Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: June 2017

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Writer/director Kirsten Tan and Bong the elephant on the set of Pop Aye, 2016.

Here are twenty-three new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this June, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

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JUNE 2: Band Aid (dir. Zoe Lister-Jones) (DP: Hillary Spera)Sundance Film Festival synopsis: “Married couple Anna and Ben fight constantly. It doesn’t help that they’ve each come to a standstill in their careers, or that, together, they’ve suffered a heartbreak neither wants to face. But one day they come up with a brilliant idea they actually agree on: Why not start a band and use their arguments as songwriting inspiration? Almost as soon as they dig out their old electric guitars from the garage, their musical partnership starts to jell, but it soon becomes apparent this is only a temporary distraction from their real problems.

“Debut feature director Zoe Lister-Jones, who also writes and stars in Band Aid, offers an honest, intelligent, and hilarious perspective on modern relationships. Carefully observed and cleverly conceived, the film hinges on the undeniable chemistry between Adam Pally and Lister-Jones—not to mention they make a delightful indie pop duo (along with Fred Armisen on drums). Together they create a moving and comedic portrayal of a couple in denial of their pain, and who have to heal separately in order to move forward.”

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JUNE 2: Letters from Baghdad (dirs. Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Letters from Baghdad is the story of a true original—Gertrude Bell—sometimes called the ‘female’ Lawrence of Arabia. Voiced and executive produced by Academy award winning actor Tilda Swinton, the documentary tells the dramatic story of this British spy, explorer and political powerhouse. Bell traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence to help draw the borders of Iraq after WWI. Using never-seen-before footage of the region, the film chronicles Bell’s extraordinary journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British male colonial power. With unique access to documents from the Iraq National Library and Archive and Gertrude Bell’s own 1600 letters, the story is told entirely in the words of the players of the day, excerpted verbatim from intimate letters, private diaries and secret communiqués. It is a unique look at both a remarkable woman and the tangled history of Iraq. The film takes us into a past that is eerily current.”

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JUNE 2: Sámi Blood (dir. Amanda Kernell) (DPs: Sophia Olsson and Petrus Sjövik)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Steve Gravestock: “Amanda Kernell’s powerful feature debut Sámi Blood explores the Scandinavian variant of a shameful practice employed by self-proclaimed ‘civilized’ (i.e., white) nations around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries: the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their parents, homes, and traditional lifestyles and forced integration into an educational system that taught them that their customs and lifestyles were inferior at best.

“Kernell’s heroine Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) is a teenage Sámi girl in the 1930s who is sent to a boarding school that is intended to raise its Indigenous charges to a level ‘acceptable’ to the rest of Swedish society. (These schools even allowed phrenologists, the pseudo-scientists of the day, to study the Sámi children in order to identify which traits distinguished them from ‘regular’ Swedes.)

“Curious and excited, Elle Marja at first excels in her new surroundings, mastering the Swedish language and her other lessons while her younger sister, Njenna, struggles. But this very success, coupled with Elle Marja’s intense desire to be accepted by her teachers, her internalization of the school’s vile lessons about race and class, and her burgeoning sexuality, soon drives a wedge between her and her fellow students, forcing her to take an action she may not have the opportunity to regret.

Sámi Blood has all the anger and indignation one should expect from a drama centred on such appalling events — events that should by now be all too familiar to Canadians, given the belated apology from the Harper government for Canada’s residential schools system. But with Kernell’s nuanced direction and Sparrok’s devastating performance, it’s also a brilliant character study, showing how this kind of officially sanctioned abuse insidiously attacks the minds of its victims as well as their bodies. Reminiscent of Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Alanis Obomsawin’s work, Sámi Blood is driven by righteous rage, psychological acuity, and a profound empathy.”

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JUNE 2: Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins)Warner Bros. synopsis:Wonder Woman hits movie theaters around the world this summer when Gal Gadot returns as the title character in the epic action-adventure from director Patty Jenkins (Monster, AMC’s The Killing). Joining Gadot in the international cast are Chris Pine (the Star Trek films), Robin Wright (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Netflix’s House of Cards), Danny Huston (Clash of the Titans, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), David Thewlis (the Harry Potter films, The Theory of Everything), Connie Nielsen (Fox’s The Following, Gladiator), Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In), Ewen Bremner (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Snowpiercer), Lucy Davis (Shaun of the Dead, FX’s Better Things), Lisa Loven Kongsli (upcoming Ashes in the Snow), Eugene Brave Rock (AMC’s Hell on Wheels) and Saïd Taghmaoui (American Hustle).

“Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers…and her true destiny.

“Patty Jenkins directs the film from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, based on characters from DC. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston. The film is produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder and Richard Suckle, with Stephen Jones, Geoff Johns, Jon Berg, Wesley Coller and Rebecca Steel Roven serving as executive producers.”

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JUNE 7: Ascent (dir. Fiona Tan)Film Forum synopsis: “Mount Fuji, still an active volcano, has long inspired artists with its dramatically symmetrical snow-capped cone, its intimations of danger, and its historical/political role in Japanese consciousness. Dutch artist Fiona Tan, clearly under the influence of Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, draws upon more than 4000 images of the iconic mountain. In both English and Japanese (she speaks English, actor Hiroki Hasegawa speaks Japanese), the film muses upon history, mythology, aesthetics, and geology – plus love and grief, Godzilla and Van Gogh, the role of the cherry blossom, and much else. This is an experimental movie in the best sense – a creative fusion of words and images, historical and contemporary thought, and Eastern and Western philosophy.”

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JUNE 9: As Good as You (dir. Heather de Michele)Queens World Film Festival synopsis: “Jo’s (Laura Heisler) world is thrown into utter disarray when her wife Amanda passes away. Her cozy domestic life shattered, her writing career tossed aside, Jo desperately starts chasing a dream that she and Amanda had once shared – starting a family together. Jo asks her late wife’s brother, Jamie to be her sperm donor. Craziness ensues, in the form of a visit to the fertility clinic’s psychologist (Annie Potts), and a love triangle with her two best friends, Nate (a straight man with his own tragic past–played by Raoul Bhaneja) and Lisa (Jo’s best friend, a lesbian punk photographer and bar owner–played by Anna Fitzwater). As Good as You is a human-scale, character-driven film set in a sleepy, safe Los Angeles; it’s a serious comedy about trying to grieve the right way, and maybe growing up a bit in the process.”

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JUNE 9: Megan Leavey (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)Bleecker Street Media synopsis:Megan Leavey is based on the true life story of a young Marine Corporal (Kate Mara) whose unique discipline and bond with her military combat dog saved many lives during their deployment in Iraq. When she is assigned to clean up the K9 unit after a disciplinary hearing, Leavey identifies with a particularly aggressive dog, Rex, and is given the chance to train him. Over the course of their service, Megan and Rex completed more than 100 missions until an IED explosion injures them, putting their fate in jeopardy. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) from a screenplay by Pamela Gray and Annie Mumolo & Tim Lovestedt, the film also stars Edie Falco, Ramón Rodríguez, Bradley Whitford, and Common.”

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JUNE 9: Raising Bertie (dir. Margaret Byrne)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Set in Bertie County, a rural African American-led community in Eastern North Carolina, Raising Bertie takes audiences deep into the emotional lives of three boys – Reginald ‘Junior’ Askew, David ‘Bud’ Perry, and Davonte ‘Dada’ Harrell – over six-years as they come of age. This powerful vérité film produced by Chicago’s internationally acclaimed Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), Raising Bertie movingly weaves the young men’s stories together as they try to define their identities, interconnecting narratives of family, youthful innocence, first love, systemic racism, educational inequity, poverty and unemployment, and the will to succeed in the face of formidable odds.

“Rural minorities like the youth in Bertie represent some of the nation’s most vulnerable and least visible individuals, existing at that critical juncture of rural disenfranchisement and the achievement gap for young people of color. Rural child poverty rates continue to rise while poverty rates for minorities in rural areas are nearly three times that of rural whites. Despite this, the national media and educational reform movement have focused primarily on the needs of urban and non-rural youth, largely ignoring this vital segment of America. This is particularly troubling considering that rural areas provide most of our food, house most of our prisoners, and provide a large number of our armed personnel.

Raising Bertie is an experience that asks us to see this world through their eyes, inciting recognition of lives and communities too often ignored. Intimate access provides a unique longitudinal observation of the everyday, and what happens in the lives of young people caught in the complex interplay of generational poverty, economic isolation, educational inequity, and race.”

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JUNE 14: Moka (dir. Frédéric Mermoud) (DP: Irina Lubtchansky)Seattle International Film Festival synopsis: “Along the shores of Lake Geneva, a fire is raging. Diane (Emmanuelle Devos, Coco Before Chanel) is grieving, her son the victim of a fatal hit-and-run accident seven months prior. With the police no closer to identifying a suspect and her marriage in shambles, Diane enlists the help of a private detective, who tracks down the make and model of the car—a mocha-colored SL 1972 Mercedes—that permanently altered her family’s life. Diane travels across the Swiss-French border with a list of owners of this rare automobile, finally settling on Marlene (Nathalie Baye, Day for Night) and Michel (David Clavel), a well-to-do Evian couple who fit the sole witness’ description perfectly. With her prey in sight, a pistol in hand, and revenge her sole remaining instinct, Diane carefully, methodically invades the couple’s seemingly comfortable life, waiting for the right moment to strike. Devos and Baye, two renowned veterans of French cinema, share the screen for the first time, going toe-to-toe in this slow-burning psychological thriller of obsession, paranoia, and unbreakable maternal instinct, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay and handled with Highsmith/Hitchcockian panache by Swiss director Frédéric Mermoud (Les Revenants).”

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JUNE 16: From Hollywood to Rose (dirs. Liz Graham and Matt Jacobs)Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “Margaret Thatcher is frequently credited with having claimed that anybody who rides on a bus after the age of 26 is a failure. Liz Graham and Matt Jacobs’ film is full of people making excuses for being on buses. They don’t normally travel this way, they insist. They can’t deny using buses because those are the places where they meet and get talking as one bedraggled middle aged woman (Eve Annenberg) makes her way through Los Angeles at night with make-up smeared all over her face, wearing an increasingly tattered wedding gown.

