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

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Writer/director Greta Gerwig with cinematographer Sam Levy on the set of Lady Bird, 2016.

Here are twenty-six new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this November, 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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NOVEMBER 1 (theaters), NOVEMBER 3 (Video on Demand): 11/8/16 (many directors, including Petra EpperleinAlma Har’el, Sheena M. Joyce, Alison Klayman, Ciara Lacy, Martha Shane and Elaine McMillion Sheldon) (many DPs, including Tacara Donaldson, Autumn Eakin, Alma Har’el, Alison Klayman and Elaine McMillion Sheldon)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “On the morning of Election Day 2016, Americans of all stripes woke up and went about living their radically different lives. These were the hours leading up to Donald Trump’s unexpected, earth-shaking victory, but, of course, no one knew that yet.

“What did that day look like?

“With 11/8/16, producer/creator Jeff Deutchman’s second installment in his Election Film series, viewers are afforded a uniquely cinematic look at the chaotic glory of American democracy from sea to shining sea. Featuring footage captured by a carefully curated group of some of America’s finest documentary filmmakers, 11/8/16 follows sixteen subjects spanning the country’s geographic, socioeconomic and political divides throughout the course of that history-altering day.

“As the evening wears on, and it becomes clear that the impossible was about to become reality, Trump supporters rejoice at their candidate’s surprise victory as Hillary voters come to grips with the shocking turn of events in stunned disbelief. 11/8/16 was an election unlike any other. 11/8/16 brings us back to that day with the immediacy of great nonfiction filmmaking, and shows with vibrant directness how life happens as history is being made.”

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NOVEMBER 1: The Light of the Moon (dir. Jessica M. Thompson) (DP: Autumn Eakin)IFC Center synopsis: “Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz), a young and successful Latina architect, is sexually assaulted while walking home from an evening out in Brooklyn. While she at first tries to keep the attack a secret from her long-term boyfriend, the truth quickly emerges. Determined to deny the impact of what’s happened to her, Bonnie fights to regain normalcy and control, but putting the assault behind her is harder than she thought.”

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NOVEMBER 3: Battlecreek (dir. Alison Eastwood)Synopsis from the film’s official Facebook page: “Henry Pearl’s (Bill Skarsgård) rare skin disease has left him hiding from the sun in the shadows of small town Battlecreek. His overprotective mother,​ the local diner and his night time job at the gas station provide him a nocturnal and mundane existence. When a beautiful, yet tormented girl becomes stranded in town, Henry is awakened by love, forcing them both to face their turbulent pasts in light of the future.”

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NOVEMBER 3 (NYC), NOVEMBER 10 (LA), NOVEMBER 14 (digital): It Happened in L.A. (dir. Michelle Morgan)Film Journal International review by Tomris Laffly: “Love-hate relationships with urban metropolises make for juicy cinematic satire. There is no prouder term of endearment a denizen can grant to her city than an open declaration of self-deprecating loathing. Michelle Morgan’s nonstop witty, and at times laugh-out-loud funny It Happened in L.A. starts slow but in the end delightfully portrays one such relationship between a town and one of its millions of dwellers—in this case, the writer-director herself, who also plays the perennially dissatisfied yet oddly loveable lead character.

“Morgan’s Los Angeles is full of a certain breed of superficial West Coast people who in theory should be as unlikeable as leftover kale salad or artisanal cocktails served in mason jars in restaurants with two-noun names like ‘Lettuce & Tomato.’ But you can’t really sneer at them when they are clearly in on the joke. Thanks to the film’s insistence on wearing its light satirical air proudly on its sleeve, It Happened in LA is refreshingly not another ‘privileged people having trivial troubles’ film and compulsively watchable even when its characters get on your nerves.

“Annette (Morgan), a writer on hiatus and a self-defined objector to walking and juvenile games like Twister, is our way into to this world where everyone’s working on some sort of a script. ‘It’s about this girl who dies from touching this thing, and I’m working out the rest,’ someone hilariously states at one point, just to give you an idea. Despite being in a seemingly fulfilling relationship with her boyfriend Elliot (Jorma Taccone), a writer on a TV show that looks like a ridiculous spoof of ‘Game of Thrones,’ Annette decides they aren’t happy enough together, especially when compared to some of their blissful friends. So she breaks up with him, moves into a friend’s apartment to housesit and starts evaluating her new romantic prospects. Meanwhile, her good friend Baker (Dree Hemingway), an interior decorator with flawless taste in everything but men, deals with her own share of issues. Romantically pursued by her cousin (Kentucker Audley) and emotionally mistreated by her client-turned-boyfriend Tom (Tate Donovan), Baker is the type who seems to create her own problems and complicate simple situations for herself. And we follow Elliot too while Annette and Baker go off on their own misadventures: He gets involved with a blunt, no-nonsense hooker (Margarita Levieva) who asks odd personal favors from him, with amusing results.

“Of course, you can guess the type of predictable lesson Annette would eventually learn. This is the age of Instagram, as we were recently reminded by Ingrid Goes West, another Los Angeles-based (yet much darker) comedy and we are all posing and playing versions of ourselves in our daily lives. In the end, Annette doesn’t really have it that bad and everyone but she seems to know it. But her self-discovery (which is a joke in itself) is the lesser point in It Happened in L.A., which charms, gratifies and sometimes purposely repulses us with the flaky rhythms of a town Morgan clearly adores but also loves to hate. Peppered with hat tips to Yasujiro Ozu and Federico Fellini and contemporary quips like ‘I don’t feel like eating out of a truck tonight’ that consistently land, Morgan’s script is filled with sharp, quotable gold. And her filmmaking sensibility—often manifested in various impeccably composed, postcard-like shots—is marked by a promisingly sophisticated, stylish flair. One might be inclined to compare Morgan to Woody Allen, but her humor is more akin to Whit Stillman, as her It Happened in L.A. is La La Land’s modern-day answer to Metropolitan.”

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NOVEMBER 3: Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)New York Times review by A.O. Scott: “Christine McPherson, who prefers to be called Lady Bird — it’s her given name, she insists, in the sense that ‘it’s given to me, by me’ — is a senior at a Catholic girls’ high school. Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. ‘It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,’ Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“‘I guess I pay attention,’ she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“‘Don’t you think they’re the same thing?’ the wise sister asks.

“The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight, and in many ways it’s the key to Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s beautiful, insightful new film, the first for which she is solely credited as writer and director. Ms. Gerwig, a Sacramento native and member of her heroine’s generation — the movie takes place mostly during the 2002-3 academic year — knows her characters and their world very well. Her affection envelops them like a secular form of grace: not uncritically, but unconditionally. And if you pay the right kind of attention to Lady Bird — absorbing its riffs and digressions as well as its melodies, its choral passages along with its solos and duets — you will almost certainly love it. It’s hard not to.

“Lady Bird herself may be a bit more of a challenge. Played with daunting, dauntless precision by Saoirse Ronan (already, at 23, one of the most formidable actors in movies today), Lady Bird can give herself and everyone around her a hard time. Not because she is especially reckless or troubled — Lady Bird is the farthest thing from a melodrama of youth gone wild — but because she insists on asserting her own individuality, even when she’s not quite sure what that means.

“She tackles the practical and spiritual project of becoming who she is with the mixture of self-assurance and insecurity common to adolescents of a certain sensitive kind. She is idealistic and hypocritical; self-centered and generous; a rebel and a conformist; an enthusiast and a skeptic. A typical American teenager, but also — and therefore — a unique bundle of contradictory and confusing impulses.

“‘I want you to be the very best version of yourself,’ says her judgmental, habitually disappointed mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

“‘But what if this is the best version?’ Lady Bird responds. It’s a sharp, sardonic line (one of many) and also an anguished existential question.

“Christine (to use the name Marion gave her) wants to satisfy her mother, which is a difficult task because the standards seem impossibly high and subject to change without notice. She also wants to be true to her own desires and convictions, which is difficult for other reasons.

“While Lady Bird honors the gravity of Christine’s struggle, it hardly neglects the everyday absurdity of her plight. The very first scene begins in tears. Mother and daughter, listening to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath while driving home from a college tour, cry over the novel’s moving final sentences. Their shared moment of literary catharsis quickly devolves into an argument, which is punctuated by a startling and hilarious jolt of physical comedy (one of many).

“In tone and structure, after all, this is a teenage comedy. It finds humor in the eternally renewable cycle of senior year: homecoming and prom; math tests and school plays; the agonizing stages of the ‘admissions process.’ Along the way, Christine undergoes other, extracurricular rites of passage. She falls in love for the first time and has sex for the first time. She trades in her loyal, longtime best friend (Beanie Feldstein) for a richer, more popular girl (Odeya Rush). She fights with her mother and her older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and leans on her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), an affable fellow with troubles of his own.

“You might think you’ve seen this all before. You probably have, but never quite like this. What Ms. Gerwig has done — and it’s by no means a small accomplishment — is to infuse one of the most convention-bound, rose-colored genres in American cinema with freshness and surprise. The characters can look like familiar figures: the sad dad and the disapproving mom; the sullen brother and his goth girlfriend (Marielle Scott); the mean girls and the cool teachers; the too-perfect boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) and the dirtbag boyfriend (Timothée Chalamet). None of them are caricatures, though, and while everyone is mocked, nobody is treated with cruelty or contempt, at least by Ms. Gerwig. (Lady Bird is not always so kind.)

“The script is exceptionally well-written, full of wordplay and lively argument. Every line sounds like something a person might actually say, which means that the movie is also exceptionally well acted. It is not too quick to soothe the abrasions of class and family. The McPhersons are hardly poor, but the daily toll of holding onto the ragged middle of the middle class is evident in Larry’s melancholy and Marion’s ill humor. They are a loving family, but their steadfast devotion to one another doesn’t always express itself as kindness. They are real people, honestly portrayed.

“That might make Lady Bird sound drab and dutiful, but it’s the opposite. I wish I could convey to you just how thrilling this movie is. I wish I could quote all of the jokes and recount the best offbeat bits. I’d tell you about the sad priest and the football coach, about the communion wafers and the Sacramento real estate, about the sly, jaunty editing rhythms, the oddly apt music choices and the way Ms. Ronan drops down on the grass in front of her house when she receives an important piece of mail. I’m tempted to catalog the six different ways the ending can make you cry.

“I’ll settle for one: the bittersweet feeling of having watched someone grow in front of your eyes, into a different and in some ways improved version of herself. In life, that’s a messy, endless process, which is one reason we need movies. Or to put it another way, even though Lady Bird will never be perfect, Lady Bird is.”

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NOVEMBER 3 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Most Beautiful Island (dir. Ana Asensio)Samuel Goldwyn Films synopsis:Most Beautiful Island is a psychological thriller set in the world of undocumented female immigrants hoping to make a life in New York City. Shot on Super 16mm with an intimate, voyeuristic sensibility, Most Beautiful Island chronicles one harrowing day in the life of Luciana (Ana Asensio), a young immigrant woman struggling to make ends meet while striving to escape her past. As Luciana’s day unfolds, she is whisked, physically and emotionally, through a series of troublesome and unforeseeable extremes. Before her day is done, she inadvertently finds herself a central participant in a cruel game where lives are placed at risk, and psyches are twisted and broken for the perverse entertainment of a privileged few.”

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NOVEMBER 3: No Dress Code Required (dir. Cristina Herrera Borquez) (DPs: Cristina Herrera Borquez and Cristina Florez Valenzuela)Human Rights Watch Film Festival synopsis: “Víctor and Fernando, a devoted, unassuming couple from Mexicali, Mexico, find themselves in the center of a legal firestorm over their desire to get married. Weighing all their options, the pair opt to stay in their hometown of Mexicali and fight for their legal rights. With the help of two committed attorneys, Víctor and Fernando withstand a seemingly interminable series of bizarre hurdles and bureaucratic nitpicking with grace and dignity. No Dress Code Required is a rallying cry for equality, a testament to the power of ordinary people to become agents of change, and above all, an unforgettable love story that touches the heart and stirs the conscience.”

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NOVEMBER 3: Princess Cyd (dir. Stephen Cone) (DP: Zoe White)Vulture review by Emily Yoshida: “There is something vaguely utopian about Princess Cyd, the new film by writer-director Stephen Cone. In a way that I can only describe as Miyazaki-esque, there is, for the most part, a noticeable lack of onscreen threat in its sleepy suburban Chicago setting. The story’s main act of violence remains offscreen, referred to in the film’s opening moments via a 911 call reporting a murder-suicide that left our protagonist motherless and brotherless at age 8. With that tragic and half-remembered act in the distant past, Cone’s film feels like it’s willing the world to be a benevolent place his characters can believe in, the kind of place where the neighbors come over to recite poetry and you can walk into a coffee shop and meet a cute stranger. Not a lot happens in Princess Cyd, but it’s hard not to watch this film without feeling changed.

“Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is 16 when we meet her, having been abruptly sent off for a couple weeks to live with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). Some domestic unhappiness is kept between the lines, but her father seems to think she needs some ‘time out of the house.’ So Miranda, an acclaimed author living unmarried and childless in the house she grew up in with Cyd’s mother, takes the kid in, despite not having seen her since she was a child. Cyd is a soccer player, who announces unceremoniously that she ‘doesn’t really read’ when Miranda attempts to interest her in her book collection. As their first couple days together pass by, Miranda and Cyd regard each other with a kind of bemused curiosity. Cyd takes to ‘lying out’ in the yard in her bright-red, retro two-piece; a scene where she asks Miranda to put sunscreen on her back finds a completely different note for that typically prurient teen-movie trope. In Princess Cyd, other people are not abstract ideas to work with or against, but very tactile bundles of likes and dislikes and experiences.

“It would be easy for Princess Cyd to slip into a kind of pat odd-couple simplicity; two very dissimilar women forced to live under the same roof, fighting and learning things. But Cone continually dodges the expected beats for this kind of story, which is less about conflict and more about coexistence. One of Cyd’s first requests upon arrival is the Wi-Fi password, but it’s not a ‘teens these days’ punch line. Cyd is not dumb, but she’s probably not going to be the same kind of smart as Miranda, and in Cone’s generous worldview, that’s totally okay. Spence plays Miranda, an intellectual Christian and bookworm who hasn’t had sex in five years, beautifully and without judgement — it’s one of the warmest and best performances I’ve seen this year. Miranda’s chief worry at first is not that Cyd’s presence will cramp her style, but that she’ll be bored. But in the tensest exchange between the two, after Cyd makes a crack about her sex life, Miranda passionately defends her version of joy in a startling, eloquent speech.

“Cyd, for her part, ‘likes everything.’ Pinnick’s effortless radiance, her sleepy eyes and nearly perpetual half-smile could be mistaken for jock-ish dullness, but are really the look of untarnished youthful curiosity. She’s a roving inhaler of sensation, trying to figure out what she wants from the world and what captures her imagination. She’s got a ‘sort of’ boyfriend back home, but she falls instantly for a barista with a Mohawk named Katie, with very little anxiety or stress over her sexuality or what it means for her identity. We’re watching her form her identity onscreen, through her relationships with Katie and Miranda and pretty much everyone else who crosses her path. Searching for an outfit for a writerly soirée, she spots a tuxedo in Katie’s brother’s closet and takes to it with a breezy lack of self-consciousness that anyone over the age of 18 will watch with more than a little envy.

“Storm clouds come and go, but in Cone’s film any pain can seemingly be relieved by the simple, generous act of liking someone — not to possess them, but to have your world changed by them. Princess Cyd is a wonderful movie to live in for this reason; it’s full of hope and empathy, as are its two leads. This is a film that believes finding joy in each other is not just what we should do but what we are naturally inclined to do, and man, oh, man, do I want to believe that right now.”

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NOVEMBER 3 (in theaters), NOVEMBER 7 (Video on Demand): Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride! (dir. Robyn Symon)Seventh Art Releasing synopsis: “Filed under stranger than fiction, Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride! tells the astonishing true story of how a 67-year-old macho owner of a South Florida auto-wrecking company named Butch, who undergoes a nasty second divorce and needs a place to hide. But the last place anyone would think to find him is in a dress, wig and heels, living as a woman. What starts out as a trick to beat the system ends up changing Butch forever. Featuring risky surgeries, sex work, family dysfunction, activism and falling in love, Gloria’s life is one that must be seen to be believed. Fasten your seatbelt. This is most definitely one helluva ride! Winner of Audience Award for Best Documentary at it’s Miami Premiere and directed by Robyn Symon (Transformation: The Life & Legacy of Werner Erhard and Behind the Blue Veil).”

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NOVEMBER 7 (streaming on Netflix): The Journey Is the Destination (dir. Bronwen Hughes)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “Fiercely creative artist, restless wanderer, courageous photojournalist, and compassionate humanitarian aid worker, Dan Eldon is a tremendous inspiration to all who aspire to better themselves by doing good in the world. This stirring biopic from director Bronwen Hughes (whose Stander screened at the Festival in 2003) chronicles Eldon’s tragically abbreviated, yet robustly lived life in vivid detail.

“Born in London to a British father and an American mother, Dan (Ben Schnetzer) is raised in Nairobi. By the time he’s a teenager, he’s already organizing a daredevil supply run to Mozambican refugees, an experience that merely whets his appetite for adventure and for meaningful human connections that transcend class, culture, and creed. Dan skips post-secondary study in favour of leaping into the fray, becoming a self-taught photojournalist and covering events such as the end of apartheid in South Africa and burgeoning violence and famine in Somalia. It is in the latter country that Dan will forge his greatest professional triumphs — and where his life will be woefully snuffed out far too soon.

“Eldon accumulated an astonishing wealth of experience in his 22 years and The Journey is the Destination, written by Jan Sardi (Shine, The Notebook), is an homage to his valiant spirit. Featuring charismatic, heartfelt performances from Schnetzer and co-stars Maria Bello, Kelly Macdonald, and Ella Purnell, this is a film that makes you want to re-examine all you hold dear in your life — and live every day to the fullest.”

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NOVEMBER 7 (on Amazon Video, iTunes, and Vudu; also on DVD and Blu-ray): The Secret Life of Lance Letscher (dir. Sandra Adair)Synopsis from the film’s official website:The Secret Life of Lance Letscher is a deeply personal and psychological portrait of internationally known, and Austin based, collage artist Lance Letscher. Told through memories of trauma and triumph, the film provides a doorway into Letscher’s profound insights on creativity, the subconscious, work ethic and spirituality. Through his intricate artistic process, we witness the artist’s unwavering determination to stay in the moment—free of mind, thought and preconception. Featuring detailed images of more than a hundred of his collages, sculptures, and installations, viewers are offered a visual feast while gaining intimate access into Letscher’s methodical techniques and brilliant mind.”

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NOVEMBER 10 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Bitch (dir. Marianna Palka)Excerpts from IndieWire’s Sundance Film Festival review by Eric Kohn: “There are plenty of stories about domestic housewives who grow tired of their oppressive routines, but none quite like Marianna Palka’s vicious feminist satire Bitch, in which the writer-director-star plays a woman who takes on the identity of a wild dog. It’s a blunt metaphor, but Palka transforms an absurd premise into a chilling look at the destruction of the nuclear family with a vivid, snarling vision driven by the propulsive energy of its biting critique.

“Inspired by a real-life case study documented by psychologist R.D. Lang, Bitch follows the plight of afflicted matriarch Jill (Palka) and her clueless husband Bill (Palka regular Jason Ritter). The usually sweet-natured Ritter boldly plays against type, initially coming across as an American Psycho-like creep who sleeps with his secretary and buries himself in the office, leaving the care of his three young children to his clearly unstable wife. When she snaps, he’s forced to reconsider his ways, although the deranged events around him suggest he may have missed his window to set things right.

“By the first scene Jill’s world is falling apart, attempting a horrific suicide by dangling from her chandelier by a belt. The violent moment plays out with operatic intensity, and while she doesn’t succeed, she snaps. Bill has no idea about the mania he’s about to confront the next morning, as Jill ushers the kids out the door and mutters under breath, ‘I’m terrified I’m gonna do something.’ A mysterious dog prowls the front yard and locks eyes with her, but Bill’s lost in his own world. Then she vanishes, and there’s just enough time for him to throw a fit about her decision to abandon them when she resurfaces in the basement — nude and growling on all fours, smeared in feces and eyes filled with rage. While Jill howls away, Bill struggles to maintain control of a situation far beyond control.

