival. So I went and saw it there after we had made this movie. I felt very excited then. It was kind of a joke that I was making so that everyone else felt a little bit comfortable. We were shooting the movie right before the New York Film Festival. Patrick Fugit was in Opening Night with Gone Girl and she was in the Centerpiece with Inherent Vice. The fact that we had these two actors on set who were going right from our movie to promoting Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson films that they were very well represented in and ultimately received very good reviews for — it was very funny that these two actors worked with these kind of titans. And then me and Lizzie made our own little movie. She has no movie with a titan. She has Listen Up Philip and then these other performers had their Fincher and PTA movies . . . I made a lot of jokes at my own expense about that. And, you know, it’s just all part of the process. The fun thing about that is that actors like that can go the distance and when Katherine goes and does the Sorkin Steve Jobs movie, there’s just a different amount of leeway with what you can do with the script on a movie like that than what we were able to offer. And that’s why I think a lot of actors enjoy coming to do movies like this. It’s not the only thing anybody wants to do but it’s a fun way to satisfy a different set of creative urges than would be satisfied on something like a Fincher or a Sorkin movie.

MGS: Because they have more freedom or they’re allowed to stretch a little bit more if they’re in a film like yours?

ARP: I think so. I mean, I’m sure if you’re a great actor you stretch in everything you feel passionate about. But it’s just less intense. It feels less like going to work, I would imagine, because we don’t have any sense of professional decorum. There’s really nowhere for anyone to go so everyone’s just kind of hanging out. The crew is only about a dozen people and we’re all just going to the same diner every night together and having a meal after we wrap. So that kind of low-stakes camaraderie does tend to inspire actors to get a little bit more liberated with some of their ideas — because this is a film where both actresses could say to me “Hey, I’ve got a really out-of-left-field idea of something to do in this scene. Do you want me to tell you it or do you just want to see it while we’re filming?” And that’s not a question you can ask on most movie sets. And my answer to that is always “Yeah, I’ll just see it, don’t tell me it.” And I think just being able to even be in a working environment where that question is not only welcome but encouraged is really a liberating place for actors to be in.


MGS: That’s really interesting. Can you think of an example on Queen of Earth where you were surprised in a good way during a take that ended up in the finished film?

ARP: Um, at this point it would be hard for me to remember exactly what we planned and what I was surprised by but . . . one moment in the script, it just says “Catherine is in bed zoning out and we sit with her for a minute.” And that’s probably all that was written. And we did it a few times with like a 50-second zoom, moving the whole time, getting tighter and tighter. And then it wasn’t even until the fourth or fifth time I watched the footage that I was like “She doesn’t blink in any of these takes.” We did this three times and that’s three times where she doesn’t blink for a minute. That was a pretty astonishing surprise. There’s a lot of stuff like that. The surprises are less in the footage because I was right there while we were filming but, working with Elisabeth before, I know there’s a lot of tiny modulations in her performance, that even if you’re in the room they don’t necessarily register because she’s acting for the camera. She’s giving little tidbits of performance to the camera that don’t even really register if you’re not as close to her as the lens is. And then discovering that in the footage and then making sure it’s well represented in the film is really the fun of working with her.

MGS: I’d like to ask you about the production design, which was my favorite aspect of the film. It’s hard to tell when the film is taking place because everything about the sets and the props and the clothing makes it seem like it could be taking place at any point between the 1970s and the present day. For example, the cordless phone has an obvious narrative function but it has an aesthetic function as well. What was your intention in creating this feeling of timelessness?