“Mysterious as the Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill, but a lot less glamorous, this tired and confused woman might be invisible to her fellow passengers if it were not for her dress. Everybody wants to know her story but, with the exception of one determined child, nobody wants to ask. Instead they talk around the subject or simply talk about themselves. They talk about their failed relationships, their thwarted ambitions, the mothers who don’t understand them and the lizard people sending telepathic messages from the centre of the Earth. Jewish, Chinese, trans and geek stereotypes abound but are acknowledged as such – sometimes, rather glumly, by those who embody them – and there’s a sweetness about the rendering of all the characters that goes a long way. The film sends the message that what matters is not whom one jokes about but the nature of the jokes.

“Nobody seems a more obvious target for cruel jokes than the poor bedraggled Bride, and her obvious vulnerability gives her the power of immunity through excess, bringing out the best in people (to the point where they sometimes confess the worst). Along the way she proves to have a depth and complexity nobody really expects, giving us glimpses of a much bigger story and forming unexpected friendships. There’s also a showdown with a woman who recognises her that’s straight out of Jerry Springer territory but is given comedic weight by its context, with nonplussed onlookers unsure of the proper way to react.

“Although the film is notably free of characters who insist they’re really actors, there’s a lot of satire here that’s very much focused on LA, and people who know the city will get more out of it. That said, the simple story and well-drawn characters have universal appeal, and the quietness of the film, the dryness of much of its humour, brings something different to situations that would normally be played in full-on wacky style. There’s an edge to Annenberg’s performance that suggests depths of despair just out of sight, and it’s this that lets the film get away with its positivity without becoming too sugary.

“A warm-hearted and thoughtful little film, From Hollywood to Rose travels along a familiar route but lets you appreciate what there is to observe along the way.”

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JUNE 16 (NYC), JUNE 23 (LA): Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All (dirs. John Griesser, Jean Griesser and Lauren Ross)Illuminate Film Festival synopsis:Hare Krishna! is a documentary on the life of Srila Prabhupada – the 70-year-old Indian Swami who arrived in America without support or money in the turbulent 1960s. With his unflinching determination and faith, he ignited the worldwide spiritual phenomenon, known as the Hare Krishna movement.

“Suddenly thrust into the raging countercultural scene, Prabhupada speaks of the world’s real need – a revolution in consciousness. He teaches that the way to find real happiness is by going within and connecting to your true self. This universal message resonates with more and more people, including musician George Harrison whose hit song ‘My Sweet Lord’ features the Hare Krishna chant. From there, Prabhupada’s movement explodes!

“This is the true story of an unexpected, prolific, and controversial revolutionary whose books have sold over 520 million copies and has inspired millions of seekers and yoga enthusiasts worldwide. Using never-before-seen archival verite, his own recorded words and interviews with his early followers, the film takes the audience behind-the-scenes of this infamous movement to meet the Swami who started it all.”

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JUNE 16: Lost in Paris (dirs. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon) (DPs: Claire Childeric and Jean-Christophe Leforestier)From IndieWire’s Telluride Film Festival review by Eric Kohn: “No modern comedy group has shown as much commitment to resurrecting the spirit of classic slapstick than Brussels-based husband-and-wife comedy duo Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon. They have performed for decades, but only brought their talents into feature-length filmmaking in the last 10 years, with films like the wordless Rumba and The Fairy showcasing their commitment to a humor otherwise absent from contemporary cinema. Their lanky figures are ideal vessels for deadpan visuals that mine territory ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Jacques Tati. Lost in Paris, their fourth effort (and first without co-director Bruno Romy), continues that earnest commitment to the genre by tapping into the material’s appeal without reinventing it.

“Abel and Gordon have yet to produce a full-bodied work with more originality than references, and Lost in Paris doesn’t move the needle in that regard. But it’s another charming doodle that does justice to their brand of studied humor. The pair blends storybook visuals with a stream of clever gags and oodles of pathos to deliver an infectious romance almost too eager to please at every turn.

“While the appearance of French screen legend Emmanuelle Riva in a supporting role suggests the filmmakers are moving beyond their own antics, Lost in Paris predominantly belongs to Abel and Gordon, once again playing would-be lovers in an eccentric story filled with bizarre turns. It starts with Fiona (per usual, the couple uses their real names) living in a remote, frozen region of northern Canada that looks like something out of Wes Anderson’s toychest, where the wind blows all the locals around the room whenever someone opens the door. It’s here that she receives a desperate note from her senile Aunt Martha (Riva), complaining that a nurse has been attempting to lock her away in a retirement home. On a whim, Fiona heads to Paris — all it takes is a gentle push out of the snowy frame from one of her peers, and she’s arrived in the big city — and promptly falls into the conundrum of the title.

“Fiona’s a walking punchline from the moment she gets to town, wandering the streets with an oversized red backpack sporting a tiny Canadian flag, but the humor turns melancholic when she finds her aunt’s apartment empty and she has nowhere to go. Things only get worse: she tumbles into the Seine on more than one occasion, loses her passport and her cash, and gains a pesky stalker in the process. That would be Dom (Abel), a Chaplinesque tramp who lives by the river and instantly falls for Fiona after he comes across her missing belongings. But even after offering his assistance to find her missing aunt, she’s mortified by his grimy, streetwise ways, although his persistence pays off.

Lost in Paris becomes a gentle romance about awkward loners with a shared tendency for disaster-prone antics, but the flimsy plot of Lost in Paris provides an excuse for Abel and Gordon to unleash their visual humor, which at best mimics Tati’s ability to turn the surrounding environment into a character itself. The couple’s initial courtship begins in one of the more prolonged and effective sequences, a clumsy pas de deux at a seaside restaurant where blaring music causes everyone in the room to bounce together to the same beat. Elsewhere, tangents include the disastrous effect of a wayward fishing line, and a cigarette that burns through a newspaper to create a peephole as Dom spies on Abel at a diner. There’s also a few moments of terrific comic suspense, including the threat of an incinerator and a wayward ladder at the top of the Eiffel Tower. No matter its wandering trajectory, Lost in Paris remains unpredictable until the bittersweet end.

“…Abel and Gordon are much better at prolonged jokey setups than narrative coherence, but that speaks to the pastiche they’re committed to offering. Notably, Lost in Paris premiered at the Telluride Film Festival at the same time as La La Land, a sugary nostalgia trip that salutes antiquated musicals in much the same way that Lost in Paris pays tribute to another discarded genre.

“While La La Land recreates the spectacular canvas of classic Hollywood productions, Lost in Paris operates on a more restrained scale. The filmmakers use obvious green screen effects, and swap fancy camerawork for clever angles and playful choreography. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Abel and Gordon keep turning it with their own intimate touch.”

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JUNE 16: Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Michèle Maheux: “Maud Lewis is among the most inspiring figures in Canadian art. Afflicted with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she spent her early life dismissed for what was presumed to be her limited ability. But Lewis’ colourful paintings, made on surfaces ranging from beaverboard to cookie sheets, established her as one of our country’s premier folk artists. Starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, this moving film explores Lewis’ life in all its heartbreak and triumph.

“Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, 1937. Maud Dowley (Hawkins) is stuck living with her unsympathetic aunt. Desperate to break away, she responds to a local fish peddler’s call for a housekeeper. Everett Lewis (Hawke) is disagreeable and initially cruel to Maudie, but the two quickly acknowledge that each is in their own way a social outcast. They need and understand each other. Within weeks, they marry.

“One day a summer resident comes calling. She’s a New Yorker, wears alluring clothing and talks like Katharine Hepburn. She sees something in Maudie’s paintings and commissions one. Suddenly Maudie’s pastime is recognized as having real value. People come from far and wide. Eventually her work will hang in the White House.

“Cinematographer Guy Godfree fills Maudie with majestic images of maritime landscape and light, while director Aisling Walsh focuses on character, drawing performances of emotional complexity and great physical detail from her leads.

“Though set in the past, Maudie speaks to the present in many ways — this is, after all, a tale of a woman asserting herself as a generator of both art and commerce. But it is also a story of the power of creativity to transform a life and touch the soul.”

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JUNE 16: Rough Night (dir. Lucia Aniello)Sony Pictures synopsis: “In Rough Night, an edgy R-rated comedy, five best friends from college (played by Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Zoë Kravitz) reunite 10 years later for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami. Their hard partying takes a hilariously dark turn when they accidentally kill a male stripper. Amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up, they’re ultimately brought closer together when it matters most.”

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JUNE 23: All the Rage (Saved by Sarno) (dirs. Michael Galinsky, David Beilinson and Suki Hawley)DOC NYC synopsis: “Dr. John Sarno takes a radical approach to back pain, instructing patients to focus on repressed emotions as the source. His book Healing Back Pain has been dismissed by peers, but acclaimed by countless readers. Among them are filmmaker Michael Galinsky (Battle for Brooklyn) who takes a first-person approach to exploring the work of Dr. Sarno. Through interviews with Sarno and esteemed patients like Larry David and Howard Stern, the film offers a radical rethink of how we approach health care.”

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JUNE 23: The Bad Batch (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)From The Hollywood Reporter’s Venice Film Festival review by David Rooney: “A savage dystopian fairy tale in which one of the few comforting images is of a makeshift family dining in the desert on a spit-roasted pet bunny, The Bad Batch is another surreally atmospheric post-feminist genre spin from Ana Lily Amirpour. As with the Iranian-American writer-director’s 2014 Sundance discovery, the vampire spaghetti Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the new film is both violent and dreamy — a bewitching fusion of The Road Warrior with Robert Rodriguez-style scorched-earth badassery and a mystical Western strain that tips its hat to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. But those influences notwithstanding, Amirpour creates a world that’s very much her own.

“Running close to two hours, the movie is overlong and not without draggy patches, but it’s sustained enough to keep you watching. And with its depiction of an extraterritorial American wasteland where society’s rejects are dumped to fend for themselves after being tattooed with a ‘bad batch’ number, it’s also a bizarro fantasy that might easily be the hideous result of some kind of demagogical Donald Trump cleanup experiment. Its weirdness alone should guarantee the movie an audience, unlike The Neon Demon, a far more self-indulgent and self-consciously droll recent excursion into genre art that shared scenes of human snack food.

“…A cacophony of announcements at some kind of criminal processing facility reveals that a fresh ‘bad batch’ intake is coming through, and we see Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) being escorted through the gate of a massive metal fence. But this fence is there to keep people out, not in. A sign reads: ‘Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. Hereafter no person within the territory beyond this fence is a resident of the United States of America or shall be acknowledged, recognized or governed by the laws and governing bodies therein. Good luck.’