“With its jittery formalism against the backdrop of a nightmarish suburban setting, Palka recalls Michael Haneke, but with an eye for surreal black comedy that suggests the anything-goes weirdness of Quentin Dupieux (Rubber, Wrong). Palka’s fourth feature is lightyears ahead of her last effort, the more conventional romantic drama Good Dick, and even when Bitch stumbles through some of its stranger moments it remains an uncompromising vision. The wacky drama is aided in large part by Morgan z Whirledge’s chaotic score, which erupts with discordant melodies that play off a layered sound mix rich with competing cues, overlapping dialogue, and ever-present barking that convey the sheer chaos of a stable world facing its reckoning.

“Though Palka uses Jill’s plight as its key animating device, Bitch works best when it focuses on Bill’s ongoing shock at the sudden demand for his responsibility, as he fights through the task of delivering his kids to school and suddenly loses traction in the workplace. A fierce portrait of unwieldy comeuppance, it’s both hilarious and terrifying to watch Bill take in the strange events around him. One brilliant sequence finds him dashing in and out of his kid’s school, collapsing onto the ground and throwing tantrums as everything he took for granted dissolves beneath him.

“…Even as the high-concept premise wears thin, Palka manages to generate an unexpected degree of sympathy for the floundering couple, and the wordless finale allows for a complete transformation that extends beyond Jill’s bizarre condition. By its end, Bitch focuses as much on what it means to wake up to the frustrations of an American dream coming to pieces as it is a fierce indictment of them.”

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NOVEMBER 10: Destination Unknown (dir. Claire Ferguson)Cinema Village synopsis: “They endured the death camps. They hid in remote farms. They fought as partisans in Polish forests, but when the war ended, the struggles of the Holocaust survivors were only just beginning. Destination Unknown paints a uniquely intimate portrait of survival, revealing pain that has never faded but hasn’t crushed the human spirit.”

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NOVEMBER 10 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Gold Star (dir. Victoria Negri)Cinema Village synopsis: “After dropping out of music school, Vicki (Victoria Negri) drifts aimlessly between her family’s house in Connecticut and an itinerant existence in New York. When her father (Robert Vaughn) suffers a debilitating stroke, she has to become his primary caretaker. Vicki resists connecting with him, and making peace with herself, but finds a way forward thanks to a new friend and a life-changing event.”

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NOVEMBER 10: In Between (dir. Maysaloun Hamoud)Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “Is there anything that makes traditionalist men as angry as women talking openly about their feelings and the things many of them do every day? Earlier this year, Indian film Lipstick Under My Burkha faced a ban (later overturned) for doing just that, and now In Between, a film made in Israel by Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud, has attracted an angry response. Hamoud, now the subject of a fatwa, says that she knew it would be controversial but never expected such a strong reaction.

“‘Remember where we are living,’ one of the film’s heroines is told. This is not the West; she must, she is told, adjust her expectations as a result, and not insist so loudly on living life on her own terms. But what does being a rebel mean in this context? What makes Hamoud’s film so potent is that it doesn’t just show the impact of sexist tradition on women who want to party, drink alcohol and wear skinny jeans. It also shows what it can do to women who themselves adhere to old fashioned values.

“Nour (Shaden Kanboura) is a shy, sweet-natured hijabi student who seems distinctly out of place when she moves into the flat shared by Leila (Mouna Hawa) and Salma (Sana Jammelieh), but although their lives are very different from hers – Leila has a Jewish boyfriend, Salma is a lesbian, and both conduct their social lives much as they might do in London or Berlin – she’s drawn to their friendliness, and a strong bond forms between them. A mutual love of good food seals the deal. The problem is that Nour’s fiancé doesn’t like these new influences in her life. As his controlling behaviour escalates, she becomes increasingly aware that she has to make a change in her life – and find a way to do it that will let her remain true to herself.

“With Leila and Salma facing problems of their own, Hamoud is able to explore not just the challenges in women’s lives but the solidarity that makes it possible to cope, even if that doesn’t always mean that things work out the way they want. She does so with a deft touch in a film that never feels heavy-handed, and the performances she coaxes from her leads are compelling. Kanboura, in particular, stands out for the depth she gives to her character, making her much more than just a victim, though at times her suffering is heartbreaking to watch.

“A complicated ensemble piece with a lot going on, In Between is an astonishingly mature feature debut from Hamoud, who balances themes and events with great skill. Importantly, the women at the centre of her story never really seem remote from the Palestinian Israeli society around them, but emerge from it as part of an organic whole. Cultural connections go much deeper than the value system built around restricting their behaviour. There are echoes of 2012’s Out in the Dark in the visible disconnection between how cinemagoers expect to see Palestinians represented and what is, essentially, real life.

“This is a gem of a film that is deserving of international attention in its own right, and not just because of the hatred it has attracted. It doesn’t just raise women’s voices; it tells a very human story about women who are complex and believable and intriguing.”

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NOVEMBER 10: Requiem for a Running Back (dir. Rebecca Carpenter)Cinema Village synopsis: “Director Rebecca Carpenter’s father, Lewis Carpenter, was a World Championship running back for the Detroit Lions and Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. As an NFL coach, he was one of the most respected football minds of his era. When he dies, her family receives a surprise call from Boston University’s brain bank requesting his brain – with shocking results. Lew becomes the 18th NFL player diagnosed postmortem with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurocognitive disorder that can cause episodes of rage, social withdrawal, and other unusual behaviors. In disbelief, Carpenter finds herself at ground zero of an unfolding public health controversy and embarks on a three-year odyssey across America to explore the far-reaching implications of this ‘new’ disease.

“Using the diagnosis as an opportunity to heal their troubled relationship, Carpenter travels through time zones and generations to piece together her father’s story. But as her road trip progresses, CTE starts to permeate the national airwaves, and Carpenter realizes that hers is not the only football family shaped by a little-known disease. This simple road trip turns into a cacophony of competing sound bites and complicated family stories, ending with one question: When one in three former players will have these problems, why do we still play football?

“Carpenter approaches her subjects with refreshing humor, manic curiosity, and a huge heart as Lew’s former teammates, scientists, and historians offer their insights and support. Through quirky and poignant visits with Dr. Bennet Omalu and player advocate Mike Ditka, neuropathologist Ann McKee and NFL Hall of Famer James Lofton, headline stealing NFL retiree Chris Borland and hellraiser Dave Meggyesy, Rebecca obsessively pursues every available avenue to understand her dad, including interviews with families living in the aftermath of brain damage: Ray & Mary Ann Easterling, Greg Lens & his daughter Sarah Lens, Mike & Candy Pyle and Mike’s daughter Samantha, and Penny and John Hilton.

“Ultimately Carpenter must confront her own complicity in missing the signs of her father’s brain disease as she begins to understand his depression, obsessiveness, forgetfulness, and unpredictable temper were common side effects of repeat blunt force trauma to the brain.”

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NOVEMBER 15: Rebels on Pointe (dir./DP: Bobbi Jo Hart)Quad Cinema synopsis: “Established in the wake of the Stonewall riots, New York’s all-male dance troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have for over 40 years traveled the world presenting a distinctly modern take on classical ballet: performing it in drag. This moving verité documentary traces the inspiring history of The Trocks and offers an intimate portrait of its members, past and present, as they upend stereotypes and gleefully pirouette on the line between high art and camp.”

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NOVEMBER 17: Atomic Homefront (dir. Rebecca Cammisa)Cinema Village synopsis:Atomic Homefront reveals St. Louis, Missouri’s past as a uranium processing center for the atomic bomb and the governmental and corporate negligence that led to the illegal dumping of Manhattan Project radioactive waste throughout North County neighborhoods. The film is a case study of how citizens are confronting state and federal agencies to uncover the truth about the extent of the contamination and are fighting to keep their families safe.”

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NOVEMBER 17: Big Sonia (dirs. Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Standing tall at 4’8″, Sonia is one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Kansas City and one of the only survivors there who speaks publicly about her wartime experience. Sonia’s enormous personality and fragile frame mask the horrors she endured. At 15 she watched her mother disappear behind gas chamber doors. Sonia’s teenage years were a blur of concentration camps and death marches. On liberation day, she was accidentally shot through the chest, yet again miraculously survived. Sonia is the ultimate survivor, a bridge between cultures and generations. Her story must never be forgotten.

“Our film interweaves Sonia’s past and present using first-person narrative with stories from family and friends. Along the way, we learn valuable life lessons – ‘Soniaisms‘ – from a woman who can barely see over the steering wheel, yet insists on driving herself to work every day to run her late husband’s tailor shop, John’s Tailoring. Running the shop is Sonia’s entire being – it is her reason for living and the center of her life. Sonia is a ‘diva’ and she’s known for wearing leopard print and high heel shoes – she is the most popular woman I know. Her influence spans generations and cultures, and we see first-hand how she transforms a room of self-involved teenagers into thoughtful citizens. Sonia is an enigma.

“John’s Tailoring is the last shop standing in a desolate corner of a rundown mall, and there is a looming threat the mall could close its doors any day. Will Sonia be able to continue working? Will she have to shut the doors on John’s Tailoring and finally retire in her late 80’s? How will Sonia’s stories make a difference to people now? How will her stories inspire audiences to learn about their own families and ensure that we don’t repeat mistakes of the past?”

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NOVEMBER 17: The Breadwinner (dir. Nora Twomey)IFC Center synopsis: “From executive producer Angelina Jolie and the creators of Oscar-nominees The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, this is the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old girl growing up under the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. After her father is wrongfully arrested, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to save her family, finding strength in her memories of the tales her father used to tell her.”

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NOVEMBER 17 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Cook Off! (dirs. Cathryn Michon and Guy Shalem)Excerpts from Rolling Stone article by Jon Blistein: “Melissa McCarthy bumbles through a cooking competition in the wild new trailer for the long-gestating mockumentary, Cook Off! The film premiered at the Comedy Arts Festival in 2007 – long before McCarthy’s breakout turn in Bridesmaids – and will finally receive an on-demand and limited theatrical release November 17th.

“Cathryn Michon and Guy Shalem co-directed Cook Off!, which centers around the Van Rookle Farms Cooking Contest, a reality competition with celebrity judges, a $1 million prize and a giant muffin mascot. Along with McCarthy, the film’s cast boasts an array of seasoned improvisors including Michon, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Louie Anderson, Gary Anthony Williams, Niecy Nash, Diedrich Bader, Stephen Root and Ben Falcone.

“The trailer finds McCarthy at her slapstick best, dashing around the competition hall with a heavy pot before falling flat on her face and getting overzealous with her doomed dish. ‘I’m making a sweet potato,’ she excitedly tells a reporter while stuffing marshmallows into an already overflowing pot. ‘Which is technically a vegetable.'”

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NOVEMBER 17 (LA), NOVEMBER 22 (NYC) (opened in Austin, TX last month): Mr. Roosevelt (dir. Noël Wells) (DP: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen)Variety’s SXSW review by Andrew Barker:Mr. Roosevelt is the debut film by writer-director Noël Wells, a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic. It also features Wells in the lead role, as a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic, only to make an abrupt return to attend a cat funeral at the home of her ex-boyfriend, and perhaps take stock of the shambling mess she’s made of her life amidst Austin’s remaining pockets of weirdness. If you’re already starting to roll your eyes, stop: This riotously endearing comedy is substantially funnier, sharper, and more peculiar than that premise is bound to make it sound. While its knowing touch for the rhythms of Austin life make it a perfect fit for SXSW, the film has potential to travel much further, and announces Wells as a behind-the-camera talent worth watching.

“A veteran of L.A.’s improv scene, Wells had a single-season run on ‘Saturday Night Live’ before landing her recent role on ‘Master of None,’ and the former experience certainly seems to inform Mr. Roosevelt’s opening scene, as Wells’ fictional counterpart Emily soldiers through a failed audition for a sketch-comedy show. (Kristen Wiig is among Emily’s celebrity impressions, though it’s her take on Holly Hunter haggling at a yard sale that really should have gotten her a callback.)

“All she has to show for her time in Hollywood is one viral video that she ‘wasn’t able to monetize’; she’s barely making ends meet as a promotional video editor; and the improv comedy dating pool is proving somewhat suboptimal. So when she receives a call from her ex, Eric (Nick Thune), with news that their once-shared cat is sick, she doesn’t hesitate to hop on a plane to Texas with little but the clothes on her back.

“Back home, she learns that the cat has already died, and Eric – whom she had just assumed would let her stay at his place – is happily cohabiting with his new, perfectly poised girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower), to whom Emily takes an immediate dislike. After all, she’s completely redecorated the place, relegating all of Emily’s leftover possessions to a shed out back. Pleading poverty, however, Emily gets the couple to put her up for a few days.

“Although she’s only been gone for two years, Emily finds her former home city has been gentrified just as strikingly as her former home. Her favorite dingy coffee shop has been boarded up, and the new one nearby is a modernist maze of antiseptic steel. Eric has embraced a thoroughly L.A. set of voluntary dietary restrictions, and Celeste lists her occupation as ‘entrepreneur.’ The two take Emily out to the kind of restaurant that actually requires nicer attire than t-shirts and jeans, and it isn’t long before she has a tableside meltdown.

“Quickly coming to Emily’s rescue is a firecracker waitress-musician named Jen (Daniella Pineda), who recognizes her from her fleeting bout of YouTube stardom. After employing some tough love methods to staunch her panic attacks, Jen becomes Emily’s new best friend literally overnight, and ferries her around from overcrowded artist co-ops to topless Greenbelt picnics and musical house parties. Meanwhile, Celeste mounts an ever-escalating Cold War with her predecessor, and Eric and Emily spend enough time together to risk rekindling their old flame.

“Nothing here, from the premise to the plotting to the basic tone, is particularly novel, but the entire affair has a distinctive personality. Wells has a clear gift for physical comedy, and as a director, she tends to underplay her funniest bits in a way that gives the film an engaging, lackadaisical flow, rather than fragmenting into a series of sketches. That distinctiveness extends to her character too – the hapless twentysomething woman-child has become almost as well-worn a type as its male equivalent, but Emily feels like an original creation within those broad parameters.

Mr. Roosevelt does occasionally reveal a few first-time filmmaker kinks, and in the later-going Wells forces closure on some narrative arcs that could have just as well stayed open-ended. But never does the film’s comic energy wane, and the supporting cast is highlighted by Lower, Pineda, and a scene-stealing turn from Andre Hyland, whose puckish stoner may be too laid-back even for Austin.”

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NOVEMBER 17 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees) (DP: Rachel Morrison) – LA Weekly’s Toronto International Film Festival review by April Wolfe: “Writer-director Dee Rees is breaking all the rules with her third feature, Mudbound. In film school, they tell you, ‘No voiceovers,’ yet this film about two WWII and post-war Mississippi families — one black, one white — is filthy with them. They tell you, ‘Play it safe until you’re more experienced,’ yet Mudbound is a sprawling epic. They say, ‘Never make a period piece because the budget will be prohibitive,’ yet the setting here spans multiple years and continents in the 1940s. With Mudbound, Rees proves the truest rule of all: That talent and vision make all lesser rules negotiable. This absorbing, incredibly accomplished film should win awards and be taught in history classes all over America.

“The film opens at the end of this story, with Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) describing what her existence once was like on the Mississippi farm with her husband Henry (Jason Clarke). She leads her two daughters through a brown and barren expanse of land to the makeshift grave Henry and his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) have dug for their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks). ‘When I think of the farm,’ she says, ‘I think of mud. … I dreamed in brown.’ The story of Mudbound is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s book of the same name, and Rees and her co-writer Virgil Williams adeptly use Jordan’s poetic prose in voiceover, with multiple characters getting their turn to control the story, letting us see the world through their eyes and aches and pains.

“After visiting the grave, we go back to the beginning of this story, before the McAllans have even settled on the farm, to the days of the Jackson family eking out a living as cotton sharecroppers. Patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) and matriarch Florence (Mary J. Blige) send their oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) off to fight the Nazis, but we sense that they take no pride in his decision. Throughout this story, Rees suggests that this black family has little allegiance to a country that wishes to kill them. But overseas, Ronsel is given the freedom to become a man — a human — though later, back home, he recounts that women in Europe would slap his ass to check to see if he had a monkey’s tail. Still, during his tour, we see him in the embrace of a German woman who happens to be white, and the look on his face is one of great peace, something he will not exhibit back home in Mississippi until he befriends Jamie, also an emotionally wounded veteran of the war.

“The friendship that blooms between Ronsel and Jamie isn’t sugarcoated. Jamie doesn’t immediately become Ronsel’s hero, and Ronsel isn’t asking for a white savior anyway. But they both have seen the literal insides of human beings, the blood and guts, and understand their shared humanity. They’re up against some hardcore racists, none more chilling than Banks’ Pappy, but what’s most unnerving isn’t the overt racism depicted in the film but the silence from the ‘good’ white people like Laura and Henry when Pappy spouts his hateful thoughts.

“The poverty on the farm is visceral. No matter what stations in life these characters hold, they are painted in mud, and no amount of money can save them from it. It’s almost as though death is clinging to their skin, asking them to succumb. Hollywood has often done a poor job of filming and lighting black skin, but cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Dope, Black Panther) has mastered her craft, so every minute variation of color comes through clearly. The result of her work has the richness and clarity of an oil painting.

“Production design is also shrewdly considered. When the McAllans move into their new ramshackle home on the farm, I couldn’t help noticing the peeling paint on the walls, one layer revealing another, revealing another. The paint may be a small detail, but it’s one of great meaning. There’s no removing paint once it’s there. If you sand it away, you inhale the lead, and it’s too much work. Easier to paint over it, to hide it with a nicer-looking coat. But underneath, the poison’s still there. What Mudbound does is peel off all those layers, and it’s painful as hell, but necessary. Dee Rees is clearing the poison away.”

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NOVEMBER 17 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Sweet Virginia (dir. Jamie M. Dagg) (DP: Jessica Lee Gagné)IFC Films synopsis: “A mysterious stranger sends shockwaves through a close-knit community in this nerve-jangling slice of raw suspense. In the wake of a triple murder that leaves the residents of a remote Alaskan outpost on edge, tightly wound drifter Elwood (Christopher Abbott) checks into a motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo champion whose imposing physical presence conceals a troubled soul. Bound together by their outsider status, the two men strike up an uneasy friendship—a dangerous association that will set off a new wave of violence and unleash Sam’s darkest demons. Driven by tour de force performances from Christopher Abbott and Jon Bernthal, this precision crafted thriller pulses with an air of quivering dread. With Imogen Poots and Rosemarie DeWitt.”

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NOVEMBER 24: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (dir. Alexandra Dean)IFC Center synopsis: “Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr was called the world’s most beautiful woman—but her hidden legacy as an inventor who helped revolutionize modern communications is even more stunning. Combining a rediscovered interview with reflections from her closest friends, family and admirers, including Mel Brooks and Robert Osborne, Bombshell finally gives Hedy Lamarr the chance to tell her own story.”

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NOVEMBER 24: Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars (dir. Lili Fini Zanuck)Toronto International Film Festival review by Thom Powers: “For Eric Clapton, blues music made a strong impression at a young age: ‘It was always one man with his guitar versus the world. He was completely alone and had no options other than to just sing and play to ease his pain.’

“Over a five-decade career, Clapton has proven himself to be a guitar virtuoso, creating rock music deeply influenced by the blues. In this documentary, he reflects candidly on how his life experiences were channelled into music. The film traces his career through The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, and his solo years, telling the stories behind hits like ‘For Your Love,’ ‘Layla,’ and ‘Tears in Heaven.’

“Filmmaker Lili Fini Zanuck draws from an extensive archive of performances and home movies to construct the film. Accompanying the footage are audio interviews with Clapton and people who played central roles in his life, including his grandmother Rose Clapp, George Harrison, Ahmet Ertegun, Steve Winwood, and his former wife, Pattie Boyd.