ARP: Well, a version of that is what we’ve done on every movie now. The cordless phone on this was kind of an improvement on the technology in Listen Up Philip where the phones are not even cordless. Having a giant, blocky cordless phone was our step into the modern age. But you’d be surprised about the mileage you can get from stripping all the modern stuff out of a room and replacing it with the sort of stuff that recalls whatever era you grew up in. Because it’s really not that complicated. It’s certainly easier than creating an accurate, up-to-date modern aesthetic. Unless you’re shooting in the Apple store. And then it sort of easily and efficiently conveys a sense of timelessness that, combined with a shooting style of shooting on film, really just gives people a lot to hold onto. This just comes from having made a handful of small movies where you’re very limited by what resources you actually have access to. So it’s easier to come into a house and get rid of the television and get rid of the internet router and get rid of the computer than it is to go in the other direction. And if you leave a television there, then it looks like nothing. It looks like a house. And if you get rid of it, then everyone who pays attention says what you just said. And now you’ve created a displaced sense of time that leaves people wondering during the movie a lot of the right questions, such as “Does it matter when this is taking place?” or, more accurately, “What am I supposed to be feeling about the fact that I don’t really know that?”


Queen of Earth opens in theaters and On Demand on August 26. Chicagoans can catch a preview at Elevated Films’ rooftop screening this Wednesday, August 12, after which Perry will participate in a Skype Q&A.

Odds and Ends

Matthew McConnaughey in Bernie – DVD.


I was happy to that see the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Matthew McConaughey their Best Supporting Actor award of 2012 not just for Steven Soderbergh’s surprise hit Magic Mike but also for Richard Linklater’s less commercially successful — and criminally underrated — Bernie. Ever since I saw it (and capsule reviewed it) last summer, Bernie has only grown in my esteem; it’s the American film I’ve thought about the most this year and it will be the highest rated American movie on my forthcoming Top Ten Films of 2012 list. It wasn’t until I recently revisited Bernie on DVD, however, that I came to truly appreciate the slyness and subtlety of McConaughey’s crucial supporting turn. When viewers are first introduced to McConaughey’s character, small town District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, it seems as though McConaughey is hamming it up unmercifully with his use of “air quotations” and his whispering of the phrase “closet homosexuals.” As the film progresses though, we start to see that it is Danny Buck (whose modus operandi includes outrageous P.R. stunts in order to capture wanted criminals) who is the ham. Notice the difference between Danny Buck’s demeanor in the faux-documentary scenes where he is directly addressing the camera versus the more objective scenes where he is interacting with the citizens of Carthage, Texas, to see how carefully modulated McConaughey’s performance is. The real highpoint of the performance comes later though; once the film shifts from a black comedy about a small town murder into an electrifying courtroom drama, McConaughey, like Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, suggests that his character’s folksy persona is something of a put-on in order to successfully manipulate the jury. Danny Buck intentionally mispronounces “Les Miserables” and then goads Jack Black’s title murderer into acknowledging that white wine pairs well with fish. Bernie ends up coming off as a pretentious aesthete in front of a jury of hicks and we, the audience, realize that this yokel D.A. is, well, really kind of brilliant, after all. Just like the movie.

The Color Wheel (Perry, USA) – On Demand / Rating: 8.0

This character-driven road trip/comedy, about a pair of constantly bickering siblings, has more genuine laughs than any American indie I’ve seen in years. J.R. (Carlen Altman) is an aspiring television news anchor who convinces her estranged younger brother Colin (director Alex Ross Perry) to accompany her on a short road trip to help her retrieve some belongings after she is dumped by her college professor/boyfriend. The humor in the witty and verbose script (co-written by Altman and Perry) consistently hinges on social awkwardness and embarrassment, featuring behavior that ranges from the unpleasant to the downright nasty. The chemistry between the leads is consistently amusing — think golden age of Hollywood screwball comedy by way of Perry’s acknowledged hero Phillip Roth — even as the tone radically shifts from the broadly farcical to the more subtle and naturalistic. In a lean 83 minutes, Perry proves to not only be a smart filmmaker but also one of uncommon ambition; this was shot on good old-fashioned, grainy, black-and-white 16mm film stock and the nearly 10-minute long-take climax struck me as both unexpectedly devastating and, in its emotional violence, worthy of John Cassavetes. I cracked up throughout the film and then the end somehow made me feel like crying. My hat is off to you, Mr. Perry and Ms. Altman. If there were any justice, The Color Wheel would be nominated not just for Independent Spirit Awards but Oscars. But there isn’t and so it won’t be.

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