“Arlen’s luck runs out fast. She barely has time to take shelter from the sun in a wrecked car and freshen her lipstick when she’s abducted by scouts from a nearby cannibal community, who appear out of the sweltering desert blur on a golf buggy. She’s drugged but still conscious enough to watch in horror as they unburden her of a limb or two using a hacksaw, cauterizing the wounds with a fry pan. Down but not defeated, Arlen manages to overpower her captor and escape on a skateboard, picked up half-dead in the desert by a wandering mute hermit (Jim Carrey) with a supermarket shopping cart.

“As an opening act, this is pretty juicy stuff, as lurid and grisly as anything that ever came out of the Italian flesh-eater exploitation wave of the 1970s, though with a far cooler detachment and a delightful playlist of music that ranges from unnerving to sardonic to hallucinogenic. Arlen’s nightmarish ordeal is ushered in by the bouncy early-’90s dance pop of Swedish group Ace of Base’s ‘All That She Wants,’ in the first of many instances of unexpected music choices yielding slyly twisted results. (The film has no actual score, though it features a soupy soundscape, dense with ambient dread.)

“…The Bad Batch looks sensational. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent — he also worked with Amirpour on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as did editor Alix O’Flinn and costumer Natalie O’Brien — gives even the pastels a sinister glow in the vast desert skies over parched, flat ground, at one point whipped by a dust storm. (Shooting, as in Amirpour’s previous film, took place in desert locales around Los Angeles.)

“But the sharpest tool in the movie’s arsenal is its soundtrack, which makes extensive use of sonic duo Darkside, along with tracks from South African hip-hop concept band Die Antwoord, synth-wave exponent Jordan Lieb, who records as Black Light Smoke, indie ambient purveyor Francis Harris, and Portland’s Federale, whose Ennio Morricone-influenced spaghetti Western tracks also were featured in Amirpour’s first film.”

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JUNE 23 (limited release), JUNE 30 (wider release): The Beguiled (dir. Sofia Coppola)From IndieWire‘s Cannes Film Festival review by David Ehrlich: “Ruthlessly shorn from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name (and not remade from the Don Siegel adaptation that first brought its story to the screen), The Beguiled is a lurid, sweltering, and sensationally fun potboiler that doesn’t find [Sofia] Coppola leaving her comfort zone so much as redecorating it with a fresh layer of soft-core scuzz. The year is 1864, the Civil War still rages on despite the outcome growing more certain by the day, and — somewhere amidst the unloved willow trees that surround the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia — seven women of various ages are cooped up in a schoolhouse like chickens waiting to be plucked.

“These are the small handful of students and faculty who remain at the Farnsworth Seminary; the rest of the residents have abandoned the gothic mansion like rats from a sinking ship (including the slaves, who surely took advantage of their captors’ dwindling numbers), leaving behind only those who have nowhere else to go. The girls range in age from minors to matrons, but they all have one thing in common: It’s been a very long time since they’ve seen a man, and even longer since once has been close enough to touch.

“And then, like the answer to a prayer that these devout belles would never dare offer to their Christian God, a man appears. And not just any man, but Colin Farrell. An Irish immigrant who sold his soul to the Union Army for $300, Corporal John McBurney is in urgent need of some tender care. He’s run away from the battlefield with ‘enough iron in his leg to shoe a horse,’ and he’s on the brink of death by the time he’s discovered by the youngest of the Farnsworth females. She escorts him back to the house, where the air stiffens as soon as the soldier is dragged inside.

“Perpetually clenched headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) agrees to care for this uninvited guest, but she’s well aware that he might cause trouble. Trouble from teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning, another Coppola alum), a born rebel in every sense of the word who sweats pure hormones as she stares at the exposed ‘blue-belly’ from across the room. Trouble from Edwina, her teacher, who seems tortured by the same desire that tickles the younger girls. And trouble for Martha herself, who has a little bit too much fun scrubbing her patient down (particularly when her hands wander below his Mason-Dixon Line). John rouses as inevitably as he arouses, but if he thinks that he’s stumbled into a male fantasy, he’ll soon find that this fantasy may not belong to him.

“Shot in Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation House (a location recognizable from the ‘Sorry’ portion of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”) and almost entirely confined to the seminary’s withered interiors, Coppola’s film is told with surgical precision and savage grace. The story reveals itself across a tight 93 minutes — a considerably shorter runtime than that of Siegel’s film — packing all manner of ripe details and intimations into each of its frames.

“The writer-director trims Cullinan’s book down to its bare essentials, cutting out all of the most heightened elements (like incest) so that she could see these girls more clearly and represent their conflicting perspectives with less clutter to get in the way. The result is a movie that sometimes feels too compressed, like a bonsai tree that’s suffered one too many cuts, and the scale of the story can be uncomfortably dwarfed by the depth of its characters, and the performances that bring them to life.

“That’s true for Kidman, the movie star going supernova in her hyper-contained role as a woman who’s torn between lust, envy, and her maternal instincts. And it’s truest of all for Dunst, the most conflicted woman at Farnsworth, who longs for the outside world but is tortured by the messenger it sends her way.”

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JUNE 23: Good Fortune (dirs. Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell)Zurich Film Festival synopsis:Good Fortune is the rags to riches tale of conscious capitalism pioneer John Paul DeJoria. Born with nothing, at times homeless on the streets of LA, ‘JP’ spent his early adulthood in and out of motorcycle gangs only to wheel and deal his way to the top of a vast hair and tequila empire. A modern day Robin Hood, JP’s motto is ‘Success unshared is failure.’ The son of immigrants, JP defies the stereotype of ‘the 1%’ and is the poster boy of the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. A success story full of ups and downs, Good Fortune is the portrait of an extraordinary business man.”

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JUNE 23: In Transit (dirs. Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu)Synopsis from the film’s official website:In Transit journeys into the hearts and minds of everyday passengers aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the busiest long-distance train route in America. Captured in the tradition of Direct Cinema, the film unfolds as a series of interconnected vignettes, ranging from overheard conversations to moments of deep intimacy, in which passengers share their fears, hopes and dreams. In the space between stations, where ‘real life’ is suspended, we are swept into a fleeting community that transcends normal barriers, and where a peculiar atmosphere of contemplation and community develops. To some passengers, the train is flight and salvation, to others it is reckoning and loss. But for all, it is a place for personal reflection and connecting with others they may otherwise never know.”

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JUNE 28: Pop Aye (dir. Kirsten Tan) (DP: Chananun Chotrungroj)Film Forum synopsis: “A man and his elephant walk into a bar: well, not quite — but close. Pop Aye is the story of a successful Bangkok architect whose late-midlife crisis leads him to an encounter with the elephant (Popeye) with whom he spent an idyllic childhood in the Thai countryside. Together they embark on a road trip to deliver both man and beast to their origins. The local police cite him for not having a permit to travel with an elephant; a transgendered prostitute joins him in a karaoke duet at a roadside dive; and a poetic, possibly delusional, pauper offers companionship. But the real star is the big guy: Popeye lumbers along with great dignity and endless fortitude. He is the center of a mysterious, funny and often absurd universe that while seemingly particular to Thailand is, ultimately, not unlike our own.”

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JUNE 30: The Little Hours (dir. Jeff Baena) (DP: Quyen Tran)Sundance Film Festival synopsis: “Medieval nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) lead a simple life in their convent. Their days are spent chafing at monastic routine, spying on one another, and berating the estate’s day laborer. After a particularly vicious insult session drives the peasant away, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings on new hired hand Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord. Introduced to the sisters as a deaf-mute to discourage temptation, Massetto struggles to maintain his cover as the repressed nunnery erupts in a whirlwind of pansexual horniness, substance abuse, and wicked revelry.

“Loaded with comedic talent and written with an off-kilter, yet knowing touch, The Little Hours is an immensely charming romp. Writer/director Jeff Baena’s riotous follow-up to Sundance Film Festival favorites Life After Beth and Joshy has transferred the nervy comedic energy from his earlier work to the Middle Ages with hilarious results.”

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JUNE 30 (theatrical release), JULY 4 (Video on Demand): The Reagan Show (dirs. Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Cara Cusumano: “A Republican president takes office at the height of his Hollywood-powered, camera-ready fame. He governs with lenses constantly flashing, and claims that he’s just the public face in front of real policy-makers and dangerous global threats. That’s the story of America’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan. The movie star, known for playing cowboys and gun-toting heroes, took over the White House in 1981 and led the United States against Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s threats of war. Amidst the actual governing, though, Reagan’s presidency set a new standard for video documentation. Cameras followed Reagan’s every move, leading opposing pundits to accuse him of ‘majoring in public relations’ more so than hardline presidential affairs.

“Comprised entirely of archival footage taken during those pre-reality-television years, The Reagan Show is a highly entertaining and informative look at how Ronald Reagan redefined the look and feel of what it means to be the POTUS. Co-directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s film uncannily provides a fascinating precedent for the made-for-TV President.”

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JUNE 30: 13 Minutes (aka Elser) (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel) (DP: Judith Kaufmann)Lincoln Plaza Cinemas synopsis: “During Hitler’s anniversary speech on November 8, 1939, a man is arrested on the Swiss border for possession of suspicious objects. Just minutes later, a bomb explodes in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller, immediately behind the Führer’s lectern, killing eight people. The man is Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), a carpenter from Königsbronn in the Swabia region. When a map of the site of the assault and detonators are found on him, he is sent to the head of the Criminal Police in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), and the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow) to be questioned. From them, Elser learns that his attempt has failed – that the man he wanted to kill in order to stop the bloodshed of the World War that had just begun, has left the Bürgerbräukeller 13 minutes before the explosion. For days, Elser is interrogated by Nebe and Müller, for days, he holds out against their questions. Until he finally confesses – and relates the story of his deed.”

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: May 2017

Actress Amandla Stenberg and director Stella Meghie on the set of Everything, Everything, 2016.

Here are eighteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this May, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

MAY 3: Mr. Chibbs (dir. Jill Campbell)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “This observational documentary follows NYC basketball prodigy and retired NBA All-Star Kenny Anderson in the midst of a mid-life crisis, on a journey to find himself. Reeling from his mother’s death and a subsequent DUI, Chibbs visits people and arenas from his past, confronting haunting memories, ultimately finding solace in becoming the father he never had time to be. Combining unseen archival footage with raw moments of reflection, Mr. Chibbs is a portrait of an athlete coming to terms with his past as he searches for relevancy in his future.”

MAY 5: Risk (dir. Laura Poitras) (DPs: Kirsten Johnson and Laura Poitras)IFC Center synopsis: “How much of your own life are you willing to risk? Laura Poitras, Academy Award winning director of Citizenfour, returns with her most personal and intimate film to date. Filmed over six years, Risk is a complex and volatile character study that collides with a high stakes election year and its controversial aftermath.