“Clapton grew up with an inferiority complex. He struggled with the demands of the music business, tumultuous love affairs, drug addiction, and the tragic loss of his young son. The film traces how he coped with these challenges, for better and for worse, before establishing a family with his second wife, Melia McEnery. We come away with a deeper sense of what has inspired so much memorable music.”

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2017: Part 3

Beatriz at Dinner. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Notes from October 9, 2017: Beatriz at Dinner might not literally be the “first great film of the Trump era,” as the poster states – doesn’t that honor belong to Get Out? – but Miguel Arteta’s film certainly is a beautifully made, sharply incisive dramedy observing the many divisions in American society. We follow an eventuful day in the life our protagonist, Beatriz (a brilliant Salma Hayek), who works as a holistic healer at a cancer treatment center and also as a masseuse to an upper-crust clientele in southern California. Late one afternoon, Beatriz drives from Santa Monica to Newport Beach for a massage appointment with a rich housewife, Kathy (Connie Britton). The two women seem to have a personal bond: Kathy’s daughter, Tara, was stricken with cancer as a teenager and Beatriz’s care and friendship helped Tara on the road to recovery. When Beatriz finds that her old car won’t start and that she can’t leave Kathy’s house just yet, Kathy invites her friend to stay for a dinner party that she and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), are throwing for some of his colleagues and their wives. This is the point at which the story’s wheels really begin to turn.

As the guests arrive at the house, Beatriz struggles to fit in with conversation topics that concern only the rich, white social circle. Despite engaging in chitchat that she enjoys, it is clear that the other visitors – including Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), Alex (Jay Duplass) and Jeana (Amy Landecker) – consider her a bizarre anomaly encroaching on their comfortable territory. As the dinner progresses, Beatriz finds herself locked in a war of words with Grant’s boss, Doug Strutt (the incomparable John Lithgow), a Trumplike tycoon who flaunts both his wealth and his contempt for anyone of a lower social class (or perhaps a darker skin tone) than him. Beatriz tries to enlighten her companions with her memories of growing up in a Mexican village that was destroyed by an American construction company that never followed through on its building plans, but the only feedback she receives is disinterest.

Beatriz at Dinner’s mood changes as our heroine becomes increasingly aware that Kathy and Grant’s home is a hostile environment. The film shifts from comedy to drama as Beatriz’s confrontations with her adversaries become ever more emotionally charged. It’s too bad that Mike White’s script loses its satirical edge, but this is necessary to show Beatriz’s evolution over the course of this tense and upsetting night. Many viewers have argued that the film’s ending is a letdown, that it suggests – in a “bigger picture” sense – that acquiescing is the ultimate solution when one is faced with a bully or an outright villain. But if you consider Beatriz’s own story, just focusing how much she longs to return to a past that no longer exists (as evidenced in the themes of the song she performs for the dinner guests), the conclusion of her arc makes sense.

It’s amazing to realize how rare it is to see Salma Hayek in a performance like the one she gives in Beatriz at Dinner. The successes and failures of her career have always seemed to be predicated on how much makeup her characters wear and/or how tight and revealing their clothes are; occasionally she gets an opportunity, like in Frida and in Beatriz at Dinner, to show her power as an actress. In Beatriz, she wears no makeup; her hair is tied in a straightforward ponytail; her outfit is a utilitarian work ensemble. Without all of the usual distracting accoutrements, we can concentrate on the simple, striking impact of Hayek’s face, which radiates so much grace and strength in every frame. Even if you think you disagree with the political messages of Beatriz at Dinner, please see it for its extraordinary spotlight on Salma Hayek, as well as the poetic cinematography of Wyatt Garfield.

Brawl in Cell Block 99. Directed by S. Craig Zahler. Notes from October 25, 2017: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal action thriller that is definitely not for all appetites, but if you can tolerate the extreme levels of violence – the film is unrated, but the MPAA would have slapped it with an NC-17 warning – you will be rewarded with some of the most memorable acting, writing, cinematography and fight sequences of any film that has been released this year.

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a former boxer who loses his job at the local auto shop in the film’s first scene. He is a physically intimidating protagonist; besides being a 6′ 5″ man whose bald head is adorned with a cross tattoo, Bradley rips his wife Lauren’s (Jennifer Carpenter) car apart with his bare hands after he comes home early and discovers that she has been having an affair for the past three months. The only way that the couple can salvage their fractured marriage is for Bradley to return to his former career as a drug runner. This decision seems dangerous for both Bradley and Lauren, who are both recovering addicts, but when the film cuts to “eighteen months later,” the pair are living happily in a bigger, fancier house and expecting their first child.

As we know from the film’s title, however, this paradise will not last. Bradley and some new business partners he doesn’t trust are involved in a police ambush, which results in him shooting his comrades to prevent them from injuring the police. Despite the good intentions behind Bradley’s actions, he is found guilty of the murders and is sentenced to seven years in prison. While in jail, Bradley is visited by a mysterious, German-accented man (Udo Kier, the incomparable king of genre cinema), who shows Bradley photo evidence that Lauren is being held hostage and the only way Bradley can save her is to kill a certain inmate in Cell Block 99 of the Red Leaf detention center, a maximum-security facility for all the most depraved criminals.

Moments after the conversation with the “Placid Man” (as Kier’s character is called in the end credits), Bradley sets himself up by attacking several corrections officers. Branded a severe threat to his fellow prisoners and staff, Bradley is immediately transported to Red Leaf, where he meets sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson, literally twirling his mustache in malicious delight). A few more skirmishes finally bring Bradley down to the fabled Cell Block 99, where the most psychotic convicts reside. This odyssey, which by now has reached mythical proportions, culminates in a series of supremely gory conflicts between Bradley and some unexpected opponents, some images of which I may never be able to remember without feeling ill. This viciousness is necessary, however, since Bradley is a man on a mission and if he doesn’t complete the Placid Man’s assignment, his wife and unborn daughter will pay the price.

So what makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 so worthy of your time? First, there’s Vince Vaughn’s performance. He anchors the film not only as a physical presence but with solid acting and a sharp wit (my favorite: in an early scene he refers to a young woman’s tight and short blue jumpsuit as “zesty”); humorous dialogue provides much-needed emotional ballast during the film’s relentlessly grim bloodbaths. (Also, for the record: Vince Vaughn has not magically transformed into an excellent actor with Brawl. His dramatic talent has been evident for years, as people have known since his indie days in the 90s and – my personal favorite – in the bar scene from Into the Wild.) Don Johnson and Udo Kier give that extra-special “character actor” touch to roles that are vaguely defined by a general sense of evildoing, and I also enjoyed seeing another veteran of film and television, Willie C. Carpenter, as “Lefty,” the friendly lifer who tries to help Bradley assimilate to prison conditions on his first day there. Finally, as the icing on the cake, there are the aesthetics of Brawl in Cell Block 99. Like the 70s exploitation films that clearly influenced writer-director S. Craig Zahler, Brawl features a soundtrack of soul/Motown songs, including brand-new tracks by some bona fide legends, the O’Jays and Butch Tavares. Visually, the film benefits from cinematographer Benji Bakshi‘s eye for framing and contrasting light/shadow.

If you’re willing to give Brawl in Cell Block 99 a try, more power to you. Some may say that it is a film made in bad taste, but then again aren’t most delicious indulgences unhealthy at their core?

Ingrid Goes West. Directed by Matt Spicer. Notes from September 23, 2017: Ingrid Goes West is one of the surprise gems of the year, a satire about social media mania that asks us to consider the limits any of us would go to just to feel loved and important. Matt Spicer’s film skewers the millennial generation’s habit of creating Instagram celebrities who boast of carefully curated lives, but we also see a thought-provoking exploration of the lengths some people will go to in order to stave off loneliness.

When we meet Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), she’s busy pepper-spraying a bride at a wedding party. Ingrid’s anger at not being invited to the event is irrational; she only vaguely knew the other woman through Instagram, but in Ingrid’s mind, they were good pals. After Ingrid’s stay in a mental health treatment center, we quickly realize two crucial details about her: she spent a number of years as her mother’s caretaker (I think the film implied that Mrs. Thorburn died not long before Ingrid met her Instagram “friend”) and she easily develops intense attachments to other people. As Ingrid resettles into her empty house and tries to find a new purpose in life, she discovers a magazine article about an up-and-coming Instagram “influencer,” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), and before we know it, Ingrid is grabbing her $60,000 inheritance from her mom’s will, moving out to Venice Beach, California and trying to figure out how to meet her current obsession.

After renting a house that’s owned by a young screenwriter, Dan (an exceptionally charming O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Ingrid dyes her hair the same color as Taylor’s (blonde), changes her wardrobe to dress more like her new hero, reads the novels that Taylor mentions loving on Instagram and visits the same eateries and shops that Taylor frequents. An accidental run-in with Taylor at a bookstore is almost disastrous – it would have been, had Taylor deigned to pay attention to such a klutzy commoner – but Ingrid quickly devises a new plan for actually meeting Taylor. One break-in and dog theft later, Ingrid is formally brought into the Sloane house, genially returning “lost” pup Rothko and ingratiating herself into the world of Taylor and her artist husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell).

Ingrid and Taylor become fast friends, shopping, partying and spending time at a Joshua Tree retreat. Reluctantly, Ingrid also gets closer to Dan, who sees something more like the “real” her than the version of Ingrid that she pretends to be for Taylor and Ezra, but at the same time, a visit from Taylor’s irritating brother, Nicky (a scene-stealing Billy Magnussen), threatens to undermine Ingrid’s new way of life. Throughout the story there is tension as to whether Ingrid’s feelings for Taylor border on psychotic, and whether circumstances might result in a violent outburst; the third act of the film certainly ups the ante and takes our protagonist in several disturbing directions.

The entire cast of Ingrid Goes West does excellent work, but Aubrey Plaza in particular shines in a performance that shows her emotional range, which up to now has not always been reflected in her choice of roles. (She made me cry in the last few minutes of the film, which not every actor can do.) Ingrid is not always likeable, but she is achingly human in every complicated moment. We may not understand or agree with Ingrid’s intentions – she probably doesn’t fully comprehend them either; moreover, the film is ambiguous as to whether she is romantically inclined toward Taylor – but Ingrid’s need for human connection in a world that used to shut her out for being “herself” is a desire that we can all recognize. Ingrid Goes West illustrates how easy it is for people to hide behind façades that they believe are preferable to their natural selves; the absurdity of the situations is sometimes hilarious, but just like real life, sometimes the pain of maintaining that meticulously designed existence is heartbreaking.

Lucky. Directed by John Carroll Lynch. Notes from October 17, 2017: Legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton capped his career with one last transcendent performance in Lucky, an introspective dramedy that honors its ninety-year-old protagonist with a heartfelt showcase. Lucky (Stanton) is a World War II veteran who lives a bare-bones existence in a small Southwest town, a place where the vistas are not unlike those seen in an earlier masterpiece starring Stanton, Paris, Texas (1984). Over the course of a few days in Lucky’s life, we see him interact with friends and foes alike, including rakishly dressed senior citizen Howard (David Lynch – no relation to Lucky’s director), life insurance salesman Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston), married barflies Elaine and Paulie (Beth Grant and James Darren), diner owner Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), Dr. Christian Kneedler (Ed Begley Jr., in a role reminding me a lot of when he played a physician on “Portlandia”), fellow WWII vet Fred (Tom Skerritt), waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) and bodega clerk Bibi (Bertila Damas).

The screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja was obviously tailor-made for Harry Dean Stanton, whose character often mentions his recollections of growing up in Kentucky, clearly autobiographical tidbits from Stanton’s own upbringing; Lucky’s atheism and his other philosophical musings were probably inspired by Stanton’s beliefs as well. The story moves slowly, perhaps too slowly for some viewers, but for anyone who knows and appreciates Stanton and the many wonderful characters that populate the cast, Lucky is a gem. The film’s beautiful performances – including a bravura monologue by David Lynch’s character about his abiding love for his pet tortoise, and a scene set in a diner in which Stanton and Tom Skerritt compares WWII stories, a poignant moment reminiscent of a similar scene in David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story – and the cinematography by Tim Suhrstedt create a compelling portrait of a one-of-a-kind man. Thanks for the memories, Harry Dean – there was no one else like you.

Unforgettable. Directed by Denise Di Novi. Notes from September 19, 2017: Unforgettable has the plot and acting of a histrionic Lifetime TV movie, but it gives Katherine Heigl an unexpectedly satisfying role that stretches her acting muscles far beyond the scope of her usual rom-com performances. Heigl plays Tessa Connover, the psychotic ex-wife of David Connover (Geoff Stults), a businessman who is about to marry our protagonist, Web designer/editor Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson). David has convinced Julia to leave New York and move in with him in his California house, which also means getting to know David and Tessa’s young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Naturally, David has no idea how angry Tessa is over their divorce or what lengths she will go to ensure that Julia leaves the Connover family alone permanently.

Conventional melodrama fuels the character developments and plot twists in Unforgettable, hurtling the story toward certain inevitable conclusions. David is an exceedingly boring character, straight out of the Lifetime handbook for cardboard-cutout boyfriends. As is the case for heroines in many of that network’s soapy thrillers, Julia is trying to rebuild her life after having been in an abusive relationship, hiding this history from David because she wants to appear “strong” and forget the fact that she was once a victim. It is also no surprise that David and Julia have been fooled by Tessa’s pristine façade; underneath the flawless makeup, tightly tied-back ponytails and crisp white dresses, Tessa is a deeply manipulative person who targets Julia in such a way that David begins to think that Julia is crazy for disliking (then being terrified of) Tessa. Still, the film takes pains to illuminate the source of Tessa’s pathology: her mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd), drilled both the drive for perfection and the fear of failure into her daughter. As cruel as Tessa is, she is pitiable since we understand that she has been victimized too.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for Unforgettable to receive any honors come awards season, but Katherine Heigl should be commended for stepping outside of her comfort zone. I think she may have played a somewhat similar role in the dark comedy Home Sweet Hell (2015) – a film I haven’t seen but am now interested in – but Unforgettable should earn Heigl some new fans and, with any luck, more complex characters to play. I’m also curious to see what Denise Di Novi directs next; Unforgettable is her first feature, but she has been a producer since the early 1980s, helping make such modern classics as Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Little Women and A Walk to Remember.

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

Writer/director Angela Robinson (center) with actresses Bella Heathcote and Rebecca Hall on the set of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, 2016.

Here are twenty-three new movies that have been released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this October (sorry for the delays on publishing this post and the one for last month – I’ll get back to my usual standard for punctuality in November!), 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.

SEPTEMBER 29 (Chicago), OCTOBER 13 (NYC): Signature Move (dir. Jennifer Reeder)Asian American International Film Festival synopsis: “Every day, Zaynab, a Pakistani Muslim lesbian in her thirties, endures her TV-loving mother’s talk of finding a nice man to marry. While being closeted is far from easy, Zaynab decides that it’s at least easier than having to upend her mother’s conservative expectations.

“But that all changes when she meets Alma, an out and proud Mexican woman who just happens to be the daughter of a former professional wrestler. What starts as a one-night stand with someone whose name she can’t even remember quickly blossoms into something serious enough to threaten her complacency about her mother’s obsession with finding a husband.

“And how does Zaynab deal with all this stress? Lucha-style wrestling, of course!

Signature Move is not only funny and poignant, but also important, especially in our modern political landscape. With Muslim, Pakistani, and queer voices all being suppressed individually, the idea of the three identities intersecting is foreign to mainstream media. And rather than portraying a simplistic tale of Muslim Pakistani homophobia, Signature Move recognizes cultural conflict in all their complexity, ultimately finding beauty in the ability of love to transcend differences.”

SEPTEMBER 29 (LA), OCTOBER 6 (NYC & OTHER CITIES): Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton (dir. Rory Kennedy) (DPs: Alice Gu and Don King)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton tracks the remarkable life and legendary career of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton. Much admired by the public, though often disdained or ignored by the surf industry itself, Laird is a unique sports icon—an athlete who has refused to compete professionally yet has dominated big wave surfing as no other figure in history has ever done.

“Laird’s biographical story is told against the backdrop of a winter surf season on Kauai, where El Niño storm systems threaten to bring the biggest surf in decades. Mixing never-before-seen archival footage, with contemporary verité scenes shot in Southern California, Bermuda and Kauai, Take Every Wave weaves the past and present into an intimate and compelling portrait of a superstar athlete at the top of his game. Threaded throughout is a revealing, deeply personal interview with Laird as well conversations with the family members, friends, collaborators and detractors who know him best.

Take Every Wave provides an intimate, uncompromising look at a lifetime devoted to riding giant surf—and the price an athlete pays for greatness.”

OCTOBER 4: Chavela (dirs. Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi) (DPs: Natalia Cuevas, Catherine Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio)Film Forum synopsis: “Chavela Vargas (1919 – 2012): ‘A trailblazing free spirit whose appetite for tequila and women was as legendary as her soul-stirring vocals…  A hard-drinking rebel who shredded the prevailing stereotype of the fem and flirty, hip-swinging señorita in Mexican popular music, the singer commands the stage in passionate performances throughout Chavela, owning a trademark androgynous look…that made her a queer icon long before she openly defined herself as a lesbian at age 81… singing deeply felt songs of pain, solitude and lost love in a voice both rough and tender. A queer icon long before she openly defined herself a lesbian at age 81.’ – David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter. Featuring Pedro Almodovar, who used Chavela’s music in his films (The Flower of My Secret, Julieta) and introduced her to international concert audiences in the 1990s, when, as her manager notes, she tried as hard as she could to die on stage.”

OCTOBER 6: Faces Places (dirs. JR and Agnès Varda) (DPs: Roberto De Angelis, Claire Duguet, Julia Fabry, Nicolas Guicheteau, Romain Le Bonniec, Raphaël Minnesota and Valentin Vignet)Quad Cinema synopsis: “At age 88, French New Wave icon Agnès Varda found a kindred spirit in JR, the acclaimed 33-year-old photographer and artist who shared her passion for images. Deciding to collaborate, they traveled through the French countryside, cameras in hand, speaking with locals and producing large-scale portraits of their faces, turning the stories and lives of these everyday people into art. The result is a road movie unlike any other, a documentary as delightful and inspiring as any work in Varda’s legendary career.”

OCTOBER 6: The Mountain Between Us (dir. Hany Abu-Assad) (DP: Mandy Walker)20th Century Fox synopsis: “Stranded after a tragic plane crash, two strangers must forge a connection to survive the extreme elements of a remote snow covered mountain. When they realize help is not coming, they embark on a perilous journey across hundreds of miles of wilderness, pushing one another to endure and discovering strength they never knew possible. The film is directed by Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad and stars Academy Award winner Kate Winslet and Golden Globe winner Idris Elba.”

OCTOBER 6: Take My Nose… Please! (dir. Joan Kron)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “A seriously funny and wickedly subversive look at the role comedy has played in exposing the pressures on women to be attractive and society’s desire/shame relationship with plastic surgery. More than 15 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the US in 2016. Yet, for those who elect to tinker with Mother Nature, especially for high-profile women, plastic surgery is still a dark secret. Funny women are the exception. From Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers to Roseanne Barr and Kathy Griffin, comedians have been unashamed to talk about their perceived flaws – and the steps taken to remedy them. For them, cosmetic surgery isn’t vanity, it’s affirmative action – compensation for the unfair distribution of youthfulness and beauty. By admitting what their sisters in drama deny, comic performers speak to women who feel the same pressures, giving them permission to pursue change (or not to) while entertaining us.”

OCTOBER 13: The Departure (dir. Lana Wilson) (DP: Emily Topper)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Ittetsu Nemoto, a former punk-turned-Buddhist-priest in Japan, has made a career out of helping suicidal people find reasons to live. But this work has come increasingly at the cost of his own family and health, as he refuses to draw lines between his patients and himself. The Departure captures Nemoto at a crossroads, when his growing self-destructive tendencies lead him to confront the same question his patients ask him: what makes life worth living?”

