GREGORY CREWDSON: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Photography fans who missed “Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters” when it screened a few months ago at the National Gallery of Art missed a treat. But Ben Shapiro’s 2012 documentary profiling the contemporary artist, now available on demand, is not just for photo buffs. Crewdson’s large-scale, emotionally charged narratives — which he orchestrates like a film director — also evoke history painting and cinema, especially the work of filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch.
They’re like single-frame movies, moments frozen in time.
Shapiro follows Crewdson as he works on “Beneath the Roses,” an eight-year project involving a series of moody, obsessively staged tableaus that the artist shot with the trappings, crew and budget more commonly associated with filmmaking. It was, in fact, originally conceived as a film. On a sound stage and on location in western Massachusetts, Crewdson is shown working, in a process that often requires a cherry picker, police enforced road closures, dozens of lights, smoke and fog machines, costumes, props, and even a “script” of sorts. Before a single picture is shot, Crewdson and his collaborators, who include a director of photography and production designer, spend hours scouting locations, storyboarding and then writing out, in meticulous detail, exactly the visual and emotional effect that they hope to achieve.
As Melissa Harris, editor of Aperture magazine, puts it, Crewdson’s work — which sells for up to $125,000 a print — is “marvelously obsessive.”
But the film explores more than the artist’s methods. Through interviews with friends, collaborators, former teachers, critics and art-world colleagues, Shapiro offers insight into what Crewdson is trying to say with his art, which typically evokes intense feelings of regret, abandonment and failure, as well as great mystery and beauty. Most revealingly, Crewdson himself talks about his aesthetic influences, anxieties and family background, including his early consideration of a career as a psychoanalyst, like his father.
“Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters” is, like its subject’s work, a richly detailed, psychologically complex portrait. -- M.O.
Unrated. Contains obscenity and brief nudity. 77 minutes. “Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters” is available through Amazon Instant, iTunes and Netflix.
The 2011 Slamdance grand jury prize winner “Stranger Things,” which became available on digital platforms last month, is one of those quiet, exquisitely crafted chamber pieces that is too easily lost in the crowded theatrical marketplace and deserves to find safe harbor in a viewer’s laptop or television screen. A mesmerizing portrait of two grieving, dispossessed people finding common ground against England’s gorgeous East Sussex seaside, Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal’s feature debut is an uncommon love story, less about romance than the fine web of compassion that supports and defines spiritual grace.
Bridget Collins, making her screen debut, portrays Oona, a young woman who has come to her windswept childhood home in order to clear it out after the death of her mother. When she crosses paths with Mani (Adeel Akhtar), they embark on an initially strained but eventually intimate friendship, all the more unexpected for their relative silence around one another.
Burke films her protagonists’ faces — as well as the rich natural world that surrounds them — with discrete, observant sensitivity, allowing their stories to unfold at an unforced pace that leaves most conventional questions unanswered. By the time “Stranger Things” reaches its slow-building conclusion, viewers may be astonished at how much they feel they know about these characters, and how invested they are in their well-being.
The unspoken emotional connections that run through “Stranger Things” are difficult to pull off, but the filmmakers have found actors expressive and courageous enough simply to let moments pass with only their faces (and, in Akhtar’s case, bottomless brown eyes) to do the talking. And, for all its spare, clear-eyed simplicity, “Stranger Things” generates a surprising degree of suspense. Burke and Eyal, however, are too ambitious to settle for mere setups and payoffs. In their assured, wise hands, “Stranger Things” feels less like a story than a prayer, one that provides its own unpretentious but utterly transcendent answer. -- A.H.
Unrated. Contains brief smoking. 77 minutes. “Stranger Things” is available through iTunes, Amazon Instant, Xbox and VUDU.
If the television show “Girls” has garnered attention for depicting sex as an often unpleasant and awkward pastime, the movie “Gayby” does one better: It manages to drain every last drop of lust out of its sex scenes. Granted, writer-director Jonathan Lisecki has a good reason, given that the pillow talkers are a gay man and a straight woman, whose impetus to get busy is all business; they’re just trying to procreate “the old-fashioned way.” And it has all the eroticism of an ATM transaction.
Yoga instructor Jenn (Jenn Harris) and her gay best friend, comic book writer and seller Matt (Matthew Wilkas), have discussed having a baby together since they were in college. Now in their 30s, Matt doesn’t balk when Jenn asks, over text message, if he’s ready. He does seem a little shocked how she wants to go about it, however. One thing is certain: They plan to raise the baby together.
Outside of the pair’s nightly efforts, life goes on, and that means work woes, familial discord, Internet dating, recovering from a break-up and — oops! — unintentionally sleeping with another person, which has the potential to complicate paternity.
Even as the self-involved Jenn acts outlandishly on occasion, there’s something delightfully straightforward about “Gayby.” Lisecki doesn’t rely on fancy camera work or double-meanings. And the actors rein in their performances, which compensates when ridiculous things are pouring from their mouths. (Interestingly, the most over-the-top performance comes from Lisecki himself, as Matt’s friend Nelson.)
The likable Wilkas and Harris are joined by an impressive cast of supporting players, all with spot-on comic timing, including Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky (of the aforementioned “Girls”), “Psych” star Dule Hill and Sarita Choudhury, who plays an herbalist prescribing some electrifying elixirs.
For a movie that revels in crass material, “Gayby” is an unexpectedly sweet and feel-good comedy. The sex between Jenn and Matt may not be fiery, but their friendship generates its own warm glow. -- S.M.
Unrated. Contains obscenity, mature themes and sex scenes. 89 minutes. Available through Amazon Instant, Netflix and iTunes.