“Cornered in a tiny building for half a decade, Julian Assange is undeterred even as the legal jeopardy he faces threatens to undermine the organization he leads and fracture the movement he inspired. Capturing this story with unprecedented access, Poitras finds herself caught between the motives and contradictions of Assange and his inner circle. In a new world order where a single keystroke can alter history, Risk is a portrait of power, betrayal, truth, and sacrifice. Executive Produced by Sam Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot.”

MAY 5 (NYC and LA), MAY 19 (wider release): 3 Generations (dir. Gaby Dellal)ComingSoon.net synopsis:3 Generations tells the stirring and touching story of a family living under one roof in New York as they must deal with a life-changing transformation by one that ultimately affects them all. Ray (Elle Fanning) is a teenager who has come to the realization that she isn’t meant to be a girl and has decided to transition from female to male. His single mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), must track down Ray’s biological father (Tate Donovan) to get his legal consent to allow Ray’s transition. Dolly (Susan Sarandon), Ray’s lesbian grandmother is having a hard time accepting that she now has a grandson. They must each confront their own identities and learn to embrace change and their strength as a family in order to ultimately find acceptance and understanding.”

MAY 5 (NYC), MAY 12 (LA): Tomorrow Ever After (dir. Ela Thier)Cinema Village synopsis: “Shaina (Ela Thier) lives 600 years in the future. War, greed, prejudice, poverty, pollution, violence, loneliness, depression – these are things that she’s read about in history books. When an accident in a physics experiment sends her on a time-travel journey to our times, she assumes that everyone around her is honest, generous and caring, as she recruits the help that she needs to get back home.”

MAY 10: The Drowning (dir. Bette Gordon)LA Live Regal Cinemas 3 synopsis: “Based on Pat Barker’s book Border Crossing, The Drowning is a psychological thriller that begins as psychologist Tom Seymour (Josh Charles), out walking with his wife Lauren (Julie Stiles), plunges into an icy river to rescue a young man (Avan Jogia) from drowning. Tom’s spontaneous act saves the mans life only to reveal that he is the same boy who was convicted of a chilling murder 12 years earlier, based on Tom’s expert witness testimony. When Danny reappears in Tom’s life, Tom is drawn into a destructive, soul-searching reinvestigation of the case. Complex, riveting and unafraid to tread deep, murky psychological waters, this is a story of shifting identities that will keep you guessing until the very end.”

MAY 12 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Dead Awake (dir. Phillip Guzman) (DP: Dominique Martinez)FilmRise synopsis:Dead Awake centers on Kate Bowman (Jocelin Donahue), a young woman who discovers an ancient evil stalking people who suffer from sleep paralysis. As Kate finds herself besieged by this terrifying entity, she teams up with a local artist (Jesse Bradford) to try and stop it. With a skeptical doctor (Lori Petty) questioning her sanity, Kate turns to an eccentric expert on sleep disorders (Jesse Borrego) who opens her mind to the horrifying truth: Kate has unwittingly opened the door for this evil to enter our world and has put the lives of her friend Linda (Brea Grant), her father (James Eckhouse), and everyone else close to her in danger.”

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MAY 12: Folk Hero & Funny Guy (dir. Jeff Grace) (DP: Nancy Schreiber)New York Times synopsis: “A flailing comedian (Alex Karpovsky) tries to regain his mojo by going on tour with an old friend, a folk-rock musician (Wyatt Russell). Meredith Hagner, Michael Ian Black and Melanie Lynskey also star.”

MAY 12: Paris Can Wait (dir. Eleanor Coppola) (DP: Crystel Fournier)Sony Pictures Classics synopsis: “Eleanor Coppola’s feature film directorial and screenwriting debut at the age of 81 stars Academy Award® nominee Diane Lane as a Hollywood producer’s wife who unexpectedly takes a trip through France, which reawakens her sense of self and her joie de vivre. Anne (Lane) is at a crossroads in her life. Long married to a successfully driven but inattentive movie producer (Alec Baldwin), she finds herself taking a car trip from Cannes to Paris with a business associate of her husband (Arnaud Viard). What should be a seven-hour drive turns into a journey of discovery involving mouthwatering meals, spectacular wines, and picturesque sights.”

MAY 12: Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (dir. Maria Schrader)Excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter’s Locarno International Film Festival review by Boyd van Hoeij: “There is an extraordinary moment in Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (Vor der Morgenroete) in which the titular Jewish-Austrian author, in his late fifties, looks out of a car window in Brazil — he’d been living in exile in the Americas since 1940 — and watches a burning sugarcane field, which viewers can see reflected in the window. Simply an exotic sight? Not quite, as actress-turned-director Maria Schrader’s film isn’t only about the literary icon but at least as much about evoking what’s happening offscreen in Zweig’s beloved Europe, which is going up in flames. The staggering emotional toll not only of living far removed from his physical and intellectual Heimatland but of knowing that it was actually being destroyed in his absence would prompt Zweig and his wife to take their own lives in their home in Petropolis, Brazil, in 1942.

“…Schrader has directed several features before but especially abroad, she’s better known as an actress, most notably as Jaguar from Aimee and Jaguar. For the screenplay of Zweig, she has teamed with writer-director Jan Schomburg, in whose Lose My Self she starred. As seems appropriate for a feature about a writer, their screenplay is really the backbone of the film. What makes their work psychologically insightful and also pack a serious emotional wallop is their smart choice to focus on a handful of specific moments, rather than opting for a more traditional bio-drama structure that tries to cram in a much larger chronology in which depth is often sacrificed for mere incidents.

“There is nothing didactic or too explanatory about Zweig. The filmmakers assume (rightly so) that audiences coming to see a movie about him will be aware, for example, that alongside Thomas Mann, he was the most-read German-language author of the 1920s. As if to underline the point, Schrader doesn’t even bother to show him engaged in that most un-cinematic of activities: writing. Instead, she focuses on the author’s interactions with others — some purely ceremonial, others more intimate, all of them revealing — to help suggest something about both his character and his slowly decaying sense of place in a world where his body, in exile, might be safe but his mind keeps wanting to wander back to a place he knows is being erased from the map.”

MAY 12 (in theaters, on iTunes and Video on Demand): Tracktown (dirs. Alexi Pappas and Jeremy Teicher)The Hollywood Reporter’s LA Film Festival review by Michael Rechtshaffen: “While Olympic Trials don’t usually tend to be the sort of milieu that readily lend themselves to quirky comedy, the engagingly amusing Tracktown quite capably goes the distance.

“Handed its world premiere at the LA Film Festival, the sweet indie, about a driven young competitive runner who is forced to take a rare day off, serves as a sparkling showcase for endearing lead Alexi Pappas, who also splits directing and writing duties with Jeremy Teicher.

“Pappas, herself a long-distance runner who will be competing for Greece in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, plays the role of Plumb Marigold, a 21-year-old hopeful who has devoted most of her Eugene, Oregon, existence to living the track and field dream.

“Spurred on by her similarly obsessed dad (Andy Buckley) and boatloads of quotable affirmations running the gamut from Oprah to Dr. Seuss, Plumb is unmistakably in it to win it, but after twisting her ankle in the middle of her first Olympic Trials, she’s ordered to take a 24-hour break from her strict regime.

“In the process, Plumb briefly gets a taste of the ‘normal’ life she has never known, including pursuing her flirtation with Sawyer (Chase Offerle), the young man who works in the local bakery and finally dealing with her emotionally fragile mother (Rachel Dratch), who now lives with Plumb’s grandparents.

“Although there’s a telltale Juno vibe to the tone of the film, it’s easy to root for this disciplined but naive ‘girl-child,’ especially as portrayed by Pappas, herself a hard-to-resist blend of Audrey Hepburn and Joan Cusack.

“The supporting performances are uniformly appealing while, behind the camera, Pappas’ intense familiarity with the environment is strongly established with various endurance training sequences and daily regimens involving large quantities of protein powder and raw eggs.

“But while Pappas and her writing and directing partner Teicher, who previously directed the 2012 African drama Tall as the Baobab Tree, demonstrate a keen eye and ear for local color, it will be interesting to see where they travel next, beyond the familiarity of this evident comfort zone.”

MAY 12: The Wedding Plan (dir. Rama Burshtein)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Shayna Weingast: “Exhausted by single life at 32, spirited bride-to-be Michal (Noa Koler) is eager for the comfort and companionship of marriage. Then, her fiancé dumps her one month before their wedding. Devastated but undeterred, she decides to keep her wedding date, leaving it to fate to provide a suitable groom.

“With invitations sent, the venue booked, the clock counting down to the big day, and pressure from her family mounting, Michal enlists two matchmakers to help her find Mr. Right. After a series of comically mismatched dates — including with a charming but utterly unsuitable pop star — and many soul-bearing conversations with her sisters, Michal finds she has chemistry with someone she never expected.

“Trailblazing writer-director Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void) returns to the cloistered Orthodox community she knows intimately with this funny and poignant screwball romantic comedy. When it comes to finding love, it’s equal parts luck, determination, and blind faith.”

MAY 19: Everything, Everything (dir. Stella Meghie)Warner Bros. synopsis: “From Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures comes the romantic drama Everything, Everything, directed by Stella Meghie and based on the bestselling book of the same name by Nicola Yoon.

“What if you couldn’t touch anything in the outside world? Never breathe in the fresh air, feel the sun warm your face…or kiss the boy next door? Everything, Everything tells the unlikely love story of Maddy, a smart, curious and imaginative 18-year-old who due to an illness cannot leave the protection of the hermetically sealed environment within her house, and Olly, the boy next door who won’t let that stop them.

“Maddy is desperate to experience the much more stimulating outside world, and the promise of her first romance. Gazing through windows and talking only through texts, she and Olly form a deep bond that leads them to risk everything to be together…even if it means losing everything.

Everything, Everything stars Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) as Maddy and Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) as Olly. The film also stars Ana de la Reguera (Sun Belt Express) and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls).”

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MAY 19: Icaros: A Vision (dirs. Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi)Synopsis/artistic statement from the film’s official website:Her medical options exhausted, an American woman travels to the Amazon in search of a miracle. Thanks to a young Ayahuasca shaman who is losing his eyesight, she learns instead to confront her ‘susto’: the disease of fear.