OCTOBER 13: M.F.A. (dir. Natalia Leite)Birth.Movies.Death.’s SXSW review by Meagan Navarro: “Traditionally, the rape-revenge subgenre follows a typical formula divided into three-acts. In the first, a character is brutally raped and then abandoned for dead. The second sees the victim surviving and rehabilitating from their ordeal. In the final act, the victim takes brutal revenge by way of vigilantism on their attackers. While the revenge seeking portion offers a catharsis for both the victim and the viewers, it’s a skewed fantasy. Natalia Leite’s rape-revenge thriller forgoes the catharsis in favor of opening up a dialog with the audience.

M.F.A. examines rape culture and the moral implications that arise from society’s aversion to facing an uncomfortable reality head on with its subsequent inability to handle sexual assault cases. For shy art student Noelle, it’s the system’s failings that lead her down the path of vigilantism after her graphic rape by a classmate. Traumatized, she turns to her bubbly neighbor Skye, played by Leah McKendrick (who also penned the screenplay). Skye advises her to chalk it up to a bad experience and let it go, because reporting it will only make things worse. Noelle decides to talk to a school counselor, a woman, who is more interested in knowing if Noelle’s attacker knew she meant ‘no,’ or if she perhaps had a bit too much to drink that night. Joining a support group doesn’t help either, as the women in the group are dedicated toward supporting other victims of sexual assault whereas Noelle wants to prevent rape from happening in the first place. Her entitled rapist proves unrepentant, creating a wider chasm of helplessness.

“Her rage grows to dangerous depths when she realizes that her campus is full of cases like hers, and in all of which the rapists faced no consequences for their horrifying actions. She takes it upon herself to serve due justice on behalf of other victims like her, becoming more brazen and violent with each act of retribution. Noelle’s transition empowers her, which should be liberating, but it comes with a cost. Each victim of violent crime copes in their own way, a fact that’s lost on Noelle through her consuming hatred. Even the best intentions can lead to dire outcomes. Systemic failure has created a monster out of Noelle.

“As Noelle, Francesca Eastwood delivers a powerhouse performance. Her transition from meek to empowered, broken to dynamic killer, masterfully works in conjunction with Leite’s unflinching social commentary. There’s a low budget simplicity that works, because it allows Eastwood’s richly layered performance to sell the narrative.

“For all that M.F.A. does well, it’s a bit too ambitious for its own good. Every question posed in the film is a valid one, but as a result the narrative gets spread too thin. The always effective Clifton Collins Jr. plays Detective Kennedy, a character that should bear more weight in the story but remains without purpose. There’s no time to really develop his character or fully bring Noelle’s arch to a satisfying close, because there’s too much to discuss in the short run time.

“Even still, M.F.A. is a necessary watch. It’s a harrowing atomic bomb of truth that should serve as a base for many talking points. The unfortunate reality is that many women have found themselves in Noelle’s shoes; finding the courage to speak out about their trauma only to be met with skepticism or disbelief. The isolation can leave the anger and pain without an outlet of release. The vigilantism is only a hypothetical outcome stemming from very real depictions. Noelle’s journey is wrath-inducing and heart-wrenching. Her vigilantism doesn’t offer a gratifying release for the audience, but that’s not the point. It’s not the first rape-revenge thriller to take aim at the law or legal consent, but it is the first whose main purpose is not to invoke a sense of fantasy but to invite thought-provoking conversation about a painful subject matter with no easy answers.”

OCTOBER 13: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (dir. Angela Robinson)New York Times review by Manohla Dargis: “Suffering Sappho, Batman, you’re such a square! That’s especially true when you consider the real origin of Wonder Woman, the warrior with the indestructible bracelets and slightly kinky magic lasso who burst into comics in 1941. As it happens, there was more kink to her story than suggested by that golden lasso, which she uses to force her captives to tell the truth and looks like something from a bondage emporium. ‘On Paradise Island where we play many binding games,’ she says in an early comic while roping another woman, ‘this is considered the safest method of tying a girl’s arms!’

“There are some exceedingly delectable questions posed in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and a few frisky binding games on tap too. A sly and thoroughly charming Trojan horse of a movie, Professor Marston tells the story of the man who created Wonder Woman and the women who inspired him, both in and out of bed. The movie gleams and has all the smooth surfaces and persuasive detail of a typical period picture — the fedoras, the rides, the Katharine Hepburn trousers. All that luster, which too often in movies suggests polite manners and drowsily safe entertainment, proves to be a seductive, glossy way into something more satisfyingly complicated.

“If nothing else, Professor Marston is another reminder that once upon a time people had sexual appetites and relationships as complex as those of today (or of 18th-century France), something else the movies don’t always like to admit. Occasionally, grandpa might have even visited a dusty, mysterious shop with sexy specialty items in front and something naughtier in back. Dr. William Moulton Marston (a winning Luke Evans) finds out just how special those items could be when he pops into a store where a man calling himself the G-string King (J.J. Feild) opens up a world of consensual power play and pleasure.

“At that point, life has already become interesting for Marston. The writer-director Angela Robinson lays out just how, well, knotty it all is with wit, sympathy and economy. Spanning decades, the story takes flight in 1928 with Marston teaching young lovelies at Radcliffe. ‘Are you normal?’ he asks of a beaming, receptive audience that serves as an amusing stand-in for the viewer. Marston has answers to that and other questions, along with a theory he calls DISC — for dominance, inducement, submission and compliance — which sounds terribly complex and slightly ridiculous. (‘D, I, S and C,’ the real Marston wrote, ‘represent nodal points in the integrative emotion series.’)

“Ms. Robinson borrows Marston’s theory, using it as a clever if somewhat schematic framing device as she spins her story. There are moments of domination, psychological as well as physical. There are also interludes of inducement, submission and compliance mixed in with a sweet, soft-focus romance that initially involves Marston and his wife, a frustrated academic, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall, tart, brisk, essential), and soon includes a third, Olive Byrne (a very good Bella Heathcote). A student, Olive cracks open the Marstons’ marriage, but instead of destroying it helps it grow into a shared, liberating adventure that settles into something cozily domestic.

“The story of the world’s most famous female superhero, her creators and inspirers, has been told elsewhere, including in Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Ms. Robinson draws on archival sources for her telling and takes some liberties with the historical record, shuffling events around to dovetail with the polymorphous possibilities she’s most interested in. The movie recurrently returns to the 1940s with Marston being grilled by a comic-book skeptic (Connie Britton) about his creation, scenes that fill in some details but also interrupt the fluid narrative flow. These sequences read as a stand-in for the 1950s anti-comic-book crusade of Dr. Fredric Wertham, who condemned Wonder Woman as a ‘cruel, “phallic” woman.’

“Dr. Wertham saw cruelty in the Wonder Woman world, but Ms. Robinson sees deep, enduring love in its back story as well as freedom, including from rigid gender roles. Her version of the idealistic professor and his two wonder women, and the complex geometry that defined their relationship, may be a touch fuzzier than the actual story. Certainly the real Marston didn’t have Mr. Evans’s sleek matinee-idol looks. But it’s a pleasurable fantasy, as well as a gentle, appealingly Utopian vision of a world in which men and women can slip from their traditional binds into new, excitingly freeing configurations. Those might be surprising, perhaps even a bit tight around the wrists but, as Ms. Robinson suggests, there are so many possibilities when you’re given room to play.

“The real Marston was delightfully unbound. In 1937, Ms. Lepore writes in her book, he held a news conference to announce the coming Amazonian rule. The Washington Post ran with the story: ‘Neglected Amazons to Rule Men in 1,000 Yrs., Says Psychologist.’ The Los Angeles Times went with the punchier ‘Feminine Rule Declared Fact.’ ‘The next 100 years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy,’ Mr. Marston said (2037 here we come!). And ‘in 1,000 years women will definitely rule this country.’ Believing women superior, he thought they had twice ‘the ability for love’ as men, which would allow them to conquer the world. It’s a delicious idea although clearly we could use many more lassos.”

OCTOBER 13 (in theaters and on Amazon, iTunes and Video on Demand): Wasted! The Story of Food Waste (dirs. Anna Chai and Nari Kye)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Wasted! The Story of Food Waste aims to change the way people buy, cook, recycle, and eat food. Through the the eyes of chef-heroes like Bourdain, Dan Barber, Mario Batali, Massimo Bottura, and Danny Bowien, audiences will see how the world’s most influential chefs make the most of every kind of food, transforming what most people consider scraps into incredible dishes that create a more secure food system. Wasted! exposes the criminality of food waste and how it’s directly contributing to climate change and shows ushow each of us can make small changes – all of them delicious – to solve one of the greatest problems of the 21st Century.”

OCTOBER 20: Aida’s Secrets (dirs. Alon Schwarz and Shaul Schwarz) (DPs: Christina Clusiau, Shaul Schwarz, Uriel Sinai and Yonathan Weitzman)Music Box Films synopsis: “In this moving documentary, the discovery of records from WWII sparks a family’s quest for answers as two brothers separated as babies reunite with each other and their elderly mother, who hid more from them than just each other.

“Izak Szewelwicz was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1945 and sent for adoption in Israel. Though Izak was able to form a relationship with his birth mother, his life was turned upside down years later when he located not only his birth certificate, but also another of a brother he never knew existed.

“Filmmakers Alon and Shaul Schwarz set out to find answers for Izak, uncovering questions of identity, resilience, and the plight of displaced persons as Izak and his brother Shep—both nearly 70 years old—finally meet in Canada before traveling to a nursing home in Quebec to introduce Shep to his elderly mother, Aida, for the first time.”

OCTOBER 20: BPM (Beats Per Minute) (dir. Robin Campillo) (DP: Jeanne Lapoirie)Variety’s Cannes Film Festival review by Guy Lodge: “What does it take to fight a pandemic? Knowledge, courage and resilience, certainly, but also rough-and-tumble argument, a range of friendships both consoling and abrasive, a healthy sense of gallows humor and soul-sustaining supplies of loud music and louder sex. French writer-director Robin Campillo understands all of this in BPM (Beats Per Minute), his sprawling, thrilling, finally heart-bursting group portrait of Parisian AIDS activists in the early 1990s. A rare and invaluable non-American view of the global health crisis that decimated, among others, the gay community in the looming shadow of the 21st century, Campillo’s unabashedly untidy film stands as a hot-blooded counter to the more polite strain of political engagement present in such prestige AIDS dramas as Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club. Candidly queer in its perspective and unafraid of eroticism in the face of tragedy, this robust Cannes competition entry is nonetheless emotionally immediate enough to break out of the LGBT niche.

“Arthouse patrons who didn’t see Campillo’s remarkable 2013 breakout Eastern Boys may recognize him chiefly as the editor and writing partner of French auteur Laurent Cantet. Though Cantet has no direct creative involvement in BPM — he earns a thank-you in the closing credits — the spirit of their collaborations is plainly present in Campillo’s lively, literate script, written with AIDS educator and activist Philippe Mangeot. Cantet and Campillo’s Palme d’Or-winning The Class, in particular, is evoked through its reliance on contained, formalized group debate as a story propeller. Instead of a high school classroom, however, the four-walled narrative center here is an anonymous college lecture theater in central Paris, where members of AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) gather on a weekly basis to discuss their campaign strategy.

“The French branch of the movement founded in New York in the late 1980s, it’s a broadly accepting group on the outside — comprising AIDS victims across genders and sexualities, as well as parents and LGBT allies affected by the crisis. (Cantet and Mangeot are both members, with latter having served as its president in the late 1990s.) Beneath its right-on surface, however, it’s a collective splintered by differences in principle, politics and even HIV status. When Nathan (a fine, watchful Arnaud Valois) joins the group, he encounters chilly condescension from some of the group’s ‘poz’ members: A reserved, handsome and HIV-negative 26-year-old who keeps his personal association with the disease shyly guarded, he finds his queries about vaccines for the uninfected written off by them as naively obtuse. Among that skeptically positive faction is the young, expressively militant Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the mouthiest of the ‘back-row radicals’ objecting to what they see as ACT UP’s ineffectively moderate approach to Big Pharma’s lack of progress in developing and distributing courses of AIDS treatment.

“The party lines are compellingly laid out in the film’s very first item of discussion: the fallout of an arguably botched on-stage intervention at a pharmaceutical conference, where organiser Sophie (Adèle Haenel, sturdy if a tad underused) finds her plans for peaceful protest — brightened by water balloons filled with fake blood — hijacked by Sean’s spontaneous manhandling and handcuffing of the night’s key speaker. What counts as violence, and how close can you skate to it to shock complacent corporations into action? This becomes the driving point of argument in the group’s weekly meetings, as Sean — and others whose health, like his, is in rapid decline — fear they literally don’t have time for the more diplomatic tactics of Sophie and team leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) to take hold.

“Thus does the tenor of discourse take on a true matter-of-life-and-death urgency, integrating the film’s intellectual, procedural and spiritual interests to riveting effect: ‘living politics in the first person,’ to pinch a piquant phrase from the film’s own script. This rattling verbal interplay is kept buoyant and insistent by a well-chosen, well-bonded ensemble, with Pérez Biscayart’s bristling performance — running a mile a minute from anger to apathy and back again — first among many equals.

“At 140 minutes, the film doesn’t get as much under the skin of several key players as it could do, though it finds a galvanizing human center as — despite differences of opinion in the lecture hall — a tender, mutually dependent romance blossoms between Sean and Nathan. The film’s frank, sensuous depiction of the couple’s compromised but still active sex life adds visceral, tactile human stakes to ACT UP’s ideological battle: They want the right not just to fair, undiscriminatory medical and social treatment in the public eye, but to love without fear behind closed doors. The emotional centerpiece of the film is an extended sex scene, exquisitely shot in dusky-blue shadow by cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, in which the couple’s lovemaking seamlessly melts into flashbacks of each man’s most fatefully formative erotic encounters, an exquisite tangle of limbs reaching across both time and internal trauma.

“As in Eastern Boys, Campillo’s predominantly candid, unvarnished shooting style wrongfoots viewers ahead of his gutsiest manipulations of sound and image — in this case, a stark, unsubtle passage of widescreen visual poetry that turns the Seine purple with the blood of the needlessly damned. The oblique title, meanwhile, refers not just to medical heart rates as bleakly tracked on hospital monitors, but to the euphoric rhythm of the electronic music that soundtracks ACT UP’s occasional disco breaks, in which matters of love, death and ideology are briefly lost to the rush of the dancefloor, and strobe-lit faces fade into dust motes and blood cells. In one of BPM’s most gently funny scenes, a well-meaning parent is ridiculed for suggesting ‘AIDS is me, AIDS is you, AIDS is us’ as a campaign slogan. By the end, you see where her critics are coming from: Campillo’s sexy, insightful, profoundly humane film is most moving in those ecstatic interludes where, for a blissed-out moment or two, AIDS is no one at all.”

OCTOBER 20: Jane (dir. Brett Morgen) (DP: Ellen Kuras)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Drawing from over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage that has been tucked away in the National Geographic archives for over 50 years, award-winning director Brett Morgen tells the story of Jane, a woman whose chimpanzee research challenged the male-dominated scientific consensus of her time and revolutionized our understanding of the natural world.

“Set to a rich orchestral score from legendary composer Philip Glass, the film offers an unprecedented, intimate portrait of Jane Goodall — a trailblazer who defied the odds to become one of the world’s most admired conservationists.”

OCTOBER 20: Never Here (dir. Camille Thoman)The Hollywood Reporter’s Oldenburg International Film Festival review by Stephen Dalton: “Performance artist, documentarian and editor Camille Thoman has assembled an impressive range of talents for her narrative feature debut, an atmospheric indie psycho-thriller with shades of Lynch and Hitchcock. The Killing star Mireille Enos plays the lead, Sam Shepard makes his final screen appearance and Zachary Quinto has a credit as exec producer. Vexing, disquieting, willfully opaque in places, Never Here had its European premiere at Oldenburg International Film Festival last week. Vertical Entertainment is planning a limited U.S. release Oct. 20, with a pay TV launch to follow on Starz in early 2018.

“Enos stars as Miranda Fall, a New York-based conceptual artist whose latest gallery show uses images and locations purloined from a lost cellphone. This invasion of privacy outrages the phone’s original owner, Arthur Anderton (David Greenspan), who ominously warns Miranda ‘you did a bad thing’ at the launch party. Later that night, back at her apartment, Miranda’s art dealer and secret lover Paul Stark (Shepard) witnesses a stranger assaulting a woman in the street outside. Covering for Paul, who is married with a sick wife, Miranda tells the police that she saw the attack alone, sketching a likeness of the suspect based on Paul’s description.

“The case falls to detective Andy Williams (Vincent Piazza), who just happens to be one of Miranda’s old flames. Although the sexual chemistry between them still sizzles, Andy becomes increasingly suspicious of Miranda’s account of the assault. In a further fateful coincidence, it transpires that Miranda also knew the victim and possibly the attacker too. She becomes obsessed with one of the nameless suspects (Goran Visnjic) after picking him from a police identity parade, tracking down his address and creeping around his empty apartment, risking her safety on the spurious alibi of preparing a new art project. Meanwhile, an elusive mystery man appears to be shadowing Miranda’s every move in return. Or is she losing her grasp on reality and stalking herself?

Never Here wears the outer clothes of a crime thriller to cloak a more haunting, disturbing, open-ended rumination on voyeurism and identity. Thoman cites Paul Auster’s textually tricksy New York trilogy and the Alfred Hitchcock classic mystery The Lady Vanishes as influences, even including a short clip from the latter and naming one of her minor characters after its star, Margaret Lockwood. But Thoman’s film is more than a cerebral exercise in homage. It also works on the visceral level of a nightmarish mood piece, mostly unfolding in underlit interiors that clearly invoke the shadowy occult realm of Lynch more than Hitchcock.

“Thoman’s playfully arty touches include highlighting details with red circles on screen, and deploying Jenny Holzer-style neon slogan artworks as visual clues. She repeatedly implicates the viewer as voyeur with mobile camerawork that prowls and jerks and hovers uncomfortably close to characters, mimicking the stop-start motions of a stalker. Visual focus is deliberately blurry in places, amplifying the theme of identity melting and dissolving. James Lavino’s score is a patchwork of sonic unease, sprinkled with non-diegetic drones and crackles, another Lynchian touch. Thoman also loops and layers snippets of dialogue, using them almost like musical motifs.

“Ending without firm narrative closure, Never Here is possibly too subtle for its own good, refusing to spoon-feed audience expectations with neat explanations and satisfying shock  twists. Its self-consciously cryptic style will alienate some viewers, and arguably becomes overly mannered in places, veering more toward art installation than movie. It is sometimes unclear whether Thoman’s narrative knots and muted emotional shadings are the result of smart novelistic game-playing or simple inexperience.

“Even so, Never Here manages to remain engrossing throughout despite minimal violence and none of the sexualized female victimhood that drives most stalker thrillers, an admirable subversion of genre tropes. Enos gives a finely calibrated performance as Miranda, an apparent mystery to herself, her deadpan surface confidence masking submerged psychological trauma. And Shepard is reliably classy in his final screen role, still wolfishly handsome on the cusp of 70 but emphatically low-key, generously underplaying his icon status. On this evidence, Thoman has sufficient ambition and technique to fuel a fascinating future career behind the camera.”

OCTOBER 20 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): One of Us (dirs. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) (DPs: Jenni Morello and Alex Takats)Toronto International Film Festival review by Thom Powers:One of Us plays like a documentary thriller about individuals trying to escape a closed society. New York’s Hasidim are one of the most insular communities in North America. Haunted by the Holocaust’s decimation, they live by strict codes that discourage contact with outsiders. We meet three people who are driven to break away despite threats of retaliation. Etty was forced into marriage at age 19, birthed seven children by age 29, and recounts a history of spousal abuse. Luzer, in his late twenties, broke ties with his family in order to pursue his dreams as an actor. Eighteen-year-old Ari suffers from the trauma of sexual abuse and wants to explore a different way of life.

“Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady captured these lives for over a year of twists and turns. Cinematographers Alex Takats and Jenni Morello vary between close-up intimacy and long-lens surveillance to manoeuvre in neighbourhoods where cameras and outsiders are met with suspicion. Composer Todd Griffin supplies a haunting score.

“While rooted in a specific community, One of Us explores a universal theme: the value of individuality versus belonging to a group. What does it mean to separate oneself from everything that’s familiar? These stories have much to teach about courage, resilience, and claiming one’s own identity.”

OCTOBER 20: A Silent Voice (dir. Naoko Yamada)The Hollywood Reporter’s Annecy International Animated Film Festival review by Jordan Mintzer: “The ripple effects of bullying come back to haunt a high school student years later — and over the course of two ambitiously overstuffed hours — in A Silent Voice (Koe no katachi), which was adapted from the popular manga series by Yoshitoki Oima.

“Packed with drama, laughter, tears and at least two suicide attempts, this third animated feature from director Naoko Yamada (Tamako Love Story) does its best to condense a seven-volume series into one feature-length film, though it tends to suffer under the weight of so much material. Already a hit in Japan, where it grossed close to $20 million last year, Silent Voice has been released in several other territories (including the U.K.) and should embark across Europe after playing competition at Annecy.

“Impressive in the way it takes a single incident and shows how it can damage both the victims and the perpetrators for a long time to come, the story (written for the screen by Reiko Yoshida) follows Shoya Ishida, a taciturn teenage boy who tries to jump off the bridge at the start of the film. Soon after, we learn that when he was back in sixth grade, Shoya terrorized a new classmate named Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf-mute girl who couldn’t be more gentle and kind, even when she’s the brunt of everyone’s jokes.

“A decade later, Shoya has never managed to shed the bully label of his youth, becoming an outcast in his own right who’s now shunned by the rest of his school. He tracks down Shoko, who he hasn’t seen since they were kids, in the hopes that she will pardon his terrible behavior. Their very long and awkward friendship — or courtship, if you can call it that — occupies the majority of the film, with the two damaged souls searching for some kind of solace in each other’s company. But communication between them is not that simple, even if Shoya tries to learn sign language, while the lasting effects of their trauma seem to leave permanent wounds.

“Like a very dark and twisted Mean Girls, Silent Voice chronicles the cruelty and isolation of Shoya, Shoko and their friends or frenemies in ways that can sometimes grow exhausting, with several moments of major drama — and a few hair-raising stunts — punctuating the narrative. These are definitely some highly emotional adolescents, melting under the sinister looks of others or hurling themselves into a local river without warning. A few stabs at humor involving Shoya’s newfound buddy, Tomohiro Nagatsuka, help to lighten the overall tone, but while the film has lots of qualities, subtlety definitely isn’t one of them.

“Where director Yamada excels is in depicting the interior worlds of the two main characters, paying particular attention to details, whether visual or sonic, that seem to place a constant divide between Shoya and Shoko. In one sequence, he creeps up behind her and she only realizes he’s there when a bunch of pigeons suddenly fly away. In another, he places his hand on a railing, and the reverberations signal his presence to a waiting Shoko. And when Shoya becomes the school loser himself, he sees everyone else with a big ‘X’ across their face, as if they’ve become abstract manifestations of his own rejection.

“Alongside the rich animation work by Futoshi Nishiya, the sound design by Yota Tsuruoka and Hiromune Kurahashi uses lots of ambiance to contrast the audible life of Shoya with the silent one of Shoko. It’s such a chasm that seems to keep them apart, while their shared positions as teenage pariahs — not to the mention the fact that neither of them seems to have a father figure in their life ­— is what ultimately may unite them.”

OCTOBER 20: Tempestad (dir. Tatiana Huezo)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Through a subjective and emotional journey, this film conveys the paralysing power of fear: fear as a sickness that prevents you from taking a stand on your life, on the future of your children; which clouds your ability to dream and grow.

“A morning on a quite normal day: Miriam is arrested at her workplace and is accused, without proof, of ‘people trafficking.’ The violence she suffered and was exposed to during her imprisonment has left a profound gap in her life.

“Adela works as a clown in a travelling circus. Ten years ago, her life was irreversibly transformed; every night during the show, she evokes her missing daughter, Monica. Tempest is the parallel journey of two women. Mirror-like, it reflects the impact of the violence and impunity that afflict Mexico.

“Through their voices, we are drawn into the heart of their feelings, steeped in loss and pain, but also love, dignity and resistance.”

OCTOBER 27: The Divine Order (dir. Petra Biondina Volpe) (DP: Judith Kaufmann)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Dan Hunt: “Political and religious leaders in Switzerland cited the Divine Order as the reason why women still did not have to right to vote as late as 1970. Director Petra Volpe explores this surprising history through the story of Nora, a seemingly unremarkable housewife from a quaint village who must learn to become an unflinching suffragette leader. After organizing the village’s first meeting to support women getting the right to vote, her family is mocked, bullied, and shunned. Despite the obstacles and backlash, Nora perseveres and convinces the village women to go on strike, abandoning their homes and families. A strong ensemble cast brings the story to its inspirational conclusion when Swiss women finally secure the right to vote in 1971. The Divine Order is a heartfelt and captivating film about regular people demanding their right to an equal voice.”

OCTOBER 27: Félicité (dir. Alain Gomis) (DP: Céline Bozon)Quad Cinema synopsis: “In a makeshift bar on the tough streets of Kinshasa, the proud Félicité (remarkable newcomer Véro Tshanda Beya) scrapes by as a singer, fronting infectious songs by local orchestra the Kasai Allstars. But after her teenage son falls victim to a motorcycle accident, Félicité is sent looking for money to pay for his medical bills and finds herself on a transformative journey. Bursting with music and richly textured, this vibrant, electrifying film opens a window to a world too rarely seen onscreen.”

OCTOBER 27 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (dir. Griffin Dunne) (DPs: Tom Hurwitz, Reed Morano and William Rexer)Metrograph synopsis: “Across more than 50 years of essays, novels, screenplays, and criticism, Joan Didion has been the premier chronicler of the ebb and flow of America’s cultural and political tides. In the intimate, extraordinary documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, actor and director Griffin Dunne unearths a treasure trove of archival footage and talks at length to his “Aunt Joan” about the eras she covered and the eventful life she’s lived. Didion guides us through the literary scene of New York in the 1950s and ’60s, as a writer for Vogue; the return to her native California for two turbulent decades; the writing of her seminal books, including Play It as It Lays and The White Album; her film scripts, including The Panic in Needle Park; her view of 1980s and ’90s political personalities; and the meeting of minds that was her long marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne.”

OCTOBER 27: Maya Dardel (dirs. Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak)Samuel Goldwyn Films synopsis: “The film depicts the final weeks leading to the ambiguous disappearance of Maya Dardel (Lena Olin), an internationally respected poet and novelist, who lived until 2016 in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Maya announces on National Public Radio that she intends to end her life and that young male writers may compete to become the executor of her estate. They are challenged intellectually, emotionally, erotically, until one of them begins to fathom Maya’s end game.”

OCTOBER 27: Mr. Roosevelt (dir. Noël Wells) (DP: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen)Variety’s SXSW review by Andrew Barker:Mr. Roosevelt is the debut film by writer-director Noël Wells, a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic. It also features Wells in the lead role, as a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic, only to make an abrupt return to attend a cat funeral at the home of her ex-boyfriend, and perhaps take stock of the shambling mess she’s made of her life amidst Austin’s remaining pockets of weirdness. If you’re already starting to roll your eyes, stop: This riotously endearing comedy is substantially funnier, sharper, and more peculiar than that premise is bound to make it sound. While its knowing touch for the rhythms of Austin life make it a perfect fit for SXSW, the film has potential to travel much further, and announces Wells as a behind-the-camera talent worth watching.

“A veteran of L.A.’s improv scene, Wells had a single-season run on ‘Saturday Night Live’ before landing her recent role on ‘Master of None,’ and the former experience certainly seems to inform Mr. Roosevelt’s opening scene, as Wells’ fictional counterpart Emily soldiers through a failed audition for a sketch-comedy show. (Kristen Wiig is among Emily’s celebrity impressions, though it’s her take on Holly Hunter haggling at a yard sale that really should have gotten her a callback.)

“All she has to show for her time in Hollywood is one viral video that she ‘wasn’t able to monetize’; she’s barely making ends meet as a promotional video editor; and the improv comedy dating pool is proving somewhat suboptimal. So when she receives a call from her ex, Eric (Nick Thune), with news that their once-shared cat is sick, she doesn’t hesitate to hop on a plane to Texas with little but the clothes on her back.

“Back home, she learns that the cat has already died, and Eric – whom she had just assumed would let her stay at his place – is happily cohabiting with his new, perfectly poised girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower), to whom Emily takes an immediate dislike. After all, she’s completely redecorated the place, relegating all of Emily’s leftover possessions to a shed out back. Pleading poverty, however, Emily gets the couple to put her up for a few days.

“Although she’s only been gone for two years, Emily finds her former home city has been gentrified just as strikingly as her former home. Her favorite dingy coffee shop has been boarded up, and the new one nearby is a modernist maze of antiseptic steel. Eric has embraced a thoroughly L.A. set of voluntary dietary restrictions, and Celeste lists her occupation as ‘entrepreneur.’ The two take Emily out to the kind of restaurant that actually requires nicer attire than t-shirts and jeans, and it isn’t long before she has a tableside meltdown.

“Quickly coming to Emily’s rescue is a firecracker waitress-musician named Jen (Daniella Pineda), who recognizes her from her fleeting bout of YouTube stardom. After employing some tough love methods to staunch her panic attacks, Jen becomes Emily’s new best friend literally overnight, and ferries her around from overcrowded artist co-ops to topless Greenbelt picnics and musical house parties. Meanwhile, Celeste mounts an ever-escalating Cold War with her predecessor, and Eric and Emily spend enough time together to risk rekindling their old flame.

“Nothing here, from the premise to the plotting to the basic tone, is particularly novel, but the entire affair has a distinctive personality. Wells has a clear gift for physical comedy, and as a director, she tends to underplay her funniest bits in a way that gives the film an engaging, lackadaisical flow, rather than fragmenting into a series of sketches. That distinctiveness extends to her character too – the hapless twentysomething woman-child has become almost as well-worn a type as its male equivalent, but Emily feels like an original creation within those broad parameters.

Mr. Roosevelt does occasionally reveal a few first-time filmmaker kinks, and in the later-going Wells forces closure on some narrative arcs that could have just as well stayed open-ended. But never does the film’s comic energy wane, and the supporting cast is highlighted by Lower, Pineda, and a scene-stealing turn from Andre Hyland, whose puckish stoner may be too laid-back even for Austin.”

OCTOBER 27: Novitiate (dir. Margaret Betts) (DP: Kat Westergaard)Toronto International Film Festival review by Jesse Wente: “Oscar winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) oversees a bevy of up-and-coming female actors in this drama about aspiring nuns at an isolated Catholic school in 1964, who are forced to re-examine their faith and their calling in light of the liberal reforms of Vatican II.

“‘It was… peaceful,’ is how Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) describes her first experience of church to her agnostic mother (Julianne Nicholson). Cathleen’s home life is seldom peaceful, but in the church and God, she finds the love that she is missing. Further entranced by the nuns at her school, Cathleen announces at 17 that she’s ‘in love’ and entering the convent. There she finds a harsh environment of devotion, the strict hand of the Reverend Mother, and the companionship of other girls similarly eager to show their love for God.

“A coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Vatican II and the massive reforms to the Catholic Church in the 1960s, Novitiate is a stirring exploration about women finding themselves, their faith, and their passions beyond religion. The film is host to a remarkable cast of young actors portraying the novices preparing for life as nuns. Melissa Leo gives one of the year’s strongest performances. Her Reverend Mother is boiling rage underneath her vestments, angry at the changing church and its disrespect to the women who have devoted their lives to it.

“Writer-director Maggie Betts wonderfully blends contemplative pacing with the emotive performances of her cast, crafting a surprisingly sexy and deeply effective story. Novitiate is a film about love — physical, spiritual, and emotional — in its many evolving forms. It’s a stirring debut from a director we are sure to hear much more from in the future.”

Nick Cave at 60: Some Songs That Matter to Me

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Today is the sixtieth birthday of Nick Cave, the Australian singer-songwriter who has gifted the denizens of our planet with albums, film scores, screenplays, novels, poetry, acting and other forms of art for the past four decades. As a tribute, I have chosen to post seventeen videos (ten weren’t enough, and neither were twelve or fifteen); some of these selections represent songs that could be listed among Nick Cave’s greatest hits, while other choices are not necessarily Cave’s most famous or accessible works. But all of the music I have written about has had an undeniable effect on me. They are sounds that are eternally imprinted upon my brain – joyous, sorrowful, frenetic, complicated, beautiful. Take a listen and see if there’s something that you like too.

The Boys Next Door, “Shivers” (Door, Door, 1979). By rights, “Shivers” should be the centerpiece of a discussion of Rowland S. Howard’s music rather than Nick Cave’s, given that Howard penned the composition as a teenager. With melodramatic flair, however, Nick Cave put his own spin on what was originally more of a punk/power pop melody. For better and (if you had asked Howard) worse, Cave made “Shivers” his own; the Boys Next Door’s recording became one of Australia’s finest cult classics. It is, as described by PopMatters, “a song that is the closest approximation we may ever get to the slow dance at a prom in Hell.”

The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party, “The Hair Shirt” (Hee Haw, 1979). As the Boys Next Door morphed into the more aggressive and clamorous Birthday Party – both a name change and a stylistic adaptation – one of the group’s best productions was “The Hair Shirt.” Nick Cave barks like a hound, Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey contribute the best guitar playing that the two young rebels had to offer, Tracy Pew lays down a solid bass line and Phill Calvert fuels the entire thing with a drumbeat that reminds me of jazz fusion. Whatever “The Hair Shirt” is, it feels revolutionary.

The Birthday Party, “Nick the Stripper” (Prayers on Fire, 1981). I shall always count it as one of my proudest memories of graduation school that I spent so much time talking about Nick Cave in my first semester. I don’t just mean in conversation with the friends that I made; I discussed Cave’s music in some form or another in many of my classes. In a class I took on film theory, there was a day when I did a presentation on Deleuzian time theory and used clips from the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth to illustrate my points; later that same day, on our class blog, I posted the “Nick the Stripper” video with further discussion of Nick Cave and company as subversive artists. The emphasis I really wanted to make was that few people outside of Nick Cave’s fanbase seem to recognize that he has a sense of humor. Much of the Birthday Party’s music has a dark, strange, twisted humor, especially “Nick the Stripper’s” mockery of the music video format.

The Birthday Party, “Fears of Gun”/”Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” (live, 1982). I like to think of this video as the gauntlet for all the listeners who are not totally converted to the religion of the Birthday Party. “Hamlet” is a maelstrom of noise, and my favorite part of “Fears of Gun” is the moment when Nick Cave is dragged into the audience. You can hear in the guitar fuzz from 3:37 to 3:44 that Rowland S. Howard stopped playing – possibly considering doing something about Cave’s situation – but the fact that RSH eventually just went back to performing and left Cave to fend for himself makes me laugh.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (Kicking Against the Pricks, 1986). I love making the transition from Nick Cave’s Birthday Party years to his ascendance as leader of the Bad Seeds with this version of a song made famous by American country singer Glen Campbell in 1967. The album on which “Phoenix” appears, Kicking Against the Pricks, is an assemblage of covers that show Cave’s wide range of sonic influences. Other cuts on the album include “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman” (John Lee Hooker), “The Singer” (Johnny Cash), “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (The Velvet Underground & Nico), “The Hammer Song” (The Sensational Alex Harvey Band), “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (Gene Pitney), “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” (a traditional gospel song arranged by the Alabama Singers) and “The Carnival Is Over” (The Seekers). “Phoenix” stands out to me as a particularly special track because I consider it one of Cave’s most touching vocal performances, and the guitar and organ parts were recorded by none other than Cave’s friend and former Birthday Party comrade, Rowland S. Howard.

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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Sad Waters” (Your Funeral… My Trial, 1986). My #1 Bad Seeds album is Your Funeral… My Trial, which contains one of Cave’s most iconic songs, “The Carny,” as well as a number of underrated gems. The opening track, “Sad Waters” (Cave’s handwritten lyrics seen above), swirls with beauty. My favorite aspect of the song is that the opening line is taken directly from the country song “Green, Green Grass of Home,” popularized by Tom Jones in 1966: “Down the road I look and there runs Mary/Hair of gold and lips like cherry.” I like that Cave took that line as momentum to move forward with his own set of lyrics, springing forth from that initial inspiration.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “From Her to Eternity” (live, 1989). This might be my single favorite live performance that Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have ever done. It’s not the most beautiful song or the most in-tune, but it is pure, raw emotion and every member of the band is functioning at 100%.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Knockin’ on Joe” (live, 1989). My favorite concert clip in the Bad Seeds documentary The Road to God Knows Where is this concert clip of “Knockin’ on Joe,” which originally appeared on the second Bad Seeds album, The Firstborn Is Dead (1985). Like other tracks on Firstborn, “Knockin'” follows Cave’s obsession with American blues music, specifically the mythology surrounding Elvis Presley. This rendition is more intense than the album version, pausing for an extended break and then building to a fever pitch that starts at the 3:10 mark and fully kicks in at 3:38. As one YouTube commenter wrote: “This performance is too much, just too, too much. I can’t explain.”

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Christina the Astonishing” (Henry’s Dream, 1992). With the aid of an eerie, echoing organ, “Christina” tells a classic Cave narrative, describing the story of a female character (based on Belgian saint Christina Mirabilis) in a style that conveys both pain and grace. It is a song that sounds like it has materialized from out of a dream, perhaps even more so than the rest of the tracks on Henry’s Dream, which has been considered by some critics to be a concept album.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Do You Love Me?” (live, 1994). The studio recording of “Do You Love Me?” holds a special place in my heart as one of the first Bad Seeds songs that I ever heard, making me a permanent fan of Cave and his collaborators; this live staging for “Later… with Jools Holland” is, in its own way, even better. Conway Savage’s keyboard playing sounds even more forbidding here, almost daring the listener (or, alternately, the person who is the subject of the song’s question) to respond.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (duet with Kylie Minogue, live, 1996). Every Nick Cave fan ought to be familiar with this performance, which features a great bit of behind-the-scenes filming from Nick himself at the beginning. “Where the Wild Roses Grow” partnered Cave with Australia’s bubbly pop princess, Kylie Minogue, and although the pairing took her out of her musical comfort zone, it’s clear both on and off the stage that she and Cave had terrific chemistry.

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Nick Cave’s fantastic rejection letter to MTV after receiving a surprise nomination for Best Male Artist, 1996. Here are videos of Nick and Kylie Minogue reading the missive aloud.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “The Curse of Millhaven” (Murder Ballads, 1996). “I got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming!” If you can get past the first few seconds of maniacal screaming, you’ll find one of this tale of a female serial killer named Lottie to be one of Nick Cave’s sickest, funniest songs. What else would you expect from an album that’s titled Murder Ballads, anyway? Bonus: the “Moron Tabernacle Choir” that sings backup vocals on “Millhaven” includes many of Cave’s good friends from the Australian music community, such as Warren Ellis, Brian Henry Hooper, Rowland S. Howard and Spencer P. Jones.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “And No More Shall We Part” (No More Shall We Part, 2001). I consider this song one of Nick Cave’s greatest triumphs, both as a songwriter and a singer. What more needs to be said?

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Abattoir Blues” (Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, 2004). The season one finale of the BBC Two drama “Peaky Blinders” featured “Abattoir Blues” prominently. This was not a shock, given that the series’ theme song is the classic Bad Seeds tune “Red Right Hand.” “Abattoir” shows that even after thirty-five years, Cave still had vitality and fresh ideas for his music; the background vocalists add so much depth to an already poetic song.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” (live, 2008). In a review of the Bad Seeds’ Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! album for Uncut magazine, Alastair McKay wrote that “the band has never sounded better, and Cave seems to have relaxed into the hysteria of his vocal style; like Elmer Gantry singing Leonard Cohen at a tent-revival.” With that, please watch and enjoy.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Jubilee Street” (scene in 20,000 Days on Earth, filmed in 2012). This is the clip that I taught in the film theory class that I mentioned earlier in the post. 20,000 Days on Earth’s “Jubilee Street” segment reminds me of one of Cave’s ruminations in the film: “My biggest fear is losing memory because memory is what we are. Your very soul and your very reason to be alive is tied up in memory.” As we watch Cave perform at the Sydney Opera House, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard show us assorted moments from Cave’s career, cut into the action to indicate that every single past experience has informed Cave’s evolution and led him to this present moment. The montage is thrilling to witness.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “I Need You” (Skeleton Tree, 2016). Watching the documentary One More Time with Feeling, in which “I Need You” is featured, is an experience that is half uplifting, half soul-crushing. It shows the creation of one of Nick Cave’s most incredible albums, but the film also discusses the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, in 2015. Both in spite of and because of the grief, Cave and his band made one of their most enduring albums. In an interview with The Guardian a few months ago, Nick Cave summed up what the album and the subsequent songwriting experience has been like: “The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience. I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux. So, to apply that to songwriting, a song like ‘I Need You’ off the new album [Skeleton Tree], time and space all seem to be rushing and colliding into a kind of big bang of despair. There is a pure heart, but all around it is chaos.”

2017: Part 2

Dunkirk. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Notes from August 9, 2017: Two weeks ago, I saw Dunkirk in a 70mm IMAX show at my favorite IMAX venue, the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater in Manhattan. As I have probably said numerous times in earlier reviews, that screen provides the definitive IMAX experience for viewers in New York City. I was doubly excited in this instance because I went to Dunkirk with a good friend of mine who did not grow up in New York and who had never been to this particular IMAX theater. (I am happy to report that she was indeed astonished by the immensity of the screen, even more so since we were sitting in the last row, almost exactly in the center.) I mention all of these details because they helped inform how I processed the overwhelming magnitude of Christopher Nolan’s latest film.

From the moment the film started, I was firmly ensconced in the narrative. I felt as though I were actually in the movie. Every heart-pounding tremor boomed out of the sound system and was transferred directly into my seat. It was easy to be captivated by the simple story of young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) since his struggle is universal: to survive. The close-ups of Tommy were breathtaking in IMAX, although perhaps I was specially attuned to them because I often study and write about the impact of faces and bodies in cinema. It is for this same reason that I was also blown away by the performance given by Aneurin Barnard as another of the main soldier characters, Gibson. Barnard has marvelously expressive eyes, a real gift for him to have as an actor since Gibson moves through his scenes in silence.

Indeed, much of Dunkirk’s intensity relies on visuals and on the actors’ abilities to express themselves without dialogue, just like in silent cinema. The subtlest changes in a person’s face can shape a language of their own. You may hear from other viewers and critics that Dunkirk’s characters lack development and the story lacks the types of expected dramatic arcs that accompany traditionally fleshed-out characters, but I do not believe that filmmakers “owe” those details to an audience, nor do I need to know those aspects of a character’s life, either past or present, in order to care. I identified with Tommy as he fought his way through obstacle after obstacle; he felt fear and panic, and I know those emotions intimately. I have been fortunate never to have experienced warfare firsthand, but the fact that Christopher Nolan’s film allowed me to connect so strongly with its soldiers, sailors and heroic citizens is an extraordinary achievement.

Besides Tommy, Gibson and Alex (Harry Styles in a reasonably successful film debut), who are the soldiers we follow on the beach, the film also observes two high-up military officials, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), as well as the valiant work done in the air by pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) and by sea via the civilian vessel captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and one of Peter’s schoolmates, George (Barry Keoghan, who will be seen as the young lead of Yorgos Lanthimos’ next film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in November). Another key member of the cast is Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), the unnamed British serviceman who is found in the Channel by the Dawson boat and whose experiences at Dunkirk have left him shell-shocked. All of these performers do incredible work, but Murphy is especially affecting.

Don’t be fooled by reviewers who say that Dunkirk has no one protagonist, though. In spite of the tripartite storytelling created by Nolan (as we have seen throughout his career, he is obsessed with narratives about the manipulation of time), there is no doubt that Tommy is at the center of the action. He is the first character we pay attention to in the film, and the last person we see onscreen. Other characters carry their sections of the narrative, but Tommy is the beating heart of our viewing experience. Christopher Nolan has compared Fionn Whitehead to a young Tom Courtenay, and I absolutely agree.

It should go without saying – although I will say so anyway – that the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (he has shot several big-deal movies in the last decade: Let the Right One In, The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Interstellar, Spectre) and the editing by Lee Smith (he has cut every Christopher Nolan film dating back to Batman Begins) are top of the line. Think pieces from the past few weeks have criticized various aspects of Dunkirk, including the lack of diversity and the fact that the characters refer to “the enemy” rather than Nazis or Germans, but one of the most crucial components of artistic license is the ability to tell a story from the perspective of one’s choosing. First, Nolan’s choice of language does not negate the evilness of the Nazis, and second, I do not believe that Nolan intended to depict the entirety of the Dunkirk experience. We do not see the faces of every single person on the beach. Instead we concentrate on four soldiers, two pilots and three civilians. Their stories are their own, not anyone else’s (even though Tommy was evidently written as an Everyman figure). No film should be held to the same standards expected from a comprehensive, thousand-page textbook.

Tonally, Nolan’s film is closer to the mood of World War I stories like Stanley Kubrick’s film Paths of Glory or the Dalton Trumbo novel Johnny Got His Gun, rather than what we usually expect from modern films made about World War II. The brilliance of Dunkirk isn’t just in how it portrays the effects of psychological trauma on soldiers who are barely old enough to shave, let alone fight and die in battle; it is also in the knowledge that Tommy and his comrades must reckon with two opposing truths, the importance of the Allied cause versus the utterly cruel and harrowing realities of combat. World War II movies don’t have to show limbs flying everywhere, like in Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge; we know that that happens in war. But Dunkirk still communicates the lows and eventual highs of this historic evacuation by showing pain, doubt, loss, but throughout it all the strength of the human spirit. I applaud the bravery of examining the grotesque nature of war seen through the eyes of young men while simultaneously acknowledging how necessary it was for World War II to be fought and won by the Allies; one does not cancel out the other. Therein lies the significance of the film’s final shot and the greatness of Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece as a whole.

Kong: Skull Island. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Notes from September 10, 2017: Following Godzilla, the second creature feature in Warner Bros’ MonsterVerse is Kong: Skull Island, a suitably larger-than-life take on everyone’s favorite giant ape. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts turns the clock back to 1973, when the US was split between those who supported the Vietnam War and those who opposed it, each side vehemently defending its stance. Bill Randa (John Goodman) leads a group of scientists (including Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz and Tian Jing) and an antiwar photographer (Brie Larson) on a top-secret mission to Skull Island, aided by a jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a lieutenant colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) who is angry that Americans are leaving Vietnam, and a number of soldiers (including Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Jason Mitchell) who are on their way home from Saigon when they are asked to do this one last task for the government.

No one but Bill Randa realizes the dangers that inhabit Skull Island – and even he doesn’t know exactly what to expect – so the team of explorers is in for the world’s rudest awakening when the helicopters attempt to make landfall. Mighty Kong is on the rampage and many soldiers lose their lives, but it turns out that Kong is actually the territory’s protector; the real threats are the “skullcrawlers,” beasts that could definitely give you nightmares. Kong is the last line of defense against those other ancient predators, and no matter how much the humans try to help, it is up to the king to save the day.

Kong: Skull Island is a decent popcorn experience, a mainstream diversion that consistently entertains you for two hours, but I have one major bone to pick with Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Comparisons with Apocalypse Now are apt; certainly many other critics have noted the aesthetic homages that Kong pays to Coppola’s classic; but Kong tries way too hard to drive home the idea that it is somehow better than the standard mainstream adventure flick. Vogt-Roberts one pretentious film school lesson after another into the proceedings, whether it’s the rapid-fire editing by Richard Pearson, the cinematography by Larry Fong (especially in the scene where we first meet Tom Hiddleston’s character in a neon-lit bar, but elsewhere in all the super-saturated greenish-gold tones on the island) or the wall-to-wall soundtrack of choice 60s/70s rock songs. Any one of these elements would be impressive, but the onslaught of everything altogether seems to say “Isn’t this movie so much better than its predecessors?” A young filmmaker should focus more on getting good performances out of his actors – only Samuel L. Jackson and a particularly well-cast John C. Reilly as a World War II vet who has been stranded on Skull Island since the 1940s – than on whether he has crammed in all the techniques you might see on a professor’s checklist.

Once Upon a Time in Venice. Directed by Mark Cullen. Notes from July 29, 2017: I should probably be more cautious about which films I decide to which simply because a favorite actor is in the cast. Case in point: Thomas Middleditch, the absurdly talented star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Cinematically I am sometimes rewarded, as with the irreverent joy of his performance in The Bronze, while other times I witness the career-low stupidity of the Hangover rip-off known as Search Party; Once Upon a Time in Venice is much closer to the latter than the former.

Middleditch plays John, the younger partner in Steve Ford’s (Bruce Willis) vaguely shady detective agency. Los Angeles gumshoe-ing aside, this ain’t exactly The Long Goodbye. The comedy here plays to the lowest common denominator, substituting dick jokes, pornographic graffiti and needless sex scenes for nuance, wit or even a hint of film noir-style cool in the many action sequences. The humor is supposed to arise from us all laughing warmly at Willis being too old and grizzled for his role, but that gag has run its course.

The plot is primarily concerned with Willis and Middleditch retrieving Willis’s stolen dog from various drug dealers, a narrative which last year’s Keanu employed first (albeit with a kitten) to more amusing effect. Jason Momoa earns a few chuckles as a cocaine kingpin called Spyder, and Adrian Martinez scores in his small role as one of Willis’s beleaguered compadres, but I have no idea why Famke Janssen took the thankless and boring job of playing Willis’s sister, nor do I understand what John Goodman is doing in this movie as Willis’s best friend, Dave. The part requires nothing of Goodman except to play a more stoned version of his sidekick character from the Big Lebowski. I am similarly puzzled as to why Kal Penn, Elisabeth Röhm, Billy Gardell, Christopher McDonald, Ron Funches and David Arquette contributed cameos, but I guess there’s not much point in my asking further questions of this disappointing movie.

P.S. One of the few funny lines: Thomas Middleditch’s character describes himself as “I’ve been told I’m a bit of a young Roger Daltrey, if he spent a lot of time with computers.”

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Directed by Jon Watts. Notes from July 30, 2017: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good selection for a diverting night at the movies; it delivers high-octane action without ever quite reaching the emotional heights of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy or even the schmaltz of the Andrew Garfield-starring reboots. It’s not Tom Holland’s fault that I’ll only ever be able to see Tobey Maguire as Marvel’s beloved webslinger, so I commend Holland for giving us a spirited and thoroughly enjoyable portrayal of Peter Parker.

Jon Watts’ version of the classic superhero story focuses on young Peter facing off against disgruntled former engineer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), better known as Vulture. Keaton growls and sneers, but he does not add much more than that to the film, although he and Holland engage in a tense, violence-free conversation in perhaps the film’s finest scene. Holland explores Peter’s struggle to handle the complexities of first love and his duty to protect innocent lives with fresh-faced charm; it is easy to empathize with him, although I find it interesting that the film never once mentions Peter’s childhood, his parents or an Uncle Ben. (Am I forgetting crucial information mentioned during Tom Holland’s debut as Peter in Captain America: Civil War?)

In the footsteps of Rosemary Harris and Sally Field, Marisa Tomei plays Aunt May with a more youthful energy and sense of humor. Contrary to the amount of promotion that Zendaya did for Homecoming, her character (“Michelle”) is not Peter’s love interest; that role goes to Laura Harrier, the tall and graceful performer who plays Liz, another of Peter’s classmates. Harrier doesn’t get too many chances at character development here, but I appreciated her efforts.

Where Homecoming falls short is in its sense of purpose. It is the third “first” Spider-Man film in the last fifteen years, and it does not improve upon previously employed formulas for cinematic success. In spite of Vulture’s penchant for high-tech gadgets capable of vaporizing opponents, I never actually got a sense that the villain (about whose backstory I know remarkably little – the comics probably would have informed me, but the film certainly didn’t) or his weaponry posed a grave threat to New York or to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, Homecoming triumphs in the casting of its smaller roles: televised appearances by Chris Evans as Captain America, constantly reminding school kids of the importance of education, safety and other virtues; Jacob Batalon as Peter’s endlessly encouraging best friend, Ned; Tony Revolori (last seen by me as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Flash, a minor nemesis from Peter’s high school; Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, who will presumably become the Prowler in the sequel; Tyne Daly in a brief appearance as a domineering authority figure at the beginning of the film; a fun cameo from Hannibal Buress as a disinterested gym teacher; and Martin Starr as the teacher in charge of Peter’s debate team – for my money, Starr delivers the funniest line in the movie (you’ll know it when you see/hear it). Maybe whatever good vibes Spider-Man: Homecoming operates on are courtesy of the “Freaks and Geeks” reunion of Starr and one of Homecoming’s screenwriters, John Francis Daley. I won’t mind more of these Tom Holland-led Spider-Man adventures as long as talents like Daley are working behind the scenes.

Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Notes from July 21, 2017: Now the record holder for the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman at $750 million and counting, Wonder Woman proves that the story of DC Comics’ most enduring superheroes can be told with genuine emotion and plenty of awesome action, not compromising one for the other.

Gal Gadot brings tremendous strength and likeability to her portrayal of Diana (later known as Diana Prince), Princess of Themyscira. Diana grows up on that isle, surrounded by powerful women like her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and General Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana is so inspired by them that she decides she must train to become a warrior too. When circumstances bring American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to Themyscira when he is trying to outrun the Germans – outside of the island’s sheltered atmosphere, the real world is embroiled in World War I – he joins forces with Diana, who is convinced that the God of War, Ares, is the cause of the international destruction. What ensues is a series of battles that test Diana’s courage, physical power and her understanding of love.

Gadot is well-matched by Pine, who has become my favorite of the various Chrises (Evans, Pratt, Hemsworth) thanks to his portrayal of Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboots and as the co-lead of one of last year’s finest films, Hell or High Water. Pine brings charm and intelligence to the role of Steve Trevor, as well as having real sparks with Gadot. Both actors bring a ton to the table, in addition to the character arcs created by story writers/screenwriters Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs. Other commendable performances are given by Danny Huston as Ludendorff, head of the Nazi faction that Diana and Steve are hunting; David Thewlis deftly plays Sir Patrick, the Parliament legislator who supports Diana’s quest to stop Ludendorff; Lucy Davis as Etta, Steve’s bubbly secretary; Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock as the other members of Diana and Steve’s undercover cadre; and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru, the unstable scientist responsible for the German military’s most dangerous chemical weapons.

Wonder Woman is not entirely as successful a project as I hoped it would be, given that most of the plot’s twists and turns are easy to figure out ahead of time. There is no denying, however, that the film is a completely entertaining and emotionally engaging package. It is rare for Hollywood to produce such an inspirational and empowering blockbuster.

P.S. I’m tempted to say that Wonder Woman reminds me of Pop Culture Detective’s “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, since Steve Trevor is the first man in Diana’s life and she almost instantly develops feelings for him (and, we presume, he doesn’t have to worry too much about disappointing her in their love scene since she has no prior experience), but Diana also upends the trope; instead of blindly following Steve and believing anything he tells her, for example, she often questions him and rebels against his line of thinking. Their relationship is ultimately built on respect. Besides, as all viewers of Wonder Woman will recall, our heroine is well-versed in literature on sex and sexuality. Diana knows she doesn’t need a man in order to find physical/emotional fulfillment; she wants Steve and that makes all the difference.

P.P.S. More real talk: Diana wants to believe that a god run amok is responsible for the madness of World War I, but the reality is so much scarier: mortal human beings were capable of creating that cesspool themselves, a war that could have been avoided since it never should have escalated as it did.

2017: Part 1

Band Aid. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. Notes from July 5, 2017: After a decade of producing films and co-writing screenplays, in addition to her blossoming career as an actress (currently starring on the CBS sitcom “Life in Pieces”), Zoe Lister-Jones makes her directorial debut in Band Aid, which she also wrote and stars in. Lister-Jones and Adam Pally play Anna and Ben, a suburban husband and wife who are on the verge of divorce. In an attempt to save their marriage, they decide to channel their anger into songs by forming a band in their garage and letting the arguments inspire some musical creativity. An excessively kooky neighbor, Dave (Fred Armisen), joins Anna and Ben on drums, and before long the couple begins to see a future for themselves both personally and professionally.

All of the different roads to success are rocky, and some of Anna and Ben’s problems are mediated by Dave, some of Anna’s friends, a marriage counselor (Retta) and Ben’s mother (Susie Essman). These scenes of marital discord show Zoe Lister-Jones’s strengths as an actress and director, although the writing is occasionally mediocre; a scene near in the end of the film in which Anna’s post-traumatic stress over a miscarriage is explained in heavy-handed generalizations about femininity and motherhood that seem to have been culled from Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The comic and tragic sides of the narrative are unequal in their respective developments and Fred Armisen (as delightfully weird as you would hope) seems to be acting in an entirely different universe from his co-stars, which is more often distracting than quirky. Even so, most of Band Aid’s music hits the right notes, particularly the wonderful “Love and Lies” and the energetically cathartic “Mood.” I also appreciate that Zoe Lister-Jones worked with an all-female crew, resulting in some first-rate cinematography by Hillary Spera (High Road, Black Rock, Wildlike). Band Aid isn’t likely to sweep any stages come awards season, but it’s a more than pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Baywatch. Directed by Seth Gordon. Notes from June 30, 2017: You can guess it just from knowing that the movie exists: the 2017 big-screen reboot of Baywatch was created solely for the purpose of objectification. There are no stunning new revelations made about the sexual/emotional natures of men and women, the value of teamwork or the importance of integrity; there is just the awareness of the camera constantly finding excuses to gawk at well-flaunted body parts. I could pick apart the finer points of the plot concerning the crime-fighting Florida lifeguards played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (one of the most likeable dudes in the movies, it goes without saying), Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Jon Bass and others – I’m sure that critics with more patience than I have noted the wasted opportunities of casting Rob Huebel and Oscar Nuñez in boring roles that could have been played by not-comedic actors – but what I really want to discuss is the level of audience participation in the theater where I saw Baywatch, and how it intersected with desires for objectification.

Three vital issues could be gleaned from the screening where I saw Baywatch, all information provided by the tweens/teens sitting in the row directly behind me:

  1. Internalization of Hollywood’s standard attractive/unattractive binary: Zac Efron’s reverse uncanny valley abs give him a “desirable” body (the loudest of the girls screamed “Zac Efron! Bae! He’s mine, guys!” during the opening credits), whereas Jon Bass’s physique automatically goes beyond the “undesirable” range into “ewwww, disgusting” territory (the noises that the girls made at the sight of his chest were pitched somewhere between groaning and terrified shrieking)
  2. Weird noises made when Pamela Anderson made her cameo at the end of the film (during which she does not have a single word of dialogue, by the way) lead me to believe that young people don’t know who Pam Anderson is and/or they have deeply judgmental feelings about her looks (what a shock, people complaining about a fifty-year-old woman’s appearance)
  3. The worst and most confusing of all: toward the end of the film – I can’t remember which exact scene, but it was something making plain that Priyanka Chopra’s villainous plans were about to fail – one of the girls behind me made the comment, “Yeah, take that, you slut!” (The other girls giggled in response, maybe out of embarrassment but possibly in agreement.) What is it about Chopra’s character that connotes slut? Did the main tween read the character’s confident, unabashed sexiness/sexuality as the defining quality of her badness? Did race/ethnicity play any part in the tween’s conclusion about the character? What does this remark tell us about how young girls perceive girls and women in media today?

The avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren once said that the advantage of an “amateur production” over a Hollywood movie was that a smaller project is not “expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes.” Baywatch is precisely the type of big-budget time-waster that Deren opposed, designed to be a silly and fun exercise in surefire entertainment. Should I wish that I could have turned my brain off and enjoyed the stupidity more, or should I be glad that I have the voice of Maya Deren whispering in my ear, reminding me that there is always more than one way to tell a seaside story?

P.S. In fairness to Baywatch, there was no way it could ever have lived up to the precedent set by the greatest beach-action flick of all time, Kathryn Bigelow’s pulse-poundingly awesome masterpiece Point Break (1991).

Fifty Shades Darker. Directed by James Foley. Notes from July 4, 2017: Who would I be kidding if I said that I was ever going to read E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy? I have too many other things to do, like watch more movies, listen to music and read novels that are actually worthy of my time. But I bothered to watch Fifty Shades of Grey just so I could get my toe in the pop-culture door concerning this particular worldwide phenomenon, and as bad as it was it wasn’t actually the worst film of 2015, so I figured that I might as well give the second installment of the franchise a chance too.

Blandly hunky gazillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and perpetually nervous book-editing intern Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) return in this sequel, which is frustratingly devoid some of the stylistic touches of Grey’s director (Sam Taylor-Johnson). The film also suffers from a comparatively more boring soundtrack: the first film had a pair of genuinely catchy pop tracks, Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” and the Weeknd’s “Earned It,” whereas Darker’s main theme, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” is a thoroughly passionless duet between Zayn Malik and Taylor Swift. Darker observes the complications of Anastasia and Christian pursuing a “normal” relationship rather than their previous S&M-based affair. Before long, two of Christian’s former partners resurface, including a mentally unstable submissive (Bella Heathcote) and the much older woman who initiated Christian into sadomasochistic sex, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger). Anastasia meets both of these women; violent encounters ensue.

Assuming that you can survive the onslaught of melodrama and the various sex scenes that are never a fraction as arousing as the series’ reputation indicates, Fifty Shades Darker is actually a fairly painless viewing experience. I like Dakota Johnson more with each film of hers that I see, so that’s a net positive; Jamie Dornan continues to bring little more than abs to his role, but he showed a fair amount of promise as an actor in last year’s overlooked WWII thriller Anthropoid, so I place the blame on E.L. James, screenwriter Niall Leonard and  director James Foley (who did strong work at the helm of the film At Close Range and also S2 E17 of “Twin Peaks,” which fans will remember as the pine weasel/fashion show episode) for Dornan’s blankness in the Fifty Shades films.

P.S. What Fifty Shades Darker lacks in eroticism, at least it makes up for in a line-for-line homage to Working Girl.

Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele. Notes from April 21, 2017: Believe the hype: the directorial debut by Jordan Peele (”MADtv,” “Key & Peele,” Keanu) is both a mordant satire of horror cinema and a truly disturbing window into the grotesque realities of racism in America. Get Out is a film that you definitely need to see in a movie theater, preferably a crowded one, since it’s a story that really benefits from a receptive and responsive audience. Reactions will undoubtedly differ depending where you live – I saw it at a three-quarters-full screening in a Regal multiplex in Manhattan – but I bet that no matter where you are, your fellow moviegoers’ collective feedback is as much a part of the experience as the film itself.

British actor Daniel Kaluuya, whom I last saw in the film Sicario a year and a half ago, plays our protagonist, a twentysomething African-American man named Chris Washington who works as a photographer and who agrees to go with his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to visit her parents in the countryside for the weekend. Rose is white, and she has not told her mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), or her father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), that Chris is black. Rose insists, however, that race is not an issue with her family; early in the film she declares that her dad “would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.” As soon as Chris and Rose arrive in her hometown, though, it is obvious that something is amiss. We know from the film’s opening scene that all is not well in suburbia, when we see a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) attacked and abducted on a quiet street, but it takes time for us to see the full effect of that act and its many ramifications.

All of the aforementioned actors in the film give fine performances, but I must also highlight Caleb Landry Jones, who does a pretty good Heath Ledger impression as Rose’s mumbling, scraggly-haired, clearly unhinged younger brother, Jeremy; Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend, Rod; Stephen Root as one of the Armitages’ many friends, Jim Hudson; and my personal favorite supporting actor, Betty Gabriel (a newcomer to me, and this film made me an instant fan!), as Georgina, the Armitages’ housekeeper and a woman who holds more than a few secrets. My favorite shot in Get Out is an extreme close-up on Gabriel’s face, an image that every person who has seen the film will instantly recall.

Besides the incredibly powerful messages that Get Out bears about racial hatred and stereotypes taken to gory horror-movie extremes (although they’re not too far removed from actions we have seen or can imagine in real life), the film also revels in similarities and homages to numerous iconic motion pictures both in and out of the horror genre; at times I recognized kindred spirits in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Last House on the Left, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and, reaching beyond the cinematic realm to the literary world, Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” (Incidentally, if you are familiar with Stephen Root’s career, you will be reminded of one of his earlier film roles when his character appears in Get Out. I won’t say anything further to spoil the entertainment factor.) (Additionally: there is an instance when a character listens on an iPod to the theme song from a certain film classic of the 1980s; nobody in my theater laughed out loud, but trust me when I tell you it’s a perfect moment that crystallizes exactly what Jordan Peele wanted to get across in that particular scene.) It is obvious that Jordan Peele has not only the creativity but also the technical skill to be considered one of Hollywood’s most exciting and thought-provoking new directors, capable of developing cinema that is both enjoyable for the masses and rich in meaning – an ability that not every young filmmaker can claim.

Snatched. Directed by Jonathan Levine. Notes from June 20, 2017: The only way for me to see Snatched was on the big screen with a friend four weekends ago, since I’m not certain that I would make the effort to watch it on TV myself. I won’t deny that I have some fun watching Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer play a mother and daughter who reconnect after years of storminess when they go on a trip to Ecuador that soon leads to them being kidnapped and subsequently running all over Colombia. Snatched mines more genuinely amusing comedy than I expected from the ridiculous situations that Schumer and Hawn find themselves in, and I appreciated the supporting performances by Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack as two resourceful women vacationing at the same resort as our two heroines, Ike Barinholtz as Schumer’s uncomfortably weird older brother, Christopher Meloni as the hypermasculine adventurer who tries (and fails) to help the ladies on their treacherous journey and Al Madrigal as a well-meaning but incompetent worker at the U.S. embassy in Bogota.

As disappointing as it is that Snatched sticks with expected stereotypes for the South American drug lord villain and his henchmen, there are some funny moments mined from the predictability. The opening scene is great (I won’t spoil the punch line), and there’s a ridiculously entertaining encounter with a tapeworm later on in the film. Also, as a woman, I appreciate Amy Schumer’s physical presence onscreen; I don’t recall her size ever being the focus of any jokes, and it’s refreshing to see her walk around a few times in a bikini without having to display any embarrassment or shame. Snatched is full of clichés about learning to love and accept yourself and your family, and very little of the humor felt fresh, but overall I found the film more enjoyable than nearly every critic led me to believe.

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

Director/screenwriter/producer Gurinder Chadha and cinematographer Ben Smithard on the set of Viceroy’s House, 2015.

Here are thirty-three new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this September, 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.

(I know this post is coming out later than usual since September is already halfway over, but better late than never!)

SEPTEMBER 1: Dalida (dir. Lisa Azuelos)Pathé International synopsis:From her birth in Cairo in 1933 to her first concert at the Olympia in Paris in 1956; from her marriage to Lucien Morisse, director of the newly emerging Europe 1 radio to the height of the disco scene; from her journey of discovery to India to the international success of “Gigi L’Amoroso” in 1974, Dalida is a touching and tragic portrait of an emotionally complex woman who was born to be a star. An unconventional modern woman living through conventional times. Despite her tragic death in 1987 Dalida’s extraordinary presence and talent continue to live on.

SEPTEMBER 1: I Do… Until I Don’t (dir. Lake Bell)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “In Vero Beach, Florida, a trio of couples at various points in their relationships become the subjects of a film about marriage being an antiquated idea that needs a reboot: Why not turn marriage into a seven-year deal with an option to renew?

“For Alice and Noah (Lake Bell, Ed Helms), more than a hint of boredom is setting in as they approach their first decade together and the prospect of parenthood. Meanwhile, Alice’s funky sister Fanny (Amber Heard) is sure her ‘open marriage’ to Zander (Wyatt Cenac) is the key to their free-spirited happiness. And then there’s Cybil and Harvey (Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser), a pair of empty-nesters wondering what the next stage will be.

“As the manipulative filmmaker (Dolly Wells) attempts to show how marriage is outmoded, the couples she interviews discover the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’ in their own relationships.

I Do…Until I Don’t is Lake Bell’s directorial follow-up to her acclaimed 2013 film In a World.

SEPTEMBER 1: Jesús (dir. Fernando Guzzoni) (DP: Barbara Alvarez)Cinema Village synopsis: “Nothing comes easily to Santiago teen Jesús. His group has just lost the local battle of the boy bands, he can’t seem to finish high school or keep track of money, and his widower father is fed up with his inertia. Uncertain what path to take, Jesús is trapped in a dead-end cycle of getting wasted with his buddies and looking for trouble.

“One night, the boys are partying in a cemetery when things get out of hand. The boys gang up on a defenseless kid, beating him badly. The next day, Jesús learns that the kid’s in a coma, and the police are searching for those responsible. Desperate to avoid both the authorities and his friends, he has no choice but to turn to his father for help. But how far should a father be expected to go to protect a child when that child is as lost as Jesús?

Jesús is loosely inspired by true events that occurred in Santiago, Chile, where Daniel Mauricio Zamudio, a gay man, was beaten and tortured for several hours in a park in downtown Santiago. After being attacked by four men, Zamudio died 25 days later after being in a coma. Zamudio has become a symbol against homophobic violence in Chile.”

SEPTEMBER 1: Kill Me Please (dir. Anita Rocha da Silveira)Variety’s SXSW Film Festival review by Dennis Harvey: “Teen sexual exploration and the coming-of-age tale are first-feature cliches, but such is the range of human experience (and art) that there’s always room for a new vision to make that familiar territory seem fresh. The Brazilian film Kill Me Please offers a bracingly distinctive turn on those well-worn themes by chronicling a group of adolescent girls’ hormonally restless summer during a wave of murders in their West Zone neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Anita Rocha da Silveira’s arresting debut feature captures the queasy mix of desire and fear among kids who are sexually inexperienced, yet can think of little else. Pop kitsch, social satire, dreamy narrative unreliability and retro giallo-thriller vibes further flavor a movie at once bold and cryptic. Likely to incite strong if uneven critical response (as well as sales interest), it certainly marks its director as a talent to watch.

“Still in school during the onerous heat of the season, our 15-year-old heroines run in a pack: There’s central protagonist Bia (Valentina Herszage), gossipy Michele (Julia Roliz), flirtatious Mariana (Mariana Oliveira) and slightly overweight, insecure Renata (Dora Freind). They all live in nearby apartment blocks, where Bia’s older brother Joao (Bernardo Marinho) is nearly always at home — though their mother almost never is. (Indeed, adults are nowhere to be seen in this film’s exclusively teenaged psychological and social universe, with even teachers kept off-screen.)

“The usual adolescent fascination with all things sexual and/or icky is in collective hyperdrive at present, because their own Barra da Tijuca district is being plagued by murders — young women being found stabbed and/or strangled to death in the open fields between major roads and the massive apartment complexes. Police are as yet uncertain whether there’s one killer or more. That lack of known suspects or other intel feeds into the kind of thrilled, paranoid urban-mythologizing that impressionable minds (especially Michele, who repeats and embellishes every tall tale she hears) thrive on.

“…Disdaining any conventional murder-mystery satisfactions, Kill Me Please ends with a striking image that underlines how its use of serial-killer horror tropes is meant to be taken less literally than metaphorically. The film itself occupies a fever state of mercurial adolescent emotions and curiosities, propelled by the urgent romantic yearnings of dance-pop lyrics, dreamlike narrative ellipses and a sinister sensuality that extends even to the views of mangled corpses. Yet unlike the standard slasher template, there’s no air of misogynist exploitation here. Da Silveira’s view of developing female sexuality eschews any sense of simple, titillating victimhood for a mindset in which girls’ imaginations and actions can be just as aggressive (both erotically and otherwise) as any boys’.

“That internal volatility, as well as a generous streak of humor, allows Kill Me to get away with a lot of outré tactics, from periodically having the protagonists simply stare at the camera (perhaps standing in for a mirror) to a spontaneous playground dance number. It also sustains the movie beyond its midpoint peak of a princessy classmate’s birthday party at which all macabre, campy and standard teen-flick elements collide in a perfect storm of controlled excess.

“Da Silveira demonstrates masterful control over a complicated tonal and aesthetic palette, boasting fine contributions from all her collaborators, with visual and sonic elements equally highly worked.”

SEPTEMBER 1: Viceroy’s House (dir. Gurinder Chadha)Pathé International synopsis:British rulers of India. After 300 years, that rule was coming to an end. For 6 months in 1947, Lord Mountbatten, great grandson of Queen Victoria, assumed the post of the last Viceroy, charged with handing India back to its people. Mountbatten lived upstairs together with his wife and daughter. Downstairs lived their 500 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh servants. As the political elite took their seats to wrangle over the birth of independent India, conflict erupted throughout the House and a catastrophic decision was taken with global repercussions. Partition – the decision to divide India and create the new Muslim homeland of Pakistan – led to the largest mass migration in human history.

“The film is deeply personal to the director whose own family was caught up in the tragic events that unfolded as British rule came to an end. Her film examines those events through the prism of both a marriage – that of Louis (Hugh Bonneville) and Edwina Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson) – and a romance – that between a young Hindu servant, Jeet (Manish Dayal), and his intended Muslim bride, Aalia (Huma Qureshi). The young lovers find themselves caught up in the seismic end of Empire, in conflict with the Mountbattens and with their own communities, but never ever giving up hope…”

SEPTEMBER 6: Spettacolo (dirs. Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen)Quad Cinema synopsis: “From the makers of the acclaimed documentary Marwencol (soon to be a fictionalized feature from Robert Zemeckis) comes another astonishing nonfiction portrait of the line between fantasy and reality. For five decades, the residents of a small Tuscan hill town have turned their piazza into stage, putting on an original play based on their own lives. But as the aging population passes away, the town’s 50th anniversary production may just be its last.”

SEPTEMBER 8: Boris Without Beatrice (dir. Denis Côté) (DP: Jessica Lee Gagné)KimStim synopsis: “The latest feature film by Québécois filmmaker Denis Côté (Carcasses, Curling, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear), Boris Without Beatrice is a morality tale with fairy-tale inflections that focuses on Boris Malinovsky, an affluent, successful businessman who comports himself with an extreme degree of pride and arrogance. When his wife, a Minister of the Canadian Government, is rendered nearly catatonic by a mysterious depression, it triggers a series of events that brings Boris to the point of professional, personal, and even existential crisis. His attempts to repair his relationships with his wife and estranged daughter are complicated by his affair with a colleague, and the dangerous relationship that develops with his young housekeeper. And to make matters worse, Boris has to contend as well with an enigmatic, threatening, and uncannily all-knowing figure, played – with typical relish and theatrical flair – by the great Denis Lavant. Boris Without Beatrice is at once a sharply observed character study, an unsparing portrait of the moneyed classes, and an audaciously dark fable.”

SEPTEMBER 8: Company Town (dir. Natalie Kottke-Masocco and co-dir. Erica Sardarian)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “What do you do when the company you work for, and live near, is making you sick? Company Town is a groundbreaking investigative documentary that tells the story of a modern day David vs. Goliath.

“Filmed nearly four years, following one man’s journey to save his town. He’s up against one of the nation’s largest paper mill and chemical plants, Georgia-Pacific, owned by billionaire brothers Charles Koch and David Koch of Koch Industries, a company neighbors worked their entire lives for making products like, Angel Soft, Brawny Paper Towels, Quilted Northern, and Dixie paper cups.

“He galvanizes the town, revealing untold stories of cancer and illness. A whistleblower bravely steps forward shedding light on Georgia-Pacific’s egregious business practices.

“A rare look inside one hidden American town, where the company rules and the government’s negligence pushes them to stand up and fight for justice. Crossett, Arkansas represents all towns across America polluted by big business.”

SEPTEMBER 8: Free in Deed (dir. Jake Mahaffy) (DP: Ava Berkofsky)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Set in the distinctive world of storefront churches, and based on actual events, Free in Deed depicts one man’s attempts to perform a miracle. When a single mother brings her young boy to church for healing, this lonely pentecostal minister is forced to confront the seemingly incurable illness of the child… and his own demons as well. The more he prays, the more things seem to spiral out of his control.”

SEPTEMBER 8: Home Again (dir. Hallie Meyers-Shyer)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Home Again stars Reese Witherspoon (“Big Little Lies,” Wild, Walk the Line, Sweet Home Alabama) as Alice Kinney in a modern romantic comedy. Recently separated from her husband (Michael Sheen), Alice decides to start over by moving back to her hometown of Los Angeles with her two young daughters. During a night out on her 40th birthday, Alice meets three aspiring filmmakers who happen to be in need of a place to live. Alice agrees to let the guys stay in her guest house temporarily, but the arrangement ends up unfolding in unexpected ways. Alice’s unlikely new family and new romance comes to a crashing halt when her ex-husband shows up, suitcase in hand. Home Again is a story of love, friendship, and the families we create. And one very big life lesson: Starting over is not for beginners.”

SEPTEMBER 8: Lipstick Under My Burkha (dir. Alankrita Shrivastava)Hollywood Reporter’s Tokyo International Film Festival by Deborah Young: “While overtly feminist films have been trending for some time in the Arab world, in India none are as bold and colorful as Alankrita Shrivastava’s second feature, Lipstick Under my Burkha. Despite its catchy title, not all the characters are Muslim or wear a burkha. But the metaphor holds for all of these freedom fighters as they seek personal and sexual liberation from domineering husbands, overbearing boyfriends and a claustrophobic society. Bright and breezy, the M-appeal release is aimed at women and could find some art house dates after its festival showcases. In Tokyo, where it premiered just before Mumbai, it won the Spirit of Asia award.

“In India, Bollywood vulgarity is OK but onscreen kissing is an issue and nudity is limited to art films aimed at foreign audiences. In this context, Lipstick is audaciously outspoken about women’s sexual desires and fantasies, both visually and verbally. All this is pretty tame stuff in the West, but one wonders how the Hindi-language film will be received locally and whether its frankness will be cause for scandal. Its quartet of neatly interwoven stories, shot in vivid pop art colors, have a gentle humor that takes some of the sting out of the outrageous way the women are treated.

“Writer-director Shrivastava, whose first feature was the girl-loses-boy tale Turning 30!!!, casts her net wide to include four Indian women of different ages and backgrounds. They hail from small-town India, depicted as a dusty palimpsest of time-worn back alleys and courtyards. Konkona Sen Sharma plays the warm, enterprising Shirin, a young mother of three whose husband has recently returned from working abroad. She tolerates his loveless love-making with gritted teeth, but hides from him the fact she’s earning good money as a door-to-door saleswoman.She rightly suspects he won’t approve.

“Leela (Aahana Kumra), an ambitious beautician, offers herself as a bridal consultant in tandem with her Muslim photographer boyfriend Arshad. Her open desire for him leads to several sex scenes where she takes the lead, even filming one of them on her phone to use as blackmail in case he ever decides to dump her. Meanwhile she reluctantly lets her family get her engaged to a nice, well-to-do Hindi boy, who tells her he wants their home to be so comfortable she’ll never have to set foot outside it.

“The other two stories are the most curious. In one, college freshman Rehana discovers the sensual world of perfume, clothes, music, drinking, parties and boys, but has to hide it all from her strict Muslim parents. Ironically, they keep her sewing burkhas all night in their tailoring shop, while Cinderella dreams of dancing in the disco. As Rehana, newcomer Plabita Borthakur is a one-woman cultural contrast, a caged bird itching to taste the world but too inexperienced to avoid its traps and pitfalls.