Icaros: A Vision is a story about fear and the release from fear – the fear of illness and of death, but also the fear of life and living. It’s about the possibility of living through one’s fear – which is what the Amazonian plant Ayahuasca is good at getting you to do. Centered on the nightly ceremonies that are the main feature of shamanic retreats, Icaros revels in darkness, replicating a shamanic journey.

The film mixes in elements of reality. Set in an actual Ayahuasca retreat in Peru, it features real shamans and indigenous non-actors from the Shipibo community, mixed in with western actors. Aspects of the film are based on co-director Leonor Caraballo’s true experiences. She had metastatic breast cancer when the shoot began. Although she dedicated herself to the project until the very end, sadly she died before she could see the film finished.

The film is also driven by the conviction that acknowledging the power of plants is the best way to change the jeopardized future of the Amazon – itself like a dying patient. The exploitation of Shipibo lands and communities by oil and timber companies continues. Over the next 20 years, massive tracts will be destroyed to produce only enough oil to sate U.S. demand for, at the most, two weeks. The men and women who have the knowledge of healing plants are finding few in the younger generation who will cultivate their practices. Thus part of the film’s goal is to bring attention to the work, life and knowledge of the Shipibo Conibo people.

Icaros: A Vision is a filmic tapestry about the meeting of cultures, a West in search of its lost soul and the indigenous Shipibo adapting their expansive practices and unique view of the universe.

Finally, the story takes place in Iquitos, the same town where Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo was shot more than 30 years ago, and the hotel Casa Fitzcarraldo hosts a key scene in the film.

MAY 19: Paint It Black (dir. Amber Tamblyn)Excerpts from The Playlist’s LA Film Festival review by Katie Walsh: “It’s a hungover LA afternoon for Josie (Alia Shawkat), who spent the night moshing off her eyeliner at a punk show, when she receives the call no one ever wants to get. Detectives. A motel. Her phone number. The body’s distinguishing characteristics. With those few words, Josie’s scrappy, dreamy little life crumbles and melts away. Her boyfriend Michael (Rhys Wakefield) has killed himself in a cheap motel in the desert. Any living relatives? A mother.

“Actress and filmmaker Amber Tamblyn makes her directorial debut with the grief-stricken fever dream Paint It Black, written with Ed Dougherty, adapted from the novel by by Janet Fitch. In the lead role, Shawkat turns in an outstanding performance, that along with her turn earlier this year in Green Room, finds the actress stretching her talents beyond comedy. Shawkat’s Josie is a young Angeleno misfit in thrift store leather and ripped tights, wiling away her nights in grimy bars, scraping by with gigs in short films and as a life-drawing model. It’s art class where she meets Michael, a young man possessed of a life of privilege that he doesn’t really want.

“After his death, Josie draws the ire of Michael’s ferocious, patrician mother Meredith (Janet McTeer), a world-famous pianist shut up in a rambling mansion.  Josie and Meredith share a dependency on two things: alcohol and Michael. In the wake of his death, a blame game turns into a tussle over the last remaining vestiges of him — his journals, his artwork, his things.

“Tamblyn brings a bold and creative directorial vision to the aesthetic of Paint it Black. While Josie’s world, out and about on the streets of LA is a desaturated, lo-fi grunge affair, Meredith’s imposing home is a chiaroscuro prison. Josie’s world might be a bit shabby and worn, but it’s lived in and warm. The homey nest she made with Michael is an escape from his mother’s home, which is as uninviting as it is impressive.

“Nevertheless, Josie gets sucked into the black whirlpool of Meredith, as the women go tit for tat over Michael’s belongings, and ultimately develop a strange co-dependency. Josie’s grasp on reality is made tenuous with booze, exhaustion, and Meredith’s torment. The short film shoot in which she plays a dead starlet bleeds into her paranoid nightmares. Her world of rock shows and parties with friends fades away as she becomes more isolated with this woman with whom she shares a strange bond.”

MAY 19 (limited theatrical release), MAY 26 (on Video on Demand): Wakefield (dir. Robin Swicord)Excerpts from IndieWire‘s Telluride Film Festival review by David Ehrlich: “‘What is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you should have to live in it day after day?’ That’s a hell of a thing to hear from a guy like Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), a wealthy Westchester lawyer with a beautiful wife (Jennifer Garner) two healthy teenage daughters, and a house so big that someone could rather comfortably reside in its two-story garage.

“But Howard — whose sniveling inner monologue seeps into almost every moment of the jagged, acidic comedy that shares his name —  isn’t your typical bored white-collar suburbanite. He’s not Lester Burnham, numb with ennui. He’s not Brad Adamson in Little Children, desperate to feel another woman’s touch. He’s just an asshole, one of the most selfish characters you’ll ever see on a movie screen, and it’s a strange pleasure to watch him self-destruct when he realizes that he no longer envies his own life.

“Faithfully adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s 2008 short story of the same name, writer-director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) has crafted a sharp and singularly bitter portrait of man at his worst. Literary to the extreme, Wakefield unfolds like a thought experiment without a hypothesis: One ordinary evening, on his commute home from the city, a power outage inspires Howard to slip away from his life.

“…Swicord is a bold filmmaker (she would have to be in order to reckon with such off-putting source material), and she finds a number of clever ways to enliven Doctorow’s potentially airless text. For one thing, she isn’t afraid to make choices that slyly undercut everything her protagonist says about his situation. When Howard complains about feeling like he’s constantly under his wife’s surveillance, Swicord cuts to his voyeuristic POV. When Howard comes to the conclusion that suburban life is somehow against nature, she ambushes him with one of cinema’s most violent mosquitoes. Howard is a nasty piece of work, and Swicord never makes any excuses for him.”

MAY 24: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (dirs. Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger)Film Society of Lincoln Center synopsis: “In 1984, Wendy Whelan joined the New York City Ballet as an apprentice; by 1991, she had been promoted to Principal Dancer. She quickly became a revered and beloved figure throughout the dance world. Wrote Roslyn Sulcas, ‘her sinewy physicality, her kinetic clarity, and her dramatic, otherworldly intensity have created a quite distinct and unusual identity.’ Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s film follows this extraordinary artist throughout a passage of life that all dancers must face, when she must confront the limitations of her own body and adapt to a different relationship with the art form she loves so madly.”

MAY 26: Berlin Syndrome (dir. Cate Shortland)Curzon Artificial Eye synopsis: “While holidaying in Berlin, Australian photojournalist Clare (Teresa Palmer) meets charismatic local man Andi (Max Riemelt). There is an instant attraction between them, and a night of passion ensues. But what initially appears to be the start of a romance suddenly takes an unexpected and sinister turn when Clare wakes the following morning to discover Andi has left for work and locked her in his apartment. An easy mistake to make, of course, except Andi has no intention of letting her go again.”

MAY 26: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios (dir. Lucy Walker)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “The musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club exposed the world to Cuba’s vibrant culture with their landmark 1997 album. Now, against the backdrop of Cuba’s captivating musical history, hear the band’s story as they reflect on their remarkable careers and the extraordinary circumstances that brought them together.”

The Lens of Fears and Dreams: Michael Ballhaus

German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, most famous for his collaborations with the auteurs Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese, passed away today at age 81. Here are scenes from eleven films (because ten just aren’t enough!) photographed by Ballhaus, unforgettable moments that are forever imprinted in my mind.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). An unhappy actress is fired from a film project after making too many demands; we watch her departure in an extended take that Ballhaus shot inside the boat taking her away from the set. I love the blueness of the water and the soft, golden light on Magdalena Montezuma’s face as she drifts further and further away as an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plays on the soundtrack, before we are abruptly brought back to a scene of the film shoot. Perhaps Fassbinder’s choice of aria, “Il dolce suono,” which depicts the aftermath of Lucia stabbing her husband to death on their wedding night and subsequently fantasizing about marriage to a different man, is applied to Magdalena Montezuma’s farewell scene (trust me, she exhibited tremendous histrionics) by implying that after the bout of madness that destroyed her career opportunity, she can still dream of a brighter future, even if it’s one that probably won’t happen.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). In the first video, Michael Ballhaus discusses his work on Petra von Kant in an interview conducted by the Criterion Collection for a new DVD release of the film in 2015. In the second clip, we see a scene showing the beginning of the first romantic encounter between fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen) and a young protégée, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), who is willing and eager to sleep her way to the top of the modeling world. The ornate costumes were designed by Maja Lemcke, her only film credit according to the IMDb.

Martha (1974, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). One of Fassbinder’s greatest films was produced for TV, a melodrama in the style of Douglas Sirk titled Martha. Margit Carstensen plays the main character, a young woman whose father (Adrian Hoven) dies while they are on vacation in Italy; on the same fateful day, she falls in love with an older man (Karlheinz Böhm), whom she soon marries (with disastrous consequences for her). Fassbinder introduces Böhm’s character and shows the instant attraction in the pair’s first meeting thanks to Ballhaus’s cinematography. The camera rotates hypnotically around the man and woman, a dizzying vision of lust. You’ll also note that the scene ends on a shot of a voyeuristic interloper played by El Hedi ben Salem, who played the male lead opposite Brigitte Mira in Fassbinder’s All That Heaven Allows remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, that same year. Salem was Fassbinder’s on again, off again boyfriend in the 1970s and he eventually committed suicide in a French jail in 1977, having been arrested and convicted of stabbing three people in a bar fight.

Fox and His Friends (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Possibly Fassbinder’s greatest masterpiece, Fox and His Friends is the tragic tale of Franz, a working-class man (played by Fassbinder) whose naive, guileless affection for his wealthy boyfriend, Eugen (Peter Chatel), allows Eugen to manipulate and exploit him. In one memorable segment of the film, Eugen convinces Franz to go on a pleasure trip to Morocco, where the couple pick up a local “guide,” Salem (the aforementioned El Hedi ben Salem). The cinematography in the scene in which Franz and Eugen cruise the “Meeting Place of the Dead” is exquisite, decorating the landscape in bars of light from the wooden slats above the market.

Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Although this clip does not have subtitles, all you need to know is that a cabaret’s emcee (Peter Kern) excitedly introduces a singer’s act (Ingrid Caven), while her new boyfriend (Gottfried John) and her embarrassed mother and brother (Brigitte Mira, Armin Meier) look on. The family considers the performance quite tasteless, given that the family’s patriarch has recently committed suicide; even in the face of personal tragedy, the daughter is too vain and hungry for fame to consider postponing her stage show. Fassbinder loved images of people experiencing shame, frustration and other variations of pain, and this scene is no exception.

Chinese Roulette (1976, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen, playing an estranged husband and wife, embrace in a scene depicted magnificently in one long dolly shot revolving around the two actors. Without dialogue, we get an intense feeling of intimacy from the swirling motions of the camera and the images of the performers’ faces, especially the expressive Margit Carstensen (one of Fassbinder’s favorite leading ladies).

After Hours (1985, dir. Martin Scorsese). Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a word processor who works for a publishing firm in Manhattan, experiences the worst night of his life after he meets an unusual young woman, Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette), in a diner. As the two talk in Marcy’s apartment, Ballhaus keeps the scene minimally lit, but he zooms in on Arquette’s face when she leaves the room, a typically Scorsesean shot which is my favorite in the entire film.

Broadcast News (1987, dir. James L. Brooks). Television producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) leads news anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) through his first live show, a relationship that relies on her ability to direct his “performance” – a role-reversal of the Svengali and Trilby archetypes. Michael Ballhaus nicely conveys the depth of the TV studio, showing the distance and shifting perspectives of characters in the control room and down on the set.

Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese). One of the most celebrated scenes in the history of Martin Scorsese’s career is the unedited shot of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and soon-to-be wife Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco) entering the Copacabana nightclub by way of the kitchen, a handheld shot achieved with the use of a Steadicam. The scene was shot eight times; reportedly, the eighth take is what Scorsese put in the finished film.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Enjoy the lush visual atmosphere of Coppola’s Dracula set: the lighting by Michael Ballhaus, Gary Oldman’s dedicated performance as the title vampire and Winona Ryder’s underrated work as Dracula’s great love, Mina Murray. The beautiful score composed by Wojciech Kilar completes the picture.

Quiz Show (1994, dir. Robert Redford). One of my favorite moments in Quiz Show is the scene in which Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) comes close to revealing to his father, Mark (Paul Scofield), that he has been cheating during his winning streak on the TV quiz show Twenty One. Charles cannot bring himself to admit the sordid truth, though, and the cinematography reflects the metaphorical darkness weighing on Charles’s mind by displaying Mark Van Doren’s private study drenched in shadows. Michael Ballhaus’s use of close-ups, especially as Charles dances on the edge of revealing his secret, draws you in closer to the drama, but I also love the wide shot that the scene ends on, explaining without words that the brief window of opportunity for Charles’s confession has passed.

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: April 2017

Director April Mullen and her all-female crew on the set of Below Her Mouth, 2015.

Here are thirteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this April, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

MARCH 31 (NYC), APRIL 7 (LA): Cézanne et Moi (dir. Danièle Thompson)Landmark Sunshine Cinema synopsis:Cézanne et Moi is the compelling and moving chronicle of the surprising lifelong love/hate relationship between two of the creative geniuses of the 19th century, post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne, Yves Saint Laurent) and novelist Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet, Tell No One). Zola came from a poor family and wrote proletarian novels, but eventually won fame and fortune; Cezanne, the rebellious son of a rich banker, had long years of poverty and struggle as an artist, rejecting society in pursuit of art. They met as schoolboys in Aix-en-Provence, both outcasts, and became best friends; both sought the bright lights of Paris as young men, living life to the fullest. Rebellion and curiosity, hopes and doubts, girls and dreams of glory—they shared it all; yet rivalry and hurt feelings drove them apart. This gorgeous production was shot in part on location in Provence around Montagne Saint-Victoire, memorialized in so many of Cezanne’s paintings. Written and directed by Danièle Thompson (Avenue Montaigne, Jet Lag), an Academy Award nominee for her Cousin Cousine screenplay.”

APRIL 7 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Alive and Kicking (dir. Susan Glatzer)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Alive and Kicking is a feature-length documentary that takes an inside look into the culture of swing dancing and the characters who make it special. We explore the culture surrounding Swing dance from the emergence of the Lindy Hop to the modern day international phenomenon. The film follows the growth of Swing dance from its purely American roots as an art form, to countries all over the world. Alive and Kicking looks at the lives of the Swing dancers themselves to find their personal stories and why this dance fills them with joy.”

APRIL 7: Their Finest (dir. Lone Scherfig)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “Featuring a cast teeming with some of the UK’s most charismatic comedic actors, Bill Nighy and Richard E. Grant among them, Their Finest is about boosting morale in a period of national — and personal — crisis.

“Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a ‘slop’ scriptwriter, charged with bringing a female perspective to war films produced by the British Ministry of Information’s Film Division. Her current project is a feature inspired by stories of British civilians rescuing soldiers after the retreat at Dunkirk. Catrin’s artist husband looks down on her job, despite the fact that it’s paying the rent. At least lead scenarist Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) appreciates her efforts.

“While on location in Devon, Catrin begins to come into her own and earn the respect of her peers. She’s the only crewperson that Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), a past-his-prime yet nonetheless pompous actor, will talk to.

“Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, the film pops with witty banter and flows with lovely period detail. The characters are uniformly textured and the performances nuanced. Nighy is perfectly cast in his endearingly withering role, and Jeremy Irons turns up for a delicious cameo. It is, however, Arterton’s show. She brings subtlety, intelligence, and a range of beautifully gauged emotions to Catrin, whose path to self-renewal is an inspiring example of a talented woman forging her place in the world.”

APRIL 12: Glory (dirs. Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)Film Forum synopsis: “Frank Capra by way of Bulgaria. When a disheveled railroad worker discovers fistfuls of money on some rural train tracks, he turns over the dough to the police. The grateful authorities reward him with a televised ceremony and a new wristwatch to replace his old one (a family heirloom). But the glitzy new watch stops working and the smarmy, workaholic publicist for the Ministry of Transport can’t seem to find his old one. The man’s nonstop attempts to get his beloved old watch back wreak havoc on her efforts to use the heart-warming story of an honest good Samaritan to distract public attention from a burgeoning corruption scandal. A simple premise deepens into an incisive portrait of a bureaucracy riven with cynicism and a government happy to swallow its most idealistic citizens whole. From the directors, and starring the lead actors, of The Lesson, which Film Forum opened in 2015.”

APRIL 14: Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back (dir. Maura Axelrod)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “In the documentary feature Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, filmmaker Maura Axelrod excavates Maurizio Cattelan’s disruptive and indelible career as the art world prankster of our time. Interviewing curators, collectors, art-world luminaries (and even his ex-girlfriends), to build a compelling picture of the conceptual artist and what makes him tick.

“Known best for his shocking photorealistic wax sculpture of Pope John Paul being felled by a meteorite, and of a child-size Hitler kneeling in prayer, Cattelan’s work is often wildly offensive – and yet incredibly popular – selling for tens of millions of dollars at auction.

“The film explores the origins of Cattelan’s work, and delves into the mythology of the famously elusive artist’s personal story as well. And like the best mysteries, viewers emerge from this dizzying journey knowing everything and nothing about a man who, from his professional inception, ushered us into a dazzling hall of mirrors that enchants and perplexes to this day. Maurizio Cattelan shook up the contemporary art world beginning in the late 1980s with a series of action-based installations including his first solo show in Milan, Torno Subito (Be Right Back), in which he padlocked an empty gallery – barring entrance to critics and spectators – and simply hung a sign on the door that read ‘Torno Subito’ or ‘Be Right Back.’

“Over his twenty-year career, Cattelan has continued to provoke and inspire, culminating in an all-encompassing installation and the proclamation of his retirement in 2011. His stunning final exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City features all of his works to date suspended – execution style, as sharper critics described it – from the ceiling of the world-famous museum’s rotunda, encapsulating a brief but meteoric career that Cattelan himself supposedly terminated at the height of his success.”

APRIL 14 (San Francisco), APRIL 21 (NYC and other cities): Tomorrow (dirs. Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Showing solutions, telling a feel-good story… this may be the best way to solve the ecological, economical and social crises that our countries are going through. After a special briefing for the journal Nature announced the possible extinction of a part of mankind before the end of the 21st century, Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, together with a team of four people, carried out an investigation in ten different countries to figure out what may lead to this disaster and above all how to avoid it.

“During their journey, they met the pioneers who are re-inventing agriculture, energy, economy, democracy and education. Joining those concrete and positive actions which are already working, they began to figure out what could be tomorrow’s world…”

APRIL 21: Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (dir. Lydia Tenaglia)Grub Street post by Sierra Tishgart: “Almost a year after debuting at film festivals, executive producer Anthony Bourdain and director Lydia Tenaglia’s documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, will hit theaters next month — premiering in New York and Los Angeles on April 21.

“The film explores Tower’s successful yet mysterious career in cooking: He’s credited by many as a chef who revolutionized cooking in this country, yet his name remains unknown to many people outside the industry. He first made a name for himself at Chez Panisse in 1972, but left after a dispute with owner Alice Waters, eventually opening Stars Restaurant in San Francisco to international acclaim. But after a few years, he left Stars, too. More than two decades later, he returned to professional cooking for a stint at New York’s fabled Tavern on the Green.

“Tower may not get the same recognition as his contemporaries, but as Bourdain explains in the trailer, ‘We should know who changed the world — we should know their names.’ Interviews with Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, and Martha Stewart reinforce Tower’s role as one of the founding fathers of American food.”

APRIL 21: Unforgettable (dir. Denise Di Novi)Warner Bros. synopsis: “Warner Bros. Pictures’ dramatic thriller Unforgettable is the first film in the director’s chair for veteran producer Denise Di Novi (Crazy Stupid Love, Focus). Katherine Heigl (27 Dresses, Knocked Up), Rosario Dawson (the Sin City films) and Geoff Stults (TV’s The Odd Couple) star in the film.

“Tessa Connover (Heigl) is barely coping with the end of her marriage when her ex-husband, David (Stults), becomes happily engaged to Julia Banks (Dawson)—not only bringing Julia into the home they once shared but also into the life of their daughter, Lily. Trying to settle into her new life, Julia believes she has finally met the man of her dreams, the man who can help her put her own troubled past behind her. But Tessa’s jealousy soon takes a pathological turn until she will stop at nothing to turn Julia’s dream into her ultimate nightmare.”