“The film dips into outright comedy in the tale of Auntie Usha, delightfully played by veteran actress Ratna Pathak Shah in a multi-layered performance that is alternately pathetic and hilarious. It is she whose soft voice reads the story of “Rosy” offscreen in key moments of the film. Rosy is a character in the erotic women’s fiction to which Auntie is addicted. While the competent Usha takes care of her grandkids and fends off developers eager to demolish her historic home, her fantasy life is lustfully elsewhere, with Rosy. But when she develops a crush on a hunky life-guard that progresses to steamy phone sex, she gets in deep water. It would have been easy to fall into the grotesque in these scenes, something director and actress skillfully avoid all the way to a bitter but satisfying denouement.

“Akshay Singh’s cinematography is generally bright and busy, but he also skillfully uses color to set these daring women off from their conservative environment. Zebunnisa Bangash’s music adds rhythm to the scenes.”

SEPTEMBER 8: Motherland (dir. Ramona S. Diaz) (DPs: Clarissa de los Reyes and Nadia Hallgren)Cinema Village synopsis:Motherland takes us into the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. The film’s viewer, like an unseen outsider dropped unobtrusively into the hospital’s stream of activity, passes through hallways, enters rooms and listens in on conversations. At first, the surrounding people are strangers. But as the film continues, it’s absorbingly intimate, rendering the women at the heart of the story increasingly familiar. Three women—Lea, Aira and Lerma—emerge to share their stories with other mothers, their families, doctors and social workers. While each of them faces daunting odds at home, their optimism, honesty and humor suggest a strength that they will certainly have to summon in the years ahead.”

SEPTEMBER 8: Nobody’s Watching (dir. Julia Solomonoff)Film Forum synopsis: “Nico (a stunning Guillermo Pfening), is a 30-something actor who leaves a promising career in Argentina (where he stars in a T.V. soap) after a romantic break-up with his male married producer. Like many before him, cast adrift in New York City, Nico is thwarted in his efforts to land a job in either movies or on the stage. A smarmy agent advises him that Latinos are hot, but that he’s too blond and his accent has to go. Nico overstays his visa, juggles odd jobs (nannying for a wealthy friend; cleaning apartments) and engages in petty theft. Surprise visits from a former co-star and his ex-lover force him to reckon with his national, individual, and sexual identities. As the national debate on immigration focuses on border-crossing, Nobody’s Watching presents an alternative take on Latin America-US emigration. Solomonoff and Pfening, who won the Best Actor prize at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, imbue this precarious, isolated experience with humor, warmth, and humanity.”

SEPTEMBER 8: School Life (dir. Neasa Ní Chianáin and co-dir. David Rane) (DP: Neasa Ní Chianáin)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “This observational documentary follows a year in the lives of two inspirational teachers at Headfort, the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland. Housed in an 18th century estate, school life embraces tradition and modernity. For John, rock music is just another subject alongside Maths, Scripture and Latin, taught in a collaborative and often hilarious fashion. For his wife Amanda, the key to connecting with children is the book, and she uses all means to snare the young minds. For nearly half a century these two have shaped thousands of minds, but now the unthinkable looms: what would retirement mean? What will keep them young if they leave?”

SEPTEMBER 8: Trophy (dirs./DPs: Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Each year, trophy hunters kill over six thousand grizzly bears on international hunts for their heads, paws and coats. Those that support this slaughter claim it’s necessary to maintain balance in nature and provide economic advantages, yet conservationists and activists say otherwise.

“Presented by Lush Cosmetics, Trophy challenges this controversial practice. In Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, First Nations groups, activists and over 90% of British Columbians oppose this cruel and inhumane hunt, and yet it still remains legal and sanctioned by the BC government. South of Canada’s border, grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park are currently safe and protected under the Endangered Species Act, but that could soon come to an end. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed ‘delisting’ grizzlies from the Act which could lead to sanctioned trophy hunts and other activities that would put these bears in danger.

“Diving deep into the controversy that exists within United States and Canada, Trophy asks: can we truly justify killing these animals for sport?”

SEPTEMBER 12: Wrestling Jerusalem (dir. Dylan Kussman) (DP: Nicole Hirsch Whitaker)Symphony Space synopsis: “In a tour-de-force performance, writer-actor Aaron Davidman conjures a host of different characters while seeking answers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Wrestling Jerusalem. Creatively adapting his acclaimed one-man stage show using only simple props and backdrops, Davidman takes a multidimensional journey into the heart of the Middle East, and the intersection of politics, identity and spiritual yearning.

“He embodies and gives voice to 17 different characters on all sides of the existential divide-deftly moving between male and female, Jewish and Muslim, Israeli and Arab-modeling what it takes truly to bear witness through the eyes of the other. Challenging long-held beliefs with sharp and unblinking observation, Davidman finds both entrenched isolation and shared humanity in the shifting moral compasses and competing narratives of all his characters.

“Filmmaker Dylan Kussman moves freely and seamlessly among three locations-a live theater audience, the open expanse of a vast desert, and a small dressing room-exploiting the interplay of theatrical spontaneity, cinematic poetry, and spiritual intimacy. The result is a unique hybrid of stage and cinema that reignites hope for the future of this troubled region.”

SEPTEMBER 15: Alina (dir. Ben Barenholtz) (DP: Eun-ah Lee)Metrograph synopsis: “Ben Barenholtz, a legend and innovator of independent cinema in New York, presents Alina, an ultra low-budget film and his narrative feature debut at the age of 81. Alina follows the odyssey of a young Russian woman (played by Darya Ekamasova, one of Russia’s most accomplished actresses), who arrives in New York looking for her father, with only a 25-year-old photo in her possession to help. Filmed on location at the historic Russian Samovar, Alina is the long overdue directorial debut of one of the most important figures in independent cinema.

“Ben Barenholtz is a film producer, distributor and exhibitor, who programmed the legendary Elgin Theater, and can be thanked for the phenomenon of the midnight movie, introducing the concept to New York with El Topo and Eraserhead. As a producer and distributor, he is responsible for introducing the world to the films of the Coen Brothers, John Woo’s The Killer, John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus 7, as well as many more.”

SEPTEMBER 15: Embargo (dir. Jeri Rice)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Embargo chronicles the story of the politics and collusion behind the Cuban embargo; its history, impact and evolution.

Embargo documents the journey of an American woman, Jeri Rice’s quest for truth, beginning with a rare encounter with Cuban President, Fidel Castro in 2002, when the Communist leader confesses to her that the utopia he tried to create, did not succeed and he was unable to fix it. Rice sets out to find out why her country’s unprecedented embargo of Cuba has persisted unabated, long after the Cold War.

“Along with information from recently declassified documents and original interviews with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Sergei Khrushchev, Ted Sorensen, and Lucie Arnaz—among others—an unprecedented array of historical, political, social and cultural perspectives is revealed. New insights into: the Fulgencio Batista-Richard Nixon- CIA connections; Nixon’s link to the failed Bay of Pig invasion; behind the scenes with Ted Sorensen during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Watergate and more….

“The film’s compelling truths ultimately link the threads of an untold history, as it exposes a foreign policy that has failed both countries. Now is a time of change between Cuba and the United States – forward or backward, and the future of the embargo hangs in the balance. A new Cold War developing with the threat of nuclear confrontations, Embargo’s relevance to today’s political climate is a perfect point to begin a new conversation.”

SEPTEMBER 15 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (dir. Angelina Jolie)Rolling Stone review by Peter Travers: “Will wonders never cease. A film about Cambodia told from a Cambodian perspective instead of through the heroic intervention of white outsiders. Yes, that’s Angelina Jolie behind the camera, as director and co-writer, but First They Killed My Father, subtitled ‘A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,’ steadfastly honors its first-person account. The film takes the point of view of Loung Ung (newcomer Sreymoch Sareum), who was only five years old when the Communist Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1975, brutally executing fellow Cambodians with ties to the old regime and making life a living hell for Loung, her parents and siblings. Loung’s memoir, published in 2000, is the basis for Jolie’s film. And except for Vietnam-era, Nixon footage, which Jolie uses to excoriate the U.S. role in the secret bombing raids on Cambodia, we stick with Loung, reading her harrowing story on the face of the extraordinary child who plays her.

“If Americans still have a hard time piecing together the byzantine civil wars of the time, image a child’s confusion. In a bold decision, Jolie lets us see only what Loung sees. The effect is shattering, as Loung’s father (Kompheak Phoeung) – a former member of the military police in the U.S.-backed government – is marked for death while she and her other family members are separated and forced to endure starvation rations and backbreaking labor in service to Angkar (the Khmer leadership). This also means Loung must bear witness to a genocide that wiped out a quarter of Cambodia’s population from 1975 to 1979. Jolie’s scenes of Loung being trained as a soldier are particularly chilling, especially when she is instructed in how to plant landmines and deliver a death blow.

“You can criticize Jolie and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle for letting images that are merely picturesque poke through the suffering. But this film (in the Khmer language with English subtitles) is not a documentary. And the brightly colored dream sequences in which Loung imagines feasting at a banquet or being back at home with her family and her mother’s soup and crunchy pork seem reasonable for a child. Indeed, it’s the planned corruption of an innocent that gives the film its shocking resonance to what the Taliban is doing now.

“Jolie is often patronized as a humanitarian who makes worthy films to rouse an indifferent public, like that’s a bad thing. It also denies the visceral impact of her work and the artful shape of her compositions, as seen in Unbroken and In the Land of Blood and Honey. First They Killed My Father, which opens this week at the same time that it begins streaming on Netflix, is clearly a passion project for Jolie. Her adopted son Maddox, 16, was born in Cambodia and served as executive producer on the film. If there is such a thing as a cinematic labor of love, this is it.”

SEPTEMBER 15: The Future Perfect (dir. Nele Wohlatz) (DPs: Roman Kasseroller and Agustina San Martín)Excerpts from Film Comment piece by Devika Girish: “Nele Wohlatz’s films reside on the boundaries between different geographies and cinematic modes. The Argentina-based German filmmaker’s first feature, Ricardo Bär (2013), co-directed with Gerardo Neumann, is set quite literally at the border between Argentina and Brazil in a farming community populated by the Spanish-speaking descendants of German immigrants. When she and Neumann encounter resistance to making their documentary, what starts out as a character study of a young oddball farmer transforms into a wry commentary on the artifice of filming reality.

“In her second feature and solo debut, Wohlatz burrows even deeper into the spaces between cultures, languages, and identities. The Future Perfect is a semi-fictional film about the real life of its lead actress Xiaobin, a young Chinese immigrant newly arrived in Buenos Aires. As Xiaobin painstakingly learns Spanish to adapt to her new milieu, her coming-into-language becomes a coming-of-age of sorts. It’s an opportunity for her to rearticulate her identity and escape the social class she was part of in China, to rebel against her insular parents who refuse to integrate into Argentine culture, and to explore romance with an Indian immigrant, Vijay, with whom she shares nothing except broken Spanish.

“Shot with a sense of deadpan comedy, the film’s ingenious conceit is to hitch its storytelling to Xiaobin’s progress in language learning: as she learns new tenses in Spanish class, her narrative expands in parallel, moving from the past, to the present, to finally, the conditional future of the film’s title, which allows her to vividly imagine the possible paths her life might take. Wohlatz aptly renders the affectless speech and constricting alienation of an immigrant with plain, naturalistic photography and a functional mise-en-scène. It is a deceptively simple but layered enunciation of what it means to find oneself—as speaker, actor, and director—within a foreign language.”

SEPTEMBER 15: Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (dir. Michael Roberts) (DP: Nicola Daley)Landmark Sunshine Cinema synopsis: “This playful and breezy documentary reflects the puckish sense of humor and obsession with style and beauty of its subject, the unique designer of high fashion shoes, Manolo Blahnik. Born in the Canary Islands, he moved to Paris to become a set designer; on a visit to New York in 1970 he showed his theater designs to Diana Vreeland, then editor-in-chief of American Vogue, who encouraged him to concentrate on shoes. He began making shoes in London in 1971, and soon became world famous. In the ‘90s his shoes were popularized by frequent mentions on ‘Sex and the City’ as a favorite of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw character. When it came to what Marie Antoinette should wear on her dainty feet, only Manolo’s designs would do for director Sofia Coppola. This delightful behind-the-scenes peek into Manolo’s world features commentary from a ‘who’s who’ of some of the most notable figures in the fashion and entertainment worlds.”

SEPTEMBER 15: Red Trees (dir. Marina Willer)Quad Cinema synopsis: “In this moving personal history, filmmaker Marina Willer traces the remarkable story of her father’s family through the perils of World War II. After becoming one of only 12 families to survive the Nazis’ occupation of Prague, Willer’s ancestors fought through bureaucratic nightmares and personal tragedies to land in Brazil, where her father rebuilt his life as an architect. Gorgeously photographed by City of God’s César Charlone, Red Trees offers a timely account of emigration in the face of war.”

SEPTEMBER 15: The Wilde Wedding (dir. Damian Harris) (DP: Paula Huidobro)Vertical Entertainment synopsis:Iconic movie star Eve Wilde (Glenn Close) is getting married for the fourth time, raising concerns with her three grown sons and her ex-husband, Laurence (John Malkovich). As the entire extended family pours in to witness the nuptials of Eve and Harold (Patrick Stewart), the long summer weekend offers the opportunity for everyone to get to know each other a bit more intimately. As sexual sparks begin to fly, there are unforeseen consequences abound.

SEPTEMBER 22: Battle of the Sexes (dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)Toronto International Film Festival review by Cameron Bailey: “The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was a turning point in the politics of their game. Scripted by Academy Award winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine), Battle of the Sexes is a rousing recreation of that moment, featuring winning performances from leads Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

“King (Stone) is a champion athlete and an outspoken feminist in her professional life, but her personal life is a struggle. Her marriage is failing. Her closeted sexuality feels like a distraction. Outraged that the National Tennis League won’t allow equal pay for men and women, King founds her own tour with Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) as manager. Riggs (Carell) is decades removed from his last championship. Facing dwindling finances and desperate to win back his ex-wife (Elisabeth Shue), he proposes a publicity-snaring challenge: a $100,000 winner-take-all match. King is more than game.

“The film reminds us just how much blatant sexism pervaded the so-called sexual revolution. But it also shows the great strides made by trailblazers like King.

“Bursting with colourful period production design and costumes, Battle of the Sexes is as fleet and fun as it is politically acute, and Stone and Carell make hugely enjoyable adversaries.”

SEPTEMBER 22: Bobbi Jene (dir. Elvira Lind)Quad Cinema synopsis: “After spending a decade in Israel with the famed troupe Batsheva, American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith makes the difficult decision to return to her native San Francisco. While struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship with a fellow dancer back in Israel, she begins work on a highly personal new piece. Unprecedentedly winning of all three documentary prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival, this is a stunningly intimate portrait of artistry, ambition, and womanhood in the 21st century.”

SEPTEMBER 22: Close Relations (aka Rodnye) (dir. Vitaliy Manskiy) (DP: Alexandra Ivanova)Museum of the Moving Image synopsis: “In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

SEPTEMBER 22: Loving Vincent (dirs. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman)Excerpts from Hollywood Reporter’s Annecy International Animated Film Festival review by Jordan Mintzer: “There have already been quite a few films about Vincent van Gogh, ranging from the heroic (Lust for Life) to the dramatic (Vincent & Theo) to the enigmatic (Maurice Pialat’s masterly Van Gogh). All of them offer up their own interpretations of the artist’s brief and tumultuous life, which ended abruptly from suicide at the age of 37, after he had completed roughly 800 paintings in the span of less than 10 years.

“While such movies attempted to portray the painter through his actions and words, none have quite been able to reveal the man through his work. Such is the unique feat of Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s entirely hand-painted biopic Loving Vincent, a film that uses van Gogh’s canvases as both form and function, animating them into a saga tracing his last days in Arles, where he made his greatest artist breakthroughs, to his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died in 1890 after shooting himself in the torso.

“Or so goes the story. In this Polish-U.K. co-production, which took nearly seven years to complete, the death of van Gogh (played by Polish theater actor Robert Gulaczyk) turns into a murder mystery that revisits his suicide from multiple angles, with a young man named Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), who was the subject of several portraits by the artist, serving as both detective and narrator. It’s a plot device that keeps the suspense afloat but can also feel somewhat manufactured, if not downright hammy, at times, turning the allusive van Gogh into the protagonist of a garden-variety crime novel.

“Still, there are enough traces of the artist himself in the movie, from his many paintings to the famous letters he wrote to his brother and benefactor Theo, to please both experts and newbies, who should enjoy watching his work come to life onscreen.

SEPTEMBER 22: The Tiger Hunter (dir. Lena Khan)Synopsis from the film’s official website:The Tiger Hunter is the story of Sami Malik (Danny Pudi), a young Indian who travels to 1970s America to become an engineer in order to impress his childhood crush and live up to the legacy of his father—a legendary tiger hunter back home. When Sami’s job falls through, he takes a low-end job and joins with a gang of oddball friends in hopes of convincing his childhood sweetheart that he’s far more successful than he truly is…or perhaps ever could be.”

SEPTEMBER 22: Unrest (dir. Jennifer Brea)IFC Center synopsis: “28-year-old Jennifer Brea is working on her PhD at Harvard and soon to be engaged to the love of her life when she gets a mysterious fever that leaves her bedridden and looking for answers. Disbelieved by doctors and determined to live, she turns her camera on herself and her community, a hidden world of millions confined to their homes and bedrooms by ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome.”

SEPTEMBER 22: Woodshock (dirs. Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy)A24 synopsis: “The exquisite feature film debut of visionary fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy (Rodarte), Woodshock is a hypnotic exploration of isolation, paranoia, and grief that exists in a dream-world all its own. Kirsten Dunst stars as Theresa, a haunted young woman spiraling in the wake of profound loss, torn between her fractured emotional state and the reality-altering effects of a potent cannabinoid drug. Immersive, spellbinding, and sublime, Woodshock transcends genre to become a singularly thrilling cinematic experience that marks the arrival of the Mulleavy siblings as a major new voice in film.”

SEPTEMBER 27: I Am Another You (dir./DP: Nanfu Wang)Quad Cinema synopsis: “Chinese documentarian Nanfu Wang, director of the Oscar-shortlisted Hooligan Sparrow, returns with a probing character study that gradually turns into a gripping mystery. While traveling through Florida, Wang meets Dylan, a charismatic young drifter who’s left behind bourgeois comfort for a scrappy life of intentional homelessness. But as she follows Dylan and adopts his vagabond lifestyle, she discovers that darker truths lurk behind both this enigmatic young man and the American myth of individualism.”

SEPTEMBER 29: The Pathological Optimist (dir. Miranda Bailey)Cold Iron Pictures synopsis: “In the center of the recent Tribeca Film Festival scandal surrounding his film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Controversy stands Andrew Wakefield, discredited and stripped of his medical license for his infamous study suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine, bowel disease, and autism. The Pathological Optimist takes us into the inner sanctum of Wakefield and his family from 2011- 2016 as he fights for his day in court in a little known defamation case against the British Medical Journal. Wakefield attempts to clear his name as the media-appointed Father of the Anti-vaccine movement. Director Miranda Bailey weaves a delicate portrait of a man who is The Pathological Optimist utilizing a never-before-seen, full access look at the man at the center of one of the biggest medical and media controversies of our times.”

SEPTEMBER 29: Stopping Traffic (dir. Sadhvi Siddhali Shree)Cinema Village synopsis: “With the instant reach of social media and the explosion in cyber porn, a child sex slave can be purchased online and delivered to a customer more quickly than a pizza. Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking initiates the conversation on a difficult topic to discuss – with raw images and heart-wrenching stories – through the eyes of survivors, veteran activists, front-line rescue and aid organizations and celebrities who are lending their names and clout to launch a movement to end this modern-day form of slavery in the U.S. and abroad.”