APRIL 26: Obit. (dir. Vanessa Gould)Film Forum synopsis: “When New York Times writer Bruce Weber comes into the office, the first thing he says is: ‘Who’s dead?’ Times editor William McDonald, Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, Paul Vitello, and others appear on screen — very much alive — in Vanessa Gould’s witty, eye-opening inside account of the ‘dead beat’ – the Times’s obituaries desk. According to Grimes, ‘dull, dry, responsible’ copy was once the norm. Today, the paper’s obits are among the best-written, most-read articles, and an ever-fascinating showcase for notable lives and achievements, from Nobel Prize winners to the inventor of the Slinky. Gould lets us in on more than a few secrets: how subjects are ultimately chosen, who merits star placement, who has an ‘advance obit’ (there are 1700 on file, kept under lock and key), and how the Times maintains its vast archive. Sole morgue-keeper Jeff Roth gives us a breathless tour of the paper’s century-old trove of clippings and photographs.”

APRIL 28 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Below Her Mouth (dir. April Mullen) (DP: Maya Bankovic)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Magali Simard: “One of the boldest and sexiest dramas of the year, April Mullen’s Below Her Mouth tells the story of an unexpected romance between two women whose passionate connection changes their lives forever.

“Jasmine (Natalie Krill) is a successful fashion editor living with her fiancé, Rile (Sebastian Pigott). On a night out in the city with her best friend, she meets Dallas (Erika Linder), a roofer recently out of a relationship. Jasmine is taken by surprise when Dallas confidently hits on her; she turns Dallas down, but can’t get her out of her head.

“Dallas continues her cool, self-assured advances. In a matter of days, Jasmine succumbs and the two women embark on a steamy affair. It feels like a fantasy world compared to Jasmine’s life and plans with Rile, but soon reality rears its head, and she will have to face the profound changes their sudden romance has wrought in her.

“Stephanie Fabrizi’s screenplay powerfully and honestly explores what happens when two women fall hard for each other, and Mullen brings the story to the screen with uninhibited flair and assurance, showing us how love can arise from some of the messiest times in our lives.

Below Her Mouth is a rarity in more than one way: it’s a fiction film shot with an entirely female crew, and it’s an uncommonly frank look at the all-encompassing nature of attraction — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the transcendendent.”

APRIL 28: Buster’s Mal Heart (dir. Sarah Adina Smith)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Colin Geddes: “An eccentric mountain man is on the run from the authorities, surviving the winter by breaking into empty vacation homes in a remote community. Regularly calling into radio talk shows — where he has acquired the nickname ‘Buster’ — to rant about the impending dangers of Y2K, he is haunted by visions of being lost at sea, and memories of his former life as a family man.

“Buster (Rami Malek) was once Jonah, a hard-working husband and father whose job as the night-shift concierge at a hotel took its toll on his mood and, consequently, his marriage to the sensitive and long-suffering Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) — until a chance encounter with a conspiracy-obsessed drifter (DJ Qualls) changed the course of their lives forever. As the sad and solitary present-day Buster drifts from house to house and eludes the local sheriff at every turn, we gradually piece together the events that fractured his life and left him alone on top of a snowy mountain, or perhaps in a small rowboat in the middle of a vast ocean — or both.

“Following the found-footage genre twister The Midnight Swim, Sarah Adina Smith’s second feature puts her on another level as a writer and director. Beautiful, enigmatic and elliptical, Buster’s Mal Heart also features a powerful performance from Malek as the silent, broken protagonist. Taking his first big-screen leading role after his starring turn in the hit TV series Mr. Robot, Malek proves here that he’s more than capable of carrying the weight of a feature film.”

APRIL 28 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Casting JonBenét (dir. Kitty Green)Excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance Film Festival review by Leslie Felperin: “Building on an approach to nonfiction storytelling she first explored in the her award-winning short The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green creates something powerful, provocative and dazzlingly original with her second feature documentary, Casting JonBenét. In essence, this sui generis work offers a kaleidoscopic array of personal reactions to the famous 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsay.

“But the interviewees are not people who were directly involved in the case, although some had very tangential connections to the murder. Instead, they are all actors: a mix of professional and non-pro, from in and around Boulder, Colorado (where JonBenét lived and died), auditioning to play the murdered child’s now-deceased mother, Patsy, father, John, brother, Burke and, of course, JonBenét herself, among others.

“Over the course of the film, the participants share not just their own hunches and suspicions about what happened that morning after Christmas, but also personal revelations about themselves and why the case resonates with them so deeply 20 years on. Ultimately, this evolves into a layered meditation on many things — crime and guilt, the exploitation of children and acting itself, to name just a few.

“…The point, however — unlike many of the documentaries about the case over the years, some of which have prompted libel cases from the surviving Ramsey family members — is not to make a definitive argument that this or that person or persons, known or unknown, killed JonBenét. Rather, her tragic death becomes a prism through which the stories and feelings of the actors themselves, and of course our own, are refracted. A man shares how his performance changed between the time he was cast for this film and the time he was called in for the film’s grand finale, because in the intervening time he was diagnosed with cancer. One woman shares how she was sexually abused as a child when she was about JonBenét’s age, while another discusses how her own brother’s murder affects her perspective on the case and her need to bear witness through acting.

“…As did Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Casting JonBenét expands the formal horizons of documentary, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, not to take a particular side, but to question how we can ever know what really happened. It may be about a murder that occurred more than 20 years ago, but on another level it’s a film that feels very much a product of these troubled, post-truth times.”

APRIL 28: Danger Close (dirs. David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud) (DP: Alex Quade)Cinema Village synopsis: “Directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, whose previous work includes the acclaimed military documentaries Citizen Soldier and The Hornet’s Nest. This riveting documentary follows Alex Quade, the only reporter and only female ever embedded long-term with U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) overseas on highly classified combat missions, as she embeds with elite SOF (including the U.S. Army Special Forces or Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy Seals, and CIA clandestine operatives) to tell their stories from the front lines. Danger Close follows Alex as she lives alongside these highly trained forces on some of the most daring missions ever documented in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Friday Music Focus: 3/31/17

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Today we look at six songs connected to cinema and the power of storytelling. Dramatist and composer Neil Brand once described the effect of hearing music in films, which can be a thrilling experience from the moment the lights go down in a theater: “The darkness, the strangers, the anticipation, the warm comfortable embrace of the cinema seat. We’re ready to experience some big emotions, and the minute the music booms out, we are on board for the ride. Human beings are very good at interpreting sound. Right back to when our prehistoric selves will have heard a twig snap in a forest and thought ‘that’s it, I’m dead.’ We have a very deep understanding of what music is doing, and it’s very physical. We can feel it going into our ears via sound waves and it can produce all sorts of physical responses, including in the right circumstances an actual thud to the stomach.”

Francis Monkman, “Main Title” (from the score for the film The Long Good Friday, 1980, dir. John Mackenzie; subsequent scene from same film). Bob Hoskins’ breakout big-screen role was as Harold Shand, the kingpin of the London underworld in The Long Good Friday, director John Mackenzie’s cinematic retelling of Macbeth updated for the gritty early 80s. Regardless of whether you’re keen on the dated musical stylings of composer Francis Monkman, there is no denying that Harold’s introductory scene is the embodiment of cool. Bob Hoskins walks through the airport as though Harold’s theme music were playing in his head.

Jools Holland, “Morse Code” (appears on the album Jools Holland Meets Rock “A” Boogie Billy, 1984; subsequent scene from the film Near Dark, 1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow). From an essay published by Bloody Disgusting: “Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark is something of a companion piece to James Cameron’s Aliens, released one year prior. Granted, the films have nothing to do with one another, but what they do share is a few key cast members – Cameron and Bigelow were dating at the time, and when Aliens wrapped, three actors leapt from outer space to the southwest. Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein, who played Bishop and Vasquez in Aliens, star in the horror-western, but the real star of the show was Bill Paxton, who absolutely stole said show as the vampire Severen.

“…In what is easily one of the horror genre’s very best scenes, our band of villainous antiheroes arrive at a local watering hole; Severen leads the charge as they proceed to make the establishment their own and lay waste to anyone who’s not down with that. Cracking wise, walking across the bar top and kicking ass, Paxton is at his scenery-chewing best in the infamous Near Dark bar sequence, displaying every bit of the screen presence that made him such a beloved entertainer.

“Revisiting the scene today, I realized that it sums up why Bill Paxton has always been one of my favorite actors. Whether he was playing a good guy or a bad guy, making you laugh, cry, or fear for your life, Paxton was always the most likable and charismatic actor in the room; Severen entering the bar and completely taking over is not unlike Paxton’s own screen dominance in the films he was in. In both Aliens and Near Dark, the ensemble casts are stacked from top to bottom with incredible actors, but it was Paxton who managed to shine the brightest – there’s a reason you remember his lines above all else. His was the best character in nearly every single movie he was in, bringing unmatched confidence, charm and personality to each of those roles.”

P.S. Fun fact: the last line in the scene above, which is one of the most famous quotes from Near Dark, was improvised by Bill Paxton.

The Cramps, “Fever” (appears on the album Songs the Lord Taught Us, 1980; subsequent scene from the film Near Dark, 1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow). From an essay published by Digital Spy: “’Finger-lickin’ good!’ howls Severen as he struts and gluts, with [Bill] Paxton’s mesmerising energy perhaps explained by the B12 injection he took prior to shooting in an effort to quash a migraine. We might not see any elongated incisors in Near Dark, but the cast sure sink their teeth into the furniture during this boisterous scene.” (More on that migraine at the beginning of this video interview with Bill Paxton.)

Eddy Dixon, “Relentless” (appears on the soundtrack of the film The Loveless, 1981, dirs. Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery). Watching Near Dark reminded me of how much I love the theme song that plays throughout Kathryn Bigelow’s debut feature film, The Loveless. Listening to “Relentless” again right after Jools Holland and the Cramps, I realize just how much Bigelow must love rockabilly, especially since she gave one of the main acting roles in The Loveless to rockabilly icon Robert Gordon.

Sheryl Crow, “Tomorrow Never Dies” (opening credits sequence from the film Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997, dir. Roger Spottiswoode). Both the film Tomorrow Never Dies and its title theme song by Sheryl Crow have gotten flak over the years for supposedly being lesser offerings from the James Bond franchise. OK, so maybe the movie is mediocre by the series’ standards, but I quite like the tune. It more than meets the requirements for Bondian flair, although Crow’s song is closer in spirit to the laid-back vibe of Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” than to the Sturm und Drang sound of Adele’s “Skyfall.” And anyway, Tomorrow Never Dies (the film, not the song) isn’t totally without merit; I love the scene with Vincent Schiavelli as a German hitman straight out of a comic strip, and I also enjoy the creepy main villain played by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s media mogul, Elliot Carver, is a power-mad billionaire who thrives on the exploitation of the world’s failures, traumas and bloodshed. When the usual gory headlines aren’t enough to satisfy his thirst for tragedy, Carver has his henchmen carry out violent attacks that pit the militaries of several nations against one another. It’s not fake news; it’s real news of Carver’s own design. Do we see any current-day parallels and worrying future eventualities here?

The Passions, “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” (appears on the album Thirty Thousand Feet Over China, 1981). A great song draws you in by telling a compelling story with its lyrics and its music; a really great song hooks you by suggesting an intriguing scenario just by the title alone. Then, when you hear the song: do you muse on who the German film star is, whether he’s a real person? Does it even matter, when you can imagine up your own fantasy based on the dreamy guitar by Clive Timperley and the vocals by Barbara Gogan?

The Passions’ legacy is that of a one-hit wonder band because of “Film Star,” which was the only charting single (it hit #25) of their brief career (they released three albums in the consecutive years of 1980-1982; they disbanded in 1983). Many other post-punk and New Wave bands are better remembered, but few made songs with the timeless staying power of “I’m in Love with a German Film Star.” Listening to it is like being enveloped in the welcoming darkness of a movie theater, maybe a small one like the kind where you might find the German matinee idol’s films playing.

Friday Music Focus: 3/17/17

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While I was putting today’s list of five songs/compositions together, I came across this quote from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan: “People make decisions that may have one intent and yet are somehow perverted into something else. And sometimes it’s because of design. Sometimes it’s because of happenstance. But very often, it’s mysterious to them.” Food for thought.

Bette Davis, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” (scene from the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962, dir. Robert Aldrich). Just in time for the new FX mini-series “Feud: Bette and Joan,” I watched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, featuring Bette Davis’s virtuoso performance as a former child star who grew older but never grew up. Ernest Haller’s stark cinematography makes “Baby Jane” look like a frightening wax figurine of Mary Pickford or some other silent star, a face that seems to be melting under the tonnage of caked-on stage makeup and still-golden ringlets. Simultaneously, Victor Buono, playing Edwin Flagg (the accompanist), offers his own master class in reactions to Jane’s grotesque exhibition.

Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face” (appears on the album Rebel Yell, 1983). Heard last night while walking past a store on Sixth Avenue (the chorus’s “Les yeux sans visage…” line sung by Perri Lister, wafting dreamily out of a speaker); I haven’t thought about this song in ages. I like to think that Billy Idol decided on the title before writing the song, either because he appreciated the 1960 horror film by Georges Franju, or just because it sounded to Idol and co-songwriter Steve Stevens like a cool name for a song. The lyrics don’t exactly connect with the title, but should that matter if the melody is memorable?

Peter Haycock, Derek Holt and Paul Di Franco (film score composers) featuring Eric Gale (guitar), “Closing Credits” (from the end credits of the film One False Move, 1992, dir. Carl Franklin). The year is young, but One False Move is definitely one of the finest films I have seen in 2017. Set in Los Angeles, on the highways of the Southwest and in the small town of Star City, Arkansas, the story combines film noir and Western genre elements in a uniquely blended crime drama that provided Bill Paxton with an excellent leading role (a naive rube of a sheriff who eventually learns that real crime can be vicious and bloody; imagine Fargo, but with a male lead instead of Frances McDormand). The film also granted superb supporting roles to Billy Bob Thornton (who co-wrote the original screenplay), Cynda Williams (who married Billy Bob shortly after filming wrapped in 1990, though they divorced in 1992), Michael Beach (a solid supporting actor for the last thirty years) and Natalie Canerday (who worked with Billy Bob again in Sling Blade, and later played Michael Shannon’s mother in Shotgun Stories).

P.S. If you want an additional endorsement: Gene Siskel gave One False Move the #1 spot on his list of the top ten best films of 1992 (his explanation for his choice starts at the 16:40 mark in the linked video).

Leonard Cohen featuring Sharon Robinson, “Everybody Knows” (appears on the album I’m Your Man, 1988; subsequent scene from the film Exotica, 1994, dir. Atom Egoyan). “Everybody knows, everybody knows/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.” The Exotica nightclub is where the lives of several Toronto citizens intersect: stripper Christina (Mia Kirshner), tax/revenue agent Francis (Bruce Greenwood), rare egg smuggler Thomas (Don McKellar) and club owner Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), as well as other characters who don’t appear in this particular clip – Eric (Elias Koteas), the club emcee who is obsessed with dancer Christina; Francis’s brother Harold (Victor Garber) and niece Tracey (Sarah Polley); the unnamed customs official (Calvin Green) who has a one-night stand with Thomas, putting Thomas’s contraband operation in jeopardy. These characters have messy pasts that have left them damaged psychologically and, in one case, also physically.

Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is a potent cocktail of sensuality and fatalism.  And if one has to perform stripteases in order to make a living, as Christina must do every night for the Exotica clientele, then what better soundtrack for one to disrobe to than the soul-baring songbook of Leonard Cohen?

James Horner, “The Launch” (from the score composed for the film Apollo 13, 1995, dir. Ron Howard). While watching Apollo 13 again and listening to Ron Howard’s commentary track, I was struck by the dignity of James Horner’s score in the scene when the NASA spacecraft embarks on its “successful failure” of a lunar mission. The secret to Horner’s success was his ability to respectfully represent the power of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary feats, especially when they are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Why Did I Just Watch Titanic? Or, Some Thoughts on Grief

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Why did I put myself through the emotional upheaval of watching Titanic last night? What compelled me to sit through 194 minutes of tragic romance (the love story) and romanticized tragedy (everything else happening with the sinking ship)? No one agrees to do such a thing in the year 2017 without knowing how the film ends – knowing that the ship is doomed, knowing how the tale of Jack and Rose concludes – yet I chose to watch anyway. Beginning to end, all the way through; I don’t know if I had ever actually done that, although I had certainly seen numerous famous scenes before, especially in the last third of the film.

For the last week and a half I’ve been doing a movie and TV marathon. I’m watching every project with Bill Paxton that I can find. That means Apollo 13, the new “Training Day” series on CBS, even the somewhat obscure thriller Trespass. (I also watched True Lies again, a movie that I don’t especially care for, what with all the sexism, racism and other stereotypes played for guffaws. Paxton’s performance is fabulous, though, playing a used car salesman so skeevy that it makes complete sense when we hear him blasting the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” on his convertible’s stereo. Wonderful song, but it has the capacity to appear oddly sleazeball-friendly in the wrong context.) (Also, I linked to the video above in a post last week, but here it is again in case you missed it – and it’s funny enough to deserve repeat viewings.) When an actor or musician passes away – David Bowie last year, for example – it is a comfort to me if I am already familiar with a great deal of the person’s work. It makes a difference to have appreciated someone when he was around, you know? But when a performer dies and I wasn’t nearly as well-versed in his oeuvre as I feel I ought to have been, the sadness is exponentially more profound.

Considering the dozen or so times I’ve enjoyed Twister (as seen above) since childhood, it doesn’t make sense why I didn’t follow up with more than a handful of other Bill Paxton movies. Not Weird Science or A Simple Plan or Frailty, not even Aliens (despite how much I love its predecessor, Alien). There is always something so bittersweet about not really discovering an artist’s legacy until after the fact – now every cinematic experience, even silly old True Lies, is tinged with posthumous poignancy.

So again I ask myself: why watch Titanic? Why put myself through the wringer? It’s such a ridiculous, overrated film in many respects. I had forgotten how atrocious the dialogue is (“Jack!” “Rose!” “Where are you, Jack?” “I’m here, Rose!” “Oh, Jack!” etc.) and that many of the supporting actors don’t get enough screen time (even in a three-hour movie) because Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet so thoroughly dominate the story being told. But the point of watching Titanic wasn’t just to roll my eyes at the cheesiness. There is undeniable catharsis in watching a film that is guaranteed to produce buckets of tears, like you can feel OK about the overwhelming sorrow because millions of moviegoers felt it too.

Titanic is a great – or maybe I need to rephrase: important – experience, not because of the quality of the filmmaking but because of the scope of the piece. The masses have always loved disaster films (again: see my love for Twister) and this particular film is one of the most epic of its kind; it’s a spectacle on the grandest scale imaginable. Say what you will about the excessive CGI special effects, but 70s-tastic dramas like The Poseidon Adventure sure don’t come close to James Cameron’s vision of the mighty Titanic foundering at sea in 1912.

So just how does Bill Paxton fit into this discussion of Titanic anyway? He plays Brock Lovett, the treasure hunter whose search for the fabled “Heart of the Ocean” necklace, which was supposedly on board the ship when it sank, leads Old Rose (dear Gloria Stuart!) to him. Paxton has the first and last lines of the movie, a small details that I hadn’t remembered or realized. I also forgot/maybe never knew that his character flaunts a cringeworthy, dirty-blonde almost-mullet, a piratical earring which obviously James Cameron thought was another super cool sartorial choice back in 1997, and a sweater probably plucked from an L.L. Bean winter catalog. But even with that aesthetic hodgepodge, and as jerky as Paxton’s character is during the first twenty minutes, the actor was such a professional that he made me care about the performance. Paxton is barely in the film, but as his name flashed by in the end credits and Céline Dion’s trembling vocals murmured the early verses of “My Heart Will Go On,” I wept even more; the emotion of the film met the emotion of real life. In this type of situation, the rivers of tears are a help, or if not “help,” at least a way of dealing with the thought of the random cruelty of life. The song plays on.

When an actor’s death affects me so strongly, I don’t just think of him as a celebrity, reduced to an image on a screen. Actors are human beings – a radical revelation, I know – but ever since the age of movie-fan magazines in the 1920s and 30s, there has been a tendency for actors to be thought of as mythical, deified, existing on a separate plane from us commoners. It is impossible for me not to mourn the loss of Bill Paxton, an actor who so many people (whether they worked with him or met him for only a moment) agree was a “nice guy,” and who, in a just world, would still be here to play those strange and intriguing supporting roles that lie slightly outside the realm of glamorous stardom. When I watch “Training Day” each week, I remember what I wrote in my notes after trying the pilot episode (I often scribble stray observations during commercial breaks): “Bill Paxton narrates like he’s a world-weary private eye in a film noir. Or maybe his voice is the sound of an old pair of cowboy boots walking across hot sand. Either way, a protagonist who isn’t Brad Pitt, not bionic Tom Cruise – he’s a man who you could believe has arthritis.” This show, Titanic, and the rest of the marathon: they all form a part of my grieving process for an artist who I have only just begun to appreciate. Cause-and-effect in reverse, you might say.